It was in the blind of a light blue head buzz of sleepiness that we swooped into London, corralled our luggage, hopped the fast train to Paddington Station, caught the Underground to “Swiss Cottage Station”, and finally flagged a taxi to carry our weary bones the last half mile to the Regents Park Marriott. A swift, golden sunrise was just cresting the horizon when we collapsed in our hotel room. The temptation to curl up and catch up with the sleep that had run away the whole plane ride was very strong, but then, you could just glimpse the bold spire of some quintessentially British church on the horizon, and the streets below were cobbled and velveted by falling leaves. Upstairs we trudged to breakfast.
That’s when the slow, spine-climbing, skin-tingling thrill of waking up to breathe the air of a different country finally caught up with me. The hotel breakfast room was idyllically situated on the top floor with two walls of floor to ceiling windows gazing over the jumbled roofs and tumbled chimneys of London. I sat down with my first cup of tea, fresh fruit, cheese, and a tiny seeded roll just as the dawnlight escaped the mist. Rose light glinted in every apartment window, tousled the turning leaves, crowned the tallest buildings. We ate heartily (it is very European in general to eat a good breakfast and this is highly advisable if you are planning to traverse half the countryside on foot, which I generally am when I am overseas), donned fresh clothes, buttoned our coats and headed for the Underground.
I had painstakingly researched the best Dickens house to visit in London, so we headed there first. It was a nondescript row house in a nondescript street, and though the tour and such was informative, the main thing I remember was the excruciating torture of trying to stay awake during the introductory video. There is this certain irresistible, head-bobbing sleepiness that attacks at the oddest moments whenever one crosses time zones with reckless abandon. I wish I could have been one of the very prim old ladies sitting behind the three of us girls during that video- we must have resembled those spooky clown heads on springs- up and down and up and down.
As with so many of the journeys I have taken, exhaustion laid waste to well laid plans and left space for a simple, wide-eyed wandering of the London alleys and cobbles that was better than any driven itinerary I could have conjured. We gave up plans for a museum, made peace with the fact of Westminster Abbey being closed (second time that’s happened!) and were tickled to catch a bevy of parliamentarians striding across the flagstones in patent leather shoes, white wigs, purple robes, and delightful pomp. Came up from the damp of the underground station to a stunning view of Parliament, Big Ben, and the domes of Westminster glimmering under the looming black of a coming storm. Joy scurried about with the camera, and we walked the bridge over the Thames, loving the sight of those old, beautiful buildings. By the time we reached Trafalgar square, the sky was a dappled dance of storm and sun and white- we kissed the old lions on their noses and then trudged the last little bit to a recommended cafe called Paul’s- right down from Covent Garden. It was superb. I highly recommend it to anyone visiting. Country French atmosphere, crusty bread, fresh coffee, and a Flan Normand (apple custard tart) worth a serious fork war.
By the time we reached our hotel and trudged up for a bedtime snack of hot chocolate and toast, we had crammed our first, jet-lagged hours with enough fun and laughter and stormy skies and walks up cobbled streets and cups of tea to fill us for the whole trip. But it was really just beginning…