Oh England, my Lionheart,
I’m in your garden, fading fast in your arms
Flapping umbrellas fill the lanes
My London Bridge in rain again
Oh England, my Lionheart
Peter Pan steals the kids in Kensington Park
You read me Shakespeare on the rolling Thames
That old river poet that never, ever ends
Our thumping hearts hold the ravens in,
And keep the tower from tumbling
Oh England, my Lionheart,
I don’t want to go
– Kate Bush
WARNING: This WAS going to be my longest post ever, and there was going to be a serious high five waiting for you if you made it all the way through – I did SO MUCH on this trip, I couldn’t leave anything out! However I think breaking it into more manageable pieces is probably for the best, so this is just part one. 🙂
It seems I’ve arrived back in one piece, and I cannot begin to describe how quickly the last two weeks seemed to pass. Or how mortified I was to have had to go back to work on extreme jet lag and a throat which may as well have been full of razorblades the morning after landing! The trip was nothing short of breathtaking – visits with friends I’ve known over half my life; the feeling of pure belonging while roaming the streets of London by night, high on post-West End Musical awe and excitement while simultaneously thrilled at the feeling of sharing the grandeur of thousand year old monuments. Getting lost in a country not speaking the language and exploring another culture; seeing family and loved ones and moving on again in a whirlwind journey to the country’s most haunted city, full of gothic architecture, cobblestones, and ghosts. It was perfect, though all over far, far too fast.
The trip started in one of my favourite places in the world: London. I don’t know if you’ve ever been away from home before (though I suppose London is a train ride away from the place I should truly call home), but every time I see a reference to the city on Doctor Who, have BBC radio playing on a Friday morning at work, or hear another English accent, my ears perk up along with my heartbeat and I feel an enormous sense of longing to be back there again. Sweet and I arrived at our hotel, which was a stone’s throw from Big Ben, the London Eye, and all things iconic and dreadfully, wonderfully touristy. Which, after a brief nap, I threw myself into headfirst.
Initially, I went on my first international blogger meetup with the lovely Stephen Ko, where I overindulged in proper sausages, mash, and copious amounts of gravy. We then headed off to explore the city’s museums, which Stephen was kind enough to lead us to, though I must admit an hour’s sleep in over 24 hours didn’t make me the most brilliant of company! That night though, I must have got a second wind, and set off for what was certain to be a highlight: Wicked! I’d seen the show once a few years ago, and it was the best thing I’d ever seen, and once again, it was nothing short of gobsmacking. Dazzling costumes and special effects combined with incredible songwriting and world-class singers, and by the end of it, I was so thrilled with the evening ($12 for a drink aside – forgivable, since it was Pimm’s!) I decided to walk back through the streets of London by night. Illuminated monuments and landmarks were at every turn, and I arrived back, perhaps a hundred photographs later, and collapsed in a happy heap. Roaming London after dark should very well have been dangerous, so I hear, but I felt no sense of fear, only an incredible feeling of belonging. I must say a good part of my heart will forever lie in that city.
With the next day came my NEXT blogger meetup – brunch with Aly, who was absolutely lovely (she even left me with a little koala bear!). She took me to a favourite place of hers, where we talked for hours, feasted on pancakes, fruit and clotted cream, and discovered an amazing secret: our little table was in fact an old desk, and was the only one, it appeared, with a drawer. Aly opened it and found a secret stash of notes – on receipts, napkins, notepaper – little notes of love, hopes, appreciation and dreams, to which we of course added our own. It was quite remarkable, and made for quite the magical morning.
After moving on to Stevenage, my home town (as well as teen pregnancy and chav capital of England), I was shocked at its deterioration. The walk from the train station to my Nan’s should have been filled with little shops, friendly faces, a picturesque duck pond and flower gardens at every step. I’m not sure if it was a trick of the memory of youth, severe degradation, or a combination of both, but the streets I grew up on were no longer as I remembered. The pond was caged off; a rank quagmire of mud, shopping trolleys, and birds no longer able to swim. The shops had all closed down, and the streets were covered in rubbish and trodden-in gum. But I was going to see Nan. The last time I’d visited was two years ago, when she was still very much herself; in a sling, yes, but in good spirits and perfectly able to come out with us, to cook, and to hug. When I walked into her living room, I almost didn’t recognise her. She’d lost a lot of weight, as well as her glasses, and her hair had grown out, shining and white, making her look small, frail. She’d broken both shoulders, and was unable to extend her arms, and seemed consumed by the armchair which I’m certain hadn’t moved in years. But then she opened her mouth to speak, and then she was Nan again. Fiesty and opinionated as ever, and beyond thrilled to see me. Everything was okay once she spoke, and the next day we went out with her wheelchair, her first exposure to the outside world in two months. It meant so much to be able to do something for her.
That night we met up with Kier, one of my oldest friends in the world, for some drinks, pub food, and hours of talking and reminiscing. It felt wonderful to be able to share in his company again and I only wish the time didn’t have to be so fleeting, or the distance quite so far. We met again for a brief brunch later on in the trip, where he surprised me with a gift – a Star Trek bottle opener and a star ready for naming up there in the beautiful night sky. The thoughtfulness was incredible, and I must admit I shed a few tears on the way home that such good friends must be so far away.
I didn’t spend much time in one place – I only had nine days left of holiday time from work, and two of them were spent on the journey there and back, so I REALLY crammed everything in. Next day I headed off to Madrid, Spain – a city I’ve never seen. After a plane ride where I was sat in front of two of my least favourite things in the world (a seat-kicking, screaming baby), I arrived in the middle of siesta time, when everything shuts down for a few hours and people retire for a brief nap to energise for the night ahead. I hadn’t realised my hotel was in The Dodgy End, either, so the initial impression of deserted, streets covered in graffiti was slightly disappointing – until I asked reception what there was for evening entertainment, and was pointed to the Metro station, similar to London’s Underground, which took me to the heart of the nation’s capital.
Elegant, ornate building fronts combined with enormous billboards to envelop us in a city of culture. Nobody seemed to speak a word of English, but I’d been told of a hidden little Michelin Star restaurant, considered one of the “top 1,000 things to do before you die”, where I’d find fantastic food and see some of the world’s best flamenco dancers, which was supposedly a 10 minute walk from the train station. 10 minutes ended up being well over an hour, which had been filled with getting lost and exploring streets full of cathedrals, cityscapes and architecture (not to mention rather sore feet), but eventually, we found the Corral de la Morería, found my seat, and experienced a night of breathtaking entertainment. The next morning, I got up bright and early to visit the grand cathedral and the Palacio Real, where I was heartbroken to find I wasn’t allowed to take photos. A REAL PALACE, from the outside in, where I saw such elaborate decor – gold embellished walls, ceiling frescos, a dining hall which very well could’ve been a mile long, and the thrones upon which King and Queen sat only a few hundred years ago. It was remarkable, and I left thoroughly satiated in beauty, history and culture, before arriving back to a shocking and distressing surprise…
Going to stop here, as this marks about halfway – the rest to come on Thursday, along with stories of the most incredible, most haunted, most beautiful and one of the oldest cities in the world. Thanks for your patience 🙂