“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”
~T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding
There’s something about a place you’ve once lived that never leaves you. No matter how brief the stay or how long ago it was, the places we’ve called home are forever part of us, living quietly deep inside ourselves like dormant memories, waiting to be reawakened and revisited. They carry a familiar air, a feeling that we know just how everything will be – even if many of those everythings have changed.
And so it is with London. My home for a semester in college that I will always love as if it were my hometown. Many years after I’d left, I had the chance to show my family the London of my past, and I was struck by how easily I slipped back into that world. Our then-teenaged children teased with their “who-are-you-and-what-have-you-done-with-our-mother?!” comments as I guided us around the city and in and out of Tube stops, remembering where to transfer from the District line to reach the Piccadilly. It was as if my mind had called up a file folder labeled “When you lived in London” and knew exactly where to go and what to do.
That invisible file folder recently resurfaced as I was planning the itinerary for our cruise from Lisbon to London. My husband and I had added on a couple of days at the start of the trip in Lisbon – a place we’d never been – and reluctantly relegated London to a mere overnight at a Heathrow hotel before our early morning flight home. Including time for disembarkation from the port at Tilbury, it was actually more of a layover-with-overnight than a day in London.
Our family vacation to London had been a very complete and fulfilling circle. We had visited the major attractions and museums, and I had even tracked down the old Hotel Europe – now called the Kensington Rooms – where I had lived in college and the Royal Commonwealth Society building where my classes had been held. This visit would be more of a teaser: What will you do with just one day in a place you once lived?
The car service picked us up early in the morning at Tibury Port, and we rode about an hour through the English countryside. We dropped our bags at the Heathrow Hilton and headed to Terminal 4 to catch the Piccadilly Line to Leicester Square. The Tube takes longer to reach the city than the Heathrow Express train to Paddington Station, but it’s a fraction of the cost, and it gave us unlimited travel on the Underground for the day.
The sun was warm and a welcome change from the endlessly overcast weather we’d encountered along the coasts of Spain and France. It was our first gloriously sunny day since Lisbon, and ironically, London was the last place we had expected blue skies! I had made lunch reservations at Brasserie Blanc on Charlotte Street, about a 15-minute walk from Leicester Square. On our way there, we passed by the gates of Chinatown and Soho Square Gardens.
After lunch we walked through Covent Gardens’ Seven Dials, a neighborhood of seven original streets laid out in the early 1690s. We stopped at Neal’s Yard, an alleyway of brightly-colored shops and cafes, and at the Seven Dials Sundial.
We continued on through the charming Cecil Court and the West End Theatre District. Around one corner was St Martin’s Theatre, where we had seen Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. The murder mystery is now in its 64th year, the longest-running play in history.
We ended our walk at Trafalgar Square, listening to a street musician play Leonard Cohen music and watching the crowds milling around on a Sunday afternoon. I knew it would soon be time to head back to our Heathrow hotel, but I wasn’t quite ready. The South Kensington tube stop was calling my name, and I wanted another chance to revisit my old neighborhood.
Thirst was getting the best of us as we walked along Cromwell Road, and Herb immediately thought of the bistro at the nearby Pelham Hotel, where our family had spent a week in 2004. We easily found the white-pillared building and walked through the familiar-looking front door.
The doorman greeted us and seemed delighted to know we had fond memories of our stay there.“Why don’t you enjoy your drinks in the library?” he suggested. We were surprised by his generous offer to people who hadn’t been guests at the hotel for twelve years. We thanked him and happily went downstairs to order our drinks. The bistro server was equally welcoming, insisting that we go back upstairs and that she would bring the order to us.
When we walked into the library, we both stopped in our tracks. Sitting on a table along the back wall was a computer – updated, of course, from twelve years ago, but instantly recognizable. It was the spot where we had checked our email every afternoon when we returned from sightseeing, a lifeline in those days before traveling with laptops and smartphones. Images of our teenaged daughter and son sitting at that table came flooding back.
The entire room was like stepping into a wonderfully familiar past. We sat on a small sofa facing the fireplace, and the server soon arrived with our sparkling waters. And in classic English fashion, she brought biscuits to accompany them. It was as grand as a fancy dinner to two weary travelers.
I’m certain the hotel doorman had no idea how much his kind gesture meant to us. There’s always a feeling of mixed emotions at the end of a trip. Even after the greatest of journeys, there’s a point when you know you’ve had enough, when you’re ready to come home. And at that moment, in the library at the Pelham Hotel, it was as if we were already there.