My Devon aunt and uncle – who are extremely well-travelled – went to London to Kensington Palace, and reported on Facebook about seeing Princess Diana’s dresses. I realised that despite living in London when I was younger for about 14 years, I’d never been to Kensington Palace (or even Kensington Palace Gardens). I hadn’t even realised it was open to the public.
A few days later Virgin trains sent me an offer of 40% off train fares. On an impulse, I checked out how much it was going to cost to get down to London and back in a day (I’d been down to London and back in a day for work, so I knew it that a day trip from one end of the country to the other was actually OK by train – it’s really quick to get from Carlisle to London as the trains don’t stop much so you can do the trip in about 3 hours 15). It was such a bargain I booked the tickets then and there, plus a ticket to Kensington Palace – which not only had an exhibition of Diana’s dresses but also of costumes from The Favourite, a film about Queen Anne which I was interested in seeing. I also arranged to meet another aunt, who lives in London and who I have seen very few times since moving to Cumbria (and having three children, despite having been close to her when I was younger – she was always quite a role model for me, along with another aunt who lived in Edinburgh. They both demonstrated that you could be single and have an interesting life: that women are definitely not dependant on some man or other for their happiness… an old-fashioned view I know but my parents demonstrated that being a couple was what made life worth living…).
So at about 6.30 on a cold winter Saturday morning I was standing at Carlisle station waiting for the London train. The train goes through all sorts of places with which I have connections: Warrington, where NWDA’s head office was; past stretches of the Grand Union canal which I dealt with when I was at British Waterways; Watford which was my home for 6 or 7 years; Wembley where I worked for Brent Council. As we travelled further south the sky grew lighter and the snow lying on the ground heavier; it always feels as if there’s something wrong when it’s snowier and colder in the south than in the northern border counties (what I like to think of as the ‘real’ north – Manchester is two hours south of me and yet to a southern – which I was until I was 40-something – Manchester and the industrial areas around there was the north. How wrong I was!).
From Euston I decided to walk to Kensington Palace. It was a trip through the past, without being in any sort of chronological order. I crossed the road opposite 355 Euston Road, where Railtrack Property once had its offices; I remembered looking out of the window and seeing the demolition ball swinging and the walls coming down of a building on the northern side of the road. There’s now a swanky new office development there, with cafes and restaurants around a central square.
At Portland Street station there was still a minimarket. I sometimes used to walk along there to buy a sandwich and a bottle of Oasis for lunch. We’d also often have pool cars and be heading out this way by car on site visits; the office had a garage underneath which was where I parked my bike when I cycled to work, from Beckenham up through Crystal Palace, round Elephant & Castle roundabout, round Trafalgar Square, and up Charing Cross and Tottenham Court Road, racing cyclists who jumped the red lights while I virtuously stopped.
I crossed Portland Place – memories of going to see friends who worked at Broadcasting House and sometimes seeing famous faces in the canteen – and headed past various mews. One of them had once had a building which Westminster City Council owned, which I let to Crisis at Christmas. It’s been redeveloped now – I wasn’t even sure which mews it had been in. At Marylebone Road I had a vague recollection of being somewhere for a London Junior Branch meeting of the RICS; I admired the shops and thought how I’d all too rarely visited this street, which was somewhere I visited I think on my very first visit to London. At the age of 6 my mother had taken me to London and we’d met a friend of hers and had lunch at the Cordon Bleu cookery school.
As I moved further west I was reminded how cosmopolitan London is, which was one of the things I’ve always loved about it. The Turkish restaurants changed to Lebanese and Middle Eastern on Edgware Road, the air smelling sweetly of something which I suspect may not have been totally legal, men of a middle eastern demeanour sitting outside drinking coffee, discussing matters and sometimes smoking. I was pleased to see that Seymour Leisure Centre, which I’d dealt with when I was at Westminster City Council, has had its 30 metre swimming pool restored: one of the tasks I had had was commissioning valuation work to see if part of the site could be redeveloped for residential units in order to fund the necessary repairs needed to the pool hall. I was tempted to walk in and ask to have a look round but didn’t. After all, it was 25 years ago or more.
I dropped down Edgware Road past shops and restaurants with signs in Arabic, to cross over into Hyde Park at Marble Arch. Where the cinema and hotel used to be is being redeveloped, but on the whole the streetscape of this part of London had changed remarkably little since I had last walked, cycled or driven around here.
Hyde Park was where I ran my first ever 10 km race – in just under 50 minutes, much to my surprise at the time – and plenty of runners were out today enjoying the winter sun. A father ran past pushing a running buggy, asking his child in French if he/she were ready to go home; groups of French tourists of various ages milled around; a lady walked past in the opposite direction speaking German into her phone. Later on as I travelled back on the tube a group of Italians was talking near me: I love the multi-culturalism of London, where everybody rubs shoulders whether they live in the capital or are visitors.
At Kensington Palace it was interesting to see where initially William & Mary (‘the Orange’ – 1066 and all that) and later George II and Queen Caroline had entertained their court, or had some private time, and to see the costumes from The Favourite. But Diana’s dresses were, to be honest, just a bunch of evening dresses with queues of people staring at them; and the ‘Victoria revealed’ exhibition which I’d thought would be interesting wasn’t open. The shop had some rather expensive and quite nice things to buy and the café was full. I bought some chocolate for my kids, a book for my Mum and a couple of small gifts for my London-Aunt and then headed away, grabbing a sandwich from a nice Italian snack bar in the gardens en route, fending off the starlings who were begging for crumbs.
Funny how when I go on the tube I resort to being the person I always used to be on the tube – impatient to pass people, walking or running up escalators – and that I still mostly remember which tube lines to take where and which stations to change at. It took me remarkably little time to get to my aunt’s in Hampstead and I spent a lovely afternoon having a long chatty catch-up with her and eating cake. In fact really that was the best part of the day and the best reason for going to London.
I was back at Euston in plenty of time for the train. Whilst in the morning I’d been smiling to myself as I walked across London in the sunshine, now I smiled to myself as I got on my train. I love rail travel: the mainline trains always feel quite luxurious as you speed from the bottom of the country to the top; and I’ll be home before the evening is even that old. Coniston tomorrow.
NB. Footnote: Coniston (running round it) didn’t happen as it was -5 overnight and my car handbrake wouldn’t release. Probably just as well as Penny and I ran just over 10 miles around Ridge Woods, up the Dandy and through Gelt Woods instead and from beautifully snowing it turned to rain and ice – and conditions in the Lakes are possibly worse than up here.