The London Why (Part Two)

posted in: Day In The Life, Paean, Travel 28
A look at Battersea Park from ‘Davies’s New Map of the British Metropolis, The Boundaries of the Boroughs, County Court Districts, Railways, and Modern Improvements’ (1852). Image: Wikipedia


When Mozart was eight years old, he went on tour. That’s how you roll when you’re eight and you’re Mozart.

Accompanied by his awesome dad, Wolfgang hit 17 cities, all the usual suspects on the European drawing room circuit; Paris, Vienna, Rome, etc.

Their last stop was London. If I walk out my door this morning and hang a right, it will take me 13 minutes to get to 180 Ebury Street where Leopold and Wolfgang ended up living for about a year. Mozart wrote his very first symphony at 180 Ebury Street, aptly titled Symphony No. 1. 

Say I decide to extend my hypothetical morning walk. Let’s say I swing by Gail’s Bakery and purchase a warm custard croissant and a hot cappuccino, and I think we can all agree that I should hypothetically do this. If I head south toward the Thames, it will take me 27 minutes to arrive at Cheyne Walk, slightly longer if my body feels weak on account of that demonically good croissant, so … Let’s say it takes me 35 minutes.

Cheyne Walk is just a quarter-mile long the way a lot of streets here are just a quarter-mile long. It runs along the north bank of the Thames between the Albert Bridge and Battersea Bridge, and Cheyne Walk is a lovely, lovely place, indeed. In spring, wisteria grows so high along some of the buildings it seems to pour down from the top; in autumn, well-manicured hedgerows are blanketed with crimson and gold-edged leaves, wide and fat and crispy, that sift down from the oak trees overhead. The apartment buildings would be imposing if they weren’t so charming, but they can’t get away from it. You might see a marmalade cat peeking through one of the tall, leaded-glass windows; all the pediments and pilasters are rounded; all the brick chimneys were clearly built to accommodate Santa Claus. Who wouldn’t want to live, at least for awhile, on Cheyne Walk?

The street has existed for about 300 years, so a lot of people have lived here. They have eaten their breakfasts, played their records, written and received letters, gone to sleep and gotten out of beds in these buildings. And it happens that a few Cheyne Walk residents made quite a name for themselves before, during, or after they lived here. This short street is notable not just for its beauty, but for all the notable people who lived on it. Dig:

George Eliot, author
J.M.W. Turner, painter
Dante Gabriel Rossetti, painter
Thomas Carlyle, philosopher
Bertrand Russell, philosopher
W. Somerset Maugham, author
J.M. Whistler, painter
Hilaire Belloc, poet and historian
Sylvia Pankhurst, superstar suffragist
Henry James, author
T.S. Eliot, poet

Amazing, right? And that is in no way an exhaustive list of all the remarkable people who had/have addresses on Cheyne Walk — google it and you’ll see. But the names up there mean the most to me because those people produced work that resolves tumblers in the combination locks of my brain. Even better, all that work was completed and all those people were dead way before I was even born.

This is infinitely comforting to me.

George Eliot knew all about heartache way before I ever went through a breakup, and what she wrote about love was waiting for me. Rossetti’s paintings of female flawlessness existed long before I looked in the mirror and admitted, as I did the other day, that I’m not so young. Just as the bloom of youth in La Ghirlandata is eternal, so is the vague despair I feel when I discover that my maiden days are over. Countless 40-something women have looked at La Ghirlandata and felt this; to join their club is both a defeat and a relief. I’m not alone; none of us are. Books and paintings that stand the test of time remind me that as special as I am, I’m not so special. There’s pure encouragement in it, if you’re open to it.

London does the same thing for me. Did you know that London is 2,000 years old? Two thousand.

I didn’t know that until recently, but it’s true: In 43 AD, the Celts who were loafing around were sacked by the Romans, who established the outpost they called “Londinium”. From there followed more sacking, and fires, plagues, wars, revolution, political chaos, etc. And now, 2,000 years later, here we are, strolling down Cheyne Walk with croissant crumbs on our jacket.

London has endured and that endurance makes me feel good, cuts me down to size in the best possible way, just like La Ghirlandata. London is an old place. It’s seen my type before. It didn’t rejoice when I got here and it won’t weep when I leave, because London doesn’t care about me — or you — that much. Not in the same way that New York City doesn’t care about one person. New York City doesn’t care about you because it’s doesn’t have time for you, and this feels hostile, like the way a mean girl treats you in the cafeteria. London doesn’t particularly care about you but London has nothing but time, so it might decided to watch you as you about your day. And, because it’s seen everything, if you screw up — when you screw up — it’s not inclined to laugh at you. There’s nothing new under the sun and besides, London is tired. London doesn’t want to laugh at you; London wants its slippers and its cuppa. Do this or don’t, London says; try this or don’t. Be a person in London for a brief flicker of time, dear, if that’s what you want. Then London gives you a pat and turns her great, heavy head to the next upstart to eventually them the same thing.

Being in an old city like this — being in London — makes me feel like I’m part of the human race, no more, no less. Now that I’ve felt it, finally, I confess that I don’t particularly want to leave. With the exception of Chicago, the other cities I’ve lived in made me feel like I was auditioning for them. In London, I’m just cast.

I thought this second half of the first post about London would lead off with how I ended up here, but Mozart and Cheyne Walk got in the way. The reason isn’t so crazy: The company Eric is with has a London office, and the opportunity arose for him to work on a project here for a few months. We arrived in August; we leave the first week of December.

I love it here. A lot. Like, an alarming amount.

28 Responses

  1. Deborah Boutwell
    | Reply

    I wish I was strolling those streets with you. It has always been a dream to go to London. Enjoy your visit, keep sharing your insights. Have another croissant on me!

  2. Celia
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    Some places speak to our innermost beings the minute we arrive. I am glad you found one of yours.

  3. Helene Talbot
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    My heart feels the joy of accompanying you on you walk be it left or right. My figure reacted to the creamy goodness of your fresh warm pasty and hot drink. Well worth it. You are a wonderful writer as well as quilter. Who knew? Enjoy every moment for all of us.

  4. Bobbi Penniman
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    London is my favorite city in the entire world and I’m lucky to have lived there for a year or so. And from there, a year or so later, with the fella I met there, to Chicago! You just did it in reverse – with the fella you met in Chicago, to London!

  5. Sara F
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    You are so smart to immerse yourself in the culture and history to enjoy while you have the opportunity. This was a beautifully written post. Thank you.

  6. Laura Dene McHugh
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    My great grandparents lived in London, out near Richmond. They were poor – destitute actually. They sent my grandfather to a boy’s home and he was sold to farmers in Ontario Canada. That’s how I came to be – a dual Canadian/American citizen who lives in California. But last year, I discovered all of this and went to the street where they lived and soaked in the grief of it all, there by the Thames and I came to understand a lot more about my family and myself, without anything more than just taking it all in there in London. So I get what you are saying Mary. Lovely post. Just lovely.

  7. Linda Jorgensen Jones
    | Reply

    I love London. It was the first city I visited outside of North America. I was 23 when I first visited in 1978. I fell in love with London and immediately felt at home there. I haven’t lived there, but have been fortunate to visit many times since, most recently last year. The history, the pageantry, the architecture, the parks and wonderful people. I am very much an Anglophile. I love the rest of the UK as well. You are so lucky to have spent months there. Thank you for sharing.

  8. Janet
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    Oh, my. This is wonderful, thank you!

    I’ve been spending a rather large amount of time vicariously enjoying England, and particularly London, for the past few months. It began when I happened upon a young lady who lives on the Isle of Wight and shares her DIY, Home Decor, and Home Renovation videos on YouTube. You can find her as “Hermione Chantal”. She lives in a house that has been around, in one form or another since about 1900. Then, I discovered “Mr. Carrington” and his friend, “Luke Catleugh” who also post DIY and Home Decor projects, but with additions that cover trips about the country (not just London), too.

    All of this came about after discovering, once again on YouTube, “Escape To The Country”, which, to be honest, just makes me feel good. England away from the tourist traps and the holiday villages, England in the places where people actually live.

    All of this among loads of historical works from a variety of places and I feel like I’ve found an old home.

    I envy you the ability to walk about and enjoy all the wonders of a place that has been in existence for such a long, long time. I hope you enjoy it for as long as you need and want to.

    • Jennifer
      | Reply

      Have you seen The Last Homely House on Youtube? An absolute gem!

  9. Marcia
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    Enjoyed this post! It reminded me of the first time I visited London. I had such an affinity for the place, when I got home I started researching my family roots and discovered deep roots in the British Isles! It was no wonder it felt so much like home!

  10. Margaret S
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    I went to London to work on a special project for my company for 2 weeks. Hubby came along and got to sightsee 2 weeks straight. I worked 14 hrs days, saw a couple pubs and got a weekend of sightseeing in. I’d love to go back!

  11. Kelly G
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    I lived in London for a summer in college for a study abroad. I’ve never felt so a part of something and so deliriously happy (this is saying a lot since I’ve battled depression all my life). Like so deliriously happy that in my lowest points I visit London in my head. I’ve never been back but I feel like I’m a part of it’s body. It’s system. To read what you wrote about your London, it makes me feel like I’m in “my London.” Thank you.

  12. Jennifer
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    Amazing how you put into words EXACTLY how I feel about NYC vs. London! I find the metaphor of the mean girl particularly spot on!

  13. Gail
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    You’re a really good writer. You should write a little book about London. Short and sweet.

    I adore London. I visited the week after 9/11. I’ll never forget the warmth of the people and the absolute magic that is England.

  14. Kathlene Larson
    | Reply

    You write so beautifully, Mary! Please, don’t stop!

  15. MaryAnn
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    What a great word quilt describing a part of London. Wish you shared every day.

  16. Liz Flaherty
    | Reply

    Thanks for the visit. It sounds wonderful!

  17. Kathleen
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    Love your take on the City.

  18. Beverly Letsche
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    London is fabulous. I love that it is so easily accessible on foot, that every where you turn there is antiquity and endless stories, that the tube is clean and easy to figure out. I love the food. I love the people especially the bookstore owner who effortlessly destroyed the pretensions of a shopper who thought the owner couldn’t possibly know every book in his inventory of thousands of books. (that was so fun to watch from a safe corner!) I simply love London.

  19. Ginny
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    Thank you for the verbal visual tour of a part of London. A place I have always wanted to visit. I had a pen pal from there for 10 years. Enjoy every minute you are there! AND check out the fabrics! Ginny

  20. Sharon
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    Beautiful love letter to London.

  21. Rita K
    | Reply

    I have only been to London once – and absolutely loved it! I even got to Liberty of London and bought only a little fabric. I still wish I had bought it all

  22. Michelle Tabb
    | Reply

    This captured so perfectly how I feel about London and England. Please don’t stop writing about it! And don’t you just love the blue plaques everywhere and absorbing London’s history everywhere you go?

  23. Jennifer
    | Reply


  24. Becky Petersen
    | Reply

    So glad you’ve had the chance to be there. We visited Scotland in 2011 – when the volcano in Iceland erupted and we were held hostage there for a few extra days because the airports shut down. My daughter said it best – it felt to us “old and cold”. But we were there in April.

    We ended up coming back by bus via London, so we got to spend about 6 hours there – touring by foot while we waited for our connecting bus to leave the country. Not much – but we hit a few sites as best we could. Then we got on our bus and rode 24 hours back to the country where we live (Poland).

    Glad you’ve been able to enjoy your cross cultural experience.

  25. JamieS
    | Reply

    I’m sorry your London time will soon come to an end. This post was beautifully written, and I enjoyed it very much.

  26. Sue Norgrove-Moore
    | Reply

    I’m not sure if you can get BBC iplayer abroad, but if you can, check out these wonderful programmes.

    A House Through Time, takes one property eg in Liverpool or Bristol and researches it’s occupants down through time. Fascinating viewing and brings British history alive through the eyes or ordinary folk who lived through historical events and times

  27. Diana
    | Reply

    Mary, if you’re ever wanting to learn more of the history of London, I recommend reading historical fiction novel “London” by Edward Rutherfurd. It’s written as story with generations of characters interlinked through the years — but the city is very much the star of the show.

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