by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog
I have been traveling back and forth from London very regularly these last few months. London, situated in the southeast of England, of which the dubbed ‘Greater’ city is separated into north and south by the rolling currents of the River Thames.
Though some timber remains from structures built around the fifth and second centuries BCE have been discovered within London’s parameters, suggesting that some Mesolithic and Bronze Age settlements did indeed operate in the London area, the city is generally considered to have originated in the time of the Romans in 100 AD. After the Roman regime ended, the Anglo-Saxons, the Vikings, and the Normans each had their turn at ruling the now-flourishing city. By 1605, London’s population had grown to over 225,000. Plagues, uprisings, and civil wars dogged the great city from the 14th century to the late early modern period, and, I suppose, our own 21st century, whereby the streets of London were once more deserted and quivering with fear at the threat of our most recent Coronavirus.
London is churning and groaning once more; the streets creaking under the weight of people venturing into the sunlight after spending months indoors; the shops are grumbling as they are forced to open and close at unseemly hours since lockdown ended; and coffee machines are clunking and chirping awake as workers arrive for their first high of the day. London is alive again.
I had never really experienced London properly before this summer. Sure, I had traveled through many a time while pilgrimaging to here there and everywhere (though mainly when going to and from Brighton and Shrewsbury, so perhaps ‘pilgrimaging’ is a rather inflated term to use). I thought that I knew for a fact (from my limited exposure to the British capitol) that I despised the tube, detested the big city, and was destined to live in a small town by a sea or lake. How mistaken I was.
I arrived in West Hampstead via the Jubilee line from St Pancras station. The tube was fairly empty when I got on. As it rushed forth into the black, I thought on the city above me, and on the metres and metres of concrete and rock and brick separating I from the air outside. There is no reception in the tube, and I attempted to read instead of going on my phone. Oddly enough, I found myself able to concentrate quite easily, that is at least until the train hit some odd section of the tracks that caused an insufferable screeching yawn that was so intruding it made me wince. The northern jubilee line actually emerges up from the underground at Finchley station, which surprised me. I wondered if we had indeed been travelling vertically all this time up to the surface, like a giant high-speed mole burrowing upwards through a field. The next station was West Hampstead, and we went underground once again to reach it.
I was disorientated when I came out from the station. The sun was blinding, and I thought once more on my mole metaphor and noted it to be quite an apt description of how I was feeling in that moment. In the distance, I could see a familiar gait wandering along towards me. I felt at ease and walked to meet the familiar figure.
West Hampstead is a lovely village-like area in the borough of Camden that lies just beneath and to the west (naturally) of the expansive Hampstead Heath Park, the 7th largest green space in London (though this may need some verification, as I only calculated this fact roughly).
West Hampstead’s bustling high street blends independent stores with estate agent branches, popular chain bakeries such as Gail’s, Wenzel’s, and Roni’s, charity shops, and restaurant bars. It really is a rather charming place. When one walks right out of the underground station, one passes over the bridge that goes over the Thameslink service which conveniently connects West Hampstead with Brighton, Cambridge, and St Pancras. If one continues to follow this road – which, I should specify, is West End Lane – as it curves round, one will eventually reach the quaint little West End Green which borders the Gothic Revival style Emmanuel Church constructed in 1903.
As I wandered past this little green and not-so-little church, I thought on the London that lived within me, my oneiric London that beeped its horns at every waking moment. This was not that London. The sparsely industrialised West End hamlet (what a wonderful name for a small settlement) was named in 1534, though by the 1600s more houses were built in the area surrounding West End Lane by wealthy merchants. Some cliché it may be, but walking through this area did indeed make me realise that London is simply a cluster of closely placed villages that make up the cohesive whole. And, you know, when I walked to Bloomsbury via St Pancras station, I noticed that even in the so-called ‘centre’ of London there are many, many roads whereby one rarely sees cars if at all. Should you walk straight up Judd Street (by crossing Euston Road directly opposite the British Library) and onto Hunter Street (which is what Judd Street turns into after a few hundred yards), then take a left at Handel Street, you would come across St George’s Garden, a beautiful 17th century park and cemetery in the middle of some quiet housing estates. Who knew that one could find such quiescence in what is arguably one the busiest areas of the capital? If you were to come back on yourself and take a right down Tavistock Place, then walk for less than ten minutes past the parks of Tavistock Square and Gordon Square, you would already find yourself surrounded by crowds of students bustling into the University of London, the SOAS University of London, Birkbeck, and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (RADA). It is this disparity that I have found so interesting in my recent exploration of the city, this contrast of silence and madness, and how adjacent these two worlds are to one another.
It is time for me to run away from Brighton. I have been here for some time now, and though I warmed to the place quite rapidly when I first arrived, I have come to realise that Brighton does not offer me the people nor the opportunities that I need at this point in time. Brighton is a holiday town in summer, and the rest of the time a student hub, thus it often feels as though it is a space that one merely passes through as opposed to having any kind of longevity about it. I speak not objectively on this matter; my experience of Brighton has been tainted somewhat by certain occurrences that have taken place whilst I have lived here. Though I was averse to living in a large city again for some time, especially after my experience of Paris, I have warmed to the capital quite considerably of late. I cannot quite explain the feeling, but it is that rush, that insanity, that excitement and joie-de-vivre that seems to fill the air when one walks through the streets of London. It feels to be a place where things are happening, and where, indeed, things could happen to you. You might not believe me, but in the space of two days when I was in London, I saw both Helena Bonham Carter and George Robinson (of Sex Education fame). I saw and greeted George in St Pancras Station, and I was warmly addressed with a ‘Hello, darling’ by Helena as I walked up Parliament Hill towards the Ladies’ Pond of Hampstead Heath. Ah, the ponds. I will write of them soon in another article, I’m sure. But what I wished to emphasise by mentioning my meeting with these two greats is that London is the place to be, the thing to see, the air to breath. And goodness am I excited to live here.
The Carl Kruse Blog homepage is at https://www.carlkruse.com
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include Norway, Washing The City From Me, The Fate of The LIttle Prince, and Film Scenes I Wish I Had Never Seen.
Carl Kruse has two older blogs here and over here.