In the days before we leave home for the tour of Britain, Passepartout and I cram as many London-centred things in as possible.
Breakfast fry-up from the black and white tiled Regency Cafe in Westminster; pie and mash at Goddards in the East End, an afternoon tea at the Corninthia Hotel in the West. Dinner at the India Club on the Strand, hidden away up two flights of stairs of a down-and-out hotel, a flaking sign still advertising rooms for £1 a night.
The India Club has been there since 1946. It was a hotbed for political debate: Indian political thinkers and Whitehall civil servants arguing independence under grand oil painting of Indian warriors. It hasn’t changed at all. The food is fairly thin fare – far better curries can be found down in, say, Tooting, like the Lahore Karahi – but we go for the atmosphere. The faded rooms a museum piece. The bill even comes on yellowing paper.
We walk the city. Wandering each chartered street.
Down the whole of the Regents Canal from Paddington Basin to the pubs backing onto the Thames at Wapping and Limehouse – behind which Walter Raleigh took off to find the New World.
Traipses around Hackney, past the old music hall. Lambeth, past the windmill in Brixton.
We watch a slow county cricket match (the Greek perplexed) in cool silence at the Oval in the middle of the seething city, as the working week went on, a distant hum, outside.
Then to Tate Britain to take in all the landscapes big and bare and painted in oil. To see The Resurrection in Cookham and the moral tales of Augustus Egg.
The stone dinosaurs of Crystal Palace and the stuffed walrus, musical instruments and totem pole of the Horniman Museum in Forest Hill.
Hogarth’s House in Chiswick, and then a visit to the cemetery which hangs on Highgate Hill.
In the sanctuary garden of Bunhill Fields we quietly sit at William Blake’s tomb. in the middle of the heaving Square Mile.
Then a drink in the Mitre Tavern with its withered tree trunk which Queen Elizabeth the First danced round as a little girl and which, as it was built on land belonging to the Bishops of Ely is, so some say, technically in Cambridgeshire.
Stories are told of villains robbing Hatton Garden jewellery shops and fleeing into this pub as London police had no jurisdiction there and so would have to call the Cambridge police to come and make any arrest. As with most stories I hear on the Britain tour, I wish it true.
We visit in turn all six of Hawksmoors’ London churches, from Greenwich to Spitalfields to Bloomsbury, following the lines between each one and wondering if it really does make some Satanic pentagram-type pattern as the stories I’ve heard say.
Sit a while in the quiet, sad, Postman’s Park round the corner from Little Britain, and St Paul’s Cathedral, where everyday, ordinary, forgotten folk are commemorated on a tiled wall for their heroic self-sacrifice, saving others at risk of injury and death just in the routine course of their everyday lives.
We visit the British Museum to see, and feel aggrieved, at the Parthenon treasures hacked from their home – my soon-to-be new home – and visit also the good but sadly often overlooked London Museum.
London has a million tales. Hidden and known.
Just like the secret streets under the city. The rumoured ghost of Oxford Street: an abandoned Victorian shopping street – cobbled road and shop fronts – that people swear they have seen running deep under the basements of the grand department stores now on Oxford Street.
The street, so they say, ran along the old Tyburn River – also covered and gone from the city now – where London’s criminals were hung.
Does it exist?
And did I really see – having got drunk in the now sadly cleaned and anaesthetised and seedless Soho: drinking on Greek Street – of course – another road underneath Charing Cross Road? As I swayed back and forth dodging the traffic trying to get to the Underground, I’m sure I saw it. A street sign below my feet. ‘Little Compton Street’. And an old road, 20 meters below me. Is there a subterranean, undiscovered, London running under our feet? God, I don’t have time to explore another London.
And thinking of ghosts, whatever happened to the some of the characters I remembered from years past, growing up in London? Where did the Liverpudlian who stood on Oxford Circus with his loudhailer telling people about God, telling them to “be a winner, not a sinner” go? Surely he felt to us all as intrinsic to the city as Nelson on his column. Perhaps its more than just me leaving this city…
But of course London already has everything anyway though. The ebb and flow on its shore.
It is the beating heart of the country, this is undeniable. The crowning jewel. Seeing London, you have seen as much as life can afford. But I have lived within its borders and terrain all my life. The rest of Britain is now what is calling to be seen.
So we take a final city ramble, past the fake fronted houses of Leinster Gardens; we look for the lopsided Ladykillers’ house in Argyle Street in St Pancras; and have a pint in the glorious awful/awfully glorious The Boot pub round the corner.
And then, before one final picnic on Parliament Hill, I suggest we walk past traveller’s hero Michael Palin’s home.
It’s a house that I’ve read were four different properties acquired over time and knocked into an eccentric-looking one. It would be good to pass by and get the feeling of consecration from a fellow voyager.
As I’m round the side of the house thinking “Oh, so that’s what a real traveller’s bins look like”, Palin himself comes out the front door and smiles and waves at my travelling Passepartout, stood outside, uncaring, uninterested, impatiently waiting for me.
Well, at least one of us has a wayfarer’s blessing then I suppose. And so it’s with that we’re off.
Striking out on the road for 28 days of exploring Britain, and whatever we might find on the way. A grand tour of the country before we leave for our new life in Greece.
The last chance to see.