London Day 1 – afternoon – Portobello Road and Notting Hill
Travel Tip #2: If you are into history or literature (or knowing about famous inventors, politicians, and scientists), download the Blue Plaques for London app. It tells you what historic houses or sites are around, and many of them are places where famous authors, scientists, musicians, etc. lived or worked. Worth a look if you’re hanging out in London for a few days.
On my first day in London, a morning at the iconic British Museum was superseded by gorgeous sunshine – and the idea that I ought to visit Notting Hill and Portobello Road.
No surprise, I am a fan of the film Notting Hill. There’s something sweet about Hugh Grant before he went all apathetic dark side in Bridget Jones, About a Boy, and other recent films without his signature floppy 90s hair.
First of all, I had to take the obligatory picture of the Notting Hill Gate Tube sign. Nobody at the stop even bat an eye at me because I was pretty sure every tourist did it.
I started by wandering out to Portobello Road, which meant I passed by the former home of George Orwell of 1984 and Animal Farm fame – 1984 sounding a lot like the present time, scarily enough – and ambled down a relatively quite street. On the weekend, Portobello Road was a thriving, funky, sprawling street market, but during the week, it was a quiet, unassuming place with some fun shops, interesting cafes, and loads of antique shops. “Some genuine, some not … so … genuine,” explains Hugh Grant’s character Will in Notting Hill.
With a rose-petal dusted latte in hand, I continued along some of the Kensington streets, which reminds me of another Notting Hill quote, “Everything’s got the word ‘Kensington’ in it. Kensington Park. Kensington Gardens. Kensington bloody Park Gardens.” I had to agree, whole-heartedly, with this – every other street seemed to have the word ‘Kensington’ in it. Needless to say, I got lost a few times trying to find the bookshop for which the film’s The Travel Book Co. was modeled after and filmed in.
It took a few discreet passes up and down the street, trying not to be that tourist, but I finally located the blue heritage plaque on the Notting Hill Bookstore. I went inside, had a quick chat with the clerk about how many crazy people like me come in to take pictures, and actually bought a book – nothing with an amusing incident with a kebab, but I was delighted to see a follow-up book to Notes from a Small Island called The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes from a Small Island by Bill Bryson. What a perfect book to pick up for a three week jaunt across the UK! On all my train journeys I would be accompanied by the wit and wisdom of the awesome Bryson, and I would get to nod at his experiences because, most likely, I would go through the same thing.
With my book in tow, I found a nearby coffee shop to take a break and start my new book. I was several chapters in, hanging out by a fake fireplace in the downstairs lounge of this coffee shop, when I realized that it was later in the afternoon and thought I should be finding a place for dinner.
But then, by a stroke of genius in not being able to read a proper bus route map, I grabbed a double-decker (I may have had an England fangirl moment when getting on the iconic bus) and ended up alighting somewhere near Kensington Palace. I had to check out the royal crib, of course, though I’d visited it eleven years ago on a day trip from Oxford.
It was too late in the day to get a ticket for the palace museum parts, but I could not contain a “The Hills Are Alive” moment when the sun spread out over meticulously mowed green lawns, sending up sapphire light from the Round Pond. I spread out my arms and swung in a circle, loving the cool evening temperatures and the warmth of sunshine on my skin. This was the sort of summer weather I remembered from the Midwest.
I listened to the ducks and swans (lesson I learned in Oxford years before – do not, under any circumstances, piss off a swan) wandering around the crowds and peeked into some of the gardens which were still open. People played football and rugby on the green grass, and cyclists flew by. Children carrying balloons ran by me as I walked slowly down the crunchy gravel paths, imbibing the fresh air and the hints of glorious English summer.
My wandering took me in the direction of the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain in Hyde Park, which meant I kept following the arrows toward it. Meanwhile, the sun continued to sink lower and lower in the sky, and I hit an unprecedented 24,000 steps on my Fitbit. I came upon the Grecian garden after the memorial fountain, then found the Serpentine and watched the sun drip below the horizon.
Moments of complete peace and contentment are so rare, but as I watched the sunset that first day in London, I thought, this is my place.
England, you had not left me.