I found myself in London last Sunday and at a loose end. “A loose end, in London?!” I hear you say. Well, yes. All my family and friends were otherwise engaged, and it was far too nice a day to be inside a museum or art gallery. An exceptionally beautiful day with piercing low winter sun, perfect for a walk – just icy, icy cold!
There is no doubt that London is a fabulous place to walk. Everywhere, at every spot, every corner, there is something or other interesting, if not beautiful, to see.
I caught a bus from Mornington Crescent (the 88, should you ask – that which remarkably my very proper grandmother would call the Bastard since it was always a tardy bus) and alighted at Westminster Abbey.Far too busy and crowded (and expensive – £20 to go in!!!) for me, so I walked on to Victoria Tower Gardens on the Embankment, through the respectable streets around the Abbey. They speak of another age. Ordinand House with its wonderful plaque of sheaves and fruit trees above the old entrance – perhaps speaking of the spiritual bounty the ordinands were expected to glean, or possibly marrying in with the road name, Abbey Orchard Street …Remembering my late mother-in-law, Betty, who was a strong supporter of the Mother’s Union as I walked past Mary Sumner House …The plaque marking Westminster Public Baths and Wash-houses is a memory of a far-forgotten time when people in this now-affluent part of Westminster did not all have their own proper washing facilities.A marvellously vivid illustration above this building of athletic swimmers and lithe divers promotes the facilities.I came out into the sunshine and trees of Victoria Tower Gardens, a small patch of green, right beside the Houses of Parliament and running along the Embankment and the River Thames. A freezing, freezing cold day, but this couple were taking their wedding photos here … interestingly, not with the Houses of Parliament or the Thames as their backdrop.No, this was their backdrop, looking further down the gardens to the Buxton memorial. Magical light and shade.Before I walked on to the Buxton statue, I had to pay proper respect to the wonderful Rodin sculpture of the Burghers of Calais which most appropriately sits right under the Houses of Parliament – a constant reminder to our politicians of Mercy, Courage, Dignity, Generosity, Altruism.
The original of this statue is, of course, in Calais. It marks the deliverance of the 6 Burghers of Calais from the rage of the English King Edward III (a ruthless king, if ever there was one). In 1347, his siege of Calais continued to the point where the citizens were starving. In desperation the Burghers offered their own lives to Edward, if he would spare the rest of the citizens of Calais. He agreed, and here are the noble and immensely courageous 6 Burghers. They are weary, beaten, hungry – starving actually. They have nooses round their necks, and the one on the right carries the enormous key to the town of Calais.
However, Edward’s Queen Philippa heard of their action and asked her husband to show mercy and spare these men. And he did!
These statues never fail to move me.Turning my back on Rodin’s statue, I walked along the embankment to another powerful landmark: the Buxton memorial. This little tower marks a defining point in history – the emanicipation of slaves in the British Empire in 1834. It was commissioned by Charles Buxton in memory of his father, Thomas Fowell Buxton, who along with Wilberforce, Macaulay, Brougham and Lushington fought for the abolition of slavery.
But this memorial means so much more to me than just historical interest – it takes me straight back to my childhood, when we would come and play here. Later on I used to bring my own children to come and play in this park. There are drinking fountains inside (or used to be – they don’t seem to work now), and we children had a lovely time running around and splashing here.Time to say goodbye to the beautiful beautiful Thames …And Lambeth bridge glimpsed through the trees before I turned down Horseferry Road to our little family home – of many, many years – in Maunsel Street …My father was a diplomat so he travelled all his working life, and, of course, his family travelled with him. But very early in my life, back from a stint abroad, they moved to a small house in a quiet little Westminster Street. In the ups and downs, and moves and travels, nothing is quite so evocatively stable in our family as this house. Maunsel Street.We arrived when I was eighteen months old, and before long I had a little sister.And in another couple of years, a little brother too. Although I love this picture of my mother looking through the front window at her chubby baby, I find it quite extraordinary that my mother would park the baby outside the house!Perhaps it was because there was no room inside? The house was teeny tiny for our growing family, and doubtless we all got on each other’s nerves at times. Probably best when we children played our games in the little garden at the back.There were family gatherings in the garden too. Here we all are, smartly turned out with the grandparents, for my brother’s christening in 1958.We were still there in 1962, in the freezing cold of the winter of the Big Freeze.Inside it was very cold too – no central heating, of course. My mother would turn the cooker on and leave the cooker door open to get heat into the icy little kitchen. They made us an indoor play space by covering over part of the outside yard. There was even a sandpit under that playpen. Judging by this photo, we appear to have played there happily and biddably, even though it was always cold. I remember that heater so well – indeed, I think it was only thrown out a few years ago. And those are my father’s geranium plants on the shelf.In later years my parents travelled abroad again for my father’s work and eventually settled in Kent. Our last time staying in the Maunsel street house as a family was when I was about 14, and it was a real squash with 4 big children. However, my step-grandfather’s early death meant my grandmother was looking for a smaller home so she came to live here when we left for Kent. She was a great gardener, and that is reflected in the photographs of her time there. No room for perambulators here now!!Through my teenage years and early twenties, I often stayed here with my grandmother. I look very smart, don’t I?! But, after all, I was staying with my grandmother …Other family members passed through – here are my father and brother en route for a French bicycling holiday in the 1970s …After my grandmother’s death in 1980, my youngest sister moved in and lived here for quite a long time. I would visit regularly from Devon with my two young children.There were children playing in the freezing cold conservatory sandpit again…Eventually she married and moved out, and another sister and her baby daughter moved in.Another child playing in the conservatory and garden – looks a bit warmer here, thank goodness!The garden is abundant and lush, quite different from what it was when we first lived there …And – suddenly – that was it. This little house had been a wonderful central London home for so many members of the family for so long, but there came a time when nobody wanted to live in it. So, with not a little sadness, in 1996, my father decided to sell it. Happy memories – ups and downs, of course. But happy memories.
Keeping us quiet as small children meant lots of walks. When we weren’t walking to Victoria Tower Gardens, we visited St James’ Park, so that is where I went next on my walk, rendezvousing with my sister.The park was absolutely at it’s best, looking magically beautiful. Icy, icy cold – if you look carefully you will see the birds are standing on the frozen lake.The highlight of our walk was the pelicans. Pelicans have been here since 1664, apparently a gift from a Russian Ambassador! They are very friendly, probably because they are also very greedy, and with lots of tourists about hope to get lovely treats. Which I expect they do – even though there are plenty of signs forbidding the feeding of them.Family photos record trips to the park in the 1950s. No London Eye in this photograph.In 1959 we visited the park with our fascinating and very dashing American uncle. He had a Rolls Royce – oh, we thought him so cool (not, of course, the phrase we would have used then). Did he drive us all to the park in the car? I don’t remember, but I guess he must have. What amazes me is the casual way he has left the car in Birdcage Walk. We all crowded round to be part of the next photo., but judging by the expressions on our childish faces, we were a bit fed-up.Then we went off to feed the birds – looking a bit cheerier now …In later years, when staying with my younger sister with my small children, we would also come to St James’ Park to feed the birds …I walked on from the park up Clive Steps. Nothing says Empire like this. There is Robert Clive, commonly known as Clive of India, imposingly placed between these magnificent buildings of colonial rule.But stop – there’s something new here that I haven’t seen before. Justifiably surrounded by young tourists – because it’s a most touching and beautiful memorial, is this wonderful globe covered all over with doves of peace.The script on the circular stone behind explains. In memory of the 202 innocent people killed by an act of terrorism in Kuta on the Island of Bali, Indonesia on the 12th October 2002.Then on, up the Clive Steps, through King Charles Street. Here’s the entrance to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office where my father once worked.It’s not the same entrance, but here are my sister and I, having accompanied him one Saturday for some reason I forget, sitting outside the Foreign Office (as it was called in 1959).Farewell ancient memories, distant times! “The past is a foreign country.” The present beckons. Time to return to reality and walk on to Whitehall where I can catch a bus back to Mornington Crescent!