Rediscovering London and Windsor

An image of The Long Walk from the early 1900s. (Photo courtesy

Back in mid-April of 2007, I woke before sunrise in a hotel in the shadow of Windsor Castle and tiptoed out to run while Morgan and the kids slept. It was the final day of our family’s Spring Break trip to England. Having no clear idea of where I was headed, I found a trail to a wide strip of grass that stretched like a never-ending rectangular green carpet from the castle’s side gate. I had stumbled upon The Long Walk, the name Charles II gave the route in the 1680s.

Parallel rows of symmetrical trees bordered the neatly mowed lawn, and a wide paved path extended straight down its middle for more than two miles. It was the carriage road, where centuries of processions rode and marched up to the gates, and I stood there virtually alone, dazzled by the dreamy view of the pink-tinged sunrise on the colossus castle that belonged in a fairy tale. Then I sprinted that path all the way to the gates, where a little old lady dressed in a proper navy blue uniform, her gray hair in a bun, happened to be stepping out of a guard’s booth.

I stopped to watch as she slowly but surely walked to the center of the gold-tipped gate that towered above her diminutive frame. She reached in her pocket and pulled out an ancient-looking iron ring that dangled a giant skeleton key, and then she used both hands to turn the key in the lock and push back the iron wall, allowing me to imagine what it would be like to enter as a royal guest. Then she stood more upright, her duty for the morning — probably a duty she had performed for decades, following protocol of centuries — complete.

I distinctly remember lingering at that moment to take in all the details because I felt certain it was a magical, once-in-a-lifetime run never to be repeated. I had a sense then that I wouldn’t, couldn’t return to that spot, and I thus experienced the bittersweet feeling of anticipatory nostalgia — of paradoxically missing something at the same moment it happens, which enhances the experience with appreciation yet also siphons off the fulfillment with a sense of loss.

So why am I recounting this now? Because the other day I returned there for another sprint and experienced the joy of rediscovering a place. The path was, of course, still there and unchanged; that sunrise run three years ago hadn’t been a dream. I felt so profoundly happy to approach the castle again and see details in the architecture I had forgotten — so happy to revisit a destination that seemed somewhat familiar yet ripe for further discovery — and then, like an unexpected bonus, I found the Thames River Path, a gentle dirt trail along the riverside that reveals views of preppy crew teams gliding down the water and colorful houseboats docked along its sides.

Running by the Thames at Windsor & Eton ...

... and admiring houseboats along the way.

Instead of feeling so sad that this trip is ending, the run made me optimistic that our family would continue to journey together if we commit ourselves and set priorities to make travel happen, and consequently we might revisit some of the beloved destinations we passed through before.

We spent a week in London and Windsor — the penultimate week before returning to the States — and questioned whether we were doing the right thing. We had already “done” London (twice, counting our college trip). Wouldn’t it seem tame and familiar? Shouldn’t we use the opportunity to explore somewhere new? I now know we made the right choice, and I would advise other long-term travelers to bookend their journeys with familiar places that ease the transition.

We returned to several favorite attractions, the best being the 900-year-old Tower of London, where we poked around the White Tower and marveled at the centuries of royal armory and crown jewels. But I personally found one of the most interesting things to be Colly’s reaction as we approached the Tower’s entrance, and she said repeatedly, “I remember this!” Kyle, however, mostly said, “I don’t.” The same thing happened when we went to Windsor and revisited a wonderful pub across from the castle, The Horse and Groom; she remembered our previous meal there and even the candles on the tables that dripped so much wax, but Kyle had no recollection. She had just turned 9 when we visited before, and Kyle was a month shy of 6. I’m hopeful now that Kyle, who just turned 9, will remember these travels, and Colly surely will.

Trafalgar Square, where the kids climbed one of the giant lions at the base of Nelson's monument.

We enjoyed hanging out at Trafalgar Square, where the symmetrical fountains and monuments frame a beautiful view of Big Ben and the tall column honoring Admiral Nelson’s victory against Napoleon in the Battle of Trafalgar (the same Nelson that one of our favorite towns in New Zealand is named after), and from there we took the kids to see more Renaissance art and 19th-century Impressionist masterpieces in the fabulous National Gallery next to the square. Their favorite work turned out to be a lesser-known 18th-century artist whose name escapes me and who did a whole series on Venice. We saw the streets we had walked in Venice and marveled that the city looked virtually the same when he painted it almost 300 years ago.

We also discovered new areas of London and particularly liked the vibrant restaurant scene on James Street, where after-work crowds drinking and celebrating the warm almost-summer weather spilled out onto the sidewalk. Along James Street, we got great take-away from Guerrilla Burgers and seafood across the street at Sea Bass.

And for the first time, we took the kids to Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Morgan didn’t want to go because it’s so hokey and high-priced, but I thought it was worth it. Apart from the freak-show oddities and gruesome objects (e.g. lots of co-joined animals, body modification and torture chamber devices), we got to see unusual historical and cultural artifacts (e.g. part of the Berlin Wall). Since I have a fondness for low-brow art, I was amused to see creations such as a portrait of Lady Di made from dryer lint or a replica of the Tower Bridge built from matchsticks.

We also stayed at a hotel, the London Marriott Grosvenor Square, that I have to recommend not only because it was reasonably priced and nicer than expected, but also because the concierge was a lifesaver. We arrived with Morgan in excruciating dental pain, needing an emergency root canal, and Harry the concierge went to extraordinary effort to help us arrange transportation and treatment with Dr. Simons at the Mayfair Dental Practice. Dealing with emergency dental care during travel is truly unpleasant, but all’s well that ends well.

I also love the Marriott’s location, close to Hyde Park, where I returned each morning to run the same routes as three years ago. There’s something so quintessentially British about seeing the early-morning riders trotting their horses along the dirt track of Hyde Park’s Rotten Row, and I felt pulled along by the beauty of their form.

The Tower Bridge -- in Legos!

For the kids, the highlight of London and Windsor was our day at Legoland, where we celebrated Kyle’s 9th birthday. Halfway through our eight hours there, I told Morgan I felt like I was stuck in a waiting room without a book to read, but the kids’ goofy fun made it worthwhile. That, and seeing London re-created in miniature with Legos.

I have no idea when we’ll get back to London and Windsor, but it feels more like “when” than “if.”

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