During my time living in London people often asked just why I liked it so much and why I wanted so badly to stay.
Admittedly, it’s not always easy to love London, particularly during the many months of the year in which it is rainy, cold and shrouded in a grey gloom. It is egregiously expensive, overcrowded, hectic and outwardly unfriendly. Tube delays are frequent and daily rush-hour commutes are a grim exercise in enduring personal space invasion.
So, sure, London has its faults.
Nevertheless, I fell madly in love with it. If I had my way, I wouldn’t have left.
As a lifelong Anglophile I have always been drawn to the UK and London in particular, so it was exciting to finally obtain the visa that granted me the right to live and work in Blighty for two years.
My time in London was never particularly easy, from my first jet-lagged day trundling along to my hostel in springtime snow to my last frantic day of desperately trying to pack the remainder of two years’ London life into one bursting suitcase, and other nonsense in between. But the struggles were ultimately worth it, because the experience of being in London was frequently rewarding.
The main setback of my first year was a difficulty in finding a suitable flat in which to settle long term. I spent my first summer in a great short-term flatshare with lovely flatmates and then spent the next five months in what turned out to be a dreadful house with awful flatmates, and loathing every dreary moment of it. It wasn’t until my second year that I found a place to call home in a nice flat with great flatmates and felt more settled. Yet the constant restlessness and uncertainty of the experience didn’t stop me from feeling I somehow belonged in London – that it was the right place for me, for this time in my life.
Having grown up in a tiny country at the bottom of the world, I was used to feeling isolated from the rest of the globe. In London I felt like I was suddenly at the centre of everything, caught up in a heady mix of art, architecture, history and culture. It was exhilarating.
If ever there were a city designed for aimless wandering, it would be London. It is a daydreamer’s paradise. The bustling streets of central London can be at times overwhelming, as anyone who has ever braved Oxford Street on a Saturday – or, quite frankly, ever – can attest. But the sprawling mass of winding streets, charming little lanes and idyllic parks afford the opportunity for constant discovery of one curiosity after another. No matter how much time you spend exploring, you can never see it all and that is part of the appeal.
I loved to wander around Soho and Covent Garden, to stroll along the lively South Bank and to lose myself in the crowds at Portobello Road and Borough Markets. I enjoyed happening across literary haunts of the past and present – the bookshops of Bloomsbury and Charing Cross Road, Shakespeare’s Southwark, Dr Johnson’s House in Holborn, and Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese on Fleet Street, a favoured drinking spot of Dickens and his ilk.
For a lover of art, literature and history, London was a gift that kept on giving.
The many museums were favourite places to visit, and it felt like you could spend hours in the British Museum or the V&A and have barely scratched the surface of all there was to discover within their walls.
Nothing ever quite lifted my spirits or killed a miserable mood as much as a journey through centuries of art history at the National Gallery or a wander through the eclectic galleries of Tate Modern. To finally see up close the masterpieces I’d studied as an eager art history student on the other side of the world, and to know I could pop in and see them any time I liked, was a constant joy. Plus every visit to Tate Modern had the added bonus of the spectacular view of Millennium Bridge and the stunning dome of St Paul’s Cathedral across the Thames.
Whenever the crowded streets began to feel oppressive, the glorious parks offered a welcome retreat. A day out on Hampstead Heath felt like a visit to the countryside. I am currently missing summertime walks around the rose gardens and tree-lined avenues of Regent’s Park and the lazy hours spent reading in the shade.
As I already said, it wasn’t always easy and it had its negative effects on me. I was frequently stressed, tired and worn out by my admittedly short but unpleasantly crowded daily commutes. I found myself frustrated by people who walked too slowly down busy streets, by those who stood on the left, by space hogs and loud tube talkers, by transport disruptions and the sheer expense of it all. There were also a couple of bouts of ill health I really could have done without.
But despite all that, I never regretted a single moment of living there.
Besides, whenever I needed a break from London, it was so easy to get on a train or a plane and be in another fabulous city in Europe within a couple of hours. Or I could travel to another part of the country for a weekend break or day trip and return refreshed and ready to take it all on again.
And however tough it could get through the rest of the year, I found London truly magical and uplifting at Christmastime. Christmas in London made everything else feel okay, whether I was catching up with friends at Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, ice skating at Somerset House or sipping hot chocolate amidst the fir trees and chalet stalls at the South Bank market. The masses of twinkling lights, the elaborate department store window displays, the lingering aroma of mulled wine and roasted chestnuts – I loved all of it.
There’s just something about London. There’s a feeling of almost overwhelming anonymity, that you’re just a speck in a sea of faces and you could be anyone or anything, and it’s liberating. And I wish I’d had more time for all of it, for everything.
I didn’t want to leave London, and haven’t stopped missing it every day since I left. This post took far too long to write because every time I sit down to compile my thoughts I feel the pangs of a weird reverse homesickness. I’m not done with London yet and have every intention to return whenever possible.