Grand Day Out

(My Nan would have called this a “Knicky Knacky Noo Shop,” but I’m sure they’d prefer “Antique” or “Vintage”, Notting Hill.)

Lily has regular clinic appointments in London, which on the whole we tend to treat as a Grand Day Out, catching the first off-peak train and waiting until the afternoon rush hour is over before making our way home. A couple of times I’ve tried to fit in taking Lily to London while also getting Ivy to school but it caused to much chaos and stress. When the last trip meant an hour and a half’s delay on the train while Ivy was home alone, I decided enough was enough – Ivy comes too. Both children being off at the same time inevitably makes school suspicious, as if I’m determined to sabotage their education by secretly nipping off to the Seychelles for the day. But no – it’s a genuine hospital appointment, and I’m doing the best I can to balance everyone’s needs including my own. The trip is educational in its own way – as a former home schooler I recognise that everything has educational potential – and we usually end up in one of the museums, or exploring somewhere new. School holiday appointments bring their own problems – yes, we’re not missing school, but London is far more busy and crowded, proving too much for Lily’s Aspergers. Lily also refuses to use the Tube when it’s crowded, resulting in some epic walks across London to make it back to Paddington on time for the train home – this was especially difficult when I was hobbling along with plantar fasciitis, having to practise Lamaze breathing techniques to get me through each step of a three mile walk from Camden, having already been on my feet for most of the day.

(Sculpture or alien invasion, we couldn’t quite decide, River Thames.)

It’s hard to believe that I once wanted to live in London. I was all set on a career in The Media, without really knowing what that would look like, just that I’d be heading off to London to do exciting things in film and television or magazines. Instead I fell in love with Simon and moved to a tiny town where Media careers simply weren’t a thing. Now when I look back I’m not sure whether that was a wasted opportunity or a lucky escape – I’m not sure that I’d like the person that I’d have to become to succeed in that game. Certainly I quit my on-the-job training as a features journalist when I was being asked to phone an elderly woman who I knew was sitting in a hospital holding hands with her second husband as he was slowly dying from a brain tumour, to ask her whether her previous fiance had actually died in her arms or just on the floor. I couldn’t believe that anyone would think it was okay to do that, but the young woman on the other end of the phone didn’t seem to register that we were dealing with people’s very real lives and emotions and that there was a duty of care not to traumatise an innocent person for the sake of a single sentence of the story. I’d struggle to live in London now; the 24 hr hectic, non-stop pace, the busyness, the crowds, the glazed, unconnected look on people’s faces as they ignore each other in a bid to find personal space. It’s an entirely artificial lifestyle in a hard, artificial environment, something that I seem to struggle with more and more as I get older.

(We’ll take this one please, Notting Hill.)

The 2pm appointment cut into the day, leaving not quite enough time before or after to really do much. We decided to explore Notting Hill, finding brightly painted townhouses and a vibe on the chichi side of boho. One of the streets was unbelievably picturesque, each painted house seemingly trying to compete with the next, all with lovingly tended tiny front gardens that showed that even the smallest space can be transformed into a personal haven. We decided the house with roses spilling around the door and windows was our favourite. Neither of the kids have seen the eponymous film, but I pointed out some of the landmarks nonetheless; the Travel Bookshop, now a tacky tourist souvenir shop, the blue door that was supposedly Hugh Grant’s house, the cafe where he buys the drink he spills over Julia Roberts. The kids just asked who Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts were, and I felt ancient. We found a small public park in one of the squares, and sat to eat our sandwiches. There are countless such pocket parks around London, some public, some private, providing small sanctuaries of green to counteract the hectic pace of the city; more and more I find myself drawn to and appreciating such spaces.

(Pocket Park, Notting Hill.)

On the spur of the moment, we decided to take the bus to the hospital rather than disappearing back underground; remarkably I managed to work out which bus to catch from which bus stop. The drawback of the Tube is that you never build up a sense of London, how the areas connect and interact, the flavour of each district – each location is an isolated dot centred around the nearest Tube station. From the bus we could get a sense of people’s everyday lives, from the blocks of flats and corner shops, to the hidden Mews and gold Maserati. Plant pots balanced on windowsills, balconies dressed up with tiny gardens, a table and chair, or a washing line; little glimpses of lives being lived, of people claiming their spaces and dressing them up.

(Matching planters extends the wall height, creating a private courtyard, Notting Hill.)

After the rather intense appointment, we headed to South Kensington – Lily into the Science Museum while Ivy and I went into the V&A, relieved that Lily is of an age where I can let her wander on her own, mobile phone in hand. We’d intended to go look at an exhibition, but by that point we were both too hot and frazzled. Instead, we took our shoes and socks off and sat in the courtyard garden, dipping our feet into the water, instantly feeling calmer and cooler. A group of men in suits sat behind us, remarking to themselves that the toddlers had the right idea, going paddling, isn’t that what we all want to do, take our shoes and socks off and get in the water? I wondered what was stopping them. There were no signs up telling you not to put your feet in the water, no members of staff patrolling the perimeter. It was a very hot day. On some days I might have turned round and asked them directly, my own feet firmly in the water; what’s stopping you? Not on this day though. Too hot. Too overstimulated. I let them stew in their business suits. When we were ready to go, we rescued the fallen leaves from the succulents that had been planted beneath two tall trees. It was clear that these beds were not the right environment for succulents, and from the looks of it they hadn’t even been planted properly. Ivy picked up the fallen, plump leaves and stored them in her packed lunch box, hoping to bring them home and replant them.

(Giant bubbles outside the Science Museum, London.)

We came out of the V&A by the new side entrance, all gleaming white tiles and stone. The sun bounced off the white steps, dazzling us. I wish they’d planted a couple of trees instead. I’m not a fan of sleek, minimalist modernism, not when everything in sight is manmade, unnatural. Put a few trees in, a couple of raised beds, and I’d be happy. Instead, they’d made a sun trap even brighter, even hotter, to the point where it was uncomfortable for our eyes. I thought of the YouTube video I’d watched in the bath that morning, a couple in Mexico who transformed a wall in their house with re-used, repurposed plastic bottles, turning them into chains of planters, each one dripping down into the one beneath, the water caught in a reservoir bottle at the bottom and poured back into the watering can. A refreshing wall of green. I thought of the tiny balcony and basement gardens we’d spotted from the bus, of the smart front yards in Notting Hill, all cramming as much greenery as they could into tiny spaces. It seems a human instinct to bring nature into our living spaces, to prettify and green up our personal environments. Yet too often nature is simply missed out of the equation when it comes to public spaces. I’m with Hundertwasser and his tree tenants and grass-roofed buildings. The city is an alien enough environment; we’re simply not designed for such high-density, fast-paced living – there are even video adverts on the side of London bin lorries, for goodness sake. If we venerate design as being entirely man-made, if we exclude plants and trees as being too messy for our sleek, hip, spaces, we create more artificiality. We contribute to the chaos of the city. Sitting around the courtyard pond, an environment with grass, trees and cloud-trimmed bushes, everyone was relaxed. On crowded tubes, busy pavements and visually over-stimulating unnatural environments – adverts crowded in to every space, people are frazzled.

(Wild strawberries growing in public park, Notting Hill.)

Often on the train home, I head into the corridor long before our stop, knowing that once we’ve passed the final station before our own, we head through wooded valleys where the river winds through. The window open, I breath in the cool air, smelling the damp earth, calming my hyper-stimulated senses with the greenness of it all. There’s still the drive home, the kids to be put to bed, jobs to be done – and then hopefully the first sip of a much-awaited cup of tea before falling exhausted into bed. Wondering how on earth people manage to live full-time in cities like London, so cut off from nature, knowing that I’m glad I’ve opted for a quieter life. Knowing too that we all need more green – in our homes, our gardens and in our public and work environments. And if anyone could work out how to cover a tube train in moss and ferns, we should give them the horticultural equivalent of a Nobel Prize.

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