A Meandering Grand Tour

It’s a rainy day in August.  I have just arrived in Victoria. I pop up to the mouth of the station just to see the sprawl of red double decker buses, the people in bars after work, the queue of black cabs, the tower blocks and watch the smokers huddle in puffs, the commuters flow down escalators, all umbrellas and bags. A far cry from Main St. Cavan. Then I wend my way back through tunnels of rubber, hoardings, machines, platforms of wind, catch a tube to Finsbury Park where I climb a spiral stair of 87 steps, lugging my case to the top and arrive at a ridge of torn and dirty mattresses under a bridge where shrouded figures try to sleep. I make my way across broken pavements, pubs, and people drinking.

I arrive at Maria’s gloriously light, cathedral-like kitchen that flows through floor to ceiling windows and slate tiles into her beautiful London garden. Malcom, her husband, is making a deconstructed niçoise salad, tossing cherry tomatoes and tiny potatoes in a pan, and cooking fresh tuna. Maria takes me upstairs and shows me a fluffy cloud of white linen bed where I can rest my head later and pours me a glass of Brandon Estate, a New Zealand wine, one of my favourites. I have arrived at the start of my grand 60th Tour.

The next day, Maria and I walk around Hampstead Heath, around the ponds, up to Kite Hill where we study the view alongside the Sunday afternoon hoards, the children, the dogs and we reminisce. It takes a little time to refract an old friendship into the ray of light it used to be. It takes time to blend after 25 years of brief meetings over restaurant tables and at funeral homes. Now we are sixty instead of twenty. Our children are grown up and the world is at war with itself. We are no longer it’s life blood. We need to deconstruct before we rebuild, so, unconsciously, it seems, we go back to our beginnings to walk and talk. My life began on the Heath. We amble around, relaxed, pointing out places where we were caught mitching, ponds we met at to smoke and drink, the bush where my bike was stolen, where I played the drunken game of tennis with my dad, where I had my first kiss with Martin.

On Monday morning, I go to Clapham to see the brothers. We go for breakfast in Pimlico, at the popular Regency Diner where the queue of people stretches out of the door and Marco yells at a customer for grabbing a table before getting their food. Later, we catch a train from Kings Cross to the South East Coast, to a small sea-side town where the boys have rented a fine house with a garden. They live half their week there.

Deal is a small seaside town in Kent and an assortment of architectural design: Georgian, Victorian, Fifties and Sixties.  Small two and three storey houses face a sparkling golden red shingle beach, and the pier is a brutally beautiful, concrete structure. The town is crammed with fish and chips, tea shops, organic butchers, restaurants, hanging baskets. The banks are closing, M&S has gone but Sainsbury thrives and is situated next to the station which, as my brother says, is handy.

I had a lovely time with the bros. We ate, meandered and I watched the sun rise at 5.37am both mornings. I got up early and strolled down the prom, studying the different shapes and structures of the buildings, and watching the sea gulls scavenge the bins for breakfast, screeching. Where the prom meets the golf course, I leaned on the railing and watched the sun emerge from the sea, casting its red and golden light across the sky. It’s probably been forty years since I have watched a sun rise. I couldn’t believe how fast it was. I thought, if it continued to race like that throughout the day, evening would be here within three hours. I know time speeds up as you age, but this seemed ridiculous.

Later that morning, the soaring sunshine sadly vanished and was replaced by monsoon rains. I left Deal to keep a lunch date with my oldest friend, Mandy. We met in the first pub I ever frequented as a child: The Old Eagle in Camden. It used to have lovely red flock wallpaper, comfy leather bench seats and a bar billiards table. Now everything is hard wood, guitars hang from the ceiling and the bar billiards has gone. Mandy has blossomed from a quiet, timid child into a fabulously raucous woman with strong opinions. She is an active trade unionist, a socialist, and like her mother, attracts trouble which she then faces with an up-front, in your face, no nonsense response, the results of which provide excellent drinking stories which Mandy tells with Oscar winning performances. One such story was about her lodger, who, refusing to acknowledge his developing cancer, died, leaving a room full of hoarded rubbish including rifles, hand grenades, live ammunition and Semtex. The house was cordoned off, the bomb squad called, and Mandy was evacuated to her VW camper van outside the front door (really).

Four hours later, at 5 o’clock, laughing and crying, I leave the pub and Mandy and Barry (her partner) to meander (I use the word again, purposefully) up to Manor House to begin my visit with Lesley, my beautiful, teetotal, vegetarian friend who travels the world, visits exhibitions, goes to the theatre, and reads prolifically. She listens to the stories of my visit so far, makes sure I eat a proper dinner and puts me to bed.

The next day, Lesley and I go to the Moon in glorious sunshine. The Moon is hanging out in Greenwich as the central feature of a lovely exhibition. Back in the day, Greenwich was an awkward place to get to from North London, but now transport links are so extensive (when they work), it takes less than an hour. There is lots to do in Greenwich. There are more fabulous views from the National Observatory (itself a wonderful building), the Cutty Sark, a lovely, twee market selling jewellery and royal Doulton plates with pics of the royal family, and the National Maritime Museum where we found the Moon.

Did you know that the moon is a place where all that is lost on earth can be found and that there is a Sea of Crisis and a Bay of Rainbows there? Apparently, Apollo landed in the Sea of Tranquillity. I hoped these places were more exciting that the massive housing estates built in the boomtime in Ireland and so similarly named.

Having explored Greenwich to our satisfaction and lunched at a lovely Indian restaurant where I had my first lassie drink for years (sour yoghurt, delicious), we caught the Clipper boat West up the river to London Bridge. How London glitters and shines these days. The docks and wharves are converted into sparkling luxury flats and offices shaped like diamonds, gherkins, cheese graters, walkie talkies, domes. From London Bridge we caught the bus traversing the City, past St Paul’s, through Hackney, Dalston, Camden into Haringey – repeating the journey of my younger days. Except then, I never knew where I was in my London. It was grimy, exciting with adventure and love on every corner. This time it was cleaner, and I knew the way.

Thursday night, although still staying with Lesley, I was meeting my second oldest friend, Susie whom I have known since primary school. She still looks like she could be attending Gospel Oak. We met in a wine bar in Finsbury Park and went for grub in Stroud Green Road where she regaled me with stories of her love life. Yes, she still has one aged sixty plus and it is still as fraught as when we were sixteen. It was great to see her, but a relief, to meander again up to Manor House and seek refuge with Lesley.

The following day, I said my goodbyes to Lesley who was about to take herself off to Jordan and set off for Oxford by way of the bus which I got on at Marble Arch. It was raining again, so when Ruth picked me up at the station, she took me to  charming The Perch pub on the banks of Thames where she knew a fire would be roaring. It was, and there were candles everywhere as, for some reason, the power had gone. After a quick pint and a fish plate, we went home and snuggled up, drinking lots of tea, chatting to Sam, her son, cooking, welcoming Phil her husband back from an arduous day in London – all very domesticated and relaxing. I felt like the old Kate. The English Kate was beginning to peek out from behind the visitor’s visor.

On Saturday morning, after sharing tea in bed and dreams with Ruth, just like in the old days, I got on a bicycle for the first time in six years, since my hip operation. I wobbled merrily along the river paths and parks of the Oxfordshire flatlands to the open air, heated, swimming pool where children played in the shallow end and an older age group swam in sedate watery lanes. Then a bike ride home for breakfast, a tour of the garden and allotment, and off for a walk to meet Maria who was joining us. Maria, Ruth and I lived together for three years at university in Norwich forty years ago. On our way back, we popped into the Tap Social which is based in an industrial estate (opposite the foodbank) behind Ruthie’s house, and lo and behold, it was carnival time! At Ruth’s insistence, we got pints in, sat outside in glorious sunshine listening to DJs flip steel bands and west African music. We managed to return home to eat Phil’s pork belly and beans but then went back to Carnival and danced, hot, sweaty, hip searing steps like it was 1981. Old Kate was in her element. That night, Maria and I shared a bed, whispering quietly about our day.

On Sunday, Maria returned to her London life, getting ready to pick up her daughter from her camping holiday and her husband from his weekend of mother care. For our 60th birthdays, Ruth and I had booked four hours of an art workshop on Sunday doing acrylics and watercolours with an artist who lives in the Cotswolds. I had forgotten how pretty those villages are. He taught us about vanishing points and showed me how put things in perspective. I have been trying to learn this for 60 years – and not just on paper! We returned home, Ruth cooked a Sunday dinner of roast of chicken, carrots, chard and potatoes from the allotment and we adjourned to watch Poldark before bed. Monday morning, Ruth and Phil left early for work, I went off to catch my bus to Gatwick and their two sons stayed in bed. The world felt it was as it should be. I was returning home to Ireland, to my Cavan life of words, walks and water. I was looking forward to seeing Jerry, Poppins and sleeping in my own bed in my own home. But the 60th grand tour was wonderful. Not only did it give me perspective on my life, but it showed me how lucky I am,  and reminded me who I am and where I come from. Like Bill Anders, the astronaut said

“We come to explore the moon and the most important thing we discover is the earth.”



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