We were up early for breakfast. We walked through some very familiar streets in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea to get to High Street Kensington station.
We were headed for Bill’s. There were no Bill’s restaurants anywhere when we left London in 2008, but we’ve been to a few branches and know we’ll find a good breakfast there. (Edinburgh does not have a branch.) We wander the streets: the candy-confection white terraces of Kensington are decorated here and there with flower boxes. There are not many people about until we converge on the station.
We had plans for our first full day in London. There was a new photography gallery at the V&A to visit and there are other favourite galleries there. We wanted to have a look around South Kensington and Chelsea, too. All the old haunts were waiting for us. But only after a second coffee and some people watching at High Street Ken.
Victoria and Albert Museum
The V&A’s photography gallery, the main reason for our visit, did not disappoint. It is arranged in chronological order with some nice touches such as the way that stereotype photography is displayed. There is a film room with videos explaining and demonstrating photographic techniques and processes.
We wandered through other galleries where I found inspiration for the novel I’m (still, a year later) working on: a pocket pistol for my hero Alexander Ashkirk, a soft-cover leather bound notebook for Daniel Defoe to jot down his thoughts on the Union, and snazzy stockings for both.
We paused to admire Leonardo’s tiny notebook in the Renaissance Gallery. I designed an early eighteenth-century textile which the museum sends to me in my email.
Sated with culture and knowledge, it was time for us to find a pub. The Hoop and Toy around the corner from South Kensington Station has always been reliable. Back when we were commuters, it was a good place to meet and it has always been a good post-museum place to go. It’s still there so we pause there and to decide what to do next.
Chelsea Old Church
One thing I never did in my London days was go into Chelsea Old Church to see the collection of chained books donated by Sir Hans Sloane when he was Lord of the Manor of Chelsea. It was an omission that I was keen to fix. I know a lot about the church from my time as a local studies librarian at Chelsea Library and from writing an unpublished paper (Thanks, Reviewer 2!) on the ‘burial problem’ in Chelsea.
The sky began to threaten rain. We high-tailed it to the church and found that an event has just finished there. It seemed to be a funeral or a wake. Slightly tipsy people welcomed us although we are obviously tourists. The church was about to close, but I got my photo of the books that I wanted to see and I finally got a glimpse of the monuments that I’ve known about for decades. It was a treat, but strange because of the circumstances. People peered at us trying to work out if they knew us and the sky was now heavy with rain. Taxis arrived to ferry away the mourners.
And then the sky broke open. It was a deluge. Rain bounced back off the pavement in huge drops. Within minutes we are soaked through. We dashed to the Cross Keys. We were in the properly old part of Chelsea here. The pub dates from 1708 and the streets around it are similar in date. (So I can count visiting it the area as ‘research’ for my novel.) Previous patrons, a Blue Plaque told us, include Turner, Agatha Christie, John Singer Sargent, Whistler, and Bob Marley. I was not sure if that made me fell intimidated or inspired. We dried off as best as we could and waited for the rain to pass. It was a good spot to be in, but we had somewhere else to go as part of the Magical Memories Tour. When the rain passed, a meander along Justice Walk (if I ever win the lottery, you might find me there) took us back up to the King’s Road.
Can you go home again? That was the question we began to ask at our next stop. Our destination was a pub that we frequented in the late 90s and very early 00s when we both worked at the same place and five minutes walk from it. It was a place of holiday gatherings and farewell dos, meetings with friends, lunches, and post-shift decompression sessions after stressful days. We mixed with locals, including some of our customers. It had character. Our pints were poured as soon as our faces appeared through the door. Even though we knew it had been refurbished a few times since then, we wanted to go for old time’s sake.
The pub was a shadow of itself (which is why I’ve not linked to it). Expensive drinks, cheerless staff, and painted a dull blue-grey and with a ‘theme’. Maybe it was a mistake to go somewhere laden with both good and bad memories. However, we were cheered to see that as we were leaving a new group came in. We wondered if they were the next generation of workers of the place we had worked. They brought some life to the pub so maybe they are forming their own versions of our memories of two decades ago.
Back in 2019, we could set our compass vaguely back in the direction of our accommodation and drift along until we found somewhere that looked likely. We walked down the Fulham Road reading menus and found Sophie’s Steakhouse. There was a special offer on for steak frites and the house wine was a bargain. It was a good place to think about the day and plan the next.