Before I left for New York, I had become blind to London’s beauty. I spent most of my time underground, shuttling between tube trains, oblivious to what was above my head as I sped through the labyrinth of tunnels spread beneath the vast sprawling mass of the city. When I was above ground, my focus was on getting to where I was going, not on what was surrounding me. I had seen it all before; Westminster, St Paul’s, the Tower, the river at night – their familiarity meant they went unappreciated, and barely got a sideways glance as I rushed by.
I was born in central London, and grew up on its fringes. My parents were both born and brought up in London, my maternal grandmother was a true cockney – born within the sound of Bow Bells – and my maternal grandfather grew up in the pre war slums of Marylebone. London is in my blood; its history courses through my veins. But I didn’t learn to love it – truly love it – until I tried to make a new city my home. As much as I adored New York, at every turn I was reminded of what it wasn’t, and it was then that I realised that the streets of the city I thought I had become indifferent to were irrevocably etched onto my heart.
The streets of London pulse with history, dating back so many hundreds of years that it frightens me to think of how many souls have walked them before me. Remnants of Tudor wattle and daub jostle for space with Georgian and Victorian brickwork and 21st century steel and glass. The spires of ancient churches reach into the sky alongside the skyscrapers of modern commerce. Labyrinthine alleys filled with tumbledown buildings unfurl behind wide, modern thoroughfares filled with glitzy shops and roaring traffic. Graceful bridges span the river that is the heart of this great metropolis, that manages to be both historic and marvellously current; modest, yet brilliant; cosmopolitan, but unashamedly and unequivocally British.
The first time I set foot in central London after my year in New York, I stood on Tower Bridge and really looked at the tremendous view that unfolded before me. The dome of St Paul’s; the blinking lights of Canary Wharf; the gothic towers of the Houses of Parliament. As I stood there, I found myself crying – crying with happiness at being back in a place that, without me realising it, was as intrinsic a part of me as my own flesh and blood. I saw its beauty, I saw its magic, I saw its splendour. Now I look up wherever I go, and I never cease to be amazed by the glory of the city I am fortunate enough to call home. This past weekend, I climbed to the top of Parliament Hill, and I gasped at the wonder of seeing London spread like a blanket at my feet. Last night, walking home from the theatre, I stopped as I walked across the Thames and noticed for the first time how sparkling, how beautiful, how awe inspiring London is when it is all lit up in the darkness; like a diamond necklace laid upon velvet. I feel like the scales have fallen from my eyes. How could I ever have thought I was tired of London? I must have been mad.