I was born and bred in London. You might say I was a real, honest-to-goodness, pearly-kings-and-queens-card-holding Cockney. I was born in Bethnal Green (Bethnal Green Hospital, to be precise). Apparently, to be a Cockney, one must be born within the sound of Bow Bells. Now I have no idea whether you can hear the sound of Bow Church Bells ringing in Bethnal Green. Bow Church is exactly 3.1 miles from Bethnal Green (so says Google Maps). Perhaps you can hear them on a very quiet Sunday morning. After a zombie apocalypse. But anyway, I choose to consider myself a Cockney. I’m a native of East London, so that’s good enough for me.
However, I left London twenty-four years ago, at the age of twenty. To be honest, I couldn’t wait to leave. I’ve always considered myself a country girl at heart, a country girl born in completely the wrong place. Don’t get me wrong, I’m proud of my roots and my heritage and my accent, I just don’t happen to want to live there. It’s too busy; there aren’t any fields or cows. Life is stressful enough as it is without all that bustle. To be honest, I virtually never go back. As the years go by, there are fewer and fewer reasons for me to visit. And East London isn’t exactly a picturesque place, so I keep my visits to a bare minimum.
Recently though, I had cause to head back to London on a brief day-trip. I’ve already mentioned why in a previous blog, so I’m not going to get into the whys and wherefores of that, but suffice to say, I found myself in London. I think it’s the first time I’ve been back in about 14 years (give or take). And what I want to talk about today is how I discovered I had become a complete stranger in my own hometown. Either everything in London has changed, or I have; changed so markedly, that I could never even consider going back on a permanent basis.
I won’t lie, I was a little anxious about my trip to London. I don’t have a good memory at the best of times, but for some reason, my brain had decided to throw out everything to do with Bethnal Green and Hackney (where I grew up). I decided not to drive. A) I didn’t trust my car to make it there and back. B) I have no idea how to navigate London roads. I learned to drive in Wiltshire, so I have no London ‘knowledge’ to speak of. I boarded my train to Waterloo in trepidation. For some reason, I decided to seat myself at a table of four instead of my usual two-seater seats I would normally choose (being my standoffish self). I think I must have wanted a bigger table to house my coffee and laptop. I’m glad I did sit there, though. At least three people seemed very keen in engaging me in minimal, yet camaraderie-filled conversation. So I was put at my ease, the rest of time being spent editing on my laptop. Ninety-percent of people use a laptop on trains these days, it seems. I would have felt left out without one. After a while, green and pleasant Wiltshire turned into ‘The Big Smoke’. I was home. Sort of.
On arrival at London Waterloo, the fun and games began. I had a continuously-running text conversation with my sister on the go, she knows London far better than I do. I thought I’d be adventurous and navigate my way from West to East London by bus (the London Underground system was far too complicated for my now country-bumpkin-like brain to contemplate). So from Waterloo, I was advised to catch a number 26 to Hackney.
First of all, I had a panic attack about the complexities of ‘Oyster Cards’ (pre-paid cards which allow you to travel all over London on trains and buses). Oyster Cards hadn’t existed in my day. And apparently buses don’t take real cash anymore. WTF?? Anyway, it transpired that you could use your debit card if it had the contactless function, so I could forget about the confusing Oyster Card. Thank God. Mind you, you don’t actually speak to the driver. And how the bus itself knew which part of London I was travelling to, thereby calculating how much my journey should cost, I’ve no idea. First of all, things seemed to be going swimmingly. I boarded the number 26 to Hackney as instructed by my sister. The closer we got to Central London, the more my past life came flooding back to me. A small smile even crept onto my face as the bus passed Bank Underground Station and then by Liverpool Street (I used to work there, I could even pick out my old office as the bus went by). I happily watched all the suited and booted office-workers, carrying their ‘Pret A Manger‘ lunches in paper bags (Pret A Manger appears to be the only lunch-selling establishment in London these days). I used to be one of those people. That was my old life. It was only when we hit Shoreditch that my memory began to go blank. So I rang my sister, as the text messages weren’t coming through fast enough for my liking.
Me: ‘Right, I’m on the 26. How do I know where to get off?’
Sister: ‘You know Westgate Street?’
Sister: ‘Do you remember our old opticians?’
Sister: ‘You know, at the beginning of Mare Street – the Town Hall?’
Sister: ‘Well don’t get off there. You’ve gone too far if you’re at the Town Hall.’
Me: (panicking) ‘Alright, so get off when I see the opticians…?’
Sister: ‘No, it isn’t an opticians anymore. Anyway, get off there, and catch a 253.’
Me: (panicking more so) ‘A 253 to where?’
Sister: ‘Homerton. Do you remember Homerton?’
Sister: ‘The bus terminates at Homerton, you’ll be fine.’ (It didn’t) ‘You’ll know you’re on the right bus if you go past Morning Lane. Do you remember Morning Lane?’
Sister: ‘Do you remember the big Tesco?’
Sister: ‘Do you remember -?’
And so it went on. Even though I was on home turf, I later told my husband that if you’d asked me to find my way on foot to my old childhood home where I’d lived from the age of eleven to twenty, I’m not sure I could have located it. Not only has the city landscape changed, I’ve banished all those memories, you see. They just weren’t necessary for me to keeping storing them anymore.
Anyway, I finally made it to my final destination after a two-and-a half hour train journey and one-and-a half hours of buses. However, I soon realised I had only given myself one hour to get all the way back to Waterloo for my return trip, and I was unlikely to make it in time to catch my train. I had actually downloaded the ‘Uber‘ app in the eventuality that I would run out of time. But it was just another thing I had never done before, just another variable that I didn’t want to factor in. So, having (completely false) pretensions of being fairly middle-class, I just got a common-or-garden taxi from Hackney to Waterloo, which was expensive. But I was long passed caring. I managed to catch my train on time too. And boy was I glad to get back to the greenery of home.
So that was my angst-provoking trip back to The Big Smoke. Trains, buses and taxis, just like a seasoned city dweller. What I will say is that it’s a falsehood to say all Londoners are miserable; everyone was terribly friendly to me. They must have felt sorry for the lost-looking country bumpkin on her trip from The Sticks (I’m kidding, my home isn’t that rural). Yes, I’m still proud of my Cockney roots, I believe London made me what I am – you can take the girl out of London, but you can’t take London out of the girl. But I just don’t happen to belong there anymore. I need a slower pace of life now. So, I can’t see me needing to go back again any time soon – perhaps barely ever. I did see some lovely landmarks whilst on my bus trip, however; Tower Bridge in the distance, St Paul’s Cathedral. I’d actually like to take my kids to visit their Capital City – just as tourists, mind. Because that’s what we are. But I think I’ll give East London a miss next time, it’s too taxing for a wannabe yokel like me.