In the space of two weeks, I have left my beloved job, moved house twice, and condensed my life into a 60-litre rucksack. I knew that planning for a 10-month trip around the world was going to require patience, resilience, and balls of steel, but what I never anticipated was that attempting to coordinate 80 train journeys with visa bureaucracy, border restrictions and below-zero temperatures would reveal less about what lay ahead, and more about what I was leaving behind.
Every morning, until the day of departure, I updated my to-do list which, somehow, grew at least five items overnight: walking shoes, Kindle cover, cancel phone tariff, travel insurance, new retainer. But soon a different list began to grow in my head: spend time with mum and dad, visit Kelly and Violet, stay at Ham Yard Hotel, enjoy a last BLT sandwich at Brioche. And it was that latter list that eventually overrode all my other stresses until they ceased to exist. The evening before I left, I found myself on a sunny bench outside London’s National Theatre with a glass of prosecco in one hand and Violet, my friend Kelly’s three-month-old baby, in the other. I was supposed to be buying a pair of walking shoes and the shop was about to close, but I’d shelved the trip to meet them on the Southbank. Kelly had Violet in early February but I’d been too “busy” to organize a time to see them. Only I wasn’t busy, I just had skewed priorities. I could always buy a pair of shoes en route, but I couldn’t give Violet a big cuddle or see her smirk at her mum. Two days earlier, I was toasting a family friend and his new wife at their wedding in Norfolk. They had decided to celebrate 21 years together by getting married and I had initially told them I couldn’t travel up because I had to collect last-minute tickets from Riga to Moscow and there was no other appointment available. But when I saw Tony appear in a top hat and tails and twirl Lizzie onto the dancefloor, I knew that attending their wedding had been the right thing to do, even if it meant having to have my tickets FedEx-ed abroad.
Then there came the seemingly frivolous things. I love bacon. Not that streaky nonsense that Americans call bacon, the rigid strips of crisped fat that snap in two, but the thick-cut baby-pink rashers of smoky meat, curled at the edges and trimmed with rind. My Saturday mornings aren’t complete without a couple of slices snuggled between hunks of white bread and slathered with ketchup, and on my last trip, I really missed the home comfort. So I took myself off to Brioche, my local café in West Hampstead and ordered the cinnamon toast with bacon and maple syrup—twice if I’m honest—just to make sure the taste and smell were safe in my memory bank.
Having rented out my home to a young Polish couple for the next year, I was essentially homeless for my last week in London and had to rely on the kindness of friends and the scum of the King’s Cross Travelodge for a bed until I checked into the Ham Yard Hotel for my last night. The newest edition to the Firmdale group of hotels owned by husband and wife team Tim and Kit Kemp, Ham Yard is carefully slotted into a square just behind Piccadilly Circus, and you would never know it was there if you weren’t looking for it. I’ve long been a fan of the Firmdale group, largely because they’re at once so utterly barmy and beautiful—much like London. From the Union Jack flapping above the entrances to the stripped-bare wooden floors, blast of colours and fabrics and lighting and action, the Kemps’ properties are the hotel equivalent of a mad British family, odd and delightful, but always warm and welcoming. After my last stay at the Haymarket Hotel, I foraged around the pillows to see that they were from The Best Bed Linen in the World, and bought some for my own bed. Ham Yard is even more outlandish than its siblings: the reception is strung with a giant cat’s cradle of multi-coloured wool, the orangery is lit with a tangled bunch of at least 15 different lampshades, and the cosy, colourful library has a tiny Queen Elizabeth in a jar—complete with tiny handbag. After dinner, I lay in the huge bath watching Britain’s Got Talent and drinking a cup of tea. Ham Yard isn’t exactly subtle in reminding you where you are. Not to say it’s like a UKIP rally, but they like their flags and British bulldogs and the Archer room, a navy-blue private dining room with swirly chairs has LONDON emblazoned across the wall and a phone box painting by the mirror. It’s quite comic at the best of times, but that night it just felt reaffirming. At breakfast, I went for my last real Full English and although this terrifying patriotism may be misconstrued as that English reluctance to let go of the familiar and venture into foreign territory, it was my way of taking a good long look around before I left it all behind. The next day I bought my walking shoes at 12.15pm before meeting my friends and family at the St Pancras Renaissance Hotel bar at 12.30pm to board the first train to Paris. And they were none the wiser.