LONDON, May 17 — In 2003, when I moved to London to work as a pilot, I lived in Kew. From the air, the neighbourhood looked like the perfect geographic compromise between life (my friends, and the occasional date, in central London) and work (my 5am starts at Heathrow Airport).
On a typical day off, before a long walk in the Royal Botanic Gardens — an annual membership (£79, or about RM460) turns this premier botanical garden into your everyday neighbourhood park — I would head to the Kew Greenhouse Cafe, in the cluster of shops near Kew Gardens station. I’d sit in the front room by the big windows and unfold a newspaper or a letter from home.
After several years in Kew, I moved to north London. But whenever I see the cafe and the gardens from the cockpit, I think, well, that is where I learned why English sandwiches are generally so tasty (it’s the quality of the cheddar, and the quantity of the butter) and that is where I started to fall in love with London.
The attractions of central London are so famous that it’s all too easy for seasoned expatriates to roll their eyes and stop exploring. So I’m glad that one rainy evening about six years ago, Nicky, an English friend who’s a lawyer, showed me the Temple Church. Consecrated by the Latin patriarch of Jerusalem in 1185 (in the likely presence of King Henry II) and built to evoke that city’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Temple Church was the London headquarters of the soldier-monks known as the Knights Templar.
More recently (in British terms, the last four centuries or so), it has served the Middle Temple and the Inner Temple, two of London’s four Inns of Court, or legal societies, which are cloistered in serene Oxbridge-style campuses in the heart of the metropolis. Come for the soaring music of the choir — one of Britain’s finest — or bring your lunch to the Inns’ quiet gardens above the Thames.
Every expatriate in London has a story, and few such tales are as fascinating as that of Dennis Severs. Severs grew up in sunny California, but instead of a pool he dreamed of a house with ghosts, and of an English sort of light “that I saw in old varnish and paint, and that appealed to me as my ideal.” In 1979 Severs, who survived in part on the earnings from an inherited California gas station, bought an early 18th-century home in Spitalfields. He turned his new, old London digs into Dennis Severs’ House, a museum in which silent visitors tiptoe through rooms that are immaculately dressed in the sights, sounds and — yes — the smells of bygone ages. Coals smolder in the hearths, a lemon peel curls near a still-steaming cup of tea, an egg lies freshly broken in a bowl of flour. Even the contents of the chamber pots are all too authentic.
The only cognitive dissonance here, aside from that of modern London itself, which it’s hard to remember is still humming along just beyond the walls of this time capsule, is the New York Yankees cap of Severs, who died in 1999, resting on a candlelit table in the hall. — The New York Times