Happy Birthday, Roger!
Our beloved mentor and friend Roger Ebert would have been 73 today. As always, he will be missed, but he lives on in our hearts and on our bookshelves.
In 1986, Roger teamed up with Daniel Curley to document the walk he always did whenever he was in London. It became a book filled with pictures by Jack Lane and colorful descriptions by Roger. He also serves as your GPS, guiding you along the walk as if he were right beside you leading the way.
Almost 30 years after The Perfect London Walk was published, a former RogerEbert.com Demander and a current Far-Flung Correspondent decided to follow in Roger's footsteps. Michał Oleszczyk and I were both in London, so we decided to make the trek 2 days before my birthday. We had a sunny day, though as often is the case in London, clouds and rain were always looming in the background.
On May 9, 2015, armed with a used copy of the book I procured from Amazon, comfortable shoes (as Roger suggests), a few bottles of water and our umbrellas, Michał and I set off on our journey.
"By Underground, take the Northern Line to Belsize Park stop," Roger tells us in the "Approaches to the Walk" section. We grabbed the Northern Line train from ABBA's favorite underground stop, Waterloo, where I once embarrassed some friends of mine by singing the station's theme song on the platform while I did the Carlton Banks dance. Since I needed to preserve my energy for the walk, Michał was spared such indignities. Here he is in front of our starting point.
As we turned right, we made our way to the first stop, The George Inn. It looked as the picture in our book depicted, except it had a new sign. I guess signs wear out after 3 decades, but the pub atmosphere remains the same forever. Here I am outside the George, wanting a beer but realizing it's like 11 o'clock in the morning. The pub was, as Roger wrote, "delightfully deserted in the morning."
Right behind me was our next destination, the entrance to Hampstead Green. This would take us past the remains of St. Stephen's Church and the Royal Free Hospital, on whose site in the 19th century stood an insane asylum.
Down the cobblestone path we went, en route to our next stop, the Roebuck Hotel. I told Michał that Sears used to be known as Sears and Roebuck's, which led to my famous story about how my grandfather (Mom's Dad) took on Sears and Roebuck when they accused him of not paying his credit bill. I also mentioned that Pops Staples, patriarch of the Staple Singers is also named Roebuck. This soul music detail led to me recounting that dream I had where Pops Staples beat my ass with his guitar for getting fresh with his daughter, Mavis.
"Keep a lookout in case Pops Staples is out here!"
Our next stop was the former residence of Sir Julian Huxley, brother of writer Aldous. Julian lived here until 1975. Julian made his fame as a biologist, and Aldous penned Brave New World, which they forced me to read in high school. Aldous also wrote the book that Ken Russell adapted for The Devils, a film Roger gave NO STARS to back in 1971. That movie was nasty.
Sir Julian's house.
What Pizza Parlor?!
Our next set of directions were to find a Pizza Parlor and turn left on South End Road. When we got to the corner in question, there was no pizza to be had. "What pizza parlor?" I asked out loud. Michał pointed out that our location matched the picture in our guide, but instead of a pizza parlor, there was something else. And no, I won't tell you what it was. You need to do this walk on your own!
Still standing, however, was the Hampstead Tea Rooms. "They will sell you a pastry from the window," Roger writes, and I think this still holds true as a guy saw us outside and started walking towards us. I pointed to my phone, indicating I was only being a shitty tourist and taking a picture. Maybe next time, for I do love some tea in the afternoons.
More High School English Class Nightmares
Next, we were to find the sign telling us how to get to Keats House. It too had been changed since 1986, but it was still pointing in the right direction. We soon stumbled upon Keats House and made our way toward a tree planted where John Keats heard the bird that inspired him to pen his version of When Doves Cry, Ode to a Nightingale.
Roger was kind enough to include two stanzas in The Perfect London Walk, in case any poetry lovers wanted to read it on the spot. I graduated high school in 1986, so by the time Roger wrote our guidebook, I was through, through, THROUGH with poetry. Instead, I tried to listen for any nightingales, a futile attempt because I wouldn't know what one sounded like. There are no nightingales in the 'hood.
"Do you know what they sound like?" I asked Michał before a freaky sounding bird began singing. "Maybe that's it," he said. The world may never know.
Waiting for the Nightingale.
St John's and the Freemasons
St. John's was built in 1818 and is the last proprietary chapel in London, which means the congregation owns it. Roger told us to go inside and climb the stairs for a great view, but the last time I was in a church, de Lawd said "GET OUT!!" So we bypassed the view and walked toward the Heath.
The Freemason Pub is the latest pub to inhabit its corner. There has been a pub on this spot since 1819, and this one was put there in 1934. Surprise, surprise! The sign was different than in Roger's picture, but everything else was the same.
Onto Hampstead Heath
Our first stop in the Heath was the waterfowl pond, overlooked by houses on South Hill Park. We sat for a while, and just as in the picture in Roger's book, we saw two ducks. These are probably the same ducks--Dorian Gray ducks--who never age and are the only denizens of this pond. Of course, I forgot to take a picture of them, so here's a duck-less pond for your viewing pleasure.
The ponds, Roger reminds us, were the subject of Samuel Pickwick's paper "Speculations on the Source of the Hampstead Ponds, with Some Observations on the Theory of Tittlebats" in Dickens' The Pickwick Papers. It now appears that London enjoys torturing me by bringing up high school English again and again.
The highest place in London offers a gorgeous view of the city on a clear day. As luck would have it, it was a clear day, or at least, what passes for one out here. Babs Streisand once sang "On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever." We had to settle for London, which was just fine with me.
Sorry, I'm blocking the view here!
The next part of our trip was the most hazardous! We were going to walk across the Heath en route to our lunch stop, The Spaniards Inn. This included traveling into the woods (cue Sondheim!) "[B]e warned that the odds are excellent you will get lost," Roger tells us, before guiding the reader for several pages through the place where, if memory serves, Griffin Dunne got chewed up in An American Werewolf In London.
This is definitely where someone got chewed up in An American Werewolf in London!
This leisurely walk through the Heath, which could take hours, was why we wore the aforementioned comfortable shoes.
OK, So We Cheated.
Here we are on the bus to the Spaniards Inn. Rather than risk werewolf chomping or anything else that can befall Black people in the woods, I asked Michał if we could just grab a nearby bus. He was cool with that. We discovered an exit from the Heath and found the same bus Roger would tell us to take later in the walk.
Here we are on the 210 bus, and if you look behind us, you'll see a woman giving us a shameful look. She is channeling Roger, who gently tsk-tsks us for not doing that Heath walk. Hey, you panned An American Werewolf in London, Roger!
Food, Glorious Food!
We arrived at The Spaniards Inn, which was situated on perhaps the most dangerous street I've ever crossed. The location used to be a toll bridge that (even today) caused a bottleneck because its one lane has two-directional traffic. According to Roger, this is where Dick Turpin used to hide, and when travellers least expected it, he would jump out and rob the shit out of them. We didn't have to worry about Dick Turpin; a car was going to kill us instead. After about 10 minutes, we got a break, crossed the street and went to lunch.
Surprise, surprise! The sign's different on this too!
The food was fantastic! The place was packed, and we sat outside to eat. Michał had the special and I had fish and chips and an ale (after all, this IS London). Dickens set some of The Pickwick Papers here, using the very place where Michał and I sat as the setting for the arrest of Mrs. Bardell. We avoided getting arrested, so nyaah, Charlie!
Just before the next step of our journey, we posed for a picture in the gardens of the inn.
Hey, Isn't that Gugu Mbatha-Raw?!!
Our penultimate stop on The Perfect London Walk was Kenwood House. The outside gate was nothing to write home about, but after a short walk through a wooded area, we were hit with this:
KA-BLAM! How ya like me now?
The current house was built in the 18th century. According to Roger, the most famous painting inside is a self-portrait of Rembrandt. At first, I swore we never saw it, but after looking up a picture of Rembrandt, I'm now sure we passed by it. There was a wedding going on, so some parts of the house were closed. Interestingly enough, a part of the house that had been closed to Roger was now open to us.
Kenwood is also the house where scenes from the first of two 2014 Gugu Mbatha-Raw films, Belle, was shot. The film was Inspired by the 1779 portrait of Lady Elizabeth Murray alongside her cousin, Dido Elizabeth Belle. Of course, any picture of a brown person in 1779, especially one hung in a ritzy-ass house, should inspire a movie. It's a good movie, too.
Karl Marx, George Eliot and One Hell of a Hill
Our last stop on Roger's walk was Highgate Cemetary, located at the bottom of Swain's Lane. We took the 210 bus there (don't worry, Roger OK'ed this trip in the book!) Swain's Lane was one hell of a hill; it went on forever it seemed. Thankfully, we were going down it, not up it.
Inside the cemetary were several famous people, all of whom Roger mentions. We had to pay to get into the east side of the cemetary. The guy who took our money spent an extraordinarily long amount of time flirting with some women who just were not into him. As we waited, and closing time grew closer, I started to fidget. As usual, Michał was cool as a cucumber. The dead weren't going anywhere, but for a moment, it appeared we might not get to visit 'em.
Finally, the guy let us in, and off we were. Following the map, we found the final resting places of Karl Marx and George Eliot, the latter of which continued my reminders about high school English class. I dug Silas Marner, so it was all good. According to Roger, Eliot's husband, John Walter Cross' grave is on the map, but so far, nobody has ever found him. We looked on our maps, and Cross wasn't there! Poor Mr. George Eliot!
Marx's grave was far more impressive and showy. It looked kind of like Zardoz.
The guy below wasn't here back in 1986, at least not in this format. RIP, dude!
After all that walking--hell, even without all that walking, there was no way we were going back up Swain's Lane. Thankfully, Roger's book pointed us to Waterlow Park (which we passed on the way down). It was named after a former mayor of London and, in 1889 when it opened, it was called "a garden for the gardenless." We were able to walk through it out to Dartmouth Park Street. As his last official act in his book, Roger directed us to the bus stop where we caught a bus to Archway Station and took the tube back to Waterloo Station.
All in all, a great--no, perfect walk. Thanks, Roger!
Odie and Michał