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London Wanderlust February 23, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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If “wanderlust” means the desire to explore, the motivation to discover new places, the inborn courage – or foolishness – that sees a long, winding, potentially interminable and misdirected path and says “let’s just see where this might take me”… well, then, I’ve got wanderlust. Naturally, then, when a student’s computer crashed and an afternoon Skype was cancelled, I had to scratch the itch of exploration.

There is a massive “Royal Park” adjacent to campus called Richmond Park. Hundreds of deer roam its confines, and they’re even celebrities now since appearing in a viral video starring a mischievous dog named Fenton. My free afternoon happened to be adorned by bright warm sunshine, so I picked up a weird British sandwich and some biscuits and decided to head out wandering.

They bought me an “A to Zed”, which is a handy book of maps, and I found Richmond Park, and noticed it’s adjacent to another massive greenspace called Wimbledon Common. Familiar with that name, I looked a little closer and sure enough, there was the “All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club”, right there on map 135. I really have no concept for how far things are on these maps, so I decided just to head in that direction and see if I could make it. Who knows, maybe there’d be a lovely game of croquet on.

I’ve learned over time that the danger of these journeys is encountering obstacles that aren’t really apparent on the map. I hit the first such barrier at Kingston Road, which is a really more of a highway, and not an easy one to cross! Parkland beckoned on the other side, so I dashed across, only to find the pedestrian subway that I should have taken after I crossed.

On my map the parks are covered in dotted lines representing paths, and I successfully navigated my way down a dotted line to the nearest landmark, the Wimbledon Windmill. I don’t know why there’s a windmill in the park. It wasn’t turning or anything. I could have learned all about it at the adjacent “Wimbledon Windmill Museum”, but the tennis courts beckoned, and daylight was fading fast. I crossed Wimbledon Common, hiking along at a steady clip and enjoying the fresh air, and then traversed a posh neighborhood that actually had detached houses, not the typical flats-in-rows. These had Porsches and such in front of them. I figured these were the sorts of places that the tennis stars rent out for the tournament. I also wondered if these homeowners despise the annual zoo of tournament time. I wanted to interview one, but none were out. Rounding Newstead Way I got my first glimpse of the familiar green and purple of Wimbledon, just down the hill. I had made it! It was actually a stunning view, because just above the roofline of Centre Court I could make out downtown London, and the London Eye in particular.

The museum had just closed for the day, so I could do little but lap the grounds and peer through each gate. I saw Courts 2 and 3 first. They are pristine. Good grief, even Court 8 is pristine!

Then I reached some excellent views of Centre Court, which is just massive. In a large room that was part of the complex I watch an unexpected event: hordes of boys and girls, all with numbers pinned to their shirts, trying out to be ball kids. They looked well-prepared as they executed a carefully choreographed dance of standing, running, and kneeling around a pretend tennis court.

I never could find Henman Hill, but I saw lots more beautiful grass courts, and even a handful of clay and hard courts. The sun was setting as I left the complex, and apparently there was no croquet happening, so I began the journey back.

As much as I am a fan of wandering I do not like backtracking, so I found new streets and new Porsches and a new entry into the park. And so it was that I was now in a heavily wooded area, with hardly any light, and an almost useless map, delightfully lost. I pointed myself in the general direction I thought I needed to go and chose paths accordingly, until I saw lights in the distance. Wouldn’t you know it, I was back at the windmill! Wrong dotted line, apparently. No worries, I thought, I’ll head west for a while, then north, and encounter all sorts of new things. And so, westward ho!

A sliver of moon was now visible, as was a bright star above the last hint of setting sun. I decided to make like a Magi (Magus?) and follow the star as best I could, since it marked the west. I soon found myself beside a small pond, and I stopped to watch the ducks and listen to all sorts of strange bird calls. It all started to take on a certain eeriness as the last light faded. Twisty trees loomed large, and little squirrels made a racket in the leaves much larger than their size would merit. And I was all alone.

I continued hiking, feeling a lot like the hobbits in the Lord of the Rings book I’m reading right now, and wondering if Tolkien ever hiked a similar wood here in England. I reached a fork in my chosen path, and my star was right in the middle. The rightward path “felt” better, as did a left fork when the path split again. And then I noticed a curious row of small trees that seemed to form a gate where my path crossed. I wasn’t sure, but it almost looked like the trees formed a large circle, and I paused for the briefest moment at the threshold.

In the distance, at what might be the center of this circle of trees, I thought I could make out some sort of bench or monument. As I got closer, I could tell that it was indeed a monument, and my gaze followed it up, up, and I gasped. I was standing beneath a massive stone cross.

I hadn’t seen it as I approached, either because I was watching the ground or because it was too dark. There was a sword on the cross, and inscriptions around the base. The side I had approached read:

“Nature provides the best monument. The perfecting of the work must be left to the gentle hand of time, but each returning Spring will bring a fresh tribute to those whom it desired to keep in everlasting remembrance.”

Circling the stone, I better understood, reading this:

“The land around, 42 acres, is dedicated to public use in memory of all those who, having been resident or belonging to the families resident in the adjoining districts, gave their lives in the Great War, 1914-1918.”

Once I finally made it home and studied the map a bit I learned that I had inadvertently crossed into Putney Vale and chanced upon the War Memorial, erected in 1920, and the Memorial Gardens. In so doing I fortunately missed a very large Cemetery and Crematorium, which might have been too creepy for even me to bear on such a dark and lonely night.

I’ve whispered a prayer of thanks to God for sending me along the way of the cross. I set out to find tennis courts, and instead I encountered a stirring reminder of the living God in cold stone. I am far from home, and alone, but the Ancient of Days is living and moving.

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