I grew up in the south of England in a landscape of casual perfection: little churches, sandstone villages, valleys, hills, downland, slabs of incandescent color in summer—dark-green woods and hedges, fields of butter-yellow mustard, blue of flax, red of poppies, and the barrows, lynchets, burial mounds, earthworks, chalk giants, ditches, and standing stones of Celtic Britain.
At the age of eight, holding my mother's hand, I walked out of a London railway station into a city that was shrouded in an impenetrably dense fog, where the people were specters, the buildings loomed like leering monsters, and the car headlights were the eyes of wild beasts.
"Such a black, shrill city," said Dickens, "combining the qualities of a smoking home and a scolding wife; such a gritty city; such a hopeless city, with no rent in the leaden canopy of its sky." It didn't seem far from the truth, and "Dickensian" wasn't an idle adjective to apply to a city in which only a third of the population had exclusive use of bath, lavatory, and cooker, nearly half had no bath at all, central heating was an exotic luxury, and the smoke from coal fires combined with the damp to smother the city with smog.
That was the early 1950s; the only color on the streets came from smears of passing red buses, and the face of London was scarred and pitted from wartime bomb damage—terraces with missing houses looked like mouthfuls of absent teeth, and weed-infested wastelands spread over the city like a skin disease.
Now London is cured: The city struts with self-confidence, and the streets are spruce and as vividly colored as boiled sweets. It has a human scale, all too evident in the summer when people spill out of cafés and pubs and bars onto the pavements, which only empty late at night, leaving the big white terraces and squares as quiet as ocean liners, and, for all I know, the nightingales singing in Berkeley Square.
I first lived in London in my early 20s and went from flat to flat, from bedroom to floor, until I moved out of London to return after ten years with a wife and daughter to one of London's districts, where handsome stuccoed Regency crescents and mid-Victorian terraces were sandwiched between 1950s tower-block housing projects, which frowned down on the neighborhood like gun emplacements while their inhabitants frowned up at their newly gentrified neighbors.
We moved to another London village, located by a narrow lozenge of parkland, and for ten years I traveled to work at the Royal National Theatre and looked out of my office window at Somerset House, which sat austere and stately across the treacly black Thames.
A few years ago the ship that my maternal grandfather commanded was moored there—a rangy, elegant, three-masted, one-funneled, wooden steam yacht called R.S.S. Discovery. The ship was trapped in the Antarctic ice for two winters from 1901. Why, I wonder now, would you want to leave London?
SIR RICHARD EYRE, the former artistic director of the Royal National Theatre, wrote Changing Stages, a history of 20th-century theatre.
2014 Traveler Photo Contest
See all the winning images from the 2014 Traveler Photo Contest.