This essay is part of a series on “happy places”—destinations we return to, again and again, even if it’s just in our mind. You can read the other stories here and here.
I have a nostalgic mind. In rare moments of calm, when I can untether my thoughts from present needs and future worries, I think about my past perfect days. It’s the most convenient way to travel, because I don’t have to consider what to pack or who might come along. The people I want to see are already there, waiting where the weather always suits my mood and our plans will never be short on time.
Thinking back on my past perfect days has taken me to the veranda of my grandma’s house in Jamaica, with reggae music humming in the background and a glass of Ting in my hand. It’s dropped me inside a bumper car in Vienna, Austria during my first real winter as a Southern Californian. It’s transported me to a seaside feast of fried fish at the start of spring, and high in the nosebleed seats of Dodger Stadium in the middle of summer.
But the past perfect place I’ve returned to most in this moment of global panic is the Victoria Embankment Gardens in London. Finished in 1865 as part of an ambitious public works project, it remains on a verdant sliver of land across the street from the Thames. Curved pathways lined with benches and shaded by trees surround statues and manicured flower beds, which appear like blankets of color under a mercurial sky. When I first saw it, I was 20 years old and on a quick tour of the city as part of a semester abroad. A pristine park is common in London, but to me, wandering through the Victoria Embankment Gardens had the quality of a comforting dream. I didn’t know its name, or even its exact location. But it was the sight I tried to remember most as I considered the city and thought, “I need to live here.”
Four years later, I moved to London. About a month into my stay, I was homesick—not for anyone in particular, but for the ocean. It was the constant backdrop of my childhood, and going too long without seeing it on the horizon felt strange. I decided to take a walk along the river, and as I strolled next to the Tower of London, I had another idea: Might as well take a boat ride back toward my neighborhood. When the “clipper” dropped me off at Waterloo Bridge less than a half hour later, I was full of the familiar calm that comes with a current. And as I began to walk home, I spotted it—the dream park from my past. This time, I noted its name and made sure of its location. It wasn’t too far from my tiny apartment.
My time at the Victoria Embankment Gardens spread across all four seasons. I visited mostly after breakfast or before dinner, and anytime I needed somewhere to exhale. Unlike the more famous open spaces of London, like Hyde Park or Regent’s Park, the Victoria Embankment Gardens felt more intimate to me. It was small enough to claim a favorite bench after weighing all of the other options, but still quiet enough to feel truly removed from surrounding crowds. I didn’t always take a boat there, since that made for a roundabout trip, but it was an added boost of relaxation each time I did. Whenever I came aboard, the chatty captain would acknowledge that I was a regular, greeting me with, “Here comes the California girl again!”
Sometimes the boat would be filled with tourists, and the captain would take the opportunity to point out landmarks in the breeze: St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tate Modern, the Globe Theater. Other times, he would stay silent, letting the sound of breaking water fill our ears. I’d cross into the park with books and snacks, spending at least an hour lost in words, Haribo, and passersby. When bare branches and lonely pathways gave way to green leaves and a bustling café, I brought friends to play and eat in the twilight. I remember feeling like I was introducing them to a place that meant as much to me as they did.
I returned to the Victoria Embankment Gardens last year, a full decade since I first stepped inside. I only had a day to spend in London, and asked a local friend if we could repeat my routine. We hopped on a boat that took us to the park on a blue-sky afternoon. Yellow and pink tulips framed the scene, and people lounged and jogged and drank in every corner. I can see why you used to do this, she said, as we strolled arm-in-arm.
I know I’ll return to the park at some point in the future, and my hope is that even if so much can change, maybe it can continue to stay the same. For now, I’m comforted knowing that my past perfect days are suspended in time—a passport that will never expire.
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Kelly Dawson is a writer and editor based in Los Angeles.