London, the city chained to the word “grey,” is rarely described in the context of colour, its industrial history cementing its reputation for dirty air. People talk about “getting London out of their lungs,” as if they had to go far. They don’t. On Kensington Church Street in Notting Hill stands a verdant, practically exuberant pub known more for its flowers than pouring Fullers. It’s called the Churchill Arms Pub, and the running joke is that the pub’s budget for beer rivals its budget for flowers because blooms burst out of brick. The owner spends an estimated £25,000 on blossoms; it even won an award in the 2007 annual Chelsea Flower Show . It was here that I discovered the city’s green, offbeat side, and fell in love.
The pub is said to have first opened in 1750, though what it looked like then is anyone’s guess, but it stood in a sprawling, smelly London I obviously never knew, back when horse shit dotted streets and anything green was harder to come by. My pub has witnessed a great deal. It would be another decade before King George III would inherit the throne. Perhaps my pub overheard conversations about the colonies, Napoleon, the war of 1812 and that awkward Regency period, mad kings and unfaithful queens, factories, the Titanic, the Great War and then another one even longer than the first, the Iron Lady, the Beatles, and suddenly, it’s the 1980s, men are wearing eyeliner and lipstick, and someone talks about adding a Thai restaurant next to where the booze is poured. Maybe the idea didn’t make sense at the time, but other things weren’t making sense either so why not?
Churchill Arms Pub’s interior is as bubbly as its exterior. For the past 30 or so years, it has been divided into two spheres. Both sides feel like fragments of dreams. The Thai restaurant is filled with plants and there’s a sizable portrait of a smiling Queen Mother, who was still kicking back daily glasses of gin when I first visited. There are no windows. Dead butterflies decorated a wall. There’s not a lot of room to move around; seating is tight. You feel stuck at some strange garden picnic. Yet, it’s cheery and weird with delicious food and strange smells that waft between the two sides: beer, flowers, burning oil, curry, fish and coconut. Across the foyer is the traditional English bar with the usual dark wood, brass fixtures and foaming pint glasses. There are Churchill tchotchkes positioned high and low, his puffy face and scowl visible from any corner, any barstool, though the former Prime Minister never drank there (but his grandparents reportedly did). Hanging from the ceiling is a hodgepodge of lanterns and containers, including antique-looking chamber pots. I desperately wanted to pocket one as a souvenir. I was 20 years old and had never seen anything like this place, a bar choking with flowers and serving curry instead of fish-and-chips. But this was my first time being so far from home. This was the first time I used my new passport, going anywhere on my own, a destination I had chosen for myself. I ordered a hard cider and Pad Thai, unsure of whether I was saying “Pad Thai” correctly or even how to eat it, but I recognized “noodles,” “peanuts” and “egg,” and ran with it.
The food was flavourful and surprisingly cheap. I ate my noodles with a fork because I didn’t know how to manoeuvre chopsticks. I was new to the world and its customs, but willing to learn. And I was as far as I had ever been from the small greasy pizzerias and Greek diners I had grown up with in a rural region of upstate New York, a stretch along Lake Ontario where the ground was covered most of the year with rotting apples, wet, brown leaves or too much snow. Until the Churchill Arms Pub, I had never seen so many flowers in one place that weren’t still rooted in the soil. Flowers grew in gardens or were spray-painted unnatural colours, often obnoxious neon hues, and kept in grocery store refrigerators, or were clipped and displayed in glass vases; they didn’t burst out of the walls.
At Christmas, staff at Churchill Arms Pub swap out the outdoor baskets and buckets of flowers for about 90 miniature Christmas trees positioned on the façade and roof, pointing up toward the sky as if a forest had suddenly sprouted in the plaster, and they string about 21,000 lights. The place appeared decorated by the Mad Hatter after a few hits of cocaine. I felt lucky to see this, and would see this holiday display again with my daughter 16 years later.
I had been fascinated by the city of London, and England, since childhood, long before I ever set foot on its historic streets.
Maybe my curiosity began in 1981 with getting up at four in the morning to watch the royal wedding of Prince Charles and then-Lady Diana, lost in a whirlwind of silk taffeta looking like a meringue, trapped in a dress with a 25-foot train that wouldn’t fit into the glass coach that was to carry her to the cathedral. I was eight years old.
Or maybe it began shortly thereafter when I noticed history books filled with British exploration. My little upstate New York town is rooted in colonial history, and the War of 1812 took place not too far from where I grew up. Frigates, sloops, and brigs flying American or British colours prowled Lake Ontario battling for control, all this green virgin land up for grabs between white men, the native Indians already being pushed aside. Many of the ships at the bottom of Lake Ontario were lost due to storms, not combat; the Hamilton and the Scourge, both armed schooners, sank August 1813 in a squall near Watertown, New York. Thirty-three years earlier, HMS Ontario, a 22-gun warship, skulked from Fort Niagara to Oswego when it, too, sank in a storm in October 1780, said to be the oldest shipwreck found in the Great Lakes. Growing up less than three miles from Lake Ontario, the lake had always felt more like the sea, brooding, violent, rarely calm. You couldn’t see anything but more grey water churning towards you. It was easy to imagine ships suddenly disappearing. One hundred-thirty men lost their lives on the HMS Ontario, the name of the town where I grew up. The wreck was discovered in 2008 near Rochester, where I was born. Not too far from where I swam and water-skied as a teenager laid England’s dead.
Winters along Lake Ontario were brutal, so I read countless books and developed a love for literature and the English language. William Shakespeare. Charles Dickens. Jane Austen. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Mary Shelley. Virginia Woolf. D.H. Lawrence. Martin Amis. George Orwell. Kazuo Ishiguro. Zadie Smith. Hilary Mantel. All the Bronte sisters. One of England’s greatest exports is its voice, which had reached every continent by the time I was reading English authors. This intrigued me. The stories were wonderful, yes, but how did a rather small island nation with a history of crappy weather and crappy food formerly bullied by the Romans somehow make itself a leading voice of the written word? I had to know.
It would be the beginning of everything. There would be my claustrophobic life in that small Lake Ontario farm town before my trip and then, after my three months in England, there would be the rest of my life, filled with travel and possibilities and anything else I could do to make it different than what it was before. Escapism would mature into curiosity. Curiosity would mature into going towards places instead of running from them. I have the Churchill Arms Pub, and all of London and England, really, to thank for that.
I wasn’t a naïve country girl lacking big city experience. I had visited New York City when I was a teenager, but New York never captivated (and still doesn’t) the way London does. I would return to Churchill Arms Pub two more times: second, as a newly engaged 27-year-old; and third, in 2009, at age 36, when we took our then five-year-old daughter there during Christmas break after some sightseeing and I got to bask again in those 21,000 white lights strung across the dozens of evergreens.
My husband and I had our first argument as an engaged couple at the Churchill Arms Pub. It had been an unseasonably warm day in August 2000, a day that was better suited for an outdoor café than inside a dark, windowless pub. I wanted to buy an antique fish knife from a shop a few doors down and use it to cut our wedding cake. He thought the knife was too expensive, considering what he had just spent on an engagement ring. I bought the knife anyway, which has a mother-of-pearl handle, and dates from around 1910. He was annoyed at first, and then he grew to like the knife. It was used at our wedding, and is brought out to cut every birthday cake or to slice into any special-occasion dessert on holidays. Once we brought it to Coney Island for my daughter’s 10th birthday. We most recently used it to divvy up her 13th birthday cake, a massive chocolate-upon-chocolate concoction that the knife separated with ease. It was never designed to slice and serve cakes but was intended for upper-class fish service, as the shopkeeper explained to me when I told him why I wanted to buy it. How many tables in English families’ homes had it sat on before ending up in an antiques shop near a now-favourite pub? It was cutlery reimagined. The shopkeeper was amused by my interest in it, and after wrapping up my fish knife, gave me a small picture frame to congratulate my engagement. Every time I take the knife out to enjoy some cake, it reminds me that the pub where I experienced more than one beginning isn’t as far away as it feels.
I was raised to distrust the world and its inhabitants, to fear whatever wasn’t familiar, which was almost everything. That point of view was challenged at a noisy, over-decorated tavern in central London. Pubs are where things happen: conversations, observations, and connections. You can walk in the door thinking one thing, and a few hours later, walk out thinking differently, no matter what you drank. If I’m in London, I make time for the Churchill Arms Pub. If a friend is headed to London, I recommend the Churchill Arms Pub. When I see diaphanous baskets of flowers anywhere, or walk into a place decked out in an over-the-top style, I remember the Churchill Arms Pub. It will outlive me, the fish knife salesman, the current pub owner, more queens, kings, and hopefully several generations, because my pub has seen them come and go for nearly three centuries. Maybe one day, my daughter, all grown up, perhaps studying abroad as I did, will go back, not remembering how we tried to coax a five-year-old to enjoy Thai food, and she’ll mention to someone there, “My parents argued about a knife here.” My London will become her London.
London—dirty, loud, overwhelming, and to me, always beautiful—invited me to see the world in a new way. See our quirky pubs, our new buildings squeezed next to old ones, London tells me. See our obsession with flowers, how we plant green to stave off the grey. See that old church missing a chunk of its foundation because a bomb bit into it all those years ago. See our cafes, all that tea. Yes, there is so much of it. You’ll soon realize how the cogs of England move or don’t move because of things said or unsaid over cups of tea. See people of all colours and creeds agreeing and disagreeing, loudly, and in different languages, sometimes over Fullers, sometimes, tea. See Buckingham Palace, its chandeliers, its tapestries, its red velvet, and know that it used to smell badly of urine when a teenaged Queen Victoria first moved in, almost the same age as you were when you first came to us. See our Tube stations, our labyrinth of tunnels where we once hid from those bombs, and how much the mice love to munch on Cadbury wrappers, hoping to find a scrap of chocolate. See our ships glide down the serpentine Thames, crisscross our huge world, how they travelled thousands of miles long before your grandfather arrived on a U.S. Navy ship to help us fight fascism. See how we landed so far from our own homes, and named distant shores after a fat queen sitting in a gilded palace smelling of piss. See how every Christmas, we string lights anywhere and everywhere, we put the year behind us, and that when Big Ben strikes midnight, we begin again, and you should, too. Go and do and be. See as much as possible. See it all.
 REFERENCE: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/christmas/2016/12/09/churchill-arms-britains-festive-pub/