London: Of Goodbyes, Ghosts, and Graveyards

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Life’s made of magic and unicorns and pixie dust at times.

Mistakes can become gateways to serendipity, and among some of the greatest moments we experience. This is when we’re expecting nothing but grief for screwing up but find ourselves feeling like a hand from beyond helped us in the right direction.

So it happens that I found myself crying a little just two hours ago, as I stood watching a sunset by a stream, next to a pub, in front of a field of sheep. Nothing too remarkable in that, except for how I came to be here. For that, we need to go back in time about 20 years, and about 20 hours.

Let’s go back 20 years ago first. Around then, my mother took a trip to London with my aunt, it was either before or after some sailing in Turkey. She had said her favourite part of her whole London trip was when she came across a thousand-year-old pub where she had to cross through a graveyard to reach. For her, the experience of the history in the graveyard and the pub was one of those moments that is sheer magic in travel.

The pub sounded wonderful to me. As I packed my belongings last summer, I came across a note she’d written in an album about that enchanted pub of the dead, and I wondered if I could somehow find it. She died in 1999, so all I really have left is trying to recreate some experiences that helped to shape who my mother was.

I did my research, and I’m awesome at research, but it was all to no avail. No pub in the middle of a graveyard came up in my searches. I looked for “Britain’s oldest pub”, and none of that seemed to jive with the story she had told. My aunt, well, it’s been 20 years and she remembers the trip in shades of grey like any of us would. Hazy memories and warm feelings, but a little short on facts.

Sunset in a Horley field on my last night in Europe.

Sunset in a Horley field on my last night in Europe.

So all my efforts were a bust and I resigned myself that I’d never see this pub and Britain would have to simply be a trip of my design, not one chasing in the footsteps of ghosts, and that was okay too. Maybe I had to give up on the ghosts and just go my own way.

And so it came to be that here I was, at the end of my first adventure alone in England, and my last night loomed in Chelsea with a flight for departure this morning. It had been a good 153 days. I was ready for the next chapter and the flight was coming at the right time.

In speaking with my friends last evening, I re-confirmed I was supposed fly out of Gatwick today, and we schemed a plan to make it so. I got up on time, got out on time, got to the airport on time. Everything was absolutely perfect.

Except I was a full day early.

I honestly wanted to cry.

My options were to revisit the ordeal of going all the way back to London and then back to Gatwick tomorrow, a combined waste of about two hours, and a minimum of about £57. The other option was to find a local hotel, spend more, stay within five minutes of the airport, use shuttles, and regroup from my lousy mistake. Either way, my budget’s been bleeding and this was the last thing I needed.

I chose plan B. More expensive, but I would put my time to good work use and then I could enjoy my time at home more with one less project that needed completion.

I found the cheapest hotel I could. The walls are screaming for a coat of paint, the window exteriors haven’t been cleaned since last spring, creating a filter Instagram would call “nasty grey”, the décor is dated, but the bed is fine and the room is very clean, so there’s that.

I settled in, did some work, Googled for “places near me” to eat, and came up with a list. I kept going through the various offerings until I came to Ye Old Six Bells. I liked what I read. Dating to the 10th century but in use for 700 years in relatively similar a configuration as now. Food reviews were good.

Just perfect, I thought. I returned to work. Later, I questioned whether I wanted the grief of walking a kilometre in the dark or if I should just do the fixed-price menu in the hotel’s sketchy kitchen. I pulled up Tripadvisor to eyeball the food photos, and that’s when I saw the gravestones and a pub in the background.

“Could this be…”

The graves and the church, and just beyond is the pub.

The graves and the church, and just beyond is the pub.

It seemed plausible my mom and aunt would’ve stayed near an airport during their stay. So that computed. It’s not Britain’s oldest pub – it’s the second-oldest. Hardly a big error. It’s not in the middle of the graveyard, it’s next to it, but to get to the pub as a pedestrian from the road, the shortcut is through a field, which takes you through the graveyard, and then you’re there. That’s easy enough to mistake as being “in” a graveyard.

I glanced out the nasty-grey window and saw the sun getting low. If I hustled, I’d not only get there with minutes of daylight left, but I’d see my first real sunset in, gosh, several weeks.

And this is how I found myself standing in a graveyard, overcome with emotion, as happy about my “mistake” as I’ve ever been.

This week, my mother would have been 74 years old. Among the things she loved were spring, sunsets, birds singing, history, and pub food. Tonight, I’ve happened upon an incredible mix of them all. I’m sitting in a pub with lively banter, a good ale, waiting on a steak, and feeling like travel is the most magical elixir there is.

That there were daffodils, budding cherry blossoms, a field of grazing sheep, knobby gnarly oaks along a stream, verdant grasses, weathered old graves, an ancient pub with fires in the hearths, a stunning sunset, and a group of birds singing joyously. Well, it’s the kind of thing you’d write if it didn’t sound so outlandishly corny.

But that’s my night for you.

For what it’s worth, I don’t really believe in ghosts or an afterlife, but I do believe that energy can’t be created or destroyed, so whatever it is that happens to us, I don’t know, but I like to think that somehow there’s something of us lingering in the ether.

I don’t know how I messed up so badly with my flight. It seems unthinkable, because I’m not the kind of person to overlook such significant things. Did fate somehow have a hand in helping me have the right delay in the right place at the right time, on the perfect day, when it just so happens to be 3 days after my mother’s birthday in a week I’m thinking a little about her?

Who knows.

But soon I’ll be enjoying a steak as I savour this ale, and I’m choosing to believe my mother decided to give me a little push in helping me find the one place, the one thing I had sought to do in the UK to commemorate my mother’s life as a traveller, since she was a huge influence in me believing I could set out to see the world.

Here’s to the mystical magic of a mistake well-played.

And tomorrow, for real, I’ll go home.

Thanks for a last bit of travelling sorcery, England. Well done, I say.

Goodnight, Mom.

A gravestone in a churchyard and a sunset. Sometimes it doesn't take a lot to feel like I'm living a charmed life.

A gravestone in a churchyard and a sunset. Sometimes it doesn’t take a lot to feel like I’m living a charmed life.

Showing 12 comments
  • Mae

    Wonderful post!

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron

      Thank you!

    • Moyra

      Beautiful experience! I just love following your journey with all its ups and downs. The post card was very special, thank you. Finding this pub as you did, surreal!

    • kate

      Fate at work, your mother holding your hand and reaffirming you. How wonderful that you were open to the experience and let it in!

  • Joanna

    Oh my… what a wonderful story! It’s funny how sometimes you think you’re heading for the worst when it’s exactly the opposite. Things seem to do happen for a reason, even if we believe it or not. Maybe it was your mom, watching over you from heaven, that made this happen. I was really touched by your story. Have a safe trip home!

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron

      It’s funny how some of the worst incidents in my travels have led to some of my best memories. Always important to just keep going when it happens because you never know what’s next. (Not as awesome but another example of this is a post I wrote called And Then I Was In Lisbon.)

  • Bonita

    You definitely had something/someone working in your life to get you to that special place. You had me with tears in my eyes. Such a lovely farewell to England.

    • Steffani Cameron
      Steffani Cameron

      Thanks, Bonita. It really feels that way to me too. Just felt so right and meaningful.

  • [email protected]

    That is an awesome story. Your Mom would be so proud of you.

  • Leslie

    Fantastic! This is an inspired moment. An incredible instance of magic. I have no doubt your mother had a hand in it. Enjoy going home, my friend.

  • dmgstrategyDina

    A brilliant end to this first chapter in your journey Steff!!

  • Simon Holloway

    I know the pub well, having lived and served in Horley for 9 years and regularly took weddings, funerals and other services at St.Bart’s Church which is next to the Six Belles Pub & now Restaurant!.

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