Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Thursday, March 5, 2015
I am devoting this, my last post on our trip to London, to brief descriptions of a number of places we visited during our trip.
The London Eye on the South Bank of the Thames was intended as a temporary feature when it was constructed for the Millennium celebrations. It quickly became one of the city’s most popular tourist attractions and is now here to stay. Although it has been described as a giant Ferris wheel, a cantilevered wheel is more accurate. Unlike with a Ferris wheel, the cars are self-contained, do not dangle, and can accommodate a few dozen people (here were about eight people in our car). I never had the slightest sensation of vertigo even as we approached the peak. As it’s one of the tallest structures in London, the Eye offers a great way to take in much of London in one glance and get a lay of the land - I was able to get some good photos from there. I recommend the London Eye as an early stop for first time visitors.
Photos from and of the London Eye
If you’re going to the Eye, it’s logical to also visit the London Dungeon next door, especially if you have kids (visitors to either attraction have the option to purchase tickets for both at a discount). The Dungeon is a haunted house type attraction slanted toward the scarier parts of pre-20th Century London history – both historical (Jack the Ripper, Guy Fawkes), and fictional (Sweeney Todd). It was all in good fun, but those with questionable hearts (and backs) should probably avoid the Drop Dead ride.
The Tower of London is one of the most famous sites one can visit in all of England. So much history has occurred here, and the best way to learn about it is to wait for one of the periodic tours led by the iconic “beefeater” Yeoman Warders. After the initial tour, which includes the Scaffold site where notables such as Anne Boleyn were executed, visitors are taken to the Royal Chapel (where visitors are reminded to remove their hats and “silence that instrument of the Devil, the Mobile phone”). From there, visitors can roam on their own to such structures as the White Tower, which features collections of armor and armaments – including Henry VIII’s armor, which features an enormous codpiece that was symbolic of his rank. Tickets are £24.50 so be sure you give yourself plenty of time to get your money’s worth for the visit.
The Tower of London -
Dan was very impressed with Henry VIII's "armor".
Entry to the London Zoo is expensive, £22 at the gate for adults, £16.50 for kids under 15. The selection of animals is not especially noteworthy. A quick summation is that if you’ve been to the Cleveland Zoo (entry to which is only $12.25 for adults, $8.25 for kids under 12), then you’ve no need to visit the London Zoo – at least that’s my impression after spending several hours there.
Dan & I did not partake of shopping at any of London’s more upscale stores. Frankly, neither Selfridge’s, Harrods, nor Fortnum & Mason hold much interest for either of us. We did visit Foyles and Waterstones bookstores, along with several independent shops – including Gay’s the Word. I was reminded of my days living near Boston, when I’d spend hours perusing bookstores there – most of which are now sadly closed.
We did, however, sample some of the gay nightlife in Soho. Our favorite place was Village, which featured a very friendly staff and daily events. Village has two main level bars, along with a basement bar with a small dance floor which opens on Saturday. On our last night there, I was persuaded to do something I hadn’t done in over 20 years – sing Karaoke. Dan joined me for a duet rendition of the theme to Goldfinger. Despite its rather small footprint, Admiral Duncan is likely the most well-known gay bar in Soho – perhaps in all of London. Both times we went there we found ourselves being hit on - which, as someone who’s pushing 50, I found rather flattering. A nice way to cap off the evening was to head to Snog for a frozen yogurt.
At Admiral Duncan
Scenes from Village
Ages ago, my 8th Grade history teacher described Britain as “Socialist, that’s one step from Communist.” (Then again, my 8th grade history teacher also said that Hitler was a homosexual and that Franklin Roosevelt knew about the attack on Pearl Harbor in advance, both conspiracy theories that have been soundly refuted by the empirical evidence.) Well, even with the presence of the NHS – which no politician would dare propose to abolish – the British would never refer to their nation as Socialist, and I heard their leaders specifically refer to their system as Capitalism while watching the news there (which is far more substantive than our news, by the way). I saw more evidence of the entrepreneurial spirit, more “get up and go”, and more small businesses during my time in London than I’ve ever in any American city. Those who read my blog with any regularity know I am an inveterate booster for redevelopment in Cleveland. But ten days in London firmly put Cleveland’s fair-to-middling efforts in perspective. We have a lot to learn.
Dan & I had a wonderful ten days in London. We found the people to be kind without being obsequious. Despite cautions I’d read in travel articles warning of crime, we felt completely safe. Indeed, the biggest crime related story I heard about while in London was the mugging of a retiree in the lobby of his building – while there were several shootings in Cleveland during the same time period. It’s worth pointing out that police in England, with rare exceptions, do not carry firearms. Indeed, a proposal to arm them with Tasers is being met with some resistance. London has a variety of cultural events, restaurants, nightlife, and tourist attractions that will appeal to anyone. There’s always plenty to do here. It’s also quite practical as a jumping off point for other areas of the UK. But ten days afforded us barely enough time to scratch the surface. There’s so much to see, from Abbey Road to Brighton to Stonehenge. We will most assuredly visit there again.
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
Forget everything you’ve heard about cuisine in England being dreary. Forget as well about warm beer, it’s served nice and cold in London. These two wives’ tales may stem from the immediate post-war years when England was still rationing food and other items. It’s hard for Americans to comprehend how England suffered during World War II, when attacks on our own homeland have been exceedingly rare. Imagine fourteen 9/11s spread out over eight months and you’ll get an idea of what it was like to live in London during the Blitz – and many smaller towns weren’t much better off. As a percentage of total population, the UK’s blood loss was three times that of the US. Unlike America, which enjoyed a post-war economic boom, the UK wasn’t much better off than post-war Germany. It took England the better part of a decade before life returned to a semblance of normalcy. But before I go off on a tangent, let’s get back to the subject at hand.
I must start with a disclaimer: Ten days is not nearly enough time to explore London’s culinary scene. It would probably take years.
Though we arrived in London to find that our hotel room had been upgraded to a townhouse with full kitchen, we did relatively little cooking. Most of the items we purchased at the local Tesco revolved around snack food such as crisps and digestives – along with sodas and fruit juices. (Tesco reminded me of Giant Eagle, right down to the dreaded self-service registers. I’ll stick with Heinen’s any day.) So, we generally dined out twice each day – a large breakfast and a late lunch. Our hotel also offered complementary wine & cheese from 5:00-7:00pm each day, and we partook most evenings. Between that and the bars we visited, I probably drank more in London than at any time since I was in my early 20s.
On our first morning in London, after we’d dropped off our luggage, we scouted around for a quick breakfast and found ourselves at, of all places, McDonald’s. The differences between the American and English versions of Mickey Dee’s are minor – the bacon used on the Egg McMuffin is British rather than Canadian, and the egg is free-range and cooked a bit softer. Note that you will be asked if you want ketchup or “brown sauce”, which is basically the British version of A1. Much of London is populated by American restaurants, ranging from KFC to Chipotle, all the way up to TGI Fridays and Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. Add to that The Book of Mormon, currently playing to sold-out houses in Piccadilly, and one can easily get the feeling that the Yanks have invaded.
On four occasions, we dined at The Cambridge, one of the many Nicholson’s pubs dotting London. While the menu is basically the same everywhere, each location has its own ambience. We chose The Cambridge based on proximity to our hotel – we could log onto the hotel’s Wi-Fi from there and get excellent reception, even though it was rather wonky from our rooms. As the dining room is on the 2nd floor (British would call this the 1st storey, as the Ground floor is the Ground floor), we had a nice view of Cambridge Circus yet felt insulated from the London rush hour. Nicholson’s pubs are an ideal choice if you want reasonably priced standard fare, including an English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, or just a pint at the bar. The Fish & Chips featured a generous portion of the juiciest Cod I’ve ever enjoyed, lightly battered and cooked to crispy perfection. They also have some classic English desserts such as Treacle Cake – a delicious concoction which I intend to import to our kitchen.
English Breakfast, Fish & Chips, and Steak & Ale pie
For Dan’s birthday, we headed to Preto Rodizio Brazillian Steakhouse on Shaftsbury Avenue. In anticipation of our dinner there, we avoided food during the day. Preto offers the standard Churrascaria fare, similar to Cleveland’s Brasa: You’re given a coaster, green on one side, red on the other. After starting with a salad and appetizers, the diner turns the coaster green side up. A gaucho will then bring you a rotation of meat selections until you flip the coaster to the red side. Since it was Dan’s birthday, we exercised restraint so we’d have room for dessert. The wait staff was observant enough to place a candle on Dan’s dessert. Preto is most definitely not a restaurant for vegans or those who prefer small portions, but for omnivores and those on the paleo diet, it’s essential dining. We also discovered that the location is ideal for people watching.
La Bodega Negra was on the same block as our townhouse. I would describe it as Fusion Mexican, moderately upscale. The drinks menu is generous and the atmosphere is convivial.
Dinner is served at La Bodega Negra
As the southern edge of Soho is also Chinatown, there were a number of Asian restaurants. I advise approaching these with caution as there seemed to be a wide divergence in quality. We sampled two buffets which were somewhat inferior to our own local Chinese buffet restaurants. Also, unless otherwise noted, restaurants in England do not offer free refills on soft drinks.
An exception to that was Ed’s Easy Diner, which we went to on our last night in London. There are actually several locations, but the one in Soho is the original. This is a recreation of a classic 1950’s diner, an exercise in Americana which was quite popular. Each time we passed it, the small space was completely filled. The reason is simple: generous portions of burgers and fries, friendly service – and free refills on soft drinks.
Chiquito is in Leicester Square, so it’s an ideal place to dine before hopping onto the Tube. We only went there once, for breakfast. It says something about diversity in London that we enjoyed an English Breakfast in a Mexican restaurant, served to us by a Polish waitress.
Our townhouse was directly above a Bubble Tea shop. I’d never tried it before, and doubt I will again. The taste was nice enough, but I found the texture off-putting.
A note on tipping: Most restaurants include an automatic surcharge which seems to cover gratuity. But we found it was usually around 10%, which to me is not an adequate tip if the service is good – so we usually supplemented it with cash.
Monday, March 2, 2015
Dan & I were fortunate in terms of weather during our trip to England. Not only did we exchange the subzero temperatures of Cleveland in February for an average of 38-52º in London, it also rained far less in England than one would garner by reputation. While all but three of our days there were overcast, it only rained on two of those days. Unfortunately, one of those was during a trip to Greenwich that entailed quite a bit of walking. Fortunately, we remembered to bring our brolly.
From the Embankment pier, we boarded a Thames Clipper Ferry for the 20 minute ride. On the way to Greenwich, we passed the Tower of London and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre.
I wish I’d been able to bring my father with me to Greenwich, because I know he would have loved to see the Cutty Sark.
Americans associate the Cutty Sark name primarily with the whiskey brand. The brand, of course, was named after the ship, and the label includes a rendering of the Cutty Sark in her glory days. But the connection ends there. The ship transported tea, and later wool. It never transported the whiskey that bore the ship’s name. Amusingly, the scheme to create a new whiskey brand called Cutty Sark for importation into the United States dates to 1923, when Prohibition was still in effect. The ship is now part of a museum, restored to the extent possible and housed in an ingenious dry-dock type facility with the ship elevated so people can literally walk underneath it. Despite a fire several years ago, much of the interior of the ship is intact and visitors can get an idea of how sailors lived in the 1800s.
The Royal Observatory is a 15 minute walk from the Cutty Sark. Frankly, I found it something of a disappointment. Little has survived from the site’s earliest era of discovery, and a number of items usually on display were removed for restoration. Much of the museum revolves around time and the construction of ever more accurate clocks. Reading how the Prime Meridian was established, it becomes obvious that the location chosen was totally arbitrary and became accepted largely as a result of British prestige during the 19th Century. Like any tourist, I couldn’t resist the temptation to stand in two hemispheres at once.
Note that if you’re planning to visit both the Cutty Sark and Observatory, you can purchase tickets for both at a discount.
While heading back to the Greenwich pier, we strolled through the main commercial district. Greenwich is a totally charming, eminently walkable community with large areas of parkland. This is the kind of place where one could settle down and escape the noise and whirl of London, yet still commute there easily and live quite well without having to own a car.
After returning to Central London, we enjoyed a late lunch at the Sherlock Holmes pub. The restaurant is decorated with many bits of memorabilia from the many incarnations of the famous detective, and the standard fare British menu is imaginatively presented. I greatly enjoyed Mrs. Hudson’s Steak & Ale pie.
Friday, February 27, 2015
Leonard Nimoy (l), with Mission: Impossible cast members. (Photo: Wikipedia)
Leonard Nimoy died this morning.
He is, of course, best known for his portrayal of Mr. (later Captain, later Ambassador) Spock on Star Trek. Leonard Nimoy's nuanced performance made Spock into the most human character of any of Trek's incarnations. He was a symbol for anyone who was different. As a lonely child, Spock was my hero and role model.
But Nimoy also turned in memorable performances as the brilliant and amoral William Bell on TV's Fringe; the master of disguise Paris in Mission: Impossible; and as Vincent Van Gough's brother Theo in the one man stage play Vincent. Nimoy also directed several films, including the hit Three Men and a Baby, wrote poetry, and even owned a pet store. An Army veteran (he attained the rank of Sergeant), Nimoy worked as a taxicab driver during the lean years before Star Trek. In later life, he recalled one of his passengers was a young Senator named John F. Kennedy.
I am actually two degrees removed from Leonard Nimoy. My uncle, Jim Drake, was a Hollywood extra who appeared on numerous TV shows of the 1960s and 70s - including Star Trek. In the episode Turnabout Intruder, he played a security guard who placed Mr. Spock under arrest.
Rest in Peace, Mr. Nimoy. May your memory endure into the 23rd Century and beyond.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
From our usual tube station, located just a few blocks from our hotel, we headed to Euston Station – a “mega” station that encompasses both the underground and long distance rail lines. Despite the vast setting, we were able to quickly locate ticket concessions (both automated and staffed concessions are provided), and obtain our round trip tickets to Bletchley – some 50 miles north of London. (We could have used our Oyster Card, but didn’t want to dig too far into our balance.)
Soon enough, the city was fading into the distance as we entered London’s version of suburbia, populated largely by row houses with relatively few free standing homes. Then we were in the country and saw cows and horses. A little over an hour later, the train pulled into the Bletchley railway station.
A messenger's cycle.
Pond at Bletchley Park, with mansion in background
Memorial to the codebreakers.
Bletchley Park is a mere five minute walk from station, and near an attractive new housing development. The site was originally a private mansion with extensive grounds which passed through several aristocratic owners before the government purchased it in 1938. Although some green space remains, today the Park largely consists of buildings constructed during the war (note than when British mention “the war”, it still refers to World War II – some 70 years after its conclusion), with the main mansion located further up the property. The “huts” in which the codebreakers toiled to break the Germans’ “unbreakable” Enigma code were primitive even by the standards of the 1930s-1940s. Despite their hard work, they made slow progress until Alan Turing created his code breaking “bombe.” Turing’s original machine was dismantled immediately after the war’s end. But a working replica has been created.
I will not pretend to understand the details of how the bombe actually worked, but it was somehow able to decipher how the rotors in the Enigma machine were set (the Germans changed the settings daily), and use that information to decrypt the messages. Watching the machine in action, I couldn’t help wondering what Turing, who died in 1954 – apparently a suicide – would make of our computer driven era, with instant connectivity and real time communications. Even more, I thought of how Turing suffered under the repression of the era, and how the Western world has evolved to the point that I could bring my same-sex spouse to Bletchley Park, how we could walk the streets of London hand-in-hand, with no one so much as batting an eye.
Alan Turing (photo: Wikipedia)
The letter of apology (right-click to open at full size)
Much has been rightly made of the fact that the British government issued an apology to Alan Turing, and Queen Elizabeth II’s subsequent pardon of him. Now there is a movement underway to formally pardon all those who were prosecuted under the UK’s anti-homosexual laws. I support this movement, and I welcome how both the United States and the United Kingdom continually reexamine their own histories. In the 1980s, the US Government offered a formal apology and reparations for families who suffered under Japanese-American internment during World War II. And although racial, religious, and sexual prejudice continues to be a problem here, there are very few who would defend our ancestors’ treatment of Native Americans, and almost no one who would dare to speak in favor of slavery, lynching, or the KKK. We Americans are unafraid to air our dirty laundry, and it appears the British share this same trait. Contrast that with many other nations, in particular Japan, which continue to deny some of the most savage crimes against humanity committed in the wake of their nationalistic movements. No nation’s history is devoid of stains. Redemption is gained not by whitewashing, but by facing up and making restitution.
While at Bletchley Park, we saw a group of school children on a field trip. This was one of several groups we saw during our trip, who were invariably better behaved than their American counterparts. With all the talk of Common Core and teacher pay in America, I believe we also need to look to the parents –who should be the ultimate guide in teaching their children good manners. From what I observed, we could learn a lot from the British.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
The most important advice I can give to anyone visiting London is: Wear comfortable shoes.
The second piece of advice I would offer is this: If you’re staying within Greater London, don’t even think of renting a car. First of all, there’s the issue of learning to drive on the left hand side of the road, to say nothing of differing signage and road markings. Second, London is among the most congested cities in terms of traffic – to the extent that transport authorities have wisely instituted a congestion charge of £11.50 for private vehicles operating within central London between 7:00am and 6:00pm on weekdays. The result of this is one sees relatively few private vehicles operating within central London during these hours – the majority of traffic is double-decker buses, London’s characteristic Taxis, and service vehicles including police cars, ambulances, and trash/recycling trucks. (The few private vehicles seen during this time are invariably Mercedes, BMW, and other luxury cars.)
So, how to get around in London? The best way is to purchase a Transport for London Oyster Card after reclaiming your baggage at the airport. One can purchase an Oyster Card for seven days unlimited travel in Zones 1 & 2, and top-up with additional funds for more extended travel – all for less than the cost of a single taxi ride from the airport to Central London. You simply tap the Oyster Card on the card reader when you enter a tube station, and tap out at the exiting station. It’s that simple. One can use the Oyster Card on the Underground, the famed Double-Decker buses, some Ferry services, and Light Rail. We made use of all of these except, sadly, the buses. We just never got around to taking one, as they were not as easy to manage in terms of learning the routes. But I suspect the buses will still be running the next time we visit London.
The London Underground (52% of which is actually above ground) was our primary means of transport while in London. The “Tube”, as it’s best known in London, is an engineering marvel, with some 250 miles of track. The oldest subway system in the world, the first part of the Tube opened in 1863 – when Abraham Lincoln was President. It has grown into a vast network, part of a larger public transport network that includes the other options mentioned above. (Tube stations were even used as air raid shelters during The Blitz.) Consider that London has been populated for some 2,000 years, grown in fits and starts, endured plagues, burned down, been bombed from the air – a continual process of development, tear-down, and redevelopment. All through this period, modes of transportation were being devised, implemented, revised, and discarded. It’s amazing people can get anywhere with convenience and relative efficiency, given the organic nature of London’s growth.
We ventured beyond Central London twice, both times using alternate transportation. The first time was to Bletchley Park, some 50 miles north, where we took the National Rail from Euston station. The ride was smooth enough that we dozed off on our way back into London. The second time was to Greenwich, a borough southeast of London, to see the Cutty Sark and Royal Observatory. Although the tube does go there, we decided to make use of the ferry out of convenience and to get a better view of London from the Thames. The boats operated on time and featured well designed interiors, including a coffee/snack concession, and comfortable seating. I will blog more extensively about our trips to Bletchley and Greenwich in a future post.
As someone who spent nine years in Boston and made extensive use of that area’s excellent public transport, I am not easily impressed. But London decisively put Boston in its place. The convenience, orderliness, and cleanliness of London’s public transport are unsurpassed. As you approach each station, a pleasant recorded voice tells you which station you’re approaching, which transfer lines are available at that station, and reminds you to “mind the gap between the train and the platform.” If the next station ahead is closed or in limited service, that information is also included. The volume is modulated to be clearly audible, yet not harsh or overwhelming.
Even New York, which has been trying to build a particular subway branch for 90 years, is left in the dust - to say nothing of the very limited public transport options offered in my hometown of Cleveland. Of course, to compare Greater London - with nine million residents, to Greater Cleveland - with under two million for Cuyahoga County, would be like comparing coconuts to grapes. It would be impractical for Cleveland to attempt the comprehensive public transport system that London has. But we can do better than our present, inefficiently run bus and rail lines.
Back to my first bit of advice about comfortable shoes: Londoners walk, and they have the rules of foot based commuting down to a fine art. When on an escalator, stand on the right, pass on the left. Do not enter a rail carriage until people have exited. Never cut in line. Those who violate these courtesies risk an angry glare, along with possible verbal reprimand and public embarrassment. Partly as a result of their extensive walking, there are relatively few overweight residents. Most Londoners look astonishingly fit, and the men – unlike in much of the US – wear relatively form-fitting trousers. As a somewhat overweight person, I blend in here in the US, but in London I stood out like a sore thumb. You can also tell the tourists from the natives – the natives look directly ahead and walk briskly to their destination, while the tourists gawk – and there’s plenty to gawk at in London.
Enjoy your time in London. Remember to always keep calm and Mind the Gap.