Despite the exotic-sounding name, this was never intended to be a “travel blog.” As a general rule, I don’t travel. I am a mostly-sedentary creature of habit. I don’t like chairs that aren’t mine, beds that aren’t mine, being thousands of miles away from my creaking, over-stuffed bookcases, or not knowing when my next cold beer is coming.
Blogging is by its very nature a self-indulgent exercise, reaching its nadir with the toxic spoor of the internet known as the “mommy blog.” Mommy blogs seem to be less about documenting activities with their dull, backward children and more about “look what an awesome mommy I am.” Travel blogs can fall into the same narcissistic reflecting pool — endless photos of meals, sunsets, and feet-on-the-beach. But well-done ones can be edifying, informative, and amusing, three things no mommy blog in the history of the universe has ever got within shouting distance of.
For the brief period of time that the Holy Bee of Ephesus will be prancing around in a “travel blog” costume, I will try to be those things, but probably not all of them at once. And there probably will be a few pictures of meals. In fact, there’s one below.
The accompanying photos are mostly my own (which explains their poor quality), except in situations where photography was not allowed, or whenever time or circumstance precluded me from snapping some shots. In these situations, I will shamelessly swipe pictures from the web or resort to screenshots of Google Street View.
So, what prompted me to clamber out of my chair, stuff an oversized suitcase full of socks and various medicated creams, and dust off my never-once-used passport?
Because the destination was to be Great Britain.
Growing up steeped in the Beatles and Monty Python, and countless other bits of British cultural ephemera, a U.K. trip was a siren song not to be resisted. Plus they speak pretty good English over there (certain parts of Cumbria excepted), so making myself understood would be only a limited challenge.
And I would not be fending for myself. It was a trip for the extended family, and had been in the planning stages for years. Like myself, my wife, Shannon, has chosen a career in teaching, and therefore lives with me on the edge of pauperdom. Her parents and brother, however, entered the world of business, and through their ingenuity and hard work, have all been very successful. One of the ways they celebrate that success is seeing the world, often taking any black-sheep educators that happen to be related by blood or marriage along with them. Before my time with them, my wife and in-laws have tromped across Machu Picchu, the Alps, New Zealand, and various European cities. But, oddly enough, never London. Shannon went there for a few brief days after college in 2002 (as a small part of a larger European trip), but the British Isles have remained for the most part un-visited. And since Shannon’s family by nature are doers and planners, I could simply be hauled along like luggage and not have to concern myself with the nuts and bolts of organization, apart from taking part in an occasional vote about where to eat. (Most luggage doesn’t whine that it needs a beer, but whatever.)
The only downside was that my older son Cade, 20, was working an internship and could not join us. Shannon, myself, and my younger son Cameron, 18, were already on summer break, so we set off a few days ahead of the rest to get a feel for London and take our time at the massive British Museum.
Having never flown anything but coach, traveling in business class was an unexpected luxury. The seats in business class are sort of self-contained pods that can be reclined fully into sleeping positions. Each pod is twinned with another pod to the side. If your pod buddy isn’t a spouse or a friend, a privacy divider can be raised. When the dividers are down and the seats are upright, everyone’s head and shoulders are visible. A woman in a tube top nearby kept startling me out of the corner of my eye because it looked like she was taking a bath. Pillows were provided, along with a sealed package full of blankets (three different thicknesses), a sleeping mask, earplugs, and socks. Cold champagne and hot towels were distributed before take-off.
(The seats themselves weren’t much wider or plusher than standard airplane seats. The true gift of business class is leg room, so I wouldn’t repeat the gaffe of my most recent airline excursion the previous month. As an 8th-grade teacher, I was one of the chaperones on the annual graduation trip to Disneyland. Getting two dozen self-absorbed, half-awake 14-year-olds through security and onto an early morning flight was its usual nightmare, and I was literally the last person to board as they were closing the jetway door. It was a completely full Southwest flight with first-come, first-serve seating, so there was one single middle seat left available. I was so frazzled and out-of-sorts, I thought I could squeeze in front of the older lady in the aisle seat, as if I were at the movies or a basketball game. Her distressed squeals as I practically climbed into her lap brought me to my senses. As far as most embarrassing moments, it barely cracks the top 20.)
And since we were flying British Airways, all the flight attendants were wonderfully, authentically British. They were crisp, efficient, and referred to us all as “luv” and “darling.” The plane safety lecture was presented via a video featuring British celebrities only vaguely recognizable to American eyes, but warmly familiar to the Anglophile Holy Bee. “It’s Steve Coogan! It’s Jim Broadbent!” I kept saying exultantly to Shannon. Gillian Anderson used her English accent. She is evidently bidialectal.
The 747 jumbo jet hauled itself aloft out of San Francisco International Airport a little after 4:30 on Wednesday afternoon. The time difference meant we would arrive at London Heathrow Airport in the late morning of Thursday.
The dinner menu was a little vague in places. One course was simply listed as a “fillet of beef.” Trying to get any scrap of further information, Shannon asked the nearest flight attendant how it was prepared. “We heat it up, luv,” shrugged the attendant and moved on. Shannon wisely went for another dish, and I had the beef. It was indeed a totally non-descript brick of beef-like matter, wholly impervious to my attempts to cut it with the doll-sized knife and fork. It was at least flavorful, and the smoked salmon appetizer, with a healthy dose of horseradish cream and lemon juice, made me rethink my usual aversion to oily fish.
After dinner, washed down by a couple of Tribute Cornish pale ales, I attempted to sleep. It was twilight outside the plane’s window, and the tracking info on my little video screen indicated we were entering Canadian airspace at an altitude of 38,000 feet and a speed of 660 miles per hour. The cabin had gone dark, passengers vanishing as they put their seats into sleep mode. The glow of dozens of personal video screens was the only illumination. I tossed and turned as we streaked through the sky over Ontario and Quebec, but sleep would not come. Every time I would begin to drift off, a jolt of turbulence caused the aircraft to shudder. After two and a half hours, I gave up and fired up my Kindle, completing most of of Kerrang! writer Mick Wall’s Guns N’ Roses band biography Last of the Giants. Convinced it was the middle of the night, I cracked the window shade and was stunned to see bright North Atlantic sunlight. I snapped it shut before it disturbed anyone. We were just south of Iceland, and it was morning in Europe.
By the time the rest of the plane was stirring and breakfast was being served we were over the west coast of Ireland. According to my flight tracker, we flew directly over the Skellig Islands, the picturesque but incredibly windy location that served as Ahch-To, site of the first Jedi temple and hideaway of Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.
As we passed over the main part of Ireland, I noted that anyone who describes it as “green” is pretty spot-on.
As will be mentioned several times, Britain was in the grip of a heat wave at the time of our visit. The modest air conditioning of Heathrow Airport couldn’t keep up, and as we crawled through the line to have our passports checked, sweat began to pool in the small of my back. We finally were determined to be not of the terrorist type, picked up our luggage, and breezed through a totally unmanned customs zone. A huge room full of scales and stainless-steel inspection tables echoed emptily as we strode towards the airport exit.
We grabbed a cab (a mini-van, not one of the traditional “black cabs”) and headed towards London on the M4. The cabbie, I noted, was dressed in a floral Hawaiian shirt, cargo shorts, and flip-flops. All clothing items I left at home so I wouldn’t appear out of place. (Except for flip-flops, which I don’t own. Any grown man who wears flip-flops more than fifty feet from a swimming pool or other body of water should be fined. Any grown man who wears flip-flops with jeans should be executed by firing squad.) I took in my first view of a foreign country as it whizzed by our cab window. Not too different from home — car dealerships, big box stores, diversions for construction. The main difference was the style of traffic signs and the age of most of the buildings. Any random, anonymous building by the side of the motorway in suburban London was likely old enough to be an historical monument with a guided tour if it were in California.
As we got closer to London itself, the cabbie engaged us and began pointing out items of interest — and railing testily against the new bicycle lanes which he believed had destroyed the previously smooth flow of London traffic. The Natural History Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, Harrod’s, the Ritz, and Piccadilly Circus all went by our cab’s windows as we alternately zipped insanely or crawled interminably through the districts of Knightsbridge and Mayfair towards our hotel. Being Americans, it wasn’t long before the cabbie asked us about Trump. We assured him that we thought Trump was a vile, bloated toad and a national embarrassment, and conversation continued amiably.
Just over an hour after leaving Heathrow, we arrived at our hotel in the Bloomsbury area of London. Taking an hour to go sixteen miles was something that would take some getting used to, but I believe there is something positive in having quaint, narrow roads and a lack of eight-lane freeways.
Bloomsbury is noted as being one of the quietest and mellowest areas of the city, although our hotel was just a two-minute walk from the edge of the bustling Soho district and the West End theaters of Covent Garden. Full of green garden squares and uncharacteristically wide streets, Bloomsbury is the heart of literary and intellectual London. Darwin, Dickens, and Marx all lived there at one point or another. (Not together, obviously, but what an awesome sitcom that would make.) The district gave its name to the Bloomsbury Group, a loose association of writers, artists, and intellectuals who lived and worked in the area in the early 1900s. E.M. Forster, Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, and several others challenged Victorian restrictiveness and championed progressive and pacifist ideals, ushering in a more modern way of thinking.
Our hotel, the Radisson Blu Edwardian (Kenilworth), pictured above, was just across the street from the British Museum. The building itself was built in 1903, and had recently undergone a ￡15 million renovation. The marble lobby was suitably posh as we entered, as were the desk clerks. To a person, they were all tall, raven-haired women with olive skin and thick French accents (we would encounter this phenomenon again). The rooms were not quite ready as it was still well before three, so we decided to find a pub and grab a meal.
The Museum Tavern was just down the block from our hotel. Originally founded under the name The Dog & Duck in the 1723 when the Bloomsbury area was still semi-rural hunting land, it cleverly re-branded itself in 1762 to capitalize on the opening of the new British Museum directly opposite. A large portrait of Museum founder Sir Hans Sloane hangs lofitly over the pavement near the street entrance. The building underwent a major overhaul in 1855, and most of how it appears today dates from that Victorian-era remodel. Karl Marx and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who did frequent work in the British Museum’s old Reading Room, were once regulars. It was likely the model for the Alpha Inn in the Sherlock Holmes’ story “The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle.” Despite being currently owned by the Greene King chain (the acquisition of old pubs by corporations is a sore spot for many Brits), the Museum Tavern retains its atmosphere, surrounding you with dark wood and cut glass, and also provides great street views.
Being our first meal in England, we went for the fish and chips. Cam ordered lemonade, and received the British version of lemonade — lukewarm 7-Up. He stuck to ordering still water with ice after that experience (see a later entry for A Note To Our British Friends About Ice). I had my first hand-pulled cask ale. I had been warned by many people (and many guidebooks) that the British pub ale experience is a little different than what I might be used to. Unfiltered and unpasteurized ale is hand-pumped by the bartender with a “beer engine” directly from a cask in the pub’s cellar. It is served at “cellar temperature,” which is a bit warmer than you would get in an American bar, but still cool enough to be quite refreshing. Cellar temperature also brings out flavors that might be masked if the ale is served too cold. Hand-pulling puts the head on the ale through natural aeration rather than carbonation, giving it a “flatter” feel, since the ale is siphoned from the cask rather than forced out by its own internal gasses, as in a keg beer. Because it is unpastuerized, cask ale has to be turned over and sold quickly, pretty much guaranteeing your glass is going to be fresh from the brewery. Most cask ales have a relatively low ABV percentage, usually between 3.5 and 4.5. A skilled bartender can fill a pint glass with two smooth pulls. Hand-pulling is a technique almost entirely unused in the U.S. And most British pubs these days do have a selection of fizzy, ice-cold keg beers, too, if that’s what you want, and some days — yes, I did. Did I mention the heat wave?
After wrapping up our meal, we returned to our hotel, where the room was ready. And when I say room, I mean “broom cupboard.” I knew European hotels housed in historic buildings have rooms that run toward the small side, but when you combined Shannon, myself, our luggage, and the double bed, if we wanted to dress ourselves we would have to stand on the bed. It did have a nice view, though.
Cameron offered to trade us for his room, which was larger, but with twin beds and, shall we say, a limited view. We took him up on it. Cam would get a big bed to himself, and Shannon and I would have to sleep Lucy-and-Ricky style and look out the window at trash bins and brick walls, but at least we would not have to squeeze by each other on the way to the bathroom.
Size was the only downside — the rooms were well-appointed, with marble bathroom floors and countertops, a fair-sized shower stall (that still occasionally surprised you with a jet of icy cold or scalding hot water for a few seconds — only so much you can do with 1903 plumbing), and the one of the most comfortable mattresses I had ever been on.
Fighting the urge for a long nap, we decided to spend a little time at the Museum before it closed, so we wouldn’t be as rushed tomorrow. (See next entry.) That accomplished, and now fighting severe jet lag, we showered and changed clothes for a night at the theater — Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.
William Shakespeare was at his peak around 1599, and that was when the Globe Theatre was originally built in Southwark, on the south side of the Thames. Southwark was where a Londoner would go for rowdy or illicit activities — drinking, brothel-hopping, bear-baiting, theater-going. Financed partly the by Bard himself, the Globe was not roofed, and open the elements, with the air of a small baseball park rather than a playhouse. The cheap seats were not seats at all, but just an area in front of the stage for the “groundlings” to stand, cheer, and jeer. Higher-class people would pay for seats in the three levels of seating that ringed the stage.
Shows were usually in the afternoon to take advantage of sunlight. There are no surviving plans or details on the specific layout of the Globe, but there are enough contemporary descriptions and illustrations to give us a pretty good idea of what it looked like. Good thing, too, because it burned to the ground in 1613 during a production of Shakespeare’s Henry VIII. It was re-built the following year, then torn down permanently by the fun-hating Puritans in 1644.
The location of the original Globe is now covered by modern buildings. A meticulous re-construction (“academic approximation based on available evidence”) was opened in 1997 about 750 feet away, and this was our destination for the evening.
We passed Somerset House (more on that later), crossed Waterloo Bridge on foot, and strolled down the lovely pedestrian walkway along the south bank of the Thames. We passed by the Tate Modern, which will have to wait until the next time I’m in London. Not quite starving after a late lunch, we stopped at the popular Italian chain Zizzi for some quick appetizers — calamari, garlic bread, olives — and experienced for the first time the casual indifference of British waitstaff that has been noted by other travelers. I’m glad they’re paid a living wage, but maybe introducing the tipping system wouldn’t be so bad if it makes them a little more attentive. Cam never did get his glass of still water with ice.
After a brief request for no photography during the performance, the show began promptly at 7:30. We would be seeing a staging of The Two Noble Kinsmen, as Shannon put it, one of Shakespeare’s
bad… er, “lesser known” plays. First performed around 1613-14 and written in collaboration with John Fletcher, this was likely Shakespeare’s final stage production before going into retirement. Famous diarist Samuel Pepys rather hit the nail on the head when he described the performance he saw in 1664 as “no excellent play, but good acting in it.” The story, loosely based on Chaucer’s “A Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, is the usual Elizabethan nonsense featuring people falling in love at first sight, dying or being driven mad over romantic yearning, mistaken identity, and performing actions of enormous consequence for no clear reason whatsoever. And Morris dancing. So much fucking Morris dancing. I checked later, and the Morris dancing is right there in the original script. We’ll blame it on John Fletcher.
Whatever weaknesses the play itself had, the ensemble was good, and the musical elements added to it by folk musician Eliza Carthy were not too distracting. Every time I go and see a Shakespeare play, the first few scenes go by in an incomprehensible gabble of Elizabethan dialogue. Then my ears and brain adjust, and all becomes clear, as if by flipping a magic switch. Compounding the difficulty of understanding the first part of the play was our jet-lag. At one point or another, all three of us almost slumped, drooling and unconscious, into the people sitting in front of us.
The cast caused the goodwill they had generated to almost evaporate by making us sit through four…four…all-singing, all-dancing curtain calls/encores. Cam in particular was ready to slit some thespian throats. Unable to face the two-mile walk back to the hotel, we summoned an Uber.
Coming soon…the British Museum, with a lot more pictures. This is a travel blog, after all.
[Performance photos of Two Noble Kinsmen from medium.com, thestage.co.uk, and blog.shakespearesglobe.com]