Category Archives: History

Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 6)

Since yesterday was all about Westminster, today would be dedicated to the City of London, often referred to as just “the City,” or “the Square Mile.” Although the oldest part of metropolitan London, most of buildings in the City are relatively new. The succession of buildings that were once here — the old Roman forum and amphitheatre, the Saxon halls, the dark-beamed wooden houses and shops of the Tudor era — are all long vanished. In their place are the sleek skyscrapers of big business. The City is London’s financial center.

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The City

As we emerged from the Monument tube station that morning, we came face to face with the station’s namesake — the Monument of the Great Fire of London.

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The fluted Doric column made from white Portland stone looms over the intersection of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill. The inside has a narrow spiral staircase, and there is a viewing platform near the top. The very top is capped by a gilded urn of fire. If the column were to be tipped over on its side to the east, the urn’s flames would be resting on the starting place of the fire, exactly 202 feet away.

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Pudding Lane has shifted slightly west during various redevelopments over the centuries. It used to cross the red dot.

That empty patch of Monument Street (marked with an X in the photo below) was once a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane belonging to Thomas Farriner, who made hardtack for the Royal Navy. He extinguished his oven fire when he closed for business around nine o’clock Saturday night. His daughter Hanna checked the oven around midnight, and later swore it was cold. Shortly after that, in the dark pre-dawn of the morning of September 2, 1666, the ground floor filled with smoke, and flames began licking the wooden ceiling beams from a fire in the upper portion of the chimney. Farriner and his daughter escaped by climbing onto an adjoining roof. Their maid was not so lucky. Soon the building was engulfed. Before dawn, a strong wind picked up from the east.

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London was a tinderbox. There was little open space. The buildings all abutted each other, and were all made of wood and lath & plaster, many with thatched roofs and straw flooring. Nearby warehouses were filled with timber, oil, hemp, tar, flax, pitch, coal and all manner of handy fuel. The previous July and August had seen a low amount of rainfall, so everything was brittle and dry. If the City were set up by arsonists for deliberate destruction, they couldn’t have done a better job.

As the sun rose, the fire had already engulfed its first church, St. Margaret’s, on the site where the Monument now stands. People were beginning to panic, but London’s Lord Mayor hesitated, at first dismissing it as such a minor conflagration that “a woman might piss it out” (delightfully direct were those pre-Victorians), but he soon had to eat his words. Londoners packed what they could and streamed out of the city.

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In the days before professional fire departments, putting out fires came down to volunteers. Every parish church had fire fighting equipment on hand: usually brass syringe-like “squirts,” leather buckets, and massive hooks for pulling down houses. Water in large quantities was often scarce, so the primary strategy for halting the progress of fires was to create firebreaks by pulling down unburned houses and shops. The owners of said structures were understandably reluctant to destroy their perfectly good buildings (even if they were right in the path of the fire), so it was a real test of their civic-mindedness. Bucket brigades were formed to get water from wells and pumps to areas under the gravest threat.

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Imagine a volunteer firefighter’s surprise when he looked up and saw that the person passing him the bucket was none other than King Charles II himself. The normally lazy and dissolute monarch stirred himself off his velvet cushions in Whitehall Palace and headed to the City, where he began supervising, issuing orders, working the bucket brigades, and generally demonstrating the kind of leadership he had been unwilling to apply in most other situations. He certainly came out of it looking better than the Lord Mayor.

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Fed by strong winds, and creating its own diabolical atmosphere as major fires do, the towering flames spread, unchecked, to the west at a pace of about thirty yards per hour. Thunderous booms and cracks echoed across the city as buildings imploded. By the third day, the fire had reached St. Paul’s cathedral. Only the stone walls were left standing. The lead from the roof ran in molten, glowing rivers down the street like volcanic lava. All the buildings on the north side of London Bridge were destroyed. Dense smoke spread over a fifty mile area.

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By the fourth day, the fire’s westward progress caused people to think about protecting Whitehall Palace, and it was even conceivable that Westminster was under threat if the winds continued. The Royal Navy began using gunpowder to blow up buildings between Somerset House and Whitehall. Other firebreaks began finally seeing success as the winds died down. The fire consumed all available fuel. It was completely out by the end of the week, but the ground remained hot to the touch for days afterwards.

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The face of London was permanently changed. St. Paul’s was reduced to its exterior masonry walls. What was once a crowded, thriving, essentially still-medieval city was now an ashy wasteland. The lone familiar structure was the Tower of London, behind stone walls upwind and east of the fire, so it was spared. Of the 448 acres within the City walls, 373 acres were wiped out, and 13,200 houses and 87 churches were no more.

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Engraved map of London just after the fire. The non-burned areas reflect the building denisty that used to be city-wide.

Luckily, the Monument that now stands near the fire’s starting place does not commemorate a large loss of life. Fewer than ten people are (officially) reported to have died, including the Farriners’ poor maid. But over 80,000 were now homeless. The very first insurance company, the Fire Office, was founded the next year. As re-building began, Charles II issued a royal proclamation: all new buildings in the City of London were to be of brick or stone. Architect Sir Christopher Wren became the busiest man in England.

The Monument itself (designed by Wren) was part of the rebuilding program, completed in 1677. In the aftermath, it took some time to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Many in the City assumed it was arson perpetrated by the Catholics, and in fact the original Latin inscription on the Monument made some disparaging comments about “popery” that weren’t removed for almost two hundred years, long after the cause was determined to be accidental. More on that in the next entry…

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We didn’t linger long at the Monument, but headed east down Lower Thames Street toward the Tower of London. The Tower of London is actually a conglomeration of several towers (20 altogether) and other buildings, built at different times for different reasons. The centerpiece is still the original tower, known as the “White Tower,” the most imposing and impressive building Londoners of the 11th century had ever seen. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror, beginning around 1078 and finished by 1100. Originally located right where the easternmost section of the old Roman wall met the Thames, the White Tower anchored what William intended to be a strong defensive position for his newly-acquired territory. By God, these Normans built castles, not the humble little halls and hill forts that littered the Anglo-Saxon landscape.

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The White Tower, 1400s, with the London Bridge in the background.

Most of the other buildings in the Tower complex were added during major expansions ordered by William III and his heir Edward I from the the early 1200s through the early 1300s. Thick “curtain” walls went up on the west and north, and replaced the crumbling Roman wall to the east. Rings of small fortifying towers were built as added defense. Each ring was separated by open spaces and pathways called “wards.”

The Tower was no longer used as any kind of royal residence by the early 1500s. It became more of a defensive “keep” — a fort, a meeting place, the Royal Mint (until 1812), an armory…and a prison, which increasingly darkened its reputation. Although no great foreign armies invaded England’s shores after William’s 1066 conquest, there were enough civil wars and local rebellions to keep the Tower’s defenses busy for hundreds of years. 

As far as “newer” construction and additions, the cluster of Tudor buildings known as the Queen’s House was built in the 1540s as lodgings for the Tower’s chief constable. It was not, as many websites state, built for Anne Boleyn, who would have been too dead to enjoy it by the time it was constructed. A set of Tudor storehouses north of the White Tower were replaced by an army barracks known as the Waterloo Block in the 1840s. Other Victorian-era buildings now line the eastern wall.

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The Tower as it exists today. Refer back to this diagram as you read. You may need your reading glasses, but it will come in handy.

There are two chapels, one built into the interior of the White Tower (St. John’s) and one next to the Waterloo Block (St. Peter-in-Chains).

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The western Tower wall as seen from the entry plaza. The rounded portion is Beauchamp Tower.

The current entrance for the Tower’s visitors is through the wetsern gatehouse known as Middle Tower. Dating from one of Henry III’s expansions in the 1200s, it was re-surfaced with Portland stone in 1717, and had the coat of arms of George I added above the arch. The iron portillicus is long gone, but the grooves where it once rose and lowered are still visible.

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The Middle Tower

Another defensive feature, known as a “barbican,” also once guarded the approach to the Tower. (The barbican was the “first tower” before you reached the Middle Tower.) The rounded interior of the barbican became home to the Royal Menagerie, and the structure was later known as Lion Tower.

The Royal Menagerie began when the Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Henry III with three leopards in the 1230s. Lions were soon added, along with jackals, owls, a polar bear (who would go fishing in the Thames, attached to his pen by a long chain), brown bears, hyenas, and assorted others. They were housed in wooden pens lining the inside wall of the barbican. James I added a small exercise yard and an audience platform, and the inhabitants of London could view the animals for a small fee. The English climate and the cramped conditions were not conducive to good health for most of these creatures, so there was a pretty frequent turnover, but monarchs did not seem to have any trouble acquiring fresh specimens of exotic beasts, especially once Britain became an empire. (An American mountain lion was described by one chronicler as “an Indian cat from Virginia.”) It was finally decided to move the animals to the newly-opened London Zoo in 1831. The only animals to remain behind are the well-known Tower ravens, who now freely hop around the walls and lawns (their wings are clipped), and retire to a spacious aviary at night.

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Wire-mesh lion sculpures peer at the remains of the Lion Tower. The moat bridge between Middle Tower and Byward Tower is in the background.

The Lion Tower was pulled down not long after the departure of the animals. Its crumbled foundation and the pit that once housed the drawbridge gears were still visible off to our left as we approached the ticket takers of Middle Tower. Once we passed through the Middle Tower, we followed the footbridge that crossed the moat. The moat is now waterless, a wide expanse of green lawn marking where it once existed. With the moat behind us, we entered Byward Tower, the true entrance of the Tower of London.

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Crossing the “moat” into Byward Tower

I plugged into my audio tour (available at almost every major site in London, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee — it’s worth it) and headed through one final archway into the Inner Ward. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 5)

It was a short walk from our lunchtime pub to Westminster Abbey, but the line to get in was anything but short. It wound neatly back and forth in front of the Great North Door without the need for ropes and stanchions. The British can queue like nobody’s business. It is one of their many skills as a culture. I didn’t mind the line so much, except when it was in direct sunlight, at which point it became a brutal endurance test. Did I mention the heat wave?

The Abbey towered above us, providing blessed shade at regular enough intervals. It hasn’t been an abbey for 450 years (since Elizabeth I booted the community of Benedictine monks that had been living there for centuries), nor is it technically a cathedral (since it is not the seat of a bishop). It is just a really, really big church that the monarchy has a proprietary interest in (a “royal peculiar.”)

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Edward the Confessor, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England (unless you count poor old Harold Godwinson, the Moe Green of mediaval monarchs), decided sometime in the mid-1000s to build himself a palace and a church a few miles upriver from the walled City of London. London had semi-autonomously governed itself since time out of mind, and regarded the king’s rule as a formality rather than a subjugation. Edward wanted a place where he was top dog. He chose Thorney Island, formed by a confluence of the Thames and Tyburn rivers. Upon Thorney Island, the Palace of Westminster arose. And right next to it, supposedly on a site already occupied by a century-old monastery, Westminster Abbey came to be. (Minster is derived from the Latin word for monastery. “West” because it was west of London.)

Unlike so many other patrons of great architectural projects, Edward the Confessor did live to see the church completed — and promptly died a week later. He was the first, but far from the last, person to be buried in Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor (his nickname derived from a posthumous — and totally undeserved — reputation for piety) died heirless in 1066, leaving England open to conquest from across the Channel by William, Duke of Normandy. Thus, the very French duke became King William I (“The Conqueror”) of England, imported a lot of his Norman cronies to be noblemen, and was crowned in Edward’s brand-new abbey. English kings and their courts spoke little but French until around 1400. Britain’s current corgi-loving monarch can trace her ancestry through a few twists and turns back to William I.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in England was thrilled with their new Norman overlords, and Edward became a symbol of their proud Anglo-Saxon past. He was canonized in 1161, becoming Saint Edward the Confessor.

William and his immediate successors had better things to do than look after a crummy old church, such as building a shitload of castles all over the place, so Westminster Abbey languished until the reign of Henry III. Henry III, whom no one would mistake for a rocket scientist (had such a thing existed in the 1200s) was at the very least a kind and decent fellow, a rare thing for a king from the hot-blooded Plantagenet dynasty, and was absolutely dedicated to the veneration of Edward the Confessor. He decided to have Westminster Abbey completely rebuilt on a much grander scale and dedicate it to his hero. The old Romanesque church was gradually replaced with one in a high Gothic style, with lots of pointed-top arches and flying buttresses to support the walls. Greater wall support meant more room for enormous stained-glass windows, and the layout was in the shape of a Latin cross, similar to the great cathedrals of the era.

A bustling service community grew up around the Palace of Westminster and its associated Abbey. London had begun spilling beyond its walls, and the walls themselves were pulled down in the 1760s. London and Westminster eventually met in the middle to make the great metropolis we know today. The marshes around Thorney Island were drained, and it ceased to be an island, although the little River Tyburn still exists, culverted and flowing underground.

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The building Cam and I entered now through the Great North Door after a 75-minute wait was the building begun by Henry III in 1245, and consecrated in 1269. Henry himself was stuffed in a Westminster Abbey crypt three years later. Work continued, off and on, until 1517. Then the Abbey’s most distinctive feature, the two massive towers flanking the Great West Door, were added between 1722 and 1745.

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The Great North Door

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After a stern warning about taking pictures (the interior pictures here are mostly from the Abbey’s website), our audio tour headphones guided us to the nave, where we began our exploration. The nave is the long main body of the church, where the congregation sits. Tombs and memorials line the walls and floor, including those marking the burial sites of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, prime ministers Clement Attlee and Neville Chamberlain, and the still-fresh Stephen Hawking.

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The nave, with the British Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the foreground and the gilded wall of the Quire in the distance.

At the altar end of the nave is the Choir (or “Quire”), a sort of roofless wooden room, with hand carved wooden seats, reserved for high-ranking parishioners and dignitaries (and yes, the choir).

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The Quire, walled off from the rest of the nave.

Beyond the choir is the Sacarum, or High Altar, the site of every coronation since 1066 and many royal weddings. Tucked away behind the Sacarum is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, containing what little is left of his mortal remains.

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The Sacarum

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Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor

Just east of the Sacarum is the 16th century extension known as the “Lady Chapel,” named in honor of the original Lady, the Virgin Mary. The most prominent feature here is the tomb of Henry VII, sponsor of the Lady Chapel’s construction. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, was once revered as the dashing young earl of Richmond who sailed in from exile and ended the destructive Wars of the Roses by uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York in marriage. He aged into a grim, paranoid bureaucrat with a deeply-lined face and an ultimate legacy of miserliness and total mediocrity. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” — Henry VII.*

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Westminster Abbey as it appeared around 1600. The “new” Lady Chapel built by Henry VII sticks out on the left. Note the lack of massive towers on the right.

Fittingly, the Lady Chapel is also the location of the tombs of two noteworthy ladies: Henry VII’s granddaughers, Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I, bitter rivals in life, now lie side by side for eternity. Just a few feet away are the alleged** remains of the uncrowned Edward V and his brother Richard, both probably murdered as children on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. (More on that in the next entry.)

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A few monarchs from the late 1300s through the early 1700s are buried elsewhere due to various circumstances, but the majority of them are right there in Westminster Abbey, mostly out of the desire to be interred near the remains of St. Edward, one of the most prominent English-born saints. Henry III is cozied up right next to his saintly idol. His son, Edward I, sworn enemy of William Wallace and the hissable villain of Braveheart, is nearby. Edward I’s son, the suspect and effeminate Edward II, who abdicated the throne and was supposedly assassinated soon after by a red-hot poker up the rectum***, is also somewhere in the vicinity. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 4)

This might prove useful over the next several entries:

The Holy Bee’s Handy Guide to Historical Eras/Dynasties in England:

Prehistoric/ancient — dawn of time to the Romans. The earliest occupants of Britain were a mysterious bunch, with a muddled and puzzling genetic past. But they could build a hell of a ring of stones.

Roman — the time of occupation by the Roman Empire, 43 – c.410

Middle Ages/medieval — from the exit of Romans to the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, c.410 – 1485. The Angles and Saxons (tribal groups from Germany) held sway over England (which comes from “Angle Land”) in the first half of this era, and the Normans of France took over after 1066. A Norman offshoot, the Plantagenets, ruled from 1154 to 1485.

Tudor — from the beginning of the reign of Henry VII (1485) to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1603). Basically, the 1500s. A very busy period for England. Shakespeare time. Big ruffled collars. Your “Bloody Mary” and your husband of the year Henry VIII would go here. The setting for lots of historically-inaccurate movies and mini-series.

Stuart — the Scottish royal house that, due to overlapping family trees, was England’s ruling family from James I (1603) to Anne (1714). (Their reign was interrupted for about a decade by the Parliamentary “commonwealth” of Oliver Cromwell.) Throw in two Charleses and another James, and the first official joint rulers, William III and Mary II. And a lot of hilarious long curly wigs and stacked heels. Basically, the 1600s.

Georgian — I don’t use this one too often. George I through IV, and let’s toss William IV in for good measure. Basically, the 1700s – early 1800s.

Victorian — the reign of Queen Victoria. 1837 to 1901.

Anything after Victoria, I just call “modern.”

“Great Britain” is the large, main island of the British Isles. “England” is its politically-dominant southern part, “Scotland” is its northern part, “Wales” is its far western part. England has more or less controlled Wales since 1282. Scotland was for many centuries an independent kingdom, a great rival to England and frequent collaborator with England’s old enemy, France. During the latter days of the Stuart dynasty (1707, to be exact), England and Scotland became a unified political entity — “The United Kingdom of Great Britain, etc.” (The whole Ireland thing is too complicated to get into in this Handy Guide.) For the monarchy, before 1707, I’ll say “English” king or queen, after 1707, I’ll use the term “British” king or queen.

Following Saturday’s travel via tube and black cab, we nailed the London transportation trifecta on Sunday morning by hopping a red double-decker bus. It was dubbed by three-year-old Maya as a “decker-decker” bus, and that’s how it was known to us forever after. The bus took us as far as the east side of Westminster Bridge, which we crossed on foot. (In a larger sense, the Thames divides London into north/south, but Westminster is on a pretty extreme bend.)

Much of the central part of Greater London, and most of the West End, is actually the “City of Westminster,” an entirely separate administrative district. The “City of London” is much, much smaller, and roughly corresponds with the square mile once enclosed by the old Roman walls.

Westminster Bridge, under the shadow of Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament), is the tourism center of London. A huge crush of people, and so many different languages and accents mingled together, it was like an international bazaar. Police cars and ambulances dashed around unnervingly. I was let down to note that the traditional British rising-and-falling, two-note emergency vehicle siren has been replaced by the more familiar “whoop-whoop” American siren.

This was my first good look at the clock tower that houses Big Ben, which is the name of the huge bell inside, not the tower or even the clock. The tower was officially called “Clock Tower” (clever, no?) until 2012, when it was renamed “Elizabeth Tower” in honor of the current monarch. No matter the name, it was now completely clad in scaffolding due to a massive, multi-year renovation project. It was distinctly un-photogenic, indeed almost unrecogizeable, and a mite disappointing for tourists. “Even Space Mountain breaks down occasionally,” Cam pointed out.

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At Westminster Pier, we boarded a Thames Clipper river ferry (Oyster cards gladly accepted) and headed downriver towards Greenwich, passing under London Bridge and the Tower Bridge. (Don’t confuse them. One of my Anglophilic pet peeves is someone referring to the Gothic-spired Tower Bridge as “London Bridge.”)

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This is London Bridge.

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NOT this. This is Tower Bridge.

London Bridge is pretty nondescript, and it is the third bridge by that name to have occupied that space.

Where London Bridge is currently located is also roughly the same place that the Romans built a bridge when they established the settlement of Londinium in the 1st century A.D. Wooden bridges came and went in that location well into the Middle Ages. The first stone bridge across the Thames connecting London and Southwark was completed in 1209, and remained in place for over six centuries.

“Old London Bridge” was treated like any other street, and had homes and businesses lining either side. A chapel (St. Thomas’s) was next to a small drawbridge in the center which allowed for the passage of some tall ships, but most bigger vessels docked downstream from the bridge. Ferries rowed passengers and cargo through one of nineteen stone arches under the roadway. The heads of traitors could usually be observed impaled on spikes on the bridge’s Southwark entrance.

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London Bridge, circa 1600. Those aren’t lollipops on the lower right.

London Bridge was also the site of one of the most epic forgotten battles in history. A huge popular revolt led by Jack Cade rose up against the increasingly disastrous rule of the possibly mentally-challenged Henry VI. Cade’s rebels succceeded in taking over London for a day or two, but were forced out by the Tower of London’s garrison. A huge battle raged on London Bridge all through the night of July 8, 1450. Men fought hand-to-hand by the light of torches and the burning drawbridge until well after sunrise. Several inhabitants of the bridge’s homes were swept up in the fighting, and civilians and combatants alike were sometimes plunged howling into the Thames. When the gates to London were finally heaved closed in the morning light against the pile of charred and bloodied bodies, the revolt collapsed. Jack Cade’s head appeared in the expected spot above the Southwark entrance to the bridge within a few weeks. Political instability continued, ultimately leading to the Wars of the Roses a few years down the road. (I wish I could say I was cool enough to have named my son Cade after this guy, but he was in fact named after now-forgotten UCLA quarterback Cade McNown.)

Over time, the arches grew increasingly narrow due to silt build-up, the river level on either side could vary as much as six feet, and the water gushed through them at low tide like whitewater rapids. “Shooting the bridge” became a test of a boatman’s skill. By the 1500s, the bridge had more than 200 structures on it, some seven stories high. The center road was a mere twelve feet wide, and the top stories of the buildings were extended so far over the road, they almost touched in the middle, creating a tunnel effect.

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The bridge’s growing disrepair probably led to the well-known nursery rhyme song. It became so structurally unsound that all of its buildings were torn down in the 1700s, and the bridge itself was finally demolished in 1831.

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Out with the old bridge (right), in with the new (left), 1831.

That same year, “New London Bridge” opened, a granite structure with five much-wider arches (and no buildings cluttering it.) By 1896, it was London’s busiest thoroughfare, with 8000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossing every hour. But it was gradually sinking into the riverbanks on either side.

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New London Bridge

In 1967, it was dismantled…and reassembled in, of all places, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it can stare impassively down at thousands of tanned, oblivious spring breakers preening, pissing, screwing, and puking each April.

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New London Bridge in its new location, Lake Havasu City, AZ.

The better-engineered modern London Bridge is a perfectly serviceable concrete box-girder bridge, but it has no whiff of romanticism about it and does not draw the eye the way the more impressive Tower Bridge (completed in 1896 and named for the nearby Tower of London) does. It was long rumored that the billionaire entrepreneur Robert McCulloch, who was responsible for buying London Bridge and moving it to Arizona, thought he was getting the Tower Bridge. He always denied this. I think it may be true. (He was from Missouri.)

We got off the ferry at Greenwich, 5½ miles downriver from Charing Cross, and home to the Royal Observatory. This is where time begins, at least as far as we know “time.”

Before we got there, though, there was the matter of an early lunch. Shannon, Cam, and myself were over our jet lag, but our newly-arrived nieces and nephew were in the worst throes of it. They had popped awake and had breakfast around 5:00 that morning, and were now famished. I had partaken in my usual light traveling breakfast (two large cups of strong black coffee), so I could do with a bite myself. We settled in along long wooden benches on the second floor of Goddards at Greenwich (“Traditional Pie and Mash since 1890”).

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I had the minced beef pie and mash because it seemed to be the specialty of the house, and was a little disappointed. Not the dish’s fault at all, but Shannon’s heartier steak-and-ale pie just looked so much better.

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Goddards also seemed very proud of their jellied eels, but all of us skipped those. (Yes, they’re exactly what they sound like. Yes, the bones are still in there.)

In the 1670s, when England was on the rise as a maritime nation, there was a growing need for accurate timekeeping, since accurate timekeeping was vital to determining a ship’s longitude, or position east or west. Latitude (position north or south) had been easy enough to pinpoint for centuries (just measure the angle of the sun or North Star relative to the horizon), but longitude required a way to keep precise time while on board a ship. The rolling of a ship on waves plays havoc with a typical clock’s pendulum, and smaller watches had to be constantly wound and measured against a pendulum clock.

Longitude was a very tricky issue, and many ships and their crews were lost because they weren’t sure of their location. Charles II founded a Royal Observatory, administered by an “Astronomer Royal,” to make sure England’s sailors could safely determine their location based on the Observatory’s detailed star charts, created with the aid of increasingly sophisticated telescopes.

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Courtyard of the Royal Observatory, facing the Flamsteed House.

A clockmaker named John Harrison spent thirty years of his life developing a timepiece that could keep time at sea. He finally succeeded with his H4 “sea watch” in the 1760s, and in conjunction with the data generated by the Royal Observatory, the longitude crisis was solved. This bit of history is considered so important, a lavish four-part TV miniseries was made about it in 2000, starring Michael “Professor Dumbledore” Gambon as Harrison. It was called — wait for it — Longitude.

Zero degrees longitude is called the prime meridian. Every seafaring country once determined their own prime meridian, and made their own navigational charts based on it. Increasing globalization caused England’s Prime Meridian (capital P, capital M) at Greenwich to go into universal use after a vote of the International Meridian Conference in 1884 (what a crazy party that must have been). Along with that, the local time in Greenwich became the basis for the international civil time standard, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

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In keeping with being the home of all standards, the first thing you see when you approach the entrance to the Observatory after a long walk uphill across the broad, green lawns of Greenwich Park is the Public Standards of Length. The yard measured between two brass posts on is the official yard, supposedly based on the distance between Henry I’s (1068-1135) nose and outstretched thumb. The foot is the official foot (supposedly based on — you guessed it — the length of Henry I’s foot.) 19th-century scientists would travel here to make sure their measuring equipment was accurate.

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The strip of brass marking the Prime Meridian was close by (on the other side of the gate — pay your admission first, please), and was constantly crowded with people experiencing the novelty of having one foot in the western hemisphere and one foot in the eastern hemisphere.

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The Observatory building itself was designed by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren (St. Paul’s cathedral, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, tons of other stuff) and referred to as the Flamsteed House (after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed.) It is the first purposely-built scientific research facility in Britain. Most of the actual astronomical observing was farmed out in the mid-20th century (due mainly to light pollution from ever-growing London), leaving the Flamsteed House and its surroundings as museum space. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 3)

The jet lag pendulum swung the other way my second night in England — I spent a sleepless night tossing and turning on my super comfortable mattress, and finally slipped out of bed at 6:15. Denied my chance to take a long walk the previous morning, I knew I wasn’t going to miss this opportunity as watery daylight peeked through the curtains I deliberately left part open. I was walking the streets ten minutes later, watching London wake up on a bleary Saturday morning. “The English don’t do mornings,” one of our later drivers cheerily remarked.

I decided to make my two destinations the (fictional) address of Sherlock Holmes, 221B Baker Street, followed by Trafalgar Square, and check out some more locations associated with the Beatles along the way. A round trip of about five miles. I strolled up Tottenham Court Road, evidently the site of some revelry last night as I stepped over many broken bottles and slicks of what was most likely urine decorating the building corners. Chain stores that are part of the fabric of the lives of every Briton seemed exotic to me — a Boots pharmacy, a Barclays bank, a Mr. Toppers haircuts, a Sainsbury’s supermarket, an Odeon cinema — and were interspersed with shuttered nightclubs and dormant pubs as I headed north to Euston Road. After not seeing a soul on Tottenham Court Road, traffic rumbled along the very busy Euston Road, proving that some people in London were indeed awake. Turning west on Euston, and passing the gaudy tourist trap known as Madame Tussaud’s (the original “wax museum”), it wasn’t long before I arrived at Baker Street.

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The legendary address of 221B Baker Street was entirely a figment of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s imagination. The actual Baker Street of the late 1800s ran only from Portman Square to Dorset Street, a distance of just over 500 yards, and the addresses on its high-end residential terrace houses ran from #1 to #85. A very short “Upper Baker Street,” with a separate set of addresses existed a little ways to the north. When the two streets were merged into one in the early 20th century, the 200s came into existence. The spot where 221 would be is occupied by a multi-story office block, Abbey House. Originally home to the Abbey National Building Society (who once employed someone full-time just to answer Holmes-related mail), it has been recently redeveloped into luxury flats.

471239135The building that now has official claim to the “221B” address according to the London Post Office is a little further up the block, at what would ordinarily be about 239 Baker Street. It is the Sherlock Holmes Museum, and is housed in an 1815 townhouse whose exterior had the good fortune to actually look quite a bit like the residence described in the Holmes stories. The Sherlock Holmes Society of England got hold of it, meticulously recreated the interior as Doyle imagined it, stuffed it full of artifacts and memorabilia, and opened it to the public in 1990. It was still closed at seven on a Saturday morning, of course, so I walked on.

I doubled back south down Baker Street. I walked by what used to be, from late 1967 to summer 1968, the Beatles’ Apple Boutique retail store (i.e., tax shelter). Noted for its massive psychedelic mural that outraged their more conservative neighbors, the Boutique hemorrhaged money and was one the Fab Four’s few major missteps. The original building was torn down in 1974, and replaced with one that was quite similar (with the addition of a few windows.)

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A block or so to the east was 20 Manchester Square, site of EMI House, business headquarters for the Beatles’ record label, and the building where the group peered over the edge of the interior balcony and down the stairwell for the cover of their first album in 1963. Theatrical photographer Angus McBean shot the picture, laying on his back on the lobby floor, sometime in February of ‘63.

Sadly, it was not worth even a short detour on my walk, because EMI House was torn down in 1999. Before its destruction, the balcony was reverently removed and installed in a place of honor at EMI’s sleek new headquarters several miles away in Hammersmith.

I turned east on London’s big shopping thoroughfare, Oxford Street. The city was finally coming to life as 7:30 approached. Construction crews got to work, and delivery trucks started unloading. Joggers, weekend workers, and early shoppers began moving up the streets and clustering around the bus stops. I noticed it was all young people. As they bustled to and fro, they vaped and chatted into cell phones (“mobiles,” as they call them over here, and every other word out of their mouths was “brilliant,” the most overused adjective among young Londoners, said reflexively, like a Californian uses “cool.”) Some of the more colorful denizens of London’s streets were having loud, animated conversations with no one. The sun peeked occasinally through the overcast, and the heat wave would continue.

I next headed south along Regent Street. Unlike the mainstream chain-store shopping along Oxford Street, the shops of Regent Street offered more upscale fare. The elegant buildings date from the 1890s to the 1920s. The street was originally completed in 1825, but none of the original structures remain.

Just off Regent Street is Savile Row, the London garment district, home to some of the world’s best tailors, and former home of the Beatles self-owned management/production company, Apple Corps. 3 Savile Row is mostly known for its rooftop, which was the site of the final Beatles live performance on January 30, 1969, staged for cameras shooting what would eventually become the Let It Be documentary released in mid-1970.

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The Beatles' Rooftop Concert in 1969 (1)

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Following Regent Street around its gentle eastward curve into Piccadilly Circus, a massive traffic roundabout in the heart of London’s West End, I continued south. At 12 Regent Street there is a big office block known as Rex House. In the basement of Rex House, there was once a 400-seat movie theater called Paris Cinema, which opened in 1939. After WWII, it was bought by the British Broadcasting Corporation, who renamed it the BBC Paris Studios and converted it into a venue for recording radio broadcasts, mostly comedy shows in front of a live audience. In the 1960s, the space was also used to record special sessions by various pop groups exclusively for the BBC, including several recordings by the Beatles between November 1962 and July 1964.

A Dezo Hoffman photo of the Beatles entering the BBC Paris Studios on April 4, 1963 was used for the cover of the double-compilation album The Beatles Live at the BBC, which came out in 1995, the same year the BBC shut down the Paris Studio location in favor of more technically-advanced facilities elsewhere.

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The old BBC Paris Studio is now an L.A. Fitness

the-beatles-live-at-the-bbc-magnet-m2055I was almost to Trafalgar Square, and my heart sank a little as I approached it from Pall Mall. There were two giant stages erected at either end of the square. Along the sides ran tall bleachers. A large line of mostly teenage girls and their mothers were already queuing for what the banners announced breathlessly as West End Live!, an open air revue featuring popular selections from recent stage musicals. “One weekend only!”

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Trafalgar Square under seige by musical theater fans. Location of the original Charing Cross in the foreground.

To my horror, the giant lions guarding Nelson’s Column were totally hemmed in by tents and porta-potties. As I lined up to snap my somewhat deflating pic, I realized I was also right in front of the equestrian statue of the ill-fated Charles I. On the spot where the statue now stands was once an “Eleanor cross,” one of a group of twelve memorial crosses erected at intervals from London to Lincoln (in the far north of England) by Edward I in tribute to his late wife, Eleanor of Castile. One of these elaborate marble crosses would have been right in front of me had I stood there any time between 1294 and 1647, when the Puritan-controlled Parliament pulled it down during the English Civil War — the conflict that cost Charles I his head. A few years after the dust had settled and Charles II was firmly on the throne, he stuck a statue of his dad there as a well-deserved “fuck you” to the grim Puritans who had clamped down on everyone’s good time during their brief grip on London’s political reins. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 2)

My plan was to rise very early and take a long solo walk around London’s West End before Shannon was up, and do the same the following morning. Jet lag and a very thick set of curtains foiled day one of this plan. I gaped at the time on my cell phone when I woke up in a dark room — 9:26!

We hustled down to the hotel restaurant, the delightfully-named Scoff & Banter, where they laid on an excellent full English breakfast that came with the price of the room and that, sadly, I was unable to take full advantage of. My digestive system has a tendency to shut down on vacations. I am almost never hungry for some reason. I nibbled a banger (insert your own joke here), a few strips of “streaky” bacon (i.e., typical American bacon, rather than the leaner, more ham-like British bacon), some toast and honey, and guzzled breakfast’s most important element for an intrepid traveler: coffee, here served in individual French presses. (We all know that whole “breakfast is the most important meal of the day” nonsense is propaganda peddled by those snake oil salesmen over at Kellogg’s.)

The hotel’s breakfast buffet mastered the concept of guacamole, but not the name:

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The British Museum is one of those places where everyone remarks that you never have enough time to see everything. “You need a whole day,” fellow tourists lament, but never themselves taking a whole day because there’s so much else to see and do in London. Well, we came to London ahead of the rest of the traveling party for the specific purpose of spending an entire day at the British Museum (plus going in for about ninety minutes the day before, working our way through the “Enlightenment” exhibition in the King’s Library.)

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Main entrance to the British Museum. Cam is representing the U.S. well in his Philadelphia 76ers shirt.

We walked across the spacious courtyard of the Museum and through its main entrance not longer after it opened at 10:00.

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British Museum, west wing

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British Museum, east wing

The location of the British Museum was originally that of Montagu House, a sprawling country estate typical of the English landed aristocracy, once considered the “grandest private residence constructed in London.” Built just outside the city to the specifications of the avaricious, unscrupulous 1st Duke of Montagu after an earlier home burned down in 1686, its south facade peered suspiciously over its wall at the new construction that pushed the boundaries of London ever closer. Its north face opened onto manicured gardens and rolling countryside.

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Montagu House, north side. (This would be the back of the current museum.)

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Montagu House, south side on Great Russell Street.

The British Museum started with Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), an Irish-born physician to the royals, naturalist, purported inventor of the original recipe for milk chocolate, and (luckily for us) obsessive collector. He was the thirteenth president, succeeding Sir Isaac Newton, of the Royal Society (this will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry). Upon his death, he willed the 71,000 items in his collection to the people of Britain (in return for a substantial payment to his heirs). Sloane’s bequeathment included historical artifacts, natural history specimens, and a wide variety of books and manuscripts.

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Sir Hans Sloane

After its official creation by an Act of Parliament in 1753, the British Museum originally considered a location at Buckingham House, but it was deemed by the museum’s first trustees to be a trifle too costly. (The “house” was renamed a “palace” in the early 1800s, and now has a very different function.) They decided to go with Montagu House, happily offered for sale at a bargain price by the 2nd Duke of Montagu, who was horrified to discover that his inherited estate was being rapidly surrounded by the scourge of middle-class suburbs. (He had already moved out a few years prior, and the house was a run-down burden. Also, the 2nd Duke of Montagu was the son-in-law of the 1st Duke of Marlborough. This will come around again in a mildly interesting way in a later entry.)

The British Museum, housed within the walls of Montagu House, opened free of charge to “all studious and curious persons” in 1759. The Dog & Duck pub across the muddy road that would become Great Russell Street changed its name to the Museum Tavern three years later (see previous entry.)

It wasn’t long before the drafty old mansion proved inadequate to the Museum’s needs. Plans for new construction were approved as early as 1802, but it would be a lengthy process. The last vestiges of the old Montagu House were swept away by 1845, as a gigantic, Greek Revival-style “quadrangle” building (as seen in the photos above) was erected over the course of decades. The Museum as we see it today was largely complete and functional by 1857, filled to the brim with dozens of exhibition rooms known in museum-speak as “galleries.”

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To make room for the collection that grows to this day, all the natural history stuff was removed to its own museum in 1881. (We taxied past the cathedral-like Natural History Museum out in South Kensington on our way into town the previous day.)

Upon entering the museum building, we were first confronted with the Great Hall, in the center of which is the domed Reading Room…which is no longer a reading room at all.

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The Great Hall and Reading Room

Back in the day, you had to make a special application to use the Reading Room and gain access to the Museum’s labyrinthine collection of books and manuscripts. In 1997, the Museum’s print material was moved to the new British Library building just up the road. After a three-year remodel, the Reading Room was opened to the general public as a short-lived, much-reduced “information centre.” From 2007 to 2013, it was used as a space for special Museum exhibitions. With the completion of a separate special exhibition space in 2013, the Reading Room went empty and dormant, and so it remains. No one seems to know what to do with it at this point.

Just off the Great Hall is the ground floor east wing known as the King’s Library, the oldest part of the currently-existing Museum building, completed in 1828. Now labeled less-romantically as “Room 1,” it was built to house the 60,000+ book collection of King George III, donated to the Museum after his death by his son, George IV. Over 40 feet high and 300 feet long, this hall was a repository for the late King’s books until all books were shipped out in ‘97. It now houses a permanent themed exhibition called “Enlightenment: Discovering the World in the 18th Century,” detailing a time in the 1700s when “people — including the collectors who created the British Museum — used reason and first-hand observation of the world around them to understand it in new ways.” In essence, it chronicled the rise of the museum mentality — the mad scramble to collect interesting artifacts and put them under glass.

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Some of the items on display in the Enlightenment gallery include an ichthyosaur skull discovered by Mary Anning, the young girl who happened to be an expert paleontologist, case upon case of Greek red-figure pottery (more on that below), and a 17th-century medicine kit, containing various herbs and tinctures…and a few dried skinks.

Artifacts aside, I really just enjoyed being in the locale. The King’s Library was dim, quiet, mercifully cool (unlike the rest of the Museum’s galleries that day), with polished wood floors, busts on pedestals, old-fashioned glass-topped wooden display cases, and central columns of polished Aberdeen granite. It looked like the Platonic ideal of an “old-fashioned museum,” before they went all sleek and touch-screen. And there were still bookshelves lining the second-level walls to give the place a proper atmosphere, the books themselves on semi-permanent loan from the House of Commons library.

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The rest of the Museum was fairly crowded. I heard so many American accents it felt like I was back in the Smithsonian in D.C. There were at least seven different school groups touring the facility, including two or three “public school” (i.e., private school) groups in ties and blazers, calling each other by their last names in time-honored public school tradition. (“Hurry up, Jenkins!”)

The three of us then acquired our audio guide headphones and went our separate ways, agreeing to meet for lunch in the surprisingly good Museum pizzeria, and splitting up again to finish out the afternoon. No one should go through a museum at someone else’s pace.

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I was surprised at how relatively few artifacts in the British Museum had to do with Britain itself. (“Relatively few” meaning a mere half-dozen or so galleries.) It really was a reflection of how obsessed early antiquarians and collectors were with the “classical” civilizations of Greece and Rome, and to a lesser extent, Egypt and Mesopotamia. The “Greeks in Italy” room was bigger than the entire medieval England section.

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A Roman mosaic from guess where? — Ephesus!

The entrance to the ground floor Egyptian galleries was dominated by the Rosetta Stone, acquired by the Museum in 1802. Arguably the most important archaeological find ever, the Rosetta Stone is a large slab of granodiorite (similar to granite) engraved with the same passage in three different languages — Greek, Demotic (letter-based Egyptian), and Egyptian hieroglyphs. It is noteworthy for providing the key to deciphering the formerly mysterious hieroglyphs, opening vast new vistas in the study of ancient Egypt. Written around 196 B.C. (the text was a political decree from Egyptian king Ptolemy V) and discovered by Napoleon’s troops in the Nile Delta town of Rosetta (now known as Rasid) in 1799, the Stone was a part of a larger stele that had been broken up and used as foundation filler for a medieval-era fort. The British acquired it as a spoil of war after defeating Napoleon. They chalked in the inscription (like you would with D&D dice), and coated it with protective wax, giving it the appearance of black basalt. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 1)

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?

A British Airways aircraft taxis past ot

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. Continue reading

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Video Store Memories

Sorry, misled voters of West Virginia and Pennsylvania. Coal-mining jobs are not coming back in any appreciable amount. Never. Ever. And any presidential candidate of any party who tells you otherwise is playing you for a fool. But that’s the way of the world. Think of the poor harness and saddle makers when those Model T Fords started rolling off the assembly line. Shit outta luck. No one’s crossing the Atlantic on dirigibles anymore either, putting all those patriotic, hard-working dirigible technicians out of business. Industries die when times change. It’s a fact of life.

I can’t recall anyone carrying signs at political rallies when the humble video rental store circled the drain and gurgled out of existence not long ago. Maybe that’s because most video store employees are…excuse me, were…jaded Gen-X youngsters, not people with families to support and hoping for a pension after forty-five years of inhaling coal dust.

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Everyone knows the big video store chains. Blockbuster Video, with twelve locations still open nationwide as of this writing. Hollywood Video, which died screaming in 2010, never collecting the $23.00 I owed them for a way past-due return of I Love You, Beth Cooper. Less remembered are the independents, the hole-in-the-wall mom & pop places that sprang up all over, circa 1985. They occupied every third strip-mall storefront for a while, usually had a beaded curtain guarding access to untold triple-X delights in the “back room,” and were mostly forced out of existence a decade-and-a-half later by the aforementioned big chains and their corporate ubiquity. Even liquor stores and gas stations often had a small video rental section for awhile. But as the twin behemoths of Blockbuster and Hollywood scaled a mountain made up of the smoking corpses of their competitors, their time was running out, too. Streaming services became the order of the day, and with a little practice, even Grandma and Grandpa could pick a flick from Amazon Video without having to put on their orthopedic shoes and leave their house that smells of dishrags and old soup.

Physical media came with a lot of problems. VHS tapes could get mangled (or melted in a hot car). DVDs could get scratched. But streaming has its limitations, too. Your WiFi can get intermittent. It’s hard to casually browse. You have to actively seek out older movies to stream. You can no longer just randomly spot them on the shelves when you’re out with your friends in the video store, and then shame your friends into seeing them:

“Dude, you haven’t seen Mandingo? We are getting that shit and solving that problem TONIGHT.” So you would get Mandingo, maybe Big Trouble in Little China, and whatever the new release of the week was. And odds are, the rabid Mandingo fan would push to watch that one first, possibly to the total exclusion of the other movies, and to the enlightenment of all viewers.

In my multi-part look back at 90s music, I told a few stories about life behind the counter of a video store, but I didn’t go into the detail this vanished way of life deserves. I was an employee of First Run Video in Yuba City, California from August 1993 (age 18) to December 1995 (just turned 21). First Run was not a national chain, nor was it a standalone. It was a mini-chain, consisting of about six locations in the northern part of the Sacramento Valley. Redding. Red Bluff. Weaverville. Oroville, maybe? I know Yuba City was its southernmost location. I started there on its third or fourth day of operation.

I can find no web evidence of First Run Video. It closed its doors in 1999, I think. As far as the internet is concerned, it never existed. No archived local business articles or ads. No old storefront photos on Google Images. No bitmap image files of its logo (a medal that read “1st” with a forked blue prize ribbon dangling underneath). No YouTube video of its one local TV commercial (which featured the back of my head for .002 seconds). Except for those mentions on my own website, First Run Video is — in the truest sense — gone, even from the internet nostalgia machine.

So all we have left is my description of the place, drawn solely from twenty-plus-year-old memories. Take my hand, Gentle Reader, and I’ll guide you through it…

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A busy shopping center at a busy intersection. Anchored at one end by an Orchard Supply Hardware store, and at the other, a Bel Air grocery store. Just around the corner from Bel Air, facing the palm tree-lined side parking lot, is First Run Video…

It’s big for what it is. A lot of square footage. It seems like there’s an acre or more of alternating blue and white tiled floor. Walk in the double doors. On your left is the Children/Family video section, and the video games. On your right are all other genres. Lining the wall running across the back of the store, and curving around to the right, are the New Releases. If you walk straight ahead, you approach the counter where you receive your rented videos after you’d paid for them. There was a slot in that counter that would receive your returned videos. Above you are bright blue buzzing neon letters that spell out MOVIES. (I think. Maybe it said something else. All I know is that it was covered with a shitload of gnats and lacewings every summer.) But you pick up your movies later. Right now, pass by the Disneyland-style popcorn wagon (popcorn is gratis, but we only fire it up on weekends). Rows of little marquee light bulbs on both sides of the entrance lobby channel you to enter the rental floor to the right or left. Either way, you pass through our security gates. Metallic strips of tape stuck to each and every VHS cassette in the store will set those bad boys off, ensuring you don’t pilfer that copy of License To Drive. They’re also fun to stick on co-workers’ backs right before they leave for the day, so they can exit to the sound of a shrieking alarm system. (Best to pull that gag when the store is pretty empty.)

One employee, Doug, who bore a striking resemblance to the “Ogre” character from Revenge328ff3d500bd1af7297f0e2145245ead of the Nerds (but was much more good-natured) was actually simple enough to clean the dust out of an empty marquee light socket using his finger. The crack sound was audible, and Doug’s considerable bulk was sent sprawling. He later showed us the black fingernail and the spiderweb of reddened blood vessels that crept up his arm. Doug also once called in sick after falling off a local railroad bridge. He soon moved on to other opportunities.

The store shelves are not real shelves, they are those rubberized wire racks that you would normally find in a budget-line refrigerator. Light, movable, and above all, cheap. Apart from the Customer Service Counter (and the New Member Sign-Up table just to the side of it), everything in the store seems made out of these modular racks. Most people enter to the right, where they would encounter the New Member Sign-Up table with its stacks of membership info cards, and, for a blessedly short period, the “trailer machine.”

InnocentBlood-Warner1The trailer machine was a big console with a video screen, where customers could cue up a preview for an upcoming movie by pushing a button. If no one was around to push the button — and very few people exercised this option — the machine would simply cycle through all its trailers on a randomized loop. The problem was, the machine was loaded with far too few trailers, and each one would crop up every fifteen minutes or so. The first two lines of Sinatra’s “That Old Black Magic,” which opened the trailer of John Landis’ Innocent Blood, became permanently embedded in by frontal brain lobe after four months of hearing it every fifteen minutes of an eight-hour shift. The other problem was that no one ever showed up to change out the trailers. The movies featured went from “Upcoming” to “New Release” to “Saturday afternoon on TNT.” The machine was finally removed in the name of employee sanity.

If you’re like most people, you would head right for the New Release section against the back wall. The VHS boxes shrink-wrapped around styrofoam blocks would be the “display models.” Any actual copies of the movie we have on hand would be behind those. How many people bring the display box up to rent, and leave disappointed? More than I’d care to count, despite the myriad of signs around the store explaining the system. No such confusion in the main rental area, where the videos older than three months go to be pretty much never touched again. The box is cut down and slid into the clear sleeve of a traditional plastic VHS case, and the tape goes right inside. When their time comes, a copy or two of the former New Release is kept for this area (divided by genre), and the dozen or so others–the ones we could barely keep on the shelves for those heady first few weeks we had them–are kicked to our Used Movies To Buy section. When they inevitably fail to sell after a few more months, they are shipped off to some mysterious video graveyard.

New Releases rent for $2.99, and go fast. People with far too much time on their hands hover around, and snatch them as soon as we put them on the shelf. They ask us to go out to the parking lot and check the dropbox, even though it had just been checked twenty minutes ago. Luck plays a big part in going home with the hottest new movie…unless you are a comely young woman, then your odds go up substantially. We always keep one copy of all the New Releases in the “Pretty Girl Drawer” behind the counter. (“One just came in…I was holding it for myself, but you seem nice…” No employee discount for New Releases, either. Once they are in the old movie section, however, they are free for us, and we can and do bring them home by the carload.)

If you are lucky (or attractive) enough to get ahold of your coveted New Release, then you might turn your attention to our back catalog, which takes up the bulk of the real estate. They are subdivided into an exasperatingly pointless amount of sub-genres, as indicated by a color-coded sticker. Here’s what I remember: Action (green), Adventure (orange), Children (light blue), Classic (light brown), Comedy (yellow), Drama (gold), Family (dark blue), Horror (pink), Thriller (red), Romance (white), Sci Fi (purple), Western (dark brown). There may be more. Documentaries and foreign films are over by the Family section, and sport a layer of dust the thickness of a rabbit’s pelt. This is Yuba City, after all. Continue reading

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