London, Cambridge & Reading, England 2007

The Start of a Belated Honeymoon

When we got married we took a long weekend to go on—what we called at the time—our Honeymoon Lite. We had a lovely time in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, but we wanted to do more. We talked about going to Europe as soon as we could. Then Life got in the way. We bought our house in Silver Spring, and we realized just how much of a time-suck home ownership could be, especially when the home is 75-years-old and hasn’t been looked after for the last 10 or more. Then my father passed away and suddenly we had another house in need of cleaning and serious maintenance plus the need to sort the estate, etc. Shortly after that we decided to move to Vermont where we first settled in a small flat in Montpelier and then it was back to house hunting and job hunting, and … Well, you get the idea. In “Beautiful Boy” John Lennon sings “Life is just what happens to you, while your busy making other plans.”

This past summer Sarah reminded me that we had planned to take a real honeymoon. With our fifth anniversary coming up in October I wasn’t about to argue, and so we booked tickets to England and started planning our “Real Honeymoon.”

I won’t go into the boring details of the planning other than to say that with so many friends in the United Kingdom, it was difficult trying to coordinate schedules, especially considering our trip coincided with the Christmas holiday. We were disappointed we weren’t going to be able to see James and Ruth in Wales because of their holiday plans, but we ended up being able to schedule visits with nearly everyone else. Planning a MetaFilter meetup helped.


And Away We Go!

Coming in to LandPlanning the trip seems easy compared to the hoops we had to jump through just to get to the airport to start our trip.

A snow storm dumped about eight inches on most of New England, making it difficult to get the dogs to camp (read: the kennel) in East Montpelier before the trip. Being a Sunday, the drop-off window was from 3-5 p.m., meaning we had to leave around two. The round trip was slow, and we had to stop once to scrape the windscreen when the snow turned briefly to sleet, but the dogs got to camp. We hate thinking of them like children, but it always difficult to drop them off when we leave. Not so much because we will miss them (we will), but because they don’t know we are coming back. We worry less about Haley, but Mickey was bounced around between homes before we finally adopted him and he doesn’t do as well with extended periods of our absence.

This morning we got up, packed the truck with our luggage and stopped by Chelsea Station in South Royalton for a big breakfast before continuing on to Lebanon, New Hampshire to catch the bus to Boston. The Dartmouth Coach is a great service, which saves time and money. Instead of having to drive to Burlington and pay for an extra flight to Boston or New York, we took a 2-hour bus ride directly to Logan airport. We arrived at the bus station, with plenty of time to spare, and were pleased to see that they had plowed the parking lot.

When the bus arrived, we piled on. I finished reading “Equal Rites” while Sarah worked on a set of socks she was making for our host’s mother. For the most part the bus trip was good. The only downside was a small child, wearing her father’s noise-canceling headphones while watching the film (“Rudy”) the bus was showing, was sitting across the aisle from us. She didn’t understand the film, which was excusable; but she also didn’t understand that she was shouting “DAD! WHY IS RUDY SAD! DAD, WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FRIEND! DAD! DAD!” The father didn’t make much of an effort to explain to her that she didn’t need to shout, and instead tried whispering to her… while she wore the noise-canceling headphones. “WHAT!? DAD, DID SOMETHING BAD HAPPEN TO RUDY’S FRIEND? WHAT? DID SOMETHING BAD… WHAT!!!!!????” I put in my earplugs, which I carry for just such occasions. So instead of hearing this little girl shouting, I just heard her talking really loud. Well, at least they weren’t on our flight.

We arrived at Logan airport so far in advance of our flight that no one was even at the Virgin counters. So we read and knitted and had some coffee and chilled until it was time to leave.

As for the flight, it was horrible; for me at least. Virgin provides the video screens in the head rests, and they show movies, TV shows, and one can even play games. However, my system was wonky, and because the same controller that runs the video also controls the light above the seat there were times when the light wouldn’t turn off. This was a red-eye flight, so the wonky light was irritating, and the flight attendants were unable to do anything about it. Every once in a while the video system would just reboot. Not just my screen, but every screen I could see would suddenly reboot. This did not build confidence in the plane.

All of this was tolerable, but once the plane started dropping suddenly, shaking, and people screamed I was a basket-case. I was holding on to Sarah and rocking back and forth. I had told Sarah many times that I don’t like flying, but this was the first time she had been with me on a plane where we encountered turbulence this bad. The turbulence/shaking lasted for a long time. When I checked the in-flight navigation system I noticed we still had two hours in the air. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. Thankfully things calmed down shortly thereafter.

Best Chinese Meal EVER!We arrived at the airport a little later than scheduled, and Chris Mear was there to pick us up. It was 8 a.m. GMT, but it felt like 2 a.m. to us. Sarah rode up front on the ride from Heathrow to Chris’ place in northeast London. I eventually fell asleep in the back awaking as we go to our destination.

Once at Chris’, we met his mum, chatted a bit over tea, and then took a 2 hour nap to recharge our batteries. When we woke up, Chris walked us down to the closest Underground stop so we could get our bearings and an Oyster card. Naturally we stopped by a local pub and had a pint to help split up the trip. When we got back we hung out some more with Chris and his mum. Chris’ brother, David, stopped by a few hours later to start his Christmas holiday.

It was at this point that Chris’ mum really began the process of spoiling us rotten. She cooked an amazing Chinese meal made up of spring rolls, sweet and sour pork, glazed chicken, and a curried beef dish. YUM!

After we were too tired and too stuffed to do much, so we played Wii. Neither Sarah nor I had ever played Wii, but now we are very interested in getting one ourselves. We’re not big gamers, but we really liked that the Wii is more about movement and less about sitting on your bum and using you thumbs.


Playing Tourists

View from the London EyeOur first full day in London we decided to take advantage of the beautiful weather by taking in some sites. More specifically the London Eye, which offers a great view of many of the sites of the city. Being the off-season there was no one queued for the attraction, so after a quick security pat-down we we were on our way! Wow! The views are amazing from The Eye, and I highly recommend it to anyone. I was somewhat concerned about my fear of heights kicking in, but for some reason—unlike the Eiffel Tower in 2000—it didn’t.

As I said, the weather was clear, but there was still a slight smoggy haze surrounding London. It didn’t interfere too much with the view; however, and from our perch in the sky we could see the Clock Tower (Big Ben), Parliament, St. Paul’s, Buckingham Palace (according to the flying flag, The Queen was home), and many other buildings.

When our trip around The Eye was completed we hopped on a river cruise boat to take in the sights from the Thames. This trip is my third to the city, but this was the first time I had seen it from the great river. It was nice to take in the sights from a different point of view. The Tower Bridge from below was especially interesting. It was a chilly day and the boat we were on offered a free glass of mulled wine which made it easier to stand on the deck. The tour guide was amusing as well as informative, and I am glad we went.

When we had finished our boat tour, we crossed back over the river via the Jubilee walking bridge and made our way over to Covent Garden for a little snack and liquid refreshment. We found both at a little corner pub that serves Cornish pasties. We grabbed our beers and made our way to the balcony overlooking the square in front of St. Paul’s church where a cheeky street performer was still winding up his audience. His schtick was apparently juggling sharp knives while tight-rope talking on a rope he had strung between two pillars of the church. Sarah made me laugh as she semi-shouted “Less chat, more splat!” The guy eventually performed his trick successfully and we made our way back to north London to hook up with the Mears.

For dinner we had take away from the local chippie place. We had fish, batter dipped and fried sausages, and, of course, chips. The choice was a good one for dinner because afterward Sarah, Chris, David and I went out to a pub to help celebrate a friend of Chris’ birthday. The pub was packed with people participating in a Christmas-themed pub quiz, so we had to stand for the first two rounds. By the time the last bell rang we were filled with holiday cheer and negotiated our way to the bus stop to find our way home. Once there we played a few hour hours of drunken Wii before heading off to bed.


Meeting The London MeFites

MetaFilter Meetup PlacardThursday we spent most of the afternoon braving the crowds in the shops and on the streets near Oxford Circus. At times it was so crowded one could leave their feet and be carried by the crowds. The shops were mad! But one of the things I noticed while holiday shopping in London was that the stores were all very well staffed and that staff were significantly more helpful than I have encountered in the states at similar times. All the registers were staffed, people were nice and efficient, and if you looked lost someone approached you and asked if they could help.

After shopping we took advantage of a little downtime before heading off to the MetaFilter meetup. The meetup [Meetup Flickr set] was held at Dovetail, a small bar that seemed to cater to a business crowd, that is known for its fruit beer and Belgian ales. When we arrived, cillit bang, and a few others were already there and had managed to stuff many people around the reserved tables. The drinking had begun, but we weren’t too far behind.

When we first arrived, randomination greeted Sarah with “they have fruit beer!” which bewildered her. Sarah’s more of a dark beer drinker after all. David and I decided to share jugs of Leffe Brun, which was delicious, but, in hindsight may have gone down a bit too easily.

We had a great time getting to meet all of these nice, intelligent people, but the bell rang a bit sooner than we expected. A few people joined us for an afters party at Chris’, which was funny as we all wove our way to the tube stop and eventually stumbled the few miles to Chris’ once we arrived. Thank goodness Chris had the forethought to stock up on beer and scotch!

The afters party went on until about 5 a.m. and did we ever pay for it the next day.


Meeting Nick & Jess

Nick and Jess at Ping PongThe Friday after the London MetaFilter meetup was a tough one. All I could manage to eat was toast for hours. So, all-in-all, I’d say the previous night was a smashing success.

One of the things Sarah and I were looking forward to the most on this trip was the chance to meet two people with whom we had chatted and exchanged emails with for years. Actually it was more than just electronic exchanges. Nick and Jess had also provided both of us with design help for our respective businesses. So we were excited that the day had come when we would finally meet them.

The plan was to meet at a tube stop and then go out for drinks and then dinner. We missed them at the tube stop so we went looking for a place that does its best to stay hidden. Milk & Honey is a private club with no sign on its massive door. The place looks like something out of a Harry Potter book. Like it has a spell cast on it to keep non-members from even seeing it. Luckily we looked up the address before we left.

We spotted Jess & Nick right away, and the four of us spent the first 30 minutes or so in the usual awkwardness that comes with a first meeting—except each couple brought little gifts for one another, which helped. It was rather amusing prior to our meeting when I told Nick that we wanted face time with them and that the place we went didn’t matter. I don’t recall the exact wording, but he said “We thought we’d start with drinks, and if you aren’t as cool as your online personas then we can call it a night.” It ended up we all hit it off (at least that was our impression) and so delicious and strong drinks at Milk & Honey was followed by a yummy dim sum dinner at Ping Pong in Soho, where we also had flowering jasmine tea.

After Ping Pong closed we wandered around Chinatown doing our bests to avoid the stumbling drunks. I had forgotten that it was the end of the work week before the start of Christmas holidays. Londoners—and the English—love their drink, but this night seemed extra special. As Nick emailed me later, they saw a record number of “Christmas sick puddles” on their way home that night.

We parted company just after 11 p.m., and since we had got on so well—plus we had strategically forgotten a present for Jess that Nick asked us to buy in the States for him—we agreed to meet the next morning before Sarah and I headed over to watch the Fulham match against Wigan in the afternoon.


Who Are You !?

Fulham players in white and Wigan in blue stripsAs promised the night before, Sarah and I made our way over to Jess & Nick’s flat the next day to have tea (and whisky) and Christmas fruit cake. We even remembered to drop off the gift we forgot the night before!

They have a brilliant flat near the Pimlico tube stop with a lovely view from the roof deck. We had a nice visit and the conversation was stimulating. Sucks that there is a big ocean between us.

As their last great service, Nick & Jess alerted us to the time-saving of using the overground train from Vauxhall to Wimbledon, and walked us to the train station. This allowed us to visit with them longer, so we were grateful.

The train ride was quick and we easily beat Spahr, Tait, and Sharp to the planned meetup spot at Wimbledon station. It was great to see the lads again and I was pleased to introduce them to Sarah. Spahr brought along his son, who I hadn’t seen since he was a tot. Great kid.

As a group we rode a train over to a stop near the grounds and walked until we reached Craven Cottage. Once there, I had a small issue with my ticket, which required me to bounce around between helpful people with orange jackets and handheld computers; however, I eventually was able to enter and meet up with Sarah, Sharp and Tait at our seats in the neutral section (“Come on, Neutrals!”).

Sharp and Tait messing aboutDespite ending in a 1-1 draw, the match was quite enjoyable. The home team fell behind late in the second half on a goal by Marcus Bent—who, from my vantage point, appeared to be offside. Up until that first goal, Fulham had been the better side going forward. After the goal they worked hard and, eight minutes later, American Clint Dempsey, equalized with a low drive from the edge of the area.

After the game, we met up again with the Spahrs and headed over to a pub by the tube stop. The place was packed, but I managed to wiggle my way to the bar rather easily and ordered a round for the group. The Spahrs left shortly after, and the rest of us (Sharp, Tait, Sarah and myself) went in search of another drinking establishment. Hopefully one showing the late-starting Wolves match.

We only walked about a block when I noticed the familiar orange strips on the telly in a large, posh bar. We went inside, Tait got the round and we all ordered food. The burgers were huge and served on thick breadboards. The game was at half time and the Wolves were down 0-1, but they scored midway through the second half to equalize. Shortly after that they scored what appeared to be the winning goal, only to have it (rightfully, honestly) called back for offsides.

After the match, Sharp left for home while we made our way to a quiet pub to catch up. The Harcourt Pub near the Edgware Road tube stop met our needs and we relaxed over a last round before calling it a night.


A Day Trip to Cambridge

Misty, beautiful CambridgeWhen we woke up this morning it looked like quintessential English weather as a fog hung over London. I assumed it would burn off as the day went on, but we lucked out that it remained for the rest of the day. It added a lovely aesthetic to our trip to Cambridge. The drive to Cambridge, however, was uneventful because the same fog made it impossible to view any scenery with the exception of the motorway. Thankfully Chris knew his way.

Once in Cambridge, we made a beeline to the outdoor cafe near the carpark for hot coffee, before making our way to the outdoor market to shop for last minute gifts. The market was an eclectic mix of art, knick knacks, and food shops all with interesting wares as well as shopkeepers.

We had no real destinations while in Cambridge. Chris guided us around in order to see the various colleges and their sites, all the while imparting little bits of wisdom on Cambridge history and lore. Many of the colleges were closed due to the holidays, including Emmanuel—Chris’ college—while others thankfully had their gates open. The buildings and chapels are breathtaking.

After wandering around for a few hours we stopped in for lunch at The Eagle, which is possibly best known as the place where Francis Crick announced that he and James Watson had “discovered the secret of life” after coming up with their proposal for the structure of DNA in 1953. I didn’t find this bit out until I went looking for a link for this post, though, so all I knew at the time is that the place had delicious fish n’ chips and tasty beer.

After lunch we walked around a little longer, stopping briefly at a Rɘvolution—a chain of trendy vodka bars that seem to be popping up everywhere. We stopped primarily to use their loo, but decided to at least have lattes since we were using their facilities. The service at this place was odd. We sat down and ordered our drinks. A short while later they arrived; we finished them and then waited and waited and waited and never saw our waitress again. I approached another staff member to ask for our waitress letting them know we wanted to settle our tab. They, at first, were confused and thought we wanted to order another round of lattes. We explained we needed to leave and the woman left to find our waitress. The same woman returned and told us that she was sorry we had to wait and that our drinks were free. At least we think that’s what she said. We slowly put on our coats and just as slowly made our way to the exit, in case we were mistaken. No one stopped us, so I guess we heard correctly.

We were still making our way to the carpark, but there was a John Lewis‘ across the street so we stopped briefly to look for more gifts. The place was packed, but again queues moved quickly and the staff was helpful and nice.

On the way home, the traffic was a bit slower as people made their way to their Christmas destinations. We drove mostly in silence while listening to Christmas songs on the radio.

I am glad to report that it remained foggy the whole time we were in Cambridge, and I will always recall it romantically draped in mist. It was a great day all around, and I am grateful to Chris for chauffeuring us as well as showing us around Cambridge.


Christmas Eve Midnight Mass … Jam!

Karaoke massFor the first time since arriving in England we took it easy today. No shopping, no site-seeing. Mostly we hung out drinking tea, talking, watching Christmas-related shows on the telly, and occasionally slipping away to wrap holiday gifts. A nice, lazy, Christmas Eve.

In the late afternoon Jenny surprised us with another scrumptious meal. Sarah had told Jenny how her favourite meat was lamb and so there it was. Jenny is amazing!

After supper Sarah and I watched our traditional holiday film, About a Boy. Not exactly a Christmas film, but with some elements that we think display Christmas spirit. David joined us and seemed to enjoy our silly little tradition. Once the film had ended, Jenny, David, Sarah and I played Upwords. It was the first time I had played, and while it seems familiar to Scrabble fans like me, it is a game that requires a different way of thinking. Jenny and David competed with each other while politely watching while Sarah and I struggled. It was still good fun to relax and play a good board game.

While we were playing games, Chris was off practicing for the night’s gig… playing organ at midnight mass at St. Mary’s Church in Walthstow. He came back after rehearsal to pick up Sarah and I so we could join him for the jam.

It was short drive to the church, and we arrived well before the worshipers, so Sarah and I wandered around the ancient place, checking out the architecture and the burial stones. The only people around when we arrived were the Vicar, deacons, and another gentlemen—who later was revealed to be the new archdeacon … and a West Ham supporter. People were polite at that news, but it may have been because it was Christmas. There was at least one guy, sitting behind us, wearing an Arsenal jacket. I was polite when I met him (before the West Ham announcement, naturally) while I wandered around before the service. He asked if I was a regular, and I replied that I was visiting from the States and there to support Chris, the organist. He asked me where I was from in the States, and when I replied Vermont, we said “ah, yes. That’s in the west, correct?” I politely corrected him, we conversed a little more before parting ways.

Sarah, who had gone outside to wait for our friend to arrive, returned a few minutes later with Jan in tow. Jan took a few photos of Chris and then joined us in a pew nearest the organ.

The service was somewhat familiar to me, but still different enough that I kept my mouth shut most of the time. Even with the karaoke screens and monitors everywhere displaying the words to songs didn’t really help. Songs that I thought I knew had completely different words than I recalled from my childhood.

The vicar was nice, and funny. At the beginning of the service he made some announcements. He said that Jesus didn’t want us to hold it, and directed people to where the loos were located. He said that there was a carpeted area with toys if the kids or adults needed a lie down. He reminded people to turn off their mobiles saying that at midnight they would start beeping with text wishes from family and friends hoping to be the first to wish a happy Christmas; and that some of these people would no doubt have been indulging in a bit of holiday cheer.

We came for Chris’ organ playing though, and we were not disappointed. He rocked the house! The organ sounded great and Chris made it sing. Sending people home with Toccata from Widor’s fifth organ symphony.

Once the service was over the four of us wandered around the village near the church. We said goodbye to Jan and headed back to Chris’ place where we ended up staying up until 4 a.m. drinking scotch whisky and singing songs while David played guitar.


Happy Christmas … Pass the Sausages

Christmas Dinner!If we thought we were being spoiled by Jenny with her Chinese food cooking and overall generosity for the week, she out did herself on Christmas. As I mentioned in the previous installment, we stayed up quite late the night before drinking and generally making merry, so when we heard Jenny yell “David!” on Christmas morning, we decided we had better get up and not make Jenny wait to open her presents.

When we got downstairs, Jenny had already put out some delicious mini breakfast baps, eggrolls, and had coffee ready, so all we had to do was fall into the couch and wait while Santa Jenny handed out gifts from under the tree. After opening gifts we enjoyed more tea and coffee and relaxed under dinner.

Jenny had dinner on the table by around 1 o’clock, and wow did she ever prepare a feast! There was a turkey draped in bacon that was so juicy, despite not being brined. She said she got the idea from Gordon Ramsey. All I know is it was juicy and delicious. The rest of the meal was made up of what I understand to be the traditional English Christmas dishes. We had Brussels sprouts, steamed carrots, fried parsnips, delicious roasted potatoes, cranberry relish, and three kinds of sausages—one of which was wrapped in bacon!

Before we sat down to stuff ourselves with this amazing culinary display, we pulled crackers, put on our paper crowns, and read the lame jokes. A real English Christmas.

After dinner, we waddled out of the dining room to plop ourselves in front of the telly to catch Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas message—her 50th, and the first in high definition. The Queen had barely finished her speech when Jenny called us back to the table for dessert… errr… pudding, which was made up of Christmas Pudding, trifle and an assortment of fresh fruits, including mango, papaya and pineapple.

After puddings we again made our way to telly room to watch universally recognized tradition holiday films like Finding Nemo and Shrek 2. By the way, one of the differences I noticed about Christmas in America and Christmas in England is that Americans are more likely to have traditional films we watch for the holiday. Think Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, White Christmas, A Christmas Story, etc. While the Brits seem to be nostalgic about Christmas music. And the British Christmas music is more likely to be pop music than American holiday sounds. When I think of Christmas songs, I am likely to think of standards like “White Christmas,” “Winter Wonderland,” “Little Drummer Boy,” etc. The pop Christmas songs I hear in England are songs that may have been played in America the year they were released, but rarely are played after. Songs like “Last Christmas” by Wham!, “Wonderful Christmas Time” by Paul McCartney, and Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” The latter seemed to drop off American airwaves almost immediately after Live Aid in 1985. Anyway, just an observation. I still never heard Santa’s Super Sleigh though.

After watching the aforementioned Christmas classic films, Sarah, Chris and I took a long walk around the neighbourhood to walk off dinner and pudding. We must have walked for an hour or so, but still felt full when we returned. Before we left we knew that there was still another course of food, but when we were told there was cheese, we envisaged a cheese plate and some crackers. What we returned to was a whole new meal. There were 8 different kinds of cheeses, a deli meat platter, crackers (the edible kind), bread, chutneys, bread sauce, olives, onions, pickles, celery, carrots, and port wine. We told ourselves we wouldn’t eat much, but it is impossible to get away with not eating when Jenny is in charge! Besides it was cheese! So it didn’t take too much convincing to get us to over indulge.

At this point I had to loosen my belt and have a lie down. We retired for the final time of the evening to the television room to watch the Red Dwarf marathon before I excused myself to go to bed. Sarah, Chris and David popped open a bottle of champagne and had a few glasses before finally saying goodnight to Christmas. One of the best Christmas’ ever.


Boxing Day

peaceful boatThe day after Christmas (Boxing Day) we had a lovely breakfast of leftover Christmas sausages, eggs and toast. It was yet another delicious meal put in front of us by Jenny, but this morning we were a bit melancholy because our visit with the Mear family was coming to an end. We knew we had another week to our holiday, and we had no doubt we would have fun, but we were going to miss Chris, David, and Jenny. I joked with Jenny that she had spoiled us so much that the rest of our trip would be down hill by comparison.

That wasn’t the case on Boxing Day afternoon though. Jan swung by around 10 a.m. and we loaded our luggage into the boot of her car, and we headed of to destinations unknown… well, to us. Jan had a day planned for us. All we knew was that we were going to be shown Essex. We thought that meant we were going for a short drive to the near-by forest. It ends up Essex is much bigger than that, and Jan showed us a great day.

Our first stop was at Rod Stewart’s house for tea. Well, not really. We stopped in this little wooded area, and walked out to take in the view. Rod’s house just happen to be there. So, I shook my arse in the general direction of his manse while singing “Do you think I’m sexy” but he never came out to compliment me on my moves. Probably too busy making another crap standards compilation.

As Rod didn’t invite us in for a tour we decided to move on, hoping back in the car for the brief trip to Greensted where the oldest wooden building in Europe stands. The building also claims to be the oldest wooden church in the world. St. Cedd, a Saxon-trained at the Celtic monastery on Lindisfarne, began his religious work in the area around 654 A.D., and a church was probably started shortly thereafter. The building was added to over the next several centuries, but the oldest part—the nave—was probably built around the time of the Battle of Hastings. One of the most interesting things we saw was the grave site of a crusader, who was probably a local who was seen as a hero. Regular services are still held in the church to this day. This was just the sort of thing we like, and it was very nice of Jan to take us here!

Next we made our way toward Chelmsford. The idea was to stop in Chelmsford for lunch, but when we got there Sarah and I were still too full from our sausagey breakfast. We wandered around the town, admiring the pargeting on the homes, and checking out the village ducks.

But Jan had other plans for us, and so we hopped back in her vehicle and headed to our next destination. I found Jan’s road map in the back seat and tried to figure out where we were headed based on the road signs, in case she dropped us off in the middle of nowhere and took our luggage—not that Jan was capable of such a thing. I decided we were going to Maldon next, and it ended up I was correct.

Maldon is an adorable little seaside community on the Blackwater estuary on the east coast of England. We didn’t completely explore the town, but we did walk down the high street on our way to the docks. Along the water there is a walk path, that hugs the shore. People, young and old, stroll along the water; some with their dogs or children in prams. There are places to get food, and a little human-made pond for people to play with their radio-controlled boats.

As soon as we arrived near the docks, we saw huge crowds of people gathered. Some were watching dancers while others were gawking at a Bentley parked to attract attention. We wandered around, taking in the sites around the docks, before strolling down to the point where there is a statue of a crusader.It was a beautiful day, and it was a lot of fun to watch all the people enjoying their Boxing Day outings.

We eventually made our way back to the car and headed off in search of lunch, which we found at a newer pub that was designed to look old. There we had a nice pub lunch before Jan dropped us off at the tube in search of our hotel.

This is where our day went down hill.

Tired from our long, fun day we dragged our luggage to one of the many hotels that line Sussex Garden Road near Paddington station. We easily found the hotel—The Normandie—we had booked on travelstay.com before we left the states, but quickly wished we were mistaken. It took the man at the counter a while to find our resevations, but he eventually caught on and we paid for the full 5 nights we expected to stay. We schlepped our luggage—which was getting heavier by the minute—up a flight of stairs, turned the key in the door and then tried to put on our best faces. Online the place had been described as being recently renovated, and even in the lobby there was a brochure touting the fresh new look. What we found was a dingy room with wallpaper peeling in the corners, mold in the shower, broken furniture, roach traps under the beds, and used soap bars in the sink. The place lived up to its name, if you first think of the French beach that was the site of the D-day invasion. We put on our best faces, because we weren’t sure what to do. Neither of us wanted to stay in this dump, but it was already 9 p.m. on Boxing Day.

We decided we needed a drink and a place to think, so we left our bags, and walked around the corner hoping to find the pub we had been in on Saturday with Tait. That place, and most others, were closed so we ended up in the Windsor Castle pub. The pub was open, but was it ever tacky. When we walked in we were greeted by a old, little man who made fun of us for being American. Funny thing was, the entire place was populated by Americans. We ordered a couple of pints and made our decision. We were going to check out of the dumpy Normandie, and check into one of the myriad places on the same street, figuring any place would be better than the place were our bags were. On the way back to get our stuff and check out, we stopped by one of the places where the reception area looked nice. We asked a couple going in what the rooms were like and they referred to the place as “posh” so we went in and asked to look at a few rooms—we had learned our lesson on booking sight-unseen. The rooms were eccentric and interesting, each with a theme. They were also almost double what we had paid at the dumpy Normandie (yes, I hope to Google bomb them), but we decided it was worth it. We paid for a room for the next two nights and then went back to the Normandie to claim our things and check out. At the dumpy Normandie the man behind the counter at first refused to give us a refund claiming we had used the room already (giving me an idea of their usual clientele, and insulting me and Sarah at the same time) and therefore at least owed him for one night. I argued that the place did not live up to its online description (or the brochure on his desk) and that I demanded a full refund. He called his boss, chatted in a language I did not understand, and then told me that if I wanted a full refund I would have to come back the next day to speak with the boss. I snickered at him and said that I would not be returning and that I would get my money back through the issuer of my credit card. As much as I wanted to lay into this guy, he was not the slumlord, and yelling at him wouldn’t help anything. We walked the block or so to our new hotel, unpacked our bags in our cozy tiny room. The rooms had names rather than numbers, and we had decided on “White Days, Soul Nights” over “Indian Summer” or “Cosmic Girl.” After we had settled in, I walked to the corner store to get a few take away pints of Guinness.

It was a difficult end to an otherwise great day, but, as predicted, nothing could compare to the hospitality that Jenny provided. We were just glad to be out of the dumpy Normandie.

Note: Essexjan also published her photos.


Alleyways, Apparitions, Ales & Appetites

London Eye and ReflectionOur first night away from the comforts of the Mear home was a hard adjustment, but we woke up ready to explore. The first part of the day was to wander around Oxford Circus and check out the insanity of post-holiday sales, and wow was today mad. We thought it was crazy when people were out doing their last-minute Christmas shopping, but this was much worse. Each store had signs advertising up to 70% off, and it made me wonder why anyone even bothers with shopping until after Christmas. We only braved the crowds in Liberty because we had planned to pick up a holiday ornament as a memento of spending our 2007 Christmas in England, and it seemed appropriate. The tough part was finding something we could bring back with us that wouldn’t end up as broken glass at the bottom our our luggage. We found a couple of cute little unbreakable items which were small, pretty and only cost a couple of quid.

Afterwards, we looked for a place to eat and decide to sate our desire for tapas by having lunch at a local La Tasca. The place was deserted when we arrived, and we settled in for a lovely meal. The menu was a bit overwhelming, so we ordered a pre-set sampling meal that had half vegetarian and half meat items. We also ordered wine, and after the meal a couple of glasses of sweet Muscatel. It was difficult to move after that large lunch, but the wine helped reinvigorate us for the crowds still out on the sidewalk.

We decided to head back to the hotel to drop off the ornaments we bought and the heavy backpack I was carrying. The latter was because we had the laptop with us to check-in with Tait about our plans to go to Reading to see him the next day. All day we had trouble finding anyplace with free wi-fi so we had to go to the local Apple store to check email, and firm up plans for the next few days. The lack of free wi-fi in the UK surprises me.

We dropped our stuff and got ready for the rest of our long evening of doing touristy stuff. We took the Tube to Embankment, walked across the Jubilee bridge, and took in the beauty of the Thames at night. It was a clear night and places like the London Eye, Parliament, and St. Paul’s were brightly lit and glowing in the rippling river which was at high tide. We wander along the river, past the London Eye and eventually crossed over on the Westminster Bridge just as Big Ben was about to chime five o’clock.

We continued down the other side of the river. We were still early for our London Walks meetup so we decided to head over to Covent Garden and grab some sweets and use the loo before the walk.

When people ask me what to do when they go to London, I always suggest they go on a London Walk (even more than one). They are a ton of fun, educational, and often times involve drink. The walk we chose—Apparitions, Alleyways & Ales—was no exception. We met up with our guide, Adam, at the appointed time, and off we went to explore the darker side of London with occasional stops to grab a pint. At least one of the pubs we stopped in was down an alley, and we would never had stumbled on this particular spot. We started at the Embankment Tube stop, made our way through the theatre district and eventually ended up in St. James’ Park, where there was a lovely view of Buckingham Palace. Adam informed us that all walks end between a pub and a tube stop so that people can make up their own mind as to whether they want to go home or grab a pint. We stopped briefly at the near-by pub to use the loo, and since it was mostly abandoned (being in a business area) we decided to head back toward home.

We were also a bit hungry so we wandered around the area surrounding the hotel hoping to find something open. We knew the Windsor Castle was open (they serve Thai food, of all things), but we thought the place was tacky—and the manager rude—the last time we were there. Running out of sit down options, we stopped by the local corner store and bought a cheese and onion pastie and a bag of crisps, and took them back to our hotel room to nosh while watching some telly.


Ready for Reading

Chapel and Cross in ReadingThe Friday morning of our last weekend in England started pretty much the way the night before had finished—looking for food. We awoke hungry for food and eager to get out of the city for a few days. The night before, while wandering about in search of food, we had seen a middle eastern place near Edgware Road that also offered variations on the full English breakfast. We decided to try our luck. We were the only diners and we very much enjoyed the generous portions, which we knew would keep us until dinner.

Once fed, we went back to the hotel to gather our belongings and walk the few blocks to Paddington Station to catch a train to Reading where we were meeting Mr. Tait. We had decided it was cheaper to check out of the hotel and book ourselves back in for Sunday in order to save money. After schlepping our luggage to the station, we bought our tickets and waited for our departure platform to be sorted. Sarah wandered over to a vendor’s booth and bought a Paddington Bear pin, while I watched pigeons and train schedules.

The train was on time, and we ended up on a “fast” train that had us at our destination in just under thirty minutes. When we arrived we called Tait to see if he could pick us up. He suggested we grab a taxi at the the station as we were at the further—from his place—of the two train stations in Reading. We easily found a car to hire and arrived at Tait’s shortly thereafter, where we had a cup of tea and enjoyed him showing off his delicious-sounding stereo.

We ended up going on a long walk, up and around the main streets of Reading as Tait showed us some sites. We made our way to the ruins of the Abbey before ducking into the Hobgoblin for a pint. We stopped at a butchers, a Halal market, a microbrew/retaurant for a mini keg, and at an amazing coffee place for an espresso before making our way back to Tait’s. Once at Tait’s we tapped the keg and relaxed while he made a delicious curry dinner; the recipe from a cookbook I had bought him seven years earlier! The meal was a spicy and tender chicken dish that went well with the Pale Ale we were drinking.

After dinner we watched Ross Noble on Tait’s laptop and laughed our asses off. There were times I was laughing so hard I didn’t dare take a sip of beer for fear of having it come out my nose—and let’s face it, that’s a waste. When the video was over, Tait broke out the backgammon board and I broke Tait’s spirit by beating him 3-1 in a best of five competition. I spotted him the first game and then beat him harder than a man really should beat someone who is putting you up and just fed you a tasty meal. But he needed to be taken down a peg, and it was all for fun.

Tired, full, with a bit of a buzz, and wanting to be rested for the next day’s roadtrip, Sarah and I went upstairs to sleep, while Tait stayed up to watch a movie.


Magical Mystery Tor

Tor at SunsetWhen we went to bed last night the wind was howling and rain was beating against the windows. We were concerned we wouldn’t have good weather for our trip to Glastonbury; however, when we got up the sun was shining and the sky was a beautiful blue.

I went down stairs to rouse the sleeping, and loudly snoring Tait, which is how I learned the poor sod had been up half the night watching a film. I am not sure he could sleep well on the floor and so stayed up until he crashed. It was very nice of him to let us stay in his bed, but now I was feeling guilty.

Once we were all up, and had a quick cup of tea, we made our way to the train station, where we easily caught a fast train to Basingstoke. Waiting there was Tait’s girlfriend Paula, who was serving as our guide. We made introductions, hopped into her comfortable car, and I began to drift off in the back seat.

Our first stop was Stonehenge. I had toured it previously (with Tait, no less) but Sarah had not seen it, so Paula and Tait were kind enough to stop. The place is a bit of a zoo with tour buses, and they charge to get within 20 meters, so we decided to park the car and scurry across the highway to steal a peak and a photo without shelling out money. Sarah snapped a few photos of Stonehenge—as well as the sheep lounging around nearby—and then we all dashed back across the highway to continue on our way.

Not having had time for breakfast, we decided to make lunch our first priority once we reached Glatonbury. Most of the shops in the village of Glastonbury serve a community of spiritually-minded people and the like-minded tourist who flock there. Swing a cat and you’ll bump into a crystals shop. Same with cafes. We quickly found a quirky little bistro-ish place where we had a lovely lunch and espresso. The place was filled with paintings of musicians—pop icons and jazz greats. It would have been a fine place to sit and have a cup of one’s favourite beverage. And, perhaps, have a proper first chat with Paula. Up until lunch, I had only really seen the back of her head. She has wonderful hair, by the way. However, as luck would have it, there was a toddler nearby who had trained his mother to give him anything he wanted as long as he pointed at said item, and screeched as loud as his little lungs would allow. Lunch, therefore, was delicious, and brief.

After lunch we wandered around town for a bit, peeking in at the abbey, and browsed some of the many shops. Tait would pop into every music shop he saw, and purchase something at each stop. He is a dedicated—if not obsessive (in a good way)—lover of music. Consuming as much as time allows. We were glad to hear he is taking up the bass.

Many of the shops in town are tucked down tiny walkways between ancient buildings, which makes shopping a bit like solving a labyrinth. Sometimes you are rewarded, and such was the case when Tait found a beautiful angel harpist statuette for Paula. While they were finishing up in that shop, I wandered into the courtyard to window shop and snap a photo of Nicolas Cage who I had seen when we entered. He had a cap on and was walking with a cane and a distinct limp. When we went by him the first time he was posing with a lesbian couple—in matching rainbow sweaters—we had seen in the cafe earlier. They had asked him to take a photo with them. He smiled, and obliged. When I turned around again, he appeared to be signing something for another person. At this point I knew I wasn’t going to intrude, so I set my camera on zoom and pretended to be photographing something else. What I ended up with was a dark picture of Mr. Cage (and his wife?) glaring at me from 20 feet away. I was trying to be respectful, I swear!

Neither Tait nor Paula were interested in walking up the Tor, so they dropped us off near an entrance and said they would be back in thirty minutes. Sarah and I climbed the steep steps that wind up the Tor, stepping aside occasionally to let those descending pass. It was a much shorter climb than I had anticipated, but significantly breezier at the top than we expected. We circumambulated St. Michael’s Tower at the top of the Tor, and it took all our energy to move forward when the wind was in our face, and every muscle we had to keep from being blown off our feet when the wind was at our back! The wind brought a chill and after a short while we returned to the spot where we had been dropped off, and took in the view of the Tor as the sun began to set behind it.

Paula and Tait picked us up and we went back to the village. Sarah wanted to buy some local sheep’s cheese, but we ended up with a local cow’s milk cheddar. On the way back to the car we stopped in a pub for a pint, where Sarah and Paula talked about how to ideally record an instrument like the harp.

As soon we finished our beverages we hopped in the car and headed back to Basingstoke to catch a train back to Reading. The ride back was mostly in the dark, but we were still able to make out Stonehenge in the shadows as we passed. The train ride to Reading was short, so we made a bee-line for an (Australian) bar to catch the Arsenal match. When we arrived the Gunners were down 0-1. I went to the loo, which was down in the bowels of the places. While there I heard a huge cheer. Not knowing the bar patron’s allegiances, I wasn’t sure who had scored, so I chanted to myself “Come-on Arsenal.” When I got back to the pub, a quick glance at the giant telly screen showed that Arsenal had, in fact, scored the equaliser! They went on to score three more goals to beat Everton 4-1.

When the match was over, Sarah, Tait and I popped over to the local Pizza Express for a late bite to eat. The pizza was delicious, but damn if it wasn’t the most expensive pizza dinner I have ever had!

Stuffed, and tired, we made the long walk back to Tait’s to pick up our things and call a taxi. We had decided to stay in Reading that night—and based on a suggestion by Tait—we stayed at the Novotel near the train station. After staying in a cramped London hotel, this place was a luxury (shower and tub, Internet, etc.), and cost twenty quid a night less. Plus, the stay included a full English breakfast buffet in the morning! Sarah had a soak in the tub, I had a relaxing shower, and we both slept very well. We highly recommend this French hotel chain, and will seek them out wherever we travel.


One for the Tarmac

Blackfriars and FlowersWhen we woke we were glad we had been talked into the full English breakfast buffet when we checked in the night before. We stuffed ourselves knowing we would not be eating until later when we met up with David and Chris. After breakfast, we grabbed our bags and walked the few short blocks to the Reading train station. A short wait and we were on the train back to London.

We arrived at Paddington Station a bit earlier than we expected, so we made our way to a coffee shop around the corner from the Pavilion, where we had booked the same room we had two days prior. At the coffee shop we sipped our drinks and shared a pastry while finishing up the last of the post cards.

We were at the hotel only long enough to drop our bags, and use the loo, before making our way to the Tate Modern. On the way to the museum we stopped for a pint at one of my favourite pubs, the Blackfriar. The place seems to be more of a tourist spot than anyone’s local, but the building is unusual, the decor is lovely, and the beer is good, and in warmer months than December one can sit outside in the garden and watch London rush past.

No time for such nonsense today as we still had plans to see lots and lots of art. We walked along the river and crossed via the Wobbly Bridge, cautiously making our way around the giant spider, and the throngs of tourists. Inside the place was a madhouse. We found a floor map brochure and made our way to the closest floor with free art, using the stairs to avoid the lift queues.

A former power station, the Tate Modern has huge spaces, which is probably a good thing when it is busy like it was. Sarah and I did our best to stay in the same room together so as not to get lost, but allowed ourselves the freedom to explore pieces on our own. It was very odd to be in an art museum and have it buzzing so, but the vibe was eventually something of an art itself, and when I wasn’t looking at the interesting (and sometimes odd) art works, I found myself watching the visitors. I heard so many languages, but rarely English. If you had asked me earlier if I would want to go to a huge museum knowing it would be packed, I would have said no. I’m glad I wasn’t asked.

We wandered for hours, looking at sculptures, paintings, video, and more; pretty sure we had seen everything available to us. I wish I had taken notes. With a dinner date at the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese coming up, we decided to drag our hungry selves away from all the culture, and go meet Chris and David.

We got turned around a few times, but eventually found the famous, and well-hidden, alleyway pub… which was dark … as in closed. We had checked the hours and they had Sunday hours listed, but perhaps their Fleet Street location and it being the Sunday before New Year’s Eve changed things. We stood outside the alleyway waiting for the Mears, and in the short time before they arrived, we noticed many people make their way toward the door only to return to the street with looks of disappointment on their faces. We hope we can visit the Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese the next trip.

When the guys arrived we passed on what we knew, and then moved on, looking for food and drink. There wasn’t much open, so when we found a Thai place we jumped inside before they changed their schedule too. Dinner was delicious and we got a chance to catch up. It had only been a few days since we last saw Chris and David, but we missed them.

After dinner we followed Chris’ lead and found a slightly-posh place near the theaters, where Sarah was dismayed to learn they weren’t “making cocktails” at that time. My guess was because it was a busy theatre crowd, but no further explanation was necessary. Four pints please! And thus, without a word of discussion, began our pub tour.

After the posh West End pub we wove our way over to Covent Garden and had our next shout at a touristy little spot called The Salisbury. Being crowded, we stayed for one round and moved on again. Where, I do not remember. Not because I was drunk, but because I couldn’t keep track of where we were in the maze that is London. I do know that we finally ended up a cool, small, pub in SoHo, near Piccadilly Circus, named Glasshouse Stores, which served Sam Smith’s! Sarah and I each had oatmeal stouts to start, and eventually tried this cherry flavoured Sammie Smith’s that tasted just like cherry cola (C-O-L-A cola), which I didn’t particularly like, and could see how easily one could get drunk off of it.

When the last shout announcement went out, we staggered out of the pub and started making our way to the Tube. We were stumbling through the crowd and dragging our heals because we knew it was the last time we’d see Chris and David for a while. At the station we said our goodbyes as a busker sang “Fearless” by Pink Floyd.

We survived the Tube ride home, despite the movement of the carriage, and made our way back to our hotel room where we drank lots of water and watched some telly until the room stopped spinning enough that we could sleep.


Tube, Tarmac, Tour Bus & Truck

Clock Tower at NightToday was one of the most exhausting New Year’s Eve I can remember, and we didn’t even attend a party. Well, not including the spontaneous one we created with Chris and David the night before.

Instead we spent the entire day returning home from our excellent adventure in England. We slept in as long as we calculated we could safely do without missing our flight. We fantasized about some change in the rules that would allow us to stay for as long as we wanted if we missed our flight, but decided we missed the dogs, and should head on home.

Contemplating how thankful we were that we packed lightly, we each took a pull bag and one to sling our our shoulder, checked out of the Pavilion, and dragged our slightly hung-over bodies to the Edgware Road tube stop a few blocks away. We stopped briefly at a chemist shop and purchased some Nytol to help me sleep on the flight.

We each got a tube ticket for Heathrow, and found a place to wait on the platform. After switching trains, we settled in to our seats on a packed train to the airport. The trip seemed to take forever, and we were starting to wonder if perhaps we should have splurged on the express. We were in no hurry to leave the country, but we could think of better places to be.

Checking in with Virgin was a breeze, and going through security was much less frustrating than our domestic experiences. After running through the duty free shop to avoid being overwhelmed by the perfume stench, we found a pair of seats and began the waiting process. For all our whinging, we had arrived quite early. Our flight had not even been listed yet, so we each took turns stretching our legs and looking around before deciding to kill time in an airport pub over a few pints and snacks.

When our flight finally was listed on the departures board, we walked a long way to the assigned gate where we were randomly selected to have our carry-on bags checked. The security personnel were courteous and respectful, and we were on our way after only a few minutes. Sitting outside the gate before the boarding process started we saw a man with a Pittsburgh Steelers jacket on, and I called “Go Steelers!” to him. He smiled politely and I thought I remembered the guy. While at the drink machine I spoke with his daughter and asked if they had been in Cambridge the Sunday before Christmas and she said they had. I told her that my wife was the one who had shouted “Go Steelers” at the sight of her father’s jacket that day, and she laughed. She returned to her family and relayed the story to her dad, who looked over and smiled.

It wasn’t too long before we boarded the crowded flight to Boston. We took our seats and waited, listening to various Americans stowing their luggage—and teenagers arguing over who got the window. We whispered to each other about our fantasy to stay in England.

Having popped my Nytol dose a few minutes before boarding, I adjusted my earplugs and read the sport page, hoping to sleep the whole way to Boston. I ended up being groggy and cranky, but thanks to much less turbulence than the previous flight, I wasn’t nearly as anxious. I realized we were on the same plane as our flight over when I tried to use the same dodgy entertainment unit in the headset. Naturally, the damned thing waited until I was on the last clue in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire!

Trying to sleep was impossible. Because the flight was going west the flight attendants were preparing people for the time change by constantly feeding and watering the cattle … errr … people.

Eventually we landed in Boston, got off the plane, went through customs, picked up our bags, and made our way to the area where we were to catch the Dartmouth Coach back to Lebanon, New Hampshire. It ended up we had missed the last bus by about 15-20 minutes, but we were on schedule for the bus we had planned to catch, which arrived about 40 minutes later.

The bus was quiet and dark. We set up the laptop to watch The Big Lebowski. The bus was playing a Will Smith movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, of which neither of us had heard. As I glanced up occasionally it looked like a slow-moving tale, and one that had significantly fewer special effects as most of Will Smith’s films.

The bus rumbled on in the dark, and the battery on the laptop pooped out on us a few minutes before our film ended, but not long before we pulled into the bus station. Sarah sorted out our stowed luggage while I walked to the truck and cleared it of snow. The vehicle was already warm as I picked up Sarah and we embarked on the last leg of our journey home.

It was nearly half ten when we pulled up our steep drive and entered the house for the first time in a fortnight. We had been invited to two parties in Vermont this New Year’s Eve, but the long travel day coupled with jet lag kept us from going to either event. We turned the heat up, unpacked some of our stuff, and cuddled on the couch where I drifted in and out of sleep.

Sarah woke me shortly before midnight. I poured us each a snort of scotch from the gift set Sarah had given me for Christmas; and as Dick Clark and friends counted out 2007 we toasted the new year, and each other, before making our way to our bed.