England, 2017

My very own British phone booth–from my cousin June

I have been promising family in the United Kingdom for years that I was going to visit soon, and I finally managed to do it. I correspond fairly regularly with two cousins–June Ward and Tony Neve, so I had a definite location in mind–London, where Tony lives. June lives in Spain, but she’s an expat, and luckily, she told me that she would be travelling to England for some family time just around the time I decided to shoot for–March 28, 2017. 

The first two tips–get money exchanged to pounds, and buy some conversion plugs for the electrical outlets. It takes a couple of days for banks as large as Suntrust, so do it in advance, and be prepared for the fact that they’re not going to give you the going exchange rate. It was 1.20 when I made the request, and Suntrust gave me a 1.33 rate. And to add further insult, tacked on a $10 conversion fee. I ordered the conversion plugs from Amazon.  I also bought some gifts from the Virginia Ship for my cousins–some nice whiskey glasses with the Virginia state emblem engraved on the side.

Day 1–Arrival and the Tube

We stayed at the K+K Hotel George in Kensington, which is just west of downtown London. It was a good location, within a couple of blocks of many restaurants, stores, and the Tube–the London subway system.

Grounds behind the K+K Hotel George

The Queen relaxing in the hotel garden

One of The Tube stations.

McDonalds order terminal

The Tube operates a lot like any subway, including the Metro in Washington, DC. First you need a pass card, called the Oyster, and then you add money to it, and you can do both there in the station. Then, you just wave your Oyster at a sensor when you go through 

the gates to the trains. A lot of the Tube sections are obviously very old, but they’re well maintained and very clean. Getting around was sometimes easy, sometimes confusing–if it was a straight shot to your destination, no problem, but switching to another line sometimes led to problems. Fortunately, all the Brits we asked for help were very friendly.

Breakfast was a block and a half away, at a McDonald’s. The hotel breakfast was 12 pounds, or about $14, so we opted for the cheaper route (8 pounds), since it was so close. Ordering was different–they had terminals where you place your order and pay–no humans required. I’m sure that’s coming the the US soon.

Tower of London

Tower of London guide

First item on our checklist–The Tower of London. This is a stupendous structure–massive walls surrounding the inside buildings, outer elevated walkways for the castle’s defenders, and of course–the Crown Jewels. The jewels are incredibly elaborate, and there are so many, they have numerous display cases to show them off. And massive vault doors to protect them.
You’ll see groups of people gathered around guides dressed up in period costume that are describing various parts of the tower. The one we were listening to made some rather pointed, and hilarious, references to Donald Trump and Watergate, woven into his lecture, e.g. “Our water gate doesn’t leak.”

The view in front of the tower is magnificent, with the Tower Bridge and Thames River in the background.

Tower Bridge

After the tower, we boarded one of the seemingly infinite number of double decker buses–you haven’t lived until you’ve sat in the front on the upper deck and swayed back and forth as the driver weaves his way through the narrow streets of the city–it’s almost like an amusement park ride. We abandoned ship a few blocks from Trafalgar Square and walked around there for a while, checking out the interesting statues. BTW, you can use your Oyster card on the buses.

Parliament lockdown

A short walk led us to Big Ben and the Parliament complex. Since our trip was only a week after the terrorist attack at Westminster Bridge, Parliament was locked down.

Day 2–Buckingham Palace and Royal Observatory

Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace was a bit of a letdown, as the gates were closed and there was no changing of the guard that day. But, the building is pretty impressive. There’s a nice park right across the street–St. James, and we walked alongside it to the next Tube station.

Getting to the Royal Observatory proved to be difficult–the Tube only gets you within a couple of miles, and we didn’t know enough about the bus lines to try that option. Fortunately, we ran across a public library and a lady there was extremely helpful, calling a mini cab to take us the rest of the way. The fare was very reasonable–5 pounds, each way.

Astride the supposed Meridian Line

London cityscape from the Royal Observatory

Once at the observatory, we bought tickets to get to the Meridian Line, where all time zones are measured from, and they have embedded “the line” in bricks on the grounds. By straddling the line, you can have one foot in the western hemisphere, and one in the eastern. Unfortunately, I read later, that satellite measurements have placed the actual line  about a hundred miles from where it’s advertised to be. Not surprisingly, it’s not mentioned in the advertising. There’s also an amazing view of the London skyline from there. 
Dinner was at our first pub–The Blackbird, where we tried our first meat pie. And I quickly zeroed in on my favorite beer in England–Britta Moretti.

Day 3–The markets

Borough Market

The Borough Market is fantastic–huge, crowded, and has every type of food you can imagine. Crowded on a Friday–I can’t imagine what a weekend is like. I had my first and probably only taste of a sea urchin there. There’s not much meat in there, so I don’t think it is on my list for future sojourns, but it was just too intriguing to resist. Then, on to the Union Street Market, which is mostly a t-shirt market, but across the street is another market–Inverness, which had a good mix of food and trinkets. We were actually looking for the Camden Market, but mistook it for Union Street. Camden was on down the street a ways. Oh well, next time.

Sea Urchin remains

Dinner was an accidental discovery–we didn’t want to go the Blackbird again, so we explored, walking several blocks down Earl Court St. We found the Grill House, which was perfect–small, great decor, blues music in the background, and excellent food. KK had one of the best burgers she’s ever had (in England?), and I had a very tasty seafood pasta. It’s a keeper.

Day 4–Southend-on-Sea Resort

We finally met June at the Upminster Tube station. This was very exciting–meeting my first British family member. She brought her son, Ray, whose home we drove to, to meet Ray’s family–his wife Beverley, Beverley’s friend, Penny, Ray’s older brother, Gary, and his wife, Sarah, and Ray’s son, Shawn.

Ray, KK, June, Penny, Sarah, Beverley, me, Gary

And then, off we went to London’s equivalent of Virginia’s Nags Head. It’s on the east side of England, about a 45 minute ride. We were treated to a phenomenal open air seafood market, and I got my first taste of real anchovies (not from a can), pickled herring, and jellied eel. Yum, it was all delicious, except for maybe the jellied eel–had the consistency of a raw oyster, except there was a bone in the middle (the spine). There was a large deck next to the water, and we all sat there and yakked, while drinking beer–it was probably the best day of my life. Well, in the last couple of years anyway. Of course, I had to get their opinions on Brexit–all were Leave, except for Gary.

It was extra special to know that this same resort was where my mom and her family came for vacations when they were all young. I could almost picture them there.

Day 5–Tony and Reg

My mom as a teenager

Eileen and Reg

My cousin Tony met us at the Upminster station (we were getting rally good at getting to this station). Another wonderful moment meeting Tony–we used to send comic books to each other when were in our early teens. So, of course, I had brought some with me from the US. I think I surprised him with that. Well, it was a long time ago. Back to Ray’s house, to meet up with June, and then Tony took us to cousin Reg’s house, where I met him and his wife, Eileen, and one of his daughters, Debra.

Me and three of my cousins–Reg, June, Tony

It was a very special moment when Reg brought out some family pictures, and there among them was an incredible treasure–a picture of my mom as a teenager–no one in my US family had ever seen it before.Another nice surprise was when we asked Reg if he knew a couple that we had pictures of, but neither June nor Tony could identify. It was taken when Sharon and Andy visited us in the US about 10 years ago. No one in my family could remember who they were related to in England. Reg told us that Sharon was his daughter–mystery solved. Tony took us home to meet his wife, Lorna, and one of his four daughters, Cassy (short For Cassandra). We had ‘dinner’ at 2 pm on a Sunday, which is an English tradition. What a spread–sliced beef, mashed potatoes, rolls, green beans–and apple pie for dessert. It was so good. 


Public bath house

Then, Tony took me, KK, and June on a tour of the old neighborhood, where my mom grew up. The street she lived on is gone, from the bombing in World War II, but pieces remain–Richmond Park, the local bath house, where people came to take weekly baths, etc.

Day 6–Stonehenge and Avebury

What’s a trip to the UK without seeing Stonehenge? Of course it was a top priority, given my astronomy interest, and it was all the better seeing it with family. Beverley, Ray’s wife, was nice enough to spend the day driving us to Stonehenge and Avebury, another stone circle site. Her friend, Penny, KK, and June were with us, too.

Stonehenge on the horizon

June, Penny, Beverley, KK

It was funny seeing the stones of Stonehenge on the horizon as we drove down the highway, they’re easily visible from the road, and we actually got a pretty good look as we drove by–the site is only about 1/4 mile away from a major highway. Of course, we couldn’t stop there, and had to drive another mile and a half, to the visitor center, where we took a shuttle bus to get up close to the stones. It’s always a rush to see something in front of your eyes that you’ve read about all your life–kind of reminded me of my first sight of the Washington Monument in Washington, DC.

Just a small portion of the Avebury stone site

Luckily, there was another ancient stone site close by–Avebury. I’d never heard of it before this trip. I discovered it when reading up for our visit, and saw that is was close to Stonehenge–about 10 miles. As old as Stonehenge is, about 2,000 years, Avebury is actually older. and larger. The stone circle is so large, part of the town of Avebury is actually inside the circle. Including a very nice pub, the Red Lion, that has a sign out front, ‘The only pub inside a stone circle.” And, indeed, it was. We had beer and a nice dinner there. I had my first lamb shank. Good, but not as good as a rib-eye steak. What else would you expect an Oklahoma boy to say? At least, I didn’t say it tasted like chicken.

Well, that was quite a long day, and a great way to cap off the trip. We didn’t get back to our hotel until late that night and crashed. Fortunately, we got to sleep late the next morning. The plane trip back was uneventful, except for a small calamity that, fortunately, happened on the way back instead of the way there. Before we landed in DC, KK had such sore feet that her shoes were killing her. Our solution was for her to take them off, but of course, they were so swollen she couldn’t get them back on. So, she had to walk off the plane with no shoes on. We were able to get her a wheelchair for our traipse through the terminal. And of course, I brought a sinus infection back with me, and it took a trip to the doctor and some antibiotics to get over it. But all’s well that ends well, and we both survived with no permanent damage. And lots of good memories.

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