Tea Time

6 Jul

April 18th, Day 5

We’re in London for our last full day (For a while).  Up and out and into the rain rain rain rain rain. We’re sort of playing “Catch up” and seeing a few things that we missed, or wanted to revisit. Today is also the day we’re going to the gym, to tea, and to the theatre!

First stop; 221B Baker Street, home of the greatest fictional detective of all time… Sherlock Holmes. We rode the Tube to the Baker Street stop, which is served by the Bakerloo, Circle, Hammersmith, Jubilee, and Metropolitan lines.

Look for these on your way out

Helpful hint… whatever line you take have a look around at the wall tiles. The passageways in the immediate vicinity of the exit closest to Baker Street are decorated with a silhouette of Holmes complete with deerstalker and pipe. Handy piece of information to have just in case it’s raining buckets.

We found the spot and spent a few minutes taking pictures. The building houses the Sherlock Holmes Museum, which boasts a gift shop selling all things Sherlock Holmes, and the building’s first floor study (Second floor to all you Americans) is “Still faithfully maintained for posterity as it was kept in Victorian Times.” Since Holmes is a fictional character and therefore has no artifacts we had no interest in going inside, but it was fun to see the spot and so have an accurate picture in my head. In Conan Doyle’s day the addresses on Baker Street only went to 100. Placing Holmes at 221B was the Victorian equivalent of a movie telephone number that starts “555.” The blue historical marker on the building simply reads;

The marker was placed by… well I’m not exactly sure.  The original Blue Plaque scheme was started by the Royal Society of Arts in 1866. It has also been run by London County Council, the Greater London Council, and was then taken over by English Heritage in 1986. English Heritage plaques say “English Heritage” around the edge, which the Holmes plaque does not. The plaque was unveiled in March of 1990 by the leader of the Westminster City Council when the Sherlock Holmes Museum was successful in getting the Baker Street addresses re-ordered and their building designated 221B (Taken in order the number used to be 239). A row immediately ensued. The Abbey House building council (Located across the street, and the logical location for the fictional address after the numbers for Baker Street were extended in the 1930s) maintained they had the right to the address. Abbey House pressed to be allowed to continue to answer Sherlock Holmes’ mail, a job which had required a full-time secretary for over 60 years.  The Westminster City Council maintained that Dame Shirley Porter was not acting in her official capacity as council leader when she unveiled the plaque and the council didn’t want the address on the museum for the simple reason that they didn’t want the numbers out of sequence. The issue was resolved in 2005 after Abbey House closed and the Royal Mail began sending Holmes’ correspondence to the museum, recognizing the building as his new residence much in the same way the United States Post Office saved the day in Miracle on 34th Street.

Leaving 221b we passed the London Transport Lost Property Office. There were a number of fascinating items on display ostensibly still being held against the possibility that someone might turn up and claim them. These ranged from an iron left on the number 23 bus in 1934, to a top hat from 1951, and an example of nearly every type of portable phone ever produced. I mentioned this in a post on Facebook and a friend said “Oh yeah, we have those in New York. They’re called pawn shops.”

We picked up some post cards near Westminster and did a short section of a public walk along the Thames. After passing lamp posts with monstrous fish and iron benches with crouching camels for arms Julia noted that Londoners have ornate down cold.

On our way back to the hotel we had a spot of difficulty with Julia’s Oyster card. Mine was reading that we had about £8 left, while Julia’s was empty. As we’d traveled everywhere together there had to be a problem. It seemed most likely that she had somehow missed scanning out of the Tube at some point, probably in a crowd where the turnstile gate had stayed open. We took the cards to the ticket agent at the London Bridge station and asked him to please check the cards. This is the point where looking like an American (I will address this in a later post) came in very handy. The agent took one look at us, adjusted Julia’s card up £8, reminded her to scan out, and then sent us on our way with a wish that we enjoy the rest of our visit (After apologizing for the weather). Try that on the Subway with your Metro Card sometime.

After our walk we scooted back to the hotel and changed into our workout clothes. That’s right, we went to the gym.

For those of you who may not be aware of it, my lovely bride is a fitness instructor. She was more than a little distraught at the notion of going three weeks without teaching or taking a class so I found a gym near our hotel that offered the program she teaches. Fitness First is located under Marchmont street near the Russell Square Underground station.  A little advance planning goes a long way when you are looking into a fitness club on the road. I found that the Fitness First website would allow me to print out a one day free pass.  Activating the pass has to be done in advance and I had stopped by the night before. Sadly I wasn’t really thinking and found out that the pass was only good for one person. I was able to talk the clerk into giving me an additional pass for £10 (Regular cost £15). And so it was that in the middle of my three week run of nearly uninterrupted meals made up exclusively of fish & chips and pints of cider I found myself taking a Bodypump class in a FREEZING gym two stories under the streets of London (The instructor was a nice young lady from Poland. Whenever the heat would kick on she would turn down the thermostat. She couldn’t reach the thermostat on her own, and kept a stick handy for just this purpose).  If you should find yourself in the area Fitness First’s facilities were very nice. As with most places in London it was small by American standards, but the locker room had a number of amenities one doesn’t normally see in a Stateside gym (Not the ones I’ve belonged to anyway).

Back to the hotel to shower and change and spend the afternoon getting ourselves re-packed and ready to ship out to France in the morning. Once we had our bags (mostly) in order I put on my tie and Julia put on her dress and we went to tea.

Afternoon tea is one of those things that Americans think all British do.  We have a picture in our heads of the entire country grinding to a halt at 4PM every afternoon while everyone from the Queen to iron workers on the high steel stop for a cuppa and a biscuit.  I can assure you that this is (Sadly) not the case.  The English certainly still prefer tea to coffee, but the evolution of the workday and meal times has meant the demise of tea time. Mostly.

Today going to tea appears to be largely reserved for special occasions. We walked down to The Montague on the Gardens, a luxury hotel on Montague Street just south of Russell Square near the British Museum, which fitted my stereotypical expectations quite nicely. The doorman in overcoat and bowler hat, the host who took Julia’s coat and umbrella, the cut glass, brass and oak paneling everywhere. Pitch perfect. They also have a bistro, a bar, and tea on the terrace in good weather. After 5PM the terrace becomes an “Al fresco cigar terrace.” Very civilized. I found The Montague through AfternoonTea.co.uk. They offer reviews and free online booking at tea rooms all over London. I did a geographic search for places near our hotel and booked our tea before leaving the States. I settled on The Montague because they were one of 18 locations honored with the Tea Guild 2012 Award of Excellence (The “Oscars” of the tea world). While the original intention was to have tea at The Ritz on the recommendation of 1,000 Places To See Before You Die, The Montague was within walking distance of our hotel and half the cost.

Afternoon tea at The Montague

We were escorted to a table in the conservatory. There was only one other party in the room. It was again exactly what I expected; Overstuffed chairs that matched the cloth wall coverings arranged around small wooden tables. There were brass ceiling fans and a view of a lovely green garden. Our server asked if we were having a single tea or two. We sorted out that she meant did we want one assortment of cakes & sandwiches or two, and assured her that one would suffice. She provided us each with a box of teas to smell. Julia chose a green tea (She was humoring me to quite a great extent. Julia hates drinking anything hot.) and I stuck with a traditional English black tea. The server returned with our tea and cakes and we were provided with individual timers for our tea-specific pots. The whole thing was just stunning to look at. There were finger sandwiches, tiny pastries, biscuits (Cookies), and scones with clotted cream. It was fantastic! We sat and drank our tea and talked for a couple of hours.

Now it was time to take in a show. I had asked around and found what many hailed as the best show running in London, One Man, Two Guvnors at the Haymarket. The production we saw was the second iteration, as the original cast had just transferred to Broadway a week or so before. The play is a farce. In fact, it is a re-working of the 18th Century Commedia Servant of Two Masters now set in Brighton in 1963. It is put together as a music-hall throwback with brief musical interludes between scenes and employs broad slapstick, political jabs, and what I will loosely term “Audience participation” so as not to ruin the surprise.

English theatres are required by law to show you the fire curtain. I’ve never really worked out why I think this is funny.

On the whole we enjoyed the play very much, with this caveat; I consider myself an Anglophile and about as up on English history and culture as your average American can be and I only got about ¾ of the jokes. Getting the physical comedy isn’t hard of course. Prat falls, fart jokes, and scenes full of slamming doors don’t require a great deal of explanation. Most Americans, on the other hand, might not immediately get the gist of a character being introduced as a brilliant lawyer “Who go the Mau Mau off.” One long-running joke (That everyone SHOULD get eventually) relies on knowing that the single-word punch line is the name of a British prison.

My one complaint about the venue; The London theatre scene could do with something like Playbill. There was a charge for even a basic program listing little more than the actor’s names.

The production has been reviewed favorably on Broadway and despite my misgivings appears to be doing well in America without alteration. I had a look at the NY Times review and a few commenters mentioned difficulty understanding the accents. Our biggest issue was the sound mix for the musical interludes that was far too heavy on the instruments. You can’t decipher the accent if you can’t hear it.

One area where the Brits have it ALL OVER the American theatre experience is refreshment. (You were perhaps expecting me to say toilets or something weren’t you? Nope. Potty parity is just as bad at the Royal Haymarket as any Broadway theatre we’ve ever visited) During the semester I spent in England in the late 80’s I attended the theatre a number of times. I was amazed and delighted to learn you can eat in their theatres! You can buy snacks! You can even get ice cream! YOU CAN DRINK AT YOUR SEAT! Remembering these thrilling experiences of years ago I went directly to the bar on the mezzanine level where we were seated (Yes, there is a bar on EVERY FLOOR) the moment we arrived. I ordered a Bailey’s on the rocks for the interval and gave the bartender my name. At intermission I left my seat, walked to the lobby, and there on a table away from the crush at the bar was a little card with my name on it next to my drink. How very, very civilized.

After the show we strolled through Picadilly to the Tube. The ever-efficient Underground got us back to The George quickly. We stopped at a little shop along the way to grab some Mountain Dew for Julia as we were off to France in the morning and didn’t know if we’d be able to find any there.

Our first stint in London and the south of England had come to an end. After five days of parks, palaces, castles, cathedrals and ruins via planes, trains, and tour coaches it was time to cross the Channel and take a swing at the City of Lights!

Next time; Paris!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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2 Responses to “Tea Time”

  1. K.C. Marks July 6, 2012 at 8:43 pm #

    I love this one! You should definitely send some of this to a travel magazine. So nice how you blended all of your research, your history, and the actual event. And the places you chose to highlight are eclectic, but work well together. I want to go there now!

  2. Laura July 8, 2012 at 7:05 am #

    Love living vicariously through your descriptions! Brills!

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