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Another Day, Another Peninsula

17 May

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Friar's Glen

Friar’s Glen

We started our last full day in Ireland by backtracking. After another amazing breakfast at Friars Glen we set off back down the Ring of Kerry in the clockwise direction toward Kenmare. Within about fifteen minutes we reached Ladies’ View. Ladies’ View is pretty much what it says on the tin, a scenic view. There’s a car park, a cafe and a gift shop, and a spot where you can look north across the Killarney National Park. The panorama takes in Black Valley, the Upper and Middle Lakes, McGillycuddy Reeks and the Gap of Dunloe. The location is named for Queen Victoria’s ladies in waiting, who are said to have exclaimed and made much of the view when the Queen visited Ireland in 1861. After a brief stop we headed back toward Killarney Town.

We pulled over on the south side of the Upper Lake and walked a short distance through the scrub to the shore. The Upper Lake is one of the three in the park, the others being Lough Leane and Muckross Lake. We stopped just south of a short tunnel carved out of the side of the mountain that appeared to be nearly a feature of the landscape it looked so old. Indeed, I found an illustration of the same tunnel in The Scenery and Antiquities of Ireland, by J. Stirling Coyne and N.P. Willis, published in 1841.

The Upper Lake

The Upper Lake

We admired the view across the lake and I put a hand in the water (I have to touch everything), then we hopped back into the Suzuki Swift and scooted up to Killarney Town. We needed Irish stamps for a few postcards, and of course who can resist the “Everything’s €2” store? It was midday before we were on our way to the Dingle Peninsula.

The Beach at Inch

The Beach at Inch

Our first stop was the beach at Inch. It is nearly a mirror image of the beach at Rossbeigh on the Kerry Peninsula across the water to the south, a spot we had visited the day before, though the beach at Inch is sandy where Rossbeigh is rocky. We followed Bridget’s directions and after visiting the beach stopped about a mile outside of town to look back and take in the view. We drove west through the countryside, stopping occasionally to simply get out and stand and stare at the endless green patchwork of fields. After rain in London, rain in Paris, rain in Normandy, and rain in Amsterdam, we had a spot of good luck in Ireland. The weather was clear and stunning for the two full days that we were exploring the Kerry and Dingle peninsulas.

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

Strand Street facing the harbor in Dingle

We stopped at Dingle Town in the early afternoon and did a little shopping. The shops and homes are painted lovely bright colors. From the look of it, Dingle is still very much a fishing town and is the largest settlement on the peninsula. Rather than stopping for lunch we simply snacked our way down the road. We purchased a few things for family and friends and then set out for the first real planned destination of the day.

I actually had a fair amount of trouble finding the Gallarus Oratory and it wasn’t the first destination in the area I chose. I wanted to see an ogham stone. I very badly wanted to see an ogham stone. There are a few websites dedicated to their locations and translations, and I had located one at the far west end of the peninsula. That the Gallarus Oratory was only a few miles away was an added bonus.

The often repeated story of the structure’s purpose is that it was a church for pilgrims. Séipéilín Ghallarais in Irish translates to “House of the foreigners” or “Shelter of the foreigners.” Like the stone forts we visited in Kerry, the oratory is difficult to date with certainty. The generally accepted time frame places its construction anywhere from 1,500 to 1,200 years ago, although according to at least one historian it could have been constructed a mere 900 years ago. I recall my humanities teacher touching briefly on the oratory’s construction in high school and I remember thinking it was a fascinating building.

Like everyplace else in Ireland the best I could manage as far as directions was a latitude and longitude obtained online (52°10’17.2″N 10°21’02.4″W, or 52.171440, -10.350660). This translated to a slightly less accurate location once it went into the GPS. This got us to a pull-off on the side of an unnamed road. I pulled over, looked left and right and directly ahead and saw hedges, fields and low stone walls. I knew I had to be in the right area but saw nothing to indicate where the oratory might be. I decided that this was a good spot to get the picture of the two of us in our tiny little rental car that I’d been wanting to take. I got out, put the camera on a handy stone wall, set the timer and then got back in the car. Smile! I noted that the car was all in frame and that we were both looking at the camera, and rolled on down the road. A short distance away I found the entrance to the Gallarus Oratory Visitor’s Center. What I did not notice until more than a year later when looking at the car selfie, was the little brown sign at the far end of the pull-off that pointed the way to the footpath that lead directly to the oratory.

So to be clear… you can park your vehicle on the side of the road and walk to the oratory any time, night or day, free of charge.

Or…

You can go to the visitor’s center and pay €6 per person. That may sound like a bum deal, and if you’ve studied and just want to have a look at the building I encourage you to park at the pull-off (It’s actually a shorter walk), but you do get something for your €6. There is a small gift shop, a cafe (Not open when we visited), a parking lot, a short film on Irish archeology, and toilets. We also got to meet Katy the Kitty, who was very sweet. As I understand it, the visitor’s center is a private venture put together by the fellow who owns the property adjacent to the oratory. Good for him I guess.

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory

The Gallarus Oratory is of cut stone assembled into a single long corbel vault. Howard Goldbaum points out on his really really awesome website Voices from the Dawn, that this method of construction continued in Ireland with only minor alterations for thousands of years. At a glance it looks to have been put together with no mortar, although apparently a thin layer of lime was used internally to hold the stones in place. There is a single entrance just over 5′ tall and a narrow window set into the east wall. The roof has a just visible sag in the middle. I remember that in my humanities class it was introduced as an example of an “Upturned boat” building.

Katy Kitty

Katy Kitty

While it is traditionally said to be an early Christian church, the name suggests it may have been quite literally a shelter. A place for people from outside of Dingle to spend the night while in the area. The building bears no markings and practically nothing has been recovered from the sections taken in the area. It’s true use may remain a mystery.

After watching the film, seeing the oratory, using the toilets and giving Katy Kitty a scritch behind the ears we headed on to the Church at Kilmalkedar, about 4 km away in a loop around R559 through Murreagh.

The Church at Kilmalkedar

The Church at Kilmalkedar

I first learned about the church solely as the site of an ogham stone. The church itself is fascinating. The current structure is a ruined church from around the 12th Century with some Romanesque features. While the area is associated with Saint Brendan, it is thought to have originally been a monastery founded by the local Saint Maolcethair. There are finials atop the three gables (The roof of the church is gone), incredibly beautiful arches throughout, and a columned gallery.

Day15 Ireland (59)

The Latin

The Latin “Alphabet Stone”

Inside the church is also an alphabet stone dating perhaps from the 500’s covered in Latin with an inscribed cross. One local legend has it that the church was built in a single night by the faeries. The church is surrounded by graves from various periods, and a modern cemetery that appears to still be in use sits adjacent.

Sun dial

Sun dial

In front of the church there is a huge rectangle stone cross of unknown age and a sun dial. The dial has beautiful carving on both sides and the dial face is divided into four sections, likely for the five canonical hours that made up the divisions of the monastic day.

And then there was the ogham stone. This was essentially the reason for our visit to the area. Well, what brought us to this particular part of Dingle at any rate. Ogham is the written expression of Primitive and Old Irish. The earliest inscriptions date from the 300’s, although the belief is that the form originated sometime in the 1st Century BC. It is composed of a series of slash marks along a vertical or horizontal line.

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The ogham stone at Kilmalkedar

The vast majority of surviving inscriptions are proper names, and are believed to be funerary in nature. The ogham stone outside the Day15 Ireland (64)Church at Kilmalkedar bears a partial inscription on one face, and “ANM MAILE-INBIR MACI BROCANN” on another. This translates to “the name Mael Inbir, son of Brocan.” It is likely that this was a local religious leader of some import and there is the possibility that the inscription was made on an existing Standing Stone. The stone also appears to rest in it’s original position, something of a rarity.

You can download fabulous 3D PDF renderings of the ogham stone, the alphabet stone, and the sun dial at the Ogham In 3D project website, here.

We continued to the end of the peninsula on R559 and around Slea Head. We pulled over to admire the view of the Atlantic and the Blasket Islands from the cliffside.

The whole country s like this exercise caution.

The whole country is like this, exercise caution.

Further along are the Dunbeg Promontory Fort and several bee hive stone huts. I’d have loved to have visited them as well, but there are only so many hours in a day, even on the ould sod. There are as many as 30,000 ancient stone sites in Ireland. Not enough time indeed.

Slea Head

Slea Head (You can see Valencia Island and the Fogher Cliffs across the water to the right of the headland)

As you make your way along the southern coast of the peninsula you’ll also be treated to an up close view of a lovely stream that comes rushing down the hillside and crosses the road before continuing on to the sea. I’ve checked, this is a permanent feature. As if the narrow road loaded with tourists in rental cars (Like myself) wasn’t enough, you now have to contend with running water over a hairpin turn on a cliffside road. We learned pretty fast that in general you had nothing to fear if the folks behind the wheel were a little severe-looking and wearing a hat. They were locals. Four girls in a Kia looking EVERYWHERE but directly ahead? Tourists. Watch your butt.

It's not bug, but a feature.

It’s not a bug, but a feature.

We made our way back to Killarney Town, parked near the town center, and wandered about on foot until we found a likely looking pub. We had a nice dinner, throughout which we kept hearing shouts from the back corner of the pub. Bachelor party apparently, and the lads were having a grand old time. At one point I got up to use the gents and rounded the corner headed toward the gathering. There were two of them. I smiled and nodded and got the standard Irish greeting “Y’ aright?” (Gotta love a people who don’t say “Hello” or “Good evening” but ask “Are you ok?”)

I replied “Yeah. You?”

“Yeah.”

One of the things I find wildly entertaining about Ireland and the UK is their approach to bachelor and bachelorette parties. They are very, very, very easy to identify, and we encountered them everywhere. They wear shirts. We encountered far more “Hen Nights” than “Stag Do’s” while on our trip, but these guys were wearing the uniform. White t-shirts with photograph on the front and the groom-to-be’s name across the back with the date. But the guy on the front didn’t look like either of the gentlemen before me. I asked which one of them was getting married. Neither, as it turned out. The groom was stuck somewhere hours away yet and they had no idea if anyone else from the do was going to make it. They’d started without them. Congratulations, offers for me to join them, and fist bumps all around, and I went back to join Julia.

We finished our dinner and returned to Friar’s Glen. Mary was fantastic as always. We settled up our bill and she made sure there was a lunch packed for us in the mud room refrigerator, since we’d be up and out at fist light to make the drive to the Shannon Airport. We were heading into the last week of our trip, and the downhill run would begin… in Scotland!

Take good care

© 2015 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Paris from top to bottom

21 Feb

Our last full day in Paris I was up and out the door early to grab some breakfast from the patisserie on the corner, pick up our laundry, and buy stamps at the post office.  This last errand filled me with dread since the single most unpleasant encounter during my previous visit to Paris in the late 80’s had been with a postal clerk.  (I really only had two unpleasant encounters during the months I spent in Europe in 1989.  The other episode involved two deaf-mute gentlemen in the pub near the university.  I held my ground long enough to finish my drink and then retreated with as much dignity as I could muster before I got a right kicking) My fears were unfounded however, as the clerk was pleasant and efficient and despite the fact that neither of us spoke the other’s language, the transaction was completed without any further rift in Franco-American relations. I returned to the hotel with croissants, pain au chocolate, a costly bag of my own clothes, and eight postcard stamps.

Today’s loosely planned outings would begin with a visit to Sacre Cour, the cathedral that sits atop the highest point in Paris.  It had not been part of my planning for the trip but we’d noticed it from a window at the Musée d’Orsay and decided to go have a look.  In fact, with the exception of a visit to the Tuileries, we’d hit all the locations I had planned on seeing in advance and now we were just winging it.

We took a crowded workaday Metro to the Anvers station on the 2 line.  If I have not mentioned it before I will do so now, the Parisians love their dogs.  Outside the patisserie where I had purchased that morning’s breakfast there was a steel plate with a hook for a leash set into the wall.  The plate was forged in the shape of a terrier and in fact that exact breed of dog was at that moment tethered there.  (No, I did not get my camera unlimbered fast enough to take a picture before the owner left with the dog).  I mention this now because we saw a number of dogs on the metro that morning.  Not just your standard purse-friendly Chihuahua, but respectable dog-sized dogs on their morning commute.

We arrived at the base of the hill and began to walk up the narrow Rue de Steinkerque to the steps leading to the cathedral.  The street was lined with several kitschy tourist shops and bakeries.

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Helpful hint: if you absolutely must buy a doughnut from one of these shops, request one from the case. 

There is an esplanade at the base of the steps leading up to Sacre Cour.  From this point you may make your way to the top via one of two sets of switchback staircases leading all the way to the cathedral, or purchase a ticket for an electric tram just off to the left (I do believe the price at the time of our visit was €2). As I took several photographs from this vantage point we were approached by an elderly couple who asked if I could take their picture.  I said that I would be happy to, took the man’s camera, took a photograph of him and his wife with the cathedral situated just over their shoulders and handed the camera back.  I gave him the standard admonishment “Have a look at that and make sure it’s okay,” and made ready to walk away.  I’m sure we’ve all been in his situation and what normally happens at this point is that no matter what the picture looks like you say “Thank you” and go about your business.  If the picture is dreadful you quietly wait a moment and ask someone else to take another photo.  At least that’s what I do.

That’s not what this guy does.  He had a look at the camera, shook his head, and said “No no no no no.  Here, let me show you how to take a photograph.  See we’re standing here, that tree should be lined up here, and then the building centered above, here.”  While he’s saying all this of course, his wife is looking absolutely mortified but not, I noted, particularly surprised.  I took the camera back, situated myself so as to line up the pertinent landmarks the way he wanted them, and took the photograph again.  I handed the camera back.  He said “Yes, yes, that is much much better,” as his wife grabbed him and hustled him away with quick thanks to me and Julia.  Well, now I know how to take a picture.

As we are young and spry (And I am cheap) we elected to walk up the steps to the cathedral.  It was a beautiful sunny day, the grass was green, and the terrace was bordered by thousands and thousands of bright flowers.  We made our way up slowly, taking our time and enjoying the view.

Approximately halfway up we encountered a large group of African men in plain clothing trying to get our attention with shouts of “Sir, sir, you want to be happy married man?”  I know a street scammer when I see one, and even though I didn’t know what his particular game was I knew enough to just keep walking.  We lived in New York for over seven years and we both have pretty good street faces and are pros at simply ignoring people and continuing on our way.  Not being certain what the particular game was I looked online later and discovered that these guys approach tourists and tell them it is tradition for lovers to bind their hands together and make the walk up to Sacre Cour.  This guarantees a long and happy relationship.  They offer to sell the band for a euro, a dollar, whatever, and if the couple agrees their wrists are bound together tightly with a heavy-duty zip tie plastic band.  The scammer then demands a larger amount of money to cut the band off.  A number of tourists have also complained of having cameras and smart phones stolen.  Simply keep an eye out and avoid them, or if you must walk through the group, ignore them and keep going.

Sacre Cour

Sacre Cour

We reached the broad terrace in front of the cathedral and looked out over the city.  Sacre Cour is at the highest point in Paris and you can see for many miles.  Several famous landmarks stand out; the Eiffel Tower of course, and Notre Dame as well as the Pompidou Center, but if I am being honest… as a skyline Paris is not terribly inspiring during the day.  We made our way around to the right side of the cathedral to a semi-secluded grotto where we found a statue of two lovers in an embrace.  I suspect that at twilight this is a romantic spot.  It appeared in the early morning to be the spot where all the local cats come to bathe.

We climbed to the top of the stairs and entered the cathedral.  The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris is a fairly “New” cathedral. Construction began in 1875 and was completed in 1914. It is constructed of travertine and is a blinding white in the sun. Video recording and photography are forbidden inside the basilica and visitors are requested to observe complete silence as perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament has been ongoing in the Basilica since 1885.

We walked through, admiring the stunning mosaic ceiling and exited via a side door. We located a pub just outside. The Irish are everywhere.

We strolled through the Montmarte, an area famous at the end of the 19th century for its windmills and impressionist painters.  To this day the area retains some of the charm of a small village despite being well within the bounds of one of the greatest urban centers in the world.  We passed homes with beautiful architectural accents, Day9.P.5 Large Web viewstunning gardens, and even encountered a still-intact windmill (Moulin in French).  We continued along the streets, strolling mostly at random, and making our way ever downward.  We found a number of fascinating shops along the Rue des Abbesses and the Rue Lepic.Day9.P.4 Large Web view We stopped in to look at sculptures, soap, and teapots in little boutiques interspersed among the patisseries, dairies, and butcher’s shops.  We passed the Two Moulins Café, made famous by the movie Amilie, and eventually landed up at the intersection of the Rue Lepic and Boulevard de Clichy, directly in front of the Moulin Rouge.

Here we stood in a median to photograph the Moulin Rouge and chatted with a very nice couple from central England.  They were retired teachers, and the man was the living breathing model of the stereotypical older man from the Cotswolds.  Sturdy trousers, jumper and a hunting jacket topped off by his Barbour cap.  There was a truck delivering drinks to the Moulin Rouge, and his wife was waiting for it to clear out so she could get a good picture.  They were in France for the week, and he bemoaned the cost of bringing a vehicle over from the UK.  We learned all about their daughter’s upcoming wedding and the difficulties of the booking travel in and out of the UK during the Olympics.  We talked a little about the Moulin Rouge.  I mentioned the fact that Julia and I had looked into seeing a show, perhaps the lunch show, but even that was €50 per person.  The fellow smiled, and with a furtive look out of the corner of his eye to his wife confided to me “Oh I didn’t dare look into that!”Day9.P.6 Large Web view

We looked around the lobby at the posters and around the corner in a small gift shop that sold the usual fare, postcards, T-shirts and other accessories, pens and glasses all emblazoned with the name Moulin Rouge.  There were display cases with historical items of costume, headdresses, jewelry, shoes and the like.  There is a Metro stop nearby and we decided this was a good place to hop on and make our way to the Tuileries.

Day9.P.7 Large Web viewWe got off the Metro at the Tuileries station on Rue di Rivoli and walked west to Place de La Concorde, where you will find some really awesome fountains and the Obelisk of Luxor. We all remember the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror? Well this is where they set up the guillotine. We made our way through the Place de la Concorde to the western entrance to the park (Pay toilets!) and had a very nice picnic before it began to rain. The Tuileries were commissioned by Louis XIV in 1666. There are classical and modern sculptures throughout the park, reflecting pools and even a small pond where you can rent model sail boats, all situated around the broad central lane.

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Looking east toward the Louvre.

Fun Fact: We picnicked just about every day in Paris. Fruit, cheese, bread, and wine. It is actually illegal to have an open container in Paris parks. Ooops.

We passed through the Louvre’s Porte des Lions and crossed the Ponte du Carousel to stroll along the Seine, looking at the artists’ and booksellers’ stalls that were open all along the sidewalk. . The rain had cleared off and it was again a gorgeous spring day! We bought ice cream and sat eating it under a tree in the Square du Vert-Galant, a lovely spot at the very western tip of the Ile de la Cité. For you history-minded folk, this is the spot where the last Grand Master of the Templars Jacques de Molay was burned at the stake in 1314. We didn’t see any Illuminati. We might have been busy making out a little.

Day9.P.11 Large Web viewWe continued along the river looking at the stone details and stopped by the Zero Point in front of Notre Dame again (Just to be on the safe side). We crossed over to the Left Bank to Saint Michael’s Square. The fountain is very impressive and from the street you have a good view of Notre Dame. We meandered through the Latin Quarter, ducking into the shops whenever it would begin to rain again to find souvenirs for family and friends (As think I mentioned before, Rain = Purchases) before hopping on the Metro and riding out to Père Lachaise.

Day9.P.12 Large Web viewPère Lachaise Cemetery is likely known to most Americans as Jim Morrison’s final resting place. A massive garden cemetery (And, apparently, the first municipal cemetery), Père Lachaise opened in 1804. At the time it was considered to be too far from the city and garnered few burials. In a brilliant marketing ploy the cemetery administrators moved the remains of Moliere and other notables to the site and Parisians began to clamor to be buried among the celebrities. It is stunningly beautiful. We arrived late in the day and were unaware of the 6:00 p.m. closing time. I recommend leaving yourself at least half a day.Day9.P.13 Large Web view

You will find simple marked graves, small chapels, and massive mausoleums (All in various states of repair). The place is practically crammed with gorgeous statuary and unique markers. It was interesting to see trends in funerary across a couple hundred years. Plots can be leased for 30 years and often later deceased members of a family will be placed inside the same tomb when an ancestor’s body has decomposed. If a family does not renew a  lease the remains in the tomb are cataloged and removed to the Ossuary so that the site can be converted to a new grave. According to the City of Paris website one million people have been buried at Père Lachaise Cemetery. When the remains in the Ossuary are added, the number reaches perhaps to three million

Some of the notables interred at Père Lachaise;

Isadora Duncan

Edith Piaf

Proust

Balzac

Oscar Wilde

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After being pretty much run out by a security officer ringing a large bell we decided to simply walk back to our hotel (A distance of about a mile and a half). We made an early evening of it, since we had to pack up to leave Paris. The next day was going to turn out to be difficult.

Next time: Omaha Beach

Take good care.

© 2014 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Midday in Paris

30 Jul

We’d started our trip in England, culturally a country well within most Americans’ comfort zone.  It was time to move to the next country, and our first foray into having to deal with a language not our own.  Julia and I were up early in the morning to pack up and walk to St. Pancras station.  If I haven’t mentioned them before, I’m going to take a moment here to extol the virtues of our “Spinner” suitcases.

When we were planning our trip we tried very hard to balance the clothing and sundry items that we would want and need on a three-week trip against having to carry all of those things with us a great deal of the time.  When I had traveled to Europe in the late 80’s it was for an extended stay in a single location with weekend trips throughout the UK and the Continent.  I carried a large and a medium suitcase that were packed full.  I had a collapsible nylon bag inside to fill with souvenirs and bring home.  Once in the UK, I purchased a large backpack and this is what I carried on weekend trips.

This time however, we would have no base of operations.  We would be moving from city to city, unable to leave things behind as we would not be returning.  Julia was skeptical of the size of luggage I wanted us to carry, but after a few travel days (And particularly after trying to shove our luggage into the tiny car we rented in Ireland), it became apparent that I had made the right choice for once.  We each carried a single medium-sized hard side “Spinner” suitcase.  These cases have a handle on the side and can be carried like a traditional suitcase, however they also have an extendable handle and four wheels, allowing them to be pulled along behind like a rolling case as well as roll along in an upright position.  We had settled upon this model after reading an article by an anonymous baggage handler who indicated that these cases are the least likely to be damaged in transit from being tossed from one end of the hold to another as crews tried to make the most effective use of cargo space in the limited amount of time available to load the plane.  According to this baggage handler the cases are rolled upright from one end of the plane to the other, as this is the quickest way to get them there.  As an added bonus, they’re not prone to falling over like a traditional rolling case. In addition to our hard side cases we each carried a backpack as close to the official carry-on size as we could manage.  We made extensive use of Space Bags to maximize the available space inside our cases.

St. Pancras was about a five minute walk from our hotel. Inside the station we encountered long lines for security and passport control for international departures.  The lines moved steadily, but not quickly enough to avoid being irritating.  Security and passport control personnel were efficient, and had a pretty good system in place for moving people through quickly.  The problem was that no one was informed of this system until the instant you reached the security checkpoint, meaning that only those of us who had been paying very close attention were prepared.  Upon reaching a checkpoint we breezed through quickly and continued on through passport control in less than a minute.  Here we reached the first moving ramp I’ve ever encountered.  It is a cross between a moving sidewalk and an escalator and in combining these two devices it manages to completely negate the benefits of either.  On an escalator you can simply stand still with your luggage as the moving stair carries you to the second level.  On a moving sidewalk you can walk along the smooth conveyor with your luggage.  On a moving ramp walking with your luggage is more difficult since you’re trying to pull it up an incline and you cannot simply stand there, because you’re on an angle and your luggage will roll away.  Let’s make a point of not importing these to the States, ok?

Having summited St. Pancras station we stood looking about for our train.  We had located the correct platform and were searching for our car number when up from the depths of the station came a wail born of soul crushing despair.  A plaintive voice arose in protest from the direction of passport control. A child, a boy, who sounded no more than four or five years old cried out to the uncaring world “Nein!”

“Nein!”

“Nein, nein, nein! NEIN!”

Somewhere there was a little German who very much did not want to go to France, which is refreshing I suppose. Normally when I travel screaming children are the bane of my existence.  I catch a lot of grief for this from my friends with kids (Yes, we are childless), but it is a short list of things that will drive me into a homicidal rage faster than a parent calmly reading a magazine or conversing with their spouse while their child shrieks away next to them in an enclosed conveyance.

Child screaming “No” in a foreign language however?  Hilarious.  I don’t know if it was because my brain filled in a mental image of a toddler in lederhosen clinging to the turnstile while his mother pulled him by both legs (We never actually saw the child) or the idea that some deep Teutonic genetic memory predisposed this kid to be violently opposed to the notion of setting foot in Gaul, I have no idea, but for some reason this little episode made us laugh ourselves silly.

We pre-booked our tickets on the Eurostar before leaving the States.  The train through the Chunnel was the fastest, most economic, most sensible route to Paris.  I owe an undying debt of gratitude to the creator of the website The Man In Seat Sixty-One, one Mark Smith of Buckinghamshire.  The site is a detailed guide to traveling by train anywhere in the world and included a number of very handy helpful hints.  I cannot recommend this site highly enough if you’re going to do any traveling in Europe.  Particularly helpful was the bit about how many booking agent sites quote much higher prices to travelers making inquiries from the United States.  Sticking with the train companies and individual websites or telling the site that you’re located in Canada, the UK, or Afghanistan will most often result in a lower fare.  He has detailed information on seating options for different types of trains and detailed instructions on how to travel between stations in Paris, since connecting through the capital may mean travel across town to a different station.

We chose two seats in Standard Class for £39 each and found them quite roomy and comfortable.  Second-class travel by train in Europe is far and away more comfortable than any economy flight I have ever taken and our London – Paris trip cost 1/3 less than the cheapest airfare I could find.

I have to say that traveling through the Chunnel was somewhat anti-climactic.  Since the only view you have from a moving train is out the window perpendicular to your line of travel, you don’t see the tunnel coming.  You see nothing of its architecture or the area surrounding it and the Channel itself is further down the line.  You’re blasting along and everything simply goes dark.  About twenty minutes later you emerge from the tunnel and continue traveling through a landscape very similar in appearance to the one you just left.

We arrived at the Gare du Nord in Paris.  I stopped at the ticket counter and purchased tickets for our train trip to Normandy a few days hence (Can’t use the automated kiosk because no chip and pin) and then we hopped on the Metro for the ride to our hotel. On the Eurostar the staff offered 10-packs of Paris Metro tickets for sale. Do take advantage of this as it will save you time once you reach Paris.  Since I was trying to make the trip with as few connections as possible I ended up getting us to Place de la Nation (A 5 minute walk from our hotel) instead of the Picpus station (A 2 minute walk from our hotel).

For reasons of economy I had chosen the Hotel du Printemps in the 12th Arrondissement. That isn’t to say the hotel was cheap, but it was far less expensive than a location in central Paris.  The hotel is situated in a mostly residential but still urban area.  Hotel du Printemps has been recently renovated and was easily the most modern room we stayed in during our entire trip.  Counter to the stereotype of the rude and aloof Parisien, Marc at the front desk was polite, helpful, and did us the favor of conversing with us in fluent English.  Checking in early was not a problem and he gave several recommendations for local eateries.  We took our key from Marc and stuffed ourselves into the smallest elevator I have ever encountered in my life.  There was just room for Julia, myself, and our suitcases with me holding my breath.  Getting off on the 4th floor (5th if you’re an American) we encountered a hallway little wider than my shoulders.

The room was quite small, maybe a foot and a half on either side of the double bed and less than 6 feet from the foot of the bed to the bathroom door but quite modern as I’ve mentioned.  There was a wardrobe with the safe inside just large enough for a wallet and a few passports.  The bathroom was thoroughly modern and there were very well sealed replacement windows in the bedroom and bathroom.  We had to stack our suitcases one atop another to have room to move about freely, but since we weren’t planning on spending much time in the room we didn’t really need an aircraft hangar.

And the room had a modern thermostat!

It would be a recurring theme throughout our trip that we were unable to control the temperature most of the places we stayed.  The Hotel du Printemps was the only hotel we encountered in Europe that used central forced air.  Everyplace else still used radiators just as they had when I visited over 20 years ago.  However, unlike during my previous visit, everyone has discovered the timer thermostat.  It was not at all uncommon, in fact it was the rule, that the radiators would completely shut themselves off during the midday hours and after about 10:30 p.m..  As we kept somewhat irregular hours while running all over the city and staying out as late as we could to see as much as possible, this was problematic.  The expectation is, of course, that you’re in bed asleep during the nighttime hours and should be under piles and piles of covers.  The Hotel du Printemps was a sole and shining beacon of thermal self-determinism.  We were able to make it as hot or as cool as we liked 24 hours a day!

We dropped our things in our room, freshened up, and headed off to a local restaurant.  It would be one of only two times that we ate out while in Paris.  We sat down to lunch at a small bistro just half a block away from the hotel.  I had tried and failed to get a coherent overview of dining out in Paris from several guidebooks and websites before leaving the states.  Everyone tells you something different.  No one prepares you for the bewildering list of itemized taxes, surcharges, and fees at the bottom of the receipt you’re handed at the end of your meal.  We had a fantastic lunch but were a little baffled by the check.  Our waiter did not speak a word of English and in any case had gone on a break.  We asked the English-speaking bartender if the line item marked “Service” was the gratuity for our meal.  She insisted that it was not.  We later learned that this was not the truth.  We left an additional gratuity for our waiter and went on our way.  When we did finally determine what was considered appropriate when tipping in Paris we were more than a little pissed off about this episode.

Back down into the Metro, which like the Underground in London ran quite frequently.  We made our way to the Trocadero and for a few bright moments the sun was shining as we exited the station.  I asked Julia to turn her head to the right as we exited the station so as not to catch a glimpse of our first destination before she was in a spot to experience it in all its glory.  Once we reached the center of the Plaza I told her to look to the left, where she got to see the EiffelTower for the first time.

1989             2012

We’ve all seen it in countless movies. If you’ve been to King’s Island in Ohio or the Paris in Las Vegas you’ve seen scaled down copies. But unless you’ve seen it in person you really have no idea how amazing La Tour Eiffel really is. At over 1,000 feet tall it is the height of an 80 story building, and was the tallest man-made structure in the world for 41 years after its completion in 1889.  As with many of the places I revisited during this trip, the tower was slightly different. In 1989 the word “100 Ans” was picked out in bright lights along the side for the tower’s 100th anniversary. The Trocadero is still the best place from which to observe the tower and was much cleaner than when I visited 20 years before.

Aaaaaand moments after we snapped some lovely pics it began to rain. This was most of our time in France… gorgeous blue sky with a scattering of fluffy impossibly white clouds and then torrential rains five minutes later.  Everyone noted that everything in our pictures looked so bright, shiny and crisp. Yes, because everything was wet. After admiring the tower for a bit we ducked into the French Maritime Museum to get out of the rain. While inside we purchased a 2-day museum pass.

The Paris Museum Pass is worth every penny. Buy one. At present a 2-day pass costs €39 (A 4-day pass is €54 and a 6-day pass is €69) . We worked out that visiting 4 museums would make the pass economically worthwhile. There is no way you’re going to make 4 museums in 2 days if one of those museums is the Louvre, but the value of the pass isn’t just economic. The pass allows you to skip the ticket queue and confers VIP status at the security line. Straight to the door with you when you’re carrying one of these bad boys.  The passes are for sale along with the Metro tickets on the Eurostar. I do believe they were offered at a slight discount but I can’t recall. If you come into the country that way you should definitely take advantage. You activate the pass by writing in the date on the back, so you don’t have to use it the day it’s purchased and it’s good at more than 60 locations around Paris.

The sun came out again and we made our way down the steps along the fountains to the Pont d’Iéna. If the carousel wasn’t the same one spinning away when I passed in 1989, I couldn’t tell. We crossed the bridge and walked down to the river. We sat by the Seine in the shadow of the tower and had a little snack.  If I’ve not mentioned it before, carry a bottle of water to refill. The tap water in every country we visited was just fine, and bottled water is not only a worldwide environmental tragedy but a ripoff on an unprecedented scale.

A houseboat resident even less impressed with the weather than us

We walked along the bank looking at the houseboats for about a mile as the sun and rain came and went at 10-minute intervals and then crossed over to the Ile aux Cygnes, the somewhat inappropriately named “Swan Island” to see the Statue of Liberty.  Well, not THE Statue of Liberty. Nor, as I thought at the time, a model used for its construction, but a ¼ scale replica given as a gift from the American Society to the people of France three years after the dedication of the original in New York harbor. It is also nowhere as near the Pont de Bir-Hakeim as we are lead to believe in “National Treasure: Book of Secrets,” although you can access the island from the bridge and walk to the sothern end. There is a dog park on the island. Follow the barking and you can’t go far wrong. We crossed the river again (In a steady rain) and caught the Metro to the Arc de Triomphe.

The Arc is truly massive. It is situated in the center of the Place Charles de Gaulle at the west end of the Champs-Élysées. It was begun in 1806 and took 30 years to complete.  Since it sits in the center of one of the busiest roundabouts in Europe, access is via two underground walkways.  We made our way to the center of the Arc to have a look at the four giant reliefs that decorate it.  The French Tomb of the Unknown is situated directly under the arch and there is a museum exhibit space inside.

The skies cleared again and we made our way down the Champs-Élysées, the bright and storied avenue of Paris, high-end shops and cafes crowding every inch. You can buy a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, cross the street for a matching Louis Vuitton bag, then a few doors down pick up a new Mercedes. We stopped in at Swatch for the sake of nostalgia. Julia found a case of watches that looked very much like the ones she wore in high school. I told her to smile and I raised my phone to take a picture… and a clerk literally DOVE across the store to stop me.  Dude’s coat tails were in the air, body fully horizontal, DIVING across the store.  I apologized, telling him I hadn’t noticed any signage telling me I couldn’t photograph the watches.

“You can photo the watches.”

“I can?”

“Yes. Walls. The pictures on walls. Please no pictures.”

Ah. The store was decorated with pictures (That I could NOT photograph) of the watches (Which I could). Ok.

We continued down the avenue and stopped in Vinci Park to watch the sun go down, and to just sit and rest for a moment (We’d walked about 5 miles). It was a pleasant evening, the air was cool and fragrant with the scent of the flowers that filled the park, and we were in Paris. It is REALLY hard to improve on this.

We hopped on the Metro and rode back to our hotel. We stopped in a local shop and picked up some prosciutto, brie and hard cheese, fruit, a baguette, some little chocolate cookies and some wine. This became our standard meal in Paris. We sat in bed eating and looking at our pictures from the day and making our plan of action for….

The Louvre!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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

Canterbury Tales (Seriously, what else was I supposed to call this?)

16 Jun

Day 4

No tour busses today! We got up, got on the train, and rode to Canterbury. An advance round–trip ticket from St. Pancras Station is in the £32-£35 range depending on when you leave.  Morning rush, there are trains every 20 minutes or so. The frequency and ticket price drops after9:30AM, with outbound trains leaving about every half hour. As always I recommend buying in advance online, but this poses a problem for those of us without chip and pin credit cards (Remember those?). You can choose your tickets using the National Rail Enquiries website, which will then shift you over to the site of the retailer that actually sells the tickets, which in this instance is Southeastern Rail (Man was this ever easier when it was all just Britrail). Once you decide on a trip you can purchase your tickets online and have them mailed to you (Not the best option for those of us coming over from across the pond) or you can pick them up at a self-serve kiosk in the station (IF the station has one and IF you have a chip and pin card). We used the National Rail Enquiries site to choose times and then purchased tickets at the counter ahead of time whenever possible. Oh, and the National Rail Enquiries site also lets you print out very handy little personalized timetables. Look for the link to a custom .pdf at the bottom of your search result page.

A word about Canterbury West station;

I wish I’d thought to ask somebody about this at the time, because it bugs the hell out of me. There are two stations in Canterbury, named simply Canterbury East and Canterbury West. If you glance at a map you will notice something interesting about these names. The stations are situated on either side of the town. Canterbury West station is approximately 1 kilometer due north of Canterbury East Station.  Now to be fair, if you follow an imaginary line north from Canterbury East… yes, Canterbury West is about 250 feet further west than Canterbury East. In trying to find an explanation for the names I ran across the Quite Interesting website and a forum thread about “Really Bizarre Train Stations.” A post by Mr. Grue posits that Canterbury is slowly revolving.  (Mr. Grue does not speculate as to whether Canterbury is turning clockwise or anti-clockwise.)

Anywho… we had a lovely relaxing train ride to the Canterbury West station, got off the train… and got poured on.  All day.  Rain rain rain. We made our way from the station to St. Dunstan’s Street and walked to the Westgate towers on the River Stour.  I noticed along the way that the English don’t appear to be overly interested in keeping dry.  We watched a young mother and her boy walking down the street. The boy had no hat, his jacket wasn’t zipped, it was pouring rain, and his mother was telling him not to stomp in the puddles. His hair was plastered to his forehead and water was dripping from his jacket and his shirt, but she was yelling at him not to stomp in the puddles. We encountered far more people without umbrellas than with.

Canterbury is where we discovered that rain makes us buy stuff. The rain would let up, and then come down harder, so we’d duck into a shop… and we’d buy stuff. Rain = purchases. This first instance was incredibly fortuitous. Some good friends of ours have a 3 year-old son who loves the Kipper cartoons. Kipper is a little brown dog and the title character in a series of children’s books. The cartoons were produced in the UK a number of years ago and all revolve around the very mild adventures of Kipper the dog (Who my friends and I all believe is a TOTAL stoner), his friend Tiger (A grey terrier), their friend Pig (A pig, obviously), and Pig’s younger cousin Arnold (Also a pig, perhaps not so obviously. It’s a kid’s show with talking animals, so you never know). We’d been asking at all of the shops we’d stopped in since landing in London if anyone had a stuffed Kipper toy. We got the same thing from everyone…

“Awwwww, I remember Kipper from when I was little! No, we don’t have anything like that.”

…until we stepped into a shop called Whispers to get in out of the rain. The store was filled with Star Wars and Star Trek merchandise, comic book characters and stuffed animals from every cartoon and comic imaginable. Not seeing a Kipper anywhere about I asked the shop keeper and he said “Sure,” and pointed to the top corner shelf where there were Kippers in all sizes! Mission accomplished! Seriously, we could’ve turned around and flown home right then. If you find yourself in need of a rare bit of comic book or sci-fi kitsch and you are anywhere near Canterbury, stop in at Whispers, 11A St. Peter’s Street.

Canterbury’s High Street is lined with a number of interesting shops and bakeries. Along the walk to the Cathedral we found the Royal Museum, the remaining tower of  St. George’s Church (Where Christopher Marlowe was baptized in 1564), and the Old Weaver’s House, which now has a café in the basement and was built in 1500.

The Old Weaver's House

We had lunch here. The building dates to 1500.

We entered the Cathedral precincts through the Christ Church Gate on Sun Street. Admission to the precincts is £9.50 unless you are attending a service. Bear right inside the gate and you’ll find an information booth with maps, etc, and further along to the right you will find the public toilets. We entered the Cathedral and were met by a little old volunteer who asked us what language we spoke.

“English” I said.

“Ah, Americans” he replied, and handed us a brochure and map that was not only in English, but highlighted things to see in the cathedral that had connections to the United States.

“Not the best weather for it today” he said.

“This weather is just… shocking” I replied (Recalling Handsome Helen Doyle’s lessons of the previous day).

The little man’s face… lit… up.

“It IS!” he exclaimed.

I got the impression we made this guy’s day. I can imagine him going home that night and telling his wife “I met an American couple today who spoke ENGLISH!”

The weight of history in this place is unbelievable.  The cathedral was founded in 597, and the present structure was begun about 1,000 years ago. Henry IV is buried here, and so is Edward the Black Prince (Yes THAT Edward the Black Prince!).  Most of us, however, know Canterbury for one of two reasons; We had to read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, or we had to read (Or watch) Becket in high school.

As you look at this bear in mind you can only see to the choir screen. This is only half of the cathedral.

We took our usual path and made our way around the cathedral anti-clockwise. The scale of Canterbury cathedral is somewhat daunting. I’d say easily twice the size of Bath Abbey. The stained glass windows are amazing, and some are 800 years old.

A choir from Germany was singing during most of our visit. They added a great deal to the ambiance (And covered some, but not all, of the racket made by the obligatory horde of French school children). While the Choir screen is an amazing work of art, I have to say I don’t like it. I enjoy being able to look down the entire length of Notre Dame or Bath Abbey. The screen bisects the cathedral, cutting off the view from the nave. Of course, who am I to criticize the layout of Canterbury Cathedral?

The German choir

We proceeded down to the Martyrdom (The spot where Becket was quite gruesomely murdered), and into the crypt. Afterward we went back outside to circle the cathedral. We met a security guard at the Quentin Gate and got another little history lesson from an unexpected quarter

800 years old!!!

before it started raining on us yet again. This particular storm actually served up some hailstones as well.

We finished up in the Cloisters after having a look at the King’s School and the Chapter House. The sun came out for a bit and we went back down the High Street to the Old Weaver’s House for a slightly overpriced lunch and then we simply wandered around before heading back to the station.

There were a couple of places that we could have visited that I didn’t know about before we went.  If you find yourself in Canterbury you’ll likely want to have a look at the “Crooked House,” also known as the Sir John Boys House at 28 Palace Street.

Another place to check out is the Canterbury Castle, a Norman ruin located at the intersection of Gas Street and Castle Street. The castle was started in 1180. Only the outer walls remain. I know I’ll check it out if I get back.

Along the way to the station we stopped in a bakery and I purchased a truly amazing confection called a Gypsy Tart. I asked what was in it and the woman told me “Evaporated milk and brown sugar.” It was amazingly good and I thought to myself “Certainly there’s got to be more to it than that” so we looked up a recipe online.

That’s pretty much it. Easy.  Two ingredients. Couldn’t be simpler.

I’ve tried and failed miserably to make a Gypsy Tart on two occasions now since returning to America. I actually hurt my arm trying to make it. I suffered a baking-related muscle strain and had nothing to show for it but an underdone pie crust filled with sugary brown milk.

We had a pleasant ride back to London and stopped in at The Queen’s Head on Acton Street for dinner. I had a Melton Mowbray pork pie with tangy relish. I was a lot better off not knowing the particulars of a Melton Mowbray pork pie. First off, I was unaware that it was served cold. Second… well let’s just say I could have gone my whole life without learning the phrase “Pork jelly.” Or as my friend Tim [Person, English: 1] calls it, the “Goo.”  It was good, but I’ll likely be sticking to hot steak & ale pies from now on.

Next; Tea and a night at the threatre.

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

Bath time

11 Jun

Day 3

Up and at ‘em early cause today we are going to Stonehenge! Why are we up and at ‘em early to go to Stonehenge? Because Stonehenge is in the middle of Capital-N-Nowhere. So, to get there we will take… a tour bus.

Ah yes, the mighty coach, scourge of the National Trust Site parking lots. You see a tour bus coming and you dash for the restroom/ticket line/café because any second now there are going to be upwards of 60 French school children… or pensioners from Brimscombe… or folks from Japan running after a fellow with an orange umbrella… and no matter what you want to do they are going to be in your way. I won’t even go into the cold terror that drops your stomach through the floor of the car when you encounter one of these behemoths coming around a bend on a cliff road hundreds of feet above the sea (We’ll save that for the pages about our time in Ireland).

I like doing what I want, when I want, at the pace I choose and without regard for anybody else’s timetable. I’m an American, it’s one of the things at which we excel.  Doing our own thing was a cornerstone of planning this trip. However, I just couldn’t figure out a way to get out there by any other means. You honestly don’t need a ton of time at the site. I’m normally not the sort of person who says “Look, the Grand Canyon.  Big hole.  Seen it. Moving on…” but in this instance it’s a close run thing. The things that the foremost experts don’t know about Stonehenge could fill volumes and even inside the World Heritage Site (For which you pay admission), you are not allowed any closer than about 20 yards to the stones. From the time you roll up until you leave the parking lot even taking into account browsing the gift shop, having an ice cream, and hitting the head, won’t be more than an hour. Once you take a good look at the site and soak up the fact that the thing you are looking at is almost impossibly old and certainly a world-class mystery… there just isn’t much else to do.

So we were looking at a destination 90 miles outside of London that we REALLY wanted to see, but knew wouldn’t engage us for more than an hour. Public transit presented some problems. Taking a train was a possibility. We could get to Salisbury, but that was 10 miles away. So from there it’s a taxi or dedicated bus to the site, or perhaps a bus to Amesbury, then a bus or taxi. Expensive proposition any way we did it, plus you’re looking at a round-trip and lots of time in transit. I didn’t really want to even consider renting a car in London just to drive to Stonehenge and back. Taking a tour looked like the only sensible option.

So I started searching for “Day tour Stonehenge.” The one that popped up over and over again was Premium Tours Ltd., and this was the company we ended up booking. The tour consisted of pickup from any of 170 central London hotels (The George was not among these so we had to get the Tube to the Victoria Bus Station), luxury coach to Stonehenge, “Fast Track admission” to the site, an hour at Stonehenge then on to Bath. Three hours in Bath then back to London to your hotel (If it was one offered for transfer, and possibly even if it wasn’t depending on the guide and driver).  The whole deal was £45 per person for adults and I certainly couldn’t beat the price on my own.

The tour departs at 8:30AM. I was concerned about getting to the station on time because A) I am a complete Worst Case Scenario psychopath when it comes to travel, and B) It was now Monday and I had some concerns about how a regular workaday rush hour would affect the efficiency of the Underground. I needn’t have been concerned.  In all our time in London, night or day, fair weather or foul (If you’ve ever lived in New York City you know what a good hard rain will do to the subway), we never waited more than 3 minutes for a train. We caught the Victoria line at King’s Cross and rode it directly to the Victoria stop. A brisk walk and we were standing in the queue at the gate a few minutes later surfing the station’s free WiFi.

I am now going to tell you something that nobody from Premium Tours mentioned verbally or in writing at ANY point before we boarded… eating is absolutely forbidden on the coach.  Seriously. They threatened to leave any offending party behind.  I went back later and checked our ticket. I checked the website.  Looked all over. This little tidbit is mentioned exactly nowhere. Julia and I had purchased snacks at a bakery since we’d left the hotel before breakfast and waited to eat in the relative comfort of the bus rather than standing in line.  We were mightily hacked-off when we learned it would be until we reached Stonehenge (Just under 2 hours from London) before we could eat.

If there was a single thing that could take the rough edge off of our hunger-induced rage it was our tour guide, Alan “Helen” Doyle (“Helen” from a misprint in a TripAdvisor.com review, although he prefers to be called just “Handsome”). Alan was a pro. Every statue, building, and house of any note at all on our way out of town… Alan had a story ready to hand.  He was full of helpful hints that would allow us all to be “Visitors” not “Tourists” in England. He even had John of Gaunt’s speech from Richard II (At least up until the line “This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England”) ready to hand and managed to end it as we rounded a bend and saw a wide valley, sun dappled and impossibly green, spread out before us.  Helen rocked.

We reached Stonehenge in about an hour and forty-five minutes. Julia and I wolfed down our breakfast as we were lined up and true to their word Premium Tours (In the person of Handsome Helen Doyle) whisked us past the ticket queue and through the turnstile. We took Helen’s advice and stopped in at the shop first, got a postcard for my sister, and headed through the tunnel under the A344 after picking up an audio guide (No extra charge).

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Stonehenge (To scale)

Now you’re likely to come away thinking I was let down by Stonehenge. That’s not the case, it’s just that it is really hard to sort out the emotional and intellectual response to something so ancient and so utterly baffling and get it down on the page.  We’ve deciphered hieroglyphs, so the pyramids are explained to my satisfaction. The Parthenon, the Flavian Amphitheatre, the Great Wall, no explanation needed really. But Stonehenge, well… I mean… what the hell? The audio guide really just adds to the frustration. It is chock full of useful information about the range of dates within which the site was in use and the details of the materials used, including the fact that most of the stones were hauled from a theoretically impossible distance away, but the why and the how? Not a peep, cause that information just isn’t available.

Visitors are kept at a good distance from the stones. My understanding is that you are allowed among them only on certain occasions with advance permission. This is to try to maintain the site in an age where nearly everyone knows of its existence. Part of the reason it has survived so long is that it is in such a remote area. However, tourists were known to show up with hammers in the 1800s to take bits home as souvenirs (A local blacksmith is reported to have done a brisk trade selling hammers to those forgetful folks who left theirs at home) and the RAF actually used the site for target practice during WWII.  I certainly understand the need for these measures, but it adds to the unreality of the experience. You get the feeling you’ve come to visit Stonehenge and you are looking at the worlds biggest and highest definition picture of Stonehenge, the reality of the site still out of reach.

After crossing under the road you emerge in a large field.  Small markers with numbers on them let you know when to hit “Play” on your audio guide. The path sticks to the inside of the outer ring, now just a low circular rise in the ground. Where the path would carry visitors over archeologically fragile areas raised decking is in place. We encountered people from all over the world and at the far side of the circle overheard an English twenty-something explaining to some Americans;

“We were sitting around last night and thought ‘Hey, let’s just do it’ you know? ‘Lets go to Stonehenge!’ We started at ten o’clock last night and just, you know, drove through the night. We figured we’d just rock on up and sit on the stones with a bottle of wine and watch the sun rise from Stonehenge, you know? Give a toast to the dawn, you know? And we got here and there’s a FENCE! You have to pay to get in! It’s a World Heritage Site. We’re British, we should have KNOWN this!”

I find the notion that as a British subject he should be aware of the admission status of the major cultural sites in his country admirable. I’m not holding my breath though.

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Exactly what it says on the tin. Tank Crossing.

Helen gathered us up and put us on the bus for the ride to Bath. Along the way we passed the ghost village of Imber.  During WWII the British Ministry of War emptied the village so that it could be used to practice for the Normandy invasion. Like the more famous village of Tyneham on the southwest coast, the villagers have never been allowed to return.  The area around Imber is used as a training ground for mobile artillery to this day and we saw several armored vehicles and a “Tank Crossing” sign as we rode along.

I love Bath. To fit it into our schedule we did the single day bus tour, but I recommend spending a full day or even two. Bath is a beautiful city of golden sandstone, full of shops, museums, theatres and parks. The main tourist draws are Bath Abbey and the Roman/Georgian baths, so certainly be sure to make these the centerpiece of your visit, but wander farther afield if you have the time. In fact, if you decide you want to stay overnight, you can return on Premium Tours’ coach the next afternoon for an extra £10 (Total £55 per person). The cheapest round-trip train ticket from St. Pancras to Bath I could find was £57.50, and bear in mind that doesn’t include a stop at Stonehenge.

According to legend Bath was founded by Bladud, father of King Lear, in 860 BC. Bladud contracted leprosy and was put out in the wilderness as a swineherd. The pigs in his care came down with a skin disease but were miraculously healed after rolling in the hot mud around a thermal spring in the Avon Valley. Bladud covered himself in the mud and was healed of his leprosy. When he became king he founded the city of Bath on the site.

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The river Avon in Bath.

Archaeological evidence suggests that the site was known to Iron Age Britons and that Bath was sacred to the Celts. The Romans constructed a spa in 43 AD and the town that grew up around it became known as Aquae Sulis after the local god Sul. The Romans co-opted Sul, who they associated with Minerva, and over the next few hundred years a sprawling bath and temple complex grew up around the thermal spring. The Romans abandoned Bath when they pulled out of Britain in the early 5th Century.  The buildings covering the spa and temple complex eventually crumbled and were forgotten, and silt from the thermal spring covered the Roman pools.

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Note the angels on either side of the facade climbing Jacob’s Ladder

Bath Abbey was founded around 675. The current building was begun around 1500 and completed within about 30 years. Just inside the public entrance you will find the Stars and Stripes hanging from a column, given by the American embassy in 1948 as reminder of the two countries’ friendship. The entire length of the abbey has gorgeous stained-glass windows. The Abbey is full of over 1,000 years of history.  Edgar I (Edgar the Peaceful) was crowned King of all England on the site in 973. The walls and floors are lined with memorial stones, mostly to notable local persons going back to the 1700’s. At the far end we found a beautiful illuminated book in a glass case. The Book of Remembrance contains the names of service personnel from Bath who fell in WWII, as well as the names of the civilians killed in the air attacks known as the “Baedeker Raids” when, in retaliation for the bombing of Lübeck, the Luftwaffe targeted strategically unimportant but picturesque English cities chosen for their 3-star ranking in the Baedeker tour guide. If you’re “Readers” like Julia and me, allow yourself at least an hour and a half inside.

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After touring the abbey we stopped in a little pasty shop for lunch, then entered the Roman Baths.

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A mosaic recovered form the site

I’ve mentioned before that I am a nut for all things Roman and the baths are fantastic. This is another place I visited in 1989 and the museum has been vastly improved in the last 20 years. Admission is £12.25 (Except in July and August when it is £12.50) and audio guides are free. You can access the upper and lower levels of the Georgian-era terrace around the main pool. The remains of the Roman site are all below street level, and include the hot and cold baths, spa rooms, spring overflow, the temple yard and temple steps.  The museum has a number of artifacts, including tombstones and grave goods, as well as architectural details from buildings around the site. Some sculptures and altar stones have actually been returned to the site after being used as construction materials in buildings many miles away.  It was a common practice among the Romans to inscribe curses on lead sheets and toss them into the bath in the hope that Sul/Minerva would act on them and a large number of these have been recovered. These were generally employed when someone had been wronged in some way. One curse we saw complained of a bather having his clothes stolen. It was complete with a list of suspects.

The abbey above the Roman Baths

Much of the plumbing is still intact. The spring overflow still dumps water into a gravity drain that carries it away to the river Avon. I find that absolutely amazing. The lower  Roman portions of the baths were covered for over a thousand years, but the pipes still work. Dude.

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The fountain in the Pump Room

After touring the museum and the entire bath complex we stopped in at the Pump Room restaurant.  The restaurant is inside the Grand Pump Room, completed in 1799. You can sample the water from the spring (50p per glass, or free with your ticket to the Baths). The water fell as rain as long as 10,000 years ago. It filters down through the limestone to a depth of around 14,000 feet before being forced up through fissures by the Earth’s geothermal energy. It reaches the surface at a temperature of 115°. It had a slightly mineral taste, but was better than a lot of the tap water I’ve had in Appalachia.

We gathered back at the bus and left for London. About 10 miles outside of London we came to a dead stop in traffic. This is where Alan got his chance to really show what he was made of because he had to vamp. For an hour.  We got history lessons. We got a lesson in diction, a primer in how to talk about the weather. The weather in England is either “Lovely” or “Shocking.” That should get you by. He kept a bus load of tired people stuck in traffic entertained for an hour, made us laugh, and taught us a thing or three about his country.

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The Food Stalls at Harrod’s

Once the traffic cleared out and we began to draw close to the Victoria Bus Terminal, Alan sorted out who needed to go where and began dropping off passengers where they requested. We had him drop us off at Harrod’s. We did a quick turn through the toys and the Harrod’s gifts just before the store closed and then headed back to The George. We had dinner at The Boot on Cromer Street. They did a very good fish & chips and Julia discovered Apple Tango soda. While we didn’t encounter it again in our travels I’ve secured a source here at home!

Our last little errand of the day was to pop in at King’s Cross and get train tickets for the next day’s outing. I spoke at some length with the ticket agent about fares and schedules for a trip to Bath, not realizing until after purchasing the tickets that Bath was the city we’d just visited and that I really wanted tickets to Canterbury. Fortunately refunding the first purchase and squaring away the trip I really wanted to take didn’t take very long. We left the ticket counter to do one last thing…

Ok, for all you Harry Potter fans out there… There is a Platform 9 ¾ in King’s Cross. Sort of. We walked through the open turnstiles near platform 10 but couldn’t find the right spot. We very sheepishly approached a conductor and asked him if the brick barrier where Harry enters Platform 9 ¾ existed. After laughing a bit he pointed us in the right direction. There is a mock up of a luggage cart disappearing into the wall on the ground floor between a currency exchange office and Watermark Books. The clever folks at the book store have a display of the Harry Potter books in the window closest to the cart.  We were there late in the evening when the station was practically deserted, but if you show up during the day be prepared to wait in line to take a picture. I have since learned that the actual location used in the movies is located between tracks 4 and 5. As it is behind the turnstiles you hardcore Potter fans will have to buy a train ticket if you wish to find the spot while the trains are running.

After that we wandered back to The George. Our first and only experience with a tour bus having gone pretty well it was now time to head off to a day trip destination on our own. Next stop,Canterbury!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

The Bloody Tower

5 Jun

Day 2

Sunday, April 15…. first full day on the ground in England.  First order of business was to have some breakfast. I left Julia to continue knitting up her raveled sleeve of care and made my way to the dining room. The George had an average-sized room for a hotel its size and they served an average English breakfast; Tea, fried eggs, toast, bacon, bangers (What we in the States would call sausage links), mushrooms, baked beans and tomatoes. I skipped the tomato and beans and supplemented with cereal in milk from the sideboard. As I was dining alone the waitress asked me to take a seat with another gentleman flying solo. In true British fashion we didn’t speak a word to each other (We hadn’t been introduced).

Cartwright Gardens the morning of my outing.

Thus fortified I made my way out onto the street where I managed to find a bodega that carried Mountain Dew for my beautiful young bride (They don’t call them bodegas in London. I’m not sure what they’re called, apart from a “Shop” I suppose). This made me very popular with the other 50% of our little group. Once dressed, packed (The staff was moving us down to our single room while we were out for the day), and in Julia’s case full of neon green caffeinated soda, we set off for the Tower of London.

We popped down to the Russell Square Underground station armed with our trusty Oyster cards ready to zip over to the Tower. An Oyster card is a metal scan card the size of a credit card. It is a refillable pass for the London public transit system above and below ground. Immediately upon our arrival in London we purchased the cards at a cost of £5 and added £30 to each card. Fares on the Underground are figured in zones that radiate out from the city center. Most tourist destinations are well within Zone 1. You scan the card upon entering the Tube or boarding a bus, then again when you exit the system and the correct amount for the distance you’ve traveled is deducted from the card (You MUST scan out of the Underground, otherwise you will be charged full-fare price to the farthest zone). Once you reach a fixed amount for the day it won’t deduct any more, making your card a day pass. This gives you the best of both worlds. If you make only one or two trips, you’re charged the single rate. Once you reach the threshold amount, you are charged no more than the cost of a single day pass, saving you money over the single rate. Just remember, you will have to see a ticket agent to purchase or add value to a card if you are using an American credit card, so allow a tiny bit of extra time on your first outing. (Additional information on the Underground here.)

It was still the weekend, so there was still track work going on, and this meant there were absolutely no trains running to Tower Hill. Service on the Central Line had been replaced by a bus, so we made our way to the Embankment and rode one of the iconic red double-decker buses across London. Much slower than the Tube, but we were armed with a tour company map that we had picked up at the hotel, and with this we were able to get the story on one or two of the notable landmarks we passed along the way.

We arrived at Tower Hill at about 11:00AM. Just across Tower Hill road there is a section of the old city walls built upon a foundation of the original Roman walls that surrounded Londinium.  The wall was one of the largest Roman projects in Britain and went up sometime between 190 and 225. There is a small replica statue of the emperor Trajan on the site.

Roman walls

We’d paid online for our tickets the night before, and just had to stop by the office to pick them up.  Anytime you can do this for any venue I highly recommend it.  Purchasing tickets in advance often lets you skip lengthy queues outside popular attractions and there is almost always a discount (In this instance, £2.90 per ticket. Official website and ticket prices here).  The Tower is looked after by the Historic Royal Palaces, a charity that manages several palaces owned by the Queen on behalf of the British people. HRP receives no money form the government or the Crown and relies on ticket sales, donations and volunteers.

A panorama of the Tower taken from near the ticketing area

The Tower of London is quite impressive. It is a massive fortress that is actually composed of several different buildings with the White Tower, built by William the Conqueror, at its center. It has served as a royal castle, armory, treasury, mint, menagerie, observatory and prison. Several notable persons were imprisoned and executed within the Tower (And the Two Princes, who disappeared from the Tower, are held by tradition to have been murdered there). Today it is still the home of the Crown Jewels, which are on display in a newly renovated section of the Waterloo Barracks.

I really want a trebuchet. I have friends that I am pretty sure could make that happen. Just sayin’…

I first visited the Tower in 1989. Of course the overall structure of the place hasn’t changed in a scant 20 years, but the experience of visiting the Tower has changed dramatically. The trend in museums over the last few decades has been toward the theatrical. The Royal Armouries displays are quite different, and the White Tower has been taken down to the bare bones inside.

Foot armor of King Henry VIII

While I recalled most of the items we saw there, they were in new and dynamic settings with more detailed explanations that placed them in a larger historical context.

The biggest difference, however, is in the display of the Crown Jewels. The display has been completely renovated with funding from De Beers.  The re-presentation was opened in late March of this year. As you enter the Jewel House you see a multi-media presentation about the coronation gear.  The core of the collection is in a central vault, where visitors glide by slowly on an airport-style people mover. I recommend going back around for a second, third, or even fourth look from both sides because these pieces are amazing. The jewels in the Tower are the “New” Crown Jewels that were remade in 1661 for Charles II, the older regalia having been broken up by Cromwell (Whose name and memory we spit on forever) after the English Civil War. While looking at the collection of ceremonial Maces we asked a question of one of the Warders and got a fantastic history lesson. The men and women serving in the Tower WANT you to ask questions, and you will get so much more out of your visit if you do. (Photography is not allowed inside the Crown Jewels display. Since I am trying to make sure I generate all the content for this blog I will not be adding photos not taken by myself or Julia)

We visited the museum of the Royal Fusiliers. The Fusiliers were formed out of two companies of Tower Guards in 1685. While the name has changed from time to time with reorganizations, the Fusiliers have been a fighting unit for over 300 years. The museum is full of interesting exhibits and artifacts. These range from commemorative tins that contained chocolate sent to the troops as a Christmas gift from the Queen in 1900, to a bust of Hitler the Fusiliers hauled back from Germany. There is one artifact that is not in the museum however, the King’s Colours (A regimental standard) that the regiment carried at the battle of Cowpens in 1781. The Fusiliers were nearly wiped out, suffering the loss of 300 men. The battle of Cowpens was fought in South Carolina. The King’s Colours are still on display as a trophy of war at West Point Military Academy in New York. Felt weird standing there reading that.

I did not know that the Tower had served as a menagerie.

Sculpture of lions that were once kept at the Tower

There are of course the Tower Ravens, but it also once housed lions, baboons, and even elephants at various times. New to the Tower are life-sized metal wire sculptures throughout the fortress of the animals that were once kept there.

A Tower raven, about 16 inches tall. VERY big birds.

Also new since my last visit was the memorial to the ten persons executed on the Tower Green. The memorial was installed in 2006. It is comprised of a glass pillow on two disks, a glass disk bearing the names of the ten people and a granite disk inscribed with a remembrance poem by the artist, Brian Catling.

Memorial on the Tower Green

If you should find yourself in Kentucky back in the States and have a day to spare I recommend the Frazier Museum in Louisville. It has on permanent display a collection from the Royal Armouries and the Tower of London, the only one of its kind outside the UK. I’ve visited the Frazier more than once and there is always something fascinating to see.

We left the Tower and stopped at a fish & chip stand outside the gate before walking to the Tower Bridge.  Apparently lots of folks confuse Tower Bridge with nearby London Bridge. The easy way to remember the difference is that the Tower Bridge has towers on it… and is next to the Tower. Really.

I think Tower Bridge is incredibly beautiful. To me it has an almost fairy tale look to it.  The bridge has just undergone restoration, and particularly with the Summer Olympics coming up it is being made spic and span (There were workman hanging from the south suspension portion of the bridge the day we crossed).

Tower Bridge

The bridge was completed in 1894 and was operated by a hydraulic/steam engine system until being converted to hydro-electric in 1974. Originally a greenish color, the suspension portion of the bridge was painted blue with red and white accents in 1977 for the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. It has just been repainted those colors and it looks amazing. The upper pedestrian span now houses the Tower Bridge Exhibition. Adult admission is £8.00. If you’re even more into planning ahead than I am, check this site to see when the bridge will lift to allow a boat passage.

We crossed the bridge and wandered a bit to the west walking along the Thames. We passed the HMS Belfast (Currently closed) and wandered around the Southwark Cathedral and under the southern end of London Bridge. Then we hopped on the Tube and took a short side trip.

Trinity Church Square is on Trinity Street east of Borough High Street. Get off at the Borough Underground station on the Northern line and walk south along the High Street, turn left onto Trinity. The square is about 200 yards on your right. Standing in the center of the square is the (Purported) oldest outdoor statue in London.

Statue of Alfred the Great, (Maybe) The oldest free-standing outdoor statue in London

The story goes like this; The statue is believed to be of Alfred the Great. Alfred is considered the first English king and re-founded the city of London in 886 (We know that cuz we saw a plaque!). Some sources indicate that the statue was moved to Trinity Square in 1822 from Westminster, where it had stood since 1372.  However, there are others who think the statue may have been created for the gardens at Carlton House in 1735.  Carlton House was demolished in 1825. Julia is somewhat skeptical to say the least.

Controversy aside, the statue sits in a beautiful square directly in front of the Henry Wood Hall. The flowers and trees around the square were in full bloom when we stopped by.  Looking at it alone in this setting it is certainly easy to believe it has stood for over 600 years

Our next stop was Kensington Gardens.  We took the Tube to the Queensway stop on the Central line.  This will put you out on the northern side of the park just by the Broad Walk to Kensington Palace (And incidentally just by a restroom right inside the park).  We strolled down toward the palace and as we walked I heard Julia chuckling to herself.

“What?” I asked.

“We’re in England.”

Indeed.

Duck pond at Kensington Palace

We walked in the gardens and around the duck pond by the palace, and then Julia noticed a golden cross just above the trees nearby. She asked what it was and I confessed that I had no idea. We walked south past the Round Pond and came upon the Albert Memorial.

Ok, I had never even HEARD of the Albert Memorial. It is stunning, absolutely stunning.  It is situated just across Kensington Road from the Royal Albert Hall. The memorial consists of a massive gilded statue of Prince Albert seated under a gothic canopy. There are eight statues representing the four continents of the Empire (Asia,Europe,Africa, andAmerica) and four Victorian industrial arts & sciences (Agriculture, Commerce, Engineering, and Manufacture).

The Albert Memorial

Victoria commissioned the memorial shortly after Albert’s death in 1861 and it was paid for by public subscription.  It stands more than 170 feet tall and is simply amazing to look at. It was recently renovated and if you are in the area make time to have a look.

We walked along the south side of the park through the flower gardens to the Princess Diana Memorial by The Serpentine. The memorial is a circular flowing stream and quite lovely. A plaque nearby explains how the memorial was composed of more than 500 pieces of granite cut using a hyper-accurate computer guided cutter. The Princess of Wales Memorial Walk also winds through the park (And several others in the area). It is marked out by plaques set into the pathway.

Princess Diana Memorial

Detail from the Italian Gardens

From the Diana Memorial we walked north along the Long Water. The collection of fountains and sculptures at the northern end of the Long Water is collectively known as the Italian Garden. We got there as the sun was setting and watched the ducks paddling around the fountains and the evening joggers going by.  After a while I finally figured out that the planks going down into each pool of water was so the ducks could get in and out.

Trivia geeks take note: There is a statue of a seated man on the east side of the gardens with an inscription that just reads “Jenner.” There is no explanation or even the subject’s full name. Turns out he is the man likely responsible for saving more lives than anyone else in human history. Edward Jenner created the first smallpox vaccine that used cowpox, and is considered the “Father of immunology.”

It was getting dark so we headed back to Cartwright Gardens, and began that evening’s dinner dash. We started at the Nelson just around the corner from The George. There was a chalkboard sign out front advertising a Sunday Roast. We went in, Julia had a seat, and I walked up to the bar to order our food.

“I’d like to order the roast.”

“Oh, sorry we’re out.”

“Ok, well what about the pork roast, or chicken?”

“No, we’re out of food. The kitchen is closed.”

“Ah.”

Not even 8PM. Off we go.

We wound up at an Italian place called Balfour on Marchmont Street. We asked for a table and were asked if we had reservations. I can’t imagine how pathetic we must’ve looked when we told them “No.” After a few minutes conferring and re-arranging we got a table. Crisis averted (For today).

The food was quite good, if served absurdly hot. Like, harm-yourself-and-require-medical-attention hot. We found this to be true in many places across Europe.  Most establishments are smaller and your food doesn’t sit around? They’re using microwaves? Dunno, but watch yourself so you don’t get burned. I had the chicken parmesan with chips*. It’s England, just about everywhere you go chips are THE side. Even a menu item to themselves lots of places.  I also had the obligatory pint of cider and we looked through the pictures on our phones from the day.

We’d been moved down to our single room at The George. It was what I would consider an average size. The exception is the bathroom. I guess more precisely you would call it the toilet, as it had only a shower and not a bath. Since the hotel was not built as a hotel but a residence they’ve had to put the toilets where they could. This is accomplished buy putting in what is basically a one-piece fiberglass insert that is very much like the toilet in an RV. Overall I’d say it isn’t much more than 6 feet long. The front edge of the toilet is under the sink and the shower was not much wider than my shoulders. It was perfectly serviceable, I just had to be careful when I moved about to keep from crashing into things.

We had a lovely view of the park and tennis courts outside, a tiny television that we never turned on, and a comfortable bed, which we fell into. Big day tomorrow… bus trip to Bath… and Stonehenge!

*I was just going to assume that you all knew this, but then I remembered that one of the main goals here is to inform, so… just in case you don’t know;  When I say “Chips” in England (Or pretty much anywhere in Europe) I mean fries. What we would call “Chips” in America the English call “Crisps.” Now you know.

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator