Two Fortnights Across The Pond: Jolly Old England the Land of Port Wine, Part I

I love this view of some of London’s most iconic landmarks, with a few surprises passing by.

Day 1, Monday, September 26, 2022
This is my 7th trip to Europe. The first was in 1970 when I was 21 years old.

At the time, Queen Elizabeth had been sitting on the throne for only 18 years; her PM was Edward Heath. The Beatles were at the height of their popularity and recorded “Let It Be”, their final album, that year, though they actually broke up in April. The Pound Sterling was worth $2.14 US. Red double-decker buses, telephone booths and black taxis were everywhere. The Underground’s motto was “Mind The Gap’. Most toilets had overhead tanks and a long chain. Fish and chips were generally recognized as haute cuisine since most British food was boiled and bland at the time. The population of London was 7.5 million.

I brought along a small suitcase, backpack, sleeping bag, a few pair of bellbottoms, 1 pair of shoes, and a half-dozen T-shirts. A Kodak camera with a built-in flash captured my memories on rolls containing 12 shots. I pre-purchased a Eurail Pass for $280 for 1 month and carried about $500 in American Express Travelers Cheques because Debit Cards were still 10 years away from becoming invented. A $125 round-trip charter flight on World Airlines from Oakland to Gatwick was the deal of the century (though my twin brother swears it was $199). The entire trip for 8 weeks through 9 countries cost about $1,000 U.S.

Meanwhile, in the U.S. in 1970, “Midnight Cowboy” was a surprise winner because it was X-rated; the Miracle Mets had shocked the baseball world by taking the World Series the previous fall; the Kansas City Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV. Richard Nixon and Spiro Agnew were the U.S. President and Vice President, two years before the Watergate break-in.

For price comparisons, my flight to London today on Premium Plus was $1,400 round-trip.  That alone cost about $400 more than my entire trip 52 years earlier. My hotel room at St. Ermin’s near St. James Park, purchased 7 months earlier, is $300 per night US (now about $700 US on average). However, the Pound Sterling is now at a record low, worth only $1.08 U.S., about half of its 1970 value.

Our flight left SFO at 7:50pm PT.

Day 2, Tuesday, September 27, 2022
And we arrived at Heathrow Airport London at 2:10pm, about 9 1/2 hours later. This airport is Texas-sized. By that I mean that we literally walked 2.0 miles through the airport until we finally arrived at the Heathrow Express Train depot to Waterloo Train Station, then a taxi to our hotel, had a quick dinner in the Caxton Bar that filled us up with a huge order of fish (cod) and chips, a locally sourced lobster roll, and some British beer. Crashed about 8pm. We slept about 12 hours with a few interruptions of “Where am I? Why does this room look so strange? And where is my bathroom?”

St. Ermin’s Hotel near St. James Park and Underground station in Westminster is quite lovely, very historic, and our day base here for our week in London. It opened in 1899 and has been reflecting and influencing the history, people, and events in this area ever since because of its proximity to the Houses of

Parliament –– just a brisk 8-minute walk –– and to the Churchill War Rooms nearby. Mr. Churchill spent time here during WW II years because his SOE (Special Operations Executives), also known as Churchill’s Secret Army, took over an entire floor of the hotel through 1945 for its headquarters.

The Prime Minister was often seen raising a glass at the Caxton Bar with some of his brave men and women. In fact, its menu reads, “Notorious for his alcohol intake, Winston Churchill spent many an hour enjoying at tipple in Caxton Bar. This collection of cocktails, named after the books he wrote, has been credited in his honour. We hope they would have satisfied his simple tastes.”

We walked 3.2 miles total and stuck close to the hotel because of being jet lag.

Day 3, Wednesday, September 28, 2022
Today, feeling somewhat normal for people of our age and dispositions, we visited the British Library near St. Pancras Station, our favorite cultural spot that we’ve seen on each of our last three London visits. In one huge room –– the Sir John Ritblat Gallery –– you’ll find the Treasures of the British Library. These include, in no particular order, the original Magna Carta from 1215, a Gutenberg Bible, the original works of Chaucer, Dickens, Shakespeare, Keats, and many other British writers, as well as original song sheets from Mozart and Schubert to Elgar and Lennon / McCartney, just to name a few. It’s quite a collection and it amazes us every time that they are all in one place, but usually unseen by visitors who prefer the British Museum’s equally amazing assets.

We then took the subway to Waterloo Station and ate at a Greek restaurant in Lower Marsh Market, a walking street with street booths and cafeteria style restaurants of all flavors. Across the street at the Old Vic Theatre, we saw the first of our many plays on this visit. It was called “Eureka Day” a comedy set in a private school in Berkeley, CA of all places, pre-pandemic. Helen Hunt was the star among its cast of only five actors. Scene 2 with comments from parents during a Zoom call to discuss the protocol for closing the school after a Mumps outbreak, was truly inspired theatrical humor.

Later, we strolled past Big Ben (which I’ve admired since seeing it repeatedly in the Disney animated classic, Peter Pan, as a child), the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the New Scotland Yard, across from our lodgings.

Because we walked 5.1 miles and rode about 8 Underground trains, we again dined in our hotel, this time at the Caxton Restaurant and enjoyed excellent food with huge portions (a pork chop for me; a large salad for Ellen), and the kind of outstanding service for which the British excel.

Day 4, Thursday, September 29, 2022
We ate a quickie breakfast near the hotel, took the Underground to Shepherd Market, a cozy area with about 10 restaurants of all types of foods. We ended up having pub food – a salad and a burger with chips. You can only eat so much fish and chips, but it’s always fresh, always fried, and always non-greasy.

Next, we took the Underground to Leicester Square to see another play. This one was called “The Drifters Girl” about a Black woman who became the singing group’s manager and was instrumental in their rise to fame in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. Beverly Knight is terrific in the lead role and four gentlemen play a wide range of roles, both American and British, as the Drifters, Nat King Cole, other managers trying to steal the group’s legacy, and more.

We dined again in the hotel’s Caxton Bar since Ellen’s knee was a bit swollen. Enjoyed an absolutely huge Caesar Salad and Tomato/Burrata Flatbread with Orange Wine (similar to Rosé but not sweet) and ice cream with melon for dessert. Stuffed! Walked 3.7 miles today.

Day 5, Friday, September 30, 2022
We ate breakfast at a little place called Caffe Grana in the St. James Underground station, then headed for the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square, which is absolutely huge, houses more than 2,300 paintings dating back from the mid-13th century to about 1900, and was founded nearly 200 years ago in 1824.

An interesting Picasso / Ingres exhibit there showcases two paintings. Ingres, a French Neoclassical artist, completed “Portrait of Madame Moitessier” in 1856, while the Spaniard  was so inspired, he crafted his in 1932.

We then rode the Underground to the Borough Market, established in 1756, with acres of stalls of fresh produce, fish, oysters, lobsters, and restaurants for a United Nations of foods. I chose a steak, potato, and onion pasty, while Ellen enjoyed a chicken empanada. We just had to try to rugelach at Moishe’s Bagelry & Bakery – it was pretty, pretty, pretty good.

That night, we tried Punjab, the UK’s oldest and first Northern Indian food restaurant, established in 1946. It was quite good and service was fast. This was steps away, thankfully because it was raining pretty hard, from the Shaftesbury Theatre in the West End. Ironically, this was the venue for the first London Broadway play I saw in 1970: “Fiddler On The Roof” cost me all of a shilling back in the day, while two great seats for “& Juliet” set us back only about $100 US for two tickets. Quite a bargain compared to the states; about half the price.

This is a total retelling of “Romeo & Juliet” with William Shakespeare and his wife Anne Hathaway arguing on stage about what might have happened if Juliet didn’t die after she thought her star-crossed lover had killed himself, but instead went on with a new life? It is definitely high energy, uses anthems like Katie Perry’s “Roar”, Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again”, and Kelly Clarkson’s “Since You Been Gone” to move the story from Verona to Paris. The break-out star is Juliet, portrayed by Miriam-Teak Lee, who won an Olivier Award (the British Tony) for her lead role in 2020. We gave it five stars.

Day 6, Saturday, October 1, 2022
We ate breakfast at our hotel which is packed with nearly 600 people, a high percentage of them are runners from around the world. The London Marathon is tomorrow morning and about 50,000 runners are expected to trudge through the city’s streets in a heavy rain but moderate temperature. The race ends a few blocks away, so this is ground central for those who are fleet of feet. I’ve run a few half marathons (13.1 miles) and 14 Bay to Breakers Races in San Francisco (12 km or 7.6 miles each), but my trotting days are long past.

To save further wear and tear on Ellen’s surgically repaired knee, this is another day and another opportunity to visit a public market. Today’s choice is Old Spitalfields Market in the East End, with as many clothing and art stalls as food and beverages. It’s spread across several square blocks, but we dined at Ottolenghi Spitalfields a block away. This Israeli-born British chef, restauranteur, and food writer has carved out his niche in England with seven delis and restaurants featuring freshly grilled vegetables, bold flavors, and selected meats or fish. We shared a chicken shawarma pastilla with almond crumble which reminded us of a Moroccan dish and a roasted courgette (zucchini) with lemon ricotta, raisin and crispy capers.

The food was as good as the service at the bar counter since this restaurant was fully booked for reservations for lunch and dinner all weekend. Met an interesting chap while dining who was from New Zealand, has lived in London for 35 years, and spends a few months a year on an island near Luxor, Egypt.

Besides the marathon tomorrow, there’s an NFL game (Saints vs. Vikings) nearby in London. So when everyone else zigs at Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The London Eye, Trafalgar Square, and the most popular museums in a city of nearly 10 million people, we took a load off to see “Mrs. Harris Goes to Paris”, a delightful comedy about Christian Dior in 1957.

Tonight, we once again dined at the hotel after walking 3.25 miles around Londontown. Ellen had the Caesar Salad and I had a Cubano, which was surprisingly good considering we’re thousands of miles from Cuba or Puerto Rico where this delicacy originated.

Day 7, Sunday, October 2, 2022
We began our final full day in London with breakfast at the hotel. Family members of marathoners were everywhere in the restaurant and the participants lucked out with no rain though it had been forecast. We have ridden about two dozen Underground trains in five days, so we then hit the bricks –– since many streets are cobblestoned –– and walked through St. James Park to cheer on the many runners we saw trudging by, through to Trafalgar Square and the Theatre District.

We ate lunch at a pizza place and attended Tina, The Tina Turner Musical” at a 3pm matinee. If you know her story or saw her biopic movie, “What’s Love Got to Do With It”, this is a true tale of a talented young woman from Nutbush, Tennessee, who met Ike Turner when she was 17 in St. Louis and joined his band. He renamed Anna Mae Bullock as “Tina Turner” and the rest is rock & roll history.

She ran away from him after suffering 16 years of domestic violence, drug abuse, and countless affairs. Tina then re-invented herself and had a second career as a soloist, surpassing her previous success with Ike.

The actress on stage was quite good –– looked like her, sang like her, and danced like her. But we still preferred “& Juliet” as our favorite London play of the four we attended. (Again, we were just a handful of those masked in the audience. Better safe than sorry!)

After completing our 3.8-mile round-trip through teeming crowds of post-marathoners  and families celebrating their “victory of the feet”, we returned to St. Ermin’s and again dined at the Caxton Bar.

I tried the Grilled Halloumi Cheese Sandwich with avocado that was just amazing while Ellen just shared some of my meal.

We started packing that night to leave the next day for a trip north.

Day 8, Monday, October 3, 2022: London to Liverpool
The London Rail Service is efficient, clean, and economical. We took a taxi to Euston Station (Underground and Overground combined) to board our high-speed train for Liverpool Lime Street Station, about 2.5 hours north by northwest. After arriving there, we walked one block to the Marriott Hotel (now becoming Delta, a Canadian firm), checked in, and started exploring this city.

If you think you know everything about Liverpool, chances are, you don’t. We were extremely surprised to see how modern this city of one million people is, how robust its economy has become, and its blend of old and new architecture. While tourism, thanks to The Fab Four, is the number one industry, shipping, petro-chemicals, finance, and others are close behind. There is a huge outdoor mall that’s about a mile square with tons of restaurants, shops, and tourist booths.

To the west is the Mersey River (that’s right, “Ferry, ‘Cross The River”, but we only saw the boats, didn’t board any) and their version of The Embarcadero, Fisherman’s Wharf, and Pier 39. But it’s not as cheesy as ours because there are seven Liverpool Museums, all beautifully designed, some glass and steel, others brick.

Just north of Royal Albert Dock is a famous statue of The Beatles shown above, an ode to the group that put Liverpool on the global musical map after Peter and Gordon, Jerry & The Pacemakers, Rory Storm and The Hurricanes (Ringo was their drummer), The Searchers, The Valkries, and many others had played in the infamous Cavern. After having an excellent Pan Asian lunch at Matou overlooking the Mersey, we were met by Robert, the owner of a vintage 1970s Rolls Royce, painted psychedelically to match John Lennon’s car of the same make.

We then enjoyed a chatty 2.5-hour tour throughout the streets of Liverpool with frequent stops, from Penny Lane to Strawberry Fields (Forever) to the cemetery housing the graves of Father McKenzie and Eleanor Rigby, to the homes of all four musicians, to the schools where they met, and the places they played their first gigs.

Robert mixed his narration on the drive with songs synched to our locations, as well as a professionally produced voiceover announcer. The tour finished with him dropping us off at the Philharmonic Dining Room Pub, where Sir Paul and James Corden sang some songs on a Carpool Karaoke. If you ever go to Liverpool, for my money, is the very best of the many local tours from what we’ve both seen and heard from others.

Tired after walking 4.5 miles around town, we dined at Resurrection Tapas, across from our hotel. The bruschetta, char-broiled chicken, local pale ale, and churros were quite tasty.

Day 9, Tuesday, October 4, 2022: Liverpool to London
We had a hearty breakfast at the hotel’s buffet, then walked in the rain to The Beatles Story at Albert Dock Pier. This museum brings to life “The story of the band that changed the world”, according to its print ad, with “the world’s largest permanent exhibition purely devoted to the lives, times, and music of The Beatles”.

There was quite a bit of overlap between yesterday’s tour and this one, information wise, but this museum had photos of the lads in their early days. The excellent, well-paced audio tour with over 35 individual tracks featured a narration as you walked through the tour.

Within the museum, it featured, among hundreds of exhibits, a cobblestoned street complete with a replica of the Cavern where Brian Epstein discovered them and the music store where Paul and George bought their first guitars… a rebuilt Abbey Road Studios (but smaller than the original which we saw near Abbey Road in London on a previous trip)… handwritten song lyrics… album covers (even Sgt. Pepper’s costumes and the nearly famous alternate cover)… movie posters… and individual tributes to each of the lads.

This is an excellent complement to any Beatles tour, so I’d recommend this one as well because it’s so detailed and well produced: (Read a longer review here.)

Next, we revisited part of Liverpool’s connections to the past at the Merseyside Maritime Museum. Though the Titanic was built in Belfast, it was registered and had many crew members from Liverpool through the White Star Line.

On its tragic initial voyage in April 2012, it was scheduled to stop in Liverpool, but a mechanical issue caused it to be delayed by a day, so it sailed west to meet its fate with an iceberg four days after leaving England. It took three hours to sink and resulted in the deaths of over 1,500 passengers and crew.

One floor up, we made a connection with Ellen’s ancestry. Her great-grandmother and five kids sailed on the Lusitania, another Liverpool-based cruise ship, to New York in 1910, four years before it was sunk by a German U-Submarine with 1,962 people aboard. Nearly 1,200 lives were lost, compared to about 1,500 aboard the larger Titanic.

This concludes the British portion of our blog. Part II covers 19 days in Portugal…

, , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.