I'm currently back in the United States for a month as I prepare for my next big trip (and potentially a more permanent resettlement!) and I'm at an impasse trying to find the best way to distill a year's worth of experiences into some poignant life lessons. To some degree, I'm still processing my own feelings of culture shock being back in a place that is so familiar, but now so utterly different that I am starting to feel like a foreigner in my own hometown. In a way, that's a good thing because it means that I have gained perspective, yet it can be somewhat difficult to come to terms with. Over the next two weeks, I'll be reframing selected works as a way to show, share (and learn for myself) how long-term extensive travel can change a person.
Here is a recollection of the first leg of my journey through the UK from last year (now with pictures and words in a shiny new package). Enjoy!
Arrived in London around 1:30 PM local time. After wandering around Heathrow bleary-eyed (I still have not been able to solve sleeping on airplanes) for an hour or two, I boarded the London Underground armed with an Oyster card and an EE data card.
Confident that I would avoid the issues that I ran into when arriving in Toronto, I made my way to the hostel in central London where I am staying. After settling in, I took the *best* 3-hour nap of my life before heading out to explore the city.
With an appropriately awe-struck grin on my face, I wandered my way to Carnaby Street. Pubs lined the avenue, and each side street seemed to have a distinct character to it. One street in particular was bathed in the glow of multicolored paper lanterns strung high above.
I was then lured into a pub named Shakespeare’s Head by the promise of finding out what a “Meat Pie” was, and the chance to sit down with a Guinness and write. I’m also definitely a sucker for places that leverage historical figures that I admire. Kitschy maybe, but totally worth it.
Even in the dark, the city radiates with the shine of artificial lighting against stone. It’s unlike anything that I have experienced back in the United States (even on the East Coast) and is beautiful and spectacular. For a first impression, Europe is most impressive.
Really looking forward to the Harry Potter tour that I have set for tomorrow, and actually having more time to see London during the day.
I woke up plenty early enough to get a good start walking through London. Leaving into the rain, I walked down Regent street to pass by Buckingham Palace and the Victoria Memorial before reaching Victoria Station. Along the way, I stopped by a Starbucks for coffee, and noticed that they serve *significantly* better pastry options than in the U.S.
Just past Victoria station is Fountain Square, a vaulted glass covered area that appears to specialize in travel agencies and local touring companies.
I hadn’t yet been able to ride in one of the iconic double-decker London buses, so I found it extraordinarily excitingly that my first experience was Harry Potter themed.
Speaking of: The Making of Harry Potter Studio Tour was, well, magical. Having a chance to experience walking through the Great Hall, visiting Dumbledore’s Office, and strolling through Diagon Alley was spectacular.
The amount of intricate detail carved into each location was surprising. For example, an entire comic book was created and placed in the Gryffindor common room, and the shops lining Diagon Alley are fully stocked with thousands of unique individual props.
Lastly, sitting down with a glass of Butterbeer was as satisfying as you might imagine. It has a taste similar to that of cream soda, but with a slightly buttery taste. Delicious.
Once I returned from the tour, I was faced with a choice: I could either head back to the Hostel (I knew how to walk back easily) or I could use the directions that I had saved earlier to reach “Brick Lane.”
Brick Lane is known for its British-Bangladeshi community, and was where I was hoping to go to get Indian food while in London (I had asked for recommendations and directions the night that I arrived).
My conundrum was this: my phone, which I have become far too reliant upon to find directions with, was only at 2% battery when I switched it off after the tour. So of course I decided to go see Brick Lane!
I managed to make it to Brick Lane relatively easily (even if I missed the initial turn after leaving the underground). Brick Lane was… interesting. Outside of every restaurant was at least one person tasked with attracting business. It felt almost like walking down the Vegas strip, and in truth was a little underwhelming.
Most places had very little business, and had prominent signage proclaiming to have won the same award that another restaurant two blocks prior has asserted was their own accomplishment.
The most intriguing aspect of Brick Lane was the graffiti plastered on the walls of the adjacent alleys. One wall, on the way to the overground station, had a sadly muted “Tourist Trap” statement that was modeled after the Brick Lane gate. Despite the messages protestations, it was nearly drowned in a sea of multicolored tags.
I decided to pass through without eating. Considering what I would discover at my next stop I wish that I had taken more time to acknowledge the progenitors of this tourist trap, because I was heading towards the same thing in fancier clothing.
Most of my destinations are culled from conversations that I have with people while walking around. To my surprise, a significant percentage of the people that I have spoken with thus far are transplants to London. It’s fascinating to be able to hear such a diverse array of languages at any given time, and it feels like everyone here is as eager to discover more about the city as I am. A collective journey of discovery if you will.
Brick Lane was one such destination, as was the Cinnamon Club, a distinctly Londoner Indian fusion restaurant that has assimilated the Westminster Public Library.
The place is an enigma. Located just a few short blocks away from Westminster Abbey (and Big Ben a few more) the Cinnamon Club stands in an extraordinarily well preserved building near the heart of what many consider London’s most iconic destinations.
A tourist trap of its own, albeit a significantly more expensive one. Yet I have been unable to decide if the restaurant is an anti-colonial triumph of reverse diaspora, part of the reason why districts such as brick lane exist in the state that they do, or somewhere in between. After speaking at length with the former head chef turned operations manager, Hari Nagaraj, it’s clearly much more than either.
A passion project of extraordinary culinary skill, the food at the Club was superb (if you’re looking for somewhere unique in London, this is way up there). It’s also the kind of place that could only exist where such a high degree of cultural commingling is embraced.
In fact, that’s quickly becoming my favorite part about London and the reason I fully intend to spend more time in the City proper next week.
In the coming days, join me in Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon, Bath, and further down the pastoral rabbit hole of Britain’s literary giants.
Today I cheated a little. Unsure of how I was going to be able to reach a number of destinations given the time I have planned in there UK, I booked a tour with Golden Tours after my visit to the Harry Potter Studio.
Guided tours are like amusement park rides, focused and limited experiences that serve a very specific purpose. One one hand, they provide very valuable context that may be otherwise lacking. On the other, they are limited in the sense of self-discovery and time.
My hope was to see a few of the places that I fully intend to return to, armed with the aforementioned insight. Fortunately our tour guide, Pete (Peter Piper to his colleagues) was excellent.
We arrived shortly in Oxford, home to Tolkien, Lewis and a number of my own childhood fantasies. The architecture here is spectacular, and of the kind that engenders real reflection. History here is tangible, as thick as molasses in the air.
Christ Church was home to the first real cathedral that I was able to visit while in Europe and was absolutely extraordinary. The stained glass window featured in the earlier photographs is of the archangel Michael, and contains a deep crimson pigment that can no longer be made as the secret of it’s making has been lost.
The university itself is no stranger to odd forgotten traditions either, of which even the memory of their inception has long been forgotten. One college has a door that opens for only five minutes in the year, and members of the adjoining college that come through the door during that time are to be served ale treated with ivy.
Lastly, across the street from the large red door marking the entrance to J.R.R. Tolkien’s former office, is the esteemed Eagle and Child pub where Tolkien and Lewis would meet to discuss their work. While I was unable to visit at this time, I will be certain to make the return a journey if only to be able to stand in the presence of legends.
DAY 3 - UNITED KINGDOM: “NOT MARBLE NOR THE GILDED MONUMENTS / OF PRINCES, SHALL OUTLIVE THIS POWERFUL RHYME”
The above quote echoes my sentiments on Shakespeare’s legacy perfectly. I hold that ideas are tangible in their own way. Some that are brittle and break into fragments that are lost beyond history and remembrance, and some have permanency that can far outlast the physical characteristics of the world that gave birth to them.
If any English author has harnessed the ability to describe thoughts and ideas as if they were unbreakable, it would be Shakespeare. Having a chance to visit Stratford-upon-Avon and see the house and the town that he grew up in was revelatory for me.
The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust (established following the demolition of Shakespeare’s retirement home by its last owner that had tired of visitors) has done an excellent job of preserving the home that Shakespeare was born in.
The small museum in the entryway from the street does an excellent job of displaying a few rare folios and artifacts, and establishes a very good chronology of Shakespeare’s life and how it appears to trend with events in his life.
The house itself, while very well preserved, contains several hidden signs proclaiming what items in the house are “gross.” This includes things like chamber pots and the like, and seemed to be a little unnecessary. Twelve year old me would have gotten a kick out of it though.
Lastly, they had performers on a small theatre in the round taking requests, and doing a very good job of it too. They acted out scenes from Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth before acting out one of my favorite scenes in King Lear to perform (video to come shortly). It takes quite a bit of skill to know the source material well enough to react on demand in this way, and I was thoroughly impressed.
Yet, as much fun as I had pretending to walk in Shakespeare’s footsteps, the experience paled in comparison to what I would discover at his wife’s family home.
Anne Hathaway’s Cottage
Walking into the gardens from Anne Hathaway’s cottage was like stepping through the frame and into a painting. There was an energy there that was unlike anything else that I have ever felt: part mystical, part calming, and tingly in the way that you know you are in a special place. Thus far, this has been the most incredible place that I have visited in all of England.
The cottage itself, while fascinating in its remarkable preservation (13 generations of Hathaways had lived in the cottage at some point or another) was an afterthought compared to the rest of the grounds.
Relatively unassuming from the road, the gardens have been cultivated to spectacular effect. One of the gardeners showed me around to describe the vegetation that they grow in the gardens. From thyme, to a root that takes 5 years to mature (she mentioned that she has not yet tasted it), to a race to the center of a lavender maze, it’s clear that the grounds have been meticulously designed and cared for.
There’s even a small forest path full of oversized mushroom statues hidden along the way, and strange wooden bee signs (perhaps they were a warning for bees that I had not seen). And another that leads to a sculpture garden featuring a large circular hedge and a number of tribute pieces paying homage to Shakespeare’s works.
If you are in the area, I strongly recommend a visit.
The Cotswolds are home to the kind of picturesque landscapes that previously only existed in my imagination. There is a sense that the land was sculpted over centuries to perfectly display bright yellow and green rolling hills in the optimum manner to be appealing to the eye.
And in some cases, the land was actually sculpted, through centuries of tilling with oxen, it has changed the land irrevocably. Passing lazily by the few remaining sheep farms, squinting to catch the sight of deer in game forests, and marveling at the pastoral charm of thatch-roofed cottages we made our way from Oxford towards Stratford-upon-Avon.
If one thing became readily apparent during the journey, it was that the roads were *made* for motorcycles. The compartmentalization of coach windows do not do justice to the views, and the gentle curves and light traffic along the roads would be absolutely outstanding on a vehicle where you can really feel the road. When I make it back to Oxford to visit the Eagle and Child pub, I hope to do so with a bicycle or on a Triumph.
Today was a rest day of sorts. For the first time since arriving in London I slept more than four hours (which was a major win against jet lag). I also have a tendency to just keep moving forward while traveling from a desire to see as much as I can.
Following the advice of several friends, and in an effort to take enough time to really appreciate my surroundings, I booked a cheap room in Bath for the weekend.
At this point, I’m starting to feel very comfortable in London’s underground (it has so far been an extremely efficient way to get around). Why I feel like I can learn public transit systems in new cities in a matter of day, but haven’t been able to make sense of San Francisco’s in a lifetime is beyond me.
First impressions of Bath have been excellent, and not at all what I was expecting. I suppose that I had been expecting something more akin to Stratford-upon-Avon, but after exploring Bath’s corridors of carved stone for a few hours I am starting to become enamored with the city.
I arrived a little to late to visit the Jane Austen Centre and the Roman Baths, but with plenty of time to find a really unique pub with a rooftop terrace and extraordinary views of the city.
The Hall & Woodhouse is a recent update to what was formerly an auction house in the city. I had some fairly forgettable Fish and Chips (I had to get them at some point while I was here) with some really interesting minty peas that tasted very much like a mint chutney. Sitting on the rooftop with a glass of wine to watch the sunset was easily the best way that I could have ended the day.
Standing prominently near the Roman Baths, Bath Abbey presented an unmistakable allure when first entering the city from the rail station. It was first on my list of items for the day, so after eating an incredible English breakfast I headed towards the city center.
Entering the Abbey is free (albeit with a suggested donation) and they also offer a tour of the bell tower for £6. The tour, consisting of a club through two stairwells for a total of 212 steps offered views of the city and the Roman Baths that are wholly unique. They also take you behind the face of the clock tower to see its surprisingly simple mechanism.
Our guide, Ottilie, made sure to mention that the clock tower faces north (which is different from the expected western direction) because the clock was placed to face the market square so the residents of Bath could easily tell the time.
Once the clock was moved in the Eighteenth century, it would chime four times a day: Once at one past nine in the morning to tell people to go to work. Again at one past one in the afternoon for lunch. Once again at one past five to send people home. And lastly at one past nine in the evening to ring a close to the day.
The picture of the bell in the bell tower has an interesting story behind it as well. The inscription reads “All you of Bathe that heare me [calling down] thank Lady Hopkins hundred pounds” (I am approximating the section in brackets). This particular bell had a crack in it that required repair. Lady Hopkins promised £100 for its repair (at the time the equivalent of about £20000) but only relinquished £5 before her death. As the engraving had already been completed, her family was then responsible for the remainder of the payments.
While listening to the story about the bells while sitting in the tower, I found a cable attached that seemed to run to the automatic mechanism that we had be shown earlier. I asked about it, and as if on cue the bells started chiming for half past the hour. Even Ottilie, who I am sure has *never* experienced this during her *years* of service at the Abbey, jumped when the bells chimed.
All in all, Bath Abbey was one of the more interesting places that I visited in Bath and is absolutely worth the visit. I headed straight over to the Roman Baths, hoping to catch the guided tour that takes place on the hour (with only ten minutes to find my way)!
Following my time at Bath Abbey, I sprinted through the town square over to the entryway for the Roman Baths. A couple that I had met in the Abbey tower mentioned that there was an excellent guided tour of the baths that took place every hour, on the hour starting in the center of the baths following the museum portion.
Making it there with a few minutes to spare, I walked around the perimeter of the baths, exploring what appeared to be broken stone archways and an unusually smooth and pockmarked stone floor. Our guide, Brian, mentioned that the wear to the soft limestone floor was due to spikes placed on sandals by the Romans for inclement weather.
It was context such as this that made me very glad that I caught the tour. The Roman baths were initially constructed over the site of a Celtic shrine to Sul almost two thousand years ago. The term “Sulis” is a feminization of Sul as the Romans assimilated the area in honor of the goddess Minerva.
The baths themselves sit upon the only natural mineral hot water source in Britain. As such, it has been known for its restorative powers (and also for those who exploit that “fact” to their advantage). If you’re curious, the water (treated for bacteria) is on tap near the exit of the baths. It’s worth drinking to say that you did it, but it tastes dreadful.
The real highlight is walking around the baths themselves, closing your eyes, and allowing your senses to transpose your body into a different time. The baths may be the oldest construction that I have ever visited (some of the places that I have visited in Japan were close) and the baths were easily the standout location of my visit to the city.
I am, among many things, a feminist. This does not mean that I am a particularly good one, or that I have any great insight into feminist theory, but rather that it is a necessary cause of equality that is very close to my heart.
For one, I am very lucky to have been afforded the advantages that I have been given in life as a man, and perhaps for selfish reasons I would hope that those same privileges could be passed on to any children that I may have. If I were to ever have a daughter, I would hope that she could live in a world where she had just as much chance to succeed as if I were to have a son. Children or no, *every* woman should have that kind of opportunity. The very least that I can do is acknowledge that there is a disparity and that there is actionable change that can be done to improve things.
I am aware that it is somewhat idealistic to aspire towards a society that encourages a level playing field (it is far too complicated to assume that things would just *work* that way), yet I do try to hold myself to a standard that makes judgements based on merit rather than on gender.
Funny then, that the first reaction from the ticket counter at the Jane Austen centre was surprise. “It’s not often that a man comes in here alone, good on you” followed by “have you read much Of Austen?”
In truth, I have read some (not nearly enough), and plan to pick up where I left off in Persuasion someday. When I was younger, Austen (much like Shakespeare for me) represented a dense language and perspective that was entirely foreign. As I have grown older, I have learned to admire and appreciate these types of narratives, as they allow us to move beyond the confines of our own identities.
Having a chance to learn more of her origins was eye opening. Most of what I know of Austen is limited to her novels, as I had little experience with her history. Learning that she grew up in a family of several siblings, reading accounts of her close relationship with her sister, her attitude (from which her brilliant wit is derived), and her changing perception of the City of Bath did much to humanize her in my mind.
Oftentimes it is too easy to envision literary icons based on their accomplishments and forget that they were (are) people too. People that can and should always have the opportunity to achieve such accomplishments without arbitrary societal limitations. This tenet is at the crux of Austen’s work, and the reason why I am thankful for her writing and influence.
Royal Crescent and the Circle
Just down the block from the Jane Austen Center is the Circle, a section of high society buildings organized in a circle around a large tree. Both the circle (and the Royal Crescent nearby) are impressive for their very deliberate uniform geometry. The crescent also sits adjacent to the Victoria Gardens, which I found to be significantly more interesting.
Victoria and Prior Park Landscape Gardens
Continuing along the road leaving the Royal Crescent in Bath, I found the gates to the Victoria Gardens. I’m starting to find that the majority of parks in the United Kingdom are not only significantly larger, but also much better cared for than most of the parks that I am familiar with in California.
That care is well worth it though, walking through the main avenue of the gardens and into the botanical gardens was wonderfully full of an entirely different set of foliage than what I have grown to expect at home.
Not content the leave the day unfinished, I doubled back through the park along the River Avon to reach the Prior Park Landscape Gardens that are located a few short miles outside of the city.
The landscape gardens were built by a postal tycoon (the man brought postal services to this part of Britain) who used his fortune to build a mansion high up enough where he would be able to see the city as well as the city could see him.
Naturally, the gardens then have spectacular views of the whole of the city. There is a really excellent bridge there as well that is covered in carved graffiti from the Eighteenth century. The graffiti was likely left by students when the mansion was converted into a school (which has since been closed).
Of the two, I’d say the landscape gardens were the more unique of the two, and definitely worth the walk to reach.
After all this walking, I really wanted to find an interesting place to sit down for a bit. I found a pub with a raven wearing a top hat that was known for their ales. Feeling that it was an appropriately British thing to do, I decided that while in Aquae Sulis I should do as the British do. I was not disappointed.
The raven ale, thick and dark, was the best beer that I’ve had in years. I’ve never been a particularly big drinker (I tend to regard alcohol like I do soda, as a treat) and I could have easily done with a few more of them in good company. I also had a venison pie there that made the meat pie I had on Carnaby Street in London seem like a frozen dinner.
I would sleep well that night, and needed it for the journey to Cardiff ahead.