by Sam Juliano
453……to…..Marylebone! and 453…..to…..Deptford Bridge! This daily female intonation rendered in irresistible Queen’s English heard on a recording, accompanied every ride to and from our London Hotel on Old Kent Road. The former declaration was heard at nearly every block heading from the Eurotraveller up to the Westminster Bridge and the Thames River concourse alongside the London Eye ferris wheel in a landmark area of the city that invariably served as a home base for six days of activities, on a red double decker bus line that was a model of efficiency. It was rare that the carriers took longer than ten minutes to arrive at any destination around the city, and the frequency of usage made the 100 pound London pass worthwhile alone. Of course the pass was also good for the handful of famed tourist sites we saw over our stay in the city, though the all-day bus tour we took on our final full day needed to paid for separately. The concourse was frequented no less than about a dozen times over the six days, and included a first day ride on the breathtaking Eye after about a 45 minute wait to get on the city’s most popular moving attraction. The concourse was almost always inhabited by a sea of tourists and locals and a food court that included indoor and outdoor seating and an international food festival as well as numerous incarnations of the country’s most celebrated meal -Fish n chips- and an always mobbed McDonald’s. It was at this location that we met up with our good friend Judy Geater of Movie Classics, who trained in from Ipswich to meet the group (my entire family of seven and Allan Fish). It was also the general location of the BFI store, (where Judy was actually first waiting at) one of the world’s most eclectic arthouse DVD and blu-ray store, and a mecca for film lovers. The concourse also provided the opportunity to meditate on cool, breezy evenings, when Big Ben (like NYC’s Empire State Building) stood as the city’s most identifiable landmark. It was along the river, with the steaming mass of people heading in both directions, that we navigated London’s “vibes” and the melting pot of ethnicity that has always made the city one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations. For the kids an amusement arcade could be -and was- accessed from the main traverse, and the breathtaking view of the Thames was a favorite spot for pictures. The Eurotraveller Hotel was located in an Arabic and Indian section that was defined by the small Halal bakeries and eateries that offered excellent prices in what could well be the world’s most expensive city, but deep-fried food that gave some of us more than our share of heartburn. Perhaps the safest bet was a Szechuan Chinese restaurant within the hotel, where some exotic choices made for a fine Saturday night meal with long-time site regular Bobby (J.) Jopson, a delightful and brilliant 47 year-old, who led the long conversation from healthy diet, keeping MS at bay to vintage anthology television. Jopson travelled from nearby Essex, and stayed with us for several hours on a night we opted to stay in after a gruelling morning and afternoon tour.
Turning back the clock to our day of departure on Wednesday evening, August 7th, Lucille and I and our five kids boarded a Virgin Atlantic 747 in terminal B at Newark Airport, embarking on our first European trip, and arriving at Heathrow at around 9:00 A.M. London time. We lost five hours on the clock, gaining it back on our return home two weeks later. After taking two underground runs on the Piccadilly line we exited at the Elephant & Castle station, where we soon met Allan Fish, who was looking out for the group. We bused down to the hotel for a short nap, and then proceeded with the London Eye activities, led forward by Allan Fish who served as tour guide for the entire time in the city, and who had actually plotted on his own the itinerary in advance. His inspired guidance yielded excellent results.
(Sadly at this point of my recap while inserting pictures I lost nearly the final 2,000 words that has been typed into this post, and here at 11:00 on Sunday night I must commit the next two hours at least in trying to sketch back what I had originally wrote–what a major disaster!)
We started off the next morning aiming to take in the Tower of London, but my incessant difficulties with the kidney stone stint and a wrong bus route (I plead not my fault, Google maps gave us wrong bus no, thankfully I realised it as we wound up in Ripper country just west of the Christchurch – Allan) forced me to cab back to the hotel while the others soldiered on to complete what was to be the first of two trips to the ancient London site that is one of the favorite destinations of tourists. I rested up (as time went on I found that sitting in a chair or on a couch in an upright position gave me relief) and later ventured out into the neighborhood surveying the various ethnic eateries, none of which ultimately offered anything memorable. The following day had us all setting off to take in the historic Globe Theater situated in the southwalk section of the Thames, and it featured a spirited indoor tour by a older woman who knew her stuff. The Globe is actually a replica built on a site just a few hundred yards from the original theater, one that was just a labor of love for American actor Sam Wanamaker, who back in 1949 was motivated to see a resurrection based on meticulous research into the documents that revealed the specs of the original structure. Though we were unable to fit a performance in our schedule, the season does run from May until November, and there can’t be a better place in the world to experience the Bard, and to revel in the authenticity of an open air production. A marvelous souvenir booklet and dozens of photos will preserve this special visit.
The palatial estate of the Hampton Court Palace was negotiated the next morning via a train that let us off near the bridge near the former home of Henry VIII that was commissioned by Cardinal Woolsey but later turned over to the king. My own favorite locations in the stunningly-maintained site included Henry’s kitchens, the Royal Chapel and the manicured gardens in back that led to the water’s edge. Sitting on a bench as rain started to fall (the shower was actually the only rain we experienced in London) was quite the meditative experience, and the kids enjoyed the hedge maze to the left of the garden layout. Cinema fans may recall that Hampton Court appeared in the celebrated film A Man For All Seasons. The architectural design of the castle – a form hybrid- has always attracted both the casual fans and the castle lovers. But it’s a perfect companion site to the Tower of London, since both continue to showcase of the specter of England’s most famous monarch in divergent capacities.
A return trip to the Tower of London allowed me to revel in what I had missed the day I had to withdraw, and I found the site -as everyone else did- one of the true highlights of the trip. In the 1070′s, William the Conqueror began construction of a massive stone tower at the center of his London fortress, and that Tower still captivates millions a century later. The spacious site features the majestic building that houses the royal jewels and the partial remnants of a building that pre-dates William as well as the aforementioned White Tower and the outdoor site where Anne Boleyn was beheaded. Stories of the Tower’s history have always enthralled the masses, with the story of the young princes murdered there by henchman of Richard III and the imprisonment of Elizabeth I particular favorites. Money was once minted there (one floor offers a fascinating museum that chronicles this development) and the Tower actually served as a prison as late as 1953, before it was fully transformed into one of the world’s most popular tourist attractions.
An all-day bus tour took us through the West End, the front of Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Church, a close up of Big Ben and the Parliament Building, and in addition to the stop at the Tower of London, left us off near Trafalgar Square, and Baker Street, where the kids were thrilled to visit the Beatles Store and gaze at the front of the Sherlock Holmes House. The bus (and it’s marvelously dry-humored veteran guide) also passed through the heart of the London shopping district and financial centers. The last major attraction was navigated on the final day in the big city with a morning tour of the magnificent Westminster Abbey, the “non-cathedral” that is actually more formidable than any cathedral in the world. Famous poets, musicians and monarchs are buried within its myriad walls and passageways, and only when you are inside do you realize that you need hours to appreciate the scope of its immortality. The Abbey remains a coronation church for kings and queens, and offers masses for members of the royal family. The daily lines outside continue to confirm its a must stop for anyone visiting London, regardless of the length of the stay.
A mid-afternoon train from the Euston Station up to Kendal took the better part of three hours, and a minibus escorted us from the station to 4 Lound Road, the home of Susan and Allan Fish. Immediately the Fish family matriarch took on the role of extraordinary host, tending to the needs of each and every one of the group. With a generosity and goodness of spirit, Susan Fish served as cook, maid, laundry matron, and conversationalist, endearing herself famously to all of us, and making the kids realize what the phrase hospitality really means. Though for the most part we can’t really say the food on the entire trip was all that memorable, what we did get of consequence was at the behest of Mrs. Fish, who cooked up a mean English meat pie and a buffo burger and chips “tea” and prepared the daily sandwiches, desserts and drinks for the group, while ‘treating’ everyone repeatedly. I won’t soon forget her kindness in serving me every morning upon waking with my cup of camamile tea, and I’ll certainly cherish the numerous conversations I had in the front room with her about so many subjects. Family friend Martin Roberts (dubbed a second son by Sue Fish) was also an eternal delight to converse with. Roberts, a mid-50′s Kendal resident who lives just blocks from the Fish home is an impassioned classical music fan, and it was quite a treat to share our own opinions on the subject. Sue Fish’s older sister, Anne Cafferky was another generous and accommodating contributor to the time in Kendal, treating the group to a meal in town, and escorting us by car to two destinations about 10 and 12 miles away respectively. Her own home at the other end of town was a scenic delight, one that overlooked the same brook that passed under the bridge near Fish house at a narrower juncture and a breathtaking mountainous landscape. In any case, the location of the Fish household lay at the intersection of a scenic bridge, and a vintage choice for a picture postcard showing the rustic beauty of the English countryside.
After a treat of Domino’s pizza, (a favorite of the kids) we were informed that the members of the household were insistent that we take over their own bedrooms. Sue Fish slept on the couch in the front meeting room (where the plasma television was hung) while Lucille and I slept in her own bed on the second floor of the modest but accommodating three story apartment. The kids slept in a nicely-configured attic, while Allan Fish gave one of his DVD rooms to the girls. Everyone was smug, and settled into the eight night ritual which seemed to end just when everything had reached its stride. Even the black cat “Suki” finally warmed up to the group at around the time we said goodbye. We also got to meet film fan and motorcyclist Marco Tremble, who works in a Kendal bank. Marco is an avid horror buff, who has engaged in many conversations by e mail, and it was nice to meet him in the flesh.
The first full day in Kendal was spent in part taking a walk to the Kendal Castle, located fairly close to Lound Road, but made challenging by a sharp incline. Needless to say because of the situation Lucille and I were challenged, but we made it to the top and along with the kids marveled at the partial stone structure which was marked my sign cards under glass describing its role in the middle ages. What is left of the castle is actually the dining room, but there are numerous entrances and step passageways and the high up view of Kendal was spectacular.
On Thursday we embarked on a all-day tour of Liverpool, highlighted by a personalized four hour Beatles tour led by a nice young bloke who certainly knew his stuff and provided endless insights, while serving as johnny-on-the-spot for the many questions from the group. Though we walked at most of the stops, the tour was actually a ride in a mini van around the city, with Beatles songs running non-stop on the vehicle’s CD system to establish the requisite mood. We stopped at the real Penny Lane and traveled the shops and stores there, including the barber shop in the song where the boys got their tow head haircuts back in the early 60′s, and then moved on to the red front gate and the now abandoned woods beyond that is the famed “Strawberry Fields” John frequented in his youth. The tour actually started at the Hard Day’s Night Hotel (a real mecca for Fab Four devotees) which lies next to Matthew Street and the Cavern Club (where the Beatles famously first performed) and proceded with a tour of the childhood homes of all four in the group, the maternity ward building where John was born, the hall where John and Paul first met and the small cemetery across the street and John Rigby’s gravestone that inspired the masterpiece “Eleanor Rigby.” We toured some of the other venues where the Beatles performed in the city, the schools they attended, and spent some time in the Cavern Club picking up souvenirs and listening to various musicians do their own rendition of Beatles songs. We got to walk through a wonderful street fair in the center of tow and visited the landmark Liverpool Cathedral to boot. This family of huge Beatles fans couldn’t be happier this day, and the dozens of photos will always be looked back on with special smiles. Danny, a disciple of the Fab Four was really a happy camper.
Sue Fish treated the group (though she stayed back that day) to a invigorating cruise on the 14 mile Lake Windermere, England’s largest lake. Situated in God’s Country, the lake is a prime U.K. tourist attraction, and the ride on the three-deck boat provided a relaxing view of this wonder of nature that resulted in glorious scenic overload. The group had a grand time feeding the geese and ducks, and the bus to and from the Kendal Station afforded us to explore the town further. Though Kendal is well-known for its overcast skies and rain, the day of the lake cruise was sunny and crystal clear.
On the one serious day of rain (Saturday, the 17th) Anne Cafferkey drove us up to the town of Carnforth, where the “Carnforth Station” is a prime stop for those wanting to wade in the atmospherics of David Lean’s romantic classic Brief Encounter. It was a special thrill to have a cup of coffee in the famous tea room seen in the film with Anne, and to enjoy some cakes with the others, and then to watch a few minutes of the constantly-running film in a mini-theatre built in the station that features about eight seats. The station housed a unique souvenir shop that of course catered to the film memorabilia, but it was great to stand for a picture under the signature overhead clock and walked down the tunnel, both unforgettable images in Lean’s film. It somehow seemed appropriate that it rained the day we went there. On Sunday we headed up to a well-regarded Kendal eatery to accept the treat from Sue, and this time everyone (including Martin and Anne) were in attendance. I finally got to eat “Yorkshire pudding”, though I never imagined it to be what it was (and that wasn’t what it was, not PROPER Yorkshire pudding – Allan). After a trip where we gouged ourselves frequently on fish n chips it was nice to get some roast chicken and veggies, though others in the group went with the roast beef. Again we did some walking around town, though physical limitations and the Sunday closings forced us to retreat back to the house.
On Monday the group went in two different directions. Allan Fish led the kids to Manchester by train to tour some Doctor Who Tardis and dalek replicas, while Lucille and I were escorted to the scenic (heck, what is not scenic around here?) town of Grasmere and the Dove House and accompanying museum where English literary titan William Wordsworth penned some of his greatest works. Indeed the Dove House is always mentioned in all travel publications as one of the most essential four or five tourist attractions in the entire U.K., and the modest tour of all the rooms was delightful. The cloister of slate stone house also features a Wordsworth Museum that focused mostly on the poetry of the great romanticist. The quartet then ate some prepared sandwiches for lunch and bought some incredible homemade gingerbread at a shop across the road in a small line of local establishments. We are still enjoying that gingerbread now!
On the final day we were all treated again to ice cream at a new parlor up the road from the Fish house, and we got to visit the Kendal Museum back in town. In commemoration of our own weekly “pasta night” Sue Fish tried her hands at spaghetti with sausage and meatballs, and by unanimous consent did a very fine job with the meal. Again the effort to feed all the kids first (and then the adults, including Anne and Martyn) was quite an undertaking, and the results were stellar.
Tearful goodbyes at the train station the next morning and we were on our way back down by London and that nearly seven hour plane ride back to Newark Airport, where my cousin Douglas McCartney awaited our return. For years the photos will be looked on repeatedly, and the memories will outlive us, passed down to kids who will remember these two weeks with special fondness.
Sad to say physical and time limitations prevented us from trekking up to Edinburgh, Scotland and Stratford-upon-Avon. My daughter Melanie put together a terrific video of the trip, and I hope to post it at the site at some point.
Lucille and I watched two films this weekend in theaters, the second urged on by the kids who also attended:
The Butler ** 1/2 (Saturday morning) Secaucus
Kick Ass 2 ** (Saturday night) Secaucus
Instructions as to how we plan to proceed with the Western Countdown will sent out to the group by email later this week. We plan on doing only 50, but writers can choose any of the choices that finished 51 to 70 before we actually start with 50 on Monday, September 16.
NB: Allan’s note. He left the best picture off…