A Few Final Thoughts on our Visit to England

We arrived at JFK late last week from a glorious three weeks in England.  Things got off to a bit of a rough start:

  • We eased through passport control leaving many irate passengers queued at understaffed immigration booths.  Nevertheless, JFK baggage-handlers made sure that our bags were the last off the plane;
  • The car we booked to pick us up failed to appear.   It seemed that the Ukrainian car service had gone out of business (were they deported?) and the “new” owners had just put up a new website;
  • We booked an Uber for the first time, but the driver failed to appear.  We needed to book another one, but I still got charged $5 for cancelling the service for the one that failed to appear;
  • We listened to a hilarious “talk radio” segment on the Uber ride home where a guy was convinced his girlfriend was cheating on him because he got mononucleosis.  His justification for infidelity:  “I never get sick, so she must have been kissing someone else.”

I thought I had just arrived in a third-world country.  Upon reflection, it is!

Things proceeded downhill rather quickly after listening to media and political pundits trade insults on TV and the radio.  Nevertheless, hope spring eternal when I discovered that the left and the right can get together as “Morning Joe” stars Mika Brzezinski and Joe Scarborough announced their engagement.

Mika did have the good sense to turn down Donald Trump’s kind request to “oversee their vows.”

Christ Church College, Oxford


Frankly, things are different in England:

  • You have knife killings rather than gun killings since private firearms are banned;
  • You can listen to BBC or ITV news without spilling your “cuppa” tea;
  • They watch World Championship snooker where athletes in smart tuxedos bash balls about rather than each other;
  • The NHS (National Health System) didn’t upgrade their Windows XP system so that it could be easily hacked using purloined NSA malware (what are friends and allies for?);
  • The best hot chocolate in England can be found in a “burger” restaurant, actually it is Burgers of Marlow;
  • Yes, they have a Harry Potter tour at Oxford College.  Tour guides smile amiably, but point out that the great dining hall at Christ Church College served only as inspiration for the Potter movies.  Nevertheless, this has not dissuaded the College from increasing entrance fees from £1.50 to £7.50;
  • The “New College” of Oxford was founded in 1379.  The original Tappan Zee bridge built in 1955 is now being replaced by a $4 billion bridge to help New Englanders bypass New York City.

An American was recently asked what she thought about her tour of Windsor Castle.  She responded, “It was great, but why did they build the Castle so close to the airport?”

Despite their imperfections – like all others when one is prone to generalize – you must admire the Brits.  Keep doing what you are doing.  As Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “I’ll be back!”

The Mayflower and the Churchill War Rooms

Over the last 20 years or so, I have been dabbling about in Ancestry.com crafting a family tree.  Mind you, I am not a genealogist and could care less whether our relatives were descended from Charlemagne or Jack the Ripper (wasn’t he a member of the Royal family?)

The Mayflower Pub

A couple of weeks before our visit to London, I discovered that one of Sheila’s relatives (Constance Hopkins – Age 14) came over on the Mayflower to the “New World” in 1620.   As things go, one can never be entirely sure that one’s family tree is 100% accurate, but then few people would have predicted that Donald Trump would be President.

Mayflower Pub

As we finished our Brunel, London Walk, we popped over to the Mayflower Pub in Rotherhithe for lunch.  Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Mayflower was moored immediately below the pub (it had a different name then) in the Thames, before sailing with 65 passengers to rendezvous with the smaller Speedwell that was bringing Puritans from Leiden, Holland.

The Speedwell sprang a leak and all settlers eventually sailed together on the Mayflower, departing from Plymouth in late 1620.

On the wall of the pub was a picture featuring the silhouettes of the 102 settlers and of the 1620 Plymouth voyage of the Mayflower.  Immediately below, was another picture showing those settlers who made it through the first year in Plymouth.  Roughly 50% had perished!

Our lunch was rather pedestrian, but it was thrilling to share in a piece of history with distant relatives.

The Churchill War Rooms

The Churchill War Rooms are NOT part of London Walks.  Surprisingly, I don’t recall visiting them during previous visits to London.  Nevertheless, it is a useful visit for those who wish to visit an “active war room” exposed to great danger during the bombing of London in WWII.

A Churchill Museum was added to the bunker complex in 2005. In under two hours, one can gain a great appreciation for the brave men and women who lived under most dangerous conditions to help direct the Allied war effort. Also, the exhibit helps highlight Churchill’s irascible personality and energy during that period.

Certainly worth a visit. Get to the War Rooms early (they open at 9:30 a.m.) to avoid queueing.

Walking through English History

I am addicted to London Walks.  There is simply no better way to “see” London than engage in a theme-centered two-hour walk through London (and other UK locations) with an informed guide.

Choose a themed walk from their extensive daily schedule.  Then show-up at the appointed time at the proper exit of a London underground station.  Assemble with others around an easily identifiable guide.  Pay the £10 fee (£ 8 for seniors) and off you go.

No need to make a reservation.  If you are in reasonable shape and plan carefully, you can manage two walks in a day with plenty of time for a pub lunch break.

These walks keep the “little gray cells” active and also provide a motivating reason to engage your legs rather than the gears of your automobile.   Also, be prepared for some wonderful surprises on your journey through history.

Found below are some of our recent walks on this year’s walk-about in London:

Brunel’s London

Frankly, I knew very little about Marc Brunel who designed and constructed the first underwater tunnel (under the Thames) in 1852.   Originally designed as an underwater pedestrian shopping arcade connecting, the tunnel has given way to a subway that moves people from south of the Thames toward the City of London.

Brunel's Thames Tunnel

Actually, it is called the “London Overground” even though most of trains run underground.  As the guide said, “Americans may find this a bit confusing, but the fact that the overground actually runs underground is perfectly understandable for those who live in London.”

Marc Brunel’s Thames tunnel is considered to be the 8th engineering marvel in the world.  In addition to the tunnel, Marc Brunel built several wonderful bridges and his son, Isambard, built the Great Western Railway and was a far more successful businessman than his father.

I will spare you details of this most informative walk, which also includes a boat trip up the Thames toward Greenwich (minor surcharge) and a visit to the Brunel museum, which is housed in the shaft of the Thames tunnel near Rotherhithe.

The Old Jewish Quarter

This is a superb tour of the now fashionable “East London”  and the footprints left by Jewish settlers on the City of London.  The highlight of the tour for me was a short but fascinating history lesson of life of Moses Montefiore, one of the world’s truly great philanthropists.

This is a most special walk and I would encourage all to give it a try.  Found below is what your will discover on this walk:

Traces the history of London’s Jewish community in the East End. A tale that embraces the poverty of the pogrom refugees and the glittering success of the Rothschilds; the eloquence of Prime Minister Disraeli and the spiel of the Petticoat Lane stall-holder; the poetry of Isaac Rosenberg and the poetry-in-motion of Abe Saperstein’s Harlem Globetrotters. Set amid the alleys and back streets of colorful Spitalfields and Whitechapel, it’s a tale of synagogues and sweatshops, Sephardim and soup kitchens. Whenever possible we visit the historic Bevis Marks synagogue (for which there’s a small entrance fee).

Behind Closed Doors

A most interesting walk which ends up at the Royal Courts on Fleet Street, just across the street from the Twinings Tea (Shop/Museum):

Entrance to Twinings Tea

This lively walk is summarized below:

For a walk that shakes you gently, like a sieve, and drops you into places of long ago – places you probably wouldn’t get into off your own bat. Into’s the mot juste. We’re going into these places. Into the venerable – and passing strange – RAF church. Into the Royal Courts of Justice to watch a trial (when the Royal Courts are in session). Into an ancient institution shrouded in secrecy.

After a long walk, there is nothing better than a refreshing pint of bitter.  Personally, we prefer the nearby majestic Old Bank of England (Fullers pub) over the more touristy but popular Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese.  The steak and ale and fish pies at the Old Bank of England are among the best we have tasted in England.  Ditto for the fish and chips (with mushy peas) and the warm chocolate brownie.

London’s Secret Village

In my opinion, this is one of the most interesting walks of unexplored London.   Gosh, there is so much to see and learn.  From the grisly public executions in Smithfield market to St. John of Jerusalem and the Charterhouse, this is a delightful and educational tour.

If ends at Farmington Station where the world’s first underground ends (from Paddington Station) near Smithfield in 1863.  In fact, for 5 years you could take a picnic hamper on the Tube and watch a public execution, which only ended in 1868.

This is a gem of walk, particularly if you want to stump friends and family with interesting trivia questions:

The ancient, hidden village of Clerkenwell clings to a hillside barely a stone’s throw away from St. Paul’s Cathedral. Its very name – the clerks’ or students’ spring – is redolent of antiquity. And this tiny hamlet serves up brimming draughts from the deep well of its history. Mystery plays and plague pits; riots and rookeries; bodysnatching and bombing; jousting and jesters; bloodshed and burnings; monks, murder, and medicine: Clerkenwell has a tale or two to tell. Tracing its narrow alleyways and ancient squares, we take in here a Norman church; there a magnificent Tudor gateway; round that corner venerable Charterhouse, London’s only surviving mediaeval monastic complex; let alone Hercule Poirot’s London flat and the trendiest house in town.

David Suchet, aka Hercule Poirot, apparently mastered his distinctive walk by holding a coin between his “cheeks.”  The guide suggests that it was a 50 pence coin.  Personally, I think the coin was a Euro since Poirot would have voted to remain in Europe.

Past the Palace

This walk is for those who speed-read The National Enquirer and Tabloids in the checkout line at grocery stores.  I loved it!

This one isn’t on the balcony – it’s through the keyhole. It’s hideaways and nooks and crannies and boltholes with a difference: they’re royal hideaways, boltholes, nooks and crannies. It’s where the goings on went down. It’s kings who were queens. It’s 16 coffin bearers, beheaded lovers and a questionable birthright. It’s a square coffin, a fake lesbian wedding and “a bat instead of a woman”. It’s curses and betrayals, heartaches and hearth-aches and unhealthy habits. It’s ugly sisters and poisonous makeup and war and head lice. It’s between the kings’ sheets and a cabinet particulaire and a royal brothel. It’s £40 million of debt, swinging parties, debauchery and treachery. It’s unofficial history, real history.

In Summary

I realize that it is easy to get caught up in the hysteria of the moment, but if we reflect a moment on the history of past generations, one must certainly come to the conclusion that our forefathers were dealing with equally disturbing problems.

Walking through the rich and fascinating history of London helps to restore a sense of equanimity and balance to our lives.  Good Lord, I sound like a bloody Stoic!