“Oh, to be in England now that April’s there,” so said Robert Browning in his poem, ‘Home Thoughts, from Abroad’. The author clearly wasn’t taking into account the likely weather at that time of the year. T.S. Eliot was probably closer to the mark when he said about England, “April is the cruelest month”.
So, it was a pleasant surprise to arrive in London at the end of April to be greeted by beautiful weather. The primary purpose of the visit was an old friend’s wedding. It was also an overdue opportunity to catch up with friends and family, drink lots of ‘real ale’ and do some hiking in the Derbyshire Dales, my home ground.
My only regret was that I would be making the journey alone. I know how much Valynne loves what she has already seen of England, but caretaking and vineyard duties would have to take precedence, this time. I was instructed to take lots of photographs, which I did.
As I say, I got lucky with the weather. I knew it had been a miserable winter in England and spring had fared no better so far. Weather has always been a major talking point in England, probably because we get so much of it and most of it not good. Since I returned to the US, the weather back home has once again gone downhill, as we say.
I like to fly Virgin Atlantic when crossing the pond, but it’s a bit of a trek to get to the flight from Santa Fe. Train to Albuquerque, fly to Dallas, fly to New York, and fly to London. Leave Sunday afternoon and arrive Tuesday morning. There are easier routes, but New Mexico isn’t anyone’s hub.
On arriving in London I picked up a rental car and drove north for two hours to arrive at Stanshope Hall around four in the afternoon. Prior to arriving I called into to see the groom (Phil) and we went for a couple of ‘pedis’…best beer in England to you uninitiated. Ah, heaven. Then I called in for fish and chips in my old town of abode – Ashbourne.
Stanshope Hall is a private residence in the heart of the Derbyshire Dales within the Peak District National Park – the first national park in England in 1951 to be designated as such and covering 555 sq miles. Naomi has converted half of Stanshope into a bed & breakfast and with her family, lives in the other half. It was here I would be spending the next three nights in some of the most glorious countryside in the whole of England. By Tuesday evening I was pretty tired as you might imagine, so after an early supper and a fine bottle of wine, I retired to bath and bed. Rupert would be arriving the next morning and we would set off on a day hike and go in search of more beer.
A full English breakfast to start the day – two pork sausages, three rashers of back bacon, grilled tomatoes, two fried eggs, Derbyshire oatcake, grilled mushrooms, toast and a pot of tea. Now you might say that you can have all of that, oatcake accepted, in the US. Yes, but it’s not the same. It’s like a pint of Guinness. Once you’ve had a pint of Guinness in Ireland, you realize that a pint of Guinness anywhere else is just not the same. I had a good natter to Lynne, who prepared my fabulous breakfast and it turns out we both went to the same junior and high schools. Lynne was a little after me. And, her husband, Jez, worked at Rolls-Royce for 30 yrs, just like me, although we never met being in different areas of the business.
Rupert arrived at around 10 with a route already prepared. I last saw Rupert about 7 years ago when Valynne and I visited. We go back a long way and used to do long distance walks together throughout England. Rupert worked for IBM and provided engineer support for the Rolls-Royce data center.
The hike begins right from the front door as you head over the fields and down into Hall Dale and eventually into Dove Dale, named after the beautiful river that flows through here and provides plenty of sport for Trout anglers.
Words can’t adequately describe the walk; you just had to be there, so you need to check out the pictures. Some of the highlights were the thousands of wild daffodils and the new and recently born lambs frolicking in the meadows.
For those of you not familiar with hiking in England I can thoroughly recommend it. England, and indeed the whole of Britain, is awash with ancient footpaths and bridleways that connect the many small towns and villages. These were the roadways of the day and are still wonderfully maintained by organizations like the National Trust. As you would expect, many of these paths cross private land, but access cannot be denied by law. Attempts have been made by landowners to block access, but with the occasional exception, all fail. It is more or less possible to walk the length of breadth of the UK without actually using a real roadway for anything other than immediate access to a town or village.
No responsible hiker, English anyway, would plan a route without a pub stop around lunchtime. The good news is that you are never that far away from a pub on all but the most remote of walks. So it was we arrived at the George Inn at Alstonefield. We sat outside and drank our ‘pedis’ and talked about old times, as old codgers do it seems. Rupert, living in the Derby area, maintains contact with a number of our old colleagues from R-R. The conversation was a little depressing and went something like this (names changed to protect the innocent). “How’s Frank doing” I began. “Oh, he’s dead”, replied Rupert. “How’s Geoff..…”he’s not well”. “What about Dave”…….”He committed suicide”. And so it went on.
George Inn is a wonderful little pub, serving great beer and food and I was to have dinner here this evening and the next. The Innkeeper reserved my own little table in the corner by the fire. Say 10 years ago, the majority of pub fare was pretty basic, but tasty nevertheless…ploughman’s, sandwiches, pickled eggs, etc. With the advent of much stricter drinking and driving laws and the cost of gasoline, trade declined and many pubs that didn’t have a thriving local trade, closed. Those that survived upgraded their menus and opened up for accommodation so that drivers, and indeed hikers, could stay overnight.
Fast forward and I’m sadly checking out of Stanshope Hall and heading for Derby. On the way stopped in at Ashbourne to say Hi to Louise. Louise is the owner of Lou Lou’s in the high street – a very classy lingerie store and we’ve known each other for a while. Almost every time I’ve called in to see Louise she’s been on vacation. This time was no exception. The business must be doing well. I actually went back a few days later to buy something for Valynne, but they were closed due to the bank holiday.
Derby is a city of approximately 250,000 and its origins go back to the Romans, Saxons and Vikings. In my experience Derby has always lacked a choice of good hotels, but that’s changed in my absence. I checked into the Jury’s Inn in what is now called the Cathedral Quarter of Derby. It’s definitely the most preserved area with many old building and pubs and so a good location. I parked the car in the hotel car park and would leave it there for the next three days. The hotel was very nice, good room, good restaurant and bar, although I only did breakfast on one morning.
After checking in I set off on foot to wander and to see what had changed in my town of birth since my last visit. While driving into town I’d already found out that the road system had changed, again, so getting around was a new experience. I decided to surprise my sister. Helen is a supervisor in one of the large department stores and I think she was a little surprised, and pleased, to see me coming down the escalator. We would meet up again later that evening with her husband, Merc, and have a few beers.
Derby has a wonderful indoor market at the Guildhall which has been open for 150 yrs. It was always busy and vibrant, so it was sad to see so many closed stalls and a general lack of activity. I thought all the shoppers had migrated to the much larger and newer market in the mall, but there were many closed stalls there too. A sign of the poor economy I guess.
Off to Birds. What’s that you may think? Birds Bakery has been in Derby since 1919 and they produce amazing cream cakes, scones, sausage rolls, pork pies and much more. There was always a queue when I went with my Mother and there still is. I’m happy to report that all my favorites are as I remember them.
A little shopping next. Valynne has been collecting Pandora beads since we first met and she has quite the collection. I’ve been trying to get a particular one for a while, but no luck in the US. I was expecting to have better luck in the UK and I did……a London bus with the British flag (Union Jack) on the top.
Now, time to head back to the hotel and get ready for a night out. Set out for the Five Lamps around 4:30 pm, which is just a short 10 min walk from the hotel. The Five Lamps has a terrific range of ‘real ale’ and according to my friends, is one of the best pubs in Derby right now. During the evening my sister and Merc arrived followed by my brother Mike, Rupert and his better half Vanessa and my best mate of 40 yrs or more, Tez.
Tez and I have had many adventures over the years and shared flats together. We’ve been on driving tours of Europe, hikes, and had girlfriends, wives and many nights at the pub along the way. I wish we could spend more time together. Tez is also one of the best letter writers. Just ask Valynne. After several pints and catching up on everything, Tez and I headed out to meet up with Heather, his girlfriend of quite a few years now, but first a couple of pints at the Dolphin – oldest pub in Derby and familiar to Valynne. We met up with Heather and her friends at the wine bar next door. Drank a couple of glasses of wine and I went back to the hotel for some zzzs.
Saturday morning and the day of Phil and Pauline’s wedding. Phil and Pauline have been together for probably 20 yrs or thereabouts and make a great couple; although I was a little surprised they decided to take the plunge after all this time. Started the day off with a bacon ‘butty’ and a pot of tea at Jack Rabbits. Wonder if the owners are Pulp Fiction fans? Wandered around town a little and noticed the heavy police presence close to a few well known pubs. It’s the last weekend of the regular football (soccer) season in England and Derby County are hosting Millwall. Millwall fans are notorious for causing trouble, but no sign yet. If the wedding had been later in the day or the match earlier, I would have gone. Not been to a game for many a year now.
Caught a taxi around 1:00pm to get me to the Half Moon, which is a short walk to the event. Shortly joined by Phil and his best man Adam, Pauline’s son, and a few other guests. I didn’t arrange to see Phil at the pub, but I knew he would be there. I know him too well. He was resplendent in his Hugo Boss suit. Watched the soccer on TV and sank a couple of pints and headed out together.
Now I’m not a big wedding person, so short and sweet with as little formality as possible is what I like. I’m happy to report this weeding met my goals. Selfish I know given it’s not my wedding, but Phil and Pauline sure enjoyed the day, as did I. The whole event was held in a Masonic Lodge which you may find strange, but it was a good facility and with plenty of grassy areas for photos. Phil assured me prior to the event that guests would not have to roll one trouser leg up and receive funny handshakes. I’m happy to report that was the case. The highlights for me was seeing the happy couple just that, happy and catching up with friends and acquaintances I’d not seen for many a moon. Tez wasn’t able to be there, but Heather was, so I was on her table at dinner. I was particularly pleased to see Dave Scotter. Dave is a friend and colleague of mine from my Rolls-Royce days and we’d not met for many years. Painful joints, a result of the running Dave used to do, means he’s not too mobile, but healthy nevertheless. I was relieved given my conversation with Rupert you will remember from earlier. Even old friends I didn’t expect to talk to me actually did, which was nice, but that’s another story as the saying goes. Didn’t stay all night as I was feeling pretty tired by around 11:00PM.
Sunday arrived and the weather was still good. Felt lucky after a good lie in, but wishing Valynne was here. Went out and bought a lot of Sunday papers. I really miss English newspapers which I could sometimes get in the US until a few years back, but they’ve stopped importing them now. Online viewing has led to the end of that one. Bit of a lazy day reading and catching up with work emails. Headed out to the Jonty Farmer at 3:30 to meet up with Tez for yes, you guessed it, a few pints. We watched the ‘footy’ on TV and went on to visit a few old and familiar pubs. Namely, the Seven Stars, Five Lamps, Old Flowerpot, Dolphin, Vines and finally met up with Heather in a pub whose name I don’t recall, not surprising by then. It was new I remember and used to be the old Engineer’s club, which I do remember. Went for a curry, my first of the trip, and it was heaven. Tez and Heather’s treat. England is still the best place for a good curry. Well, we said our goodbyes and I headed back to the hotel, in perhaps not such a straight line as when I left.
Monday morning and I’m heading south with London the end destination. I promised Adam (Pauline’s son) that I would call in and see his Dad on the way. I last saw Mic about seven years ago and about a year ago he suffered a bad accident when he accidently swallow dived down the stairs at home, landing on his head. He was in hospital several weeks and the recovery was very slow. Adam said he was much better, but that he’s not fully the Mick I would remember. I’m happy to report he was much better than I expected. He was much like his old self, but perhaps not quite as crazy. Mick, Tez, Phil and I used to play as a team in the Derbyshire pub quiz league for many years. We even had a little TV fame once upon a time. It was good to see him and I’m only sad I didn’t get to meet his partner Bev. She was away doing what I was doing last week…hiking. Hopefully both Valynne and I will see her next time.
Time to get back in the car and in a couple of hours I was in Shefford, Bedfordshire and staying with Keith and Ali in their lovely cottage. Keith and I both used to live in barn conversions on a farm near Ashbourne and we both worked at Rolls-Royce. We became good friends and now Keith is a big wig at Tui the travel and Airline Company. In fact Keith is heading to Seattle soon to supervise receipt of the new Boeing Dreamliner and he will fly back with it. Keith and Ali have been together for about, and I’m guessing, 12 years and have a lovely daughter called Eve. Although Keith and Ali were both working, I spent a lovely two days with them.
Wednesday morning and up early for the drive down to London. Raining outside and the first rain I’d seen since arriving in the UK. The distance to Heathrow from Keith and Ali’s is about 40 miles at the most, but it took me three hours. Driving into London early morning is not recommended. Dropped the car off at the rental place and the shuttle driver dropped me at the nearest tube station rather than take me to the airport terminal, which was good of him. A good tip when picking up a rental car in the UK is to pay in advance and use Travel Supermarket. I got a great rate with collision damage waiver and theft protection included. I paid something like $200 for 8 days for a Ford Focus diesel from Avis.
Ok, so now I’m on the Piccadilly line heading to my B&B accommodation in Chiswick, West London. I was staying at the Wellness Home just around the corner from Turnham Green tube station, so I only had to lug my suitcase a short distance. The Wellness Home is a very pleasant private home providing organic breakfasts of fruit and cereals, cheeses, etc. Not the traditional English breakfast I’d been wolfing down, but a pleasant change and closer to my breakfast back home. I do hate single beds though. I dropped my bags off and headed back to the station. Because public transport in London is so good, it makes sense to stay somewhere like Chiswick or similar and avoid paying the very expensive hotels rates in town. After one change I was in downtown in about 25 minutes. You can also take the bus, but of course that takes much longer. If you buy a day pass, you are good for tube and bus services.
I’d no real big plans for London other than to check out a few old haunts and do a little shopping. First stop was the National Portrait Gallery and the National Gallery. They are next door to each other in Trafalgar Square and both are free to enter, although a small donation is always welcome. It’s fun and interesting to see all the famous faces from history. It’s often a challenge to see if you can guess the subject without referring to the guide. The National Gallery is much larger and one of my favorite places to visit and the collection is huge. I usually do the fast tour of my own design. I always like to check out the Van Gogh’s. When I look at a Van Gogh I can see something of the artist. The suffering and the anxiety that was a feature of his life seems to be reflected in the brush strokes somehow. By contrast, if you look at say a Canaletto, while technically brilliant, almost like a photograph, you don’t feel connected to the artist in the same way. One of my favorite paintings and Valynne has shared it with me, is Delaroche’s ‘Execution of Lady Jane Grey’. It’s a huge painting and portrays the moments preceding the death of Lady Jane Grey at the Tower of London in 1554. Jane was deposed by Mary only nine days after being proclaimed Queen in 1553. She was only 16 when executed. For reasons I can’t fully explain, I’m drawn to this painting. Check out the painting online, but it won’t replace the experience of seeing it for real.
It was now time for some refreshment so off to the French House in Soho. It may sound like a house of ill repute, but it’s actually a pub. They only serve half-pints, but mostly the patron’s drink wine. When living and working in or nearby London, I would always call at ‘the French’ as it’s known. The French was used during WWII as the headquarters of General De Gaulle and his ‘Free French” organization. The French is also often frequented by actors and I once had the pleasure of standing at the bar, elbow to elbow with Peter O’Toole.
Next stop was Alfie’s Antique Market just off the Edgware Rd. I decided to walk and although a bit of a hike from the French, I do love walking around London. Soho used to be alive with strip clubs and the like, but while still in attendance, there is much less than say 10 to 15 years ago. It’s now the place to eat and be seen and to check out all the funky shops. I continued past Marlylebone station, which is one of about nine or 10 mainline railway stations in London and the one I used most frequently when travelling between home in Oxfordshire and London. There was a pang of regret when I walked past Lord’s Cricket Ground. My home team, Derbyshire, was playing there a couple of weeks earlier and I would have loved to have been there, but it wasn’t to be. You can actually take afternoon tea in the famous Long Room. The Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) founded in 1787 is the most famous cricket club in the world and one of the most exclusive clubs in the world, and its home is at Lord’s.
Alfie’s Antique Market is a huge collection of independent vendors under one roof and there is always something interesting to find and the prices are reasonable. I settled on small heart shaped porcelain Limoges trinket box. I thought Valynne would like it and she did.
I got back to the Wellness Home around five, showered, changed and headed out for dinner locally. Called at the George first to watch the footie and have a couple of pints. Went across the road to the local wine bar and for whatever reason I cannot remember what I had to eat. Perhaps it wasn’t that memorable.
The following morning I headed into the city again with my only real objective to have a good walk around, visit Borough Market for lunch and to do some last minute shopping.
I passed Stella McCartney’s shop and didn’t notice anything in the window that said wow. There was also an art gallery showing works by Ronnie Wood and he’s actually a very good artist.
Eventually found my way to Borough Market via the tube to London Bridge. I don’t know about you but I’m fascinated by markets and Borough is one of the best, nestled below the Victorian railway arches south of the river and in the shadow of Southwark Cathedral, which has been a place of worship for more than a 1,000 years. The market is mainly selling organic produce, but with a section for arts and crafts, jewelry and the like. There are plenty of places to eat and drink and I was heading for Roast. The actual restaurant looks down on the market, but I was heading for their take-away stall in the market proper. There you can get a variety of roast meats in a bun and eat as you wander. I started with the rare roast beef with horseradish.
About two hours later I couldn’t resist and went back for the roast pork with crackling and apple sauce and it was heaven. If you are looking for something unique in London I thoroughly recommend you pay a visit, but the full market is only open Thurs-Sat. There are plenty of other attractions about to make a visit to this less well known area of London a real pleasure. For example, Shakespeare’s Globe theatre, where standing in the pit to take in the performance is always a fun experience. Close by is the Anchor which is the pub from where Samuel Pepys watched the Great Fire of London of 1666 and recorded the event in his diary. There is also the George Inn along Borough High St which is the last surviving galleried coaching inn in London and often frequented by Charles Dickens and Shakespeare himself. The pub is clearly marked as the ‘Gorge’ on a map of the area circa 1543. I was going to walk across London Bridge, but it was now starting to rain so I caught the tube. I could sense the weather was starting to change for the worse as I neared the end of my trip. I can’t believe how lucky I’ve been with the weather.
I called in at Covent Garden to find something for Valynne and I got a lovely pair of earrings. As usual the area was buzzing with people and on reflection I’d not noticed any obvious impact of the economic issues that have been plaguing Europe, in London at least. After a brief visit to the ‘French’ I headed back to Chiswick. Back at the B&B I rested a little, checked in for tomorrow’s flight, showered and headed out for dinner. I could only manage a pint and an appetizer as those roast sandwiches from earlier were still very much with me.
After an early night and a good sleep I awoke refreshed. Had a good healthy breakfast and chatted with some of the other guests. This one guy, from Jackson Hole, was a chiropractor and a semi-professional magician would you believe. He and his wife were meeting at the Magic Circle that evening. Don’t think I’ve ever met a real magician before.
Although my flight was not for several hours, I decided to check out and head for the airport. Checked in my bag and purchased extra leg room for 35 GBP and with an empty seat next to me. Nice.
For lunch I called in at the seafood bar for smoked salmon and a glass of something nice. After some duty free shopping (nice bottle of single malt) I headed for the bar. The only available seat was with a group of girls who were obviously having a good time. I asked if I could use the seat and they insisted I join them. They were off to Majorca for a few days of sun and fun, but their flight was delayed and they were working their way through several bottles of Prosecco. They certainly livened up my afternoon and while I was in the bathroom they took a bunch of photographs with my camera, which I only came across when I downloaded to my iPad.
After an uneventful, but relaxing flight I was back in New York and heading for an overnight stay at the Marriott at La Guardia followed by a 6:00am to Albuquerque and I was sure pleased to see Valynne waiting for me at the station in Santa Fe. I enjoyed my trip, but it was good to be home.