24 Hours On The Dark Streets Of London

london streetsWalking near London’s 16th-century St. John’s Gate in the city’s East End, I was looking for an old pub called the Jerusalem Tavern early on a misty Saturday night when a young woman in a skin-tight miniskirt approached me with a question. I was about to apologize and say, “I’m not from around here,” when she pointed to her friend, who was wearing a dress with deep slits practically up to her waist on both sides, and said in a distinctive Cockney accent, “What do you suppose she’d be good for?”

She extended her right thumb and said, “I think a snog,” released the index finger while saying, “a wife,” and then flipped down the third, suggesting a possibility that rhymes with truck. I had just arrived in town after a sleepless night spent on a plane, followed by a layover in Germany and another flight west to London necessitated by the vicissitudes of using miles for reward travel, and I could barely process their accents or what was being asked. As I gave them a confused look, she repeated the question as her friend turned and looked away, horrified.

“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe all three?”

Samuel Johnson delivered the famous line “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford,” when America was but a year old. He’s still right. I’ve been visiting London intermittently for 25 years and there are always serendipitous encounters and new discoveries to be made. The city is always changing, always evolving and you need to keep going back to see what you’ve missed. On a recent six-day trip to London to cover Wimbledon, I had 24 hours to kick around town before the tournament started. I’d seen many of London’s most famous sights before so I set out to break new ground in one of my favorite cities.

Saturday

6 p.m. Bosphorus Kebabs in South Kensington

I’m always on the lookout for cheap eats in London and this place is a find. There are just a few tables, and you might have to wait, but the intimate setting gives you a chance to listen to the regulars bantering with the cooks.

“C’ah mon mate, don’t be stingy wit tha doh-nah, oh-roight now, that’s wot I’m talkin’ bowt,” said one obnoxious bloke, who’d clearly started drinking early on a Saturday.

I had the spicy Adana kebab, which was outstanding and came with rice, salad and bread for £6, a bargain by any measure in this pricey megacity.

7:30 p.m. Jerusalem Tavern

There are at least 7,000 pubs in London so to recommend just one is almost perverse. But a surprising number of London pubs offer just mass-produced beer and no craft beers, so even though there are pubs on nearly every block, it’s not always as easy to find good beer as you might expect. The Jerusalem Tavern is operated by London’s St. Peter’s Brewery, so it has great beer, plus atmosphere in spades.

It’s a tiny little place, with just three rooms and a row of wooden casks behind the bar. The tavern has occupied different sites in the neighborhood since the 14th century and the present building dates to 1720, though it’s only been a pub since the 1990s. I had a tasty pint of St. Peter’s Brewery Pale Ale and enjoyed something you never find in an American bar: quiet. No music, no TV, just the hum of quiet conversation.

9 p.m. A Stroll Through Shoreditch in London’s East End

London’s East End, once home to Jack-the-Ripper, has historically been the city’s gritty, working class underbelly. But in recent years, Shoreditch and other East End hoods have been transformed into the creative hub of the British capital. On the second longest day of the year it was still light out after 9 p.m. and swarms of fashionably dressed young people were lined up outside Cargo, a bar/restaurant with thumping dance music, while over at a bar called Kick on Shoreditch High Street, guys in French Maid costumes sang drinking songs and toasted each other on the veranda.

Shoreditch is filled with bars, restaurants, music venues and galleries, but it’s also a neighborhood that rewards aimless wandering, particularly on buzzing streets like Curtain road, near Rivington street, Bash street and Hoxton Square.

Sunday

8 a.m. Hyde Park

I like to start the morning with a long walk in a pretty green space and in London, Hyde Park is a serene and scenic place to start the day with a little exercise. Henry VIII appropriated this chunk of land in 1536 from the monks of Westminster Abbey to hunt deer and the place has been open to the public since the early 1600s.

I visited London for the first time as a 16-year-old and one of the few things I remember about the trip was a Sunday morning visit to Speaker’s Corner, where Londoners of all stripes can stand up on top of a milk crate and speak their minds. I was thrilled to learn the term “wanker” and various other bits of slang, much to my parent’s chagrin, so I was eager to experience the spectacle again after all these years. But alas, the speakers don’t get fired up until later in the morning, so if you want to take in speaker’s corner, stop by on Sunday afternoon.

11 a.m. Sung Eucharist at St. Paul’s Cathedral

Cross London’s Millennium Footbridge at 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning and you’ll be beckoned into St. Paul’s by the glorious chiming bells. The smell of roasting nuts fills the air as you cross the bridge, and even an atheist could enjoy the splendor of this magnificent cathedral, designed by St. Christopher Wren in 1675 on the site where a cathedral was first opened in 604. Stick around for the 11:15 a.m. Sung Eucharist to get the full experience of this magisterial place, which was the tallest building in London until the 1960s.

12:00 p.m. Tate Modern

Even if you don’t like modern art, walk back across the Milennium Footbridge after your visit to St. Paul’s and check out the sixth-floor café of this museum for spectacular views of the cathedral and the city. You can visit the permanent exhibits for free and the gift shop is also a great place to stock up on souvenirs. The highlight of my visit was an exhibit featuring the works of Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide, but I found many of the other exhibits best left for the Sprockets crowd.

1:30 p.m. Bánh mì Time

Take the tube to Goodge street and then walk west on Goodge between Charlotte and Cleveland streets to find this outdoor stand selling freshly grilled mouth-watering bánh mì sandwiches (beef, pork and chicken) £5.

2 p.m. Dickensian London

Walk up Cleveland Street, north of Goodge, to check out Charles Dickens’s first London home, now an apartment with six buzzers sandwiched in between Indian and Greek restaurants. (Look for the blue plaque.) And just one block north, check out the workhouse that gave him the inspiration for “Oliver Twist” across from the King and Queen Pub.

Then head east to the fascinating Charles Dickens Museum at 48 Doughty Street, where Dickens lived from 1837-9, writing “Oliver Twist” and “Nicholas Nickelby” in his mid-20s. Seek out American novelist Jennifer Emerson, an American writer who volunteers at the museum. She can tell you all about Dickens’s troubled childhood, complicated love life and nomadic tendencies. (Look for more on the Dickens Museum on Gadling soon.)

4 p.m. Camden Lock Market

Camden is a shopper’s paradise but the Camden Lock Market is also a great place for budget ethnic dining. The problem is choosing what to eat. I was temped by Portuguese cakes, fish and chips, Dutch pancakes, Polish kielbasa, Peruvian ceviche and Argentine burgers before I decided on a Pakistani chicken curry roti, which was outstanding. Don’t miss having a cup of the organic Ethiopian coffee; Ethiopian sisters Eden and Mercy roast the beans in a tiny little pan over a burner and they’ll tell you all about their coffee.

“People think coffee comes from Italy!” said Eden. “No! It comes from Ethiopia!”

Grab your cup of coffee and wind up with the day with a long ramble through the labyrinth of market stalls and then take a nice walk along Regent’s canal to burn off the calories.

WHERE TO STAY

On each of my previous visits to London, I stayed in hotels, but this time, I rented an apartment on Nevern Square, a stone’s throw from the Earl’s Court Tube stop via Trip Advisor’s Flipkey website. Hotel rooms tend to be small and expensive in London, and apartments aren’t cheap either, but at least you can stretch out a bit. For about the price of a mid-range hotel, I had a beautiful one-bedroom apartment that was fully equipped with a kitchen and a washing machine. Even better, the management company included use of a local iPhone, with free data, local calls and texting. It’s a beautiful neighborhood of handsome brick row houses, gardens and squares, handy and central for seeing all the sights, not to mention Wimbledon.

Live A Day In The Life Of ‘Downton Abbey’ At These English Castles

The British TV series “Downton Abbey” has taken America by storm with millions of viewers tuning in each week to watch the lives of the wealthy Crawley family unfold. The glamorous outfits, the decadent dinners, the lavish estate – it’s a splendorous life most of us can only dream of.

But take a trip to England and you’ll see that sprawling country estates like Downton Abbey are very real. In fact, some are still home to noble families. But that doesn’t mean you can only look at these castles from afar, because many of England’s grand estates have opened their doors to visitors. Not only can you tour the grounds, you can experience life as it was a hundred years ago. Step into the shoes of Mary or Matthew Crawley and be whisked back in time as you take part in Easter egg hunts, high tea, jousting tournaments, clay pigeon shooting and more.

Highclere Castle

Naturally, the first place that comes to mind if you want the true Downton experience is the very estate where the TV show is filmed – Highclere Castle (see image above). Located in Hampshire, England, Highclere is set on 1000 acres of parkland. The castle itself has around 300 rooms, some of which can be rented out for weddings or private dinners. Visitors here can take part in Highclere’s annual Easter egg hunt, stroll through fairs, listen to concerts or enjoy afternoon tea in the estate’s tea rooms or out on the perfectly manicured lawn.However, if you have a spare 8,000 GPB lying around, why settle for an Easter egg hunt when you can get the luxury package we told you about last year? Enjoy tea with the Earl and Countess of Carnarvon, a private tour of the estate led by the Lord or Lady of the house, a grand luncheon and more.

Castle Howard

Castle Howard is an 18th century residence situated 15 miles north of York. It’s currently home to the Howard family, whose ancestors have lived in the sprawling estate for more than three centuries. Like Highclere, Castle Howard has also been immortalized on film – the movie and TV show based on the novel “Brideshead Revisited” was filmed on the grounds.

Visitors to Castle Howard are able to tour the residence, and explore the gardens, lakes, statues, and mausoleum on the grounds. The estate also hosts a range of events throughout the year, including an Easter fair, dog shows, craft fairs, Christmas celebrations, talks discussing the portraits and artwork in the home, and a range of outdoor theater performances (a rendition of “Pride and Prejudice” is among the shows scheduled this year).

Blenheim Palace

This 18th century palace located 8 miles from Oxford is the birthplace of former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill. The estate, which is now home to the 11th Duke and Duchess of Marlborough, has been designated a World Heritage Site.

Blenheim Palace runs dozens of events throughout the year ranging from sports to the arts. Among the more colorful events is a jousting tournament where visitors can watch knights dressed in medieval garb competing on horseback. Reenactments of historic battles also draw huge crowds to the estate. If you prefer something a little more sedate, there’s a flower show, literary festival, and an art and antique fair. You can also enjoy a picnic as you watch summer theater performances or take part in Blenheim’s annual Easter egg hunt.

Chatsworth House

Located in Derbyshire, Chatsworth House has been passed down through the same family for 16 generations. The Duke and Duchess of Devonshire now call the mansion home, but about 30 of the estate’s rooms remain open to the public.

Visitors can walk through the grand sculpture galleries and state rooms, meet an actor dressed as a Lady’s Maid, or dress in period costume. You can also tour the glasshouses and learn how the orchids and vines are looked after, or take a floral arrangement workshop. If you’re still thirsty for more, Chatsworth offers tours teaching visitors how beer was brewed at the estate during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Chatsworth House also hosts a traditional country fair featuring hot air balloons, military bands and vintage cars. Here, guests can try their hand at clay pigeon shooting or take part in an old-fashioned archery competition.

Lyme Park

Lyme Park, found in Cheshire, England, was once a great sporting estate, and today, visitors can stroll the vast grounds, which include several lakes, rose gardens and lots of deer. If the mansion looks vaguely familiar, it’s probably because you recognize it from the BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” which filmed several scenes here.

Visitors to Lyme Park are allowed to truly explore and enjoy the estate – this includes playing the piano or lounging with a book from the library. You can also dress up in old-timey costume and take photos to remember the experience.

Lyme Park also hosts several activities, including a Sunday luncheon for mothers, an Easter “eggstravaganza,” and the opportunity to make an Edwardian scrapbook. There is also a range of family activities to help visitors learn what life was like during the Edwardian period.

Note: Not all events at these estates are held on a regular basis. If you want to take part in a particular activity, check the estate’s website or call ahead to find out when events will be taking place. Some activities may also need to be pre-booked.

[Photo credits: Flickr users Richard Munckton; Paul Stevenson; Josh Friedman; Phillip Capper; and A Pillow of Winds]

What’s The Difference Between Holland And The Netherlands? This Video Tells You

Remember that fast-talking fellow with all of the nifty geography lessons? The guy who sorted out the difference among Great Britain, England and the UK for us in one dandy film? Well he’s back, and he’s here to explain the proper use between The Netherlands and Holland. I won’t ruin the surprise for you, but the geographic difference was quite enlightening.

His name is CGP Grey, by the way, and he also sells T-shirts strangely. Check out his whole feed here.

Three Free Transportation Options For Those Who Need Them Most

Transportation options

Transportation options for most travelers give a choice of going from one place to another by air, land or sea – if they can pay. To those challenged by economic factors or health concerns, payment is often not an option, making travel planning nearly impossible. But a few companies and organizations are jumping in to the holiday travel spirit with both feet, offering much needed assistance to those who need it most.

A free bus ride for the unemployed in Great Britain is the result of a deal with UK bus operators, eligible to over 800,000 people. Those unemployed between three months and a year qualify for the Bus For Jobs offer.

“Bus for Jobs could make the vital difference for those who are struggling to get that first job or training place” said Sir Brian Souter, the chief executive of Stagecoach Group. “In particular, I hope we can help more of our young people make a better start in life.”

Commuting to work via bus takes 70 percent of UK workers to their jobs. Now, those who are actively hunting for work or training have another helping hand at their disposal.Compass To Care provides travel assistance to kids battling cancer. The nationwide program, founded by an actual childhood cancer survivor, is funded by donations to help families of child cancer patients with gas, hotel stays and food if they live more than 60 miles from their treatment center.

Knowing that “every difficult journey is easier when you have a friend by your side,” as Compass To Care states on its website, they offer those interested in helping the Dina Doll ($20) who will be “a constant pal to bring the lucky recipient lots of smiles.”

Like other charitable organizations, Compass To Care has events where participants can sponsor a child. RAGBRAI, The Register’s Annual Great Bicycle Ride Across Iowa, is an annual seven-day bicycle ride across the state of Iowa and the oldest, largest and longest bicycle touring event in the world.

Compass To Care will match cyclists with one of their kids that they will specifically raise funds to support.

Working Cars For Working Families provides a reliable vehicle for low-income people who do not live in an area with good public transportation. That lets them do things others take for granted, like visiting the doctor, taking children to school or daycare, getting more training or going on job interviews that require travel and more.

For these people, the hurdles to car ownership are huge and they may have no place else to turn. 1800CharityCars helps by facilitating the donation of used cars, online, every step of the way. At the end of the three-step process, those who donate a vehicle get the full fair market value as a tax-deduction when 1800CharityCars provides donated vehicles to a deserving family.

1800CharityCars provides vehicles to victims of natural disasters like hurricanes and tornadoes as we see in this video:



[Image Credit- Flickr user Chris JL]

Totnes: South Devon’s Alternative Village

Totnes

Totnes, an Elizabethan town in the South West English county of Devon, isn’t your average West Country village. Totnes is what is increasingly known as a Transition Town – in fact, it is a model Transition Town.

What is a Transition Town, you ask? A Transition Town is a municipality focused on sustainable local economic growth by encouraging the use of local resources and local businesses. One expression of this philosophy is the circulation of a superlocal currency, the Totnes Pound, which is accepted by scores of shops in Totnes. This currency is an impressive innovation for a town of just 8,000 residents.

totnesNot surprisingly, Totnes can be said to possess a definite crunchiness, especially in the form of new age shops and the Friday and Saturday markets at the town’s Civic Hall Square. But if visitors come expecting Santa Cruz in the English countryside, they’ll be terribly disappointed. Totnes feels like a typical English market town, albeit one with a particularly dynamic local retail environment.

There are many ways to gauge this retail dynamism. The sheer range of shops and relative lack of empty storefronts is one. Here’s another: Aromatika, a highly respected, organic, vegan-friendly skin care products company, is headquartered in Totnes. Clearly, the town is a good motor for at least some sorts of entrepreneurial activity.

It is the plethora of small shops selling crafts, niche products and home furnishings that really help the town make a claim to retail excitement. Several home furnishings shops sell a range of well-curated products, both new and vintage. My favorite of these is a place called Inspired Buys (see above), whimsically stocked with a number of beautifully upcycled items, including old maps, hand-painted posters and signage. During my visit last week I fell in love with an old vintage canvas school map of Britain on sale there, the chalk markings of a teacher still visible. At £40 ($64) the map might not have been cheap, but it is also easy to imagine the vast mark-up that the map would command at a big city hipster design den.

There are other reasons to visit Totnes: the magnificent East Gate Arch on Fore Street, which makes the town feel cozy and contained, its 16th-century wooden houses, Totnes Castle, its rambling lanes, its many cafes (of which the best is probably The Curator Cafe and Store), and the South Devon countryside all around. But the retail is a serious draw, and not just for people who like to shop. Totnes is trailblazing a kind of economic future for towns focused on nurturing small local businesses.

Totnes is three hours from London by train. The least expensive advance roundtrip fare found during recent research: £43.50 ($70).

[Images: Alex Robertson Textor]