Last summer, I had the privilege of traveling to and through Tibet on a tour which culminated in a three day hike around the holy mountain of Mt. Kailash. On our tour, we met an amazing couple; Stephen and Kailash, who we befriended immediately, and spent much of our hike together, helping each other, laughing with one another, and celebrating many birthdays and ultimately, their engagement on the mountain. Consequently, when I found out I would be traveling to Bosnia for the Peace March, I knew I had to end the trip in England at the wedding celebration of these two friends. And so it was, we departed the crystal clear skies of Greece and landed down in the cold rain of London. Our first taste of an English Summer.
Arriving in Brentford, London, we were met by Stephen and his life-long friend, Lee at the train station. Because we were traveling to the wedding, Kailash and Stephen were beyond generous and insisted we stay with them while in London. Arriving the night before, we headed with Kailash and her family and friends for dinner. Immediately, her daughter, sister and brother in law, as well as her long time friends were extremely friendly and welcoming. A little trepidatious not knowing anyone, our fears were put at ease this first night.
The next morning we awoke and got ready for the wedding before we headed off to the hotel for some pre-wedding drinks at the bar. The Bingham is a delightfully classic hotel that sits along the banks of the Thames in Richmond. With an expensive, but exceptional bar menu before us, I ordered a classic gin martini, and Michelle ordered some concoction that I forget the name now, but tasted like a refreshing and light orange creamsicle. To help fortify our stomaches for the day of drinking that lay ahead of us, we each ordered a small sandwhich from the downmarket menu. This little afternoon snack cost us around $50! A quick and abrupt reminder how expensive England is to visit, and also, how terrible the rate of exchange was to the U.S. Dollar. I was hoping that the talk of Brexit would make it more palatable for American travelers, but alas, there seems to be absolutely no good outcome from that ill-fated, ill-informed vote after all.
Hiding off in the corner with our drinks and petite sandwhiches, we were excited as the wedding guest began filtering into the bar, using it as a sort of holding room before the event officially began. Now, its no secret I have a love of all things British. I love the accent, the Queen’s English, the civility, it’s literary heritage, the English love of books, and Victoria era everything. Still, there are few things more delightful than the way British women can pull off wearing a giant old flower arrangement in their hair at special occasions. And so, unbeknownst to these wonderful folks we would soon be meeting, we sipped our drinks and stared (very unbecoming of British civility) in awe and amusement (not in a demeaning way) as the guests arrived.
Very shortly after, we were told by Lee to make our way please to the back of the hotel by the river. The wedding would be starting. The wedding was an enchanting mix of English and Hindi traditions which were beautifully brought together by both Stephen and Kailash, and their families. The day and evening went quick, as we had a blast with all the guests. I can honestly say I did not expect to have this much fun at a wedding where I knew no one but the happy couple, yet there we were, dancing barefoot to almost midnight.
The next morning was a tough one to wake up, and we had no real plan other than to spend the day doing some obligatory sightseeing in central London. As I had been here before, I didnt have too strong of an opinion on what our itenerary should be, but there were a few things I had hoped to see this time around, like the War Imperial Museum and Shakespeare’s Globe.
We hopped the train to Waterloo and emerged into a vibrant sea of tourists, souvenir vendors, food stalls, and street performers. Very quickly, I was pumped to be back in London. As we made our way across the bridge to Westminster Abbey, we came across numerous statues depicting heros of history such as Ghandi, Mandela, Churchill, and even Lincoln.
When we finally made it to the entrance for Westminster, we were again taken back by the cost of tickets. Coming from the Balkans where sights cost no more than 7 euros at the most, being asked to pay 27 sterling pounds seemed outrageous. This was going to take some getting used to. Ultimately, we decided that if we were gong to visit the church, we should at least have some sort of a guide and set out in search of a book store where we could pick up an updated copy of Rick Steves’ London that would have been ten years worth of new information than the one I sent home from Bulgaria. (I am the worst packer ever!). Our search for a bookstore in the immediate area proved fruitless and, as our hangovers began to rear their ugly heads, London didn’t stand a chance. We spent the next hour or so going to sights, waiting on line to enter before engaging in conversations that went something along the lines of this, “I don’t need to see this” “Yeah, me neither” “It’s so expensive” “We saw it from the outside, that counts” “Let’s eat”
So with that, we headed back towards the west bank with the good intention of reaching, and actually going inside the British War Museum. We were sidetracked along the way however, when we came across a cute pedestrian road in the Lowermarsh section of London that was clearly in the middle stages of gentrification. Here we found what might quite possibly my greatest pleasure in all the world; a bookstore devoted entirely to travel. In addition to the usual guidebook by region sections, there were two full walls of travelogues, books by famous authors from far away places, and separate sections for different types of travel, like bicycling, hiking, driving, and trains. I was a kid in a candy story and suddenly very happy that I had shipped my camping gear and books home from Bulgaria, so I could fill up that discarded weight with new ones.
For whatever the reason, after visiting the bookstore I didn’t feel much like visiting the museum anymore, and so we set out looking for a proper English pub for lunch. We wound up at a place called “The Ring” where I tried to treat my aching head and growling stomache with a pint of IPA and a plate of Bangers and Mash. Not the healthiest move.
We did manage to squeeze in a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral before heading back to Brentford where we had a lovely dinner with Kailash along the Thames.
Our second free day in England we had decided to venture out of London and take a day trip to the seaside town of Brighton. When we arrived in Clapham Junction to switch trains, we noticed an unusual number of people waiting on the platform, many of whom had already begun drinking, and many proudly wearing rainbow colored everything. As the train pulled up and I eventually found a seat amidst the chaos, the girl in the seat beside me confirmed that it was Pride weekend in Brighton, but not to worry, it would be fun.
And fun it was. A cross between Carnival and a political protest, the parade and spectators celebrated fiercely such disparate but connected concepts as LGBTQ rights (obviously, the main focus), open borders, the welcoming of refugees, and British inclusion in the European Union. We hit up the nearest Salisbury Local for a bottle of Prosseco and some snacks, and enjoyed the celebratory atmosphere that had engulfed this little seaside city.
After the parade died down, we found ourselves with another bottle of Prosecco in hand as we tried to do a little sightseeing around the town. Michelle had been here before and wanted to find the palace which looks like something out of St. Petersburg with its very Russian orthodox decor. We just about found it when the rain began and everyone scurried into bars or under trees.
Thankfully, the rain did not last long and we were happily marching our way to the famous Brighton Pier under blue skies once again. Much like the Santa Monica Pier, or Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, the Brighton Pier is a strange breed of carnival rides, arcade games, souvenir stands, ice cream vendors and restuarants laying claim to the world’s best seafood, or in this case, the world’s best fish and chips.
As we meandered our way off the Pier, we noticed people were swimming in the water. This being the English Channel, I couldn’t imagine how cold the water might be. Neither could Michelle apparently, so she decided to take the plunge!
From here, we walked back into town to find “the lanes”; small, narrow pedestrian streets with little shops, pubs, and restaurants. We found a cute place called The Bath Arms where we ordered two pints and some fish and chips. It was here where I first discovered, or rather I should say, remembered what a “proper English beer” meant; luke warm and flat. At the moment I forgot and kindly ordered a different one thinking that the pump was just flat.
That evening we had a delicous dinner catching up with Stephen and Kailash, who greeted us with an open bottle of proseco the moment we walked in the door. A few bottle of wines and many laughs later, we were off to bed.
The following day, again awakening with an aching head and grumbling stomache, we caught a train from London to Cambridge for a day trip. Having studied for a short stunt in Oxford ten years prior, I was excited to visit this university town which boasts the largest concentration of cathedrals in a dense area in all of Europe. When we arrived at the train station, we decided to rent bikes so we could explore the town more. We road our bikes down towards the Market Square, where we dropped the bikes and perused the stalls looking for a bite to eat. We settled on a prosciutto and cheese sandwhich and a plate of Spanish tapas, followed by a delicous homemade brownie.
After stuffing our faces, we dropped into the visitor center and bought two tickets for a punt ride along the Cam river for later that afternoon. We soon realized renting the bikes was a mistake, being we had to have them back at the station by 5, but chalked it up to not knowing and decided to visit some of the university on foot before we returned them. Unlike what most people think, Cambridge University is not one giant campus, but rather composed of multiple colleges throughout the town, many of which are connected and actually rivals. The most popular of the colleges is King’s College due to its famous chapel, appropriately named King’s College Chapel. This was our first stop.
This Gothic church was built by Henry VI in 1446 and is the home of the Christmas Even Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols, a show that is broadcast around the world, making this the most visited site in Cambridge.
Our second stop and college visit was to St. John’s College, which apparently has a longstanding rivalry with King’s College. For a small admission fee, we were able to walk the entirety of the campus, taking in the classic gothic architecture and Ivy walled ambiance. It also was a nice respite from the crowded and touristy streets of the rest of Cambridge.
After visitng the university we road our bikes back to the station then hopped a cab back to the city center to catch our punt boat along the Cam. Fortunately for us, three of our fellow boat companions were totally trashed british folks in town for a wedding. They were highly amusing…until they weren’t. The boat ride was not quite how I pictured it, with hundreds of boats squeezing by one another as your guide tries to shout out random little facts about each campus. However, the Cam river runs along the back of the colleges and gives you a nice view of them from the outside. All in all, it was a fun 40 minutes.
I wanted to make one last stop before we left, and that was at The Eagle, a notorious and historic pub where World War II RAF pilots graffitied the ceiling in the back. It is also the place where Francis Crick and James Watson announced they had discovered DNA. Foregoing eating here, we opted to get two pints, both of which were “flat” again. This time Michelle brought them up to the bar where the manager kindly explained that these were British beers, but offered to give us different ones. Not wanting to offend, and following our rule of “try everything,” we politiely declined and took our flat warm beers back to the table. We drank about half of them before we decided to leave.
On the train ride back, we decided that, with the impending storm about to hit the southwest coast of England, we would best to stay where we were in London and continue to do day trips for the remainder of our time in England. I did not need to learn how to drive on the opposite side of the road in a torrential downpour.
Fortunately for us, Kalaish and Stephen generously allowed us to stay on in their flat while they were away. The following morning, we woke up early to say goodbye as they embarked on their honeymoon. The night before they had recommended a few places along the sea that might be worth a day trip from London if the weather held for another day, so we decided to head to Whistable, a fantastically charming fishing village along the east coast. In less than two hours, we arrived in this adorable coastal town before setting out to explore its harbor. With a little market and a handful of restuarants seeking fresh oysters, Whistable has that historic North Atlantic feel that I love so much.
We eventually found the Old Neptune Pub that Stephen and Kailash mentioned to us. The original bar was washed out to sea in the late 19th century by a hurricane, but the one that exists today was rebuilt using wood from the original structure, as well as some of the local cottages that had also been destroyed in the storm. We opted for two ciders and a plate of white fish bait as a mid afternoon snack to hold us over until dinner, as we sat outside enjoying the views.
Later in the afternoon, we eventually came across the main street of Whistable, lined with cute and quickly shops, pubs, and restuarants of all varieties. After meandering here for a bit, a woman in one of the bookshops directed us back to the waterfront to see the famous colorful beach huts that sit along the coast.
We ended our time in Whistable by finding our way to the Lobster Shack, another historic institution, where we had the fresheest oysters I’ve ever eaten in my life. Seriously, it felt like these things swam right out of the sea into my mouth!. Michelle, clearly did not like them as much.
Enjoying our food with another pint, we took in the fading, North Atlantic sun before catching a late train back to London.
With the weather becoming increasingly cloudy and the likelihood of rain on the horizon, we awoke the next morning hoping to get in the Royal Botanical Gardens before it stormed. Located in the adjacent town/neighborhood of Kew, it was a quick Uber ride from the flat. The gardens are truly stunning, with every species of plant and tree from around the world imaginable.
After a few hours, we hopped into The Botanist for lunch, a local pub that serves excellent, botanically infused gin and tonics.
We spent the rest of the afternoon strolling the adorable streets of Richmond, another historic area in greater London. The great thing about England is the incredible history that sits in such a dense area. For example, while haphazardly walking down a side road, we came across a plaque marking the site of Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth’s death. Add in historic pubs and a pedestrian stroll along the river Thames, and you have yourself a delightful section of London away from all the crowds and tourists.
For our last day in England, the rain finally caught up with us. Cold, dark, and stormy outside, we opted, like thousands of others, to visit the British Museum. I had been here years earlier but remembered it being one of the highlights of my prior trip, with its vast collection of antiquities from around the world. Some of our favorite objects included a mummified cat, Cleopatra’s mummy, the Rosetta Stone, and the statue of Ramses II.
After the museum, with the storm still brewing and it being my birthday, we decided to pub crawl our way through Covent Gardens, first stopping in the White Hart, the oldest licensed premise in London, dating back to 1216! From here, we made our way a bit further up the road before stopping off in another pub, before we finally wound up having dinner at The Lamb and the Flag, another one of London’s historic pubs and favorite watering hole of Charles Dickens.
After a few more drinks at a pub around the corner, and it was time to finally kiss my 30s goodbye.
Although the weather kept us on our toes, being able to explore lesser known parts of England and London was a great way to conclude the summer. More importantly, being able to spend time with Kailash and Stephen and celebrate their wedding with them was really what made our trip to England so special. Within a day of meeting them in Tibet last year, I had already felt like we had all known each other forever and was so thankful to have met them. Our few days spent with them this year in London only confirmed what we already knew from Tibet; these are two awesome people! From the mountains of Tibet to the historic streets of London, our cross-Atlantic friendship continues.