People and Places

A Final Dispatch From England

Posted on November 1, 2012

We are nearing the end of our week in the UK.

Took the train from Oxford to London and arrived in time for lunch with friends at the Charles Dickens Pub, a “spit and sawdust” sort of place as they described it (translation: a working man’s pub) in Southwark.  Southwark was the rough and tumble southeast section of London, on the south side of the Thames, and for much of its history outside the proper boundaries of the city and thus the watchful eyes of the Puritans.

So it was there that Shakespeare could stage performances in the Globe (now recreated on the original site) and brothels and pubs could proliferate (many of the former were owned by the local Bishop until Oliver Cromwell put an end to that unseemly relationship).  It was a rough and tumble place where Dickens spent much of his impoverished youth (and used as a scene in many of his novels).  The Tabard Inn in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales was in Southwark.  As London has become more and more pricey (and prices really are shocking here), Southwark is becoming redeveloped and gentrified, but retains at least some of its grittiness.  The combination of hip new cafes and restaurants, museums and galleries, and still edgy areas makes it more interesting.

Because this was Pat’s father’s first trip and he is 78, we walked to St. Paul’s and jumped on one of the many double-decker tourist buses so he could get as much of an overview of the city as possible.  And it really is a magnificent city.  From the medieval splendor of the Tower of London (with lots of bloody anecdotes for the tour guide to share) to the majesty of Trafalgar Square to the grandeur of the great parks to the daring design of the Shard and the Gherkin (two of London’s newest high rise buildings), it is a thrilling, fiercely cosmopolitan city (even outdoing NYC on that score) that invites a lifetime of exploring, not an afternoon.  As Samuel Johnson once said, “To tire of London is to tire of life.”

It is a city to which I return again and again, maybe 20 times in my life, and really my favorite thing is to simply walk in what is essentially the collection of villages that make up the modern city.  I have favorite streets like Jermyn Street, full of quaint men’s shops that would seem at home in one of those Dickens novels.  I have favorite neighborhoods like Hampstead and its adjacent heath, a favorite of Karl Marx and his family.  London Walks, a series of 2 1/2 hour guided walks based on areas or themes, is the best way to really understand the city and I think I’ve done most of them.  The best, a “Ghosts of the Old City” walk we did on a foggy, haunting night.  Still gives me chills as we visited plague pits, Jack the Ripper murder sites, and the place where William Wallace (also known as Braveheart) was drawn and quartered (his limbs were sent to the four furthest corners of the kingdom and his head remained on a pike on London Bridge).

Really, how can you not love a place like London?

But Oxford was the real focus of this visit and my top ten list goes like this:

10. Climbing the tower at Magdalen College;

9. Tea at the Grand Cafe;

8. The Humphrey Library and the museums;

7. Pints at the Eagle and Child;

6. Seeing the Patriots play in Wembley;

5. Clotted cream and scones (wow — not really seeing items 6 and 5 together…);

4. The charming Old Parsonage Hotel with its warming fire;

3. Walking Oxford and just soaking up the atmosphere;

2. Dinner in the Keble College Dining Hall;

1. An evening with Em and six other Rhodes Scholars.

On #1, what an amazing group of young people.  The sheer intelligence, nuanced smart discussion, grace and good humor — wow.  We sat at the King’s Arms over meat pies and beer and had some of the most interesting and stimulating discussions I’ve had in ages.   We left with a sense that there is hope for the world if people like this come to play the leadership roles for which they are almost certainly destined.

If any one of them can start a clotted cream company in the US….well, I will take up the collection to erect a statue of them….on my way for a new stent.





One thought on “A Final Dispatch From England

  1. Nicholas Hunt-Bull says:

    Walking is the way to get to know London, as you say Paul. I too had great experiences with London Walks and a competing walks company. One time at Christmas I took the “Dickensian London” walk. We were followed the whole way by a bubbly Japanese TV personality and her whole crew shooting material for their Christmas special on Tokyo TV. It did make the experience even more surreal. The tour guides are also interesting people when you can get them to chat afterwards…usually under-employed history graduate students.

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