Trip Report: England
April, 2000

2 weeks in London, Stonehenge, and Hadrian’s Wall

I’ve just returned from 2 weeks solo vacation in England, an interesting mix of the familiar and the foreign. Mainly, I explored London and 2 ancient sites: Stonehenge and Hadrian’s Wall.

Bargain airfares drew me to visit on the shoulder of the low season; this had the advantage of making it easy to book lodging, transit, etc., and helped me avoid crowds of tourists. In fact, I made no arrangements whatsoever prior to departure; I had heard that Victoria Station has an accommodations desk and counted on that to find a hotel after I arrived. This plan worked fine, and a bit of Internet research I had done to find lodging near Hadrian’s Wall was all I needed to find accommodation there.


It is my considered opinion that London is the center of the universe! So many grand buildings and historical people and places at every turn; an endless variety of theater and entertainments in what I think must be the most cosmopolitan city in the world. I always thought San Francisco has an interesting mix of cultures, but I was amazed at the variety of languages heard on the streets of London and the range of foreign foods to be found.

The British Museum holds vast treasures of the past, notably including the Rosetta Stone, friezes from the Parthenon (the “Elgin Marbles”), a multitude of Egyptian sarcophagi, and a lot of 2600 BC stuff from Ur, Iraq (where writing was invented). You’ll be interested to note that scholars have determined that ancient Greek statuary — what we know as pale white marble sculptures — were brightly decorated with paint (backgrounds, clothing, details) and bronze fittings (spears, swords, horse reins and bridle)!

In a past trip to Turkey, I visited two of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, which were mostly bare ruins. Well, one reason they were so bare is because all the good stuff is there in the British Museum: a frieze depicting the battle of the Greeks vs. the Amazons from the tomb of King Maussoleus (from whom we get the word mausoleum, didn't you know) in ancient Halicarnassus, now called Bodrum, Turkey. The second is statuary from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, Turkey.

The Tower of London is full of history and sparkles with the Crown Jewels. They also had a diamond exhibit there which offered an interesting historical anecdote: The Cullinan diamond (the world’s largest uncut diamond — as big as your fist!) was discovered in 1907 and sent to London where it was cut into 5 precious stones. Subterfuge was used to assure its safe delivery: A heavily guarded decoy was sent to London by ship; the real gem was sent by ordinary parcel post. Yes, it arrived safely.

I visited the home of Charles Dickens (where he finished the Pickwick Papers and wrote Oliver Twist). It’s amazing to consider the volume of his output — written with a quill pen. From the exhibits there, I concluded that he was in love with his wife’s sister, who lived with them. When the sister died at 18, he pronounced that he wanted to be buried beside her. Many years later, he separated from his wife, quite a scandal at the time, though it did not seem to harm his fame.

A walk along the river Thames was full of sights (but chilly): Tower Bridge, London Bridge (a new one, we’ve got the original in Arizona now), Westminster Bridge, Big Ben, and the gorgeous buildings of Parliament. I saw many of these sights lit up as twilight approached from 400 feet high on the “London Eye” Ferris wheel, just opened, right on the Thames.

The architecture at Westminster Abbey is very impressive, as is the collection of famous bodies buried there: Chaucer, Cromwell, Darwin, Dickens, Handel, Hardy, Kipling, Livingstone, Newton, Olivier, Spenser, Tennyson, Queen Elizabeth I, and many more you’d recognize. I am reminded of a line from English poet Thomas Gray: “The paths of glory lead but to the grave.”


I took a day trip by train and bus to see Stonehenge. Then I took a local bus to see a similar ancient site nearby called Avebury, and was charmed by the Wiltshire countryside, decorated in green with meandering rivers and grazing sheep. Stonehenge and Avebury are both very old (3800 BC) stone rings within circular ditches, imbued with history and ancient spirits. It's a bit disappointing how little we know about them, they are so old. (In a tourist shop in Avebury, amongst books on spirituality and healing, I happened to notice a book on ‘urine therapy’ — I don’t think I want to know!)


I also took a boat ride down the Thames to Greenwich, where time is defined. The Old Royal Observatory is there and the National Maritime Museum. (There’s also a tunnel footpath that passes under the Thames.) Remembering back to when ‘Britannia ruled the waves’, you can imagine that being able to determine one’s location at sea was vitally important. The Royal Observatory at Greenwich was the focus of the search for a technology that would allow sailors to determine their latitude. (I learned that by sighting the horizon and the Pole Star, one can easily find one’s longitude.) A contest for the modern equivalent of a million dollars led to the invention of a seaworthy clock (temperature and motion resistant) in 1760. With Greenwich star charts and knowing the exact time (Greenwich Mean Time), sailors could determine their position. Consequently, the Prime Meridian — Latitude 0 degrees — was devised to run through the Royal Observatory there; if you stand on one side of the line, you’re east, the other side, west.


I walked to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and Covent Garden. Speakers Corner in Hyde Park is an oddity; basically anyone with something to say can stand on a soap box and let loose. One fellow was quite anti-American: "Uncle Sam is raping Britannia" and "Never sleep with an American woman — they chew gum all the time and don't even take it out to give you a blow job." Goodness!


I have to agree with the classic complaint about English food. After I had worked my way through fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes), and Yorkshire pudding (sausage, onions, and gravy inside puff pastry), I turned to the ubiquitous Indian food. I never found "bubble and squeak" (corned beef and cabbage). I did find a fabulous fish and chips shop; it was operated by a fish restaurant next door, and consequently offered a remarkable assortment: cod, haddock, rock (?), ‘plaice’ (catfish), skate, sole, trout, and scampi. On two visits I had very nice cakes of cod roe. And, yes, I did have a burger at Wimpy’s. In England, french fries (‘chips’) are eaten with mayonnaise, fish and chips with vinegar.

I’m not much of a beer drinker, so I tried shandy (beer and lemonade) which was okay, and cider (alcoholic apple juice) which was quite pleasing. They do have some nice desserts there, including blackberry and apple crumble (with custard — you can get just about anything there with custard).

Except for beer which is cheap everywhere, London was very expensive. I paid $70 a night at two tourist hotels in different areas of outer London, both of which had TV and telephone in the room, but the bathroom was down the hall.


My major expedition out of London was a half-day train journey to see Hadrian's Wall in Northumberland, the northernmost county in England, near the border of Scotland. I was pleased that my train north passed near the town of Kendal. Later, I was successful in finding something I had heard about before from English travelers I met in Malaysia: Kendal Mint Cakes. It turns out they are chocolate candy bars.

I stayed in a little village called Haltwhistle. Through the Internet, I had found a bed & breakfast there called Ashcroft's Guest House for $43/night that was quite sumptuous (including hot breakfast and a TV in the room along with telephone, hair dryer, electric blanket, bathroom, and very modern shower) — for half the cost of London lodgings (which had a bathroom down the hall). The building, built in 1861, is a former vicarage (with a lovely little cemetery nearby) — made me think of all those Agatha Christie stories of murder most foul.

Hadrian’s Wall was erected in about 100 AD by legionnaires of Emperor Hadrian to protect the frontier; it marks the extent of the Roman Empire’s expansion. Built of local stone, the wall (a total of 70 miles, coast to coast) was originally 21 feet high — what remains is about 4 feet high at its tallest points, victim of nature and recycling. I walked about 4 miles of the wall, through lovely pastureland, and toured the ruins of 3 Roman Army forts: Vindolanda, Birdoswald, and Housestead's. Quite interesting.

Acidic mud near Fort Vindolanda has preserved examples of 2,000 year old writing! Did you know the Romans had window glass? (Green in color.) And they sent messages on wooden tablets inset with a thin layer of wax on which they would scratch messages and be able to correct mistakes!

The Hadrian's Wall area is sheep country; I saw no less than three different kinds of sheep. Lambing season had just ended, so I saw lots of cute little lambs. It was so funny to see them prance around stiff-legged; one pair I actually saw playfully butt heads. With all that wool and it being rather cold and windy, between trains in Carlisle I bought myself a washable lamb's wool sweater for only $24 (on sale!). I also ate some tasty lamb shoulder for dinner at a pub.

After 3 nights in Haltwhistle, I trained back to London and stayed for 6 nights near Russell Square. I was tickled to note that Russell Square is prominent in the book I was reading, Vanity Fair. This area is in Bloomsbury borough and I've learned that there was a group of intellectuals who lived here called the Bloomsbury Group, including Virginia Woolf, John Maynard Keynes, and others unfamiliar to me (E.M. Forster, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, and Lytton Strachey), or so says my Fodor's. Yes, right next to Russell Square is Virginia Woolf's Burgers Pasta & Grill.


I had a few misadventures there. I bought a muffler and gloves — and promptly lost the gloves. I missed my train north to Hadrian’s Wall, trapped in the tube by a transit delay. I almost had to take a cold shower in my first hotel, until I figured out that the faucets were mismarked (the red ring was around the cold faucet).

Misc. notes:

  • One doesn't tip for drinks in pubs I learned by mistake.
  • Smoking cigarettes is still quite popular in England.
  • The Underground (subway, “the tube”) goes everywhere.
  • I froze near to death on the (exposed) top of a double-decker tour bus.
  • It was hard to remember to look to the right when crossing the street!
  • London telephone numbers have just shifted from 7 digits to 8.
  • The constellation we call the Big Dipper, the English call the Plough.
  • The Egyptian word for priest means ‘star watcher’.
  • Pregnancy sharpens a woman’s sense of smell! (Presumably to help detect food and danger.)
  • I confirmed in England what I found in Thailand, Malaysia, and Italy: You can use your ATM card anywhere (who needs travelers checks anymore?), and Internet cafes are ubiquitous.
  • Everyone in England has a cell phone.
  • You have to pay a tax to own a TV there! (About $160 per year.)

Remember, if you don’t like it here, you can always go somewhere else!

Happy travels,

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