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Ralph Melton
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2014/06/17 13:56:17 (permalink)

Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland

In the autumn of 2013, we took our first international vacation. We spent most of a week in England, then two weeks in Ireland. I've held off on posting about it here until I have it mostly written, and the writing has been very slow.

If this trip were the sort of literature to have themes, there are a couple of themes that stand out to me: 

- One theme was a very self-conscious adolescent sampling of different roles and travel styles, as we try to figure out what we like in international travel.
This came out even more in our pre-trip planning. We considered taking a bus tour, and we considered hiring a private guide, and we considered various combinations of those options. But we were dissuaded from a bus tour, and a private guide turned out to be too expensive for comfort. So we ended up a tour much like we would have had in the USA, with the two of us traveling by ourselves by walking, public transit, or car as the occasion warranted.

- The other theme was a perennial musing about whether we were seeing things meant for tourists or for locals. My first impulse would be to say that I prefer things meant for locals, but there are reasons to prefer tourist things as well - tourist-focused experiences are often better curated and better explained. But wherever we went, I found myself conscious of the question of who the audience was.

~//~

Friday, September 20

Our trip to London started with a connecting flight to Toronto on a small prop plane, followed by an extremely long walk through the Toronto airport to our next gate.

We ate dinner at Casey’s Grill and Bar in the Toronto airport, and it was delicious - one of the best airport meals I’ve ever had.
Lori got a club sandwich with poutine - this poutine was much better than the poutine I’ve had in the US.


I had the Singapore Street Noodles - not particularly Canadian, but very tasty.


On the flight to London, an Indian gentleman asked us to exchange seats to let his wife sit with him. We agreed, although it split us apart. I managed to sleep on the plane, but Lori did not; she reported that the Indian gentleman stood for the whole duration of the flight to let his wife sleep across both their seats.

After a long wait through customs and baggage claim, we stopped in a coffee shop in Heathrow to regroup. We had our first English tea and scone - not distinguished, but it establishes a baseline that yes, tea and scones are something that real people do. (And the individual jar of preserves is much more classy than I usually find in the USA.
 

I thought that we could get to our hotel by mass transit, but things did not go as well as I had hoped. Google Maps gave us a route involving three trains, but neglected to mention that the the last leg was on the Docklands Light Rail, and the DLR was not running this weekend because of maintenance. There was supposedly a bus covering that route, but we failed to find it. And our attempts to hail a taxi didn’t work. And the SiM I had bought in the airport wasn’t giving me cellular data for some reason. So we started wandering in search of a taxi stand and some food.

This is one of the first pictures we took in London. I don’t recall what square it was, but it actually captures London pretty well with the juxtaposition of Victorian monuments with sleek glass skyscrapers.


A loriner is a person who makes hardware for harnesses and riding habits, as bits and spurs. (We did not know that when we saw this sign.)


We followed the sound of church bells out of idle curiosity, and discovered that the bells were those of St. Mary-le-Bow, whose particular fame is that to be a Cockney, one must be born within earshot of the bells of St. Mary-le-Bow. In fact, a wedding had just concluded, and we got to see an example of British wedding fashion, including several fancy hats.

We stopped in Costa (a chain of coffeeshops - fairly similar to Starbucks) in hopes of getting some lunch and some use of their advertised free WiFi. Unfortunately, the WiFi required a UK postal code to register, and I did not know any UK postcodes offhand. So we were thwarted. But we got to eat a couple of sandwiches. And we got to eat something new to us: a sticky toffee pudding muffin. In addition to the toffee on top, the muffin had a thick vein of caramel running through the center.


Lori had managed to pick up a blister already, so we got a cab to our London lodgings, the Cable Street Inn in the East End. This was a very nice boutique hotel above a former pub. We stayed there for six nights, and found it very pleasant. The proprietor, Julian, had a day job as a documentary filmmaker, but he was very helpful and we had several very pleasant conversations with him. He told us that the building itself dated to about 1750, but the windows were newer work, done in the 1850s. (It makes us blink - in the US, buildings that old are few and far between.)

From the inn’s terrace, he showed us a couple of sites that we would not have identified on our own:

This mural commemorates the Battle of Cable Street. When the British Fascists wanted to march through this predominantly Jewish neighborhood, tens of thousands of people came out in force to resist their march and the police who were enabling their march. 
 

Julian also pointed out St. George in the East Church, whose roof was destroyed by a bomb in World War II. He said that the roof had never been rebuilt, and while that is technically true, it led me to a wrong conclusion that the church was no longer used. According to Wikipedia, a new modern church was built within the old church walls, and it is still in active use.

It was now early evening; getting to the Inn had taken most of the afternoon. We didn’t feel that we had done anything really touristy yet. we aimed for a walking tour of pubs, but though we could figure out (with Julian’s advice) how to get there through the Underground even with the DLR not running, we made enough wrong turns that it wasn’t clear we would be in time. So we decided on an evening bus tour, See London by Night.

We asked the tour operator for a recommendation for a restaurant where we could get a bite in time for the tour. He recommended a pub called Henry’s across the street. We weren’t sure that Henry’s was right for us, because there was a crowd of very flashily dressed people in front; we thought there would be a wait to get in and we would be underdressed if we did make it in. But the crowd was only outside; there were plenty of tables and most inside were casually dressed. I don’t know what the fancy crowd outside was doing.


Lori ordered a hard cider, and we got a bit of a culture mismatch: the waitress asked us (in a Scandinavian accent) “What is ‘hard’?” We had to explain that the American default for “cider” was non-alcoholic.


My steak and ale pie was delicious. Most pies that we encountered in England and Ireland looked like this, with a crust thick enough to maintain its shape even when soaked by gravy.
 

Lori’s sausages and mash was also very good - among the better sausages we had on this trip.


The See London by Night tour was pretty good, and did give us at least a cursory introduction to the city. My notes say that the tour guide’s jokes were "worn smooth like river stones” from long repetition.

Harrod's


Houses of Parliament


The London Eye (the spire in front has some very high swings)


The Thames, with lights on the river 


St. Paul’s Cathedral
 

Tower Bridge


The Tower of London

#1
leethebard
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/17 14:38:04 (permalink)
Oooohhh, I love London(and all England) so much...enjoy...can't wait to hear and see more...as a teacher of Shakespeare, I hope you made it to Stratford!!!!
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ScreamingChicken
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/17 14:47:51 (permalink)
Based on your first dinner I won't be surprised if some long-held beliefs about British food are debunked throughout the course of this thread!
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Foodbme
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/17 17:31:09 (permalink)
Move over Rick Steves, here comes Ralph & Lori!
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 09:47:01 (permalink)
Can't wait to see more. My last trip to London for work we stayed in the East End, which was a new area for me. Really interesting and more "lived in" than many of the more touristy areas of the city.
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kaszeta
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 09:53:32 (permalink)
Ralph Melton
This is one of the first pictures we took in London. I don’t recall what square it was, but it actually captures London pretty well with the juxtaposition of Victorian monuments with sleek glass skyscrapers.


That's the Royal Exchange (the main building), and the Bank of England on the left.   This was taken from approximately the entrance to the Bank tube station.
 
I love London.  I go at least once a year, since my brother and sister-in-law live there.
post edited by kaszeta - 2014/06/18 09:55:37
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buffetbuster
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 11:04:51 (permalink)
So glad to see that you decided to do a trip report here on Roadfood.  This is going to be very enjoyable!
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 11:42:19 (permalink)
leethebard

Oooohhh, I love London(and all England) so much...enjoy...can't wait to hear and see more...as a teacher of Shakespeare, I hope you made it to Stratford!!!!

 
We did not make it to Stratford, but we made it to Shakespeare's Globe for a great performance of Macbeth.
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 11:47:03 (permalink)
ScreamingChicken

Based on your first dinner I won't be surprised if some long-held beliefs about British food are debunked throughout the course of this thread!

 
I'd love to hear what you think of this afterward. We tried to eat a lot of things that seemed particularly British to us, so our experience is also a bit skewed; I think the real experience of dining in London is much more international than what we ate.
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 11:51:53 (permalink)
kaszeta
That's the Royal Exchange (the main building), and the Bank of England on the left.   This was taken from approximately the entrance to the Bank tube station.

 
That makes perfect sense. The Bank station was where we left the Underground, so it would have been our first opportunity to take a London picture.
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/18 14:39:32 (permalink)
I can't wait to see the rest of the report.  It was exacrtly two years ago that I visited London for the first (and hopefully not the last) time with my whole family.  We had a similar experience of leaving the Underground and coming out to a perfect first London picture but ours was in Trafalgar Square.  That was the moment when it was like - wow we're in London!
 
As for the food, I think we took a similar approcah to what you described.  We were always trying to find something traditional to order.  Some of it was very good - steak pie, welsh rarebit, sunday roast with yorshire pudding, a proper fry up; and some was kind of average - indian food, sausages.
 
Somehow I managed to be there for a week and not order fish and chips.  I still regret that.  But it gives me a good reason to return.
 
 
 
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/19 10:22:04 (permalink)
Sunday, September 22
 
We started the day at Waterloo Station, because Lori’s friend Deb had come a couple of hours by train to show us around. We hadn’t realized that it was such a long trip for her, and we felt very touched she had come so far for us.




We were happy to let her suggest an agenda, and she suggested Camden. (A bit of web searching has revealed to me that Camden may refer to either Camden Town or the larger London Borough of Camden which contains Camden Town. I think we were within Camden Town, but I’m not sure. I understand that London contains two cities, but that’s about the limit of my understanding of all the places within this conurbation.) We were also happy to have her guidance with the buses; although we figured out the Underground fairly easily, navigating by bus remained opaque to me throughout our trip. 

The first part of Camden we visited was a mixture of open-air markets crammed with tightly packed stalls and shops with fabulous three-dimensional facades.
  
 

As we meandered towards Camden Locks (once a canal yard, now repurposed as a mall full of shops), we saw a town crier.


It was our second full day in England, and I was still enthusiastic for British food. So we stopped for lunch at a little place called Brit Break Cafe.
 

In the US, I’d expect a “sausage roll” to be a sausage in a bun, like an overgrown hot dog. So I was charmed by the novelty of a sausage roll being a sausage completely encased in pastry. Unfortunately, it was mediocre at best - the sausage seemed to have more bread crumbs than meat. I appreciated that Deb said it was only so-so by her standards.
 

The luncheon conversation with Deb also gave me some insights into British cuisine. She said that British food often was as bland as it’s stereotyped to be, but it’s accompanied by very flavorful sauces, like HP Brown Sauce. That was an eye-opener for me; I hadn’t thought about the role of the sauces in the cuisine.


As we were walking about Camden Market, we spotted a really exciting ice cream place: Chin-Chin Labs.


Chin-Chin Labs makes ice cream to order with liquid nitrogen. When you place your order, the guy measures your ingredients, fills a pitcher with liquid nitrogen, dumps it all in a mixer for a minute or two, and then hands you your ice cream. It has a thrilling feeling of mad science.


And Ahrash, the proprietor, was splendidly friendly and excited to talk about what he was doing. Even though the trappings had a mad-science vibe, he was as convivial as any Roadfood proprietor we’ve encountered.
 

But how’s the ice cream? Lori ordered the Pondicherry Vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce, and it was extraordinary. It had the texture of soft serve ice cream, but it was even more smooth and the flavors were really rich and vibrant.
 

I had planned not to get anything, but after sampling Lori’s, I had to get some of my own. I chose Black Raspberry Brandy Sorbet. (Ahrash asked me how much booze I wanted. I said “medium booze”; in retrospect, I should have asked for more brandy.) The texture on this was just amazing; it was much smoother than any other sorbet I’ve ever had. 
 

As we were heading back to Waterloo, I took a peek in a pub called the World’s End (dating back to 1690). Their prohibitions on what could be brought in merited a photograph:
 

Near Waterloo, we happened across a street fair celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Konditor and Cook bakery. We were particularly excited about this, because this seemed like an event that was intended for Londoners as much as for tourists.
 

We are hardly ones to pass up free cake, so we sampled the Victoria Sponge. It was light and caky.


We had only been there for a few minutes when a cry went up that the meringue bobbing was about to begin. I’d never encountered meringue bobbing, and was keen to see what this was about. Large donut-shaped meringues were suspended by ribbons from a long string. Young children lined up underneath the meringues, and when the emcee (in a splendidly plumed top hat) gave the signal, they raced to try to free the meringue - but they were forbidden the use of their hands. It was particularly funny to see the children who were too small to reach the meringues by standing, so sought victory by leaping and biting the meringue in midair.
 
 

I was curious about the “Pie Wrestling” listed on the schedule, because I figured that I could probably take an average pie two falls out of three. But we didn’t see the pie wrestling before we left the festival, and this inflated kiddie pool puts some doubt on my interpretation.


From there we wandered over to Southbank (the south side of the Thames, popular as a tourist area and skate park). Deb had to leave us after a bit there, but we kept walking around.

There were buskers:
 

We next walked across London Bridge towards the Houses of Parliament.


A panorama from London Bridge:
 

It happened that the Tour of Britain bicycle race was coming through just about that time, and Westminster was thronged with spectators. I tried to catch a photo as the bikes came through, but was unsuccessful.


Lori admired this statue of Nelson Mandela in Parliament Square.


Just past Parliament Square is Westminster Abbey. I had seen pictures, but I had not previously grasped how really massive Westminster Abbey is. It really towers over the people near it in a very grand way.
 

 

Because it was Sunday, Westminster Abbey was not open for tours, but we were allowed to attend the events going on. We attended an organ recital (impressive how the organ filled the immense space, but we both dozed despite our best efforts) and evening services. We were struck by the tombs and monuments set into the walls and floors - particularly the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier near the entrance, surrounded by silk roses. (Pictures weren’t allowed)

Another architectural picture, of Methodist Central Hall. We learned later that this was the original meeting place of the United Nations.


Even though we’d had a chance to rest our legs a bit in Westminster, we were still weary from lots of walking, and Lori’s feet were hurting from her blister. We chose the Speaker for dinner because it was just a few blocks away, only to find that it was closed. The signs on the door made for interesting reading about the history of Parliament, though.



So we found a cab and asked the cabdriver for a recommendation for a pub. She suggested the Prospect of Whitby. We had a really fascinating conversation with the cabbie; she told us about the rigorous process of becoming a licensed cabbie. Cabbies have to be able to navigate anywhere in London without reference to map or GPS, and the examination involves being assigned a starting point and destination and describing the best route in minute detail. To study for this, prospective cabbies drive around the city on motor scooters taking notes on clipboards in front of them. She said it takes four years to understand London well enough to get a license.
(We learned recently that this is called ”The Knowledge”, and there’s even a movie about it.)

The cabbie said the Prospect of Whitby is London’s oldest pub. Signs inside the pub say it was patronized by Charles Dickens and Samuel Pepys.
 

I got fish and chips with mushy peas; none of it was particularly good. But hey, I can say that I’ve tried them.
 

Lori got roast beef with vegetables and Yorkshire pudding. The vegetables were pretty good, but the beef was bland.


The summer berry pudding was much better:
 

We made it back to the hotel in time to watch half of the first episode of the season of Downton Abbey, which wouldn’t be available in the US until January.
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leethebard
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/19 11:24:03 (permalink)
Oh, I'm reliving my trips to London through you....I miss London!!!
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/19 21:12:29 (permalink)
Chin Chin Labs looks fantastic!!!  What about that sticky toffee pudding muffin--did you like it?  
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/19 23:11:52 (permalink)
Chin Chin Labs certainly was one of the food highlights of our trip. 
 
The sticky toffee pudding muffin was good enough that we ordered sticky toffee pudding again, but I don't think it was outstanding among its genre - but perhaps I'm just assuming that because Costa occupied more or less the niche of Starbucks, the food was in the same league as Starbucks.
Our favorite sticky toffee pudding came from Bewley's in Dublin:
Sticky Toffee Pudding by Ralph Melton, on Flickr
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/20 09:55:53 (permalink)
I spend a lot of time in the UK but in the west in Cornwall. The food is all over the map, from terrible to outstanding.
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/20 10:38:48 (permalink)
brisketboy
I spend a lot of time in the UK but in the west in Cornwall. The food is all over the map, from terrible to outstanding.

Where in Cornwall?  Used to spend a lot of time around the Launceston area (sister-in-law is Cornish, and her family lived there until 2010 when they moved to Gloucestershire).  I agree, the food is all over the map, but I did find some gems down that way (ahh, some of the chippies in Newlyn are awesome)
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kaszeta
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/20 10:42:42 (permalink)
Ralph Melton
Our favorite sticky toffee pudding came from Bewley's in Dublin:

My personal favorite is from The Queen's Arms in Pimlico, London, a stone's throw from Victoria Station.  My picture kinda sucks, but the pudding was phenomenal:

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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/20 20:20:57 (permalink)
Ralph....thanks for the report and bringing back memories.  We lived for 5 years in the UK, outside of Chester UK. In the course of that time, we got to sample both the good and the bad. Yes, much of pub-grub and simple RF places, the food is bland, but several sauces do help them.
 
a cple of things that I found truly outstanding:
 
1. British Bacon......more like a thin cut pork chop(real thin!).  All meat with a bit of fat around the edge. Cured or un-cured.  Fried up like our bacon (which they call "streaky bacon). You may have had it in a "proper" British Breakfast.  The penultimate, tho, is a Bacon-Butty.  A Soft roll, about the size of a Kaiser roll with 4-5 pieces of this and served with Brown Sauce. a sort of mild sweetish ketchup.  Superb!  Funnily enough, some of this is called Danish Bacon, not sure why.........maybe the curing?
 
2. Sausages......yes, the average British sausage(or Irish sausage) is a bit "cereal-y' Theyadd rusk to it.  But if you can find a Cumberland Sausage then you'll fall in love.  An old schoolhouse near us was converted to a restaurant and they'd serve a wide variety of tasty things, including a "School Lunch" which consisted of a Cumberland Sausage with a roll served along side and a cple of veg. They also did a superb job on my next item.
 
3. Pies....savory. Many combos some really goodsome so/so but always with a crust of light flaky pastry.  Steak and ale or steak and mushroom were my go-to's but hare, chicken, other interesting ideas also abounded with lots of veg in a savoury gravy.
 
4. Lamb   When were living there, Mad Cow Disease had just started. Despite lots of denials by the government that no other breed could be infected, even after a cat died, we stayed clearof most beef, eating mostly steaks of Scottish Beef our local butcher imported  from Scotland.  In fact, because of this, we, including our children who lived there are prohibited from giving blood in the US. We discovered Lamb, sepecially Welsh Lamb (Chernoybl concerns aside).  I never was a big fan of lamb in the US, finding it too fatty for my taste, but the leanmeat in the UK was so much better and richer in taste.
 
5. Lancastershire Hotpot...........a sort of Beef Stew with Lamb. Tasty and a tiny bit spicy.  It seemed to be popular community dinner/fund raiser entrée.  Hard to tell what was in it but it was filling and yummy.
 
I'm sure there were others.....Yorkshire "Pud" and roast beef...........seldom because of Mad Cow....but done ight, marvelous and some desserts.  A lot of "misses" too...................fries or chips as they are called were mostly limp but brought back my New Englan upbringing with Malt vinegar.
 
Thanks again!
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/20 22:58:51 (permalink)
Ralph, I usually end up in Plymouth for work at the Devon dockyards but then venture out to Polpero and Looe at the weekends. Looe has the best Cornish pastys I have ever eaten. This is where I discovered the joys of cider. Unfortunately the Strongbow I buy at HEB is a poor second. 
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/21 02:30:26 (permalink)
The steak and ale pie both look definitely notable. Great report so far!
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/21 13:51:28 (permalink)
Plain food with a sauce to apply as desired is not a new concept to me. That's how my mother handled it, and my father preferred it,   and the way I often do too, especially since my tummy flucuates in terms of how much seasoning it can handle. That way, when you're experimenting with new flavors, you don't run the risk of accidently spoiling your expensive ingredients with a flavor you didn't like after all. Think of the midwest with great salad bars and 'dutch' cooking with it's 'seven sweets and seven sours' tradition. Obviously, it's not a new concept and neither has it died. It's just not fashionable, particularly. Although I've had no practical experience with British cuisine, I suspect it isn't, or doesn't have to be as bad, as it's made to sound. My father would have been the first to say 'well, what's wrong with plain meat and potatoes'. Trouble is, usually he didn't ever want to try anything else. RIP, Daddy.
 
post edited by mlm - 2014/06/21 13:53:17
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 09:58:06 (permalink)
FriedClamFanatic, that's a great list!
 
I don't think we had any bacon in London, but we had lots in Ireland and it was as excellent as you describe. I looked halfheartedly for a bacon butty in London, but I never saw one on a menu.
 
We did have Cumberland sausages once, on Monday. We didn't fall in love, but they were pretty good.
 
I think our experience with pies was somewhat different; we definitely enjoyed the pies, but all the pies we encountered used a thick dense crust. 
 
The only lamb we had in London was in Indian food, so hard to judge by itself, but the lamb we had in Ireland was excellent.
 
I had never heard of Lancastershire Hotpot; it sounds tasty, but I don't think I had any opportunity to order it.
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Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 09:59:36 (permalink)
brisketboy

Ralph, I usually end up in Plymouth for work at the Devon dockyards but then venture out to Polpero and Looe at the weekends. Looe has the best Cornish pastys I have ever eaten. This is where I discovered the joys of cider. Unfortunately the Strongbow I buy at HEB is a poor second. 

 
I never found an opportunity to eat a Cornish pasty in our trip, unfortunately. We did drink quite a lot of cider - but we had trouble finding local cider brands; a few large brands seemed to be present everywhere.
#24
Ralph Melton
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 10:00:03 (permalink)
Monday morning was a particular experiment in what sort of tourists we want to be. We got a private guide for a Sherlock Holmes tour.

We had not originally planned to do it this way. But I felt that a necessary part of our London experience was a detective tour, and I had assumed that detective tours would be abundantly available. But after I had bought tickets to fly to Ireland on Friday afternoon, I discovered that the only tour I could find was on Friday afternoon. So we paid the cost of a whole group, more or less, to get a private walking tour.

In retrospect, I wish I had taken notes, because I look back across the pictures I took and I can’t remember much of the significance of the shots. 

We met at the Criterion restaurant, where Dr. Watson first met Stamford, who introduced Watson to Sherlock Holmes. This had a double significance for us, because the Criterion had also been the setting of a significant scene in the episode of Downton Abbey we had seen the previous evening.


This row included several Gentlemen’s Clubs, and probably would have included Mycroft Holmes’ Diogenes Club if it had actually existed. The Athenaeum is at the left; the dark brown building at the right is the Reform Club, of particular significance in Around the World in Eighty Days


This had once been the German Embassy, which played a particular role in “His Last Bow”...
 

… and this little side door to the embassy received special mention in that story.


Scotland Yard of course appears in the Holmes stories many times.
 

Our tour included a stop at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, which was decorated with Sherlock Holmes memorabilia. 



The upstairs of the Sherlock Holmes pub has a careful recreation of Holmes’ and Watson’s rooms in Baker Street.
 

We ended our tour in Covent Garden, mentioned as the place where the goose was bought in “The Blue Carbuncle”. Our guide explained that there had never been that sort of market here, and speculated that this was Arthur Conan Doyle engaging in the wild tomfoolery traditional to a Victorian Christmas story.
 

So here’s the question of this big experiment: was this private tour worth it? On the one hand, it was definitely a better tour experience - we never had trouble hearing Richard, and we felt well able to ask all the questions we wanted. But I didn’t feel much sense of “wow” during the tour, either the excitement of seeing a site that had a prominent role in the book or the excitement of feeling that Richard was really giving us a customized guide experience. And it was pricey enough that I wanted (reasonably or not) to get some “Wow”.
I still think that hiring a private guide might be a good thing under some circumstances; I’ve read many accounts of people saying it was the best travel decision they had made. But there are clearly other factors involved with making a private guide an awesome experience, and I’m not sure what they are.


We had a quick lunch at a pub in Covent Garden called the Cellar, which turned out to be owned by the same corporation that owned the Prospect of Whitby where we’d dined the previous night (and a great many other pubs). We had a sausage sampler and a cheese and pickle sandwich. I was surprised that the cheese in the sandwich was shredded cheese - I don’t think we encountered sliced cheese in all our vacation.
  


For the afternoon, we went on another walking tour, through the British Museum. We knew that a few hours would not be enough time to effectively scratch the surface of the British Museum, so we hoped that a tour would help us come closer to effectively scratching the surface. (Because I goofed, we went to the Museum instead of to the Underground station where the our gathered, but we managed to meet the tour at last.)
 

As we waited at the museum, Lori found a snack that became one of her favorites from the trip: millionaire shortbread, a tasty treat of shortbread topped with caramel and chocolate.


 

Unlike the Sherlock Holmes tour, the British Museum tour gave me a “Wow” moment right away with the Rosetta Stone. The content of the inscription on the Rosetta Stone is not terribly interesting, but the really exciting thing about it is that it was inscribed in three languages: Ancient Greek, Demotic, and Egyptian Hieroglyphics. Ancient Greek was understood by scholars when it was discovered, but the other two languages were not, so the Rosetta Stone has been an essential clue to our modern understanding of Demotic and Hieroglyphics. 
Wow.
(One of the questions I’ve pondered about this: it took over 20 years to decipher the first Rosetta Stone; if we found an equivalent puzzle today, how long would it take us to decipher that with the Internet and computers and an improved understanding of linguistics?)


It turns out that the stele you can touch is not actually the real Rosetta stone; the real one is much better protected. I sheepishly admit that it didn’t have the same “Wow” effect for me.
 

This massive statue (and its twin in the same room) came from an Assyrian temple.
 

And some ancient guardsman scratched a game board into the base of one of them.


There was a fantastic bas-relief of an Assyrian lion hunt. I remember the tour guide explaining that although there were dogs and guards and beaters in the group, only the king was allowed to spear the lions. 
 



From Assyria, we moved on to Ancient Greece, and the Elgin Mables, carted off to England by the agents of the Earl of Elgin. (Greece would like to have these pieces back.)
  

Once again, my notes have failed me. This might be the temple of Athena Nike, or it might be the Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, the tomb that gave us the word “Mausoleum”.


The staircase was decorated with Roman mosaics.
  

These pieces were parts Roman hoards found in Britain. In the words of the tour guide, “We may have to return the Marbles, but this is unquestionably ours.” I could have spent many hours in just the Roman area.
 

In fact, I went back afterward for more pictures:
 

The last room the guide took us to was the clock room. This ship automaton would proceed down a banquet table, hoist the sails, and fire the cannons.
 

Another amazing clock from that room.
 

I had particularly wanted to see the Sutton Hoo hoard, a fabulous hoard of Anglo-Saxon treasures from the sixth or seventh centuries, including a nearly complete ship burial. Unfortunately, the exhibit was under maintenance when we visited, but we were able to see this fabulous helmet (and a modern reconstruction):
 

I think we only managed to visit a tenth of the rooms of the British Museum in our afternoon - we could have spent a whole week just in the British Museum without seeing everything.


Our last plan of the evening was one more walking tour, “Westminster by Gaslight”. This was the worst evening of our whole trip. It wasn’t the fault of the tour, though. Our legs were really aching from the first two walking tours. I think that two walking tours in one day is our limit.

But worse, Lori’s phone got pickpocketed in the Westminster Underground station as we were waiting for the tour to start. She took out her phone to take a picture of Big Ben (much like this one taken with my phone):

As the tour began, she reached into her purse for it to take another photo, and discovered that the pocket where it belonged was unzipped. This was the first clue something was wrong… because she was fairly sure she’d zipped it back up. She then spent several frantic minutes searching her purse, but no phone.

We paid only meager attention to the tour of Westminster, and spent most of the time searching through her purse in hopes of finding it. This was too bad, as there was plenty of interesting history and architecture discussed.

The tour ended at the Houses of Parliament, so we asked a policeman guarding the gates how we should file a report. Instead of referring us elsewhere, Constable Ryan took our report himself. He was extremely pleasant and friendly; although he didn’t give us much hope of recovering her phone (we didn’t think there was anyway), he assured us repeatedly that we had not done anything wrong, and he had had his own wallet stolen nearby, “and I like to think I’m pretty aware”, and he hoped this would not give us a bad impression of London. He called us several times to inform us of the progress of the case. We could deal with the loss of the phone, but we most regret the loss of the pictures Lori had taken.

It was late by the time we were done with the report, and we were tired and hungry and upset. We could fix one of those, at least: we went to St. Stephen’s Pub, supposedly favored by members of Parliament.
 

This was the epitome of a dismal lesson about English pubs: a beautiful, well-maintained pub like this offers no guarantee of food to match the decor. Lori got a chicken and ham pie with no trace of ham, and I got ham and eggs prepared as if the cook had been been traumatized by an egg as a child and sworn eternal vengeance against all things ovate.
 
#25
brisketboy
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 10:17:10 (permalink)
Wonderful report Ralph. The few times I was able to get up to London for a weekend I had a spectacular time. I'll never forget wandering through Harrod's and being totally blown away by the spectacle. While the big city is fascinating in it's diverse and historical splendor, I love wandering the countryside and dropping into the odd pubs that dot the landscape. Although I was sheepishly naive when I swallowed the bit about the "Ploughman's Lunch" (which turned out to be a sales pitch to sell more cheese) I still enjoyed it, in particular the Branson's pickle.
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Twinwillow
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 11:36:59 (permalink)
Thanks for sharing this terrific comprehensive report. I've been reading this very enjoyable and informative thread since Ralph started it in June so now I'd like to add a few of my own thoughts and experiences.
 
As antiques importers and dealers, we owned a flat in London (Chelsea, SW3) for twenty years during the 70's & 80's. We spent 3-4 months a year accumulatively in the UK so I've seen and experienced most all of the above.
 
We found the best "British" food was had in the country pubs and the best food to eat in London was Italian, Indian, Chinese, and, Seafood. We were fortunate enough to dine in London's more "posh" restaurants where the food was completely, a cut well above the average British food. Watching a headwaiter carve our (genuine) Dover Sole off the bone was the best experience in those "posh" London restaurants. And, those incredible steaks from 100% grass fed Scottish beef.
 
Other personal faves were Fried Whitebait, Smoked Mackerel, Smoked Scottish Salmon, Sea Scallops with their roe served in their shell, Taramosalata (creamed Cod Roe), Toasted (grilled) Cheese sandwiches, 4:00 tea, and of course, the great artery clogging, Full English Breakfast to name but a few of our favorite foods. 
 
We found (suggested by a London taxi driver) the very best fish and chips in London at Seafresh in Pimlico very close to Victoria Station. If you see a restaurant with a dozen black cabs double and triple parked out front, that's where you want to eat!
Seafresh is Greek Owned and they fry their fish in Rapeseed oil which is changed every 4-6 hours. We ate fish & chips in many places but never found any better than that at Seafresh.
http://www.fishandchipsinlondon.com/index.html  The menu prices are in UK Pounds Sterling. £1.00 = $1.70 today.
 
Again, many thanks, Ralph for bringing back wonderful memories of my own time spent in the UK. I miss it terribly!
post edited by Twinwillow - 2014/06/23 19:48:12
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Twinwillow
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 11:47:08 (permalink)
I neglected to mention the beautiful country of Ireland. My personal favorite of all the countries across the pond.
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Sundancer7
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 11:55:30 (permalink)
What a bummer getting your phone lifted.  Roz and I was in downtown Costa Rica and at the public market, Dr. Roz noticed a hand in her purse and she notified me immediately.  I eyeballed the jerk and followed him a short distance.  I am 200 lbs. and he was about 150 and I intimidated the hell out of him.  He starting running and I did not pursue.  he got nothing but the hell scared out of him.
 
Paul E. Smith
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Twinwillow
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Re:Ralph and Lori go to London and Ireland 2014/06/23 11:57:44 (permalink)
Good for you, Paul. I applaud your bravery!
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