I think England would have felt very foreign to me if I hadn’t gone to Iceland first. As it stood, going from Reykjavik to London felt almost like going home to the US. Except for a few key differences.
One thing that took some getting used to is that British people call all deserts pudding. Doesn’t matter what it is. No idea why.
“You want some pudding?”
“Sure. What kind?”
Also, they call cookies biscuits. I discovered this the hard way when the menu said they had biscuits covered in dark chocolate and I was like, hell yeah, never had that before, picturing some buttermilk biscuits covered in chocolate. Then when they brought out the cookies I said “Waaait a minute these are cookies!” and they looked at me funny because they don’t eat cookies over there.
As most people know, fries over there are chips and chips are crisps, though knowing that doesn’t make it any less confusing. The elevator’s the lift, the toilet’s the loo, your car has a boot and a bonnet not a trunk and a hood, you’re wearing a jumper not a hoodie and trainers not sneakers. Also there are no public water fountains anywhere but they make up for it by wheeling out open-air urinals and parking them on London street corners on Friday nights, to keep the 100% of the population that is in the pubs on Friday nights from pissing in the streets.
This is a reflection of the fact that the British drink like Dean Martin on New Year’s Eve, or Lindsay Lohan on Mondays. I’d always heard that certain countries drank more than the US, but I figured this meant “a little” more, not “every last person in this country would get kicked out of a party at Charlie Sheen’s house.” When we stopped at a rest stop in Scotland there was a public service poster on the men’s room wall that said “Try cutting back to 6 or 7 drinks a night. You might feel better.” It was not intended as irony. Also: try not to laugh out loud when you’re in a men’s room in a strange country.
The British don’t put ice in their beverages and only sort of refrigerate things, so I hope you like lukewarm Coke. There are also absolutely no bumper stickers on cars. That would be far too assertive and tacky and American. I only saw one bumpersticker in my entire time in the UK, in Scotland, and it said “If I’m speeding it’s only because I need to have a poo.” They have a poo and a wee over there and they’re not afraid to let you know about it.
I was very curious about what our American accents sounded like to the British. To us, I think most English accents make someone sound educated and classy, whether that person actually is or not. Whereas if we hear an Australian accent, we can’t help but imagine that person punching a kangaroo. I badgered various English people about what the American accent implied to them. The best answer I got was that we sound self-confident. I chose to find that answer compelling rather than assuming the person was just being polite and that we sound like total jackasses to them.
I carried with me overseas a healthy dose of shame at being American because we don’t speak any other languages and don’t know world geography at all and we think we’re the center of the universe. Which ended up being completely okay since the British don’t speak any other languages either, and they know American geography about as well as we know the rest of the world. Most could place California and maybe New York vaguely on a US map but that was it, none had ever heard of Minnesota or Minneapolis or any of the neighboring states, I eventually had to just start telling people I was from “near Canada.” And of course the English kind of are the center of their own universe. This was all fantastic and helped me relax.
Before I left for the trip I went way overboard and studied the map until I could place all the countries in the world and spell them right. I also debated how I would apologize for American politics everywhere I went (pro tip: Don’t assume the person sitting next to you on the plane isn’t a Trump supporter just because they’re not fingerpainting or picking their nose), but this all proved totally unnecessary. The only time politics came up at all was when I got word that one of the pubs in London had the faces of Trump, Cruz and Rubio plastered inside their urinals. By the way, ask a British person how to say that word. Bet you didn’t realize you’ve been peeing in “yooo-rhy-nals” your whole life. Especially you ladies.
I could write a whole blog on how British culture came across. The British were very polite, which I loved, being someone who lives in Minnesota in part because people are polite as shit here. I’m not sure I ever really came to fully understand the class system over there, but it did seem like there was a stark contrast between the majority of people and a small subculture of younger Brits from the streets who are aggressively rude and absurdly loud, whom the locals called “Chavs.” Which I was told stands for Council Housing and somethingorother but I think basically means poor people. But aside from this small group channeling the collective id of their entire nation, everyone was great.
The first person I met in London was an a perfect cartoon of charming Britishness, an old man dressed to the nines who was so classy I was surprised our ragged American selves did not burst into flames in his presence. I would not have believed such a person existed in real life, I mean this guy seriously said something like “Oh yes, my good man, I do say, cherrio” before giving us excellent directions. I’m not sure if he whistled “God Save the Queen” as we walked away or if I imagined that part. If the airport didn’t hire him to dazzle tourists, they should have.
The older generation was the most polite, and they have a charming way of rambling on. American airport shuttle driver: “You’re not on the list. Get fucked.” British shuttle driver: “Well now, it doesn’t look like we have you down here but worry not, probably just an oversight, you know how these things are, nothing to worry about, we’ll get all this sorted straight away down at the office, care for some tea?”
Tea and toast are British obsessions, in a way that I don’t think any American could truly understand the ability to be obsessed with these two things. The most hilarious part of this for me was that for a nation so, so into tea, they really only drink black tea. The entire universe of other teas is lumped into the category of “herbal tea” and treated as a strange curiosity. If someone offers you tea, and they will, every ten minutes, they won’t ask what kind you want. Because you obviously want black tea, the only tea there is. The only question is how you take it. And the various permutations of milk and sugar and their quantities in your tea are fraught with class signifiers you will never, ever understand.
After a few days in England it was clear that J.R.R. Tolkien had written the hobbits as a loving parody of the English people, who are not fond of leaving home or missing elevenses or second breakfast. Asking an English person to ride in a car to Scotland is roughly equivalent to dragging Merry and Pippin to Mordor. Thankfully no one tried to mug me while I was in London, but if they had I could have just told them I drove about 6,000 miles in total on this trip, and I’m certain they would have died straight away.
The first thing my brother warned me about when I met him at the airport is that you don’t walk up to a British person, smile, shake their hand and say “Hi, I’m Sean from Minnesota.” That would be considered horribly, blood-curdlingly tacky. In England you don’t tell someone your name, they ask for it after you’ve known each other for a while, like maybe after sex or possibly on their deathbed. This whole “knowing names” thing is far too intimate to be wasted on just anyone.
Someone once said that you can’t really know your own country until you spend significant time somewhere else, and England proved this to me without a doubt. It was just similar enough to America that every difference made me think about why we do things differently, and made me aware of so much about our country that I couldn’t see before.
I’d always heard Americans described as optimistic, but that doesn’t really mean anything to you until you go somewhere where everyone is waiting impatiently for something to go wrong so they can whinge about it. Likewise I’d always rolled my eyes at the thought of America being the “land of the free” until I spent time in a place that actually is far more regimented and controlled. There’s even a certain freedom that comes with living in a place with such a short history, as I found the weight of history everywhere I went overseas kind of oppressive after a while. You think we have history until you visit someone’s house that’s older than your country.
One thing I found really fascinating in England was the advertising, and I saw plenty of it on the trains. First off, I didn’t see any weight loss ads, which would be impossible here in the US. There were a lot of ads for weird herbal supplements, like “I’m beautiful and feel great, you feel like shit, take Hexaperb!” There were also a lot of ads that boiled down to “Seriously, it’s not unmanly to call a suicide prevention hotline. Really, it’s not. Please call!” I don’t think people in London feel that great.
But the most fascinating thing was how many of the ads played off England’s conformist culture and the fact that there are really way too many people in London. Every other ad had a theme of miserable people waiting in line and the one guy busting out like “Yeeeeeah!” because he switched banks or drinks a different booze than you. My favorite ad said something like “70% of people who use our product are more likely to take a trip out of town on the weekend. It’s not living on the edge, it’s living life to the fullest!” It was an ad for Pepto Bismol.
None of this could compare to Dr Pepper’s slogan printed on their bottles in Ireland: “Dr Pepper: What’s the Worst That Could Happen?” Indeed.
My rude awakening to how clamped-down England is came immediately while passing through Gatwick airport. I was under the mistaken impression that America had the most berserk airport security, because of 9/11 and all that, having no idea that the British have an absolute security fetish. We walked through a set of turnstiles featuring a scanner for your boarding pass before you could get into the terminal. I scanned my pass, and the little screen said “Look Up.” I figured this meant the scanner couldn’t read my ticket and was trying to look up my information. So I scanned it again. “Look Up.” Scanned again. “Look Up.” Maybe if I hold it the other way? “Look Up.” Upside down? “Look Up.” Smooth out the wrinkles? “Look Up.” Finally I looked up to ask my brother what the hell I needed to do and in that instant cameras scanned my face and the turnstile opened. Ohhhh, Look UP.
The security checkpoint where they check your carry-on bag for any capuchin monkeys you have stowed away was likewise completely disorienting. Every one of these in the US is exactly the same as all the others, a conveyer belt where you take a tub from the stack and pile in your shoes, your little travel toothpaste, your travel taser and that bullet you carry for good luck. In Gatwick instead there were little numbered corrals next to the conveyer belts, and a dude to say “Oi! You! Numba Four!” You go into your corral of metal bars and this mechanized behemoth spits out a tub that you fill with your shaving cream and your nostril oil and then it’s whisked away on a track and you hear a pop as you’re cattle prodded in the back of the head and hung up on a hook and made into sausage.
One of the strangest things about being in London was recalibrating my brain to think in terms of public transportation being the best way to get anywhere. Almost anywhere in America it’s your second choice if it’s available at all, something you’re taking to save money or save the environment or because the judge wouldn’t do you a solid on that last DUI. But it’s almost never the easiest way to get somewhere, compared to driving. In London the opposite is true, a fact that I had beat into my head many, many times on many very, very, very slow drives from one part of London to another.
Thankfully the public transportation there is pretty awesome, and it’s all linked together so you can load money on an touchless credit card sized “Oyster card” and use it to ride the bus, take a train (“the overground”), the subway (“the underground”), the light rail (“DLR”) or even a boat.
One unexpected treat is that all the buses, or at least all the buses I ever saw, are red double-decker buses. I had assumed that was just a rare tourist thing like a duck boat tour. Nope. It’s definitely fun to sit in the front on the top floor, where you’re further forward than the driver and feel like you’re hanging over the road as cars and cyclists weave and merge frantically all around the bus. If you get bored of all the near-death happening on the road below you, you can slouch back and listen to the conversations of the drunk girls behind you having a night out on the town for their friend’s 16th birthday, or the guy trying to convince his unimpressed and very deadpan wife to watch Dazed and Confused by repeating all the funny lines from the movie to her in a hilariously unfunny flat monotone. “You see, the bloke’s getting older but all the girls, they stay the same age. The Mcoughnaheee fellow.” “Right.”
(By the way, no thought thrills me more than the possibility of that couple somehow stumbling across this blog. Hi guys!)
I spent the most time on the underground getting from place to place, and it was a perfect illustration of something peculiar about the British. In London you can be and often are crammed into small spaces with an absolutely insane number of people. But no one acknowledges the presence of anyone else at all. It’s not even rude, it’s almost more like a willful disassociation. In America you might not have friendly conversation but you’re at least going to have “Hey, get your armpit out of my face” or “What you lookin’ at, ugly?” or something charming like that. In London I actually had a guy sit completely on my lap on accident on the underground and even though he was clearly very embarrassed there was no interaction between us at all. I got the impression that the British so hate awkwardness and so adore privacy that the general attitude is something like “I’ll pretend this whole unfortunate thing never happened if you will,” the unfortunate thing being absolutely everything that happens outside of their homes. It was fascinating.
The DLR is an elevated light rail train that the locals seemed to think is futuristic, which was cute. But it is fun to ride if you can get the very front seat by the driver, since you have a console just like hers and it feels like you’re the one driving. I was saved from the embarrassment of having to ask the driver 100,000 questions about how she drove the DLR by an obnoxious little girl sitting behind me who asked the driver 100,000 questions about how she drove the DLR. I actually rode the DLR three times purely just to see what it was like, the second and third rides made necessary by the fact that I got on the wrong end of the train the first time.
In my defense the whole system broke while I was waiting to get on and we had to wait 45 minutes as several of the trains came and went into the terminal, some backwards and some forwards, so it was hard to tell which end was the front. On my first try I ended up in the back, so once I got downtown I took the opposite train back out to Mudchute (best transit stop/town name ever) and got the front seat on the next one into London. It wound well above the streets through the skyscrapers in the Isle of Dogs like a Disneyland ride, which was pretty cool. The Isle of Dogs is the glitzy business district that they used for the quarantine zone in 28 Weeks Later. I kept calling it the Isle of Man on accident because who the hell calls their expensive business district the Isle of Dogs?
As a transportation completest I also used my Oyster card to hop on a clipper motoring up the Thames river, just because you can. If London had rickshaws I’m pretty sure you’d be able to Oyster card them.
Driving in England is a dense thicket of secret rules that are not explained anywhere. You’ll see a round white sign with a black stripe by the side of the road. Unless you meet someone in the know, you’ll have no way of knowing that means the speed limit on that road is the national speed limit, which varies depending on how many lanes there are and if there’s a divider, etc. What’s the national speed limit? Ha ha, silly Yank, we don’t give out that information to tourists.
Likewise the uninitiated have no idea that they’re being watched every second of every day. Absolutely everything in London is monitored on camera all the time. On the bright side, the place feels pretty safe, but on the downside everything is monitored on camera all the time. Driving in the city, every few blocks you’ll see short stretches of parallel lines painted on the street. This means cameras are measuring your speed in these spots and if you’re going over the speed limit you’ll get a ticket in the mail. They have these on the highways as well, in addition to average speed zones where the time you enter a stretch of road and the time you exit it are captured, your average speed is calculated and if it’s over the posted limit or whatever the mysterious black slash signs mean you’ll get a ticket in the mail.
The thing that’s the most fun about all of this is that apparently they can’t afford to run all the cameras all the time, so it’s a bit like a roulette spin if you blow past a camera whether you’ll get a ticket or not. Plus, if you’re a foreign driver, there’s the thrill of not knowing if they’ll bother to track you down at all or if you’ll get a bill for the ticket from your rental car company. My brother zinged past a camera in Edinburgh and definitely set off the camera, flash and everything, but I never heard anything about it from the rental company. They were probably scared off by the “South” in my street address.
In most situations it pays to watch closely what the other cars are doing, because the locals know where the cameras are and certain times of day when they tend to be turned off, etc. It’s completely bizarre to be cruising along at 75 on the freeway and then suddenly absolutely everyone in perfect synchronization slows down to 45 and drives in lockstep for the entire duration of an average speed zone. Every time this happened I would hum “Another Brick in the Wall” as I pictured all the British schoolkids marching in unison in The Wall.
I got so used to just following the other cars and not having to think about all of this that I was set up for a fall coming back from Liverpool late one night when I was the only car on the road. I’d got halfway through a 50mph average speed zone before I even noticed it and realized I’d been going 90 the whole time, so I had to jam on the brakes and drive the rest of it at 25 so I’d come out the other side under the average. If I’d noticed it any later I’d have had to stop in the middle of the freeway and just wait it out.
I did the same thing getting into London at the end of that drive, I was marveling at how good Radiohead's I Might Be Wrong sounds when you’re zipping through the streets of London in the middle of the night when I suddenly realized I’d blown past about five cameras at double the posted speeds. Thankfully either luck or budget cuts saved me on that one.
Perhaps there are just people manning the cameras who go home at night, as I did see a few instances where the locals at least seemed to believe this. I hardly saw another car at all on my drive from Liverpool down to London, but the one I did see passed me like I was driving in reverse. It was a shock after weeks of seeing people drive like they’re in a parade, to have a car pass like a snap and be completely out of sight in about a second on a long straight freeway, even though I was doing 85. Either his toast was burning at home or a lifetime of repressed driving had suddenly made him or her snap.
This whole setup was one of those things that caused me to start to see America in a new light. In comparison to this automated, computerized system of control, we really have held onto a bit of a Wild West mindset in America. Everyone knows you can speed, as long as you keep an eye on your mirrors and make sure there isn’t a lawman on your tail. England doesn’t care about your cowboy fantasies, they don’t even play along by putting any highway patrol cars on the roads. No need, we’ve got it all on tape. The only person I ever saw get pulled over in England was snagged by an unmarked white Volvo station wagon, which is pretty goddamned sneaky if I do say so myself, England.
The English are obsessed with the etiquette of queuing, or as we’d call them, lines. They even call traffic backing up “queuing ahead” like you’re waiting in line to get down the road. The strangest example of this for me was the fact that people only drive in the left-hand lane on the freeway, unless they’re passing. Keep in mind everything is reversed, so the left lane is the slow lane. But it doesn’t matter how many lanes there are, you’d better drive in the left one unless you’re passing someone. At one point I was driving in the middle of the night, the only car on the road, and I was in the middle of the three lanes because I’m not insane. The only car I’d seen in the last hour came up behind me, got on my bumper, and flashed his brights for me to get over to the left lane so he could pass. Even though both the right and left lanes were empty for approximately 300 miles.
Roundabouts in England are far more complex than they were in Iceland, with rigid systems of multiple lanes, signaling and right of way, and some of the bigger roundabouts empty out into constellations of smaller roundabouts that will make your head hurt. It didn’t help that every road in the UK has at least three different names, and Google Maps would invariably pick the one that isn’t on any of the signs to tell you to exit onto. You can only say “Hey kids, Big Ben!” as you go around the roundabout a second time because you didn’t like any of the options so many times before it just keeps getting funnier and funnier.
I’ve grown accustomed to using Google Maps in the US since it can usually find faster routes than what I’d pick and it always estimates drive times far better than I do. So it was a rude awakening to find that the maps were often flat-out wrong in Iceland (forgivable since I think their country was just mapped last year) and in the UK the app was constantly taking me on routes that no sane human being would ever choose, apparently because driving through someone’s backyard was the shortest route to my destination by ten seconds.
Throughout the course of my time in England it was a regular occurrence to have either Google Maps or Apple Maps completely pull my pants down and leave me for dead somewhere, at which point I would fire whichever app screwed me and start using the other one until it did the same thing to me a few hours later. After you’ve been directed a few times to turn into pedestrian malls or the wrong way up a one-way street you come to regard your navigation app as a mischievous older sibling that just wants to see what you’re willing to try.
At one point in London, I was directed up an absurdly narrow street that featured a solid wall of parked cars inches away on either side of us. This was somewhat amusing until we met a black cab head on coming up the same street the opposite way and realized this street was somehow intended for 2-way traffic. There was no way to pass each other and no way to turn off, so I ended up backing up, nosing into a small perpendicular gap between two parked cars, driving up onto the sidewalk, and pulling forward until my bumper was just touching the building so the cab could pass behind me. My brother and I laughed about this and headed back up the street, only to meet a minivan coming that same way. Another stalemate, so I ended up threading the needle backwards all the way back down the street, then my brother got out on foot and stopped traffic on the busy cross street so I could back into the road and we could head off to buy a paper map.
The one saving grace of Apple Maps was that some time ago I had switched the voice of Siri on my phone to that of an Australian woman, and her pronunciations of British place names were fucking hilarious. My favorite was when I had to drive on Poulshot Road: “Tahn left onta Bullshit Road! You will be ohn Bullshit Road fah sevehn myles.”
My first full day in London we hit all the major tourist stops, walking along the Queen’s Walk, across London Bridge, to the Tower of London (“Wow, a lot of horrible shit happened here!”), etc. The thing that cracked me up about this was realizing no one in the throngs of people around us at these places was British, it was all tourists taking pictures of other tourists. I gave a thumbs-up to a tourist who was taking video footage of all the other tourists like he was capturing London street life in its rawest form.
By the way, they give unironic thumbs-up over there. The first few I received I took as sarcastic, but after enough old ladies and little kids did it I realized they were sincere in their approval of my behavior. Charming, Brits! Sorry I flipped you the bird back when I thought you were taking the piss!
Walking past Westminster Abbey, I was shocked and impressed that one of the figures carved into the façade was Martin Luther King Jr. Wow. Would we even do that in the US? Damn, way to out-class us, England. Yeah, I’m sure it was hard.
There’s Big Ben, there’s Trafalgar Square… oh hey, they poisoned the throngs of pigeons that used to carry off tourists? Cool. Got some Egyptian street food and made our way to the British Museum, where I finally got to see an Easter Island moai in person:
Wow, so the basalt is full of tiny crystals that glint in the light? Cool. And they carved birdman symbols all over the back, crazy. This moai is named Hoa Hakananai’a, meaning “stolen friend,” as it was stolen from the island by the British in 1868. Way to have the last laugh with the name there, Rapa Nui!
The funniest thing about The British Museum is that the museum is really about the people who donated the artifacts. There are busts of them all over the place, and each artifact has a plaque that says something like “Sir Edmond Yardcat donated this object to the museum after returning from his expedition to the Solomon Islands with a Polynesian mistress and 300 slaves. Sir Edmond liked to play tennis…” and then somewhere at the very bottom in tiny print it says “Oh by the way this is a ceremonial headdress or some shit.”
One of the things on my list to see in London was the “big twisty skyscraper,” which people took from my technical description to mean The Shard, the tallest building in the UK. Once I saw it I said nope, that’s not what I wanted to see at all. Turns out the building I wanted to see is The Gherkin, which I thought was a sarcastic slang name Londoners used because that’s what British people think pickles are called, and the building looks kind of like a giant pickle. But nope, London actually built a big 180 million dollar twisty glass skyscraper and called it the pickle.
One thing they don’t tell you in the tourist brochures is that if you’re sensitive to energy at all, London is going to kick you square in the balls. Every inch of the city has seen thousands of years of people living and dying, generation after generation of families replacing families in the same flats like a conveyer belt. Drinking and yelling and fighting. Suffering life’s slings and arrows. That spot where you’re standing? Odds are someone was murdered there at some point. This is true in any old city but this was my first time experiencing it for myself. Nothing in America is this old.
By the end of our first full day of touristing around the city, I began to feel not so great. Like really, intensely not so great and I sank fast. “Aster, I need to get out of here.” I wobbled onto the bus. I spent the entire bus ride on the way out of London looking around and weighing the pros and cons of where would be the best place to barf on this bus. This tube? Oh, that’s how the bus driver sees what’s going on upstairs. Maybe don’t barf into the periscope tube.
The further we got from central London, thankfully, the energy eased up. For the rest of the trip, I could always tell if we were heading into or away from London, like an internal compass, just by how much it felt like I was wading into a huge vortex of human suffering. I began to mentally adjust my future travel plans from “Spend a lot of time in the great old cities of the world” to “Briefly and strategically visit the great old cities of the world, then GTFO.”
Traveling around London, I was struck by how many little shops there are. I mean, no shit, London has a bunch of shops, but I mean like thousands upon thousands, block after block forever. Very few are chains, and all seemed rather tiny. Like instead of going to Home Depot to get a shower head, you go to Roger’s Corner Shower Shop and they must have to special order something for you because Roger’s is the size of a bus station locker. Since no one is driving, everything seemed shrunk down to a smaller scale compared to America, it was like every block had its own ecosystem of a grocery shop, three kebab shops, eighteen pubs and of course a Ladbrokes so you can bet on the game.
One thing that amused me while walking around is that you’d occasionally pass a building that had recently been scrubbed, and the contrast made you suddenly realize that all of the other buildings were absolutely caked in soot. Oh hey, that’s from the air I’m breathing.
London neighborhoods had a few quirks that took some getting used to. The first time I drove to my brother’s girlfriend (and now wife, congrats guys!) Libby’s flat, Google said “You have arrived!” and I happily stopped the car only to look around and realize I had not, in fact, arrived at all. It turned out that Libby’s flat isn’t actually on the street listed on her address, since that whole row of flats used to be a huge house whose front door was down the street and around the corner, and the street she actually lives on was a driveway or something at that point. And England doesn’t change things just because the world has radically changed around them, because the way things used to be was smashing, thank you very much.
Also, nobody has clothes dryers, because why not just line-dry everything in a country where it’s constantly raining? Makes sense. Libby actually did have a rare dryer, in her kitchen, which I never would have guessed was a dryer if it hadn’t been pointed out to me in great detail. Other than being very small, it also had a huge water reservoir you have to pull out and empty into the sink each time you dried a load of clothes, since it wasn’t hooked up to any kind of drain because places in London aren’t built like that since nobody has dryers.
The strangest thing about the washing machines, other than also being very, very small, is that they take an absurd amount of time to wash clothes. Like four hours. The company line is that they’re more efficient, though it seems impossible that running anything for four hours is more efficient than running something similar for 25 minutes. The best I could come up with is that maybe they use less water, which of course is a big priority in a place that’s famous for making nice umbrellas because it never stops raining there.
My second free day in London I indulged my love of BBC Nature documentaries and had a David Attenborough day. First stop was the Natural History Museum, which has a great central hall full of dinosaurs and a keen Charles Darwin statue. Another huge room crams in a blue whale, an elephant, a giraffe, basically every big-ass animal you can think of to demonstrate the relative bigness of their asses. Some of the best stuff was tucked away in a little room upstairs though, everything from the archaeopteryx fossil that proved birds are tiny dinosaurs to a pissed-off looking stuffed dodo, a great auk and an original copy of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species.
One of the bizarre things about the animal exhibits was that many weren’t actual taxidermy animals, instead there would be a papier-mâché boa constrictor or a rubber toad. I even started to question their Martian exhibit when I realized you could squeeze it and the eyes and ears would pop out. Hmmm.
After spending most of the morning in the main hall I decided to check down one last hallway before I left, and suddenly realized the museum went on FOREVER. The next 90 minutes or so were a speedrun through the endless exhibits as I discovered that a British Natural History Museum has pretty much everything we’d put in a Natural History Museum, a Science Museum and a Children’s Museum all in one. The exhibit that explained sex and growing up to kids scarred me deeply:
As did the extremely hectic and heavily animatronic dinosaur hall:
I entered one room, saw that it was completely full of crying children, turned and saw the cheapest looking T-Rex robot on the face of the earth mincing about, turned again and immediately left.
There was also a portal to hell:
And another floor for earthquakes. I wandered through exhibits until I was suddenly in a Japanese convenience store for no apparent reason, which began to shake and all hell broke loose as I realized I was in an earthquake simulator. Real convenience store security camera footage from the Fukushima earthquake played on the monitors as the room bopped all around. I found this very strange until I realized that none of these people had ever experienced an actual earthquake before, and likely never would. It’s like those sex simulators they set up at Comic-Con.
There was also a fascinating exhibit about human evolution through various stages leading up to Homo sapiens, which I waved my camera at as I ran through like OJ in a Hertz commercial.
I spent the afternoon at the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, which was baller. I’m not sure how exciting I can make plants I saw two months ago sound in print, but I loved it. They have more than one room full of carnivorous plants. I rest my case.
For whatever reason there are wild parrots flying around in London, and several of them were hanging out in the trees at Kew. I joined two British ladies staring up at one in a tree, thinking to myself “Wow, a parrot!” The women agreed: “That’s what’s making that terrible screeching sound.” “Bloody awful.”
I eventually made my way to Greenwich Observatory, and climbed the long winding walk through the park to the observatory. After wandering around a bit I went to see the telescope, but was turned away by a gentleman who told me they were closing. It was 4:45. I pointed out that they didn’t close until 5 and he corrected me that they GO HOME at 5. Ha, okay. He said they stop letting people in at 4:50. I tried to explain that it wasn’t 4:50 yet either, but I kept laughing since I had just walked through their exhibit explaining how the observatory’s main function during the war was making sure all of the royal navy’s timepieces kept accurate time. However the irony was lost on my new friend and I never got in to see the telescope.
The observatory wanted some absurd admission price to enter the courtyard where they keep the prime meridian penned up so tourists can take photos with it. This seemed a bit excessive for a line that goes around the entire world, so I walked out of the park and down the block until I found the dots in the street that mark the meridian there.
Another day my brother and I drove out to Canterbury to see the cathedral. This is an amazing church surrounded by a village that is 100% tourist crap. Though it was funny to see various places advertising the time Dickens or Chaucer actually mentioned their store in this book or that. Inside the church we stayed for a choral evensong service, which was beautiful and took full advantage of the cathedral’s amazing acoustics.
After Canterbury we made our way to the white cliffs of Dover, which are a beautiful place to hike or just sit and enjoy the ocean, assuming you’re not sitting on one of the cliffs when the chalk face not infrequently gives way and dumps you 300 feet down into the ocean.
While Aster napped I hiked up the coast to the lighthouse, then on the way back I found a path down the cliff, climbed a fence and found a listening post installation from WWI. A huge concave dish called a “sound mirror” had been installed in the cliff face, which a soldier would sit at with a stethoscope and listen for German aircraft coming over the channel, sort of a proto-Twitter.
I decided to make one of my free days a Beatles Day. In the morning, I drove across the sprawl of insane London traffic toward Abbey Road studios. After I had been behind the same black cab for several turns I decided he must be going to Abbey Road as well and stuck to his ass like a bumper sticker as he weaved through traffic and pedestrians, taking crazy back streets and hidden alleys. Either that or he was trying to lose me. Either way my hunch paid off when he dropped off his customer right in front of the studio.
I’m sure I had expected that plenty of people would want to take that Abbey Road cover photo of them crossing the street in front of the studio, but I wasn’t quite prepared for what a madhouse this was. And it was mid-morning on a weekday, so it must just be like this 24 hours a day, which gave me great sympathy for anyone who lives or drives there regularly. Just a constant parade of jackasses running out into the middle of the street and doing a handstand or auditioning for the Ministry of Silly Walks, that kind of thing.
I’d read in advance that you can’t actually go into the studio since it’s a goddamned working recording studio, people, but they have a gift shop that was supposed to be impressive. So of course I walked right into the studio like a giant ass and started wandering around, figuring the gift shop would be downstairs or something. Turns out it’s not even in the same building, it’s down the street. A guy working there came up to me as I was wandering around and pointed out that I wasn’t allowed to be there. I apologized and said I was looking for the gift shop and either (a) He was being nice because I was more polite than the other 10,000 people who likely blunder in there every day (and maybe I got some small measure of respect just for being a little older than the average knob who wanders in there); (b) He was being nice because British people are just insanely, insanely polite; or (c) He was telling me to fuck off but I couldn’t tell because the British are much more subtle about that kind of thing than we are. Whatever the reason, he was completely awesome and walked with me outside to point out where the gift shop was up the street and told me about all the cool things that he liked there that I should check out.
The gift shop was okay.
From there it was up to Liverpool, which from all the early Beatles footage I’d seen I was expecting to be a grim industrial nightmare that was still somehow in black and white. To my surprise, the town was actually quite nice. I’d heard that a lot of money had gone into refurbishing the downtown and making it into more of an arts center, but most of the Beatles-specific locations were within a fairly small section of the older part of town that certainly seemed like it hadn’t changed much since the post-war era. I went to John’s childhood home, which was nicer than I would have expected. From there I walked the short distance to Strawberry Field, which was abandoned but cool to see from the outside. It was surreal to imagine John walking the same route as a kid.
Paul’s childhood home was a council house, what we’d call a town house, but wasn’t too shabby either. George was much more from the wrong side of the tracks, his childhood council house was about as wide as its front door and was on a cul-de-sac so narrow I had to back out of the whole neighborhood like a long, convoluted driveway as there wasn’t any space wide enough anywhere to turn around even my tiny rental Toyota Aygo.
From there I went to all the different houses they had lived in growing up, the schools they went to, basically the full Beatles stalking tour. One of the highlights was the church where John and Paul met, which has Eleanor Rigby’s tombstone in its graveyard. From there I went to Penny Lane and walked around a bit, stopping in a corner shop to buy some delicious-looking strawberries that were completely disgusting. After that I headed downtown to see the Cavern Club, where the Beatles got their start.
When he heard I was going to be in Liverpool on a Saturday night, Libby’s brother James warned me to be on the lookout for stereotypical Liverpool girls dressed to the skanky nines, looking for a Saturday night good time. I laughed out loud when I was crossing the street to get into the Cavern Club and a pack of terrifying girls matching his description perfectly came marching down the street, on a mission. Then I ducked inside before they saw me laughing because holy shit.
The Cavern Club has a complicated history because the original one was destroyed in the 70s to make way for the underground, but they took all the original bricks and rebuilt it to the same specifications down the street. So is this the place the Beatles played, or not? I’ll leave that for the academics and just point out that the stage was TINY. I’m not sure I would have been able to stand up on it without hitting my head on the ceiling. I think they added Ringo to the band just because he was short enough to fit on the drum riser.
On the 4ish hour drive back down from Liverpool to London late that night I realized I’d burned through all my Beatles albums over the course of the long day and needed something else to play in the car. Sticking with the British theme I opted for Radiohead’s OK Computer, which turns out to be the perfect album for driving through the English countryside at night. It was really surreal to hear an album I’ve listened to a hundred times, but to experience it in a completely different context in the place that inspired the music.
Toward the very end of the trip I had a few days all to myself and I decided to make a trip out to Cornwall, the peninsula in the extreme southwest corner of England. On the drive out I stopped to see the Avebury stone circle and Stonehenge. Everyone warned me that Stonehenge sucks now since you can’t get very close to the stones any more due to tourists crapping things up and the Griswolds knocking them down, so I shouldn’t get my hopes up. Avebury is really the one you want to see!
So of course I was unimpressed by Avebury and loved Stonehenge. Avebury did have the disadvantage of being absolutely overrun with sheep poop everywhere. I did have a funny moment though as I pulled into the parking lot for Avebury and every car was playing Enya or Mozart, befitting the spiritual theme of the place, and I realized I had Led Zeppelin turned all the way up.
“Hello! I’m here to commune with the ancient Druidic-” ♫I got a woman, wanna ball all day♫ “Uhm, the peaceful splendor of the-” ♫I got a woman, stay drunk all the time♫ “Look, never mind.”
Stonehenge, on the other hand, had a great energy to the entire area, even if you couldn’t get very close to the stones themselves. They do open the whole place up for a single night every year during the summer solstice, so I’ll make sure my next visit to England lines up with that day so I can get a good planking photo taken before that meme dies. What do you mean it died in 2012?
By the way, that entire section of England has no cell signal whatsoever, so I never knew where I was at any time. But I made up for it by tearing ass in that little Toyota Aygo. The best thing about driving a tiny little POS rental car is that no matter how fast you’re going, it feels like you’re going fast as hell. It’s like riding a bike. You can get the same driving thrills at 80 you’d have to go twice as fast to get in a real car. The Aygo also had an interesting resonance where the right songs turned up loud would just reverberate through the whole frame of the car, and if you had any loose change anywhere in the car you gained a bonus tambourine playing to the beat.
I may or may not have had Disclosure’s White Noise turned up so loud that I blew a stop sign (yes, it was too loud to see the sign – I think the music was vibrating my eyeballs) in Wiltshire and flew between two passing cars on the cross street like a bad gamble in Frogger, but that’s between me and those screaming British motorists.
Originally I was supposed to be staying at an amazing-looking vegan bed and breakfast in Penzance out on the west coast, but this fell through at the last second so I was scrambling for AirBNB accommodations in the little patches of cell signal I could find on the drive. I eventually found a cheap room in someone’s house in Penzance, and when I got there I realized why it was cheap. The guy was nice enough and very stoned, but I’m also almost certain his mother’s corpse was propped up in a chair in one of the other rooms.
My room was advertised as a room “with your own lock!” only it turned out to only lock from the outside. I suppose the selling point was that you could lock your stuff in there while you were out and about, but all I could think about was what would I do if I woke up in the morning and found myself locked inside. There was a Japanese girl staying in the attic room above mine, I only knew she was there because as soon as I got there she ran down into the only bathroom in the house and occupied it for the next six hours, during which I almost peed out the window. In the morning I woke up early, tiptoed to the door of my room, and touched the handle right as I heard her sprint down the stairs and into the bathroom. She was still in there when I left.
I was up and out early and made my way out to see the Men-an-Tol stones, a set of adorable tiny standing stones in the middle of nowhere that I had to hike through a few farmers’ fields to find. One of the stones is perfectly donut-shaped, and the folklore is if you crawl through the hole you’ll be cured of whatever ails you, or if you’re a woman you’ll get pregnant with a donut baby or something. It was a great peaceful scene in the early morning hours, about as far away from anything as you can be in England.
I hiked back to the car, backed out onto the tiny road and drove to the Lanyon Quoit, a table-shaped set of stones nearby. This was thought to be a tomb before it fell down in a storm in the 1800s and the stones had to be sort of half-assedly restacked. Apparently they pointed it the wrong way when they set it back up, a fact I find amusing since it had been there since around 3,000 BC and yet no one could remember how it went. GUYS THERE WERE FOUR PIECES.
From there I carried on to the Merry Maidens, a ring of 19 wee little standing stones in a lovely field of yellow flowers. Remembering my experience with the standing stones in Scotland, I put my hands on one of the maidens and cleared my mind. An appropriately tiny voice said “Look at this field of flowers in the sunlight. All is well. Whenever you feel the need, you can close your eyes and come back to this place.” Huh.
The German couple who had traveled there to photograph the stones loved that I was there to keep them company nein I’m kidding they couldn’t wait for me to get out of there and quit peopling up their photos.
Across the road from the Merry Maidens I crossed a field and waded through a bog to get to The Fiddler, another ancient standing stone I had read about. Wet from the knees down, I put my hands on the stone and without waiting a second it said “Love yourself.” Hmm. Easier said than done, but thanks, rock!
After a stop for a proper English Breakfast (beans??) I made my way to St Michael’s Mount, a little tidal island off the coast that features a village and a monastic chapel dedicated to Archangel Michael that’s long been a pilgrimage site and wait didn’t you visit that place in France already? Yes, this is the British counterpart to Mont St Michel in France and I went to both of them. They are quite similar but both very cool.
I arrived right after 23 recreational vehicles from Italy had showed up unannounced and thrown the entire parking situation into total chaos, which was entertaining. After parking for free because the employees gave up and went for tea, I walked up the seaweed-covered causeway that would be covered back over by the tides if I dallied on the island past 2 in the afternoon. The path up to The Chapel of St Michael up top was tree-lined and beautiful. In the legend of Jack the Giant Slayer this is where Jack kills the giant, but the walkway’s pretty steep so the giant may have just slipped. The Chapel is situated amidst considerable military fortifications dating back to many pointless medieval wars over the territory.
Inside, the chapel was quite impressive, with a lot of beautiful stained glass. Legend has it that the Archangel Michael appeared to fishermen in this spot in the 5th century before the chapel was built, but more sober modern historians stress that it was probably just a mermaid.
After leaving the Mount I made hay and hauled ass down to the Eden Project, an experimental ecological compound in Cornwall that features two huge hexagonal dome complexes full of greenhouse environments. It’s basically what a biosphere would be if it was made by giant space bees. But don’t get too wrapped up in any of that since I was just there to fly over all of it on a zipline.
This was crazy and great. I’ve been skydiving twice and this was a similar setup, with much harnessing and strapping and buckling and legal waivers and getting weighed and helmets and goggles. They even gave me a cape, I shit you not, so that I wouldn’t get going too fast to stop at the end because I am heavy and aerodynamic. Only instead of taking you up in a plane and shoving you out the door, they drive you up to a cliff face, clip your back to a cable, and then you jump off and fly over the whole complex like a goddamned bat.
The most fun thing about this is when you’re soaring over everything, you look down and see your shadow screaming across the ground at the speed of light, and all the people who paid to get into the Eden Project instead of fly over it look up from their Dippin’ Dots and cheer wildly as you soar over their heads and you yell out “THAT’S RIGHT YOU MOTHERFUCKERS I CAN FLY” and they frown a little because that was a bit much.
I bonded with a girl I met while we were getting harnessed and signing away our lawsuit rights, she taught me much about England and Chavs and we shared our travel stories and gave each other moral support in the difficult task of doing a handstand before you jump off the cliff. All in all we spent several hours talking and laughing, and then went our separate ways. As I drove off, I realized that in proper English fashion, I had never asked her name.
After leaving Eden I made my way to Dorset to see the Cerne Abbas Giant. This is a gigantic ancient carving on a hillside of a naked club-wielding giant with an erection, formed long ago by carving away the grass and filling the outline with chalk. It’s associated with fertility, and infertile couples will sneak out in the middle of the night and ball on the patch of grass that is the giant’s dong. During Victorian times, prudes filled in the penis outline so that no one would know where giant babies come from.
Unfortunately I visited England too late in history to take a nap on the dong, and a fence had been erected (ha!) to protect the carving from randy erosion. Still, the view from up on the hillside was completely dreamy. I mean of the countryside! I wasn’t looking at the naked giant. Ew.
I stopped in Glastonbury to see the Tor, and Google Maps pulled an Icelandic prison on me and directed me to the road closest to the Tor, not the road you actually want to take to get to the Tor. Since the sun was starting to go down and I didn’t have any time to waste, I parallel parked precariously on the sidewalk while some Indian guy who Google Maps had also screwed watched me suspiciously/jealously, then I climbed straight up the steep side of the hill even though no person in their right mind who had more than seven minutes of daylight left would ever take that route. The view from the top was wonderful, all of Glastonbury spanning out around us as the sun set and hey, the town’s on fire! That’s quaint. St Michael’s Tower on top featured some teenagers rocking a boombox inside, and an informative plaque explained about how it had been a church until Henry VIII destroyed everything but the tower and hanged the Abbot from that beam right there before drawing and quartering him and his monks and oh man I wish I hadn’t read that plaque.
Driving back through the night, Kid A snaked me through the dark streets of London in a beautiful dystopian haze. In a small number of hours I’d be flying out to California to attend my grandpa’s funeral and oh yeah, my sister had decided at the last minute to get married on the same day as the funeral. What? Last chapter coming up.