I was hoping to write up a lengthy report of my trip to England, but this will have to suffice. I flew out on the most dreadful redeye of all – the kind that leaves at 7 pm and arrived at 7 am in Birmingham. Doesn’t give you much chance to sleep on the plan, especially with my body’s bedtime being sometime after arrival.
We stayed at the Old Crown Inn, which dates back to 1368 some say, although most of it is probably from the 16th century. Heh that still makes it the oldest place I’ve ever slept. All I could think was that this place was a D&D tavern brought to life — a busy bar which, when not filled with Birmingham supporters (the stadium isn’t far away) or ravers getting ready for a Saturday night at the Custard Factory next door, could easily be the haunt of a Strider or Bill Ferny. And just like in D&D you could get a room above the tavern for the night, for even more adventuring. Just how true that was to prove, I had no idea at first.
I know Brum has a bad reputation, but I found it to be a surprisingly clean city, and the people were all very friendly and helpful. (Of course, the many natives guides we had helped.) Ater arrival, Ben showed me the many malls of Birmingham. It was a good time to visit, as the holiday festivities were under way, including a German festival in front of City Hall, which was serving sausage and hot cherry beer. It tasted somewhere between cider and cough syrup but went down nicely on a cold day. Ben also took me to the Wellington, a pub which has a very friendly cat — I saw the cat’s food dish, but it was too early to be out and about. However, even at 11:30 there were a bunch of old gaffers already having some of the Wellington’s most excellent cask conditioned ales. It was too early for me to have more than a sip, but I would love to go back and sample more of them — the bit I did taste was truly extraordinary.
The first night I got a tour of Mosely, which is a cute college town sort of neighborhood. It’s also known for being an old haunt of J. R. R. Tolkien, and I was taken to the Tolkien room at the Prince of Wales and got to sit in the Tolkien Corner. Sweet!
The next morning my mom and my aunt Peggy were arriving on the same flight I’d taken. Ben and I were going to get up at 6 am and go meet them at the airport (Suzu and Peggy have never been abroad, and I figured they would need a native guide on the ground.) Thankfully, Ben’s dad, Pat, volunteered to pick them up. What a hero!
Even though I could sleep “in” Of course I woke up at 6 am or so fretting about the change of plan (my family didn’t know about it) and I was worried about missed connections and so on. (My phone had died and I forgot to bring the charger, so that was added worry.)
Now a word about the room we were staying in. It was HUGE by British standards, a large bedroom (Complete with China cabinet and a canopy bed) and a little hallway, and then an equally huge bathroom which included a truly majestic corner bathtub. (Although the Old Cron is ancient, the owner, Anthony, has fixed it up with state of the art plumbing, including the nicest shower I’ve ever been in, as well.)
That morning, as I lay in bed, I noticed a glow coming from the doorway to the hall. Now I had heard the place was haunted, and without my contacts in, I could see how someone could imagine an ectoplasmic lady in white standing in the doorway. Of course, I knew it was just the light coming through from the bathroom as the sun rose, but it amused me. I said nothing of it to Ben or anyone else.
Pat called about 7:30 to say that everyone had arrived safely and we went down to have some tea and coffee with the tired travelers. Suzu and Peggy were thrilled to be in England, and as charmed by the Old Crown’s Tudor splendor as I was. We sat down the the English Breakfast that came with the room, and it was excellent — egg, sausage, bacon (english style, meaning ham), beans tomatoes and toast. Then we took the new arrivals on the same tour I’s had the day before, complete with the German Festival. WE also went through a church yard killed with lichen encrusted tombs and graves that was the splitting image of the first level of Diablo. That cracked me up no end. (I’m sorry I keep making so many nerdy gaming references, but it’s all I could think of!)
Now came the biggest running gag of the trip. Both Suzu and Peggy had come to this winter land wearing raincoats. I had told them that they should dress as they would for New York, but somehow they had it in their minds that England was a more mild climate than New York.
TRAVEL TIP #1: When I’m planning a trip, I always add my destination to the weather widget on my Goggle home page. That way I can track the temperatures for a while and see what’s normal for that time of the year and pack accordingly. While most of the habited part of Maine (where my family lives) lies below the 45th parallel, all of England lies well above it! I know London isn’t known for feet of snow, but it was cold! Below 40ºF! Suzu’s raincoat was lined and she had brought thermal underwear and hat and gloves, so she was fine. However Peggy’s raincoat was unlined and she had left without gloves or a scarf!!!
Of course, we gave Peggy no end of ribbing about this. WHY???? we asked. She said that Sue Veseley, an artist she was going to visit lated in the week (more on that in a bit) had told her the weather was mild. “Plus she sent a picture and she was wearing a short sleeved shirt,” said Peggy.
“She was indoors!” I exclaimed.
“Well, and Sue has a palm tree in her yard!” Peggy shot back.
At this we were all speechless. PALM TREES IN BLIGHTY????? What was she on about. At one point we were going to go to Primark and so she could buy a new warmer coat but even at £12, they were just too cheap to buy.
PLUS, I had foreseen all this, somehow, and bleieve it or not, packed extra gloves and scarves! I offered to give Peggy a pashmina shawl I’d brought, and we decided to tough it out…while we kept teasing her unmercifully, of course.
Dinner was Thai food, and it was excellent. I am about to make a statement I never thought I would: I NEVER HAD A BAD MEAL THE WHOLE TIME I WAS ENGLAND. Hard to believe, but true. Even in five years, the food has improved by leaps and bounds. Not only were the restaurants all delicious, but thanks to the Pret a Manger influence, you can buy nice little sandwiches at every Boots or Tesco. No longer, as on my first trip to England in 199, did I wander the streets in fear of the food.
The next morning, I woke up, as I did every morning, at about 5 am and tossed and turned for about two hours. I figure this is because that corresponds with midnight-2, which happen to be my peak hours for alertness at home. The sun was barely out for four hours on the whole trip, and the sun was barely up for 8 hours every day, so I body never really got a chance to reset.
My tossing must have awoken Ben. “Oh no, the light’s gone on again,” he said.
Sure enough, there was a glow coming from the hall again.
“It’s just the light coming from the bathroom window,” I said.
“No it’s not. The ghost turned on the light.”
I remained skeptical, but when I put on my glasses I realized that sure enough the light in the hall had been switched on.
“Someone must have turned a switch in the hall,” I said.
“Then why is our switch ON?” he said.
Later on I investigated. The light switch was on a panel with another switch that turned on the light in the bathroom. Both were heavy rocker switches that weren’t easily pushed. Sure enough, the switch was in the “On” position.
Well, that was odd, but I didn’t really think about it too much.
The four of us met for breakfast, sitting by a helpful radiator. (Being a Tudor building, you could literally see right through the walls in places, and it was none too warm some of the time, although when the radiators went on it got very cozy.)
Over breakfast (just as good as the first day and with the addition of black pudding and a nice crispy potato cake!), Peggy noticed one of her rings was catching on things. It was her birthday ring, once she’s worn for years, and she discovered that the stone, an amethyst had fallen out. She searched for it in the room, but to no avail. She wasn’t too gutted about it. “It’s part of the histery of the Old CRown now,” she said. (Suzu and Peggy had slept in a room which, according to legend, Queen Elizabeth I had once stayed in, so they had much enjoyed their stay.)
We spent the morning wandering around one the of the canals of Birmingham. It was very cute and picturesque. We also ducked into a pub so Ben could watch some football and we could warm up. On the way there, Peggy pointed to a plant. “Is that a palm?”
Indeed, it was, a short, bush-like palm, but a palm nonetheless. All of a sudden we noticed there were palms all over the place. Okay, maybe Peggy wasn’t quite so daft. (The pashmina had also greatly upped her warmth level and she had decided to gut it out in her very smart looking raincoat.)
The rest of the day’s agenda included the actual reason for our trip — my uncle, Peter, was having an art opening in Burton-on-Trent! He’s been pen pals with Susan Vesely, a British artist for quite a while, and she had arranged for the show. He’d shipped over 9 of his paintings and a bunch of drawings. We hopped on the train and arrived in about an hour an a half. It was already dark, as MArtin, Sue’s husband picked us up and drove us to their house. What do you think was in the front? A SMALL PALM TREE. It turns out the Veseley’s are quite ambitious gardeners — we took a flashlight tour of their back yard and it included bamboo and a 20-foot-tall palm tree.
Let’s just say we were all eating crow, and Peggy was triumphal in this!
At 7 we took a car to the opening, which was ain a place caled the Brewhouse, a cultural center than has theaters and other art exhibits. The show looked spectacular; Peter’s paintings were incredibly striking. The mayor showed up and a bunch of other folks, and it was a merry evening, indeed.
Ben and I had to hop a train back to Brum but Suzu and Peggy stayed over with the Veseleys.
The next morning I awoke early, of course. And the light was back on.
We’d all decided to meet up at Warwick Castle for the day. To say that we were all excited to see a real castle was the understatement of the century. The castle has saxon roots, but most of it dates from the Norman invasion, when William the COnquerer ordered a fortification to be built on a hill overlooking the river Avon. It’s the best preserved castle in England, and until the 70s was the home of the Earl of Warwick until it was sold to Tussauds to be an attraction.
But before we get to the castle a short digression. Martin and Sue picked us up in the car, havin left Suzu and Peggy at a hotel to get a cup of coffee. Ben and I dashed in to find them…but there were smells and sounds of a weekend carvery but no sign of them. One of the hotel staff saw us looking perplexed. “Can I help you?”
“We’re looking for two American women,” I said.
“They were just over there,” he said, pointing to a table. And indeed, there were two empty tea cups…BUT NO AMERICAN WOMEN! Ben and I was dumbfounded. What had become of them? Well it turned out they had just gone for a walk, and we were all reunited, but we all had a laugh over the clew of the tea cups.
Anyway back to the castle. Ben and I walked in through a pedestrian gate, through the kind of stone gateway you only see in movies, over a cobblestoned pathway lined with ancient gnarled trees. I was whooping with giddy glee — the only thing cooler than this would be galloping up to the castle on horseback!
We met up with the others at the gate.
TRAVEL TIP #2: It’s pretty pricey to get in to the castle £17.95, but you can get online discounts, train discounts, AND the castle map has a £5 coupon on it. It was worth every penny to get in, but if you’re looking for a bit more of a bargain, it’s worth scouting online.
I can’t really describe the rest of the day roaming around the castle. I kept thinking, “Geez, they really made this up to look like a castle,” only to remember…IT WAS A FREAKING CASTLE. It had everything a castle is supposed to have — ramparts, towers, dungeons, battlements, a great hall. Tussauds has fixed up many tours with wax figures, and there were a very few, shall we say, “Disneylike” elements, but not enough to spoil anything. (The ghost tour was just a lot of failed thespians yelling in your ear, nothing great but good fun.) The part of the house that had been inhabited was done up like a Victorian house party, complete with young Winston Churchill and many other historical personages. The rooms were fitted out in a sumptuous manner, although taking a bath for the very rich included a servant to heat up the water and pour it for you.
Through various windows of the keep you could look down on the Avon and an old mill house down by the river; we didn’t get to go down there, or to see the working trebuchet, but it was all so scenic and atmospheric, just like something out of a book.
We wandered around the great hall, where you could easily imagine the lord and lady overseeing a great feast, and through displays of armor and weapons and great elk horns.
We also climbed up on the tower. I ended up going up by myself, for various reasons and it was so late in the day I had the whole place to myself…that was pretty damned cool. HOwever, the stairs to the top of the tower were endless, narrow and dark as pitch. I was exhausted and out of breath by the time I reach the top, and didn’t go on to get to the next tower since the sun was already going down.
We also went into the dungeon…the most horrific place I have ever been, dank, lightless and musty. There was even an obliette — a hole in the floor where the most unfortunate prisoner were trown to literally rot away. When you realized this was a real place where real torture had been carried out you realized how dark and miserable the human race could really be.
One part of the castle — the “makingof a King” display stank to high heaven of ancient mold and rotting hay (Horses were kept underground.) My mom suggested that it was “smell around” but I think they just don’t dry out and freshen up this part of the castle. Living in an underground stone fort with no running water couldn’t have smelled very good.
Oh yes, we also ate at the dining room, which was in one of the rooms under the castle. £7.95 for roast beef and yorkshire pudding (which I didn’t get. I had soup and vegetables, but it was very edible for tourist attraction food. Definitely nothing to be afraid of.
The castle closed at 5 and we were there until 5:15. It was eerie to be there with almost no one else about. In truth it was almost too much to take in…very mind boggling.
Supposedly, there is LARPing at Warwick Castle.
Ben and I got back on the train, while Martin, Susan, Suzu and Peggy went back to Burton on Trent for a sinner of pheasant(!).
Ben and I made do in the Old Crown Pub, now filled with ravers prepping for a night out. It was pretty funny to see the young folks of another land in full on going out mode.
Back to the room we were now convinced was haunted. I didn’t get an evil feeling in the room, but there was something odd and eerie about it. Everytime I was in the bathroom, I imagined I heard a hissing sound. I didn’t mention this to anyone, because it seemed silly. However, there was acloset door right opposite the toilet, a big dark latticed affair. Inside the closet (we checked) was an old bed frame and a broken window. As I sat pondering thoughts, the window would glint, giving the idea that something was moving in there. I know nothing was, but it was plenty creepy under the best of circumstances.
As for the hissing, I figured it was traffic outside the window, as the radiator in the bathroom NEVER worked.
Back in the room, we watched the news. While Gordon Brown was talking about this or that, both Ben and I heard a cat meowing, loud as anything.
OKAY THE NEXT MORNING, Monday, our last at the Old Crown. As always, I woke up early and just lay there, thinking about what we had to get done that day. I was looking directly at the hallway. Suddenly there was a snap and the light went on. As God is my witness. And then I heard voices in the hall.
When I got up the next day, I was determined to find that there was another switch in the outside hall that somehow controlled out hall’s light, but after turning on and off every switch, I had to come to the conclusion that this was not the case. Plus, as mentioned above, every morning the switch was in the “on” position, which it wouldn’t have been if someone had turned it on outside.
By now, neither Ben nor I liked being in the room by ourselves. Again, it wasn’t an evil or sinister influence, but it was just extremely unsettling.
Over breakfast (once again excellent although after four days running I only ate egg and some toast) Ben said, “I had the eirdest dream about the room last night.”
“Don’t tell me until we’re checked out!” I yelped.
As we were leaving we ran into Anthony, the owner. As it happened, an electrician had come to check out some things. (Anthony is a fabulous guy, by the way.)
“We had some odd things going on in the room,” I said.
“Well, I’m a skeptic myself,” he said. He lives in another wind of the Old Crown, and I can only imagine that would be the only way to keep living there.
“If you have an electrician here, you should check out that switch,” I suggested as we left.
The plan for the day was for Suzy and Peggy to return from Burton, and we would all meet up to hop on the train to London. As Ben and I walked up to the train station, #1, we walked by a club where ravers from the night before were still going at it at noon! Now that’s old school. #2, he told me his dream. IN it, he had been standing outside the bathroom — the door was closed but he heard heavy breathing coming from inside. He thought it was me until he turned around, and saw I was fast asleep. He was about to open the door when he woke up.
As I mentioned above, I had never told him about the hissing I kept hearing. After that morning’s light switch display, it was entirely too much! For great ambiance, history, food, drinking and showers, I would whole heartedly recommend stating at the Old Crown, but please be prepared for Ghosts!
Oh and I almost forgot, Ben had been talking to one of the barmaids and mentioned the odd goings on.
“What room are you in?” she asked.
Without missing a beat, she said, “So which light is it?”
“Yeah, there has been a lot of talk about that one,” she said.
The day’s plan went mostly according to schedule, although some missed trains meant we didn’t get on one until about 2:30. There was also a mad dash by Ben and I to get to a Pret a Manger at the mall to get sandwiches with 10 minutes to spare, but we made it without any sprained ankles.
Suzu and Peggy had been impressed by England thus far, but they had seen mostly the bucolic parts. As we got off the train at Marlyebone, the hubbub and civilzed chaos of a great city engulfed us — policemen in their “bobbie” hats, school kids racing around in the jackets and ties, people of every race, fashionable office workers running off on assignments, taxis, traffic, rows of mansions…it was amazing. This was my fourth trip to London, but this is the first time I really connected the puzzle pieces of where the different parts of the city lie. Like LA, London is a huge, sprawling metropolis, with the added allure of centuries of history on every corner. Every neighborhood has its lore and characteristics. It seems like you could never encompass it all in a lifetime.
Thanks to magik76 who suggested LateRooms.com, I’d spent a whole day crossreferencing hotels on Trip Adviser and what not trying to find something economical and not too shitty. We were only staying one night at a hotel, and then at a flat in Chelsea we had access to, so after some consultation, I’d looked for something in Kensingtonish so we wouldn’t have a major trek to the place we were staying on Tuesday. We ended up at the Mayflower Hotel in Earl’s Court, which was around the corner from the tube. I would have to rate this hotel as a good place to stay if you can get it booked at the discount rate. It’s on a street where almost every building is a hotel of some kind, and the quality varied tremendously even as we walked down the street.
The rooms are very small (standard for London) but only £65 so you couldn’t complain too much. Suzu and Peggy had the regular room, which was very stylish with wall sconces and so on. I somehow got upgraded to a SUITE which had a full kitchen — with a dishwasher and a full set of dishes and pots and pans — a sitting room with dining room, a full size bedroom and shower and bath. The breakfast the next day was continental but included a fresh fruit salad, nice croissants and Weetabix, In short, very pleasant and nothing wrong. My only complaint was that there wasn’t much hot water, but I went and changed the setting on the water heater — even though a sign said not to, as it was individual in our room — and that solved that.
After settling in we went to the Earl’s Court Tavern nearby for some real fish and chips, our first actual English meal of the trip. Nothing to rave about but very tasty on a cold evening in London. We walked around for a bit, and Peggy noticed that many of the hotels in the area (all housed in old Victorian mansions) had palm trees on their balconies. The four of us went back to Suzu’s room to use the free wifi on her laptop to check out email (first timeon the whole trip) and to our delight an episode of THE IT CROWD was on that we had never seen. There was something so cool about watching it on regular TV instead of DVD. Although it was a quiet family night in London instead of a rager, it was still as nice as could be.
ONe more thing about the Mayflower — our room was directly over looking to tube station and there was noise. So if you’re a light sleeper that might not be too good. Of course, I did the same thing I did every day, waking up at 6ish…but this time all the lights stayed off.
The next day was our only full day in London, so to make the most of it we decided to do the ultimate tourist thing and take one of those hop on and off buses.
TRAVEL TIP #3: Yes it is touristy but if you have a limited amount of time it’s the best way to get a feel for the geography. There are two competing bus companies. We bought our tickets from the ticket booth in the middle of Leicester square which was very annoying because the girl decided to individually call up all our credit cards and it took For-freaking-ever. YOu can get tickets to the other tour at a dodogy looking souvenir stand but I can’t imagine you’ll be ripped off if you do a little research. Tickets for £20 for two days, which includes a brief boat tour on the Thames. Of course we had only one day, but couldn’t get a discount. if you only had two days you could take full advantage of this, and also use it to hop around the city for a rather economical trip.
NOW, as we were leaving the hotel for some reason in South Kensington, it was almost balmy. So Suzu and Peggy decided not to bring their heavy coats. (Sue had felt so bad about Peggy’s light coat situation that she had given her a nice wool pea coat for the rest of the trip!) Of course, me being the wary traveler that I am, I though “We haven’t seen the weather, it could get cold later on.” So I brought my big bag with me stuffed with extra sweaters, scarves and gloves.
We caught the bus at Trafalgar Square and of course went up top. The ride was really thrilling…the amazing architecture from the hight above the street is worth the price of admission itself. Suzu and Peggy were thrilled with the sights and sounds. (Ben and I were, too.) Of course, it was horribly cold so I kept doling out warm stuff to a grateful family. (Ben is never ever cold, by the way.) The bus went down by Big Ben across the river, douled back, drove by St Pauls and then down to Tower Bridge which I’d never seen up close. You could get off the bus at the Tower of London (Qhich I had also never seen) to catch the boat which we did. There was a place called EAT by the entrance to the tower, and we stopped for soup, sandwiches and cappucinos to warm up. Maybe it was just the cold, but it all tasted absolutely delicious — I had a Wensleydale cheese sandwich with pear chutney, and some of Peggy’s veggie soup.
After some picture taking by the Tower of London, it was back down the Thames. We all went up top where it wasn’t as cold as you would expect and took a zillion pictures. Again, it was touristy, but grand fun for one day in London.
Pegy and I both needed camera batteries when we got off.
TRAVEL TIP #4: There’s a Boots and (I think) a Tesco right by Parliament if you or any MP needs batteries! I had suggested a trip to Westminster Cathedral — Trish and I went inside on my first trip to London back in 97, and I recall it as being really amazing. Plus no one else had ever been in a grand European style church and I knew it would be a treat.
As we walked up we discovered that there was a £10 charge to enter!
Now I haven’t mentioned the horrible exchange rate, but it was horrible. London is a hideously expensive city to begin with — aside from food and tickets to see things, the only thing I bought was a washcloth at Boots (nowhere we stayed had one!) for 99p and a tube of lipstick at the aptly named Superdrug (OH MY GOD!!!!!!!!!!! IMAGINE A BUDGET SEPHORA!!!!!!!!!!) What with all the trains and everything, we were all pretty much broke. But I said it was worth it, and indeed it was the best £10 ever spent.
(Aside; I imagine you could get in for free by saying you were there to pray, but for an agnostic/Zen Buddhist like myself that would be pretty hypocritical, and I was glad to give my money to support it.)
From the moment we got in, everyone was overwhelmed. History seethed and swirled, in the tombs, statues, crypts and stained glass. Each little chapel was an adventure in itself, each filled with statuary. The tomb of Queen Elizabeth I was the highlight of course (her sister, Mary shares the tomb but only Elizabeth’s effigy is shown.) Richard II, Henry VII, the little princes, Newton, Chaucer…I really can’t describe the place, you should just go yourself. It was getting late and beinning to ran but we checked out the museum, which includes the wax and wooden effigies of many monarchs, and Nelson’s clothes, artifacts from monks and so on.
Sated with memories, we got back on the bus, but it was late and we hopped on the tube back to Earl’s court, collected our luggage and trekked off to our final destination, the Chelsea flat, which was complete with Sky TV. Peggy, Ben and I went out for a drink at a pub — Chelsea is EXPEN$IVE!!! — and we had Persian food for takeout.
By now we were all almost out of money and no one wanted to have to change more. We were literally going through all our pockets to dig out coins to get money for dinner and make sure we had enough for the cab to Victoria Station to catch the Gatwick Express in the am. Luckily, just as we were doing a final sweep after dinner, I found £20 in a little pocket of my purse! Yay, not only would there be a cab, but BREAKFAST as well!
The next morning, my odd hours came in handy as we had to get up at 6 am. Ben heroically volunteered to come with us to Gatwick even though he had to get back up to Birmingham to go to work the next day. The Persian food had a rather…unique effect on all of us except Suzu, and we all had to make many bathroom stops at various points. Luckily, on one of my runs, I spotted a piece of paper on the floor…and it was a ten pound note! there was no one near it so I tucked it into a pocket as a little airport money for my next trip to England.
All in all, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Peter’s show was a success, we got to see castles and mossy cathedrals and stay in an inn and eat good food and see good friends. I think it was the trip of a lifetime for Suzu and Peggy as well — they had never been abroad before. But now they have.
EPILOG: The next day, Ben had to call up Anthony about booking another room for his cousin next year. It turned out the electrician had found nothing. While maintaining that he is a skeptic where the ghosts are concerned, Anthony did let on that the most haunted room is #3, which they haven’t let out for six months because of all the complaints — it seems that when you are in the bathroom you can hear a woman sobbing endlessly.
I’ve always believed in ghosts — or at least that we don’t have all the answers about ghosts — and this wasn’t even the most vivid experience with unexplained phenomenon I’ve had.
But it sure makes a good story.