Thursday, August 14, 2014

Some miscellaneous observations about our life in London

It's hard to find a regular bag of chips (crisps). Most of the time, the bag of chips is filled with six or so smaller, individual-size bags. It's really useful when you're researchers taking bag lunches to the British Library every day, like us! We had to wonder why, though, considering it's really wasteful of the plastic. We think it's for portion control. Those sensible Brits! And I have to laugh, because it really does work. The one normal bag of chips we did buy here in London got eaten almost in its entirety (yes, by me) one night where we weren't really hungry and didn't end up making a real dinner. Oops!

Generally in London, you keep to the left side of the hallway, which makes sense because one also drives on the left side of the road. Except for that one Underground station (Green Park) which asks you to keep to the right for no discernible reason. But at the British Library, stairs are a free-for-all, no doubt because the library is full of scholars of different nationalities. This means that no one knows what side of the stairs to use, and it's kind of a mess especially because the stairs have really sharp corners.

I got through lots of books on the tube, 45 to be exact. I ended up loving the commute for that very reason - it was so relaxing to set aside thoughts of research and read fiction instead. I even quickly picked up the skill of reading my kindle one-handed while standing and holding onto a pole with the other hand. And the bizarre fact that the trains are silent - nobody talks to each other! - meant I could read in peace and quiet.

Washcloths. Why don't they use them? When I asked our hostess if she had one, she looked at me strangely, eventually figured out that I was asking for a "flannel," and looked at me strangely again after I bought a pair at the grocery store because I was using one to wash my face at night and apparently that's a weird thing to do. She came home with what was basically a linen handkerchief for me, which made my nightly face-wash feel very posh.

Radiator in the bathroom? Brilliant idea! The one in our flat doubled as a handy towel rack, and when the flat got cold and the radiator turned on, we had wonderfully warm towels. On the other hand, fewer bathtubs, and there were days when I dearly missed having a bubble bath.

Despite my mother's long-ago warning that Brits don't drink milk and therefore A) don't sell it in large containers and B) don't have refrigerators large enough to hold large containers even if they existed, in fact they do. Whew. I drink a lot of milk out of habit more than anything else these days. It's just a little bit of a hassle to have to carry their large containers (six pints or 3.4 litres, not exactly a gallon, but close, I think) home from the grocery store via the tube.

Peanut butter in England is depressing. It's more like peanut paste: neither sweet nor creamy. One of the first things both of us want to do upon arriving home is eat a spoonful of peanut butter straight from the jar.

Twinings tea, of which I drink a LOT, is very sensibly packaged. Without each tea bag being individually packaged, I contributed far less to landfills. The box of tea bags also made my cupboard smell nice, since the tea was more open to the air. I imagine this makes the tea lose its flavor faster, but since I drink a lot of tea and it's stronger in England anyway, this didn't turn out to be a problem.

Brits call craft beer "real ale," which we quite appreciate because it implies that anything else is "false ale."

Traditional English cider is still, room temperature, and ridiculously alcoholic, which I learned to my detriment one afternoon at the Queen's Head when I eagerly drank a pint without having eaten anything in a while. I ended up with a splitting headache and was no doubt rather silly while we enjoyed a game of cribbage with our drinks. There are so many varieties of cider available at any British pub - I didn't end up having Strongbow once, because there were so many others to try!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

England favorites

We're on the train home from Washington DC - which has internet, how cool is that? - and reminiscing about some of our best-beloved moments this summer. I miss England already, but I'm also really excited to get back home, where we have a weekly farmer's market, many favorite coffee shops, local friends, a writing group, our own bookshelves, and a library that lets you take things home. I'm well behind on posts on our England adventures, but those will come soon and in the meantime we wanted to reflect on some favorites:

Favorite pub: We tried a lot of British beer this summer in a lot of different places, but our favorite by far was the Greenwich Union, which served Meantime beer (all of which was excellent) and the most amazing fish and chips I've ever eaten, bought daily from the local fish market and breaded on-site. Honorable mention goes to The Old Red Cow, just around the corner from our church, which served rarebit on toast and had a fairly impressive and ever-changing beer selection.

Favorite thing we stumbled upon accidentally: For husband, it was the Watts memorial to those who have died saving other peoples' lives, in the same park as the Wesley plaque. For me, it was the Rose theatre. Even though the play we saw there was dreadfully campy, the site itself is so full of history and significance, and it was amazing to see it in this intermediary stage between archaeological dig and public exhibit.

Favorite thing we paid admission for: The Globe, absolutely! We played groundlings with standing tickets for Julius Caesar (just five pounds!). The acting was delightful, the setting was phenomenal, even the costumes were Elizabethan. So much fun. Honorable mention goes to Richard III starring Martin Freeman. We don't really want to compare the two shows, because they were very different in style. Suffice it to say that London is a fantastic place to see Shakespeare.

Favorite place outside London: We had such a wonderful time visiting friends in Nottingham. The company was lovely, and we also saw some historic stuff including the oldest pub in England, and got to share an evening with their church group. We spent an afternoon walking the lake on the campus of University of Nottingham, and thought his lunch spot at a particular bench was absolutely perfect. Honorable mention, for me at least, goes to Coventry Cathedral.

Favorite new English food: Dark chocolate hobnobs, hands-down. We bought probably too many of them this summer, prompting me to start running up and down stairs as extra exercise in the evenings. Husband wishes to give an honorable mention to Haribo's Supermix (gummy candies), while I want to point out that Twinings tea is different in England than anywhere else - they save all the good stuff for themselves.

Favorite church: This is such a hard one - what criteria? Husband's favorite building was St Mary's Bourne Street, because it was a gorgeous brick building (I thought it looked rather like a train station). But our favorite place to attend was, of course, the church at which we quickly settled. St Bartholomew the Great is an old twelfth-century Augustinian monastery. The music, preaching, and liturgy were all beautiful, I got to sing Evensong with the volunteer choir, and we met some wonderful people.

Favorite coffee shop: We found The Coffee Lounge in Woolwich, just across the Thames from our flat and easily accessible via ferry or underground tunnel. It had a great atmosphere, busy enough that it had the proper amount of background noise. Free wi-fi plus great coffee (and the best chai lattes I've perhaps ever had) made it our favorite place to work outside of the British Library. We just wish we'd found it sooner in the summer.

Favorite aspect of English television: English reality shows are much nicer than American ones, in that they don't feature a lot of screaming at the contestants and don't create a lot of artificial tension. This makes them so much more relaxed. English reality cooking shows are quirky and fun and focus more on the food than on the fighting. And because they work with a historical British cuisine to work with, we got to learn about the different cooking styles in different parts of Britain, and we've come home with a number of new regional recipes to try (like Yorkshire parkin).

Favorite English habit: Londoners treat escalators in a very sensible fashion: you stand on the right and walk on the left. It seems like such a small thing, but this shared and recognized standard makes the morning commute really easy and orderly.

Favorite English words: "Proper." And "dodgy."

Wednesday, July 30, 2014


On one of the four days of the conference, Med-Ren took us all to Coventry, where we had the morning to see the city before the paper sessions and a concert in the afternoon. Coventry was deeply moving, and I wished husband had been there to share the experience. Someday we'll go back.

The official reason for our trek to Coventry was to allow all of us scholars of early music to view new-found manuscripts of the anonymous Missa Caput. We not only got to see these up close, but even touch them! (Though I didn't - too nervous of damaging them.) There's a big difference between facsimiles, even really high-quality ones in color, and the real thing.

(Note: I snagged all these photos from the friend I roomed with, with her permission. I'd left my camera with husband, because he planned several adventures in London while I was away. More on those trips of his soon!)

After seeing the manuscript - in carefully-regulated small groups we'd had to sign up for - we had a few hours before the conference resumed after lunch. For me, that meant a cup of tea and a scone with jam and clotted cream at the museum housing the manuscript, and then a visit to three neighboring churches. Coventry isn't very big, but it has so much history packed into a small space.

First we saw Coventry Cathedral, and to be honest, it was by far the most moving experience I've had on this entire trip to England. In this first photo, you can see the old cathedral on the left, and the edge of the new one on the right. Coventry Cathedral was bombed in the Blitz, and almost completely destroyed. But England and its Church are resilient, and a new cathedral was constructed just next to the old one.

The stunning tower survived, with a gift shop now in what was once the narthex:

I don't actually have the words to describe the intense emotions inspired by these empty stained-glass windows.

Here's a closer shot of the altar. Engraved on the wall behind it are the words "Father forgive." Not "Father forgive them" - for England too participated in a war of destruction. Every Friday, this bombed church celebrates a liturgy of peace and reconciliation, and even when it was first destroyed, this cathedral stood as a monument for peace. Iron nails pulled from the wreckage were shaped into crosses and sent to churches all across the globe, including churches in Berlin that had been bombed by England. I was deeply disappointed that despite being there on a Friday, our conference commitments prevented me from attending the liturgy that day.

Practically next door stands Holy Trinity, a church that was left almost unharmed in the Blitz despite its proximity to the cathedral. One of the church staff told us that the vicar had stood on the roof during the bombing in order to knock off any bombs that landed on Holy Trinity, and thus saved the church. I've no idea if this story is true! But I'm glad the church survived. Holy Trinity is really gorgeous.

Holy Trinity is most famous for this "Doom" - a fifteenth-century mural of the Last Judgment. It's well worth seeing in person, especially in conjunction with their leaflet that explains who everyone in the painting is. The church has posted a bit more about their Doom here.

And then next to Holy Trinity is the remains of the twelfth-century priory, which was closed as part of the English Reformation. It was turned into a boy's school in the 1700s, and later the school building was rebuilt in the nineteenth century. That's why part of the wall you can see in this photo has three different layers of stone. The bit we walked through is called the Priory Gardens, the part of the remains open to the public after the archaeological excavations ten and twenty years ago.

After so many beautiful buildings, returning to the conference wasn't a hardship, because the afternoon was held in the beautiful St. Mary's Guildhall, home of the Coventry Tapestry (c. 1500):

Photo credit: found here

Tuesday, July 29, 2014


Every other summer, the annual Medieval/Renaissance Music Conference takes place somewhere in England. It was fantastically convenient that this summer was one of them, so I took a week off from my work at the BL in London and headed up to Birmingham, the second-largest city in England. As with the Cambridge trip, husband came along just for the first day, which was really convenient as he helped carry my suitcase from the train station to the very small and hard-to-find hotel.

A word about British hotels: they're nothing like American hotels. Many of them are former houses that have been turned into bed-and-breakfast-style hotels. This unfortunately means the rooms are more like dormitories, with terrible mattresses and bathrooms shared by the whole floor. This one was neat in that it had a sink right in the room - useful for brushing one's teeth! - but I shouldn't have expected it to provide a hair dryer or bar of soap like an American hotel. So after checking in, husband and I set off to buy these items. It was harder than we thought; we stopped at four shops (two pharmacies, an electronics store, and a home-improvement store) before finally finding a small folding travel hairdryer at a grocery store.

Husband has long had a fellow youth minister friend who has been working all over Europe. Since she's currently working just outside Birmingham, we couldn't lose the opportunity to share dinner with her. Husband was delighted to catch up with an old friend, and I was happy to meet a woman about whom I'd heard so much. We saw just a bit of downtown Birmingham on the way to the pub, called the Old Joint Stock, which has a theater inside it and serves great burgers. We very nearly got to tour Birmingham Cathedral, but arrived just as Evening Prayer was ending and the cathedral was closing.

After husband left that evening, I settled in for four days of intense musicology!

Monday, July 28, 2014

St. Bartholomew's Hospital

We've been attending church at St. Bartholomew the Great, which is near St. Paul's Cathedral but on the other side of St. Bartholomew's Hospital:

It's the oldest hospital in London, and was operated by a monastery. In the English Reformation, when monastic institutions were closed, it remained open by special dispensation from Henry VIII because it provided vital medical care for the area.

One day on the way to dinner at a pub we'd noticed and wanted to try (The Old Red Cow, which immediately became one of our favorites because they serve amazing Welsh rarebit), we walked around the hospital in the other direction than we usually do. We saw a couple of really interesting things on the way:

We particularly love the line "the Great Fire which beginning at Pudding Lane was ascribed to the sin of gluttony when not attributed to the Papists." Quite a memorial plaque! There's also an English Reformation-related memorial on the side wall of the hospital, but I didn't snap a photo so I don't remember what it was.

So I wonder how many of my readers are familiar with the more contemporary fame of St. Bartholomew's hospital?

The long-awaited third series takes place two years after Sherlock was seen hurling himself from the roof of St Bart's Hospital, London, in an apparent suicide
Photo credit: found here
 Sherlock jumped off this very building! Here's our photo to commemorate our geekery. We weren't quite clever enough to take the photo at the exact angle that Watson viewed Sherlock's fall.

The coolest bit is the phone booth just below the building (on the left in the above photo), where passers-by have left notes and mementos in support of Sherlock:

The sad ending to this little adventure is this: we happened to walk by this phone booth a few weeks later, and all the notes had been removed. :-(

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Off to Cambridge tomorrow

Now that I've collected about a month's worth of photos and stories, I figured it was time to resume posting! We've done a fair bit of traveling and touristing, but when we're just home, we've enjoyed not doing too much (which has unfortunately included posting on this blog, but I'll remedy that now!). Oh, and poor husband was dreadfully sick for a few days and home with a fever, so that wasn't fun.

Bright and early tomorrow morning, we'll catch a train to Cambridge, where I need to visit two different libraries in order to view a dissertation (Cambridge doesn't really share its dissertations, which I think is a real shame, as it doesn't really enable this scholarship to participate in larger conversations) and a sixteenth-century book (with annotations by the author!). I'll be there for two days, one day for each library just to allow for any delays or problems, or unexpectedly fascinating finds. Because the train tickets are crazy cheap - only 6 pounds each way - husband decided to come along just for the first day. He'll do the sight-seeing while I work in the library, and I very much look forward to his photos and stories. He hopes to see Ridley Hall (the theological school) and the King's College chapel, home of the choir that sings the Evensong broadcast worldwide on Christmas Eve.

So tonight, in between packing and other preparations - you wouldn't believe how many different documents I have to bring so they'll let me into the Cambridge libraries! - I'll write a few blog posts and schedule them over the next several days. Here's a sneak preview of our adventures:
  • Sherlock-related geekery
  • Birmingham
  • Coventry
  • the Royal Artillery Museum
  • a tour of the Bank of England
  • the Tour de France
  • Olympic Park
  • the Greenwich Observatory and the prime meridian
  • Nottingham
  • the V&A Museum
  • Hamley's
  • the Millennium Bridge
  • the Rose Theatre

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Mum's visit: Manchester

For the last major adventure of my mum's visit, we headed up to Manchester to visit the family of the woman we're staying with in London. Absolutely wonderful people, amazing house, and a lovely city. Manchester is rather different than London or Oxford. It's full of universities, but it's not quite so much a university town as Oxford, and it's a lot more industrial than London. Our hostess knows all about Manchester's history, and she not only shared stories and took us on a driving tour of the downtown area, but knew just where to take us for some fascinating and fun touristing.

My favorite bit of the trip was a visit to The Lowry, an event center and gallery that showcases the work of English artist L.S. Lowry. Shocked that I'd never heard of him, our hostess was very excited to introduce us to this hugely important figure in English art. I adored him.
In the last few years, I've come to really love art galleries in general, but something about Lowry's work, in many different mediums and in several distinctly different styles, really spoke to me. I could have spent hours there, but unfortunately, there were things to do and places to see, so I had to leave well before I was ready. Lowry is famous for his industrial cityscapes like this one:

but he also did more conventional landscapes as well, like this one:

I brought home a few postcards of various paintings to add to my art collection displayed on my piano - I now have enough favorite pieces of art from museums all across the US (and now England!) that I'll have to rotate them through my five frames.

Most evocative for me, however, were Lowry's"grotesques," odd little distortions like these one below. They remind me strangely of Tove Janssons's Moomintrolls, perhaps Moomins meets Tim Burton.

The Funeral Party, 1953
Girl Seen from the Front, 1964
I spent a long time looking at these strange little people, thinking they could inspire some fiction-writing. Lately, I've been lamenting my lack of creative writing. I read so many novels, but all of my writing is academic, and I feel like I've lost a lot of the imagination I had as a child. I wish I could just start writing, but I feel intimidated and at a loss for ideas. But Lowry's grotesques cry out for backstories, don't they?

From the Lowry museum we headed to the Imperial War Museum, and went up to a little viewing deck where we had a fantastic view, including the river and two gorgeous bridges, the BBC buildings, and even the Manchester United stadium (where we stopped next, so my mum could look for souvenirs at the gift shop). It turns out that leaving the Lowry museum sooner than I'd wanted was a good thing, because the Imperial War Museum was closing soon, and we had far too little time in the exhibits, which focused largely on the experience of individuals and families in this part of the country.

After delicious fish and chips from the local chippy - I'm totally addicted to malt vinegar by now - we all settled in to watch the opening game of the World Cup, with hot cocoa for me, beer for most others, and fudge for all!

The next morning, we walked from the house into the local neighborhood of Didsbury, with shops and restaurants and things. The walk was completely picturesque, the ideal English countryside (complete with really narrow and often muddy lanes). I loved every second of that walk, and husband and I dreamed of a summer spent in just such a place, where we could walk in to a library or coffee shop to do our academic writing, and spend the rest of our time watching baby ducks and playing Pooh-sticks (both of which we did that day).

This excursion into Didsbury was all to humor me: I'd heard of a tea shop with a sizeable secondhand bookshop in the back. Heaven, right? And The Art of Tea was even better than I'd imagined, with a huge tea menu and a bookshop full of classics organized by edition (a book collector's dream). The adults were content to chat over drinks while I browsed, and I confess that they were very patient!

I had a charming conversation with the bookseller: "Name an author, any author," he said, "I promise we have a book by them." "Tove Jansson?" I asked, since I'm just dying to collect the rest of her Moomin books, and her other adult fiction besides my beloved Summer Book is supposed to be equally amazing. The poor man looked quite taken aback, and after I explained that she's a Finnish author, informed me that what he was certain to have was any book by a first-tier author. Hmph. But he was very nice and we went on to have a fun chat about Washington DC. And then he pointed me in the direction of this treasure-trove:

For those who don't know, these distinctive green-spined books are published by Virago. They are almost exclusively high-quality novels by women, and largely the early twentieth-century domestic fiction that I love. I collect Viragos (not indiscriminately, to my husband's relief) and am always on the lookout. They're not impossible to find in the US, but they're not common, and because Virago is an English press I was hoping for exactly this kind of opportunity while I'm here. I've never seen so many green beauties in one bookshop before! I delightedly picked out just five, several of which are war-stories, which felt appropriate considering the previous day's trip to the war museum. Since it's easier to carry around my Kindle on the tube, I plan to save these for the fall (and have a continuing taste of England even when back in North Carolina).