Sunday, January 7, 2007

Weetabix, Cold Toast, and Shank’s Mare

Day Four -- London

Editor's note: if you like an image and cannot see it -- like the map that took me prolly hours to scan and upload -- just right click on it and select "view item".

It is Thursday morning. We are staying at the Bonnington Hotel in Bloomsbury. After looking online for about a million years, I found this hotel – it seems to be a good place to stay. The reviews were uniformly good. I highly recommend Hotels in London are expensive, to my American view. I soon realize that I have to think in pounds and use the prevailing rates as my guide. I hope that the room is not the size of a shoebox. It has a heated towel rail, which I secretly believe is ultra-cool and British. Internet access is necessary -- and not all hotels have it. This hotel does, but it is sold in increments -- like three hours. You have to use the whole three hours consecutively. One is better off using the internet cafes that abound for a pound an hour.

I get up and make some coffee. Last night, Shoshana put the little milk jug in the sink with cold water. I am dubious. I tell her that it will go bad, and she looks at me questioningly. There are times when Rowan looks at me, slighlty bemused -- when I feel very American. This is one of those times. She says that it surely will not in such a brief period of time. I fear that we will end up spending our trip in retching misery. She says that when she was a child living in the Highlands, that they did not have refrigeration. Milk was delivered – I think that she said every day or every other day – and that it never went bad. I am chary, but maybe British milk is less teeming with bacteria than is American milk. I am very brave, but I think to myself that it was probably so bloody cold most of the time that it was like living in a refrigerator. (We never got sick, by the way.)

We are facing the back of the hotel, which is quiet. The windows open, and I am amazed that there are no safety guards on the window. I could plunge to my death, if I so desired. The last hotel in the US that I stayed in was so warded against accidental injury that you could not get a finger out of the window. I feel surprisingly untrammeled -- as if I could fly out of the window like Wendy in Peter Pan (I know, she was not my favorite character, but there isn't much to choose from). People have pots of flowers on their window sills and it all looks very cool and urban. It promises to be a beautiful day.

The room has a kettle, which I guess all UK hotel rooms have nowadays. There is a bathtub and scads of hot water. The taps are dodgy and it takes a certain amount of tinkering to get the temperature right. I also have a great deal of difficulty figuring out how to work the plug. I am not joking. There are no indicators in the tub as to how to get it to work. It is very complicated, but I refuse to call the front desk to ask and after three or four minutes I figure it out. However, I forget by the next day and have to learn it all over again. I am extremely saddened by the fact that the heated towel rail does not heat anything. Rowan and I conduct clinical trials to determine if we are just goobers and not able to figure out how they work. There is a little knob at the base of the apparatus that one can turn.

Trial one – turn the knob half-way.

Trial two – turn the all the way on.

Trial three – turn the knob off.

No dice, no heat. The cold towels make me very unhappy, even though they are exactly what I use every day.

The hotel provides a continental breakfast with the room. I have traveled enough to know that eating breakfast at the hotel is a great time saver, so we go downstairs. All of the servers seem to be Eastern European – as far as I can tell. I am given palatable coffee and Rowan has Earl Grey. I don’t see a toaster, so I ask if we can get toast. The server takes the bread for toasting. There is a rack of cold toast on a cute triangle toast rack on the table when we get back, and I feel a little embarrassed. I have noted that Rowan eats cold toast without batting an eye, but I like mine hot -- at least warm.

I look over the cold cereal offerings. I see Weetabix and, as I am ready for a culinary adventure, I select it. I ask Rowan if it is like shredded wheat, and she says, in a considering way, that it is not. I ask if it is good, and she says that it is, as is Oatibix. She seems at a loss to describe further, so I just open up the packet. I am informed that it soaks up an amazing amount of milk – if you eat it fast, it expands in your stomach. I am pleased at the thought. The cereal puck is shaped like a McDonald’s hash brown and looks like shredded, pressed cardboard. Or hamster-cage shavings. Not appetizing at all. I pour on milk, and it starts to swell, like those travel washcloths or sponges that you get for your kids. It is wonderful – like watching sea monkeys come to life. Weetabix is now my favorite cereal, even if I end up disliking the taste. I take a bite and it is light and crispy – by the second bite it is kind of soggy, but good. I eat the second one and feel pretty darned full.

Rowan writes regarding Weetabix:
Weetabix needs a bit of sugar, by the way. I don't normally take sugar, but Weetabix needs a sweetener. Oatibix is scuury (scurry = a Scot trying to say "scary" like a Yank). It is (as you may have guessed) made from severely compressed oats, and expands to the dimensions of a double-decker bus, and needs three pints of milk to do so. I am thinkin' loft insulation. It will never make it as a sustainable foodstuff -- it is just too sustaining. People have too many orifices for Oatibix. I sense it making a bid for freedom through my ears, when I have been brave, or foolhardly enough, to tackle it. Weetabix is okay. It has stood the test of time. I think Oatibix is a bit 'this is what happens when scientists get involved in tinkering with what is right and good'. It is the product of a government experiment from the 1950's, shelved and locked away, until a new guy at HQ found the recipe and put it into production again. I am reminded of the childhood story of "The Magic Porridge Pot." Only, I have forgotten the magic word to stop the stuff expanding.

I still like Weetabix. And toast. I consider using black currant jam to be more authentic, or heaven forfend, marmalade, but settle for strawberry.

We are thinking about taking a tour of the city in one of the traditional double-decker buses. At the bell stand, we listen to an American couple discussing tours and Rowan and I look at each other. They have a better map than I do, and I ask where they got it. There are a bunch on the counter and Rowan and I look it over. We were both struck by the idea of just walking around. Tours are for the timid. We are fortified by Weetabix, toast, and tea and decide to just let our feet take us where they will. Our final destination will be the Tower of London. We decided that there is enough to see in London, just by shank’s mare.

Here is the map that we used -- it is still a little creased.

This is the view looking down the street, walking away from the hotel.

Here is our route that morning. We start at The Bonnington Hotel (with the helpful pointing finger) and end at the Royal Courts of Justice. My mapping skillz are a bit shaky.

The thing about looking at the map, is seeing all of these places that I have read about. Regents Park, Covent Garden, Chancery Lane, Fleet Street. Our feet are itching to start.

It is a bright and beautiful day. My brown jacket and lovely scarf that my daughter knitted me are warm enough. It is a little breezy, but clear. Rowan is bundled in her black jacket. We set off briskly, hands in our pockets, to see what we can see.

Rowan says:

London. I am in London. I am in the city of allusions. London is not illusory – I ponder on this, as walk along – London is carved in stone, incontrovertible, bold – but it is allusory – full of allusions, novels, poems plays … it is a burst of synaesthesia in rainbow allusions. Chancery Lane -- Dickens. I see him in the debtor’s prison. Southwark -- Defoe, and his lists of plague year victims. Parish upon parish, street and lane. Bread Street. Threadneedle Street. Fragments which carry a key to unlocking fine memories, riches upon riches, long read and gently set aside.

This is the pub with the upstairs Thai restaurant from last night.

This picture is what I loved about London. Out of no-where, here is picture of John Bunyan set into a building. Now, to my way of thinking, John Bunyan is a pretty big deal. We discuss the matter and decide that we do not know if he lived there or not. I wish that we had a guide book to tell us if this is a bona-fide historical building or not. Rowan discusses Pilgrim's Progress with easy knowledge. I have a vague recollection of a Slough or something. It amazes me that we are friends, despite the fact that I am barely literate.

If you are staying at the Bonnington and need a place to get a quick sandwich, there is a Sainsburys on the corner between the hotel and the Holborn Tube Station. You can get everything for a take – away picnic there. It is important to know if there is a grocery store near you when you are traveling, especially if you want to try something that you can’t get at home. Last night, at the Tesco’s, Rowan bought Thai Chili crisps for us. I rest my case.

This is the Holborn Underground Station. Rowan and I both have fallen for the Underground logo. It is iconic – bold and spare.

Rowan writes:

Holborn St Underground. Fenchurch street... I think Monopoly. I think thousands of lives, running by every day. The perfect circle. Time looped back on itself and crossing its own diameter. Train takes you out, it brings you back…well-oiled, nifty, uncomplicated, but wonderful. I love the Underground. I love the eeriness, I love the old Victorian tiles, the soft drumming of the trains as they swoosh past – the hiss of the doors. The blank insistent, “Mind the Gap between the train and the platform.”

We keep walking down the street. There is way too much to see. I am very grateful for digital cameras. I am able to take those pictures that take my fancy, and don't have to worry about running out of film. I am delighted by the architectural details all around me. I did not realize before, but I like pictures of things rather than people -- Rowan and I are opposites in this way. So, there are a number of pictures of things that I just liked.

Like this ...

The mail truck was just cute. That is all. And the phone boxes are cute (you can see them from time to time in the shots). Oh, and the mailboxes were very cute, too.

This is a shot as we go down Kingsway. One thing that we did not know before we started out is that a street in London can change names three times in three blocks. This street started out as Southampton Row and is now Kingsway. The name of the building is Africa House. I was struck by the carvings. I think that this is where Simon and Schuster Publishing is -- but I did not know that at the time. I just liked it. I wonder who carved it and why someone wanted it carved, and what the carving means.

Down the street, another ornate carving. The horses looked amazing.

This is a different building. What you can't see is the worker, lounging on a pillar, smoking a cigarette. It is this idea that interests me -- that people live and work in the midst of such history. They probably do not see the fabric and texture of their environment.

As we turned on Aldwych Circle, we came on this sign post. Again, it was one of those times when you see something you know is important -- but cannot recall why it stands out. There was a plaque set into the pavement with some ridiculously old date on it -- like 1400 or 1600 something.

We have turned onto Fleet Street. Debtor's prisons and publishing. I know that we are walking through history. On our left, I see this image and get that little frisson that tells you that you are going to see something.

I wonder what we are seeing.

As I take this picture, I read the sign through the lens finder. We are at the Royal Courts of Justice. I have a penchant for old court houses, maybe because I spend so much time in them. I am delighted, because this is officially the oldest court building that I have seen. It was built in the 1870's and opened in 1882 by Queen Victoria. The designer was a solicitor turned architect. He died before the building was opened, and I read that people think that the whole project just about did him in. The building houses the Supreme Court of England and Wales.

Please excuse the drunken angle of this shot. I was standing in the street with Rowan tugging at me. She was worried that I would get hit by any one of the cars zipping past. That is Queen Victoria, herself.

As we are walking along, I spy a bookseller's shop specializing in law books. I am looking for a gift for a friend, and think that the perfect gift will be an old law book from London. All of the books are brand-new and I ask if they have used books, and they say that they have a second store on Carey Street. We decide to go explore.

This will be the next leg of the journey as we wander, not completely without aim. To Carey Street!

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