Armchair travel: Celebrating England

Here in Canada we’re coming up on the Victoria Day weekend, which is a big deal for several reasons: another long weekend (always a good thing), the lead-up to summer (although you wouldn’t know it from the unexpected snow we just had the other day, making my waiting pots of tulips look rather frosty), and the weekend when most people in Southern Ontario at least start planting their gardens. The weather this weekend looks like it will actually live up to my area’s nickname of the Banana Belt, so the tulips can be planted after all.

Victoria Day also makes me think of England, so inextricably linked with Canadian history, but also one of our favourite places to visit. While some people may be firing up their backyard grills on the annual Monday holiday, I’ll be roasting a juicy prime rib as well as plump Yorkshire Puddings to puddle with gravy, and finishing with a very British Pineapple and Cherry Upside Down Sandwich Cake.

The imposing Houses of Parliament on the Thames

My hubby and I first visited London together after our planned getaway to Mexico with some friends got literally washed into the Gulf of Mexico by a fall hurricane. We all got refunds (thank you, travel insurance!), and our friends decided to postpone their travel until their honeymoon a few months away, but my hubby suggested that we go to London for a week. It would be in early November, and at first I thought he was joking, but he was indeed serious. He’d passed through London very briefly at the tail end of a high school trip and had always wanted to go back to see more. At that point I’d never been abroad and quickly realized that this opportunity was not to be wasted.

We had a blast! We did the full-on British detective thing, layering up with tweedy pants and warm sweaters under trench coats. I still remember how excited I was just to fly into Heathrow, and then to see Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace, and pubs, and the little crowns on top of sign posts in the parks. We saw Cats and Chess at the theatre, went to a medieval banquet at Hatfield House, posed next to the wax figures at Mme. Tussaud’s, and explored all the layers and layers of history in one of the truly great cities of the world.

We also bravely rented a car and did a couple of day trips to Stonehenge and Bath, and to Oxford, where we toured parts of the university, discovered my favourite bookshop in the world, Blackwell’s. We bought little Oxford rugby shirts as Christmas gifts for all of our nieces and nephews, and wandered down dark alleys in order to eat outside by a coal brazier with gloves on in the yard of 600-year old Turf Tavern.

We had our first proper English tea in the town of Windsor, and I instantly fell in love. It had been a damp, chilly day — we chatted with some of the ladies-in-waiting at Windsor Castle and even they remarked on the weather, after which they steered us toward a small place on one of the streets out front of the castle. Having never had anything better than Red Rose back home at the time, we thought we’d try the Afternoon Tea — seemed perfect on such a day.

The waiter brought out this wonderfully rich amber liquid, along with scones and clotted cream and fruit preserves. It was all a revelation, and I was so fascinated by the experience that I bought a book about tea in one of the shops.

I’ve spent all the years since learning about tea — its history and culture, how to make it properly, and all the intriguing variations as we’ve travelled around the world. In the meantime tea has made a home in North American culture and I’m often asked to do tea talks and tastings for our local organizations.

Should you be in the mood to settle in for a round of one of the many great British mystery series on television, and a little armchair travel while you’re at it, you can easily put together a quick afternoon tea for yourself.

Here’s what I made — all of it gluten-free by the way, for those of you who might need to eat the same way:

  • Cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches — a classic. I used soft spreadable cream cheese mixed with fresh chives and topped with thinly-sliced English cucumber
  • Egg salad with curly endive — well-minced hardboiled eggs, finely sliced celery, minced shallot, freshly ground black pepper and Sir Kensington mayonnaise, and topped with a sprig of curly endive (also called chicory)
  • Salmon spread — I saw this on an Agatha Christie mystery, I think. The murder had been committed by adding poison to a pot of salmon spread bought in a village shop and served for tea. You can omit the poison and just take a can of skinless, boneless wild-caught salmon, mince it into fine flakes with a fork, mix in finely minced shallot and fresh dill, and just enough mayonnaise to hold it together (the idea is to let the flavour of the salmon shine through)
  • Ham and cheddar with chutney — a couple of thin slices of roast ham, with a sturdy cheddar and a dollop of mango chutney
  • Freshly-made scones topped with creme fraiche and a jam of your choice — I used a gluten-free scone mix by Namaste, which was fairly easy to make. The scones spread out a fair bit in my oven and ended up looking like large fat cookies, but the taste and texture were perfect, so I cut them into wedges, sliced off the top and served them open-faced
  • A nice cake — here’s the recipe I used for a delicious Southern Pecan Pound Cake. I made it with gluten-free flour, and it turned out very well, if not quite as high as it would with regular flour.

I’ve also put together a great itinerary for 4 days in London, with some insider tips gleaned from many visits. Here’s the introduction and the schedule for the first day.

More will become available in the online Adventure Travel 101 course that I’m putting together and hope to make available in the next couple of months. For I believe that travel will always be a part of our lives. The world has seen many plagues and disasters for as far back as history records, and even before that in legends passed down through generations, and we continue to explore it in each new iteration.

How is a visit to London part of adventure travel? Well, my first trip was certainly a grand adventure for me, and we often recommend it to friends and family who are just getting started with international journeys as an easy and charming first step.

In the meantime, enjoy some armchair travel there while we’re waiting out our home stays!

England, how do we love thee? Let me count the ways

The iconic logo for The Tube, as the London subway system is locally known
The iconic logo for The Tube, as the London subway system is locally known

You’re driving along a country road at dusk, navigating through hills and along hedgerows. The sky is turning lavender, while over the rolling  hills a mist is creeping down the slopes. Any moment you expect a Druid to appear, collecting mistletoe for some ancient ritual…

You’re at a subway stop deep in the bowels of the earth. The tracks disappear into black holes in both directions. A small electronic sign on the ceiling advises you of how long you have to wait while you read and re-read huge curved billboards on the wall across from your platform. Soon a sooty puff of air blowing out of the tunnel like a dragon’s breath announces that your train is approaching.

Where are you? In England, of course.

England is one of my favourite places to visit, evidenced by the fact that my hubby Mike and I have been there at least half a dozen times. England was where I first learned about a decent cup of tea, had a meal in a 600-yr-old pub, saw thatched roofs and 1000-yr-old tombs, and generally fell in love with this beautiful, quirky country. Every time we step out onto British soil we feel like we’re in our second home, even though neither of us has any British background in our families. There’s just something about the place that fascinates, amuses and endears people. Every time there’s a celebration in Britain, thousands of Anglophiles around the world either attend in person or make their own party at home.

Why the hubbub? I imagine everyone has their own slant, but I can list some general reasons:

–          The Brits can and have turned just about anything into an excuse for a celebration: royal wedding, royal birth, QueThe sign for the Black Friar puben’s Jubilee, Bank Holiday, cricket test matches, Wimbledon…even afternoon tea, which humble beverage they’ve elevated into a national pastime and a sprawling multi-level industry that has included china makers and silversmiths, tea purveyors and smugglers, tea shops/salons/rooms, and probably the largest variety of sweets in the world. Everything the British do is larger-than-life and seems a lot more fun than the way we live over here in North America.

–          Tradition: there’s a sense of solidity and comfort in traditions that have literally been handed down over hundreds of years. One of the most fun things to do in a visit to London is to attend the nightly Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London, which has been going on for over 900 years without missing a night. You can walk the streets and halls of places you’ve read about, eat a typical English meal in a pub complete with a pint of beer, and buy products from purveyors that have been endorsed by the Royal Family  with a Royal Warrant. You can shop where James Bond does, stand under the sign at 221b Baker Street for an obligatory photo at the fictional home of Sherlock Holmes and then walk across the road to buy some memorabilia, and bring home mugs with a map of the Tube to remind you of the wonderfully eccentric but efficient subway system.

–          English culture is a wonderful mixture of playful, grandiose, eccentric and murky that continually reinvents itself, making it relevant to every succeeding generation. Where else would you find things like an annual count of mute swans in open water (which officially belong to the reigning monarch), or having a race that involves rolling  rounds of cheese down a hill? To balance that, you can be uplifted by the sounds of Evensong filling the massive stone chambers of a cathedral, watch Phantom of the Opera at the London theatre, or stand in front of the Coronation Chair in Westminster Abbey. The fact that there’s a living monarchy makes every bit of history just as important today as it has been for centuries.

–          This rich cultural heritage has provided the inspiration for some of the greatest classics in literature, music, film, and fertile ground for some of the most innovative artists around today. On top of that, if you’ve read it in a book or watched it in a movie set in England, you can likely find it in real life à England excels at preservation, making it a paradise for pilgrims. Because the British empire touched so many countries at its height, inspiring the famous saying that ‘the sun never sets on the British empire’, visiting England is a trip of instant recognition for people around the globe, and the culture, particularly in page and film, continues to enthrall us all, from the legends of King Arthur to Shakespeare to Downton Abbey to Harry Potter, and everything in between.

–          England loves visitors! The transportation system is fantastic, many museums are free, there’s a pub to rest your feet practically on every corner…in London they’ve even thoughtfully painted instructions at every intersection for walkers to “Look right” or “Look left” so that visitors don’t get run over adjusting to the reverse traffic directions.

Atmospheric front of the Red Lion pub
Atmospheric front of the Red Lion pub

While the world basks in royal baby excitement, even if you can’t be there in person, celebrate at home with a good cup of English Breakfast tea and fresh scones draped in Liberty’s crème fraiche and Greaves strawberry jam. Then take the next opportunity to book a trip to England, whether it’s a glorious week exploring London, which you can never tire of, or including some extra time to go out to Stonehenge, Bath, Nottingham, or wherever takes your fancy, and drop me a note if you need help planning your trip.

Legend of the Long Weekend

The magnificent Houses of Parliament in London, England - photo by E. Jurus

What happens when you fly to Europe for a long weekend? You become a legend among your friends, that’s what!

A few years ago one of our brothers-in-law died very unexpectedly in March at the age of 47. My hubby Mike was very close to him, but didn’t have any time to grieve as he helped his sister and kids cope with all the legalities. Mike was holding up manfully throughout, but I could tell how much it was affecting him, so I thought it would be a good idea to plan a bit of a break in June once everyone got past the most pressing duties.

The most we could afford that year, both time-wise and budget-wise, was a long weekend away, so I pondered what would be feasible.

Option 1: long weekend in northern Ontario. Pros: 3-6 hrs driving time. Cons: the beginning of insect season and the unreliability of our weather – we stood a good chance of being stuck inside for 4 days while it rained throughout.

Option 2: long weekend in one of the New England states, just across our border. Pros: hopefully better weather, lots of history/culture to explore. Cons: up to 12 hours driving time, i.e. not conducive to relaxation.

Option 3 popped into my head rather unexpectedly: fly to London, England for a few days. Pros:

  • We’d already been to London a few times, so no urgent need to go sightseeing – we could just meander around enjoying the ambience, and explore a few sights we hadn’t seen before if we chose
  • Transportation required only 7 hours relaxing on an airplane (except for the then brief airport waiting times – it was pre 9/11)
  • London is one of our favourite cities, great pubs with lots of atmosphere, the lively theatre scene, enough history to never run out of things to see…

Cons: Getting a good package – at the time, travelling for less than 7 days could mean exorbitant rates.

I checked first with British Airways because in the winter they offered 3- or 6-day theatre packages…but not in June as it turned out. I had our local travel agent, Marilyn, on the hunt, but nothing was coming up in my price range until I spotted an ad by Caledonian Airlines for low one-way fares to Great Britain. I got Marilyn on the phone and asked if she could find out whether they would still give us the low rate on each leg (to London and then back) if we booked them for 4 days apart.

Hallelujah, they would! We were off and running. I asked Marilyn about any special rates  (pre-internet days) at our wish-list London hotel, the Russell in Bloomsbury, a huge old Victorian pile that was the epitome of a classic English hotel. We’d had breakfast there before – fantastic English breakfasts – but the normal room rates were out of our reach. I think Marilyn pulled some strings, because she got us in for half the normal price, including the fabulous breakfast, which was worth about $25 per person all by itself.

We packed a few clothes and set off on our adventure. We decided to wing it for this visit – we didn’t book any theatre shows in advance, as we had access to a ticket office right in the hotel and we thought we’d take our chances with whatever was available, and we didn’t pre-plan an itinerary other than to make a beeline to our favourite pub in all of London, the Museum Tavern across from the British Museum. We discovered the pub on our very first visit to England and have been enjoying its Victorian décor and delicious home-cooked food ever since.

It was wonderful to settle ourselves into our high-ceilinged old English room at the Russell. The bedroom and bathroom were straight out of a British novel, with dark wooden furniture, old-fashioned marble surfaces and loads of faded charm. We checked out the ticket office and were lucky enough to get tickets to see both Joseph & the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat and The Mousetrap, Agatha Christie’s only play and the longest-running production in history.

For three days we meandered around the city as we felt like. We did make a day trip out to Leeds Castle in Kent, on a drizzly afternoon that just added to the atmosphere. Leeds is a beautiful moated castle dating back to Saxon times, and is known as the Queens’ Castle, as six different queens have lived in it. The interior is surprisingly light and airy for a medieval castle.

It was time to return home all too soon, of course, but the trip was successful – as relaxing as I hoped and a good break for Mike. The fun wasn’t over when we reached Toronto though: Customs had a hard time believing we weren’t smugglers of some kind. The conversation went something like this:

Customs: “How long were you away?”

Us: “Four days.”

Customs: “Were you travelling on business?”

Us: “No, it was a vacation.”

Customs: “Did you go anywhere else?”

Us: “No, just London.”

Customs: “ You flew to England for vacation for 4 days?”

Us: “Yes.”

Customs: “Please see the man over there.”

We trucked our stuff over to the other desk, where luckily the presiding officer took one look at our documentation and told us we were free to go.

Our story quickly made the rounds among our friends and co-workers, growing in stature until we became the stuff of legends: jetsetters who might take off to Europe for a weekend at the drop of a hat. In actuality, we don’t have the funds to do quite that, and prices have probably doubled since then, but for a one-of-a-kind adventure it was a blast and remains a fun possibility for everyone. And every now and then Mike will still come home from work and say that someone has once again brought up the ‘legend of the long weekend’.