How I Spent My Summer Vacation — Part III: Back to England


Go to Part I: Arriving in England
Go to Part II: Scotland

In Liverpool we had some rain and it was very dreary. The traffic was horrendous and we couldn’t find Dock Street, which according to the Internet is where the heaviest concentration of Beatles’ tours/memorabilia is. Once it stopped raining we parked our car and started to look for a place to eat. It was now evening and we had to make our final decision about the rest of our trip. Our trip would be over in 3 days and we had to return our car with a full tank of gas to Gatwick on Friday. Our flight back to Houston was at 9am so time was of the essence.

Like Inverness, Liverpool is rather grimy but its dock section has been renovated and is extremely modern. We found some underground parking, went upstairs and emerged in a massive shopping mall where we came upon this great big billboard:

Yeah, it was worth it

We found a Wetherspoon’s where we ate. Mikey had brought his Macbook and as long as we had wi-fi we could find available lodging and make reservations. We found an inn called The Verdon in Stoke-on-Trent about 60 miles away. Looking at the map, we made the decision that we couldn’t go to Glastonbury, Oxford, or Cambridge in the time that was allotted to us. So we decided on Bath, Stonehenge, and (hopefully) Salisbury. Leaving Liverpool was bittersweet. I couldn’t figure out why it produced such massive, earth-changing talent but it did. Especially when we consider that none of the Beatles had any musical training whatsoever. Oh well, like Beethoven, Mozart and I daresay Elvis, they belong to the Ages.

Except for Edinburgh, Stoke-on-Trent was the largest town we stayed in up to then. It was a mid-sized city and was very hilly. Finding The Verdon was a bit of a chore, as is almost everything else in England. One thing we had to keep in mind was that the villages and towns of England were not built on the grid pattern but harked back to an agricultural time in which oxen and donkeys marked the paths that would later become streets. This was even true of the large cities, like London, which makes no sense at all. Once we found it, we were shown to our rooms and our hostess told us about the homemade jams that they were famous for.

Tuesday, July 31st
Breakfast was delicious and we decided to try something new. In addition to trying the local jams, we were given a slice of toast with beans on it. We’d never thought of beans as breakfast food but by now we were used to it. Seeing it on toast however was a new thing. Not bad actually. We chatted with the hostess who told us about how she gathers the various plants from around her home to make her jellies. Truth be told, had there been anything touristy to do in Stoke, I’d have liked to have stayed another day simply for the food and hospitality. As always, the people were unfailingly kind.

Before we left, I had to exchange some dollars and get some gas. I found a gas station not too far away and asked where the banks were. In the station was a very spry old fellow named John who told me how to get there. He saw that I was having a hard time comprehending the directions so he told me he’d take me there. We got in the car and he was such a joy to be with that I wish he could have accompanied us. As I parked the car he told me “see you again, my friend!” Did I mention that the people of Britain are friendly?

Anyway, we got on the road and drove to Bath. Unfortunately because we still weren’t used to the road signs, we took a detour through Birmingham and lost about an hour so we had no time to waste. Even though Britain has hundreds of McDonalds, Burger Kings, and KFCs, we wanted to make every effort to eat local food as much as possible. If you ever go, I recommend that you do as well. You’ll not be disappointed.

Bath was amazing. When the Hanoverians came to the British throne they brought a whole lot of German craftsmen with them and the Germanic influence is very apparent. The buildings are unlike anything we had seen. Some rowhouses went on for blocks at a time and were painted a golden, almost adobe-like color. The uniformity of these apartments was a stark contrast to the normal hodge-podge construction that so delighted us in the English villages that we stayed in during the first part of our trip. In addition, there was a conscious effort by the architects to build the streets according to some pattern –at least as best as could be done. Some streets were circular with esplanades seperating them and others radiated out from central cores. Because of its attention to detail and of course the healing waters, some of the wealthiest people in England decided to make their homes there in the eighteenth century and you can definitely tell that Bath has a very baroque elegance about it. I believe Handel, one of the many Germans that George I brought with him spent some time there (but I could be mistaken).

Luckily for us, the weather broke and it was sunny. Its plazas with its outdoor eateries reminded me very much me of Greece. Once we found parking we walked to the town center where Bath Abbey and the famous Roman baths are located. I asked a lovely lady of a certain age where the baths were and she grabbed my shoulder and said in a cheerful voice, “this way, my love” and led us part of the way there. (I was so flattered by her attention and my sons got a kick out of it.) On the way there, we saw a native couple walking a Boston Terrier and it made us homesick for our dog. We exchanged some polite chit-chat and then went on our way.

In Roman times Bath was called Aquae Sulis. It was founded by the Romans because there are natural hot springs here which are supposed to have curative powers. They built an extensive complex that included a main swimming area, spas, dressing rooms, and exercise rooms. Its floors were heated by an ingenious system of cauldrons where water was boiled then passed through an elaborate plumbing system. When the Romans left in AD 410, the baths fell into disrepair and eventually became ruins. In the subsequent centuries the entire complex had been covered with debris which was finally removed by archaeologists in the nineteenth century. There was a conscious effort by the local aristocracy to try and revive the Roman spirit so statues of famous Romans who were connected to Roman Britan were erected. The Romans knew what they were doing: the main bathing pool had a lining of beaten lead and was still water-tight. The statues of various Roman personages like Julius Caesar, Claudius, Hadrian and Constantine the Great were magnificent. What made it especially enjoyable were the audio-recorders that are given to the ticket holders. It’s like having your own personal tour guide. Another place where we could have stayed another day. Oh well.
Denny with his namesake, Constantine the Great, who was proclaimed Emperor of the West while stationed at York
Taking a rest. I was still a little sore from the hike

Fortunately, the world-famous Bath Abbey is located just across the street from the baths themselves. Its façade is very beautiful and I couldn’t help but notice the contrast: on one side of the street stood a marvel from Classical antiquity and on the other a monument to Gothic brilliance. It’s amazing how big it is and how people without our technology could build something so massive. For anybody who thinks the Middle Ages were “dark,” Bath Abbey (and all Gothic cathedrals for that matter) serve as a sharp, stinging rebuke. Inside it was an explosion of stained glass and statuary. We really enjoyed seeing the various tombs and cenotaphs located throughout it. We tried to read the Latin and Greek inscriptions but that was somewhat of a chore. Seeing an Anglican priestess in a cassock ruined the atmosphere however: what heppens when post-modernism forces itself upon the medieval.

Once we got our souvenirs we headed for London. Stonehenge was on the way and if we were willing to take a slight detour, Salisbury Cathedral as well.

We pulled up to Stonehenge a little before 7pm, which was the closing time. Another tourist site, another handy little audio-recorder. Stonehenge is definitely mysterious, no two ways about it. I suspect that most people think that it’s much larger than it really is. Some people who’d been there said we’d be disappointed at its size, I know I was the first time I saw it (back in ’97). But these biases have to be laid aside because even though the stones aren’t more than 15 or so feet high, they are incredibly heavy. We’re talking each one weighing several tons. And no one really knows how they got there or who built them. Some of the stones came from hundreds of miles away. Why?
So how did they get there?

There was a definate “feel” about it. Something stark and pagan, made all the more disappointing in that the sight is ringed by highways on both sides. The noise of the traffic ruined for what for me at least, was a mystical experience. If they’d asked me, I’d of told them to have the motorways no closer than one mile to the site. But they didn’t ask me. Still, it’s worth a trip. If nothing else, it will provoke your thoughts and challenge your assumptions about the ancient world.

Walking back to our car, we ran into an American lady asking if we were able to take he tour. We told her that we just finished and she said, “I guess we got here too late.” (It was a little after seven.) I felt sorry for her, she’d probably driven straight from London which was about 90 miles away for the express purpose of seeing Stonehenge. Realizing by now that most sites close at 7pm, we decided against Salisbury which was about 10 miles in the opposite direction. We needed to get to London (or as close to it as possible) in order to find lodging for our last two nights. Back on the M-4 and hopefully, someplace to outside of London where we supposed that the prices for lodging would be more reasonable.

Our problem was that we needed inexpensive accommodations as well as proximity to a train to take us to London (and of course, Gatwick). We had to get our car back to the rental place in decent enough time to make our flight, which was at 9am. On the way there, we stopped at a “carvery” where we had Yorkshire Pudding. It’s not pudding as we Americans think of it, but a broad, flat muffin topped with delicious meats. One of the chefs was a tall, young black man who answered our questions by addressing me as “my friend” in a lilting, cockney accent. (The further south we got, the easier it was for me to understand the natives. Cockney accents are particularly delightful.) Anyway, he was so friendly that I’d felt that I’d known him for a long time. I can’t say this enough: for all the sheer physical beauty of Great Britain its greatest asset are its people.

Getting back into our car we took out the ubiquitous map and saw a suburb to the west of London called Staines, a fairly large town located on the Thames River. We decided that was as good a place as any to stay for the next two nights. For one thing, it looked like it had a train station nearby and we knew that there was no way we were going to actually drive to London proper and go sight-seeing. We found a B&B called The Swan right on the Thames which had a lively bar but it had no rooms available that night. Another, The Anne Boleyn, which was right across the street was way too expensive for what it offered. We decided on a hotel called The Thames Lodge but when we realized that the air-conditioning wasn’t working, we nixed that in a real hurry. Still, the concierge was friendly and told us about a Travelodge about a half-mile away.

This was not a B&B; breakfast was a package dropped off at your door but it was getting late and we didn’t want to drive any longer. The A/C wasn’t working here either but we would be able to open the windows so we slept comfortably. Fortunately for us, the nights in Great Britain were very cool.

Wednesday, Aug 1st: London
We got up and gathered our laundry. The concierge was a courteous and lovely young lady (btw, the women in England were quite lovely) who called a Laundromat to come pick up our clothes and bring them back. She also helped me get a discount for both nights. This saved us some time and off we walked to the train which would take us to London.

Stains was about 30 miles from the center of London and our train made several stops along the way but nothing seemed to appeal to the eye. I began to miss the North and Scotland. About 45 minutes later we were in London. The train terminated very near Parliament and so we walked there. As we crossed the Thames, Big Ben came into view. I can’t describe to you how beautiful the buildings of Parliament are. Words fail me. The closer we got, the more we were able to appreciate the detail of the exterior, things like statues interspersed in the exterior walls. We decided we were going to make every effort to get inside. We asked some heavily-armed guards when the next tour was (3:00 o’clock) and we decided we’d make every effort to make it.

Right across the street was Westminster Abbey. We thought we were prepared for it having seen St Giles’ and Bath Abbey but the sheer massiveness of it left our mouths agape. The line to get in was horrendously long but just standing outside the massive structure gave us much to talk about. Once inside we were awe-struck. Its size beggars description. We were given the customary audio-recorder and off we went. My elder son Denny recognized the voice of the narrator, Jeremy Irons, as the voice of Scar, from The Lion King. Sure enough, I looked at the credits and there it was –Jeremy Irons. It’s a generational thing I guess. ( Before we left for Great Britain, we watched The King’s Speech, and Mikey’s girlfriend Katie –upon seeing the actor who played King George V—remarked: “Isn’t that Dumbledore?”)

These recorders allowed us to set our own pace. You could get lost in the Abbey. There are dozens of side chapels and a Chapter House (of which more later). And there’s no way that even if you stayed there for a week you could see it all. It’s that massive and that complex and that beautiful. I must say that I was disappointed with some of the more ornate tombs, especially those from the Elizabethan period. They were too ornate –almost gawdy–for their own good in my opinion. This goes especially for the effigies on the top of them, which were far more effete in comparison to those from the Crusading period.

St Edward's Chair, with the Stone of Scone underneath

The climax of the Abbey for me was seeing the tombs of Edward I (Longshanks) and Henry V, the two great warrior-kings of England par excellence. The shrine of St Edward the Confessor, the patron saint of England and penultimate Anglo-Saxon king of England before the Conquest and the builder of Westminster Abbey and Westminster Hall (the first Parliament building), was closed for repairs. It’s in the center of the Abbey and it contains the he Coronation Chair where the monarchs of Britain are crowned. The Chair itself was moved to St George’s chapel which is located near the Narthex, for renovation. I mentioned The King’s Speech earlier; rent a copy if you want to see St Edwards Chapel and the Coronation Chair up close. The scene in which Geoffrey Rush sits upon it is one of the climaxes of the movie.

I could go on and on about the Abbey. Unfortunately, all are forbidden from taking photos. As usual, words fail. One of the things I’d heard about Gothic cathedrals was how their sheer size makes you jerk your head up and gape in awe at their ceilings. Yes, they do that. It staggers the imagination to see how high the ceilings are. In addition, the ceilings of these cathedrals are pieces of work in and of themselves. The only thing I can recommend is to go see it for yourself –it’s a life-changing experience.

Of course there’s more. The side chapels near the Altar are quite stunning: one has Elizabeth I in it and the one opposite, the cousin whom she beheaded, Mary Stuart of Scotland (Mary, Queen of Scots). Somehow it seemed fitting that these rivals would be placed opposite each other. The ornamentation within them showed to me a transition between the austere medieval motifs of the Plantagenet-era tombs and the later, more ornate, Tudor tombs that I mentioned earlier.

As we walked to the Chapter House, we passed The Poet’s Corner, which had cenotaphs and tombs of some of the most famous literary figures in the English-speaking world: men like Lord Byron, William Shakespeare, William Makepeace Thackery, and even William Wadsworth Longfellow (an American). Nearby was a monument to Georg Friedrich Handel. Off to the side of the Poet’s Corner was a hallway that led to the Chapter House. This room is a large, octagonal-shaped chapel built into the side of the Abbey. It was built by Henry III (the son of the infamous King John and father of Edward I) as a meeting room for the monks of the Abbey. I’d say it was about 30 or so feet in diameter, which is quite substantial. Its ceiling is not as high as that of the Abbey but just as beautiful. Along the walls were painted frescoes which depicted scense from the life of Christ. Unfortunately they had substantially faded with time and they were difficult to discern. (We were told later while visiting Parliament that Mediterranean climates are better suited for frescoes.) Anyway, upon close inspection of these frescoes, one got the definite hint of Byzantine-style iconography. Besides their religious intent, you could see the same emphasis on flat, two-dimensional figures standing in rigid, stylized positions.

Within the Chapter House itself were large photos from the Royal Wedding. Although I did not get up at 3am to watch it (as did my wife), I did catch the highlights. To me, the bride radiated an inner beauty and the groom a royal dignity. It was a fairy-tale, and it struck mystic chords of memory of a long-ago time. It also made me think about the monarchy. Even though I’m a republican (in that I believe in a republic), I am of the opinion that nations that are built on ethnic lines are better served by kings, who are exemplars of their respective peoples. When a monarchy works well, it radiates outward from its central core and up and down its class structure through processes of intermarriage and land tenancy. This was obvious in the case of the William of Wales and Kate Middleton, whose great-great-grandfather was a coal miner from Manchester. (William’s was Edward VII.)

Anyway, my younger son, Michael, was dead set on seeing the tomb of Isaac Newton. He wanted to lay on it and absorb this man’s genius by osmosis in some way. He still has to take Physics it seems. Unfortunately it was roped off and close to an Altar so it was impossible to approach any closer than ten feet or so. Disappointed, he was bound and determined to take a photograph (surreptitiously of course). Here it is:

Unfortunately Charles Darwin is buried nearby

As we were leaving the Abbey, we noticed that in the Narthex proper there are two very prominent Orthodox-style icons: one of the Lord to the right and the other of the Theotokos and Child on the left. They were painted by a Russian iconographer living in England about fifteen years ago as a gesture of ecumenical goodwill between the Orthodox Church and the Church of England. Although from an Orthodox perspective their placement in the Narthex is rather curious, they somehow seemed to “fit” there in the midst of the Abbey’s Gothic splendor.

St Stephen's Tower, aka "Big Ben"

I didn’t want to leave the Abbey but there was still much to see. Parliament, the Tower of London, Trafalgar Square, and St Paul’s Cathedral (I wanted to show my sons the sarcophagi of Admiral Nelson and the Duke of Wellington, plus the crypt where Lawrence of Arabia is buried.) Luckily for us, Parliament was across the street and so we bought tickets to get inside. If we thought the exterior was phenomenal, we would be blown away by the inside.

Cromwell: great general, terrible administrator

Getting inside was a chore however. Once we purchased tickets, we had to stand in line for a pat-down and X-ray scan, just like at an airport or a federal courthouse back home. This was a government building and they weren’t kidding. No photos would be allowed at all so we didn’t try to pull a similar stunt as we did earlier at Newton’s tomb. One thing about England, when they pat you down there, it’s very thorough, more so than you receive in the States. After it was over, to break the tension, I pointed to a policewoman and said, “next time I want you to do it!”

Richard Coeur-de-Leon: True warrior-king

Once we got through the checkpoint, we were herded into groups with a docent to give us a tour. The first building we walked into was Westminster Hall which was the first Parliament per se, built for the Lords Temporal and Spiritual. The Commons met in St Stephen’s Tower, which is where Big Ben is now located. Westminster Hall was built by Edward the Confessor at about the same time he built Westminster Abbey. It’s massive. Except for its size, it reminded me of a typical Norse meeting-hall, very long and simple in construction, with little to no ornametation. Besides being the seat of the House of Lords (which up until the early modern period was more of a King’s Council rather than a legislature) it was the site of some very famous trials, including those of Sir William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, King Charles I, and Guy Fawkes. It was also the site of George IV’s coronation banquet in the early nineteenth century.

Westminster Hall. Awesome

At the far corner was a raised altar-like area which led to another hall and the modern Houses of Parliament. Before we made our way into the House of Lords, we went to the Robing Room. It is here that Queen Elizabeth II is vested in the regalia of office while the Lords and Commons wait for her to commence the state opening of each session of Parliament. At the far end is the throne upon which she sits while she is vested.

The Robing Room (all photos are from official sites)

Its walls are line with frescoes depicting scenes from the Arthurian legends. This was per the wishes of her husband Prince Albert, who was enthralled by all things Arthuriana. From there she is escorted to the House of Lords. The House of Lords is distinguishable from the House of Commons by the color of the upholstery for the benches: Red for the Lords, green for the Commons. Also, the Lords has three thrones at its head: one for the Sovereign, one to the left for the Consort, and one to the right for the Heir (the Prince of Wales).

House of Lords

Leaving the House of Lords, we passed through he Central Lobby. It’s nothing short of stunning. Like the Chapter House at Westminster, it’s octagonal shaped. What stood out in my mind were the Byzantine style mosaics at the top of four of the walls: St George (England), St David (Wales), St Andrew (Scotland), and St Patrick (Ireland). It’s located in between the House of Lords and the House of Commons. When the Queen is sitting at her station in the House of Lords, an officer called the Black Stick marches through here and bangs on the door of the Commons, summoning them to the House of Lords so they can hear the Opening Address of Parliament (even though it’s called the Queen’s Speech, it is written for her by the Prime Minister, so in reality it’s the majority party’s speech of only one House, that of Commons).

The Central Lobby, a very good little video

Needless to say, we all got a kick out of visiting the House of Lords and then the House of Commons. For anybody who’s watched C-SPAN, you’ll know what I’m talking about. We weren’t allowed to sit down on the seats which, was somewhat of a disappointment (and by this time, a necessity for me) but those were the rules. One of a group of Japanese tourists thought that the rules didn’t apply to her so she took some photos. Our guide became very incensed and threatened her with expulsion. The guide did a wonderful job explaining the various procedures that are involved in voting; it’s rather complicated so I won’t bore you with the details but what you see on C-SPAN is more or less the climax of deliberation. Before votes are taken, those who are going to vote “aye” congregate in a chamber to one side of both Houses and those who vote “nay” go to a room opposite. This applies to both the Lords and the Commons. There they mostly deliberate among themselves then file into their respective Houses to actually deliver their votes.

Leaving the House of Commons was another lobby. This one was ringed by bronze statues of some of Britain’s most famous prime ministers, including Sir Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. The actual doorway to the Commons was blackened and in disrepair. We were told by our guide that when Parliament was bombed by the Germans in WWII, Churchill made a conscious effort to not repair the entrance so it could serve as a lasting reminder of the war.

I can’t do justice to the Houses of Parliament. If you decide to ever go to England, you must see it, as it is truly the Mother of all Parliaments, that is to say all real legistlatures of countries that enshrine the rule of law. I also recommende that you buy an English Heritage pass. It’s rather expensive but it’s a one-time outlay which will save you considerable sums as you go sight-seeing. We didn’t because we weren’t sure that we were going to be able to see all that much (plus we were going to go to Scotland). Anyway, Parliament was another site where you could get lost in and spend days. The statuary and stained glass gave it a very sacred feel.

We had only a few more hours before nightfall so we decided to go to the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the Tower closed at 5pm which surprised us because we thought most places closed at seven. Oh well, we took the subway to St Paul’s but it was closed as well. Trafalgar was a possibility since it was open to the street and Buckingham Palace as well, but we wanted to make sure we didn’t miss the train to Staines.

Queen Victoria: Exterior of St Paul's Cathedral

So we hopped on the subway (called the Underground or the Tube) and went back to the main train station. We went back to Staines and decided to eat at the restaurant right next to the Travelodge. It was a faux American type of place called Franky and Bennies. Mostly Italian cuisine with lots of pictures of Frank Sinatra and the Rat Pack. It filled us up and we went and retrieved our laundry from the concierge, asked for a 4am wake-up call and called it a night.

Thursday, Aug 2nd
4am. We showered, packed, grabbed our sack breakfasts and headed to the airport. On the way I filled up the car with gas (or as they say, “petrol”) and crossed my fingers that the Alamo rental people would find everything OK. They did. Breathing a sigh of relief, we went to check our luggage and head back home.

The trip was exhausting and exhilarating at the same time. It gave us a lifetime of memories. Someone once said that England was the most consequential country in history. I believe that. At its height it was the exemplar of Christian civilization. Did it make mistakes? All nations do. But the imperial system is necessary for trade, culture, and the maintenance of peace. Prosperity is impossible without it.

I know some people think that colonialism was evil, yet in seeing the tourists from around the world who crowded into Westminster Abbey and Parliament, I saw no resentment of the legacy of Great Britain. Some of these tourists were from the Subcontinent, others were in Islamic garb, others were the ubiquitous Japanese. It wasn’t cheap to get in either. Instead of grievance, I saw wonder and no small measure of gratitude. Many I’m sure felt like me, that because of the crises that are currently besetting the West, brought in no small measure by the loss of Christian confidence, we are standing at the precipice of a new Dark Age. Am I nostalgic for the heyday of the Victorian era? Possibly. But why shouldn’t I be? Has the subsequent history of the demise of the old order been any better? The monarchies of Europe were successful because they represented a Christian order which we have lost thanks to The Great War.

This didn’t become apparent to me until we landed back in the States and the riots in London broke out. This started as a racial incident between the police and a drug dealer but it soon escalated into an all-out war which included the native, white underclass (“yobs”) and authority. It also was a low-level race war as some of these yobs destroyed shops owned by foreigners and killed more than a few of them. Because of its liberalism (and I mean this in the modern, debased understanding of the term), the Church of England could not intervene and quell the rioting by shaming the hooligans. The loss of moral authority and Christian confidence, which is aided and abetted by the uncritical acceptance of Darwinism in the UK, is almost complete in England and I suspect in most countries of Europe. Certainly the polyglot nature of immigration patterns -–most of which is non-Christian—didn’t help things. We need to take serious stock here in America about our own future which I think we got a foretaste of with these riots.

Fortunately, I saw none of this in our tour of the countryside, which was overwhelmingly native and Christian (at least culturally). I can’t say that there was a strict Christian observance but in most villages and towns I saw active parishes. Broadsheets advertising parish events were everywhere in these little towns. Perhaps because of their rustic setting and small size the rhythms of village life still carried the day. I’d like to think that it will always be so. I’d also like to think that the rioting of north London, Manchester, and Birmingham were mere aberrations. But given the demographic makeup of these cities, I’m not so certain. (Recently, the comedian John Cleese caused a minor furor when he repeated what an American tourist friend of his said while recently in London: “where are all the Englishmen?”)

Regardless, I’ll take away the memories and pray that as long as the natives retain their innate decency and the monarchy remains, then the Christian consciousness of the British people will revive. One can only hope.

Go to Part I: Arriving in England
Go to Part II: Scotland


  1. Lola J. Lee Beno says

    Good travelogue! I hope you get to go back there again someday in the future.