Monday, November 5, 2018

Cabmen's Lunch

It all started with a single, simple question: can you take us to a cabmen's shelter where we can get some lunch? I know you are thinking: what on Earth is a cabmen's shelter? I'll start there.

And by "there" I mean the late 1800s, more precisely in the 1870s. And yes, that was before cabbies drove cars. Back then in London, cabbies drove carts powered by, well, a single horse. I'm sure there were far fewer cabbies on the road at that time than there are now but apparently, drivers spending time in pubs between fares was a particular problem in the city. And some folks wanted to remedy this.

Their solution? Build a series of miniature restaurants with a tiny kitchen and small seating area that would cater only to cab drivers. These buildings, sized to fit on the street in a spot typically occupied by a cab and horse, were erected all over London at a cost of about £200 each. The funding for each of what would eventually be 60 or so of these structures was provided by the Cabmen's Shelter Fund, a charity started by the Earl of Shaftesbury in 1874. The goal was to provide cabmen with "good and wholesome refreshments at moderate prices" while also keeping them off the drink and providing safer rides for the general public.

THAT is a cabmen's shelter.

Today, there are just 13 of these shelters in existence and they are all protected. To go sit inside one of these things and get a meal you have to be a London cabbie. No exceptions. After all, that is why the things were put there in the first place. But if you are willing to get some food to take away, some offer window service to the general public, including to tourists like me interested in London's history. My aim was to get some grub at one of these spots on this trip.

On our way to whatever cabmen's shelter our cabbie is taking us to.
So how do you find a cabmen's shelter? Well, I figured why not just hail a cab and ask the driver. Sure, there are lists available on various websites but in a rare departure from what sometimes for me are strictly scripted holiday agendas, I figured why not ask a cabbie and see where I ended up.

Maybe a word or two about London cabbies is in order. If I asked something vague like this of a cab driver in Washington or Arlington or anywhere else close to where I live, I would not expect good results. Heck, about 50% of the time when I hop into a cab in my adopted hometown I either have to (a) give turn-by-turn directions to my destination to my cabbie or (b) wait for the cabbie to punch the address into his (or her) GPS and then live with the results. Sometimes the routes we take under option (b) make no sense whatsoever. That wouldn't happen in London. That's because London cabbies have "The Knowledge".

The Knowledge is not some mutant power or some cheap parlor trick, it's a test that all London cabbies have to take before they are granted their license to drive a black cab. It's been called by some the most difficult test in the world. It requires London cabbies to know absolutely everything located within a six mile radius of Charing Cross. Doesn't sound too hard? That's 25,000 streets and everything on them. Every roundabout, every dead end, every housing estate, every hospital, every sports arena, every park, every monument, every pub. Everything. Think about how many pubs there are in London (there are a lot if you don't know). They need to know where they all are.

As it turned out, the cabman we flagged down had to think about our request. He admitted he'd never used a cabmen's shelter. So we waited outside the cab for what seemed like a couple of minutes but was probably actually just about 15 seconds or so until he knew where he was going to take us. We hopped in, fastened our seatbelts (have to be safe!) and we were off. He knew. He had The Knowledge.

We hailed our cab just a couple of blocks from the Bank of England. We ended up at the west corner of Russell Square, just about 2 miles away. It cost us £11.60, including a small tip for the cabbie. Totally worth it. Let's have some lunch.

We found ourselves outside a green (Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green to be precise) wooden shed about 8 feet wide by 19 feet long with a small door in the middle portion of the long, non-traffic side and a serving window just to the right of the door. All the other cabmen's shelters in the city are similarly sized, although we didn't know that when we were deposited in Russell Square (we walked by a second the next day near the Embankment Tube station), but the exact configuration may differ a little.

Inside our cabmen's shelter was Jude Holmes (we found out her name later) and about the tiniest kitchen I have ever seen in any place I've ordered food from. We found Jude by stepping a couple of steps up to the serving window, not by walking through the door (we dare not do that!) reserved just for the cabbies. Two sandwiches, please, including a Cumberland sausage, bacon and egg big sub for me. And that would be with English bacon, not the inferior American stuff. Jude clarified our order along the way with a series of questions, each one ending the word "darling". Good stuff!

Efficiency. Sausages and bacon pre-cooked and just needing a bit of warming up. My egg is in the pan!
If you are looking for a gourmet haute cuisine experience, look elsewhere. But if you want some classic English energy food to keep you going through a long day of playing tourist (or driving a cab, I guess) step up and order some food at a cabmen's shelter. I unknowingly made a wise choice with my sandwich order because at least one part of it was freshly prepared. Given the potential volume of orders required to be filled by a single cook, some food items are precooked or microwaved. Can't really do either with an egg that comes with a runny yolk. 

I suppose there are some shelters which come with no seating area for non-cabbies. We got lucky with Jude's spot because she's got a couple of picnic tables outside (painted Dulux Buckingham Paradise 1 Green of course) for people not in the trade. 

My foot long (or is it 30 cm?) protein and carb sub was gone in maybe 10 minutes. Classic English sausage, rashers of bacon with a ton of meat and a fresh cooked egg on a buttered white bread roll. How can you get much more English than that in a sandwich without adding something messy like baked beans or Branston? No messing about with fancy good for you stuff like lettuce or tomato or anything resembling salad; just fuel to keep you going for the rest of the day. Maybe not wise as an everyday lunch but once a trip between pies and scotch eggs is OK. Or maybe traditional English food is just not that healthy after all.

Tucking in to a very English lunch sandwich.
Lest you think our cabbie that got us to our lunch spot represented all cabbies in London in his abstinence from these establishments, while we were sitting and eating our lunch, a black cab pulled up to a parking spot near our cabmen's shelter, got out of his car and headed straight through the green door for some lunch or maybe just a cup of tea. These things are legit used by cabmen to this day. They are a slice of London's history that is largely overlooked by most tourists. Hopefully this post inspires someone else to give one of these things a shot.

On our cab ride to lunch, I offered to our driver that he probably didn't get asked for a fare to a cabmen's shelter, since it took him a minute to think of where to go. His response: "Never. Ever." There's a first time for everything I guess. We left happy and full and ready for an afternoon spent underground at an old air-raid shelter near Clapham Common. We took the tube located across Russell Square but we could have hailed a cab I guess. And the driver wouldn't have needed any directions.

How We Did It
You don't have to take a black cab to a cabmen's shelter but it seemed like the way to go to us. I mean what better way to be taken to somewhere like this than by one of the very people they were originally set up to serve. If you are interested in duplicating our experience, just flag down a cab and ask the driver the question I asked at the beginning of this post.

If you want to target a specific cabmen's shelter to visit or want to find one near where you might be doing other things, there's a list of all 13 remaining shelters on the Cabmen's Shelter Fund Wikipedia page. I have no idea if this list is correct or not but Wikipedia rarely steers me incorrectly and I don't think anyone's trying to Maurice Jarre people who are looking for lunch in London.

Interestingly, there's a note on the Wikipedia page that says the off limits parts of these shelters are open to the public during the annual Open House London event each September. I searched for "cabmen's shelter" on their 2018 website and found nothing but it might be worth checking out availability if you are in town on that weekend. Happy hunting! Say hi to Jude for me if you visit Russell Square.

For those of you wondering about the single sex nomenclature I've used...I'm using the term "cabmen's shelter" (rather than "cabperson's shelter") because that's what they are called. That's not to say there aren't cabwomen in London. Just that these shelters aren't called that.

Thursday, November 1, 2018


I spent the first half of my childhood in England. Well, maybe two thirds is probably more accurate, from the time I was born until just after my 11th birthday when our family emigrated to the United States. From my six years in primary school in Castle Donnington and Ashby-de-la-Zouch, I know astonishingly little about English history. I guess I was focused on other things. Sure there were wars with France and Spain and a revolution led by Oliver Cromwell and some dude named Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament once on the fifth of November and some kings and queens were involved in there somehow I think. Other than that, things are a little fuzzy.

But if there's one thing about history that every kid in English primary school understands, it's what happened in the year 1066. That would be the Battle of Hastings. Seriously, every child knows that and likely responds by rote mentally or actually when someone says 1066. What did it mean for the history of England? No idea. Where is Hastings, again? Also, no idea. What happened after the rule of William the Conqueror (who won the Battle)? Yep, no idea again. But when you say 1066, I say Battle of Hastings. I got that much down.

This year, it was time to get a little smarter.

When we decided to take our last trip of this year to England (with a couple of nights side trip to Cologne, that is), the first place I put on my agenda was Hastings. Four years ago, I knocked Stonehenge off my list. This year it was time to head to Hastings to learn about what happened in the year that the teachers of my youth were relentlessly driving into our heads. And the first lesson learned here was that the Battle of Hastings wasn't fought in Hastings at all, but in a spot which in 1066 had no name. They just called it the Battle of Hastings because that was the nearest settlement. Six miles away on the coast as it turns out. We would be going to the town of Battle instead. See? Already a little smarter.

As it turns out, there was some pretty wild Game of Thrones-type drama happening on the island of Great Britain in the middle of the eleventh century. In the year 1066, Edward the Confessor, who it seems had a pretty firm claim on the throne based on his 24 year reign, died with no heir. And apparently, having an island for your kingdom was pretty desirable. All eyes were on the Confessor's empty chair.

The first man up was Harold Godwinson, better known as Harold II, who actually did take possession of the throne somewhat lawfully it seems. Harold was apparently either voted into the position by fellow nobility as was custom back then or nominated specifically by Edward as his successor on his deathbed. Harold was crowned king at Westminster Abbey, likely on January 6, 1066, one day after Edward's death. How Harold got the throne really depends on what you choose to believe. There seems to be little definitive evidence either way and it probably doesn't matter at this point. For what it's worth (and it's probably not worth much), Harold was Edward's brother-in-law, meaning he was really in no way in the line of succession as we think about these things today.

Others had eyes on the prize. Namely, Harald Sigurdsson (or Harald Hadrada, as he was better known) and William the Conqueror, although I suppose he wasn't know as "the Conqueror" before he decided to take the English throne (sorry if that's a spoiler). 

Harald Hadrada's claim to the throne was, in my estimation, a bit of a stretch. Try to follow along. From the year 1016 to 1035, England was ruled by King Canute of Denmark. When Canute died, his two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, succeeded him one after the other. When Harthacnut was on the throne, he allegedly made an agreement with Magnus the Good (who was King of Norway following Canute) that if either died then their lands belonged to the other. By coincidence, Harald Hadrada had inherited half of Magnus' kingdom after his death and decided that entitled him to England as well, which was conveniently king-less when he decided this to be the case.

View of the battlefield from the ruined Battle Abbey dormitory.
Then there was William, Duke of Normandy, who was sometimes called William the Bastard because, well...he was one, being the illegitimate son of Robert I, also Duke of Normandy, who was unmarried at the time of William's birth. Yes, there are bastards (or at least one) in this story. Told you it was Game of Thrones-esque.

William didn't much like being called a bastard and whether it was this that drove his mean temper and spirit or something else I don't suppose it's much known. But it seems that for sure he was a spiteful kid who was good in battle and at killing people. William's claim to the English throne stemmed from his blood relationship to the wife of King Canute (William was not a descendant but both he and Emma of Normandy had common ancestors) and an alleged promise from Harold Godwinson that he would support William as Edward's successor. To be fair to Harold here, (a) he was captured and being protected by William at the time of this supposed promise and was probably not in a position of strength and (b) promises and even blood succession was not how kings were crowned in England at that time.

No matter how valid or invalid the claims to the throne were by these three men, 1066 was shaping up to be a heck of a year in England and we were heading for a couple of full on fights with no real way to the end without just one man standing. It would all be over fairly quickly.

Two wooden figures, presumably English and Norman, fighting it out in Battle.
Harald Hadrada struck first, commanding an army which included Harold Godwinson's brother, Tostig. After an initial victory in the north of England at the Battle of Fulford, Harald and Tostig's forces were met on September 25 by Harold's army, which had marched north to stop the invaders. By the time Harold was done (and I know the Harold and Harald thing is confusing), both Hadrada and Tostig were dead at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Problem solved, right?

 Not so much. While Harold was away from the south of England, William had landed from France with his army of maybe 10,000 or so men (estimates are very debatable) and spent six weeks or so pillaging the coast of England from Hastings headed north. Harold raced south to engage and found the Normans at the present day town of Battle on October 14, although as I've already stated, there was no town there at the time. Let's get ready to rumble!

 This is not the first battle site I've visited in my life. I've been to a few open fields where conflicts have occurred in the United States and I usually can't make any sense out of what happened, no matter how detailed the diagrams of attacks and counterattacks and flanking by cavalries and whatever else happened at the site are diagrammed for me. It's usually difficult for me to envision opposing forces engaged in combat on what is typically an open landscape either dotted with trees or heavily forested.

There is no such ambiguity at the Battle of Hastings.

Let me see if I can sum up succinctly what happened here. 

Each side that day numbered about 7,000 or 8,000 men, or at least maybe we think they did. The English, the home side with Harold II fresh off a hard ride south, stood at the top of the hill and the Normans, the invaders with William the Bastard (and soon to be Conqueror) at the bottom. The English were on foot; the Normans had both infantry and cavalry. That's not to say the English didn't have horses, just that I guess they only used them for transportation and not in fighting. Since William wanted the top of the hill and the whole entire island, the onus was on him to attack or go away and try somewhere else. He chose the former.

The first attack was pretty much a stalemate until heavy losses were inflicted in one portion of the invading army's line causing the troops in that part of the army to retreat back down the hill. When William's army cracked, the English broke ranks and followed, thinking they had the Normans on the run. When that happened, William's cavalry closed in, surrounded the English who had been in pursuit and killed them all. The English closed ranks and the fighting resumed without either side seemingly gaining an advantage.

Then the Normans had an idea: they hadn't intended to retreat and break the English line the first time it happened; maybe if they faked it a second time, the same thing might happen. Sure enough, they tried it and it did and another portion of the English army was wiped out. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me. From this, there was no recovery. Shortly after the second ranks-breaking, Harold was killed, either from an elite assassin squad sent in person or from an arrow (maybe to the eye). It's not clear but it seems pretty certain that once Harold fell, the end was in sight. William the Bastard became William the Conqueror and the country was his.

The ruined Battle Abbey. You can see just how steep the hill the Normans had to climb was.
All this history in on display today (along with the ruined Battle Abbey which we'll get to soon enough) under the stewardship of the English Heritage organization and it's just excellent. The entrance to the property is through the Abbey's gatehouse which was constructed in the 14th century. The first stop on the guided audio tour is the visitor center, which provides background on the history leading up to the conflict. It also has an exhibit which allows you to feel how heavy the arms and armor wielded by the troops likely were on that day. This last part is valuable.

The tour around the battlefield is simply awesome. All told, from the time we entered the property right at opening time, it took us about two and a half hours and we listened to every part of the audio tour and read every exhibit along the way. It seemed to me to be the perfect length to both keep our attention and not have us get too hungry (more on that later) while also covering the history in what seemed to be a very comprehensive fashion. Maybe because it's the logistics of the battle that day were so simple and the place where it happened was so small. 

The self-guided walking tour will take you from the top of the hill where the English stood, past many many sheep and about five or six wooden soldiers of uncertain (at least to me) allegiance down to the bottom where the Normans started their assault. The walk downhill is pleasant and easy; the walk uphill not so much, which I think is part of the point of making the entire walk. It's easy to imagine how difficult it would have been for the Normans to get up the hill with any sort of speed, especially considering the weight of their shields that we had felt in the visitor center. Your biggest challenge walking up the hill today will likely be the avoiding the sheep poop along the way (rather than a hail of arrows or something like that).

At the end of the day on October 14, the Battle of Hastings was over and the English had lost. And not just the battle, by the way, pretty much the entire war. Other than some pockets of resistance after William's coronation, there was only one real honest-to-God battle to be fought near London. He'd gone a long way to winning the entire island in a single day on a site that we walked while listening to the entire audio guide in just a bit more than two hours. I realize claiming that William's army had wiped out an entire nation on one day is hyperbole, but it's not far from the truth. In all likelihood, all the men who took the field that day for the English were killed and their houses and lines of succession died with them. Sure there were plenty of other surviving noblemen elsewhere in the country but the majority of the damage was done near Hastings in mid-October. One day for an entire kingdom is pretty good.

The town of Battle today, seen from the top of the Abbey's gatehouse. Try the Bull Inn for lunch.
Today, the town of Battle has grown up around the old battlefield (and hence the name). It started not because of the spot where William defeated Harold but because four years after 1066, William decided to build an Abbey on the site where Harold died to commemorate the victory. Whether the decision was brought about by William's need to glorify himself or by censure for the massacre from the Pope in Rome, I'm not sure history knows for sure. 

One thing we do know is that William ordered the Abbey built so the altar would be placed right where Harold was slain. The tour at the battlefield told us that the monks charged with building the Abbey and outbuildings preferred a different, more suitable spot and started there before William directed them to stop, tear down what they had built and move the altar to exactly where he said it should be. Seems pretty consistent with his reputation as William the Bastard who gets his way by any means necessary.

William held England for 21 years until his death in 1087. By the time his rule was over he had completely transformed the land ownership in the country, altered the language forever and changed the influence of the church. He also had broken traditional alliances with Scandinavia in favor of those with France, which makes total sense. On the landscape of England, he constructed forts and castles to allow the ruling Normans to retreat to in the event of attack, including the White Tower in the Tower of London which is still standing today. He built the country up by taxing landholders which he had installed in power, ensuring a steady revenue stream. He was the only ruler in western Europe at the time to levy taxes, I suppose operating on the old Roman model that was so successful for them.

The alleged spot where Harold fell, and former location of the altar at Battle Abbey.
Towards the end of his life, William ordered the creation of the Domesday Book, a comprehensive survey of the land ownership throughout the country including records of the value of each parcel and how many people were resident on each piece of land. Historians are unsure of William's motivation for ordering such a project but the product serves as a detailed historical record of the state of a nation from a time when precious few documents exist.

The current royal family in England is not directly descended from William the Conqueror. Indeed like most royal lines from that time, the process of transfer of rule from one monarch to another could not stand a few hundred years in peace, let alone an entire millennium (OK...956 years). Indeed, calling the almost ten centuries between the Battle of Hastings and today anything but messy would be foolish. But there seems to be no doubt that William's rule pointed the island of Britain in a fundamentally different direction that lasts today. It's also the last time a foreign army fought on English soil.

Of the eight days we spent in England in late August and early September of this year, this day was my favorite. I learned more than I did on any other day about an event that I knew about but didn't really know anything about when I was probably just seven years old. As I grow older, I feel more drawn to learn about the history of the land where I was born and spent half my youth. Hastings, or make that Battle, filled in one more piece of history for me. There's a ton more to go if I ever want to find out more, which will likely one day be the case.

All told, our trip round the battlefield and property took just about three hours, long enough to work up a thirst and a little rumbling in the belly that was fortunately satisfied by a pint of John Smith's and a lunchtime portion of fish and chips at the Bull Inn just up the main road from the old Abbey property. If you know me or have read my food posts on this blog in earnest, you'll know for me there's nothing as good as English food. 

How We Did It 
We made our trip to Battle a day trip from London. Considering the proximity to the capital, it's a good solid six to eight hour day without rushing, which for me is a nice pace. Trains leave about twice an hour from London Bridge Station and take about 75 to 90 minutes to get you into Battle station. From there you can get a taxi into town or head west on foot for about a half a mile easy walk to the old battle site just at the bottom of the town's main street.

The site, dubbed the 1066 Battle of Hastings, Abbey and Battlefield by the English Heritage, is open at 10 am on days when it's open. We went in late summer when it appears the property is open daily. It is clearly not open on the same schedule year-round. Check the Prices & Opening Times on their website for current information. As of this writing, admission is £13.00 per person which may seem like a lot but it was worth every penny for me.

If you are looking for some grub, The Bull Inn is located halfway up High Street on the left and I can attest it serves some excellent lunch. Or at least I can vouch for the fish and chips, the beer and the atmosphere.

Thursday, October 25, 2018

The Globe

This post is about a pub. Although it really isn't.

Last month, we found ourselves on a Sunday afternoon in London with some downtime, so we headed to a pub on Marylebone Road called The Globe. This particular pub is located conveniently right across the road from the Baker Street tube station. The fact that we were at the Baker Street station was no accident. We picked The Globe deliberately, without really knowing anything at all about what we would find there.

We thought we got lucky that Sunday afternoon. We managed to walk in just at the beginning of the Watford v. Tottenham Hotspur football game and found some excellent English cask ale to sup (Timothy Taylor's Landlord Pale Ale, if you must know) while we watched our adopted favorite team the Spurs take on the Hornets at Watford just north of the city. 

I should perhaps mention I don't have a whole lot of luck with sports teams and this Sunday was no different. I've been a New York Jets fan for the last 39 years and I've been a Washington Wizards season ticket holder for the last 19. When we decided to head out to see some footy in person for the first time four years ago, we picked a Tottenham game, bought some swag and became fans. Our Spurs lost that day 3-0 to Liverpool. This year we couldn't make it to Wembley to see Harry Kane and Co. play due to timing so we opted to head to south London to see Crystal Palace at home v. Southampton. Again, we outfitted ourselves in the home team's colors and the home team lost again, this time 2-0.

The first half of the game we watched in The Globe that afternoon was a 0-0 deadlock; then 53 minutes in Spurs went up 1-0 and things looked up. It got worse from there, however. Watford scored twice and took the game. Told you I don't have a whole lot of luck with sports teams.

That's a lot of time spent writing about a football game watched on telly. Especially considering this post isn't about football any more than it's about a pub.

The complaint of every sports fan everywhere. Or at least the ones who are losing.
As I mentioned, our choice of drinking establishment that afternoon was deliberate. The reason we picked it was because Gerry Rafferty used to drink there. And that is what this post is about.

There might be some folks out there who think I am unnaturally focused on Gerry Rafferty. This blog is about my travels around the world and this is my 146th post on this blog. Three of those 146 are tagged with Gerry Rafferty's name. That's probably higher than it should be. Those folks might be right about my focus.

Can't quite place the name Gerry Rafferty? How about the song Baker Street? I wrote about my love for that song four years ago on this blog right after I wrote about my first in-person football game. Baker Street is my favorite song of all time by a long shot; I detailed why in that first blog post. If Rafferty had written no other song worth anything, he'd occupy a special place in my heart just for that one tune. That's not the case, however. Gerry has what I believe is a super underrated catalog of work and there are plenty of incredible compositions in his works. Just nothing as good as Baker Street.

The song Baker Street is about Gerry's time in London when he was involved in a lawsuit trying to extricate himself from an unscrupulous recording deal and make a solo record, the album that would end up being City To City, which included Baker Street. The legal proceedings drained him, and his distaste for London (Rafferty was from Scotland) is evident in the darkness in the lyrics. The song gets its name from Rafferty's lodging with a friend right on Baker Street. And when he needed a pint or some other drink, he drank at The Globe.

A pint in memory of Gerry Rafferty. Not sure if he'd appreciate that or tell me to stay off the stuff.
Usually there would be some sort of unbridled joy at doing something like this. I mean here I am doing what one of my idols would be doing about 40 years ago. I imagine if I'd walked into The Globe on a weeknight in 1977 or so (ignoring the fact that I was nine), I might have been sitting next to Rafferty at the bar or at an adjacent back table in what I am sure would have been a super smoky and beer smelling room. How cool would that have been? I got goosebumps standing in Paul McCartney's living room on this same trip but the feeling was little different sitting in The Globe remembering Rafferty.

This experience was a little bittersweet. Gerry Rafferty struggled with alcoholism during his life and ultimately died of liver failure. There have been times in my life where I drank way too much for too many days in a row although I can't pretend to know what Rafferty or anyone else who struggled or struggles with the drink went through during their own battles. Regardless of the fact that alcohol may have hastened Rafferty's death, I found it worthwhile to visit The Globe and spend some time thinking about the author of my favorite song in a very personal way. I'll continue to remember Gerry Rafferty any way I can for as long as I am on this planet.

Before we left The Globe, though, something amazing happened. About a minute into the five minute second half stoppage time of the Tottenham and Watford game, Stuck In The Middle With You, a song Rafferty wrote and recorded with Stealers Wheel in 1973, played over the sound system in the pub. I am not making this up. Is it possible that this was a sign from Gerry from beyond the grave that he appreciated me being there paying respect to his memory? You can take it however you wish but I that's how I'm taking it. I'll raise a glass to Gerry Rafferty anytime. May he continue to rest in peace and be remembered as fondly as I do.

That's all I got here. Back to writing about traveling. Thank you again, Gerry. For Baker Street and so much more.

How We Did It
The Globe is located at 43-47 Marylebone Road. They are open from 10 am every morning until 11:30 pm on weeknights (Monday through Thursday) and midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. On Sunday, they close early at 10:30 pm. It's a good place to have a few pints on a Sunday afternoon. We didn't eat there so I can't vouch for the food. Need more information? Check their website

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Four Lads Who Shook The World

Between February 9, 1961 and August 3, 1963, The Beatles played The Cavern Club in Liverpool 292 times. When they first played there, they were a group of three teenagers (Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best) with a 20 year old John Lennon who had already spent months in Hamburg, Germany playing gigs at all hours of the night in the red light district and refining their craft. By the time they were done at The Cavern, they were an international sensation with a number one album (Please Please Me) and two number one singles ("From Me To You" and "She Loves You"). They had also replaced Pete Best with Richard Starkey. You might know him better as Ringo Starr.

The Cavern Club is still standing today. Sort of. The original Club opened on Liverpool's Mathew Street in 1957 and was closed in 1973 to make way for the Merseyrail underground railway. As it was below ground, it was not knocked down but instead filled in, which as it turned out was pretty fortunate. In the early 1980s, the original Cavern Club was excavated with the intent of restoring the Club to its original site. For the most part in spirit, this was accomplished, with funds raised from the sale of the original bricks which made up the Cavern's arched ceilings. It's not exactly where it used to stand but it does overlap the original site.

The block of Mathew Street where the new Cavern Club is located today is just a quick walk from the Liverpool docks and then a couple of flights down to an underground series of brick vaults with a stage at one end of the center vault. It's hot and stuffy and I imagine it's full of people all day and every day visiting just to say that they have stood where The Beatles started out. In early September of this year I found myself at corner table of the Cavern listening to Jonny Parry bang out Beatles hits for 45 minutes in the middle of the afternoon from the Cavern stage. 

The Club still operates today as a legit live music venue (I'm not knocking Jonny Parry but look, there wasn't even a cover) mostly trading on its reputation as the place where The Beatles started out. It's not all just free Beatles tributes to lure tourists in to buy drinks. Wait late enough and you'll have to pay. There are display cases containing framed and signed memorabilia from all sorts of group from Queen to Adele to the Arctic Monkeys to Paul McCartney and a pretty good sized souvenir shop with all sorts of Cavern Club swag. The beer is cold and good but man, was it stuffy and hot down there. 

Jonny Parry in the middle of "Here Comes The Sun" or some other Beatles cover. Essential stuff.
If you are a Beatles fan determined to visit sites that are instrumental to the group's history, you have to visit London and Liverpool. London for the obligatory posed picture in the zebra crossing outside the Abby Road Studios where all the Beatles' songs were recorded and Liverpool for pretty much everything else. Four years ago, we made the pilgrimage to Abbey Road; this year we went to Liverpool. 

Before we cover our Liverpool experience let me just say that Abbey Road is a complete circus. The number of people in that crosswalk posing in what I am sure they feel is just like John, Paul, George and Ringo on the cover of the band's best album (my opinion) is both absurd and comical. And most of them don't come close to a reasonable facsimile of that famous picture whether they are alone or in a group of four or more. I will say, however, from my own efforts, that it's about impossible to pose in the perfect walking form demonstrated by The Beatles. I tried several times and failed. And I was alone and didn't have to coordinate with three other people in the exact same body position. And no, I will not be posting those pictures here or anywhere else. I look as ridiculous as every other person there.

For all the time that The Beatles spent in Liverpool, there are precious few real pilgrimage sites. You would think that in 20 plus years of time that there would be a slew of must sees but remember we are talking about people's childhoods in a city that had been bombed heavily during the Second World War. The place had enough issues just recovering life back to normalcy. Permanence likely had a little bit different meaning back then. People were busy just trying to survive and weren't keeping track of events that seemed meaningless at the time.

Eleanor Rigby. Bench. Me. 
Having said that, The Cavern Club should probably be on every Beatles fan's must see list. So should the statue of John Lennon pretty much right across from the entrance to the Club and the bench with Eleanor Rigby at the east end of Mathew Street if for no other reason than they are right there. Lennon's statue is pretty much life sized. By "pretty much" I mean my shoulders are mostly at the same height as Lennon's shoulders but my head is nowhere near the size of his (what I assume is a deliberately larger than life) melon. I don't know how many people get their picture taken with this statue but I wasn't going to let this opportunity pass me by. I'm a tourist after all.

Nor was I going to miss out on sitting on the total opposite end of the bench from Eleanor Rigby. I am deliberately not staring or engaging with Mrs. Rigby in any way in the photograph above. Far be it from me to be the one who invalidated the "all the lonely people" line from McCartney's lyrics. I appreciate the cabbie who moved on the bench so I could get this completely self absorbed tourist picture. 

Want more Beatles-related statues? Head back down to the docks from The Cavern Club and you'll find John, Paul, George and Ringo (not in that order) taking a stroll down towards the Mersey. This one is definitely larger than life-sized with each figure probably about seven feet tall. There will be tons of tourists in all likelihood around this statue also. Be patient and you can get a decent picture.

The graffitied brick ceiling of the current Cavern Club.
There are other Beatles worshipping spots you can get to in Liverpool. These include Penny Lane, which is an actual street in Liverpool, not a made up name just for the song or even a metaphor for something else. There's also Strawberry Field which was a Salvation Army boys' home and inspiration for the John Lennon tune "Strawberry Fields Forever" which was part of the double A side 1967 single along with McCartney's "Penny Lane". 

We skipped both. We were on a day trip from London (more than one person said we were crazy to take such a day trip but it worked) and neither site is exactly easy or quick to get to unless you take a taxi, which we elected not to do. And in the end, visiting both Strawberry Field and Penny Lane wouldn't enrich our Beatles trip other than I'd be able to post a picture of both signs on this blog. Beyond the signs, though, there's nothing there. It's not like I'd get a lot out of watching a banker in a motorcar who never wears a mac in the pouring rain or a pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray feeling like she's in a play even if these folks were to be seen anyway on the day we were there. Got all that? :)

And by the way we didn't go up and back to Liverpool in a single day just so we could call ourselves Day Trippers. Although I guess we weren't really. After all, we didn't have a one way ticket, yeah? 

So what can a Beatles fan do to get the most out of his or her A Day In The Life in Liverpool other than The Cavern Club? Well, based on our experience, I'd recommend you take a trip to the childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. I'm sure there are lots of bus and van trips around the city which will take you by these places to get a look at the outside and tell you stories about the boyhood of the two primary Fab Four songwriters. I'd suggest you skip all those and find a way to get inside each property. And there's only one way to do that and that's with the National Trust.

On our way through the streets of Liverpool to Lennon's and McCartney's childhood homes.
We disembarked from the train from London at Liverpool's Lime Street station and faced with about a mile walk through a maze of streets in the rain and about 40 minutes to get there, we sprung for a cab to the Jurys Inn where we were set to get picked up for our half day Ticket To Ride to see where Lennon and McCartney started out. On the surface of things, this might not be a terribly exciting tour. I mean it's a bus trip to a semi-detached 1930s house in suburban Liverpool followed by a stop at a council house in a neighborhood that still looks pretty much exactly the same as when it was built in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Lennon's house, named Mendips, was the semi-detached house; McCartney's home, at 20 Forthlin Road, was the council house.

Maybe a primer on council houses is in order. These are typically local government-owned properties which are rented to tenants through an application process. Rules differ from council to council but there is usually some right to stay in the properties at the tenants' sole option and sometimes options to buy after minimum stays (of years). Some properties are desirable and are heavily sought after. Others can be habitual waystops for individuals, couples or families on their way to someplace they consider better. These are not publicly provided houses handed to people for free but instead a way to provide housing for people who cannot typically afford to purchase their own property.

Today both McCartney's former home and Mendips, which was owned by John Lennon's Auntie Mimi and Uncle George (John's mother Julia was unmarried and agreed that it was probably best for John to be raised by her sister and husband), are owned by the National Trust and that's the only way to get inside. They acquired 20 Forthlin Road in 1995 at the suggestion of John Birt, the Director-General of the BBC and a Liverpool-born contemporary of The Beatles who noticed the property was for sale. Seven years later, they added Mendips at 251 Menlove Avenue to their portfolio when Yoko Ono bought the house and donated to the Trust (the house, not a soap impression of his wife which he ate).

Mendips, 251 Menlove Avenue, Liverpool. John's bedroom is the small bay window at the second floor left.
The house tours are run by husband and wife team Colin and Sylvia. Colin takes visitors around Mendips and has been doing so for 15 years; Sylvia is over on Forthlin Road where she's been hosting for seven years. Both guides are fantastic and clearly devoted to their work. It shows in their knowledge and the care they take in explaining small details which might seem unimportant but which provide a vivid description of what life in the houses are like.

As works of architecture or buildings or whatever you want to call it, both properties are restored to about the condition they were in during the 1950s when Lennon and McCartney were living at home and attending school in Liverpool. There has been some restoration from photographs and some objects like the sink in the McCartney's kitchen were reinstalled when found in storage elsewhere on the property (which is really lucky I think). 

The most major reconstruction work done seemed to be the replacement of the front windows at Forthlin Road. The owners after the McCartneys had replaced the windows in the house to make the place more energy efficient. In a effort towards authenticity, the National Trust noted that other properties on the street had not been upgraded in this way and offered to swap out the more energy efficient windows at number 20 for the original set elsewhere in the neighborhood for free. Apparently the other people went for the free upgrade.

The furniture in the places is generally speaking not original. Both Lennon and McCartney bought new furniture for the places when they made it big and the old stuff was tossed. This makes sense, right? I mean it's not like Aunt Mimi or Paul's dad Jim were looking to hang on to the old tables and chairs in the event their houses one day became museums. Makes sense that this stuff is gone. Wth the exception of a couple of pieces of furniture Mimi hung on to and the reproduction of the kitchen clock at Mendips (Yoko still owns the original), you are looking at furniture in the style of what was there at the time. It's good enough.

The relatively nondescript 20 Forthlin Road with the red door. Paul's bedroom is right above the front door.
There's something about being in places where significant historical events have happened. This is the real value for me of visiting these two homes. At Mendips it was the notion that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had hung out in John's tiny second floor bedroom and worked on songs together while Aunt Mimi (Uncle George was dead at this point) stayed as far away as possible. Just standing in that small room and imagining Lennon and McCartney working on playing songs together and talking about rock and roll music was pretty amazing.

We were also told that the entire band (assuming pre-Ringo here) used to rehearse in the front room of the house. I swear there's not enough room for two people to rehearse on guitars in that room. They must have completely moved everything to the walls to get a drum set in the room. We were where it happened. Also pretty amazing.

But the goosebumps moment (and there didn't have to be one but there genuinely was) happened for me at Forthlin Road. First of all, I've never been an enormous John Lennon fan so I was inherently less interested in Mendips; I would put Lennon third on my "favorite Beatles list" after Harrison and McCartney (and yes, in that order). Second, the only tale of any song written at Mendips told by Colin was "Please Please Me". That song is OK and I understand the place it has in The Beatles' catalog but it's not in like my top 40 or 50 Beatles songs. Not close.

Forthlin Road had more magic. Sylvia told us what was written where. "I Lost My Little Girl"? Written in McCartney's bedroom in the front of the house after he moved out of the shared back room with brother Mike. "She Loves You"? Back room, ground floor. "I Saw Her Standing There"? Front room, ground floor. "When I'm 64"? Played on the piano by Paul before he moved out in the early 1960s (the song finally appeared on Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967). "I'll Follow The Sun"? Also front room, ground floor. 

That last one did it. Are you kidding me? "I'll Follow The Sun", one of my favorite Beatles songs of all time was written feet from where I was standing in early September? Wow! I'm not kidding here but this was the moment that I appreciated this tour. It seems silly. I mean all we are talking about here is a relatively simple, less than two minute long song but it's an incredible song. And I was standing right where it was created. Goosebumps! I'm telling you. Worth the price of admittance and indeed the whole trip to Liverpool just for that moment. You never know when this stuff is going to hit you and you have to travel to get these moments. You can't do this stuff remote.

So, John, who exactly was the walrus, again? And is Abbey Road or Sgt Pepper better?
Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road are about 1.3 miles apart by car. Cut across the fields between the two properties like McCartney and Lennon used to do and I'm sure you can shave off the 0.3 miles. I often think about how coincidence plays a part in greatness, particularly in songwriting because I love music so much. It's not like Lennon and McCartney are the only two kids in the history of rock and roll to live near to each other or meet by chance but it doesn't get really much better than these two, does it? 

I'm not trying to give The Beatles all the credit for transforming music history but honestly without these two where would music be? Would some other group have done what The Beatles did eventually or would we be somewhere completely different? Would we have figured out what Sgt Pepper or Abbey Road or Revolver or Rubber Soul achieved in the mid and late 1960s ever? Would we have something resembling "Hey Jude" or "Let It Be" or "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite!" or "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds" or "A Hard Day's Night" or "Yesterday" or "All You Need Is Love" or anything else like these two wrote? Would we have "I'll Follow The Sun"? I'm thinking no. And I'm thinking the world would be a poorer place. For all this and for the one mile as the bike rides between where these two lived, Liverpool was worth it. 

How We Did It
Our day trip from London to Liverpool started early and got us back to London late. You don't have to do what we did but it can be done. Easily. Virgin Trains runs service that takes between two to two and a half hours. There are other ways to get there. You can Drive My Car (or your car) or Run For Your Life but the train worked for us. It's not like it's Across The Universe or anything.

We started our day with the National Trust tour of Mendips and 20 Forthlin Road. The Trust runs either three or four tours daily depending on the day starting at 10 am. Check their website for times and pickup locations. Most, but not all, tours depart from the Jurys Inn Hotel on the Liverpool docks. Tour size is limited to 15; I'd always advise booking as early as you can commit to tours like this. Delay at your own peril or remain flexible in your plans. There is an option to purchase guidebooks for each property with your ticket purchase; these guidebooks which are each 16 pages long were also available for purchase on our tour. I bought both; there are good and inexpensive souvenirs.

The Cavern Club is located at 10 Mathew Street is open at 9:30 am Monday through Thursday and 10 am Friday through Sunday. Closing time is midnight Sunday through Wednesday, 1:30 am on Thursday and 2 am Friday and Saturday. During the day, admission is free; check the website for details later in the day.

There are many many other Beatles experiences available in Liverpool. I can't comment on the value of those because we didn't participate. We valued places where The Beatles had actually been rather than seeking out general information about the band. That's not to say that those experiences are not valuable, just that in the interest of time in one day, we chose not to participate.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Blue Plaques

I love walking around cities when I travel. Sure, it takes a little more effort, sometimes tires you out and it's not necessarily the fastest way to get from point A to point B, but moving around on foot allows you to get a great sense of where you are and what the place you are visiting is like. Taxis are quick and convenient and public transportation like buses and subways are cheap and available, but walking gets you closer to the fabric of where you are visiting better than any other mode of transportation. At least that's my take anyway. I always try to walk at least a little bit wherever I go no matter how little time I am spending wherever I happen to be.

In the last four years or so, I've spent a good amount of time walking around the city of London. It's definitely become one of my favorite cities in the world since I started writing this blog and my feet have taken me to a whole series of pubs, museums, parks, famous buildings, statues and maybe the odd ferris wheel or cathedral or two. Hoofing it while I'm in town in my various pairs of Rockports has allowed me to get a good feel of how the city first started and how it developed.

Walk long enough in London (and believe me, you can walk a long time in London) and you are bound to eventually notice one of over 900 circular blue signs scattered about the city on what seem to be random buildings. You may find just one on a street or there may be two or three on adjacent buildings on a city block. Get close enough to these things to read the words on them and you'll typically find that the signs commemorate a spot where someone more notable than I will ever be lived, stayed, visited, ate or died. You've just found one of London's famous Blue Plaques.

The first Blue Plaque was installed in 1867 on a house in Holles Street allegedly lived in by the poet Lord Byron. It is now gone along with the house it was attached to. Since that first plaque was installed (and it likely wasn't blue in color) by the Society of Arts, there have been markers installed all over the city to commemorate the fact that someone who did something notable did something on that spot or in the building attached to the Plaque. You likely have never heard of some of these folks like Luke Howard (he invented names for the clouds) or Frances Bush (lace manufacturer) or Alexander Parkes (metallurgist) but look long enough and you are bound to find Charles Dickens or Mahatma Gandhi or John F. Kennedy or maybe even someone who has deep personal meaning for you. Just don't look for anyone still alive (or recently deceased); you need to be gone 20 years to get one of these.

Despite the name used today, the first Plaques were not blue in color but a reddish-brown hue. The current blue design was rolled out in 1938 and has been used ever since. Over the years, the group responsible for the plaques has changed hands; today the English Heritage is the custodian of all of these in London. And yes, there are some elsewhere in the country but those are separate efforts unrelated to the London ones.

In my previous trips to London, I'd never really paid much attention to the Blue Plaques. This year I decided it might be interesting to seek out a few related to people who meant something to me. Who knows, I might feel something spiritual or find myself somewhere interesting that I'd never been before. I made a list of 30 or 40 then pared it down to about a dozen and ended up seeing just eight. And I didn't actually see one of the eight for reasons which will become obvious below. I'm listing them in reverse order of the birthdate of whom I went to spot.

Jimi Hendrix (1942-1970)
Every so often in the history of my appreciation of music, I've come across a song or piece of music that had me totally transfixed the first time I heard it. Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage/Eclipse" and Elton John's "Funeral for a Friend/Love Lies Bleeding" come to mind here. A number of these experiences happened in the late 1980s when I was driving to some summer job in Connecticut in my parents' 1979 Buick Century station wagon. Such was the case with "Hey Joe". I was amazed at how powerful such a simple song like that could be. I had no idea who it was only that it was simply amazing. It was one of those "what the hell was that?" moments. Of course, it was Jimi Hendrix.

I'm not a big Jimi Hendrix fan in the sense that some people are Hendrix fans. By that I mean while I have all three Hendrix studio albums in addition to the compilation of blues songs put out during the unearthing of his catalog probably 20 or so years ago, I'm not super fanatical about Hendrix and ready to label him as the be all and end all of guitar players. I'd rather listen to Clapton or Stevie Ray Vaughan or Mark Knopfler. That's Stevie Ray doing Stevie Ray, not Stevie Ray doing Hendrix. But because of "Hey Joe" and Jimi's importance to the history of music in general, we made our way to 23 Brook Street in Mayfair to the white townhouse shown above.

Hendrix only lived here for one year and it wasn't actually Jimi's place; it was his girlfriend Kathy Etchingham's apartment. By the time he was in residence on Brook Street he had already recorded and released Are You Experienced, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland and would headline Woodstock later in 1969. Before the end of 1970 and also in London, Hendrix was dead. I can imagine this neighborhood hasn't much changed since Jimi lived here. I can envision him emerging from the red door at whatever time it would be in the afternoon after long hours doing whatever the night before. I bet he looked wild in 1969 London.

Interestingly, about 200 years before Hendrix lived on Brook Street, the composer George Frideric Handel lived right next door to number 23. I'd like to believe Handel and Hendrix might have had something in common. Maybe.

John Lennon (1940-1980)
There is a gap in my music memory from about the fall of 1986 to maybe just after the middle of 1990. During those years I was an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and instead of being in synch with current music, I was going backwards. I started with the Moody Blues; moved on to Pink Floyd; explored all sort prog including Yes and Emerson, Lake and Palmer; dabbled in Bob Dylan (the full Dylan exploration would come in grad school) and Neil Young (thanks, Scott Richey); and spent a lot of time listening to late 1960's music from The Beatles. I firmly believe The Beatles redefined all of popular music; they moved the art forward decades in a few short years.

If you are heading on a Beatles pilgrimage to England, you have to hit Liverpool (where they started out) and London (where they all eventually moved to because they were recording at Abbey Road Studios). There is just one Beatles-related Blue Plaque in London and it's on Montagu Square, a long strip of a park just south of the Baker Street Underground stop. The plaque marks the spot where John Lennon lived in 1968.

1968 would be the year the group recorded and released The Beatles, better known as The White Album. It was probably the least collaborative album the group ever made. It was pretty much a collection of tracks recorded by each of the four members as solo tracks and just smushed together as a Beatles album. The year after Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, things were starting to come apart. In my opinion, this was not John's finest work. I'll give "Revolution 1", "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" and particularly "Sexy Sadie" high marks but I can leave the rest of Lennon's output on The White Album. I'm sure there are few out there who disagree with me here.

Lennon lived in the basement and first floor of 34 Montagu Square (which is the second unit in from the end in the photograph above) for just five months with Yoko Ono. Oddly enough, Jimi Hendrix also lived in the same unit before John did.

Charles Rolls (1877-1910)
Charles Rolls, along with Henry Royce, founded Rolls-Royce, Ltd. in the first decade of the twentieth century. You might know his firm as a luxury automobile manufacturer and probably the most famous English car maker in history. If you know a little more about the firm, you'll know that they were an early pioneer in the aviation industry and their successor firm still manufactures aero engines to this day.

I know little to nothing about how engines or any other sort of machinery works. I'm hopeless with that sort of stuff. But my dad isn't and he put his design talents to work at Rolls-Royce designing fan blades in jet engines for the better part of 20 years or so. We went to find this Blue Plaque on Conduit Street, which commemorates the spot of Rolls' office from 1905 to 1910, for my dad. My dad never knew Rolls; he was born 27 years after Rolls died in a flying tournament at Bournemouth on the south coast of England. But we went there just the same because of where my dad used to work.

I didn't know this at the time but Rolls was the sales guy and Royce was the engineer. While Rolls was a machine enthusiast (he broke the land speed record in an automobile several times and was the first man to pilot a plane solo non-stop across the English Channel and back) he apparently had nothing to do with the design of the product that made his company world famous. My dad, of course, did know this. His reaction when I told him we visited this spot was pretty much "Rolls was just the sales guy." No engineer, no respect from my dad. Oh well. At least I learned something.

Henry Morton Stanley (1841-1904)
I had no idea but Henry Morton Stanley had a hell of a rough start to life. And I mean that in about every sense of the word. He was born of uncertain parentage in Wales and was given the name John Rowlands, his last name being his presumed father who was not married to his mother and who passed away shortly after young John was born. He bounced around between relatives for five or so years before being deposited at the St. Asaph Union Workhouse for the Poor, where he was certainly abused and victimized by older boys and (according to some accounts) the headmaster.

He took the name Henry Morton Stanley after fleeing Britain for America when he was 18 years of age. While there seems to be some doubt to the story, Stanley claimed he was adopted by a man named Henry Hope Stanley after whom he renamed himself. After fighting for the Confederacy at Shiloh during the American Civil War, Stanley became a journalist, chronicling events in the American west and later in the Ottoman Empire and northern Africa. 

Stanley is perhaps less well known by his name than by his most famous quote: "Dr. Livingstone, I presume?" Stanley was recruited by the New York Herald to find the explorer, missionary and abolitionist David Livingstone, who had become lost to the western world and who we ran into (in statue form) at Victoria Falls near Livingstone, Zambia. Without knowing anything about Stanley's early life, this is the reason why I sought out his Blue Plaque in London. Anyone generally connected with Livingstone in a positive context is likely OK in my book.

Stanley's Plaque is barely visible in the left side of the photograph above at 2 Richmond Terrace. And yes, that was about as close as we could get. The building is now part of the New Scotland Yard; the two semi-automatic toting policemen we passed about five minutes before I took the picture made me not really want to spend too much time getting the best shot I could. Stanley's Plaque reads "Sir Henry Morton Stanley, 1841-1904, Explorer and Writer lived and died here".

Herman Melville (1819-1891)
Sitting on the shelf of my library at home are four cloth-bound handcover books I bought a long, long time ago when the idea of having a library of classics was a fleeting thought in my head. I got as far as four: Lord Jim and Nostromo by Joseph Conrad, The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck and Moby Dick by Herman Melville. Conrad is one of my all time writer idols and I love Steinbeck (Sweet Tuesday is my personal favorite) but Moby Dick has to be one of the greatest stories of obsession, (attempted) revenge and destruction ever written. It's simply awesome. 

Melville lived at the end row house shown above on Craven Street near the Thames for just a few weeks two years before Moby Dick was published. Oddly enough, I felt more emotion on this spot than all the other Blue Plaques we visited. I just thought about how cool it would be to live in this townhouse today knowing that Melville, right before he churned out one of the all-time greatest novels in history, was hanging out there for a little while in the mid 1800s. In a totally sideways thought, if nothing else how much more does it make the end unit here worth. I can't imagine owning this place and sitting in the living room thinking about where Melville might have sat. I'm in awe.

Moby Dick, by the way, flopped when it was first published. Melville never recovered from its failure and became a New York Customs inspector. The irony. There will be more later in this post.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

I have no picture of the plaque celebrating Samuel Taylor Coleridge's time in a building that no longer stands. Not because the Plaque got taken away with the Coleridge's former residence but because the current spot where it is mounted was buried behind the scaffolding surrounding the current building shown above. We just couldn't find it. It was the only one that we looked for that we didn't see. 

I hate poetry. Absolutely loathe it. But Samuel Taylor Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is an exception. I love love love this epic poem of damnation and continual attempted redemption as much for the dark and sinister subject as for the way it is written and reads. It's honestly the only poem I've ever been easily able to understand. For this, Coleridge seems worthy of some honor from me.

Coleridge, along with William Wordsworth, was a founder of the Romantic Movement of English poetry. He was also a lifelong opium addict stemming from his being treated with laudanum as a child for various illnesses. His life was pretty much as I would imagine a successful poet's life: spending time in idyllic landscapes writing verse and traveling while holding administrative posts appropriate to someone of his class. I can completely see Coleridge hanging around in London with Wordsworth or other contemporaries while discussing politics or poetry. The Plaque we didn't see at 71 Berners Street when we were in town is one of two celebrating Coleridge; the other is at 7 Addison Bridge Place.

This is not the first time The Rime of the Ancient Mariner has appeared in this blog. Two years ago, we visited the grave of Gustave Doré in Paris; Doré was an illustrator whose works brought the mariner's tale to life and complement the creepy tale by Coleridge perfectly. 

William Wilberforce (1759-1833)
The reason why I've listed the folks whose Blue Plaques I visited this year in reverse order of their birth date is because I wanted to save William Wilberforce until last. I'm assuming most people reading this blog know who Lennon and/or Hendrix were and stand a good chance of recognizing the name of Herman Melville or Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Maybe you can put Rolls with Rolls-Royce and know Stanley if you ever studied explorers. But Wilberforce? He's probably the most obscure of the bunch.

William Wilberforce was a Member of Parliament in the House of Commons representing Kingston Upon Hull, Yorkshire. He secured his seat in the House by buying votes, a practice apparently customary back about 250 years ago. There were a lot of MPs back in the 1700s and a lot have been forgotten; Wilberforce is still known today because of his leading role in the abolition of the slave trade throughout the British Empire.

The Slave Trade Act of 1807 was passed after a 20 year campaign by Wilberforce and others. The Act, I am sure, did not do everything Wilberforce and his backers hoped it would do. It did not make slavery illegal (just trading in slaves) in Britain or elsewhere in the Empire. But it did start the practice of the Royal Navy punishing (albeit sometimes just through fines) those trading in slaves and did allow Britain to start to pressure other nations to follow suit. It was not an overnight international success story. David Livingstone (yes, the same guy found by Henry Morton Stanley) was still battling the slave trade in East Africa some fifty years later. But Wilberforce's efforts ultimately led to Britain pushing for and securing control of Zanzibar in 1890 with the express purpose of ending the slave trade off the east coast of Africa. Wilberforce moved the ball forward a lot, even if it didn't bring down the entire slave trade worldwide immediately.

This is not the first time we've sought out William Wilberforce in London. We were searching for his tomb in Westminster Abbey two years ago and had to ask for directions. We were led to his memorial by a lady who commented that nobody ever asks to find Wilberforce. On this trip we visited both the Holy Trinity Church on Clapham Common (shown above) where WIlberforce used to worship, along with the spot where he used to live in the Clapham neighborhood just to the west of the Church. Both were worth stopping at to understand his likely walk from home to services on Sunday mornings, although I guess there's some doubt as to the exact location of his house. The current Plaque (shown below) is mounted to a residence of more recent vintage. It's old enough to not be blue.

If you are interested in understanding a little more about Wilberforce, pick up a copy of the movie Amazing Grace. While I'm sure it condenses his 20 year effort to pass the Slave Trade Act and takes a good bit of artistic license, it's worth watching.

We visited these places so we could understand a little bit more about where some historical figures that I admire lived, worked, played and died. That alone was worth it. There are dozens more that could fill future trips but I'm not sure we are going to concentrate on seeking a whole series out on any one vacation after this one.

There was a side benefit in seeking out our eight Blue Plaques and it's the same benefit I often get by walking around cities: finding these landmarks got us walking through some parts of London we never would have been to otherwise. It got us close to 10 Downing Street (the Prime Minister's residence) which I'd never seen before in addition to having a pint or two of Fuller's London Pride at The Bank near Wilberforce's old neighborhood.

But the best thing we came across was a statue of William Tyndale in Whitehall Gardens on our way from Melville to Stanley. Tyndale was the first translator of the Old Testament into English (from Greek). If you had asked me to guess when this translation was first made, I would have taken a stab at somewhere around the turn of the second millennium A.D. and I would have been way wrong. Tyndale died in 1536 possibly while he was still working on the translation. That means that nobody in England had access to the Bible in English before the mid-1500s and honestly not many would have access right after that date either. I'm amazed. Sometimes walking gets you to some unexpected surprises. Ironically, Tyndale was convicted of heresy and executed by strangulation before his body was burned at the stake (I mean, what's the point?). I'll end with that cheery, but also completely medieval, thought.

How We Did It
If you want to take your own Blue Plaques tour through London, I think you have to start with the English Heritage's Blue Plaques website. You can get a listing of all 900 plus Plaques in addition to searching by name or by Borough of London.

I started at the website and reviewed the entire list of all the Plaques and made a sizable list. Then I started to locate them on a map and decided some were so far flung (like Freddie Mercury) that there was no way I'd get to all or even most of the ones I'd picked out for people who I admired or had influenced or improved my life in some way. Here's when the search by Borough came in which helped me get down to about a dozen names which were close to other sites we intended to see on this trip. We ended up ultimately just making it to the eight above, although the Handel next to Hendrix was a nice bonus ninth one.

If you are not into that much planning, there's also a Blue Plaques app, which will use your location to pinpoint Plaques near to your current location. I downloaded, bud did not use, the app. I can't imagine me standing in London and checking the app to see whose Blue Plaques I am near on a whim. That might work for other folks; just not for me.

You can spend a lot of time in London finding Blue Plaques. However you do it, make sure you appreciate what you see while you are walking from one to the next. And stop for pints frequently.