Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Christmas in London Town

Christmas Decorations off Regent Street
There‘s no better place for the holidays than with family. But some years don’t work out like that and this was one of those years. Things change. Children grow. They move. We move. Duty calls.

A few years ago I was that woman who had 6 fully decorated Christmas trees in her home. I would have baked at least 35 dozen cookies along with cakes, breads and huge pans of Chex Mix. Gifts would be piled three-deep with any assortment of bags, tags and baubles.

This year? I put holiday covers on a few pillows and called it a day. No tree and no lights, no wrapping paper, ribbons or bows. I baked a scant three dozen cookies and Chex Mix was done in half-batches because my oven’s so small.

Behold! My complete 2015 holiday decorating: four new pillow covers
Clearly, this would not play out as a traditional Christmas. So if it was going to be different, why not go whole hog?
I booked a room in central London where we stayed four days and let the good folks at Crowne Plaza do the decorating for me. They had a blaze going in the lobby fireplace, a beautiful tree, and lovely holiday trim throughout. Ta-da.

Christmas Eve: In the morning we walked to Smithfield Market to watch Hart Butcher’s annual auction. Despite the drizzle, there was a crush of people waving 20-pound notes for a chance to buy beef tenderloin or pork roast for Christmas dinner. We didn’t linger long enough to see if there was a goose up for bid.  (But I like to think there was.)

Bidding on their Christmas dinner at Hart's Butcher's, a Christmas Eve tradition.
Later in the day we strolled along Fleet Street, home to England’s many journalists, then over to St. Paul’s Cathedral and the London Exchange, where Ebenezer Scrooge often conducted business.
The London Exchange

Me in front of St Paul's Cathedral. The queue of people on the left is the beginning
of a very long line to get into the 4:00 p.m. Christmas Carol service.
We arrived too late, despite waiting in line for 15 minutes.
Christmas Day: After breakfast we planned a long, quiet walk along the Thames then across Tower Bridge. I expected there to be only a few of us out, yet what to my wondering eyes should appear but others just like us who do this each year! I didn’t know until now, but there are hundreds – possibly thousands – of families who don’t celebrate a traditional Christmas, who go somewhere or do something different.

On Tower Bridge in my Christmas cap
In the London Bridge City Christmas Market, shuttered up in honor of the day
Boxing Day: The day after Christmas, so named because traditionally this was the day servants and tradesmen would receive gifts called a 'Christmas Box' from their masters. But for us? More walking around the city during the day then to Kew Gardens in the evening for a mile-long Christmas trail of decorations.
This handsome fellow was outside Covent Gardens

Make-no-mistake Mistletoe inside Covent Gardens
Along the Christmas Trail at Kew Gardens

Along the Christmas Trail at Kew Gardens

For me, unexpectedly, Christmas was delightful. Since I wasn’t spending the holidays with all my sweet little sugarplums back home, I’m glad I did something out of the ordinary, something to keep my mind off what I might be missing. With apologies to Stephen Stills, if you can’t be in the place you love, love the place you’re in.

But I’d still like a full batch of Chex Mix.

For more pictures of our London Christmas, click here, please.


A Lesson on Being Cheap - From a plaque on the Thames River.

"Legend suggests that before the construction of London Bridge in the 10th century a ferry existed here. Ferrying passengers across the River Thames was a lucrative trade. John Overs who, with his watermen and apprentices, kept the 'traverse ferrie over the Thames', made such a good living that he was able to acquire a considerable estate on the south bank of the river.

John Overs, a notorious miser, devised a plan to save money. He would feign death believing that his family and servants would fast out of respect and thereby save a day's provisions. However, when he carried out the plan, the servants were so overjoyed at his death that they began to feast and make merry. In a rage the old man leapt out of bed to the horror of his servants, one of whom picked up a broken oar and 'thinking to kill the Devil at the first blow, actually struck out his brains.'

The ferryman's distressed daughter Mary sent for her lover, who in haste to claim the inheritance fell from his horse and broke his neck. Mary was so overcome by these misfortunes that she devoted her inheritance to founding a convent into which she retreated."

Did this old legend have any influence on Charles Dickens when he described people celebrating Scrooge's death? Perhaps.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Old York!

On the 800-year old wall one cool and clearing morn.
Since Thanksgiving isn't celebrated in the UK - and Rex had a couple days off - we headed north to York. Here's a ridiculously short history of the walled city based mostly on what we were able to see:

York is one of England’s oldest cities, with roots dating to the Roman occupation of 1st century A.D.  After the Romans returned home (or  were lost, as was the case with it’s 9th Legion), Saxons settled in York and fought on a regular basis with Vikings who were busy building their own settlement.

Next came the Normans in 1068, a mere two years after their official invasion southward in Hastings. William the Conqueror knew the value of this northern stronghold and built not one, but two castles in York to ensure its security. A couple centuries later York’s famous wall was erected around the city. Much of the wall remains to this day and visitors can walk the roughly 2 miles that still stand.  

Bad boys Guy Fawkes and Rex
York continued to thrive through the Wars of the Roses headed by York’s own King Edward IV and the signatory white rose (reminder: the House of York was pitted against the House of Lancaster with its red rose. After about 35 years of fighting, Tudor King Henry VII took the throne, brought peace to the kingdom and established a red and white rose – the Tudor rose. Clever, huh?)

After the Tudor reign, York may best be remembered as the birthplace of British bad-boy, Guy Fawkes, the fellow charged with planning to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot of 1605.
About 100 years later, York became home to  notorious highwayman and horse thief, Dick Turpin, where he was forthwith tried, hanged and buried within the city walls.  Today, visitors to York can wend their way through museums, ancient ruins, modern pubs and an absolutely horrifying dungeon tour (someone in our group cried the first 15 minutes, she was so scared).

With its Dickensian feel, this is The Shambles, part of York's
shopping district. It is said to have been the inspiration for
Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter series.

The old streets of York inside the wall are still a happening place with their tiny shops and cozy restaurants. The cobblestones and tilted buildings may look familiar and for good reason. Part of the market district, called the Shambles, was said to be  used as the design for 'Diagon Alley' in the Harry Potter series.

Christmas Markets were already in full swing when we arrived and what says holiday spirit more than chocolate? Nothing, that’s what. York has a long history of chocolate-making and is home to the Chocolate Orange ball as well as the Kit Kit bar. Though surprisingly, does not claim the York peppermint patty, which isn’t readily available in any part of England.

Inside one of the many Chocolate Shops. Home to the Kit Kat bar
and Chocolate Orange, York has a long, lovely chocolate history.
Although there had always been evidence of Viking inhabitants in York, nothing compared with the discovery made in 1976. During an archeological dig scheduled to last 6 months, workers unearthed one of the most astounding finds in England – a full-blown Viking settlement dating back over 1,000 year. The 6-month dig stretched into 5 years and more than 800 artifacts – everything from hair combs to ice skates – revealed how the Vikings lived and worked, what they ate and how they died. Today the information, artifacts -- and even smells! - are housed in York's Jorvik Viking Centre. Oh, the smells.

For more pictures of our visit to England's northern city of York, please get your click on here.

And in case you're wondering where all this is on the map:

Clifford's Tower:
During the reign of Henry VIII and his newly-established Anglican Church, York remained predominantly Catholic. One Yorkshire country gentleman, Robert Aske was chosen by the his fellow Yorkshiremen to help lead a rebellion in 1536 called 'Pilgrimage of Grace.' Aske honorably held sway over more than 30,000 and marched them south toward London to declare Yorkshire’s grievances directly to their sovereign, King Henry. Upon meeting with Robert Aske, the king drafted a treaty with York, promised the people free elections as well as a parliament in York. However, within a year, conditions soured, suspicions renewed, and in the end, Robert Aske was arrested, paraded through the streets and hanged as a traitor at Clifford’s Tower in York. 
This was not the first time someone died here for their faith. A plaque at the base of the tower reads:
"On the night of 16 May 1090, some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each others hands rather than renounce their faith."
We humans have a long and tragic history of  tormenting one another because of religious beliefs. Will we never learn?

Clifford's Tower where Catholic gentleman Robert Aske was hanged for his steadfast
religious faith. He was accused of treason by King Henry VIII. Some 500 years prior,
York's entire Jewish community was wiped out here.