Some Americans come back from London saying, “I’m hungry.” British food can inspire that response.
Some of us, recently, came back wanting more British food.
Some of us were standing in the international arrivals queue at Philadelphia Airport, lost in the memory of two British delicacies that got away.
Those would be the raspberry marshmallows served with the hot chocolate at Fortnum’s Lodge in Somerset House, and the coconut gelato served at Bertotti’s in Hammersmith.
What did you think we were talking about? Beef Wellington? Sunday Roast with Yorkshire Pudding?
That is so Downton Abbey.
In any case, this culinary pining arose in the aftermath of my wife Fran and I spending the week after Christmas in London with our granddaughter Caroline, 14.
Caroline had both the raspberry marshmallows and the coconut gelato, proving what she has never hesitated to point out, that she’s smarter than I.
Or, as she put it, “What’s wrong with you? Pull it together!”
In truth, we three did not munch our way across London. We shadowed some of Harry Potter’s journey, visited the oldest bookstore anywhere and ushered in 2017 with midnight fireworks over the Thames. Did I mention we did it all in a new pair of Ugg boots?
Along the way, London had some fun messing with us. We’d been there almost the full week, for instance, before it rained. In London! So many brollies, so little precipitation.
We in turn left unfinished business, beyond the raspberry marshmallows and coconut gelato.
We failed to hop down and secure a stone from the track bed of the London Underground. We failed to liberate the ravens at the Tower of London.
In Britain like everywhere else, it seems, life’s to-do list only grows longer.
Fran, Caroline and I take a car from Caroline’s home in Baltimore to Philadelphia International Airport, which turns out to be surprisingly uncrowded and easy to navigate, certainly in contrast to New York airports.
We’re taking your basic overnight flight: leave at 7:30 p.m., arrive at Heathrow at 7:30 a.m. after seven hours of flying and five hours of time change.
We hope to sleep for a while, so we’ve acquired seats in the front of the economy section. That way you don’t have another seat six inches in front of you, which is how economy seats are designed these days, at least until the airlines figure a way to cut it to four inches.
Our seats are also directly over the wing, where the noise makes it impossible for Caroline to sleep. She amuses herself through the night with videos. Fran sleeps fleetingly. I accept the burden of sleeping for all three of us.
We land at Heathrow and get welcome news. Darian Day, the lovely woman from whom we rented a flat, says we can arrive before the normal 4 p.m. check-in time. This relieves us of either having to walk around London for seven hours with our suitcases or selling them to a stranger with Caroline keeping the money.
Instead we linger at Heathrow for a spot of breakfast at Caffe Nero, which a sleepy Caroline quite likes, and a driver takes us to Shepherd’s Bush.
The flat is clean, warm, comfortable, modest in size and just what we need: two bedrooms, one bath and a large room with a TV set at one end and a kitchen at the other. Technical footnote: I will be unable to figure out how to make the TV work. It won’t matter, since there’s only one brief moment all week when we think of turning it on.
We park our suitcases and head for what we think is the nearest Underground station, Hammersmith. That supposition will later spark significant drama, but for the moment certain members of our party are content with the discovery that the entrance to the Hammersmith station features a Starbucks. We stop there, not for the last time, to pick up beverages and sandwiches.
We ride to downtown London to find the Duck Tour, a popular franchised tourist attraction in cities that have a river. London has a river and we are tourists. It’s like it was meant to be.
Duck Tours use amphibious landing vehicles from World War II, outfitted for slightly more comfort than was afforded to soldiers heading out to storm the beach at Normandy. We confidently assume there will also be a lower mortality rate.
Duck Tour vehicles are painted bright yellow. You can’t miss them. Unless, like us, you don’t know where they are.
The London tour starts from a small street to which the website gives only vague directions. With me as the well-meaning and clueless leader, we wander toward where we think they are without making much progress.
At the initiative of Fran and Caroline, we stop two strangers – Women! Always asking for directions! – to see if they can point us to our intended address. They both act like they’ve been waiting all day for someone to ask. They pull out their phones, call in the GPS, and give us detailed directions with extensive pointing. The second fellow talks so long we begin to suspect he wants to come with us.
Unfortunately, none of their directions turn out to be accurate. We have now missed the tour for which we have tickets.
The upside is that in our random wandering we find some interesting byways, notably the Leake Street Tunnel. That’s an abandoned underpass given over entirely to graffiti writers at the initiative of the famous Banksey. While it’s only a few hundred yards long, the artwork is striking.
We finally do find our Duck and snag the last three seats on a later trip.
Duck Tour vehicles have also been refitted to run on city streets, so we start with a 45-minute drive through London’s greatest hits: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Parliament and other stately stone buildings that are large, impressive and old, often with famous people buried underneath.
The vehicles have canopies and open sides, though plastic sheets can be rolled down. As it is around 40 degrees (Fahrenheit), the ride is a bit chilly, especially when you finish the land portion and the vehicle plunges into the Thames to cruise for another half hour. Caroline mentions the temperature, a couple of times.
When we finish, Caroline steers us to Waterloo, the Underground station from which we will head back to the flat. She’s been in London for five minutes, we’ve been going there for years. Given my skill in guiding us to the Duck Tour, clearly someone needed to take charge.
Fran asks if we know where we’re going.
“Nana, get a grip,” replies Caroline.
While we are in Waterloo Station, we decide we will pick up the Travelcards that will enable us to breeze in and out of the Underground at will during our stay.
This sounds like a relatively simple process. Queue up at the Travel Office counter, show them a passport, hand over 32 pounds, 40 pence and go walkabout.
But wait. We learn the Travel Office really prefers new glossy photos.
But wait. If all you have is a passport, they can reluctantly Xerox that.
But wait. Five minutes later the apologetic clerk says the Xerox machine is broken. We’ll have to get our own glossy photo, which of course we don’t have. Who, unless your name is Kardashian, travels with glossy photos of themselves?
But wait. There’s a photo booth in the station. Leave this office, turn left, walk down, you can’t miss it.
But wait. Apparently you can, because we walk the length of Waterloo Station, which feels like walking to Liverpool, and we don’t see it. We look at every sign, every door. We walk back to the other end, wondering if we should have turned right. No luck.
But wait. We are finally pointed to a corridor that funnels people out of the station. There’s the photo booth. Two pounds for your photo, suitable for passports and Travelcards.
But wait. The machine only takes exact change, which we have not been in-country long enough to acquire. We pool the change we have and look for a snack stand where we can buy a bottle of water and get some change. We do. We prepare for our closeup.
But wait. This turns out to be a smart photobooth, with lots and lots of rules that its microchips are determined to enforce. Your eyes must be at a certain angle to the camera. You can’t be wearing glasses. You must have a serious expression. No joke. It will not take your picture if you do not adhere to these standards. To thwart terrorists, apparently, everyone getting a passport must look like a terrorist.
We finally get our pictures. They would not be mistaken for high school yearbook photos unless you attended high school in maximum security prison. But we return to the Travel Office, put down our 32 pounds, 40 pence, and are free at last to use the Underground at our leisure.
It’s on the Underground platform waiting for our train back to Hammersmith that Caroline decides she wants a stone from the trackbed.
Like train tracks everywhere, the British Underground rails are embedded in coarse stones, maybe an inch and a half in diameter. They mostly started out grey and have gradually become more black.
“I want one of those,” Caroline says, gauging the four-metre drop to the trackbed. “You can just take it and hop back up.”
She also notes that each track has four rails and wonders aloud which of those rails is electrified. Fortunately, we aren’t sure. That may be a factor, or perhaps not, in her decision to hold off on collecting this souvenir.
It’s also probably a good thing we’re not going to Stonehenge. Grab a souvenir stone there and your baggage overcharges could be brutal.
After getting back to Hammersmith, we stop for dinner at a neighborhood pub called The Grove. It has wood and high ceilings, traditional for British pubs. It also has heat, which is not as deeply ingrained a tradition, but is equally welcome after our cruise.
Caroline orders a hamburger. Both we and her parents have been telling her for weeks that no trip to London is complete without trying the fish and chips, but when we point them out on the menu, she makes it clear she would rather be dragged by a rope behind the Duck Tour boat than try fish and chips.
Back at the flat, Caroline successfully defuses a potential crisis by finding a way to keep her Snapstreaks alive.
A Snapstreak, Fran and I learn, is when you and your streak partner on Snapchat – who may be your best friend or someone you barely know – send each other a photo every day.
Caroline has several of these going with friends back in Baltimore. The problem in London is that she doesn’t have an Internet connection on her phone.
Did we say “problem”? Ha. Caroline takes my phone, punches a few keys, punches a few keys on her phone and voila, she’s just hitched a ride on my Internet connection.
Hey, it’s all magic to me. Soon her Snapstreaks stay alive.
“If my streaks ended, I would be very stressed,” says Caroline. “And very sad. You don’t want me to be sad, do you?”
We stumble out of bed and walk toward Hammersmith station, which takes us past a discarded Christmas tree. Fran wonders why someone would throw out a tree so soon after Christmas. There is speculation its owners had a terrible row, decided to get a divorce and moved out. It’s the children and the trees that suffer most in these cases.
When we get to Hammersmith, we learn the District Line, which would be our most direct Underground route to central London, is out of service for a couple of days.
Now this isn’t a big deal. It’s not like we’re going to be rerouted through the White Cliffs of Dover. It also turns out that our alternate service, the Piccadilly Line, has a newer, different kind of car.
Specifically, there are no walls or partitions between cars. You board and you’re looking down the whole length of the train in either direction. It’s like a Montessori train. Everyone on the whole train could have a group hug.
This isn’t as game-changing for Britain as Brexit. It’s still pretty cool.
We leave the Underground and immediately walk past Big Ben, which we were told yesterday on the Duck Tour is about to go under wraps for three years while it gets some cleanup work done. Hey, some jewelers need that long to clean your watch.
Our real immediate destination is Westminster Abbey, where every British king and queen has been crowned for the last 900 years. Given the prominence of the joint, you’d think there might be a sign pointing to the entrance. Nope.
Then again, none of us is being coronated.
When we do get there, the crowd inside is large and feels larger because people are wearing winter coats.
Beyond the sheer majesty of the vaulted ceilings and stained glass, it’s fun to check out all the little nooks and side rooms where Middle Ages monarchs retreated to do whatever you did before Snapchat and Instagram.
We also run into worshippers, since they still hold church services here. But the sheer mass of tourists, broken up into rough clusters, often makes it feel more like a religious mall than a contemplative house of worship.
What would be really fascinating, unique and impossible would be to see this place empty. Bet it would really look majestic then.
We finish in the authors and poets section, noting that Jane Austen gets less space than several guys we never heard of. On the other hand, she will soon be on the 10-pound note and they will not.
Our next stop has somewhat less history than Westminster Abbey, though it’s easier to find the entrance. Choccywoccydoodah is a designer chocolate shop from which a friend of Caroline’s brought her a gift. Now Caroline would like to return the favor.
Apparently Choccywoccydoodah is best known for its elaborate cakes, which are priced at an appropriate level for customers who founded either Google or Facebook. The smaller stuff is inventive and the place smells delicious, but since we don’t have time to knock over a convenience store and get the money to buy anything substantial, Caroline settles on a couple of small items. Like a bag of chocolate chips.
We next hop the tube to Kings Cross Station, home of Platform 9¾, where aspiring wizards catch the Hogwarts Express to Hogwarts in the Harry Potter books.
You either know that or you don’t. Caroline, having read all Harry Potter books between 10 and 20 times, is way beyond knowing it. Unfortunately, her own wizarding skills cannot make several hundred people disappear from the queue that is waiting to have their pictures taken entering Platform 9¾.
She consoles herself by popping into the Harry Potter gift shop adjacent to Platform 9¾. There is also a queue here and Fran is in the middle of a long sigh when Caroline says “I got this, Nana!” and we jump it.
Caroline will later note that this Harry Potter gift shop has subtly different merch than others, like scarves in different color shades. Whatever the subtleties, owning this shop is the equivalent of having the rights to a three-foot vein of platinum running the length of Kings Cross Station. Customers cannot produce their pounds and pence fast enough.
And by the way, we say this not to disparage Harry Potter geeks. Truth is, we’re all geeks about something.
Back to Kings Cross Station for a moment: It’s huge, with a classic cathedral ceiling. One side wall is painted to look like a very long full-scale row of tall buildings.
There’s also a food court on an upper level, to which we repair and have that classic British specialty, Mexican. As Kings Cross Station is open-air at several of its ends, the dining is semi-al fresco, which might be more charming in warmer weather.
We polish off the burritos, leave the last of the guacamole and take a short tube ride to Euston, from whence we head for The Magic Circle.
The aptly named Magic Circle is a hangout for people who pull rabbits out of hats and saw their assistants in half. It’s been around since 1905 and its members over the years have included Houdini. Present membership includes Prince Charles.
Its home, on Stephenson Way, feels fittingly Dickensian. The street is dark and largely deserted, with a few lights and cobblestone paving.
The small Magic Circle sign is taken down except on the certain occasions – like Christmas week – when they open for public shows. When Caroline asks about the sign, the doorman takes it off and shows it to her.
We spend some time wandering through the downstairs museum, a trove of magic memorabilia, while magicians circulate doing card tricks. One magician also gives a brief talk on the Circle, during which he admits that while most aspiring members have to perform a 12-minute audition to be accepted, Prince Charles was voted in at the six-minute mark.
Imagine how fast Henry VIII would have been voted in.
The show itself is a mix of magic and standup comedy, which probably describes every magic show ever. That’s not a slight.
There’s a mind-reader who takes audience volunteers, a unicyclist who swallows swords and there’s Delores Deluxe. You have to wonder how Mr. and Mrs. Deluxe ever came up with a name like Delores. She does an almost wordless and most engaging act based on a misunderstanding of stage instructions involving a glass of red liquid.
They’re all entertaining, which may explain why the Christmas shows sell out every year, and it closes with the right headliner. Oscar Munoz, from that little-known part of Britain called Texas, is worth hunting down and seeing anywhere.
It won’t do him any justice to describe this, but he has the best delivery ever of the line “I knooowww,” spoken with a smile and a figurative wink in a situation where he has anticipated how the audience will react to a trick.
We return to the flat. Fran goes to bed. Caroline and I try what looks to be a pretty ordinary supermarket roll with cheese baked on top. It turns out to taste really good. Caroline cuts up an apple to make a sandwich out of it. I ask her what kind of cheese this tastes like.
She thinks for a long minute and says, “White.”
We’re due to hit the Tower of London today and then stroll across the Millennium Bridge. That’s more walking than Fran wants to do, so we decide we will all go out to breakfast and then Fran will return to the flat while Caroline and I go see where all those people got their heads chopped off.
Just to be clear, that was done at the Tower of London, not the Millennium Bridge, though the bridge might have provided a more efficient way to dispose of the heads.
Breakfast, per Caroline’s urging with little resistance from the rest of us, is at Bertotti’s.
Bertotti’s is kind of like a fisherman. It throws shiny stuff into the water – smoothies, gelato, designer coffee, pastries – and we fish come splashing up to chomp on it. Did we mention the free wifi? And Spider-man on the counter?
Fran orders something marginally sensible, like a croissant and tea. Caroline has coffee and a Nutella waffle with coconut gelato.
Yes, that coconut gelato. It looks really good.
I also have a Nutella waffle, which is a waffle criss-crossed with thick strands of Nutella. To show that I understand the food sensibility of today’s younger generation, I take a picture of it.
The picture is absolutely revolting. I clearly need training. I admit photographic defeat and devour the whole thing. Caroline finishes hers, too. I feel my first pang of regret at not trying the coconut gelato.
Fran returns to the flat while Caroline and I walk a few blocks to the other nearby Underground station, Goldhawk. I mention this because our choice of underground stations has suddenly taken on far greater philosophical implications than I could have imagined.
And what are those? Glad you asked.
If you turn right out of our flat, you are heading for the Goldhawk Road station. It’s a little dodgy late at night, but it’s close, less than a 10-minute walk.
If you turn left, you head for the Hammersmith station, which might be more like 17-20 minutes.
If you go to Goldhawk, however, you then have to take a short train hop to Hammersmith, because that’s where you catch all the trains to central London.
I argue that going to Goldhawk often will take longer because you have that extra wait-and-ride.
Caroline insists Goldhawk is faster even with the transfer.
In the more cosmic picture, I see this as a Socratic dialogue between the voice of age and experience, which says “life is full of waiting for trains and they always take longer than you think,” and the exasperated voice of youth and optimism, which says, “What’s wrong with you? What made you this way?”
In any event, as we wait at Goldhawk, Caroline suggests that this less-crowded station would offer an even better opportunity to hop down on the tracks and collect a stone.
The discussion remains theoretical.
We make our way to the Tower of London, which looks quite spectacular on a sunny day, with the Thames glistening alongside.
We get to the entrance with only one unscheduled stop, when I miss a curb and topple to the ground. Once I have regained my feet and don’t seem to have broken anything, Caroline is free to laugh. She does so. She says it was a barrel roll. I can’t say, and no one may ever know for sure, because it may be the only mildly embarrassing public moment of the past 10 years that someone didn’t film on their phone and post on YouTube.
We follow the tour path through various Tower rooms, whose guests were not always there by choice, and stroll across the bucolic grassy lawn where Anne Boleyn and her head went their separate ways.
We stop in the gift shop, where Caroline picks up a book on how to greet the queen – Elizabeth II, not Anne Boleyn – and decides against buying a very small royal fruitcake for 13 pounds.
The lead story of our Tower visit, by which I mean Caroline’s lead story, comes at the ravens’ cages.
Ravens have always inhabited the Tower grounds, and legend has it that if the ravens ever leave, the kingdom will fall.
As if Teresa May doesn’t already face enough uncertainty.
At the moment it’s not a concern unless the ravens learn to pick locks, because all seven of them – the required six plus one substitute – are being kept in cages.
That’s a precautionary measure against Hardey, Thor, Odin, Gwyllum, Cedric, Hugine and Munin contracting avian flu, according to the signs.
When we arrive, a Beefeater is cleaning out their cages, which raises a small side question. Since the Beefeaters are elite royal troops who also protect the queen, you wonder what this one did to get bird-cage duty.
Back to the ravens, we see that they can hop around and fly up to some branches inside the cage. Caroline declares this is an outrage.
They should fly free, she says. Alas, her further investigation reveals that even if she could jimmy the locks and let them loose, it wouldn’t do them much good, because their wings have been clipped. Hopping and short flights are their only options.
Caroline says this makes her very sad. We watch the ravens for a spell, but there will be no liberation for the Tower of London Seven. Nevermore.
From the Tower we head to the Millennium Bridge. On an Internet map it looks pretty close, and since you have to tell the truth on the Internet, I suggest we just walk down along the Thames.
Unfortunately, I’m wrong on every count. It’s not close and you can’t walk there, points Caroline soon picks up on. “Get it together,” she says. “Why are you doing this to me?”
We veer inland toward the Underground, not exactly sure where the next stop might be located until we see a sign that points down and says “To Subway.” We trot down a flight of stairs.
Talk about tourists.
The “subway” turns out to be an underpass. Only. At the bottom of those stairs you walk up to the other side of the street. That’s it. It’s a sub-way.
We eventually find the Underground station, though the stop near the Millennium Bridge doesn’t exactly deposit us on the span. We end up edging down a non-existent sidewalk along a motorway before we finally reach the bridge.
The bridge itself turns out to be quite pleasant. You get a nice view of everything along the river. Halfway across we run into a bride who keeps interrupting her wedding photo shoot to pose for selfies with random amused tourists.
Caroline, it could be noted, has maxed out around this point on having her picture taken. Unfortunately for her, the old people with whom she is traveling own phones with 23,561 potential functions and the camera is one of the four they understand, so it’s become their happy place.
Speaking of phones, Fran texts from back at the flat that she’d like to listen to something while she’s reading, but she seems to recall we can’t work the TV.
I text back that this is correct, but that perhaps she could listen to New York’s public radio station, WNYC, on her phone.
She texts back a few minutes later to say thanks a lot for sending her to WNYC while they’re in the middle of a pledge drive. That’s really what she wanted to hear from back home, that for the next hour her $100 contribution would be matched.
Amid these minidramas we return to the flat, pick up Fran and head back downtown to meet our friends Imre and Jenny Lake.
The plan is dinner and the theater, where we will see Nice Fish with Mark Rylance. Because we would pay to see Mark Rylance read the disclaimers on a bottle of heartworm medicine, we are thrilled at this prospect despite knowing nothing about the play.
En route to the restaurant, it’s Fran’s turn to take a fall, at a packed intersection. Unlike my earlier tumble, this one is painful, so we’re moving even more slowly as we arrive late for dinner.
When we sit down, the Lakes have ordered wine. Imre asks Caroline if she would like a glass. A moment of context here: Caroline is already as tall as either Fran or I.
Still, Caroline assumes Imre is making a joke, so she just sort of smiles. Which Imre takes to mean yes, sure, thank you.
The glass sits untouched for most of the meal before Imre asks if she doesn’t like it. She politely says er, no, she misunderstood earlier and doesn’t really drink wine yet.
No harm, no foul.
The rest of the meal is quite good, but either the waitress or the kitchen doesn’t quite pick up Imre’s signal that we have to get to a show. So the food arrives around the time they’re probably flickering the lobby lights in the theater. Caroline manages to eat most of her steak and we double-time it out the door.
We scurry over and get seated before the lights dim, which would suggest it was a happy ending except that then we see the play.
The storyline, in brief: Rylance plays one of two buddies fishing on a Minnesota lake while they swap memories, random comments and non sequiturs about life.
I like it. That makes one of us. The other three grownups think it’s pretty awful. Caroline says she thinks it had some funny lines. She’s probably being polite.
We take the train back to Hammersmith and transfer for the short ride to Goldhawk, because it requires less walking to reach the flat. Caroline says it’s also faster. We make a quick stop at Starbucks.
We rise and walk directly to Hammersmith.
“Why does no one ever listen to me?” Caroline asks.
She is somewhat mollified when we stop at Starbucks for breakfast. After all, it’s been 10 hours since our last visit.
She is fully mollified when we arrive at bookstore row, along Piccadilly Street. But first we emerge from the Underground on Regent Street, an upscale shopping district lavishly draped in tasteful Christmas decorations. In 1966, Regent Street was incorporated into the Kinks’ hit “Dedicated Follower of Fashion.” This is not a factoid of much interest to Caroline, but it does remind us older folks that back in the ’60s, half the streets in London made their way into one pop song or another.
We head down Piccadilly to something that seems sadly to have become an anachronism in much of America: dozens of bookstores, the kind that still pedal ink on paper.
In the first store, Caroline scores an autographed copy of a book by Caspar Lee. For those outside his target demo, he became famous on YouTube. Caroline is a fan.
For those who enjoy weird coincidences, we leave that bookstore and are walking along Piccadilly toward the next one when a bus pulls up with a huge promotional poster of Caspar Lee on the side.
Strange days indeed. We can’t find a sign for Westminster Abbey and we’ve got Caspar Lee on every lamppost.
Our next bookstore stop is Hatchard, the oldest bookstore in the world. It opened in 1797, which is about the year where Caroline figures our understanding of technology is stuck.
Fran will start to call up some information on her phone. Caroline will roll her eyes and take it away.
“Nana, you really need help,” she says. “Pull it together.”
Caroline and Nana are fully compatible on the subject of bookstores. They would both be happy to live in one, as long as it had an electric blanket and whipped cream on the latte.
Caroline even has a set of bookstore guidelines. “If it has a good cover, it’s probably a good book,” she says, holding up a copy of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. “How about this one?”
High Fidelity is a tough call. It does have a good cover. It’s also a great book. The catch: It relies heavily on appreciating the romance of working in a record store 30 years ago. Since there aren’t a lot of record stores any more, and Caroline doesn’t buy records, and most of the music references are to acts that were popular before she was born, she might not be the demo. She puts it back.
After the bookstores we make a quick pass through Piccadilly Circus, which everyone needs to see. As it turns out, the wide plaza that is normally teeming with jugglers, mimes, musicians and other feral artists has been commandeered for a cluster of tents that house a holiday market. Dozens of vendors are selling everything from Christmas jewelry to raclette, mostly at tourist prices.
Speaking of tourist prices, we stop for a slice of pizza – priced as if it were topped with gruyere rather than mozzarella – at a tiny shop on the edge of Piccadilly. Then we head off to the day’s main event, which is part I of The Cursed Child, the musical stage sequel to the Harry Potter books.
Even to a couple of ordinary everyday muggles, this is an amazing production. Without going into spoilers, it shows us an older and sometimes frustrated Harry dealing with unfinished business alongside issues his children are facing in the wizard biz.
The stage effects are spectacular, and equally important, Caroline says they get the tone and spirit of the story right.
We’re seeing part II in the evening, so we stay in the neighborhood after the first part ends. First we walk down Charing Cross Road to Cass Art, a required stop for Fran in London, and she picks up some artist stuff while Caroline grabs a scratch pad, parks herself in front of a pencil display, and creates some fresh artwork of her own (right).
We then pop into Watkins Books on Cecil Court. It’s billed as a dealer in fantasy, but it’s more like mysticism. When there’s a tarot card reader sitting n the window, you’re not in Barnes & Noble any more, Toto.
We do not buy anything. Or get a reading.
Dinner is a few doors down at Lotus, an Indian restaurant. London has about 45,000 Indian restaurants, and this one turns out not to be bad though it does seem unusual for rice not to be included with the entrees.
Caroline has the chicken tikka masala, whose sauce lends itself nicely to being sopped up with naan.
Accordingly, we order two naans. I reach for a piece and they are both gone. Someone apparently picked up the old “make the naan disappear” trick at The Magic Circle.
Part II of The Cursed Child is as entertaining as the first. From deep inside Harry Potter world, Caroline approves – though she does note that in one scene where a wand duel broke out, the actors picked up the wrong wands.
We knew that.
We don’t leave the theater without an addendum. In the last scene – very very tiny spoiler here – some shredded paper winds up on the floor of the stage.
Caroline wants to walk down to the stage, which is ringed by ushers, and take a piece of that paper as a memento. We suggest they probably frown on that.
She says it’s only going to get swept up and thrown away, which is undoubtedly true. We still say we should join everyone else and simply file out.
“Who are you?” Caroline asks. “Why are you ruining my life?”
Her chagrin is somewhat mitigated, it might be noted, because during intermission she had scored a Gryffindor scarf. Gryffindor, we know because she explained, is one of the four houses at Hogwarts. Its symbol is the lion and its signature traits are courage, chivalry and determination.
Leaving Hammersmith station for the walk home, we pass a busker. We’ve passed lots of buskers in and around the Underground and Caroline has set a standard. She will give 20 or 50 pence to anyone who is not singing Christmas songs, which she thinks should be retired immediately after Christmas. Even if they are good Christmas songs, which unfortunately are not the ones most buskers seem to sing.
The Hammersmith busker is singing something non-seasonal, so Caroline reaches into her wallet and tosses a coin in his bucket.
The moment she did so, she says as we walk back to the flat, she realized she had given him an American quarter. She is mortified.
“What good is that to him?” she says. “He’ll think I’m so mean.”
It’s now New Year’s Eve and we’re moving slowly – perhaps because 2016 was such a wonderful year we don’t want to let it go.
At Caroline’s urging, we walk toward the Goldhawk station, only to find that Bertotti’s is closed on weekends. And thus 2016 delivers one final blow, the shattering of my coconut gelato dream.
Happily, when we get to Hammersmith, Starbucks is open. Of course Starbucks is open. If there were thermonuclear war, Starbucks would be right there at 6 a.m. the next morning, selling vente latte grandes supreme that glow in the dark.
We ride to Camden Town, where Jenny Lake meets us and drives us to the Camden Market, a great huge sprawling flea market, partly indoors and partly open air, that’s settled in alongside an old canal. It’s a place where you can pretty much get anything, most of it legal, and many of the merchants look like folks who came here because there aren’t many jobs left in the circus. Lots of tattoos.
It’s not dull. We pause to watch another round of card tricks while inhaling an entire United Nations of food aromas. Korean burritos, anyone?
If you’re on a budget in London, this is a better bet for lunch than, say, Piccadilly. In the larger picture, if you’re on a budget in London you’re in the wrong city.
Just walking to the market along the canal is an adventure, because the water is lined with low-slung red canal boats. Some, people live in. Others are rented in warmer weather for rides. The owners, as one can imagine, don’t tend to be people who favor 9-to-5 jobs in corporate offices.
When we finish browsing the market, Jenny drives us back to their house for lunch. There’s shrimp in avocado, fish and potatoes with vegetables and pannettone. It’s all quite delicious. We do not spend a lot of time analyzing Nice Fish, beyond Fran, Imre and Jenny asking in mild amazement how I could possibly have liked anything about it except being in the same building with Mark Rylance.
We return to the flat for a brief rest before heading out to spend New Year’s Eve at Somerset House.
London sets off fireworks over the Thames to mark the arrival of the new year, and since literally millions of Londoners come out to see them, it’s important to stake out your turf.
The banks of the Thames are the closest spot. The problem is that you have to buy a ticket and arrive early to get a spot anywhere near the river. Then you stand for five or six hours, at the mercy of both the chilly riverside night air and how vigorously the people in your immediate vicinity are celebrating. Hint: If you invested heavily in beer futures earlier this afternoon, you stand to turn a handsome profit.
So we have opted for Somerset House, a large old building that houses the first-rate Courtauld Art Gallery and a variety of other institutions. It has a broad flat roof that overlooks the Thames.
It also has a large square courtyard in the center. During the holiday season it is flooded and frozen for ice skating.
We arrive at 7:30, when the gates open, and head for The Lodge at Fortnum and Mason, one of several restaurants where people can get a little food to help offset whatever they’re drinking. The Lodge will become quite popular as the evening progresses, but we’re there early enough to score a table right away.
The menu is small, but cheerful. For our purposes, it only needs one item.
“Cheese fondue!”, says Caroline, looking at the menu on the wall. “Cheese fondue! Cheese fondue! Cheese fondue! Cheese fondue!”
We order cheese fondue. First, however, she has the traditional fondue appetizer of hot chocolate with raspberry marshmallows.
Yes, those raspberry marshmallows.
Now a marshmallow ordinarily is a marshmallow. Tasty, spongy, sweet, perfect for s’mores. These marshmallows, which I know because Caroline lets me cut off a small sliver, are something else. If every marshmallow were as flavorful as this, marshmallows would have a whole different stature and reputation in the culinary world.
The fondue comes with potatoes and bread for dipping. Caroline asks the waitress if she could get a cut-up apple. The waitress notes that apples aren’t on the menu, but says she’ll see if she can round one up.
She does. We don’t ask from where.
We eat everything except the fondue stickers, linger a bit and repair to the heated tents that surround the ice rink. You can watch the skaters from there and at 10:30 Caroline and I join them.
Caroline is at a disadvantage here because the only available skates are hockey skates, and she’s a figure skater. She gamely puts them on and gives it a try. There is a learning curve, and it doesn’t help that they have just run the Zamboni over the ice, so there are the usual puddles of water.
She decides to practice in a small side enclosure where no Zamboni has ventured. I take a few turns around the main rink, softly lit by a large Christmas tree on one side and the glow of colored lights from the buildings on the other three. Gliding through the night air, it’s quite wonderful – a better ending than 2016 earned.
The fireworks are interesting. There’s a lot of red and less of the other colors. The air is a little cloudy already, and the smoke makes some of the later displays seem fuzzy.
As they wind down, we fall in line with hundreds of thousands of other celebrants, figuring we’ll walk the three or so blocks back to our Underground station.
Silly us. We get to the first block and the Bobbies turn us around, saying no one can walk toward the river, even if that’s where their station is.
Instead, we are all redirected to several stations further down the line.
Rationally, this makes sense. There are way too many people here to be accommodated at any one station. Of course, you could also argue there are way too many people to send marching 10 or 12 blocks to other stations. Envision a massive flock of slightly tired and somewhat inebriated sheep.
When we reach an open station and board a train, our fellow riders include a group of young 20somethings in stylish New Year’s Eve party attire and even more stylish New Year’s Eve party attitude. They sing a round of songs as the train glides between stations, and the amazing part is that it feels like good clean fun, not like annoying drunks. When they reach their stop, they are clearly headed for round 2.0. Or 3.0.
If one wanted to make it a night of it, by which we mean all night,. one could do worse than follow this group, a point we suspect is not lost on Caroline.
Her group, however, heads back to the flat. Caroline has another cheese roll and apple sandwich and performs a few card tricks.
Today we head for the Harry Potter Experience, a trip that will once again separate serious fans from anyone who has been asleep since June 26, 1997, when the first Harry Potter book was published.
Speaking of potters, we might mention here that one of Caroline’s go-to phone pastimes on our Underground rides is an app that lets the user create pottery jars by changing shapes and colors on a spinning image.
After you’ve finished this virtual jar, you put it in a virtual auction where you find out how much virtual money it would be worth.
Okay, that won’t buy you much on Regent Street. But if you only need a virtual slice of pizza, you’re set.
Anyhow, it’s sprinkling today, the first rain that has fallen since we arrived. Considering we’re in London, as noted before, that’s a little like visiting the Gobi Desert and not seeing your first sand until the seventh day.
Caroline laments the rain as we walk toward Hammersmith instead of Goldhawk.
“Why does this always happen to me?” she says. “Why am I persecuted like this? I’m just a poor farmer trying to make a living.”
We take the train to Victoria Station, where we will rendezvous with the double-decker bus to the Warner Bros. studio where the Harry Potter movies were filmed.
Sadly, the windows are partly tinted and there’s also the rain, so we don’t get the real double-decker experience. Also, the first Harry Potter movie is supposed to play on the bus during the 75-minute ride, but the video player malfunctions and after a few minutes all we have is a frozen image of Hagrid.
Two minutes after our arrival, all that is forgotten.
We are funneled into the lobby of the studios, which include Harry memorabilia and another giant Christmas tree. Apparently no one has gotten a divorce here.
We’re then ushered into an auditorium where a guide gives us a short introduction, explaining that we will go through two large studio buildings. “Some people go through in 45 minutes,” she says. “Other people want 15 hours. I’m in the 15-hour group.” Sounds like she’s in the right job.
Then a pair of double doors opens and you’re in the dining hall at Hogwarts. It’s an instant transition and a magnificently impressive one.
The dining hall here is not unlike the dining hall at many real-life British manor estates, only – if possible – larger. It’s designed so student wizards sit at the long tables that run the length of the room on either side, while the faculty faces the room from a smaller elevated table at the far end.
The tables are set for a formal meal, with roasts, turkey, breads, vegetables, drinks and condiments. It doesn’t exactly look good enough to eat once you get up close, since it’s all plastic, but collectively it makes the illusion work, and it underscores the scope and detail of the Harry Potter productions.
That’s just the first set piece, of course, and for Caroline, who has almost memorized the series, it’s like walking through a house she’s already lived in. From the cupboard under the stairs to Diagon Alley, this is where the stories were brought to three-dimensional life.
It also constantly stirs the imagination, whether you’re a Potter fan or not. Who wouldn’t like to have a staircase that leads to a different place on Fridays?
The HPE also reminds us that for all their dark moments, the Harry Potter movies were full of playful touches. There’s a whole exhibition and photo gallery on every dog who had a role in any of the films, including several who either had their footage cut or didn’t turn out to have great stage presence. One bloodhound didn’t like crowds, which would have been fine if he were sniffing his way through the moors, but the script put him on a city street.
Warner Bros. did not take a giant chunk of its production facility out of operation as a gesture of public charity, of course, and the Harry Potter Experience is monetized at regular strategic locations.
Partway through, there’s a place where visitors can put on a witch’s cape and hat and be filmed sitting on a broomstick in front of a green screen. This is transferred to a DVD on which the visitor seems to be flying through a Harry Potter film.
It’s a cash register of an idea. It also personalizes the Experience, and it’s unlikely any of the several thousand people with whom we toured the joint this day felt even slightly inclined to ask for their 60-pound admission fee back.
Visitors get roughly three hours of studio time between arrival and departure. We spend a little more than two hours in the first studio building, and even then we practically need a crane and a winch to get Caroline out so she can score some time in the second one.
There’s a small cafeteria between the buildings, where some people pause to have lunch if they have the mistaken notion there is time for lunch. We do not. Caroline does, however, want a butterbeer, a favored drink in the wizard world that apparently does involve butter, but does not involve beer. I am tasked with standing in queue to get one while she and Fran head for the second building.
Outside that second building, we do a photo-op with some statues and a Harry Potter car while Caroline sips away at the butterbeer. Good stuff, she says.
The second building could easily sop up another couple of hours. In fact, just one part of the second building could do that: a cavernous room with a huge scale model of Hogwarts.
Okay, that sounds like something you might admire in passing. There’s no passing this thing. Entire real-life houses are not as large and detailed as this model, with lights and passageways and cliffs.
You almost expect to see Dumbledore, Hermione, Voldemort and the rest of the gang popping out. You also have great admiration for anyone who can navigate the place.
This must have been incredible fun to build — a notion that applies to a lot of the stuff in this studio, right down to the small, very realistic-looking simulated fire into which visitors can safely stick their hands.
The second building also includes the creature shop, where the exotic land and flying wildlife of the Harry Potter films were created. No idea, apparently, was too fantastical to be considered.
We spend enough time with all this that we barely have a moment to browse the gift shop. Fortunately, Caroline knows exactly which of the 500 or so wands that she wants.
We’re not surprised. As Caroline reminds us, “You don’t find the wand. The wand finds you.”
When it’s time to leave, Caroline wants to know if we can take a later bus.
We could, if we were willing to run along beside it. Our seats are on this one.
So we hire six big strong men to drag Caroline out onto the bus. That’s an exaggeration. It may have been only five big strong men.
On the ride back, we sit next to a woman, her daughter and her daughter’s friend, all from Ohio. They’re on a Harry Potter trip that also included The Cursed Child, and as this suggests, they are serious fans. The daughter, who is engaged, half-jokingly asks her friend if she could register her wedding present requests at the Harry Potter gift shop.
The mother notes that because it was expensive to take this trip, they have been trying to save wedding money by, for instance, walking everywhere in London instead of taking the Underground.
No point in asking them about Goldhawk vs. Hammersmith.
They say the trip was totally worth it for them – though less so for a couple from Texas they met when they went to The Cursed Child.
The Texas folks got up to the door, showed their tickets and were told terribly sorry, these tickets aren’t for 2016. They’re for 2017.
If any members of the party at that point were thinking of uttering some phrase like “It’s all good,” hopefully someone else waved a wand and turned them into toads.
On the other hand, next time they probably will remember their mother telling them to always remember two things: “Put on clean underwear in case you’re in an accident, and always make sure your Harry Potter tickets are for the right year.”
We roll back into Victoria Station at around 5 o’clock. Since we skipped lunch, unless you count the butterbeer, we head for a food court with an Italian/pizza/salad buffet. No one’s going to rewrite the Michelin guide to include this place, but it’s perfectly fine. We leave not hungry any more, except perhaps to spend a little more time studying the Harry Potter dogs.
As we pack for our return flight, Fran concentrates on making sure Caroline has everything packed. This turns out to be a potential miscalculation, because Caroline is fine and I’m the one who almost leaves all his shirts and pants in the closet. I thought the suitcase felt a little light.
“Get it together,” says Caroline. “Do I have to do everything for you?”
Our driver turns out to be the same fellow who picked us up. Since we’re now bonded, we chat en route to Heathrow.
He’s Indian, and moved to the U.K. about 25 years ago. He still has family in India, and goes back once or twice a year. He lives out near Heathrow, where he says it costs about half as much as it costs in London. There’s also very good authentic Indian food there, he says, though he adds that you can get good Indian food almost anywhere in London.
We wave goodbye when he drops us off, leaving him in traffic that looks as dense as the crowd by the Thames on New Year’s Eve. After we walk inside and check our suitcases, we see an indoor wall garden with lush green vines, some in flower, creeping to a high ceiling. The Brits may have a sketchy reputation in the culinary arena, but they sure do know how to grow plants.
Naturally we maneuver Caroline into one last photo-op with this garden wall. Naturally she is delighted.
The rest of the journey is easy, just as Mr. Adventure promises.
We have brunch in a rather nice little French restaurant, Oriel Grande, then climb on a big Delta bird and soar to Philadelphia, from whence we are driven to Baltimore. I doze briefly, dreaming of marshmallows and gelato.
Fran, who will be returning to England solo this summer, is surprised at how much she enjoyed the Harry Potter immersion.
Caroline already knew she loved Harry Potter. She didn’t know how much she’d like the Underground. Or London. And even if she’s wrong about the travel time from Goldhawk, which remains unresolved because she will never concede, we old folks generally found it quite the pleasure to travel with someone who has insatiable curiosity and enthusiasm about everything. Okay, except fish and chips.