A damp day in London

I get a bit of a rush whenever I step off the train at a London station. I got it when I went from Reading to Paddington, and I get it when I go from Canterbury to St. Pancras. I love going into London, because it exhausts me — I’ll sleep like a baby tonight — and it challenges me, as I try to find my way around, discover new places and keep up with the fast pace. Best exercise I’ll get all week.

I don’t get to go into London very often, about once or twice a month, so when I go, I leave early and come back late, so I get a full bang for my buck (quid?). Take today, for instance. Instead of leisurely seeing two or three things, I covered a lot of ground, most of it in the West End or in Chelsea/Knightsbridge.

First I hit Hummingbird Bakery near Soho, where I picked up a red velvet cupcake (the house specialty) and a cola cupcake (Friday special). I ate my red velvet cupcake with a peppermint mocha at Starbucks on Regent Street, and visited the Regent Street Apple store, the world’s largest by area.

After that I walked from Piccadilly Circus to Trafalgar Square, where I ducked inside the National Gallery to see a few of my favorite paintings: Botticelli’s Venus and Mars, Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II and Da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. I went to the National Portrait Gallery to say hello to the Tudors and all of their associates — Elizabeth I, Henry VIII, Henry VII, Catherine of Aragon, Mary Stuart, Mary I, Catherine Parr, Thomas More, Thomas Cromwell, Edward VI. They’re all there, although poor Anne Boleyn was getting her portrait cleaned.

It was lunchtime after that, but I was dismayed to find that Tsunami wasn’t accepting lunch walk-ins. Making a note to make a reservation next time, I braved the Charlie Foxtrot that is Tottenham Court Road(work) for the foreseeable future, and had tacos at the UK’s only Chipotle on Charing Cross Road. Verdict: Just as yummy as at home, but they get brown rice as an option!

I was in a museum mood today, so next I stopped by the Natural History Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The Natural History Museum has all kinds of animal skeletons, ecosystem exhibits and fossils, so it’s a popular place with school kids. The V&A Museum has a lot of sculpture, textiles and “industrial”/useful art. Harrods was just down the road so I went to look at expensive handbags, Seven for All Mankind jeans and the selection of dog collars. Harrods is already dolled up for Christmas, and the display theme this year is Peter Pan (when I was at Reading the theme was Casino Royale).

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Harrods was also unbearably hot, so after I finished there I went to Kensington Gardens and found the Peter Pan statue (I saw it once before but it was dark) and walked over to Hyde Park. By then it was getting a little dark and rainy, so I took the Tube to Covent Garden, where I promptly walked out onto the street, slipped on the wet stones and fell flat on my rear. How embarrassing.

There was another bakery near Covent Garden that I was going to try and find, but with the early darkness and rain I didn’t get to it. I grabbed coffee to give myself a boost and get out of the rain, before I went to a hopping Leicester Square to see “Let Me In” at the Odeon. The movie was pretty good and a nice twist on the vampire genre.

After the movie I took the Tube back to St. Pancras, where I observed the people just getting in from Paris and Brussels, grabbed some McDonald’s for dinner — first time I’ve had it since moving here — and caught my train home. Whew!

I’m going in again on Wednesday, and that day I’m shooting to see the Tate Modern, the British Museum and a few of the other parks, or at least St. James Park. Oh, and that second bakery …

(Today was also Guy Fawkes Night, but more on that tomorrow.)

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Bodiam Castle and Rye

On Saturday, I went on a day trip with the university chaplaincy (I’ve been attending Anglican services on Sundays) to Bodiam Castle and the small town of Rye, both in East Sussex.

The castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge (that’s a mouthful), who served King Edward III and received permission to build the castle from King Richard II. Its intended purpose was to stave off a French invasion during the Hundred Years War. The castle itself was built with an artificial moat and was the seat of the feudal Bodiam Manor.

Its owners seem to have had a bit of rotten luck over the years. Dalyngrigge himself died in combat on a knightly campaign, and its next owner, Sir Thomas Lewknor, made the mistake of supporting the Lancastrians during the Wars of the Roses. King Richard III confiscated the castle, although the Lewknors eventually got it back when King Henry VII took over.

During the English Civil War, its owner was John Tufton, who was a Royalist. Another owner on the wrong side of the victors, Tufton had to turn the castle over in the face of heavy taxation. The castle was torn apart, and passed down to Lord Curzon, who tried to fix it up and gave it to the National Trust in 1925. The castle is mostly ruins inside, but has a remarkably intact exterior.

Not too far away is the town of Rye, sitting up on a hill. Back when it was founded, the sea came much farther inland, and the town’s position on the hill kept it from getting washed out. The village is very attractive, with cobbled streets and a wide variety of tea houses, antique shops, cottages and cafes.

Enjoy photos of the castle and village below.

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Note: Just giving a big thanks to everyone who’s been reading The Canterbury Tales. October 2010 has been my most-viewed month so far, and it’s not even over yet!

An afternoon in Whitstable

My friends (Deborah, Hannah and Rachel) and I had planned to head up north to Whitstable, a small satellite village on the North Sea renowned for its oysters, today. After a couple of weeks of drippy, overcast weather, we couldn’t have expected a truly gorgeous day, as you can tell from the photos at the bottom.

After a lovely Anglican service early this afternoon in Eliot Chapel (during which I read the liturgy and after which I indulged in some lemon cake a few local ladies brought in), I met up with my friends and packed into Deb’s car and drove up to Whitstable.

The beach there reminded me a lot of Maine — more rocky than sandy, windy and cool. We didn’t swim, obviously, but I’d wager it was chilly. Lines of lovely houses, some private, some turned into bed-and-breakfasts, stood up and down the seaside. You could see people swimming and on their boats. I lost track of the number of dogs: spaniels, terriers, retrievers, labs and shepherds of all kinds, some on leashes, some not, all well-behaved. We also found oyster shells to collect.

Up the beach is Whitstable Harbour, which has a fish market and several fresh seafood restaurants. A few boys were catching nice-sized crabs right off the pier using nets. We headed into the town centre, passing all sorts of little shops, cafes and pubs. When we’d exhausted the high street options, we settled in for a late lunch at Coach and Horses. All four of us had a typical “Sunday roast” dinner: Beef (cauliflower-and-cheese bake for Hannah), yorkshire pudding (not really pudding; it’s a pastry used to sop gravy), roasted potatoes and vegetables.

On the way back, we stopped for a few minutes at a penny arcade (I won some sort of magnet game) and then at a little ice cream parlor called Sundae Sundae, where we got cheap waffle cones. Then we had a nice leisurely walk back up the beach to the car. All in all, a lovely day, and it makes me want to go back to Whitstable on a Saturday morning (the buses go there) for the farmers market.

Perhaps most importantly, the evidence of an actual beach in England torpedoes my uncle Tim’s rationale for not coming over in July to see my graduation.

Enjoy the photos below.

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Note: The period from now until December is VERY busy! So be sure to check back for photos and news from Bodiam Castle and Rye, Guy Fawkes night, Harry Potter & the Deathly Hallows, Bruges and Paris.

How London can use Foursquare

Now that I’m able to successfully take my mobile crack, er, media addiction on the road (thanks to an iPod Touch and, I hope, an Android phone in the near future), I’ve become a major fan of Foursquare. What is Foursquare? Sometimes it’s hard for me to remember that not all of my friends are journalism/social media junkies, and most people probably aren’t familiar with it.

Think of it like Twitter on the move. Basically you “check in” at different venues to which you travel — shops, restaurants, bars, airports, train stations, landmarks, bus stops, churches, grocery stores, boutiques, shopping malls, a damn boat. Experience-wise, you get out of it what you put in — ideally you’ll leave tips and notes at places you’ve been, telling the people who arrive after you what to see, do or eat there. For instance, after having a stellar curry in Canterbury, I promptly listed a tip on the place’s Foursquare listing.

If you check into a place more times in the past 60 days than anyone else, you become the mayor, a post you hold until someone else boots you. You can see where your friends have been, and earn badges for various things, like checking into specific types of venues, checking into many different venues, or checking in a certain number of times.

If you use your imagination, the application is entrepreneurial gold. Several months ago, Gap and American Eagle (I believe) both offered discounts if you checked into their stores. Starbucks offers drink specials for its mayors. The mayor at a Wetherspoon pub in the UK gets 20 percent off his tab. It rewards brand loyalty and in turn, the venue receives your business, and your tips populate the venue’s Foursquare listing. Brands like Zagat, Bravo, The History Channel and the Wall Street Journal have their own special badges that you can earn if you follow them. To earn the Zagat badge, for example, you just need to check in at five different Zagat-rated restaurants.

But what about something such as, say, tourism?

Cities like New York, Chicago, Boston/Cambridge and San Francisco and even entire states like Pennsylvania have badges designed to give people incentives to explore them, like a scavenger hunt. As I was rooting around online looking for free WiFi hotspots in London (which I’m visiting tomorrow to see friends, woo), it occurred to me just how awesome a London-based collection of badges (both for tourists and people who actually live or work there) could be.

  • Check into 10 different Underground stations and get a Tube badge.
  • Hit 3+ musicals or other shows and get the West End badge.
  • 3+ gallery check-ins? Give ’em a Turner badge (a generic Warhol badge already exists for gallery check-ins).
  • Five words: “I’m on the London Eye.”
  • Hit Paddington, King’s Cross/St. Pancras, Waterloo, Victoria and Charing Cross and get a Rail Rider badge.
  • Multiple check-ins in the City gets you a Financial Whiz badge (I know WSJ does something similar for financial district check-ins in New York).
  • Check into 5+ castles or royal residences (not necessarily just in London) and earn a King/Queen for a Day badge.
  • 5+ churches, cathedrals or historical houses of worship, like St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, ought to be good for something … pious.
  • London pub crawl badge? Yes, please. Even better, narrow it down by the specific beer associated with each pub.
  • A Borough Hopper badge for visiting 5+ different boroughs, like Chelsea, Westminster, Camden and Southwark.
  • A Sloaner badge for checking into 3+ shops on Sloane Street, or Harrods.
  • The London 2012 badge is so obvious I’m not even going to elaborate.
  • 3+ museums should get you a Rosetta Stone badge.
  • Double-decker badge for 5+ check-ins on a bus.
  • There’s already a badge for checking in on or near a boat, but what about on or near the Thames?
  • Ultimate London badge for checking into 15+ predetermined landmarks (this would be an awesome scavenger hunt/travel itinerary thing).
  • London Nightlife badge for checking into 3+ predetermined bars or night clubs.
  • The Footie badge for checking into 3+ football matches.
  • Earn a Green London badge for visiting 3+ city parks.
  • Check in 5+ times while crossing the Thames and get a Bridge Too Far badge.
  • And this isn’t even counting event-specific badges for things like Fashion Week, the opening of Parliament, Wimbledon, general elections, Trafalgar Square rallies, major sporting events, the queen’s birthday and Guy Fawkes night.

I came up with 20 specific badges right off the top of my head. In addition to the badges, tangible rewards are also easy to figure out — check in on the Eye, get a discount on your next ticket. 15% off museum/gallery gift shops if you earn those badges. Discounted train fare, free entry to landmarks, store deals. So why isn’t anyone (the local government, Transport for London, a media group or someone) doing this already?

Do you really want the Yanks to have all the fun?

A possible dissertation topic

I said the D word, run for your lives!

Since we had a brainstorming session in my research methods class last week, I’ve been trying to think of a possible dissertation topic. This is especially important because, even though we don’t begin formal work on the paper itself until this summer, a lot of prep work for it is due in November (a research methods outline) and January (a formal proposal that must be department-approved).

After slightly stressing out over it, I think I may finally have a topic — foreign aid. Namely, aid that the United States gives to developing countries. While I’m going to do more in-depth reading before choosing a precise angle on the topic, I’m considering writing about aid’s effectiveness, or lack thereof. What does the U.S. hope to accomplish by distributing aid — security, goodwill, humanitarian success — and what does it actually accomplish? How efficient is aid? Would another form of assistance or demonstration of soft power be more practical or successful? How much aid actually gets to people who need it, and how much ends up on the black market? How much does the U.S. actually distribute versus what it says it will?

A final, streamlined approach, which may very well be just a single question listed above, will probably have to wait until I’ve done more research and had a chance to chat with a supervisor. But for now I’m fairly confident that the final product will be something to do with developmental economics and aid.

A rainy day at Leeds Castle

Yesterday, I went with the other international students to Leeds Castle on the last of our Welcome Week activities. The weather was bad — cold and rainy — but the castle was quite pretty.

The castle gets its name from the Saxon manor called Esledes, not because it’s in Leeds, England (common confusion; it’s actually in Maidstone). It was built in 1119 by Robert Crevecoeur, and ended up in the hands of Edward I. Edward began what I thought was the castle’s most interesting tradition — queenly ownership.

Edward gave the castle to Eleanor of Castile, whose Spanish heritage is kind of felt architecturally, we were told. When Eleanor died, Edward built a chapel in the castle in her honor, and gave the castle to his second wife, Margaret of Anjou. The queens owned the castle outright, independent of their husbands. When the king died, the queen retained ownership until she died. At that time, it’d pass back to the current king who’d give it to his wife. Six queens from the late 13th to the early 15th centuries owned the castle: Eleanor and Margaret (Edward I), Isabella (Edward II), Anne of Bohemia (Richard II), Joan of Navarre (Henry IV) and Catherine of Valois (Henry V). While Catherine of Aragon never owned the castle outright, Henry VIII still fixed it up for her and the couple’s crest is found throughout the building.

The castle is important to the Tudors also. Henry VIII and Catherine stayed there with a retinue of more than 2,000 people when Henry went to France to meet Francis I. Leeds eventually passed into plain old noble hands, until the last owner, Lady Baillie, died and left it to the country in the 1970s.

The lower levels of the castle are meant to have a medieval/Renaissance feel, while the upper levels have a late 19th/early 20th century look indicative of the lifestyle of its last owners (a high-didge French interior designer did the honors). The castle can be rented out for functions or (swoon) weddings. The castle itself is lovely and fairly stereotypical in how we think of “English” castles. The water and moat around it are man-made.

More recently, the castle was used as a hospital during World War II and as a meeting place for many military higher-ups (including Field Marshal Montgomery). On July 17, 1978, Anwar Sadat and Moshe Dayan stayed in the castle before the Camp David Accords.

The grounds also have a golf course, an aviary with several tropical birds, a children’s playground, a hedge maze, an underground grotto and beautiful ponds and green areas. Lady Baillie was a bird enthusiast, and the upper levels of the house all have sketches and paintings of birds. She imported black swans to the estate from Australia, and their descendants are still there.

I was slightly nervous about the swans, mostly because I understand them to be kind of aggressive. These swans, both black and white, were vey docile and ignored people, probably because they’re used to them. There were signs everywhere telling people not to feed the swans because it encouraged aggression. I did learn new things about them — black swans are Australian/Oceanian naturally, swans mate for life (I knew this) and, interestingly, every white swan in the country is the property of the Crown, i.e. the queen.

There were several other birds in residence, mostly geese and ducks. There were many peacocks about, including a mated pair with their two chicks that I, wisely I think, sidestepped on the path to avoid being chased. The aviary has many toucans, macaws, parrots, keas and other birds, and does a lot of avian conservancy around the world.

The hedge maze was good fun, mostly because a lady who worked there shouted helpful hints from the top middle of the maze. Hot cider, tea, cocoa and Kentish apple juice were on sale, as well as kettle corn, crisps (chips), sandwiches and other sweets. A restaurant on the grounds serves pub-style food, fruit, cheese, cakes and roasted meat. There were many, many young families there and I got the impression that it was a popular family destination. They had advertisements for fall and Halloween activities.

All in all, a lovely day. Enjoy the photos.

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Going out!

My mother told me before I left not to spend all of my time in my room. I have the past couple of nights, mostly because I’ve been getting over a head cold and the weather’s been lousy.

But tonight I went on a sort of campus pub crawl (yes, we have bars on campus, because we’re awesome). I thought I’d tell you a little about my new friends and our night out.

Hannah, Rachel and Deborah

Hannah, Rachel and Deborah

First there’s Deborah. She’s a PhD student in genetics, and very perky, bubbly and outgoing. She’s shorter than I am but really feisty. She’s also a quiz fanatic, like me, so we sort of bonded over that immediately.

Second is Hannah, who’s doing an LLM in law. She’s like me in that she’s quiet until you get to know her, but talkative and friendly once you do. She also studied at Kent as an undergrad, so she’s sort of our guide around campus and good to get dirt on what to do around town.

Finally there’s Rachel. She’s doing a PhD in biodiversity. She’s outgoing and funny, but on the serious side I can tell she’s serious about her work and plans to study hard.

All three of them are English.

Tonight I had dinner at Origins, the bar in Darwin College (Origins, get it?), with Rachel, Deborah and one of Deborah’s visiting friends. Origins specializes in Tex-Mex type stuff like nachos, quesadillas and fajitas, and also has snack foods and burgers. I had a burger, Rachel had Cajun chicken in a skillet and the other two had chicken wraps. It has kind of a sports bar-meets-modern-restaurant feel, with lots of booths, pool tables and TVs. It has a bright orange/yellow color palate, which is cool.

After that, we headed to Gulbenkian’s bar and cafe (Gulbenkian’s is the campus theatre/cinema, with a large cafe), which had a cocktail night on. We met up with Hannah and one of the other guys from Woolf, who’s from Germany. The drinks were still kind of pricey, so we headed over to Mungo’s, a place in Eliot College that’s designed like a euro nightclub type place. I’m told they have great burgers and sandwiches during the day (a third major cafe on campus, K-Bar, in Keynes College, does mostly pizza, while Dolche Vita, also in Keynes, does more European-Asian fusion and coffee drinks). Rutherford College has a bar owned and operated by the student union; the aforementioned bars/cafes are operated by university hospitality.

After a couple of drinks in Mungo’s, where the dance music made it kind of loud, we walked over to Park Wood, which is a residential neighborhood on the other side of campus for undergrads, and went to Woody’s, a student bar/pub owned by the student union. We watched a game of pool, chatted and had another drink before walking back to Woolf. All in all, a fun night out and reasonably inexpensive — about £10 total for dinner and drinks from 7:30 to midnight.

Tomorrow I’m going into the city centre to see “The Town” at the Odeon Cinema and appraise the theatre. I might look at WHSmith for some work folders for classes, which start Tuesday for me. We might do something tomorrow night, I’m not sure. Sunday afternoon is the trip to Leeds Castle, and Sunday night is a pub quiz in K-Bar. Monday’s curry night at the Gulbenkian and a quiz night at a pub in town, and Tuesday I’m attending an Amnesty International meeting. Current Affairs meets on Thursday evenings, and I may have to alternate between pub nights and society meetings for the American society, as it looks like both will fall on Mondays (even though there are other pub quizzes throughout the week).

I’ve also decided to try out Anglican services at Keynes Chapel on Sundays, starting next week (can’t go this week because of the castle tour). The services all include lunch afterward, and I’m kind of curious about the Anglican set-up. It’s also been ages since I’ve had any sort of Communion. The fellowship organizes a lot of activities during the term, and this term’s trips include a day visit to Bodiam Castle, built during the reign of Richard II (yeah, him again) and the small parish town of Rye, as well as a longer holiday in Bruges, Belgium in November.

So there you have it. Not even here a week!

P.S. By far the most important details of the night were that I earned my first mayorship on Foursquare (I’m “mayor” of Origins now) and I got another badge — the “Crunked” badge for four or more check-ins in one might. Mummy must be so proud.