“They called Thee Merrie England in olde time…”
from The Sonnets of William Wordsworth
In 1988, I took my first trip overseas … to Merry Old England. It was actually a business trip to Cambridge but I included a few days to travel around the countryside.
As in most flights to the British Isles, I left out of Atlanta the night before and arrived bright and early the next morning at Gatwick Airport. (As I am writing this about 25 years later, please forgive me for not including my usual detail.) From Gatwick, I boarded the train and procured a seat across from a lovely couple who were more than willing to talk. However…we had not completed half of our trip when the train came to a screeching halt. After about 15 minutes, an announcement came that the train was having mechanical problems and we would have to change to another train that would be along in a few minutes. Meanwhile, we had to make our way to the baggage coach to retrieve our luggage. I bade my companions farewell and made my way to the baggage coach.
By the time I had retrieved my bag, the replacement train had arrived and I boarded along with the remaining transferees. Unfortunately, this train already contained passengers making their way to London and I was forced to stand in the aisle way keeping an eye on my bag.
Finally we pulled into Victoria Station and I was able to once again move. I managed to find my way to a ticket counter where I learned the following -
I caught the Tube to King’s Cross where I was able to find a locker to check my bags for the day. Feeling the need for a bite, I stopped in a pub in the station where I purchased a beef salad sandwich (roast beef with lettuce) and a half pint of the lager. I knew better than to purchase an iced tea and had heard that European idea of a cold drink was a glass with maybe two cubes of ice. (And I learned that asking for additional ice would get you at best a funny look from your server.) The lager proved to be sufficiently cold (though no where near as cold as we are accustomed to.) However, I did not anticipate the horse radish that accompanied the sandwich and had to order a second half pint to see me to the end of the sandwich.
The beer and the trip had left me with a desire to visit the local facilities so, as I settled the check, I asked where I could find what I would quickly come to call the “loo”. (The word is borrowed from the French "gardez l'eau" which means, literally, “watch out for the water”. This was the cry each morning in the first and second centuries as the night’s chamber pot was emptied out the window into the street.) When I arrived at the entrance to the loo, I discovered that it had a turnstile that required an unknown amount of money. As I stood contemplating my situation, a local walked up. Having received some coins as change for my lunch, I stood there looking forlorn with my hand extended displaying all of my coins. He looked at the coins, looked at me, shook his head and proceeded on into the facility leaving me at odds. Not wanting to cause an international incident by hopping the turnstile, I proceeded on my way hoping to find a facility to which I could gain access.
My immediate plan was this -
Trafalgar Square commemorates the victory of Horatio Nelson over the French Armada at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 during the Napoleonic Wars. It is dominated by Nelson’s Column which is guarded by four lions at its base.
From Trafalgar Square I headed down The Mall to Buckingham Palace. Shortly after starting down The Mall, I discovered two things. First, in countries that drive on the left side of the road, you should look to your right before stepping off of the curb. Nearly ended my trip early on that one. And second, I spotted a sign reading “Gents” pointing to my left. Stepping inside a small brick building, I found facilities that included a floor trough, something I had not seen for some years. But, as they say, “Any port in a storm” (an appropriate water analogy).
Being both refreshed and enlightened, I proceeded on my stroll to the Palace. As I walked along The Mall, to my immediate left was St. James Park with gardens and ponds. Arriving at the Palace, the first thing one sees is the Victoria Memorial. Atop is perched Queen Victoria herself and she is surrounded by the angels of Justice, Truth and Charity. I was treated with a changing of the guard including a parade of horsed soldiers.
Leaving the Palace, I made my way through the Park to the St. James Station. Catching The Tube, I traveled along the Thames to the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge. On arriving, I considered a tour of the Tower and a view of the Queen’s Jewels, but, after the all night flight, my motor was beginning to stall. Taking a few minutes to snap pictures of the Tower and Bridge, I made my way back to the Tower Hill station and thence to King’s Cross.
As I awaited the train on the platform at King’s Cross, I was 20 years too early to associate it with Harry Potters journey to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft. Looking back, I remember it quite vividly. Boarding my train, I tucked my luggage under my feet and, before we had pulled out of the station, I was beginning to dose off. I remember thinking that I had no Idea which stop on the line was Cambridge. And remember, the Internet was not much more than a curiosity at this time and Google maps were not even a concept. As the train approached each stop on the line, the slowing caused me to jerk awake just in time to see a sign go by. After several stops accompanied by moments of panic, I finally learned that Cambridge was the last stop on the line. The trip would have been much less stressful had I checked this out on the front end.