Kay Pharr (c)

It feels a bit crazy to say that my British husband had never been to Stonehenge before friends came to visit earlier this year and wanted to go. I had been back in 2005 and was pleased to discover that is worth going again ‘for the first time’ because they have moved the car park so that it is no longer next to the stones (though of course you can still see the nearby road but it’s not that big of a deal).

I don’t tend to promote tour groups, but I cannot recommend Archaeologist Guided Tours enough. You have a small group (max 16 people) and a real archaeologist as a tour guide which not only means no aliens or Druids (they are way later than the stone creation), but you hear thinks like ‘we had thought X but a paper that came out five weeks ago has changed our thinking to…’ which is just really cool. The trip took a the full day (12 hours including travel time) starting with Durrington Walls and Woodhenge, where the builders of Stonehenge lived. We visited at the Fall Equinox so there were a lot of (New Age) campers staying around there. Then we went to Stonehenge itself–while the day was cold and very rainy off and on, we really enjoyed the tour and learning so much about the place. We then drove to Bath and enjoyed a two hour break to see the city; we decided on a quick lunch on the beautiful Pulteney Bridge and then a tour of the Roman Baths. (I love Bath and think it deserves its own weekend but even this whirlwind was great.)

Kay Pharr (c)

The afternoon included three final stops to piece ancient Britain together: Silbury Hill, West Kennet Long Barrow, and Avebury. While at the long barrow, we found ourselves in a surprise hail storm after going inside the barrow interior (where New Age believers had left mementos). I had also been to Avebury back in 2005, and I really like it even if many people find it less exciting than Stonehenge. While Avebury’s circle of stones is bigger, it does not impress many people because they aren’t placed on top of one another. Having thoroughly explored, we didn’t have much time in the pub at Avebury, so when we were dropped off at the Natural History Museum back in London, we had a fabulous supper at Thai Square. It was a fabulous day out!

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The first time I saw St. Ives was while watching the most recent version of ‘Sleeping Murder’, which was filmed there. The first time I saw it in person was when my mother-in-law decided we needed a girls weekend over the bank holiday because the ‘boys’ were busy. Located along the Celtic Sea in northern Cornwall, St. Ives is known for being a bit mysterious or at least being often shrouded in clouds while neighboring towns have sunny days. While it was traditionally a fishing village, it is now primarily a seaside resort town. Without a doubt, it has a unique atmosphere some of which melds perfectly with its artsy culture. Bernard Leach (the Father of British Studio Pottery) and Shōji Hamada set up Leach pottery there in 1920, and now you can find amazing pottery sold in dozens of shops around town. More artists moved to St. Ives in the late 1920s, and by the 1940s there was a strong artist colony that included Barbara Hepworth the sculptor (she did the sculpture on the side of John Lewis in Oxford Street–surprise fact) and Naum Gabo.

Kay Pharr (c)

Much of this work can now be seen at the Tate St. Ives, which has finally begun permanently displaying work from the area. The museum itself is built into the cliff and so has a stunning view of the sea and a really fun and unique design. We also enjoyed going to see the Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden though we meandered many small and narrow streets to find it–which is half the fun. The garden was particularly beautiful in the sunshine.

Naturally we had to try the local St. Ives gin at their bar/restaurant, which was delicious–the gin and the food. We also had another delicious meal at Alba. I will say this–clouds or no clouds–there are wonderful shops and restaurants and many, many ice cream shops throughout St. Ives. We also enjoyed taking the train the whole way for the stunning countryside (though you can get off at St. Erth and get a quick cab into St. Ives to save yourself a long climb up from St. Ives station).

(c) Kay Pharr

Oxford is just an hour by train from London (using Marylebone or Paddington stations and arriving at Oxford station, which is a quick and pleasant walk to the High Street). At the Oxford train station you will find a tourist information desk that can help you with any questions you might have about what to do. The other option is to take the X90 or Oxford Tube buses, which will drop you off at the High Street.

That said, here are some ideas:

If it’s a nice day out, you can explore the many parks and meadows around Oxford like Christ Church Meadows, South Parks, University Parks and Port Meadow.

(c) Kay Pharr

A walk down Broad, Cornmarket, and High Streets will give you a good sense of the university’s many colleges and local shops and will allow you to see a lot of the highlights like the Bodleian Library with its famous Radcliffe Camera (the building most people think of as the Bodleian). This may be a good time to explain that the University of Oxford is made up of over 30 different colleges. Prospective students actually apply to a particular college not Oxford as a whole. Names of colleges you may walk past include Christ Church, University College, Queens, Magdalen, Keble, and Brasenose to name just a few. Colleges are where students live and eat and take their tutorials though some classes (like science labs) are conducted within the separate departments. So for example, you might have your French or Philosophy class within your college but take your Organic Chemistry at the Department of Chemistry with students from other colleges.

To continue to explore the town of Oxford, you can pop into the Oxford Covered Market. The Pitts Rivers Museums is good for a taste of archaeology and natural history. You can stop off at the Botanical Gardens, another UK first when it began. You might find it worthwhile to stop into Britain’s first museum the Ashmolean. Have a pint at the Eagle and the Child, a favorite of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien.

Oxford has been the focus of several famous movies and TV series so you can look at the town through the lens of Harry Potter, Midsommer Murders or Inspector Morse.

(c) Kay Pharr

Of course there is much more to Oxfordshire than just seeing the university town. If you are staying a second day or want something a bit different, you can take the stagecoach bus from the Oxford train station or Gloucester Green bus station to Blenheim Palace (Gates), which has some lovely gardens as well as a stunning palace.

We were a bit nervous about exploring Japan on our own since we didn’t have the necessary language skills, but this trip was really incredible and we absolutely recommend it. Therefore, I’m starting off the post with a few tips. i also recognize I cannot do any of these places justice through words alone so please use the hyperlinks to find out more about the places we visited.

  1. Get a JR rail pass and see the country! This is a great deal financially, and the trains are just really nice.
  2. IC Cards–Credit cards are not widely accepted, but an IC card can be used for public transport in multiple cities, at vending machines and convenience stores. Do bring cash, which you can put on your IC card.
  3. Pocket Wifi-if your phone plan is expensive, consider renting a pocket Wifi. Having apps that can translate Japanese or help you navigate streets (most don’t have signs) is key to getting around easily.
  4. Do try a Japanese ryokan. It was a great way to try traditional meals and stay in a traditional Japanese hotel with tatami mats and often with onsen baths (which are single sex unless stated as reservable or private).

We spent a little time in Toyko on our first day exploring the Imperial Palace Gardens and the famous Shibuya area (like Time Square in NYC). We were particularly impressed with the prices of ‘perfect’ fruit–perfectly shaped, very tasty, and unblemished. Along the way, we wandered by some of the Love Motels. On our way to a fantastic restaurant with a preset menu where we ate amazing delicacies like tuna jaw–tastes like spareribs–and the best miso soup and sashimi. They had incredible cherry blossom gelato too.

We traveled the next day to Hiroshima to try the local okonomiyaki and to see Hiroshima Castle, the Peace Park, the Atomic Bomb Dome, and the Memorial Museum. It was a sobering afternoon of recognizing the damage and destruction that can be done by a single object even decades later. We traveled to Kyoto in time to check into our AirBnB.

Our two days in Kyoto were incredible. On our way to a temple, we walked past Nintendo headquarters. The Fushimi Inari Taisha is a lovely Shinto temple but what is most amazing are the continuous series of gates erected by companies from the base to the top of the mountain, hoping to curry favor with the god of rice/wealth–Inari. We did not have the 2-3 hours it takes to reach the top of the mountain, but it was a fantastic walk nevertheless particularly in the atmospheric mist of early morning drizzle. We headed over to the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove where we continued to be rained on and so skipped the Monkey Park Iwatayama. However, the weather cleared up by the time we arrived at Kinkaku-ji, the Golden Pavilion (Zen). What a spectacular sight against the blue sky! We ended our first day at a Tea Ceremony. On our second day, we planned to go to the Kiyomizudera, but public transport options led us first to the Otani Hambyo. We then walked through the impressive Otani Cemetery with over 15,000 tombstones. Each tombstone is for an extended family, not a single person. This path led to the pure water Buddhist temple, we’d been so excited to see. The Kiyomizudera has a stunning view of the nearby mountains and has been a temple for over 1200 years. The more traditional path back down into Kyoto is a hilly street filled with tourist shops (with cheaper prices than at Fushimi Inari Taisha). Our last stop before heading back to Yokohama was the Nijo Castle with its nightingale room–the floorboards are slightly loose with the nails ‘tuned’ so that stepping on the floor sounds like a nightingale or more than one if you’re in a crowd. Absolute magic!

We had a wonderful day of hiking up Mount Takao on what turned out to be national sports day where everyone goes outside for physical activity so despite the overcast weather (and no view of Mt. Fuji) we had a lot of company at the summit. It was cool to stop at shrines by walking a different way down the mountain.

The next morning we were off to Nagano to explore the Buddhist Zenkoji Temple (which has treated men and women equally for centuries) and to enjoy staying in a traditional Japanese ryokan. We were glad to have followed our friend’s advice to just spend the afternoon relaxing in the room and enjoying the onsen before a traditional supper. The next day we did the somewhat complicated travel to Yudanaka and then a bus to Snow Monkey Park. Although there were no snow monkeys to see (too early in the season, best in winter), we did enjoy being in an outdoor hot springs ourselves as a last bit of luxury before flying home!

One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London. These can take longer if you really enjoy museums or browsing as you stroll.

Strolling into the City Morning

City of London DragonStart your morning off on the South Bank (exiting from Waterloo station), which gives you a lovely view of the the north side of the river. You should be able to spot the clock on the Savoy Hotel, which it turns out has a bigger clock-face than Big Ben. Walk across Waterloo Bridge and as you’re almost finished look down on the Victoria Embankment to spy Cleopatra’s Needle on your left. Once over the bridge, head right to Somerset House, where you might stop for coffee or some lovely artwork. Return to the Strand and keep heading right into more Imperial history as you pass India House, Bush House–which housed the BBC during WWII–and Australia House. Then you will see the Royal Courts of Justice and to your right you might just make out Twinings the oldest tea shop in London. It’s worth popping in to see what you can sample in the back. As you continue east you will see a Dragon of the City of London.

The City of London is an unusual title since it sounds like it means the whole metropolis of London, but it actually only refers to one of the 33 boroughs now called London. This Square Mile (sometimes simply the City) is now mostly the financial district of London but is noticeable from the dragon statues guarding it (one in each of the cardinal directions along the main roads) and its Lord Mayor of London (not by the way the same as the Mayor of London).

Properly into the City, you might decide to stop for lunch at the Old Bank of England. If it’s a weekday (closed on weekends besides Sunday services) you may want to check out Temple Church created by the Knights Templar with an exhibit (in 2018) on its connection to the Magna Carter. Though depending on the time, it might not be too early for a half pint at Ye Old Cheshire Cheddar, which was rebuilt after the fire of 1666 and may be one of London’s most famous pubs.

Embankment Evening

If it’s a Tuesday and you love tours, consider returning to Somerset House for an Old Palace Tour. If its not a Tuesday (closed that day), you could wander west back along the Strand passing the Savoy and turning down Craven St to the Benjamin Franklin House for a tour (last one is at 4:15 PM). Afterwards you can wander along the Embankment to Gordon’s Wine Bar, which has wonderful patio space in good weather and atmospheric vaulted cellar space indoors. Also indoors you will find British newspaper memorabilia covering the walls from throughout the 20th Century. It’s a fun place to end a day of touring. You might even notice you’re near Whitehall.

More City, Edge of Barbican Afternoon

Of course you can instead continue along Fleet St/Ludgate Hill until you reach St. Paul’s Cathedral for a quick peak inside, tour, evensong or lovely apple crisp in the Crypt cafe. (Note due to evensong, sightseeing tickets that take you up to the Whispering Galleries end at 4:30 PM.) Unless you got held up at Ye Old Cheshire Cheddar, you likely have time to wander up to the Museum of London with its free unique and sometimes quirky exhibits about this city. Nearby you can also see remains of the original Roman wall around London. On your way towards Bank station you can stop off at Guildhall, London’s old town hall and the city’s only surviving secular medieval building. If it’s before 4:30, you are likely to be able to go inside as well to see an original Magna Carter or some art in the galleries.

An Afternoon Exploring Bank/Monument

If you still want more walking after your morning stroll, you can continue from Temple church on Fleet St passed St. Paul’s (stop in if you want).* Wander along Cheapside and stop at St. Mary le Bow church because in that courtyard you will find a statue of Captain John Smith. As you near Bank station you can see Mansion House, where the Lord Mayor of London lives and works and the Bank of England (free museum during the week, last admission 4:30 PM). Next to the Bank you can see the London Troops War Memorial. Walk down King William Street to reach the Monument to the Great Fire of London (1666) (climb all the way up and see London in a new way, last admission 5:30 PM). Also nearby is St. Dunstan in the East’s church garden, which has an interesting view of the Shard on the opposite bank through the church’s ruins. At this point your feet are unlikely to thank you if you keep going east to see the Tower of London lit up at night, so the good news is that many Tube lines connect at the Monument and Bank stations.

 

*It is only fair to say that you can save your feet by taking the Circle/District lines from Temple to Mansion House or Monument.

While the last several blogs have been about neighborhoods, I want to take a break to talk about food. England still is the land of fish and chips, but that’s not all it has. I’ve broken the food scene down into unique ingredients/common dishes, drinks to try, and common local chains for when you’re tired and need food. There are plenty of blogs and websites to help with good recommendations for special dinners or ethnic food, both of which are plentiful in London.

Ingredients and Classic Dishes to Try

So, you probably already have British curry and fish ‘n chips (originally a Jewish East End creation) on your list. Lots of people enjoy trying a meat pie or fish pie (called Cornish pasties if made in Cornwall). For meat lovers there are bacon sandwiches and sausage rolls—there are so many kinds of sausages it seems here. (Note: bacon in the UK is what Americans call Canadian bacon; American bacon is called “streaky bacon.”) If you are around on a Sunday, almost every pub will serve a Sunday roast (complete with Yorkshire pudding) though most close their kitchens around 6 PM and can start running out of the most popular roast options around 4 PM, so plan for a lunch roast.

Just about every café (and some pubs) will serve you a cheap cream tea (tea and scones with clotted cream and jam). Afternoon tea (often called “high tea” in the US) can be anywhere from £15-60 per person depending on if you fancy going to the Ritz or a local option. Crumpets are for more than breakfast but can be bought in any grocery store. I like them with lemon curd or melted cheddar cheese.

There are also some ingredients that are popular in British cooking that aren’t as popular in other locations. Korma chicken is a popular curry option and if I start down the wonderful road of Indian food available here, I will never stop. I was so excited to move here and experience all the possibilities with rhubarb for example. Celeriac is similar to celery with a bit more of a nutty taste and often served with fish dishes. The parsnips (particularly roasted) are delicious. While not that unusual, asparagus and strawberries are worth seeking out if you’re here for spring. Mackerel is really salty fish; hake (haak) is more like cod. Plaice is a simple white fish that is delicious. Kippers (smoked fish) for breakfast is particularly popular in Scotland. HP sauce is readily available in pubs and worth trying if you like A1 sauce. In the fall, don’t forget to try fig dishes; they are delicious.

For desserts (called “pudding” in the UK), there are endless possibilities. To add a layer of verbal complexity, puddings like “sticky toffee pudding” are not American custard-like puddings to be eaten with a spoon but rather are steamed cakes. They are very unique and worth trying, but don’t ask for a to-go bag; they are best fresh and hot. Bakewell tart is another local favourite with frangipani (almond flavoring) as the filling. Two common popular cakes are Victoria Spounge and Lemon Drizzle. Christmas cake is a fruitcake with a layer of marzipan and then fondant. (Brits love their fondant.)

Of course, you might need something to grab for your daily snacks. Crisps (potato chips) come in some unusual flavors, but most people love salt and vinegar. After all, they cover their chips (fries) in malt vinegar too. Digestives, shortbread, and custard creams are the standard biscuits (i.e. cookies). You may want to buy some Jaffa cakes too (soft cake-like bottom with a bit of orange marmalade covered in chocolate so you can eat them on-the-go). There is a cool dessert traditionally called tiffin a.k.a. rocky road uses chocolate as a base to hold any number of goodies like honeycomb, crushed up cookies, nuts, and dried fruit. It’s cut in blocks like fudge but is a solid chocolate and, given the lack of heat in Britain, won’t melt on you if you get some to carry around.

Drinks to Love

At the end of the day (or in the middle), you might want to try out some of the breweries in Bermondsey along the “Beer Mile.” If you’re not a beer fan, every pub will have several ciders to choose from, and most will be much drier than what you find in the States.

Gin is so British you may want to add a distillery tour while in London. Though if that doesn’t fit into your schedule, you can try some really great cocktails with some unique gins in many bars and pubs. Also know that gin and tonics are also quite detailed with a variety of types of tonics as well as gins.

Tea is everything (though coffee is now quite popular in the UK). What is still universally true is that most places either do coffee well or do tea well because coffee grinds and tea leaves need different temperatures of hot water and most places go either/or. If you want to enjoy an afternoon tea, this site can give you a listing of many options throughout London. Monmouth Coffee with its two storefronts is a haven for my coffee-addicted friends. If you like local tea stores and tea houses and local coffee shops, you will find no shortage in London.

Water is always needed when you’re out and about, but sometimes the taste can get bland. Brits love to add cordials (particularly elderflower) and “squash” (favoured fruit concentrates) to water. You can pick up these in a grocery and flavour your water before you set out for the day.

Chains to Remember

I strongly encourage you to try local places that don’t have multiple locations, but I also know at the end of a day of touring you just want a familiar sign when decision fatigue sets in. You probably haven’t run across these chains outside Britain, but they are recommended by locals here and are a nice change from Pret a Manager (a British chain if you didn’t know) and Five Guys, which are readily available in London.  You’ll find the British Starbucks equivalents (Costa and Nero’s Cafe) everywhere as well.

  1. Bill’s Restaurant–Recommended for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If you’re near one, it’s worth a visit.
  2. Wahaca–American ex-pats love this English spin on Mexican though expect the nachos to be like soda in Europe–no free refills.
  3. Strada–I really like this Italian restaurant that has a few locations in London. It’s kid friendly and has good pizza.
  4. Gail’s–This is fabulous bakery that is located throughout the city, a perfect break in the mid-afternoon.
  5. Hummingbird Bakery–Again have heard people get pretty excited about the pastries and cakes on offer.
  6. Leon–If you’re at a train station or on a busy street, chances are you’ll see one of these storefronts; they are really good for those with dietary restrictions (vegetarian, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free). The portion sizes are considered small by some.
  7. M&S Simply Food–While not a restaurant, these grocery stores have massive amounts of prepared foods–perfect for picnic sandwiches or for snacks to carry around.
  8. Cote Brasserie–Modeled on French brasseries in Paris, this chain has a really good deal for early evening meal (usually something like 3 courses for 14 GBP) and has a gluten-free menu.
  9. ThaiSq–This is a great stop for amazing Thai food.
One of the things I love about living in a new place is the freedom you have to really get to know it. You’re not rushed. When touring, it’s much harder to figure out what’s close to what and what you’d like to do. So I thought I’d do a little series of fun “afternoons” and “mornings” (ideally 3-5 hours) of activities located together to help those wanting to enjoy London. 

A Kensington Morning

If the weather is good–which means it’s not raining right this minute–you may want to start the day early in Hyde Park with the Speakers’ Corner, Marble Arch, and the Serpentine Galleries if you want some art with your morning. I love this area because in much of it you would never believe you are in the heart of London. Parts have a sense of wilderness about them (with the perks of a clear walking path). Technically when you cross the Serpentine, you will be in Kensington Gardens and can head to Kensington Palace and of course after 10 AM, it’s open to the public. If you get there early with kids, there’s always the Diana Memorial Playground. As you walk south towards Exhibition Road you can see the Albert Memorial before you find more museums than you’re likely willing to have time for.

Afternoon of Museums

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(c) Pharr

The Science Museum is great for kids and adults alike. The WonderLab is designed for kids ages 4-11, and any age will be interested in the energy and space exhibits. (I personally enjoyed the clockmaking and mathematics exhibits.) And you can continue your love of science in the Natural History Museum–literally next door. Called the “Cathedral to Nature,” this museum is architecturally stunning and may look familiar if you’re a fan of the movie Paddington, but it holds some great treasures too. You can see a Dodo bird, experience an earthquake, and find out which minerals are native to Britain.

Just across the way, the Victoria and Albert Museum is also linked to science; it is decorative arts and design with a strong relation to industry. The V&A tours are a great way to start if you aren’t sure how to see it all. There are different topics throughout the day.

Of note: All these museums are really great with kids, and their websites make it easy to figure out what kid-friendly options there are if you’re a planner. They also are all accessible via an underground walkway (termed subway) from South Kensington Tube station if you’re trying to avoid the weather.

Out and About

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Kensington (c) Kay Pharr

Of course, chances are that you could get museum fatigue and need to get out and about. Kensington is a lovely neighborhood to walk around in nice weather and is what many Americans “expect” London to look like even though most people cannot avoid this neighborhood. (Actually that’s true for practically all of Zone 1.) Whether you head along Cromwell Road towards Gloucester Rd to the west or towards Knightbridge and Harrods to the east, you will find plenty of delicious looking tea shops and restaurants to fill you up from your museum exploration.