We arrived into London Thursday night in the thick of rush hour. My first sight of London streets were the congested roads – cars and mopeds going every which way, pedestrians and cyclists dodging in between. We alighted at Victoria Coach Station, then clumsily made our way to Euston station where Clayton’s cousin would pick us up. My immediate lesson was that the London sidewalks are not suitcase-friendly – narrow and bumpy, with a distinct lack of ramps on curbs. Alas, the difficulty with old cities! It’s age and history that makes them desirable to visit, however, so I think the real solution is better suitcases.
Clayton’s cousin Richard picked us up from Euston station to drive us to his home in the suburbs. We piled into the car and set off, speeding through the London streets. I initially believed Richard to be a fast driver, but after getting into several cars around London, I realize that it’s about normal. Maybe it feels faster to me because I’m constantly mildly anxious that we’re on the wrong side of the road, when obviously we’re not. This Yank clearly needs more time to get used to the other side of the road. What a silly tourist.
Richard is an internationally ranked poker player, and lives in Abbot’s Langley with his lovely wife Deb and two adorable, energetic young kids. Richard is technically Clayton’s 3rd? 2nd? cousin, but as that’s too complicated to really figure out, the term “cousin” works just fine for everyone involved. They were extremely kind and generous hosts for our stay in London, and we had a deliciously cozy room. There is something to be said about staying in a home versus a hotel or hostel. It’s far more relaxing, especially when family is involved. I know that as we travel throughout this year, places like these will be treasured dearly.
Although we spent about a week in the London area, we only went into the city twice. Most days we spent in Abbot’s Langley or surrounding area. Getting into London isn’t the cheapest thing in the world, and after aggressively touring Paris, it was nice to have a few relaxing days. We ran errands and spent time with our host family, which also included Richard’s parents, Peter and Kate. Hoping to repay at least a fraction of Clayton’s family’s kindness, I was able to cook some meals in the kitchen, including Ropa Vieja with coconut rice and spaghetti with anchovies, lemon, and capers. My first attempts at cooking some of my favorite recipes overseas taught me several things rather quickly: finding ingredients in foreign grocery stores is not easy, converting ounces to grams is never exact, and European capers are absolute units.
Not far from Abbot’s Langley and where we were staying was the village of St. Albans. St. Albans boasts several unique landmarks. The St. Albans Cathedral is the site of the longest continuous Christian worship in Britain (pictured above). The Fighting Cocks is the oldest pub in Britain. And as if those weren’t old enough, there are ancient Roman ruins dotting the area. Drawn to old things in general, we went to spend the day there. Peter was kind enough to take us, and we began with a church service at the cathedral.
Alban was a Romano-British citizen who hid a Christian priest from the authorities in the third century. He converted to Christianity after spending time with the priest, and when he was caught, he refused to sacrifice to the Roman gods and was martyred for his efforts, thus securing his position as Britain’s first saint. The massive cathedral houses his shrine, and like many old churches we’ve seen in Europe, partly under renovation. That didn’t take away from any of it’s majesty, however. We attended the Choral Eucharist, and got there early for good seats. Although it was not a Catholic service, we found the service to be more formal than even mass at Notre Dame. The choir was made up of men and boys, and was skin-chillingly good. The swells of their voices filled the vaulted ceilings, rising up with the thick whorls of incense. Every now and then a soloist would rise up over the other voices, and I was in awe of the talent these boys had. Music was a huge part of the service – even the ministers sang most parts of the service. Despite all the formality, it was quite a progressive message, and the reverend herself had barbells in her ears. Not something we expected in a cathedral like St. Albans, but very welcome!
After service, we walked through a park across town to The Fighting Cocks for our first traditional pub meal in the oldest pub. Peter treated us to an enormous portion of slow roasted duck, which came with roasted vegetables, potatoes, cranberry, and Yorkshire pudding. It was shockingly delicious, and I think the stereotype of “bad English food” is a thing of the past. Peter explained that most pubs are converting to “gastropubs”, with food being the main moneymaker now, versus just drinks. Given the new demand, many pubs are closing. I am sad to hear about closing pubs and hope that this isn’t too detrimental to the pub culture of the UK, but I’ll admit, as a hungry customer, the mouthwatering meals aren’t unwelcome.
Clayton and I split off to continue exploring the town, and found ourselves in a huge park that contained ancient Roman walls, and evidence of the old London gate. Two thousand years ago, London was Londinium, a Roman outpost. Verulamium was a town on the outskirts where St Albans is today. Beside the walls, there is evidence of the old Roman amphitheater still visible today. We didn’t quite make it to the amphitheater, but instead walked down a long trail along the Roman walls, touching history as we went.
The chill of autumn knocked louder on the door each day, and mornings were crisp and cold while afternoons were only cool in the shade. Taking advantage of the sunny afternoons, Peter took us walking in a park one afternoon, and we subsequently met up with Richard and the kids for a forest walk and marshmallow roasting. Clayton stopped every few feet to hunt for mushrooms as the kids ran ahead and back to us, sweetly urging us to hurry up – marshmallows needed roasting! We built a small fire and soon had our hot, sugary treats at the base of towering old trees.
Our stay came to an end far too soon. Despite any chaos that two healthy rambunctious children can cause, the house was clearly full of love and kindness. I was happy to see the city of London, but our stay in the suburbs will always hold the memories closer to heart.