A sojourn through Ancient , Roman, Saxon , Norman , Medieval and Modern England

In 54 or 55 BC , Julius Caesar long before he said “Et Tu Brute” landed in Britain to punish them for their collaboration of the Gauls . He said “Imagine the gaul!!” and that phrase has caught on with us . He decided that since there was no name for the island , he would name it Britannia (whose biscuits are still sold and consumed in India and the Indian diaspora) . Some years later , a small village called Londonium was set up on the banks of the river Thames . Apparently the city was so popular with the Romans that they built a wall around the city to keep out the riff raff . They got this idea after they had their first fracas with Boadica , Queen of the Iceni who insisted on equal rights for women and gave them a good ol whooping . Embarrassed they put up a wall whose fragments survive to this day , one can be seen just outside the Tower hill tube station even today . However soon the Romans got tired of the cold English weather and found out that all roads lead to Rome except for the one in Britain which led to wet pants and shoes so promptly left . This was followed by was general good cheer among the natives who said “Mr Caesar ,tear down that wall”  .They liked the name of their little village except that they decided to expunge all roman influences like “ium” and called their city London instead.  Centuries later , the state of California and the city of Berkeley would do something similar , they would take their names from the elements called Californium and Berkeleyium and drop the oldish “ium” to sound totally modern and hip . Fast forward today London is a bustling metropolis of 9 million people.

Preparations

Other than the customary plane ticket , I decided that I needed more help so I asked some of the folks around , watched several videos by Rick Stevens (most of which I dont remember except for a admonition not to visit the strip clubs) , finally I decided to pose the question on Facebook to a group called Medieval British History and while they offered excellent suggestions as to places I should visit and places that I should skip , the most valuable suggestion turned out to be to get a British rail pass and a English Heritage Overseas visitor card . Somebody also suggested that I read 1066 and all that which turned out to be a hysterical summary of English history. I had decided to stay in a YHA and I ended up finding one at Earls court which is on the District line of the underground which connects all the sites in London as well as to the locations which serve the National Rail services. Avoid getting the mobile pass , most locations outside of London do not have a reader that can read a 2D barcode off your phone , so there is a lot of grumbling from the rail employees about their inability to read a 2D barcode from a phone when I would show them the pass to allow me to pass through their pearly gates.It costs an extra 2 pounds to have the ticket in paper form mailed to your home , I would gladly pay just so that that I would not have to listen to all the grumbling.

Day 1 at St Pauls , Westminister and Tower of London

I decided that I would do the big attractions today , namely St Pauls Cathedral , Westminister Abbey , Tower of London and Benjamin Franklin’s house on Craven St (the last is a big one for me personally) . Scheduling them turned out to be an ordeal , finally I settled in on going to St Pauls first since it opened at 8:30 AM and went to the crypt which hosts a number of luminaries in their after life . The Napoleonic battle heroes like Wellington and Nelson are accorded honor here and of course the Architect himself , Sir Christopher Wren himself. There is an exhausting climb to the top which not only narrows to very tight proportions (especially for us Americans) but also seems extremely short but you are rewarded once you get to the top with an amazing panaroma. St Pauls was built in 604 AD and the current building was rebuilt by Sir Christopher Wren after the great London Fire of 1666.  It is a remarkably beautiful building even to my uneducated eyes

 

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Then it was a 20 minute trip to Westminister Abbey on the underground from St Pauls .

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Westminister Abbey was started by Edward the Confessor and has been the site of every coronation since 1066 i.e starting with Duke William of Normandy or William the conqueror as he is known today and there are several monarchs buried here including Edward the Confessor who is accorded a place of honor. But as I walked around there are an amazing number of luminaries buried here including Geoffrey Chaucer , Charles Dickens , Thomas Hardy, Laurence Olivier in what is called the Poets corner . Everywhere that you walk, you seem to be walking on the graves of great men and women , I saw Charles Darwin , Isaac Newton , Ben Jonson . It is literally a whos who of British greats. Between the architecture and the people buried here , it is a remarkably humbling experience to walk through here.

And finally another short ride via the underground to the Tower of London .

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The Tower was built by William the conqueror and is witness to countless executions including 3 queens , two of whom had the misfortune of marrying Henry VIII who was always looking for a reason to divorce. The most tragic of all the murders is actually a mystery , the murder of two young princes  aged 12 and 9, sons of Edward IV . It is suspected that Richard III , their uncle was behind these murders but never proved. There is a part of the tower that is dedicated to them

 

The biggest attraction inside the Tower was for the Crown Jewels ,the lines snake impossibly and quite frankly it was a letdown for me . Growing up in India , I had read about the KohiNoor diamond . But after seeing it I realized that somebody could give me a kohinoor and I would not know the difference from a cubic zirconium.  The one thing that I did not expect to encounter inside was the famed Ravens , they are fed a ration of 150 gms of meat along with biscuits every day. Talk about pampered Ravens!!

 

The amount of walking that was involved seemed like a lot but according to Google , I had only walked about 2 miles but I have a sneaking suspicion that if I had started my Strava , I would have had a far more accurate number .

Day 2 at Covent Garden

I started off with visiting the Royal institution where Michael Faraday worked for the majority of his life . Michael Faraday along with Benjamin Franklin are two auto didacts that I admire immensely

 

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Saville Row is the street for expensive London tailors . I found out that if I worked my whole life in Silicon Valley then maybe I could afford to pay for one Saville Row suit , like the ones that James Bond wears.

 

Bond street has a similar reputation for fine jewelers and similarly if I work two jobs in Silicon valley , I might be able to get myself a decent watch from this place.

 

It is a short hop to Covent garden which has a massive market and a Freemasons Lodge

Along with being a shopper’s paradise , I was told to check out the Apple store , it was a little novel compared to other Apple stores .

John Soanes Museum is a hidden treasure around here . Sir John Soanes was an architect who collected antiques , paintings , books and then managed to get Parliament to pass an act where it is guaranteed to maintain the house as a museum with free access to the public . Unfortunately though it was the first time I saw a Sarcophagus , one of the early editions of Shakespeare’s 1st Folio and a ton of amazing stuff , it is not allowed to take any pictures inside this marvelous place so nothing to share except a recommendation that this is a must visit spot. IMHO it is far more interesting than the London Zoo, London Eye, Madame Tussaud’s and hordes of other popular tourist destinations.

Day 3 in Oxford

It was a sedate trip to Oxford

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Anybody who has seen Yes Minister or Yes Prime Minister , this is the Bailey college that Humphrey went to

Day 4 at the British Library and the British Museum

It was quick stop at the British Library where I got to see one of the 4 surviving copies of the Magna Carta . There were several other treasures including Shakespeare’s first folio , a Gutenberg bible , an original of Alice in Wonderland , recordings of James Joyce reciting passages from Finnegans Wake , one of Da Vinci’s notebooks .

I moved onto the British Museum where I spent all day until they closed at 8:30 PM . One gets to see so many artifacts from so many places around the world that it becomes very easy for comparative analysis . The British Musuem is a treasure trove for folks who enjoy Greek epics , there is so much pottery depicting scenes from the Iliad and the Odyssey and various other Greek plays and mythology .There was one memorable one depicting the murder of Priam by Neoptolemus using the baby Astanyax as a weapon , that was horribly gruesome by any standards , to kill the grandfather using the dead body of his infant grandson .

On a happier note there were sections that shows you clearly how a mechanical watch works which was truly fascinating . Amazing things that I had always heard about and got to see were the Rosetta Stone , the Parthenon Frieze , the Elgin Marbles , Easter island statues , Sarcophaguses , bust of Rameses the Great , an actual mummy

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Day 5 at the Museum of Natural History

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After umpteen trips to the Smithsonian and NYC , I had yet to make a trip to the Museum of Natural History so I had go across the pond to view a museum of Natural History . It was an auspicious start given that Charles Darwin argued his case here . The amount of information presented becomes overwhelming even though they have taken great pains to present the information in small easily digestible formats . I suspect that they spent a lot of time with psychologists to reduce information fatigue.

I went over to the Science Museum next door but was quickly disappointed , they have one wing for Information Technology , I am spoilt by the Computer History Museum in Mountain View . I was expecting more mechanical marvels , I got to see a giant steam engine but very little details on how things work .

Day 6 in Hastings and Battle

I went over to Hastings which is a long train ride from Charing Cross. Hastings is the location where William the conqueror landed and quickly setup a fort.

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When I posted on the Facebook group for Medieval British history that I was going to Hastings , several people frankly asked me if I was planning on feeding chips to the sea gulls . I was appalled at the time. But having visited it now  , I have to agree . The ruins are present but give you absolutely no idea . For a 5 pound fee , you are allowed to go into a dungeon which is about 10 steps deep and then watch a movie which briefly shows the motivations of the characters involved . King Harold who was a powerful man and took an opportunity to take the throne for himself or William the conqueror who claimed that promises were made on account of the fact that he was Emma’s (mother of Edward the confessor) nephew.  Tragically for Harold who was incidentally the last native English king of England, he got stuck with an arrow in the eye . This also ended the Anglo Saxon rule in England

This is the scene showing Harold with an arrow in his eye . It is a scene from the Bayeux Tapestry which was commissioned by William’s half brother Odo.

On 14th Oct , barely 3 weeks after landing in England  William  marched 8 miles north to meet King Harold’s men in a place that is known today as Battle.

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Battle is far more interesting than Hastings. This is a well maintained historical place and the ruined abbey inside it. The abbey was built by William who apparently did it as penitence for the blood that was shed on this ground . The high altar of the abbey was the place where King Harold fell.

Day 7 in Canterbury and Dover

This was a sojourn to Canterbury . In a way visiting Canterbury was as important to me as visiting Battle . To see the place where Becket was killed ,

to see the street where Henry II walked on his bare feet. To contemplate and marvel at the monks who having watched Becket get murdered helplessly flogged their penitent King.

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After visiting Canterbury Cathedral , I walked out to see the ruins of Abbey of St Augustine (no relation to the St Augustine of Hippo who wrote the City of God) . Legend has it that the pope Gregory saw some fair haired slaves who looked like Angels or Angles (which is the root of the word English ). After he learnt where they came from, he sent the Benedictine monk Augustine in 595 AD to convert this pagan nation to Christianity and save all their souls from eternal damnation.  There is a statue dedicated to Geoffrey Chaucer and another dedicated to Ben Jonson

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It is a 20 minute train ride to Dover from Canterbury . Unfortunately I did not get enough time to view the Castle which is a magnificent piece of work ,  built by Henry II. Dover is also home to the best preserved Roman built structures shown below

This was the best shot that I could get of the White cliffs of Dover

 

Dover castle has been gateway to the realm for almost a millennium. During WWII It  was home to Operation Dynamo which saw the safe evacuation of 400,000 British and French troops from Dunkirk . There are wartime tunnels which also served as hospitals for the wounded . Unfortunately I reached too late to actually do the full rounds of Dover Castle and go all the way to the top. The only solace was that I had a full English breakfast with two pints of bitter for dinner. While I could identify most items , there was one in particular that I could not identify at all so I made brave to ask the owner /bartender and he burst out laughing . He told me it was black pudding. The texture is closer to a granola bar and the taste is extremely savory not sweet . I have no idea why it is called pudding . He proceeded to inform me it was pigs blood .

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Day 8 at the Imperial War Museum

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Day 9 at the National Gallery

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This is my first Da Vinci , The Virgin of the Rocks

It has Monet , Cezanne, Rubens, Michelangelo , Murillo , Van Gogh and more paintings and artists than I could remember . One of the paintings on my to see list was the Wilton Diptych

Day 10 in Bath and Stonehenge

Visited the city of Bath which was highly developed by the Romans who believed that this was a sacred place and dedicated it to Athena or Minerva

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Then onto Stonehenge . Words fail me as I try to understand how they set up these stones 4500 years ago . It is an elaborate site , amongst other purposes it is known to identify the Summer and Winter Solstice just by viewing the sun from particular locations around the stones.

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Unfortunately I missed going to Salisbury cathedral , I was too late coming back from Stone Henge . Next time I will drive rather than take the trains for long distance journeys. The cathedral is beautiful , it is the tallest spire in the United Kingdom . It houses the best surviving copy of the Magna Carta . There is an interesting anecdote about the Cathedral from World War II . During the battle of Britain , every part of England was bombed but not Salisbury . After the war, the interrogators asked the Luftwaffe pilots as  to why Salisbury was spared . The German high command had issued strict orders that Salisbury was not to be bombed . The spire was so tall and so distinct that German pilots would use that as their landmark and once they reached Salisbury then they could proceed to their respective destinations comfortable with the knowledge that their bearings were correct.

Day 11 at The Victoria and Albert Museum

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Day 12 in Greenwich on the Prime Meridian

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Majority of the museums are free , these museums are magnificent houses of creations of humanity over the centuries , they take exceptional care of these artifacts , far more than these great pieces would have received in their homeland . One only needs to look at the Parthenon pieces which are preserved here or remember the Babri Masjid incident in India or the Bamiyan Buddha destruction by the Taliban or listen to fundamentalist regimes talk about destroying parts of their heritage which preceded their particular sets of beliefs  . So I was grateful to see these beautiful sculptures , carvings , paintings preserved and available to see for free . I dropped 5 pounds every time I entered these museums , bought books , bought over priced scones with butter and jam and cream tea or cakes . The experience of watching this was priceless so I would recommend everybody who has an opportunity should see it and if you can donate , please do so . We need to keep this alive for the sake of future generations

An alcoholic epiphany

Long long ago once upon a time there lived a ….. . Oops, wrong story . I am always astounded by folks who say “This is what the founding fathers would have wanted” and interestingly I have known quite a few of these well meaning folks , one of the most vehement “This is what the federalists fought for”er was a 3 time divorcee who had never heard of Benjamin Franklin’s first rule for happiness

1. “TEMPERANCE. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.”

One might argue that he was blissfully aware of the chastity rule as well but nature being what it is, it rarely allows us to indulge in both with equanimity so it had spared him of the temptation of violating that particular one, nonetheless he would kid the hapless waitresses or the secretarial staff until they blushed red, after which he would turn to me and wink and say ” she wants me” . I was spared further details of his exploits but this remarkable gem of the human species has many more qualities , one of which that profoundly affected me was a direct hotline to the founding fathers. He must have had telepathic communion  with the founding fathers in their after life to project the kind of confidence that he showed. For a while I was baffled and convinced that there was a ouija board.

Lest you believe that I come up with random hypothesis; what actually led me to this conclusion was a logical process that Sherlock Holmes would have approvingly nodded at . Whenever I asked him a question about his code , he would go into a deep trance akin to those wiccans that my ex wife spent so much time with . So I looked in vain , alas one of those unsolved mysteries that seem to surround me all the time . I marvel at these folks because most days , I barely know what I want , let alone try to figure out what men living 200 years ago would want me to do . Personally I do hold our founding fathers in the same vein as demi gods , some of the smartest people to walk the earth and I am grateful for their wisdom and foresight but nonetheless these are men who lived in a different zeitgeist , so how they could have predicted before the advent of all the magical things that we have today is a mystery to me . As in the case of these magical creatures living amongst us with a direct telepathic hotline through the land of the dead to our founding fathers , they simply amaze me .  But my epiphany is far simpler.  It is also more tasty , increases productivity and generally invigorating , so much so that one would not hesitate to call it the temporary fountain of youth.

I was informed recently by a mind no less than P.G.Wodehouse that while the duty of the chronicler is to inform , he must go to great lengths to ensure that the reader is never left in suspense for too long. So it is with a tinge of nervousness that I am proceeding down this route . I promise not to hold you in suspense for so long , the duty of a chronicler is that one should lay his groundwork well before he sets out on his argument . After all ,confusion is poison to the mind . We are an extremely inventive species . We have created  various processes of brewing different forms of alcoholic beverages .For example Beer is made by malting barley . Malting is just a fancy word invented by idle English professors to increase the highly inefficient vocabulary of the English language. It means  germinating the grain and then hot air drying  using coke / coal or peat ( form of coal found in marshes and is highly inefficient to burn hence smoky) . This is then fermented using yeast and later filtered .It is an well known secret that sprouting grains increases the nutritive value of foods , so much so that we have a store chain called Sprouts which seeks to anchor this idea in our minds every time we go grocery shopping . Another well known idea is that fermentation greatly increases the nutritional value of foods as well , and indeed one need look no further than yogurt , idlis , tempeh , Kefir , Kombucha , Kimchi , Sauerkraut to verify the truth of the same . So what we have here is a super mixture of sprouty fermented goodness to start with . At this point , this super nourishing mixture is filtered and hops are added to provide some spice and a natural preservative and voila , we have beer , a highly concentrated form of organic goodness in a bottle  . If that is not nutrition on the go , I dont know what is . Indeed Mothers looking for providing quick , natural and easy nourishment to their young need look no further than the familiar 6 pack in the grocery store. Grapes follow a somehow simpler route .They are just mashed but in this case it makes for a even greater compelling argument because no less a distinguished figure than the Surgeon General insists that we take in 5 servings of fruit a day. Even a confirmed fruit lover like myself loses that struggle daily , can you imagine having to eat 5 water melons every single day?  I tried that and spent so time in the bathroom but I digress .  Crushed grapes are fermented thereby increasing their nutritional value multi fold again and filtered to provide us with wine . And in this case , this has the additional benefit of having naturally occurring sugars , there by satisfying our natural craving for sugar. Indeed this might be a even better option for harried mothers looking for quick , easy and natural nutrition. Breast feeding mothers can pass on this nutritive storehouse in small quantities to their babies , a double win if ever there was one . Not only is this a nutritional powerhouse but it is a quick aid for restorative sleep , an argument so powerful that I doubt any new parent could find faults with this.

At this point if one decides to distill the beer mixture to concentrate this nutrition , one gets whisky or moonshine or ever clear . This is then aged in Oak barrels for umpteen years to remove the acerbic taste and give it a pleasant tang . Grapes follow the same fate to wine and then distilled to Brandy , potatoes to Vodka , corn to sour mash and so on . For reasons of sanity , I have ignored those magical processes where corn is actually turned into Bourbon in Kentucky , grapes turn themselves into Armagnac in the Armagnac province of France or cognac if it finds itself in the Cognac province of France where as in the rest of the world the fickle grape is content to be just ordinary brandy . I will call out to corn here ,Corn  is particularly interesting because it is generally considered to be indigestible , so it is a miracle that we have even perfected a process of secreting concentrated nutrition out of indigestible corn .

Indeed in my humble opinion, these distillation processes are merely a way to save on space while concentrating all the nutritious goodness in a smaller package .We were told by the first law of thermodynamics that the amount of energy in the universe stays constant . By this highly revered and respected theory, it is obviously evident that what we have here is an enormously effective way of concentrating the energy content of a large amount of grain into a small amount of alcohol so goes to reason that the nutritive value of alcohol in terms of energy is astronomically high . Indeed it is so high that it provides jolts of instant nourishment for the soul and the brain . The cells in the brain used to the normal reticent and reluctant  energy in grain becomes unusually lubricated by this sudden abundance and normally reticent men are known to burst in song after a couple of swigs of this delightful nutritious stuff.

Not too long ago , I was in a bar devouring a BLT . This was no ordinary BLT but the kind that stays with you. Indeed It was so memorable that I can see myself telling my grandchildren and all posterity so that we could all marvel together at it’s fine qualities and lip smacking goodness. But my worshipful reverie was interrupted by the picture of this young man who was quietly sipping cranberry juice . His was the kind of unhappiness that sours everything that is good in a place and it lost no time in creeping in on my scrumptious fare and while one generally prefers to mind their own business and devour the splendor that God wants us to, in this case  I decided to make an exception in the light of bonhomie and helping a fellow human in seemingly acute distress. I sidled up to him and greeted him

“Hi bro” , I said

“Ho ” , he jumped up like a cat that was lost in existential reverie suddenly confronted by the neighboring pit bull.

“Everything OK?” , I ignored the transition of  panic to annoyance followed by disinterest. The transition was so masterful and quick that it would have turned most werewolves green with envy and even kick started  a transition Olympics among them .

“Yes , everything is fine” . The tone told me to mind my own business , I wanted to punch the tone but things being what they are, I merely ignored it and continued on my altruistic struggle to better the sour mood of my fellow man.

“Why the sour face?” , he glared at me and looked away .

I am normally a reticent man who can take a hint so I did but I kept a close eye on him, pretty soon the reason was his acute depression was clear to me. It was in the form of a beautiful petite red head who seemed to be the life of the party two tables down.

Always the altruist , I promptly poured a shot of my vodka into his cranberry juice while his attention was still captivated by the bewitching red head.

The effect that it had seemed to perk him up . If an English longbow archer from the fields of Agincourt had happened to pass by, he would have recognized the effect as similar to that of his longbow . My pensive friend no longer seemed pensive, a light had come upon him. He knew that the world was for his taking , I imagine that he felt the same about the redhead , walked up to her and asked to dance with her. There was no dance floor but I cannot imagine that a normal happy go lucky girl would not be flattered by the attentions of so original a mind . Alas duty called me away so I had to leave before the credits rolled in and I got to see the young couple living happily ever after.

But I could not but reflect on the merits of this empowering and nutritious life giving fluids. I had seen a shy man who could barely look at a girl and the miracle of a small snifter had him leaping tall buildings in a single leap.

If the aforementioned psychic telepaths had lived in the 20s , they would known instantly that our founding fathers loved this fine tipple and we could have happily avoided the disastrous experiment known as Prohibition which caused no end of misery to all sorts of gentle folk including Al Capone (who was so sensitive that he would cry at operas) .