Not long after we got to Munich, I saw an ad on Facebook for the West End theatrical production of Neil Gaiman’s book The Ocean at the End of the Lane. I bought the book back in 2014 and we both read it and loved it. I knew that the play had received rave reviews when it opened at the National Theatre a few years back, and it seemed like a great opportunity for a trip back to London to reunite with some of our friends. I decided to play it very safe and buy tickets for a full year in the future, hoping that by then we’d be able to safely travel there and see it. I splurged and got really nice tickets for November 2021 (for our wedding anniversary), and we booked our flights and hoped things would work out. Thankfully, for the most part it did!
The UK had famously dropped most Covid restrictions by the end of 2021, and Omicron hadn’t yet hit. We still had to show our vaccination passes, and there was a requirement that visitors had to take a Covid test within 2 days of arriving. We pre-booked our tests for pickup at the airport and managed to collect them in Heathrow without too much trouble. We caught the Heathrow Express to Paddington and then walked to our hotel, the Park Grand Lancaster Gate.
We deliberately chose the hotel because it was so close to where we had both first lived in London. In fact, it was just up the street from where I had lived as a student (and later RA) for the Notre Dame London Program. The old digs had been done up a bit posher than I remembered.
This was an incredibly special place to visit – The Leinster Arms. This was my local pub as a student, and it’s where I had my first ever pint in London. I spent so many hours (and quid!) there with my friends when I was a student. I used to have dreams where I was back in this pub. We went straight there, and I was shocked to see how upmarket it is these days. (The London in my mind is perpetually 1999.) It was clean and refurbished, and full of nice-looking couples (rather than feral uni students). My beloved dartboard was gone (as was the dodgy jukebox – which had been affixed to the wall right behind where I’m standing here), but on the upside, the taps were full of local craft brews.
The bartender kindly let us know that a table had opened up in the front room, so we finished our beers there. We were about six feet from the spot where we had one of our first dates, nearly 22 years before! Most of the patrons were watching a rugby game on TV – Australia vs. England. “Do you think I’ll get beat up if I cheer for Australia?” the Snook asked. “Best not risk it.”
We walked over to Queensway to check out the neighbourhood, and I was sad to see that the Gooch (another pub) had closed since we last visited in 2016. The Snook was reminiscing about his first address in London, a dodgy backpackers nearby that he had stayed in with his mate Steve. Queensway wasn’t quite as feral as we remembered, and many of the tourist shops seemed to be gone. Whiteleys (the shopping center) is undergoing some massive refurbishment. Queensway Tube Station felt the same as always though, with that weird elevator entrance, but it was nice to be able to swipe in/out with my iPhone. We caught the Central line to Tottenham Court Road as we had a very special person to meet…
Alex! He looks exactly the same, though the salt-and-pepper hair is all white these days. We both met Alex at the same time when was assigned to the “madaboutwine.co.uk” team with us back in 1999, and he eventually ended up rooming with Rodd in Harlesden before the three of us got a share house in Hammersmith. Now he’s married with a wife and kids out in the suburbs, but he kindly came in to town for a bit of a pub crawl with us…
We spent a few hours together getting reacquainted with Soho, Covent Garden, and Seven Dials. It all felt very Christmassy and festive. The number of people out and about was truly shocking through. Not just in a “don’t they know there’s a pandemic happening?” kind of way, but in a “this is way more people than I ever remember seeing here on a random Friday night before” way. And what’s with the “pedi-cabs” in London these days? There were heaps of bicycle taxis decked out with lights blaring doof-doof music at every turn.
We ended the night as one usually does, having a late night feed in Chinatown. The food and the company were excellent.
We parted from Alex at Picadilly Circus at midnight. It was so lovely to see him. ❤️
We walked back up Regent Street, peeking in the shop windows. Hamleys had a lovely Harry Potter themed display set up! We finally caught a taxi back to our hotel before retiring for the night.
We were both feeling a bit seedy the next day after such a big night, so there was only one thing for it – a full English breakfast. We found Sheila’s Cafe nearby that more than did the trick. Once fortified, we headed back towards Covent Garden for our next rendezvous…
Steve! This is the Aussie who dragged Rodd to London in the first place, who crashed with him in the dodgy backpackers and then in the bedsit in Harlesden, and who we once memorably visited while he was bartending at a remote hotel on Loch Lomond. Steve and his wife Kate have been living with their kids in England for many years now, so it was a real treat to get to catch up with him. ❤️ And then a few hours later it was time for…
Ben! Aka Wee Ben, aka the Ferret. Ben is actually the reason I have this silly domain name in the first place, as he first dubbed me the “web goddess” (in a thick Glaswegian accent) way back in 2000. He looks exactly the same. We tramped around the city with him and had dinner at a Mexican restaurant. He and Rodd reminisced about visiting dodgy computer markets together. It was nice. ❤️
Honestly, I love the Tube. It’s always filthy and you wonder how this Victorian marvel keeps hanging in there, but I love it.
The next morning we headed out for a walk through Hyde Park. I was looking for a very particular bench dedicated to Rudolf Steiner near the Serpentine. It was a spot that I had loved visiting as a student, and Rodd and I once had a picnic on the grass nearby not long after we started dating. (We found the bench. He’s still just as cute.)
“The Arch” by Henry Moore. We both remembered seeing the large version in Columbus, Indiana when we visited in 2019, but neither of us remembered this one in London. (Turns out it’s because it was taken down in 1996 and only put back up in 2012.)
As we neared the Serpentine Bridge, we heard the sound of hooves. It was a long mounted horse guard trooping past! No idea why, but it was fun to watch.
We exited the park near the Royal Albert Hall, stopping to check out the Albert Memorial. After the West End crowds on the weekend, the park felt strangely empty of tourists.
We headed to the nearest Tube Station and headed towards the City of London, where we split up for a few hours.
I had a boozy lunch with my AWS colleagues Iliyana and Isabel…
…and then swung past St. Paul’s on my way towards the river.
Looking east, I could see all the way to Tower Bridge, with the massive Shard dominating the skyline.
My destination was just on the other side of the river though – the Tate Modern.
And there, waiting on the Thames foreshore, was a very smartly dressed Mr. Snook…
…who had been off having some manscaping done at a posh Bankside barber. Look at that beard shaping! 😍
Time to go see some art.
One of the first sights we were greeted with in the Tate was the amazing “In Love with the World” by Anicka Yi. These floating “aerobes” moved independently around the hall, gently pulsating and drifting up and down. They were mesmerising.
The building itself was also breathtaking. I’ve never been much of a Brutalist, but the stark lines of the concrete walls and columns really won me over.
The Snook Marcel Duchamp’s famous “Fountain.” (Well, a replica anyway.)
I was excited to discover some of Marisa Merz’s work, which explores the relationship between art and every day life. All of these pieces involve knitting, of course.
The excellent exhibition “A Year in Art: Australia 1992” focuses on Aboriginal land rights. I had to give side-eye to Algernon Talmage’s “The Founding of Australia 1788” painting, which stood in stark opposition to the many more meaningful recent works.
“Raise Higher the Banner of Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin!” by Gustav Klutsis, featuring the addition of one bearded Snook.
After the art, we headed back to the West End.
Do you know how much I tried to get us a reservation to dine at the Ritz? It was booked out. Crowley and I were devastated.
Instead we met our friends Nicky and Martin for dinner at Chutney Mary, one of the very best Indian restaurants in London. The food was wonderful and the company was even better!
They lit my dessert ON FIRE!
We walked home up Bond Street through Mayfair, checking out the beautiful Christmas lights…
The next day we packed up our things and headed back to Paddington Station.
We had to stop and say hello to a very special bear, of course!
And then we boarded a train to Swansea, Wales, our base for the next few days. The trip took about three hours, and when we got there we picked up a rental car and drove a few miles to the Mumbles. Here we found our AirBnB, the Surfside Chalet.
The view wasn’t much to look at (especially on a cloudy, rainy day)…
…but it was nice and cosy inside!
We got up the next morning and went to explore. Limeslade Bay was just a short distance from our chalet.
The sun was rising as we climbed up to the lookout on Tutt Hill for another look at the bay.
At the end of Mumbles Road we picked up the Wales Coastal Path and headed off along the cliffs.
The path is well sign-posted and pretty accessible.
It was turning out to be a beautiful morning! Rumour has it Catherine Zeta-Jones has a house around here somewhere…
If you look far enough, France is just over the horizon.
We needed to get back to the chalet quickly (I had a work call) so we took a shortcut path straight up from the shore towards the Cricket Club. This bit was much narrower and overgrown.
A little muddy, but we managed.
We worked up a little bit of a sweat!
After my call, we went back to Mumbles Road and walked back towards town. Here you can see across Bracelet Bay to Mumbles Lighthouse.
The charming Mumbles Pier from above.
Swansea Bay. The tide was out, and we saw a lone kayaker out in the water.
There’s a long pedestrian footpath all along Mumbles Road, and on the other side is a strip of shops and restaurants. We headed towards the pub to meet up with our friends…
Clare and Emily!! After a pub lunch, they took us on a tour of the “ugly lovely house” they’ve been building nearby. It’s gorgeous! It’s been years since we saw them, and it’s so nice to see how they’re settling into their new home.
They also gave us a tip that we could get back to our chalet faster by taking Western Lane up to Thistleboon Road, pretty much straight up the cliff away from the store. It was a very steep hike, but much shorter than going all the way around the headland again.
We met up with Emily and Clare again later that night at Gin & Juice, an excellent gin bar in Mumbles. They have literally hundreds of different gins to choose from! They also had a list of some cocktails, including something called “Candy Floss Fever.” How could I not try that?
I was not expecting the bartender to literally cram half a bucket of cotton candy into the top of my drink and then stud it with edible flowers.
Oh, and a Chupa Chup. This was impressive and very Instagrammable, but man, that’s a lot of sugar. As soon as I made a hole and poured the tonic in, it started to melt into a pile of sugary goo. (I think I ended up leaving half the candy floss.)
The next day dawned overcast and rainy. This did not bode well for a day of exploring Welsh valleys.
Our first stop was the excellent Penderyn Distillery. The Snook tried a few different spirits (I was driving) and ended up taking a few home with us.
The persistent drizzle began to clear up, and we briefly had blue skies as we headed to a very special place – the tiny Welsh village of Cwmcarn in the Ebbw valley.
There’s not a lot to see in Cwmcarn to be honest, but we weren’t there to be tourists. We were there because it’s where Rodd’s paternal grandfather was born, and thanks to the wonders of Google Maps and digitisation, where were able to find the exact house where it occurred.
How cool is that? The ancestral home of the Snooks, as it were.
No, we didn’t go up to the house or speak to the current inhabitants (who as far as we know are no relation at all). We just stopped, paid our respects, and headed out.
We left Cwmcarn and continued down the valley towards Cardiff, the capital of Wales. There was a very special place I wanted to visit, which required negotiating some very annoying roundabouts and finding a place to park near Cardiff Bay.
The beautiful red building you see in the distance there is the Pierhead Building, one of Cardiff’s landmarks. It’s now a Welsh history museum.
Have you guessed our destination?
It’s also famously the location of the Torchwood headquarters from the shows Doctor Who and Torchwood. The big futuristic building behind Rodd is the Wales Millennium Centre.
We walked all around the Plass. I also found a charming map showing some of the highlights in the area. We didn’t have a lot of daylight left, but we decided to take a walk out to the Cardiff Bay Barrage. The Barrage encloses the far side of the Bay and turns it into a giant freshwater lake.
The weather was getting gray and drizzly again. It was about a 1 mile walk around from Roald Dahl Plass to our goal…
Doesn’t he look wicked? Far in the distance you can see the Millennium Centre and get a feeling for how far we walked.
Oh Crocky-Wock, you naughty fellow! What a horrid greedy grumptious brute, always trying to eat little children. 🐊
The nearby book bench had a quote from the story in both English and Welsh, which I found charming.
We hustled back to our car to begin the drive back to Swansea. Along the way we spotted one of the Dalek street signs, pointing the way to a nearby Dr. Who exhibition!
The next morning we packed up the chalet, dropped off the rental car, and caught a train back to London. Our Welsh sojourn was very brief, but it was lovely to catch up with friends and see a different part of the world for a few days.
We didn’t buy anything at the market, but I appreciated the festivity (especially since all of the markets in Bavaria had been cancelled).
As anyone who’s been to Trafalgar Square in the last twenty years knows, the “fourth plinth” doesn’t have a statue on it. Instead it’s used for a rolling program of temporary sculptures by contemporary artists. The one we saw was Heather Phillipson’s THE END, a somewhat controversial choice.
We walked south towards Big Ben and passed the mounted guard at Whitehall.
Sadly, the clock tower itself was at the very end of its four-year renovation so we only got to see the scaffolding!
I could not believe that the Tattershall Castle still exists. It’s an old permanently docked ship that’s since been turned into a pub and nightclub. I spent at least one (maybe more?) evening there as a student back in uni, though I admit I can’t remember much beyond many gin & tonics!
Next we came to the Obelisk, aka Cleopatra’s Needle. Happily, this priceless foreign artifact wasn’t carted off by a toff, but rather given to the UK by the ruler of Egypt in 1819.
The obelisk is flanked by two Sphinxes. The one on the right has a sign that points out that the many gouges and pits in the base were caused by a WWI German air raid bomb in 1917, left unrepaired in commemoration of the event.
At last we came to our destination… St. John Restaurant. We had a booking for a very late lunch. A favourite of Anthony Bourdain’s, this place specialises in “nose-to-tail” eating. I’m not really a big fan of offal, but I know someone who is…
Yeah, look at those marrow bones. He was in his happy place.
A selection of the dishes we enjoyed. I had mallard for the main, while the Snook had some sort of stewed rabbit. It’s the kind of place where the menu apologises that you might find buckshot in your meal!
The tide was out, and a group of fire dancers were lighting up the river’s edge with their whirling balls of flame.
Looking back towards Blackfriars Bridge, with the Oxo Tower and St. Paul’s Cathedral in the distance.
The next morning, we ventured out to do some shopping. We visited the Moomin Shop in Covent Garden, then walked through Chinatown towards Regent Street.
I insisted that we visit the Belstaff store so the Snook could try on Sherlock’s Milford coat. (We didn’t buy it on the day, but he let me get it for him back in Munich a week later during the Black Friday Sale!)
And then it was finally time for the play! The whole reason for the trip in the first place.
We showed our Covid passes and tickets and headed towards our seats.
I had splurged on very nice seats – fifth row center. I couldn’t resist taking a sneaky shot of the stage before the show began.
Of course I had to have ice cream at intermission. Thirty minutes after this I was sobbing in my seat at a sublimely beautiful scene involving PUPPETS. It was one of the most affecting things I’ve ever seen on stage, and I just couldn’t stop weeping. I cried the whole way back to the hotel and I still felt on the verge hours later. The show is really just magical and incredibly cathartic. I loved it, and I’m so glad we got to see it. ❤️
The next day we had a quick breakfast, packed up our stuff, and headed to the airport to head back to Munich. Thanks to everyone we managed to meet up with over the week!