Expat Chronicles: Short Hops from London Edition

Wandering down the streets of Cambridge the other day, I had to do a double-take after passing a shop that sells college gear. A sweatshirt was displayed in the window with the words “Cambridge 1209” stitched across the front. I looked again. Yep, that’s what it said: “1209.” I assumed that was the year Cambridge University was founded, 1209. I later confirmed as much on the World Wide Web.

Here was yet another instance of the difference between England and the USA. You just don’t see that kind of thing in the States – “1209” following the name of a university on a sweatshirt. “1209” is a time of day in the States, not a year. The oldest American university, Harvard, dates to the mid-17th century. By then, Cambridge was already an academic OG dippin’ into its fifth century.

We spent a night in the town of Cambridge over the weekend because we had to vacate our London home while some work was being done. That was the main reason, but it’s also the kind of thing you need to do every now and then – take a journey outside of the metropolis, clear your head, escape the hustle and bustle.

London is the third massive city I’ve lived in, following New York and Los Angeles. You just have to get out of these kinds of places from time to time to maintain your sanity. Whenever we needed to escape New York we could take a quick drive to one of those cute, artsy towns in the Hudson Valley. You can’t drive anywhere quickly from L.A., but you could reach the relative calm of Joshua Tree, Santa Barbara or Solvang in a few hours.

So far we’ve taken three overnight or day trips from London. That averages out to about one a year, which doesn’t sound like many, but most of our travels here involve wandering around Europe. So far we’ve visited, ummmmm, 11 different cities in nine countries in Europe and North Africa. You can read about those adventures elsewhere on this blog.

I haven’t written about our short hops to other towns in England yet, so let’s do that now, shall we? If you ever find yourself in London, it’s worth taking a trip to one of the outlying burgs, if for no other reason than to soak up a little different history and culture.

And with that in mind……

Cambridge: This is more of a small city than a town, with a population around 124,000 and a bustling center-city area. It’s about a 90-minute train ride from London, much of which goes through lovely English countryside and its collection of trees, pastures, cows, sheep, and old men whittling slingshots that they’ll later use to fire stones at passing trains (okay, I made that last part up).

Cambridge is probably best known for Cambridge University, which over here is like Yale to Oxford’s Harvard. This means there are a lot of very bright kiddos shuffling about. Students and faculty at Cambridge U. come from all over the world, lending the city a diversity you might not find in places further to the north. We heard a fair few American and/or Canadian accents during our short visit here, and our first stop after arriving was to hit a barbecue joint called the Smokeworks Station that served up some real-deal American-style ‘cue.

Smokeworks, like most barbecue places in England, specializes in a tomato-based sauce similar to those you’ll find in western North Carolina or Kansas City. We’ve yet to find an Eastern NC-style, vinegar-and-hot-sauce version, but that’s fine. The pulled pork and ribs at Smokeworks were top shelf, and the slaw had the perfect blend of crunch and tang without being too mayonaissey. My only quibble was that they typically serve the pulled pork sandwich with cheese and mayo – an abomination that I avoided by telling them to just put the meat and BBQ sauce on the bread.

We stayed at a Hilton downtown, very nice and posh(ish). The hotel also played NFL games on the wide-screen telly in the lounge. This was the first place in the UK I’ve ever seen NFL games on the TV, even recorded ones, so it was a nice touch. We later enjoyed pre-dinner drinks in the lounge and post-dinner coffee with a mind-blowingly delicious serving of sticky toffee pudding.

So: Cambridge University. It’s about what you’d expect. Very academic looking, very expensive looking, with some nice green spaces and ancient stone buildings dating back centuries. I think I would have enjoyed flunking out of there after a semester or so.

The real revelation, though, was the town itself. As I said, it’s a surprisingly busy place without being overly crowded. The downtown area has many cafes and shops, a couple of parks, a couple of malls, the occasional small plaza. It’s all very walkable, though the sidewalks are pretty narrow. Not too far from our hotel was a stream and adjacent canal that I assume are part of the River Cam. Gondola rides were available on the canal, and there’s a small pasture by the stream where you can walk up and pet some very chill Jersey cows.

You’ll find a lot of bookstores in Cambridge, which makes sense, being home to so many braniacs. These stores range from quirky little shops specializing in literary works to chains and off-price stores that also sell music and doo-dads in addition to books. We visited one of the latter, where I bought a 3-disc Django Reinhardt CD and a couple of books (Bukowski, Orwell) for 11 pounds. Quite a deal. Books are a big theme in Cambridge. You see a lot of book art on the walls – which sounds like what it is, pieces of art made from book scraps and covers – as well as book sculptures and whatnot. If you’re a book lover, you’ll want to “book” a trip to Cambridge ha ha ha ha ha. Ahem….

Cambridge has a variety of restaurants to suit all tastes, but if you want to go to one of them for dinner, you need to book reservations ahead of time or you’re SOL (google it). We had a 6:15 p.m. reservation at a chophouse Saturday night, but decided to cancel it at the last minute so we could have a couple of drinks in the lounge while the kids played with their internet gizmos. We headed out for dinner around 7:30 or so. We tried to walk into a few places, but none had any tables available. This was partly because COVID-19 restrictions were in place that limited the number of diners, but I imagine that’s probably the case all the time in Cambridge.

We finally were able to wander into a fast-casual burrito joint similar to Chipotle Mexican Grill. The food was fine, but my stomach later protested in a biiiiig way. I normally eat a pretty light and tame diet these days, at least for breakfast and lunch, and spending this particular day gorging on barbecue, beer and Mexican fare did not go over well down below. Still: It was worth it!!

We plan to return to Cambridge for a longer visit in the future. There’s still much we didn’t see in terms of hiking around town, taking in museums, etc. It’s definitely a cool place to visit if you’re ever in the area.

Brighton: This is a beach town located directly south of London on the English Channel, about an hour away by train. We took a day trip here in April 2019, when the weather was unseasonably warmish and sunny. My memories are foggy after all this time, but I’ll take a shot at what I remember.

The beach is the star of the show here for most folks, which means Brighton can get crowded when the weather turns warm. Photos we took of the kids show them on a rocky beach, so I’m not sure how much sand there is. I imagine the water is fairly cold no matter the time of year, but that doesn’t stop those stout Brits from venturing in.

The main attraction for me was the city itself, which is even bigger than Cambridge at about 230,000 residents. Again, it was a pleasant surprise seeing how busy it was, full of shops, pubs, restaurants, quaint hotels, a nice park, something historic looking that might have been a satellite home for royalty. You walk down block after block of teeming activity – as well as what I recall were some pretty pricey stores aimed at the Tiffany crowd.

I believe we ate at a pretty decent English pub whilst (yes, “whilst”) we were there, or maybe it was a sandwich place. The kids enjoyed the beach and the adults enjoyed the vibe. Did we also eat ice cream? Maybe, maybe. We did stop into a sweets place to escape the heat, as I recall.

Some of the streets in Brighton are pretty hilly, which give you a good view of the water as well as a decent workout. Again, I recommend going here if you’re in the area.

Canterbury: Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote, the droghte of March hath perced to the roote, and bathed every veyne in swich licour, of which vertu engendred is the flour; Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth Inspired hath in every holt and heeth the tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne Hath in the Ram his half cours yronne, and smale foweles maken melodye…

Oh, pardon me. Did I just lapse into Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales?” Oof – that always happens. Mention Canterbury, and I just go all Chaucer like the literary gangsa I am. We were forced to memorize the first part of “The Canterbury Tales” in high school, and ever since then the first couple of lines have been glued to my brain like a fly to flypaper.  Thanks a lot, Teacher Whose Name I Forgot!!!

We traveled to Canterbury in August 2019, another day trip. It’s located southeast of London, in the county of Kent, a little less than an hour by train, once again past pretty countryside. Unlike Cambridge and Brighton, Canterbury fits firmly into the “charming English village” category, even with a population of 40,000-plus. It seems smaller than that because the town area is not huge, and the vibe is very relaxed.

Again, my memory is foggy on some of the details, so I borrowed some info from a FB post my wife made at the time. On the way there we followed the route taken by Chaucer from Southwark and made our own pilgrimage to Canterbury Cathedral, which dates to 597. This cathedral I do remember. It was a towering thing, vast on the inside, with huge columns and many ornate designs. We also walked in a small, lovely park beside a small, lovely stream. Very English; quite lovely. The town itself has the usual collection of cute shops and cafes.

We lunched at a place called the Old Weavers House, which was established in 1500 or so. It may be the oldest restaurant I’ve ever eaten in (the oldest back home in Charlotte was probably the “World Famous” Open Kitchen, established 1952). The Old Weavers House has something of a German vibe architecturally, with dark wooden beams on the exterior and triangular gables fronting the roof. But it’s probably considered an English pub. Our order, according to the FB post: fish and chips, weavers pie, chili with rice, and spaghetti Bolognese. If I remember correctly, those belonged to Lauren, Susan, Vance, and Lena, respectively.

Canterbury is another place you should visit if you’re in the area – and specially from every shires ende Of Engelond to Caunterbury they wende, The hooly blisful martir for to seke, That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.

Note: One advantage of going out of town is that the computer is back home, and handheld devices don’t always pick up the internet. You tend to forget about social media because you’re so busy doing other things that actually improve your mood instead of bringing you down.  But every now and then, during idle moments, I would glance at Facebook, and I could almost feel the darkening of my soul and the crashing of my spirit as the various ghouls leaped out of my iPhone and assaulted me, one after another. The anger, the righteousness, the outrage, the grievances, passive-aggressiveness, memes, cliches, bad spelling. It’s like wading into a haunted forest with a werewolf around every tree.

I would look at social media for about 17 seconds, feel my blood pressure rise, then shut it down and feel better instantly. It makes you wonder why we do it — why I do it. Maybe one day I’ll have the sense and courage to shut it all down completely, forever and a day. We’ll see.

2 Comments

  1. I’ve been to London most, and hardly anywhere else in the country. I recall Cambridge university – it was stunningly beautiful…the same sort of impact when I first visited the University of Cape Town. I vaguely remember a cool fudge shop outside Cambridge, too.

    Brighton… pebbles instead of beach sand was a weird experience. And I remember the pier, with a funfair type setup in the middle. Is that still around?

    Other than that, I’ve only been to Windsor (for Legoland) and a day trip to Manchester (for Old Trafford).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes that pier in Brighton is still there, or was when we visited about a year-and-a-half ago. We walked in, let the kids play some of the arcade games. It may be closed during COVID, though. And yes — the pebbly beach, very odd when you’re used to sand. But folks were still laying out their blankets and whatnot. I imagine for someone from your neck of the woods, with all the pristine beaches, it must have been quite a shock.

      Liked by 1 person

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