Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora is written for THIRTEEN by Deborah Gilbert, a British television maven and editor of the E20 Chronicles, a free, weekly EastEnders e-newsletter, and an EastEnders column in the Union Jack Newspaper. Check back for updates.
(Please see Dispatch from the Downton Abbey Diaspora #13 for Part 1)
One of my favorite forms of New York City entertainment is just walking around. London was no different:
Trafalger Square, Piccadilly Circus, Notting Hill, The Tower of London, Buckingham Palace, Parliament Square, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Carnaby Street, the High Street, it just went on and on. London is a very walkable city. I loved turning off a main drag into a small street no bigger than an alleyway and finding little boutiques or galleries. There were so many street names that I was familiar with. Sometimes when I came across those streets I went looking for familiar addresses. On my way to the National Gallery I happened upon Charring Cross Road, so naturally I looked for number 84. There are still a number of antiquarian book dealers on Charring Cross Road but Marks & Co booksellers is long gone; though it is remembered with a plaque on the wall. These round blue plaques are quite common, most designating the former home of a person of significant accomplishment who has passed on.
Another thing you notice about the traffic is they’re all driving small cars. No SUV’s, no pickups or minivans – tiny cars – and virtually no horn honking. I’d been there at least four days before I heard a horn honk and it wasn’t until day six that I heard a siren!
Here’s a car so tiny it fits in a pizzeria window display in Notting Hill!
One thing I wanted to do while in London was to get an insider’s view from a local, and you can’t get a better tour guide than cabbie Tony Walker. If you have ever seen one of Michael Apted’s ‘Up Series’ documentaries, you’ve seen Tony. Actually, if you have seen Seven Up, the first one from 1964, you have seen Tony; his personality is exactly the same as it was when he was seven years old! If you haven’t seen any of the Up Series, you should check them out. I met him several years ago at an event in New York (at the time I hadn’t actually heard of the Up Series and had no idea who he was, I just thought he was a funny Cockney bloke). I wondered if he would let me ride around in his cab as he picked up passengers one day. He was game so he picked me up at my hotel at 6PM (he works at night) and off we went. As it turns out, there is no front passenger seat in black cabs so I sat on a little metal box in what is normally the luggage hold. It was a quite an interesting way to see the city! This was only my third day in London and actually my first time riding in anything but the train since I’d gotten there and due to the opposite side of the road thing, it sometimes feels like you’re driving into oncoming traffic. It’s a weird sensation and takes some getting used too. But another thing you notice about drivers there: Some of the streets are so narrow it doesn’t look like it is possible that they are two-way streets, and yet they are! The drivers take turns politely letting each other pass (very un-New York). We drove all over—to the East End, to Bow Bells and Bethnel Green where he grew up (he laments the changes that make him feel like has been pushed out of his East End home), and we also drove over the Thames, over Waterloo Bridge and saw that gorgeous view of the city all lit up at our feet, as well as Westminster Bridge with the great view of Big Ben. We also stopped off to say hello to a friend of his, David Samuelson, a cameraman on the early Up Series films, who won an Oscar for inventing a kind of camera crane. He invited us to hold his Oscar. I’d never held one before (it’s heavy!) and when you pick it up, as a natural reflex you say, ‘I’d like to thank the Academy’. Here’s Tony with it.Later on we stopped off at a cafe that is a cabbie hangout and Tony came in for some good natured ribbing from the other cabbies, all top Cockney blokes, as they shared their dinner break while watching a football match. I don’t understand football (soccer) but it didn’t sound like England was doing too well! In between plays they were making suggestions for sights, ("did you remember to show her this; did you remember to take her there, etc.") A great bunch of lads!
Anyone who is anyone has been in Tony’s cab over the years and he has all kinds of stories to tell as well as interesting London factoids. It was fun listening to him chatting away with his fares as well. Several of my newsletter readers have hired him while in London and have all had a great time. If you will be in London and would like a tour like no other, you can hire Tony to drive you around (and you’ll be sitting in the back where you can relax in comfort!) Contact him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Saturday I had plans to visit Highclere Castle and getting there was almost like an episode of Downton Abbey! It started before I ever left the States. By the time I’d booked my trip the website (and ticket office) said tickets were sold out and the only way I’d be able to get in would be to wait on a standby line on the chance that other guests would leave early so I could get in the last hour of the day! They said there were absolutely no more tickets. Oh no! After a bit of back and forth I was able to get one ticket because of this blog. Phew! So I set off early Saturday morning for ‘Downton Abbey.’ Highclere Castle is in Newbury, Berkshire, about an hour west of London by train. My directions were to catch the train from Paddington Station but when I got there they said (because of construction on the bank holiday weekend) the train would be leaving from Waterloo Station instead, so back on the tube to Waterloo. The wrong station meant I’d missed the first train and on top of that there would be no direct trains this weekend, I’d have to change trains in Redding. That turned out to be a good thing as several fellow travelers on the Reading train were coming home from a night out on the tiles in London and seemed to be confused about where the loos were, so I was relieved to get off and change trains for the final leg. But because of the station mix-up I missed the connection and had to wait another 45 minutes for the next train to Newbury. After all the mishegas I wanted to make sure I got off at the right stop and there were two stops with Newbury in the title (Newbury and Newbury Park). So I asked a woman on the train if she was local and she said she was, so I asked her if she knew which stop was the one for Highclere Castle. It was Newbury.
They don’t allow photography inside the castle. Like with any museum that houses paintings, the relentless flashes would likely damage the art. But I’m guessing it might also have something to do with the house not looking quite the same in person as it does on TV (like any TV or film set). There is a lot to be said for the talents of lighting designers and cinematographers! When you are outside the house you can wander around anywhere on the grounds, but when you go inside there is a roped-off route you follow as you walk through the house. The carpets are a bit worn and the upholstery frayed (as you would expect from items of their age) and I was surprised they were letting us walk on the carpets at all. On the tour route, you walk through the grand downstairs rooms that we are all familiar with from the show. There is Lord Grantham’s desk, there are the sumptuous red couches, there is the grand entryway and staircase, and on and on. The upstairs bedrooms have red velvet ropes across the doorways so you cannot enter, but can peer in. On the tables in the hallways sit some books which look a bit out of place. I thought that maybe there were precious items that normally live there but which (understandably) had to be removed before it opened for tours. And interestingly enough, prominently displayed on one table was a book called, The Appalling Guests. We were joking about whether that was a message to us, the tourists who were traipsing through their house (though I was told that the family doesn’t actually live in it – they live in a smaller house on the estate). I spent most of my time there outside, walking around the grounds. The best view (I think) is from the folly in the side yard that has appeared in the background of so many scenes.
As I mentioned, there was just one thing on my list that I didn’t get to do while in London— ride the London Eye. I kept waiting for a clear day but a clear day never came! It was densely cloudy and freezing cold with occasional snow flurries all week; the weather forecasters kept saying it was the coldest Easter week in years. But it didn’t matter: I had the time of my life!
Of course I had fit in some shopping along the way. So much so that I needed an extra bag on the way home for all the goodies I’d bought. I’d picked up assorted souvenirs for friends and family, gluten free goodies we don’t have here in the States, plum jam from the Highclere Castle gift shop, strawberry jam and English Lavender from Buckingham Palace, shoes from Carnaby Street, a sweater from Notting Hill, and I discovered Boots No 7 (it’s amazing!) Being the not-so-seasoned traveler that I am, while it seemed like everyone else at Heathrow had nice fashionable luggage, I was shlepping my booty in a big plastic laundry bag bought for £1.50 off the Camden High Street. What can I say? That’s me all over. When I got to the gate to board, the supervising flight attendant told me he’d received a letter informing him I’d be on his flight and to take care of me. Like I said, British Airways has the BEST customer service anywhere! I haven’t been cured of my fear of flying, but the British Airways staff (with the assist of the Ativan) made it manageable. On the flight home I willed myself to stay awake long enough to get my gluten free meal (filet of sole – excellent!) I watched a movie (I think) but I cannot for the life of me remember what one it was – and then we landed! So I made it home! It was a magical trip, made that way by the many special people I met along the way. Hopefully, someday I’ll summon the nerve to return to jolly old England – til then I’ll have to get by on the great telly we get on PBS!
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