Why I Prefer To Travel When It’s Cold

In all my travels around Britishland, I’d never been to the little town of Cheddar, whence the eponymous cheese is derived. So yesterday, as it was warm and not raining, I decided to rectify that with a little day trip to check the place out.

The route from Free Market Towers encompasses, as one would imagine, scenes of indescribable pastoral beauty: rolling hills, freshly-harvested fields or else emerald-green expanses populated by sheep and/or cattle, stone walls, the occasional stately home à la FM Towers, and occasionally an actual castle or two. (More on that topic anon.) Here’s an example, one of hundreds, of a church in an otherwise unknown little town:

On and on I went (no main roads on my travels, no sir), until the scenery suddenly changed: into a gorge I swept, with towering cliffs and tight corners on the twisty little road:

…but here’s why I prefer to travel when it’s either late autumn or even winter.

You see, because it’s the summer school holidays Over Here, about a zillion people had had the same idea as I, with the subsequent dolorous result:

That was only one of about a dozen car parks scattered along the road that wound through the gorge — and almost everyone had walked the mile or two down the road into Cheddar itself. If you can imagine the Boardwalk on the Jersey Shores over a midsummer weekend, you’ll get the picture. I couldn’t stop to buy cheese — in fact, I couldn’t even stop to get a picture of the mayhem, so crowded was the place.

So in foul humor I retraced my steps out of Cheddar and back, more or less, along the same way I’d come.

Because you see, en route I had been rather taken with a tiny little village named Norton St. Philip, which had not one, but two interesting pubs on its narrow streets. I picked the George:

…because a.) there was lots of parking and b.) because Observant Readers will note the presence of the “Wadworth” brewery sign, which meant the wondrous beverage 6X (which I sorely needed after the disappointment of Cheddar). I discovered reason c.), by the way, as I walked into the place:

So: heritage, hangings, history and 6X all in one place — like I was going to pass up that little combination — and the George wasn’t crowded either, so I could sit in undisturbed peace and quiet and enjoy my lunch of lamb’s liver with bacon and mashed potato, all washed down by a glass of refreshing 6X.

Heaven.

And on the topic of heaven, here’s a view of the church at Norton St. Philip, just below the pub and across the village green (and it’s even more beautiful than my humble pic suggests):

I’ll be back — but only when it’s colder. The George has this huge fireplace in the pub, you see, and rooms with bathrooms, so I won’t need to stay sober to drive home. Hell, I might just call The George home and never leave Norton St. Philip…

Back Home

…at Free Market Towers, where little has changed, of course. There may be a new servant or two, but I haven’t seen them yet — no doubt, I’ll make their acquaintance at the next flogging.

Speaking of which, a friend sent me a genuine hippo-hide sjambok as a present, which of course I’m going to pass on to the Free Markets.

The servants are not going to enjoy this…

No More Instant

I suppose I should be grateful to Starbucks for one thing: they brought the concept of “brewed coffee” to the U.K., even if it was only their shitty burnt water. Now, of course, you have chains like Costa (excellent) and Caffé Nero (not-so-excellent), but I was struck by the fact quite forcefully when I ordered “filter” (i.e. not instant) coffee at a breakfast kiosk in Edinburgh’s Waverley Station last week, and it was quite acceptable. I was also reminded of that when at lunch at Fortnum’s a couple days back, I ordered an “Americano” (diluted espresso) and was served a lovely cup of coffee. In fact, you can order an Americano just about anywhere — which is a hellacious change over what used to be Instant Coffee Country.

It’s not Dunkin’ Donuts or Krispy Kreme coffee, but it will certainly do.

And Costa is pretty much ubiquitous — I think there are more of them than Starbucks, which is a relief because their coffee is better and about a third the price of Starbucks’s overpriced shit. Just about every larger gas station has a Costa dispensing machine, which makes traveling less of a caffeine-deprived nightmare, and in the towns, there are generally several Costa outlets.

Sadly, there are no Keurig machines in Britishland that I can see — certainly, none in the houses / apartments where I’ve been staying. Mostly, it’s the Nespresso option which is fine, but Nespresso seems incapable of making coffee that isn’t hair-raisingly strong, which I can only overcome by making two large cups of coffee from a single pod. I miss my trusty Keurig, and my Krispy Kreme Regular.

But it all beats instant.

Changed And Unchanged

So today I went to Harvey Nichols to make my token purchase (as promised here), and walked out without making one. Here’s what got up my nose about the place.

Harvey Nicks has changed. It’s no longer the calm, classy establishment I knew and loved from a dozen or so years ago. Now it’s brash, very pretentious and looks like someone in Marketing said, “I know! Let’s cater to parvenu Russian oil oligarchs’ wives and children!”

I was going to make a small purchase — I can’t afford Harvey Nicks’ prices on, well, anything — so I wanted to get something small, a present for a friend, nothing fancy, a beautiful bath soap that would be pure indulgence every time she used it. I walked up to the first salesgirl I saw at the cosmetics department and said, “I’m looking for some luxury bath soap. Where do you stock it?”
Soap?” The little tart acted as though she’d never heard of it.
“Yes… you know, a bar of something fragrant, something sinfully expensive and indulgent?”
Soap?” she repeated. “I don’t know… let me ask someone else,” and she sashayed off to another tart behind a different counter. Much whispered conversation, pointing and even a curl of the lip.

I was being snooted.

What was worse, I soon discovered, was that Harvey fucking Nichols does not stock any fucking bar soap, of any description — at least, not that I could discern or the snooty little shit knew about either.

So I left, and such was my dismay that I had to go to Fortnum & Mason for a recuperative lunch. So I did, hoping that Fortnum’s hadn’t made the same stupid marketing decision.

Bless the Lord, they haven’t. It’s still the same lovely, old-fashioned place that sells stuff like $1,500 carrier bags and $10,000 Christmas crackers, and which offers shoeshine service delivered by a young man in formal clothing.

I felt like I’d come home — or at least, home to Free Market Towers, which is very much like Fortnum’s, only without anything for sale. Anyway, after a frighteningly fine lunch of duck rarebit and coffee, I went up to the second floor (Ladies Accessories) and found… about a hundred different kinds of sinfully expensive and indulgent bath soaps. A delightful young lady — not a snooty little tart — with a charming French accent was only too happy to help me make a choice, showing me all over the floor to the different placements of said soaps, opening packages to let me inhale the fragrance, and in general making me feel like my business meant everything to her — and all this, for a $10 purchase, mind you.

So I ended up buying a lot more than one bar of soap — total purchase well over $40 — and then went down to buy small gifts of tea and such for my rotten, ungrateful and spoiled children.

Which I did. Then, still having not exhausted my ire at being condescended to by a snotty little shopgirl, I went down the street to the Maille mustard store, where a charming, helpful young man let me taste about a dozen exquisite mustards, and such was my self-restraint that I only bought half a dozen small jars thereof.

Such is the power of helpful, sincere and well-trained customer service.

And fuck Harvey Nichols. They’ve lost me as a customer, too.

The Banality Of Luxury

So one of my British Things to do today was to go to Green And Stone Stationers and Art Supplies on Kings Road in Chelsea.

Green And Stone is a throwback to an earlier time, when people wrote on fine paper with ink pens, used blotters on letters and correspondence, and had actual writing tables. It’s also a place where, if you’re an artist (professional or hobbyist) you will find the best quality paints, inks, pens and such anywhere. (Think: bamboo calligraphy pens in nearly a dozen different nib widths, and you’ll begin to get an idea.) As someone once told me, “Seeing all this makes you want to take up that activity, just so you get to use the stuff.” And it’s true. Even if you’re not a calligrapher or artist, it’s worth a visit; I ended up buying presents for four people, all different, and only two of which were art-related — it’s that kind of a store.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about today.

I took the Tube down to Sloane Square, and walked the mile or so south to Green & Stone because I love Chelsea; the place is full of eclectic, interesting shops and many, many good places to eat that aren’t called McDonald’s and the like (although they can be found there too). Also, just off King’s Road are beautiful, classy neighborhoods (at not-so beautiful prices — whoa, it’s expensive, bubba) and also interesting establishments like The Chelsea Gardener. Best of all, because the area is upscale, the people are too: mostly classy people, well-dressed and carefully groomed. My kinda folks.

Anyway, on the way back I decided to take the No.19 bus rather than the Tube because it was a lovely day and I felt like looking at London rather than at a tunnel wall.

Part of the route was along Sloane Street into Knightsbridge, and of course it’s on this street where you find all the Usual Suspects: Dior, Ferragamo, Versace, Hermès, Pucci, Prada and all those furrin names. As a place of wealth and ostentation, it’s difficult to top Sloane Street…

…except that it’s not. I’ve seen Sloane Street many times before, only it was called “Hofbahnstrasse” in Zurich, “the Golden Mile” in Chicago, “Kollmarkt” in Vienna, “Northcross Mall” in Dallas, “Champs-Elysées” in Paris and “Park Avenue” in Manhattan. It’s all the same stores, the same overpriced merchandise and (pretty much) the same customers, only speaking with different accents and languages.

Phooey. You can keep all that crap. Give me a street with character like King’s Road or Upper Street in Islington (further along on my bus trip) any day of the week. Luxury shopping isn’t just overpriced, it’s banal — and I want no part of it.