A Travellerspoint blog

September 2014

A Proper English Experience: London & Notting Hill Carnival

After using Airbnb on several trips in 2014, we had become fairly savvy users. The flat we booked in Notting Hill was by far the most amazing place we'd found by then and still possibly one of the best ever. I knew Notting Hill was an attractive part of London but I really hadn't imagined that neighborhoods this beautiful actually existed. The only word that I can think of to describe Notting Hill is immaculate. Our street had endless rows of tall cream-colored townhouses, while other blocks had multicolored or brick houses in a variety of styles. The one constant was the pleasant congruence of homes on each block and an awe-inspiring classical beauty. The apartment itself was surprisingly spacious and well-appointed with high ceilings and hardwood floors, and decorated idiosyncratically with colorful furniture and repurposed hardware.

Of course we hadn't chosen Notting Hill just for its architectural allure. The whole reason we had chosen this particular week to come to England was to be there for the world famous Notting Hill Carnival, an annual celebration of Caribbean culture since 1966. The genesis of the Carnival was as an event to promote cultural unity after the race riots which had occurred in the neighborhood in 1958. The festival has grown dramatically over the years and it is now one of the world's largest street festivals, attracting over two million people to the neighborhood every year. We were incredibly fortunate to have found such a magnificent flat on the very doorstep of the festival just a month in advance, a stroke of luck I can only ascribe to Airbnb still being a fairly new mode of accommodation at the time. To do the same in the 2020's one would likely have to book a year in advance and pay easily twice as much.

We had three full days in London but we expected the Carnival to occupy most of the first two, while the third would be free. As soon as we stepped out of our building we could smell the smoke of barbecues and hear pounding bass from speakers that were blocks away. Strollers were out of the question so Mei Ling had Ian strapped to her back and I had a carrier for Cleo, although she had sensed the energy and was eager to walk and explore on her own. The first thing we did was find ourselves a breakfast of jerk chicken and Jamaican rice with beans. Foot traffic was fairly light at ten in the morning but the streets began to fill up quickly. As we walked we began to encounter larger crowds and some impressive parades with music trucks and floats. Mei Ling really got into the spirit of things and became an attraction in her own right dancing through the streets with Ian on her back and Cleo in her arms.

The crowds continued to grow but were never really oppressive thanks to the wide avenues that were all closed to traffic. The atmosphere was great with people of all cultures and races mingling together. Eventually we found our way over to Notting Hill's renowned Portobello Road where we stumbled on an energetic display of the Brazilian martial art capoeira.

The Carnival would have been an amazing scene anywhere with the parades, the dancing, and the joyous celebration of Caribbean culture. However, what made it truly incomparable was the setting among the magnificent rows of pristine town houses of Notting Hill. The juxtaposition was incongruous and somehow ideal at the same time.

At first it seemed that we could keep strolling through the streets for the entire day, but after a few hours the weight of the kids started to wear on us. I could have put Cleo down and carried Ian myself but the crowds were getting to the point where I was nervous to let her walk even holding my hand. Eventually we decided that we'd seen enough and returned to the flat for the stroller. We headed in the opposite direction from the clamorous festival and soon found ourselves in quiet lanes and green spaces with little trace of the energetic crowds we had left behind.

After a few blocks we found ourselves in Kensington Gardens, home of Kensington Palace. Cleo got a thrill feeding the geese and swans with some crackers we were fortunate to have with us. It seemed like a typical summer afternoon in London with no trace of the wild carnival taking place a ten minute walk away.

Notting Hill Carnival takes place over two days, with the second day being the Summer Bank Holiday. We were prepared to spend a few more hours at the festival but as luck would have it it was raining fairly briskly when we stepped out of our building. The dark skies didn't promise much hope of better weather any time soon, so we decided to chuck the whole idea and take the Tube to Camden Market instead. We really didn't have anything to complain about as we had had a blast on the first day and there probably wasn't much left for us to see anyway. We'd loved Camden Market the previous year and we were glad to have another opportunity to explore it. Unfortunately it was clear the rain had reduced the market to a shadow of its usual self. We were ready to go but the energy simply wasn't there.

We were wondering what to do next when I noticed the staircases that descended from the market down to the water level at Camden Lock. I thought we might see something interesting down there and we discovered a fascinating path along the canal. We had accidentally discovered Regent's Canal and began to walk westward in the direction of Notting Hill. We had no idea we were about to see one of the most beautiful urban landscapes we've ever encountered. The canal winds its way through northern London a level below the city streets, making it an enchanted respite from the furious activity above. The water is carpeted with algae blooms and the sides of the canal are home to eccentrically-decorated houseboats. Set back from the banks are weeping willows and the rear facades of stately mansions and museums. It was probably the best place we could have been on a rainy day in London, with the light drizzle accentuating the verdant and colorful landscape. The best part was that we had never heard of the canal and stumbled upon it completely by accident, making us feel like we had made our own remarkable discovery in this incomparable city.

We walked for what seemed like miles along the canal, only emerging when we couldn't ignore the growling in our stomachs any longer. London's amazing multicultural character came to the rescue with an Iraqi restaurant in the middle of Lisson Grove, a cuisine we'd never previously encountered. We continued the walk at ground level all the way back to our neighborhood where we could here the sounds of the resurgent festival that we were far too exhausted to return to.

We had one last full day in London and decided to walk all the way to the Tower of London, a good three hour walk with the strollers. Our first stop was for breakfast at a very cute cafe with a glass ceiling on Portobello Road. Then we set off eastward through the drizzly, congested streets of central London until we reached the Thames where it bent northward at Covent Garden.

At the river we came across Somerset House, an enormous 18th century Neoclassical building built on the foundations of a decayed Tudor palace. In the late 20th century the site was expanded with new buildings and converted into a center for the arts. The splendid main courtyard remains open to the public.

Despite the persistent drizzle the walk along the Thames was very enjoyable. Along the north bank we passed an eclectic mix of ultramodern and historic buildings. A few oddly-shaped skyscrapers dotted the skyline. We were surprised to encounter a footbridge spanning the Thames with a very contemporary design.

When we finally arrived at the Tower of London, the moat had been turned into a sea of red by hundreds of thousands of ceramic poppies, an artistic installation called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red that commemorated close to a million British servicemen killed subsequent to the outbreak of World War I a hundred years earlier. We were fortunate to have stumbled upon this very evocative display purely by chance as it was only in place for a few months. The breathtaking expanse of poppies revealed the enormity of the war's toll much more than could have been accomplished by any list or monument.

The tower grounds were pleasant to stroll through, although we made the mistake of waiting on line to view the Crown Jewels which were nowhere near as dazzling as I remembered them from my childhood. The medieval complex was quite formidable and amazingly well-preserved. The iconic bridge that crosses the Thames adjacent to the Tower of London is the Tower Bridge, although it is commonly misrepresented in photos as London Bridge. The famed Old London Bridge that was lined with multistory buildings was demolished in 1831, and the current iteration is a rather low, unadorned span of concrete that most visitors don't look at twice. The Tower Bridge is quite medieval in appearance but was actually built in the late 19th century and its design was quite controversial at the time.

With that our brief English vacation came to an end. It had only been a week but we had seen and done more than we would have in a month of our regular lives. We haven't been back in the six years since, mainly because it's simply too difficult logistically to get around by train with three small kids. As soon as Spenser is old enough to carry his own pack we'll be back for a full six weeks to give the British Isles the full exploration they deserve.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:58 Archived in England Tagged london england travel family notting_hill_carnival blog regents_canal travel_blog Comments (0)

A Proper English Experience: Yorkshire and Oxfordshire

Thanks to the epidemic I finally have the time to write about trips from years long past that I never thought I would chronicle. As my collection of blog entries has grown I've realized how valuable they may be one day for my kids so I've decided to try and document all the trips we've taken since they were born. After six years some of the memories are a little vague but fortunately I have plenty of photographs to jog my memory and reverse image searches if I simply can't remember where they were taken.

Although I have at least twenty blog entries apiece for Spain, France, and Italy I have none so far for England. We've been there twice since Cleo was born, once as a quick stop on our way to China when Cleo was an infant and once a year later when we had both Cleo and Ian. We haven't returned not for any lack of love for the country, but because we simply can't manage three children without the option to drive ourselves around. Driving on the left is one risk I don't feel comfortable taking, as I'm fairly absent-minded and tend to fall back on muscle memory when I'm on the road. As soon as our youngest is old enough to carry his own pack onto trains I'm sure we'll take a lengthy trip through England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland but that's still a few years in the future.

Our 2014 visit was another episode of the greatest travel year of our lives, in which we took no less than seven trips. The genesis of this particular journey was our desire to see the Notting Hill Carnival after having an amazing experience at Carnival in Trinidad a few years earlier. We had loved London the year before and were looking for any excuse to return. Of course we weren't going to fly all the way to Europe for just three days so we included short stays in Yorkshire and Oxfordshire to fill out a week. My cousin and his family live in Oxford which made that stop especially enticing.

The red eye deposited us in Heathrow on a Wednesday morning. I remember the immigration agent was very pleased with Cleo's passport and thanked us for helping to keep the old-fashioned English name alive. We took a train from the airport to Kings Cross where hourly trains departed to York and elected not to purchase reserved seats for the relatively short journey. This proved to be a mistake because while there should have been enough room in general seating there was none on the car we chose and we were far too weighted down with bags and strollers to go exploring through the different cars. I found an uncomfortable spot on the floor near the bags and Mei Ling took the kids into the adjacent car with reserved seats. I hadn't slept on the flight but there was no rest on the hard train floor with the wheels clattering underneath me and the wifi was barely functional. Eventually I picked myself up and went in the direction Mei Ling had gone. I found her in the midst of a rather nasty argument with an English woman of about the same age sitting across from her. The crux of the woman's displeasure seemed to be that Mei Ling had helped herself to an open seat despite not having a reservation for it. I didn't worry much as Mei Ling can certainly take care of herself, but after a couple of minutes I grew tired of watching the bickering and asked Mei Ling "What's the matter, did you drop a house on her sister?" A man in the same booth who had his face buried in a newspaper made a muffled choking sound. The woman glared at me, just now making the connection that Mei Ling and I were together and she was outnumbered. She turned her attention to the window and soon after that we arrived in York.

Our reception wasn't much better at the bed and breakfast we'd reserved. The online booking service we'd used hadn't offered us any option to list the kids in our party but we hadn't worried about that much. They were only babies. The elderly couple who came to the door took a look at the double stroller and immediately announced that they didn't accept children. We were somewhat nonplussed as the listing on the booking service had made no mention of that. Couldn't they make an exception for two nights? We had been traveling for almost twenty hours by now. No, they replied, absolutely not. There was some kind of fire code they had to abide by. I could tell they were lying about the fire code, but I could also tell it didn't bother them in the slightest to turn away a family with two babies without the slightest offer of assistance. We had to beg just to be allowed into the lobby to phone another hotel to see if they could accommodate us on short notice. Fortunately we were able to find one just a couple of blocks away and we were able to schlep ourselves over there without too much trouble. It was a tiny fifth-floor walk-up but we were glad to have it, and the staff at the new hotel were very warm and welcoming. By this point we were too tired to do anything except find our way to the nearest pub for dinner.

I had chosen York because I was entranced with the idea of a quintessential English city that had retained much of its medieval character. We awoke with plenty of energy for exploration and quickly crossed the River Ouse into the historic town center. York had a much more easygoing vibe than London although the center seemed similarly adapted to tourism. The brick buildings and half-timbered facades gave the streets a lot of character, although I'm not sure how much of the design was original or authentic.

Looming north of the town center is the Gothic masterpiece York Minster, famed for its enormous trove of stained glass windows. The Great East Window in particular is the largest single expanse of stained glass in England.

Just next to York Minster we stumbled upon Gray's Court, a large and historic estate that has been renovated into a hotel and restaurant. We had a refreshing lunch and spent some time strolling around the beautifully-landscaped estate that was evocative of the English countryside.

In the afternoon we boarded a bus to Castle Howard, an enormous private mansion that was the setting for the television series "Brideshead Revisited". The estate is still owned by the descendants of the English noble family it was built for but it is now open to the public for paid tours. The mansion was on the scale of royal residences we had seen in other parts of Europe and had stunning lawns and gardens to stroll around in as well.

In the evening we returned to the city center for dinner. The atmosphere felt quite upbeat despite the grey sky and intermittent drizzle, and fortunately we had ponchos and stroller covers so we never had to worry about seeking shelter. We spent the last hour before dinner exploring the famous Shambles shopping street and the narrow alleys known as snickelways.

The next day I made sure to reserve seats for the train ride back south to the Cotswolds. We only had one night to spend in that iconic region before moving on to Oxford and I'd chosen a B&B in the small town of Burford. We arrived in plenty of time to explore the small town and admire the characteristic homes built from the local golden limestone. Burford was the most emblematic English town I could imagine, with rows of ancient yet pristine homes surrounded by sharply trimmed lawns and explosions of flowers.

Burford's gothic church was like a miniature version of York Minster, with a spooky graveyard full of weathered, illegible headstones. We topped of the evening with a beer at the local pub and then an excellent dinner back at the Bull.

In the morning we decided to take a scenic walk along the road that followed the course of the Windrush River until we reached the bridge to the tiny village of Swinbrook, three miles away. Along the way we encountered beautiful pastures, a crab apple tree with ripe fruit, and all manner of farm animals.

Just as we reached Swinbrook we got a call from my cousin Steven who was scheduled to pick us up in Burford that afternoon. He was ahead of schedule and on the road already. We arranged for him to pick us up in Swinbrook since it was on the way and would save us the trouble of retracing our walk back to Burford. We waited for him at a group of picnic tables alongside the river that belonged to a country inn across the road.

It was just a half hour drive from Burford to Oxford, but for some reason Ian burst out crying about halfway there and couldn't be consoled. It wasn't very typical of him but I'd heard enough crying in the two years since Cleo had been born that I barely noticed it. Steven on the other hand seemed to get quite stressed, frequently calling to the back seat that we were almost there. After a few minutes I apologized for the noise but reassured him it wasn't anything to worry about. I was a little surprised since Steven had two young sons of his own, but they were already a few years older and out of the crying stage. He got a remote look in his eyes for a moment and then said "Oh yes ... one forgets." Once we reached Oxford and jumped out of the car Ian stopped crying as if someone had flipped a switch.

Steven had to stop off at his office for a couple of hours so we took a walk around the center of Oxford. It was obviously a college town, with an incongruous juxtaposition of historic edifices and fast food joints. North of the city the twisty Thames sends off several streams and tributaries, many of them man-made in medieval times to feed the water mills. Just west of the center we ran into Castle Mill Stream, an idyllic spot seemingly a world away from the hubbub of the student environment.

The next morning the adults relaxed over tea while the kids got acquainted with their cousins, who were amazingly tolerant of children who were far too young to play with them productively.

There just happened to be a food festival going on that afternoon so we ignored the gathering clouds and took a bus over to the fairground. It was pretty standard food truck stuff for the most part with mainly Caribbean and Middle Eastern themes. One exception was the exotic meat burgers that we often find at food festivals in England. We can't resist trying them but whether wildebeest or lion meat they all taste pretty much like standard beef burgers. By now Cleo had attached herself to her younger cousin and the two of them were inseparable, which was quite cute. However, when Cleo decided to rock out to the festival band covering Bon Jovi her new companion hung back in a very English way.

After the festival Steven got us to the train station for the short hop back to London. After an enjoyable prelude we were now ready for the main event of our trip.

Posted by zzlangerhans 22:02 Archived in England Tagged england travel york family yorkshire blog Comments (0)