The massive doors of Westminster Abbey are imposing enough without looking up to take in the 100-foot-tall roof and even taller gray stone towers. The abbey, the largest Gothic church in Britain, was built in 1245 A.D. (although a church has existed on that spot since 1066 A.D.), and is the site of royal coronations.
It wasn’t British royalty that brought me to the abbey. It was something a bit nerdier.
Dotting the stone floor of the 32,000-square-foot building are grave markers. Yes, 3,300 people are buried in tombs and under the floor, including knights and 17 monarchs. But I wasn’t interested in them. I was interested in the cool kids, like author Jane Austen, poet Geoffrey Chaucer, composer George Frideric Handel, author Charles Dickens, naturalist Charles Darwin, author Rudyard Kippling, actor Lawrence Olivier, missionary David Livingston, and poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.
The amount of genius under my feet was amazing, but the author of “The Jungle Book,” the composer of “Messiah,” and the man behind the theory of natural selection, were only icing.
Standing on a stone that read, “Hic Depositum Est Quod Mortale Fuit Issaci Newtoni,” my legs got a little shaky. Literally. The Latin inscription translates to, “Here lies that which was mortal of Isaac Newton.” I actually stood on the grave of the most influential scientist ever. EVER. An entire branch of physics is named after him. And he wasn’t just a rock star in physics; he was a genius in mathematics, astronomy, and optics.
It cost me £18 just to smell the dusty air of the abbey. It was well worth it.
During my trip to England I’ve gone to all the places I need to go as a tourist. Big Ben, the British Museum, the Globe Theatre, Stonehenge, Bath, and Buckingham Palace. I’ve ridden atop a double-decker bus and stepped inside a red telephone box. But my trip wouldn’t be complete unless I went to places that meant something personal to me. And what is personal to me is really, really geeky.
George Orwell’s House
The white, two-story building mixes seamlessly with other white and pastel houses on Portobello Road in the London borough of Notting Hill. A short walk from the Notting Hill Gate tube station took me past restaurants, and knickknack shops, to the home of the man who wrote two novels I can say, with some certainty, you read in high school.
George Orwell, born Eric Arthur Blair in 1903 in Mothari, India, lived in this house. Well, not anymore. He died of tuberculosis in 1950. A democratic socialist, Orwell wrote two of the 20th Century’s most popular political novels, “Animal Farm,” and “1984.” And I was at his house.
One of the ways to know this was once the house of one of the world’s most famous authors is a little blue plaque mounted far enough up the wall it would be really obvious if someone tried to steal it; the other way is the address. That’s a dead giveaway. The plaque reads, “George Orwell, 1903-1950, novelist and political essayist lived here.”
And that’s it.
This was an important moment for me. My sister is the librarian at my old school. While weeding out older books and replacing them with nice bright shiny ones, she gave me a book with a threadbare cover. It was “Animal Farm.” Written on the end page was my name, dated my sixth grade year.
Before I left Portobello Road, I walked up to the front door and touched George Orwell’s door handle. I’m not sure why, but I’m glad I did.
The Beatles 11th studio album, “Abbey Road,” is also their last recorded album. Released in 1969, “Abbey Road” included “Come Together,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and my second favorite Beatles song, “Oh! Darling.” My favorite Beatles song is, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” but that’s from their 1968 album, “The Beatles,” so don’t worry about it. The Beatles won a Grammy Award for “Abbey Road,” which was obviously too much to handle because the band broke up a few months later (I’m not getting into Yoko here. I’m just not).
The album is, of course, named after a road. Abbey Road. It runs through St. John’s Wood and comes out around Lord’s Cricket Ground. Abbey Road is home to the still operating Abbey Road Studios, where not only the Beatles recorded, so did Pink Floyd, The Alan Parsons Project, Rush, Duran Duran, and John Williams with the London Symphony Orchestra for “The Empire Strikes Back.”
But nobody really comes for the studio (well, except musicians), they come for the street. With the jacket of “Abbey Road,” the Beatles turned the zebra crossing at Abbey Road and Grove End Road into the most well known crosswalk on the planet. Of course I had to walk across it.
Zebra crossings, called such because they’re simply white stripes on a black road, are great for pedestrians, but horrible for drivers. By British law, motorists have to stop for people waiting to cross the street at a zebra crossing. As I walked across the street in wide strides (there were a lot of us there, too. We took turns), I wondered with thousands upon thousands of tourists on that zebra crossing each year, why the hell would anyone ever drive on Abbey Road?
I certainly wouldn’t.
Back in a more civilized, less mobile telephone-centric world, the public could alert police to things like domestic disputes and drunken idiots by calls from a telephone in a blue police box. Although the first boxes were used in New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Detroit, the famous ones were in Great Britain. These boxes on street corners had telephones, a first aid kit, and possibly whisky. This was the 1800s after all. At the height of their use, there were 685 police boxes in London. Since walkie-talkies became standard for police work in the late 1960s/early 1970s, the boxes were rendered obsolete and decommissioned. Now, there is only one left in London. It sits outside the Earl’s Court tube station.
If you don’t know why this is at all important, you’ve never seen an episode of “Doctor Who.”
“Doctor Who” is about a time lord who rights wrongs across infinity in the machine TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) that looks like a blue British police box. The show first appeared on the BBC in November 1963 (with a 100,000-year trip to the past to help cavemen discover fire), and ran until 1989. The BBC relaunched “Doctor Who” in 2005 and the program is still in production.
Okay, so I’m in England, there’s one police box left, it looks like an iconic piece of science fiction, and I’m a nerd. Yeah, I had my picture taken with it.
The train ride was longer than I was used to. In central London, Tube cars come every few minutes. The farther out you get, the longer the wait. Sitting at Canada Water station (names for everything here are a bit odd), waiting for the London Overground train, an attractive British woman walked up to me and asked, “Where’s the platform for Crystal Palace?”
I said,” I believe it’s…”
“Oh,” she said, stopping me. “You’re American.” And she walked away.
I was slightly offended Americans aren’t expected to know anything, but also flattered I fit in well enough she didn’t think I was American. Then offended again she simply walked away.
The train eventually came, and I boarded it for the New Cross Gate station. I was nervous because I’d never been this far out of central London before. “Don’t worry,” a Londoner who works at my building said when I asked about safety. “There isn’t anywhere in London I wouldn’t feel safe in.” Apparently she’d never been to New Cross Gate.
Spray paint graffiti began appearing on buildings about five minutes out from the station, and trash littered the right of way. I hadn’t seen graffiti or litter in London up till this point. Nervousness started to crawl over me, but I shook it off. Sure, I was alone. Sure, the area looked rough. Sure, I didn’t know exactly where I was going, but I was going all the same. I was headed for the Winchester. A pub from one of my favorite movies “Shaun of the Dead.” And if a city full of zombies didn’t keep those heroes from going down to the pub, graffiti wasn’t going to stop me.
I’m happy I didn’t do a Google search on New Cross before I went. Links for “Is New Cross a safe area to live?” and “New Cross safety issues” popped up more than I felt comfortable with.
A piece of litter blew across the street and over the cracked sidewalk (pavement over here) as I searched for the Winchester’s home on Monson Road. Walking past people standing outside tattoo parlors and pubs smoking cigarettes, and mothers yelling at their children, I … Oh, dear lord, a Domino’s Pizza shop. I was in a rough neighborhood.
London is easy to get around in, amazingly easy. Public transport takes you from point to point cheaply and quickly and everyone’s happy. Until you need to walk. There are no uniform street signs like we have in the States. Yes, there are street signs, but they’re sporadic, and placed so high on buildings it’s almost dangerous to look up. I just crossed my fingers and started walking.
Somewhere between an Indian restaurant and a group of young men in a church garden drinking beer out of large bottles in brown bags, I found Monson Road.
The noise of traffic, laughter, and anger from the main street, quickly grew silent as I got into the interior of New Cross. A street past a park with shady looking teenagers in New York Yankees ball caps, I saw it. The Winchester.
If you’ve never gone to a place featured in a favorite movie, it’s embarrassingly magical. Standing in front of the Winchester, which was once an actual pub called The Duke of Albany, but is now a block of flats, I felt as awed as I did seeing a stuffed dodo in the Museum of Natural History, and the Roman baths at Bath.
Kind of silly, yes, but I have no problem with that. I just wish I could have bashed some zombies, and gone into the Winchester for a pint. I guess I actually could have gone into the building for a pint, but it was flats now, so I would have had to knock on doors and ask nicely.
The Monty Python troupe has a special place in my emotional development. When I was 12, I didn’t want to watch the president speak on TV. Who did? So I turned my television to the one pre-cable TV channel that wasn’t showing the president. PBS. There I saw “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” for the first time. And they showed boobs.
Monty Python was some of the most clever, and silly comedy I had ever seen. But they had me at boobs.
There are a number of blue plaques around the city commemorating the boys from Monty Python, and I’ve set out to find a few of them. I’ve so far failed.
I have three more days in London. Wish me luck. Nerd luck.