Monday, June 30, 2014


Today for lunch I had one of my favorite traditional English foods... a pasty.  While I was in St. Albans today I saw a pasty shop, so I had to stop and have one.

A pasty is a mixture of meat and vegetables baked in a pastry dough.  The pasty is sealed by crimping the dough to form a thick crust on one side.  The pasty is most associated with the English region of Cornwall, where the miners would take pasties with them to eat in the mines for lunch.  Supposedly the miners would hold the pasty by the thick crust.  The crust was then discarded, and the miners' dirty fingers never touched their food.  However I have also read that they were wrapped in paper or muslin, and that the entire pasty was eaten.

(Some time ago I wrote a post about the Mexican mining town of Real del Monte.  Many men from Cornwall emigrated to the town to work in the mines.  Today the town is filled with little restaurants selling... "pastes" (the Spanish spelling of pasty).

St. Albans - 2000 years of history

Today, instead of taking the train south to London, I went north a couple of stops to the small city of St. Albans.  I found St. Albans to be a delightful destination, very picturesque and historic, and lacking the hordes of tourists I've found in so many other places.  The city's history goes back more than 2000 years.  It was first the site of a Celtic settlement, and then the Roman town of Verulamium.  In the Middle Ages it was one of the most important religious centers in the England.

Dominating the town is the Cathedral (formerly Abbey) of St. Albans, which claims to be the oldest site of continuous Christian worship in Britain.  It is dedicated to St. Alban, Britain's first Christian saint.  According to tradition, Alban was a Roman citizen of Verulamium who gave refuge to a Christian priest being pursued by the authorities.  Alban was so impressed with the piety of the priest that he himself converted to Christianity.  When the Romans learned of the priest's location, Alban put on the priest's cloak and offered himself up, thus allowing the priest to escape.  Alban was brought before the judge, and when he refused to give up his faith, he was sentenced to death.

During the early Christian period, a shrine was built on the supposed tomb of St. Alban.  In 793 a larger abbey and a Benedictine monastery were built on the site.  The present church was begun in 1077 in Norman Romanesque style, and later additions in the 12th and 13th centuries were in the Gothic style.  It was the most important abbey in England and a major pilgrimage site.  Its nave is the longest in England. 

With the dissolution of the monasteries under Henry VIII, the monastery was looted and eventually torn down to be used as building stone.  St. Albans became an parish church, and over time fell into disrepair.  It was not until the 1800s that efforts were made to restore the church to its former grandeur. In 1877 it was made an Anglican cathedral.

The interior of the Cathedral is quite impressive.

The main altar

 The shrine of St. Alban which supposedly contains his relics

One of the many stained glass windows

The ceiling of the tower, decorated with the red and white roses of the royal houses of Lancaster and York who fought each other in the War of the Roses.

Beyond the Cathedral is Verculamium Park, a large, attractive municipal park built on the site of the ancient Roman city.  Although it was one of the largest Roman settlements in Britain, very little remains of Verculamium since its stones were used in the construction of the abbey and monastery.

This is all that remains of the walls of Verulamium.

A small building in the park shelters the remains of a beautiful mosaic floor which once graced the home of a wealthy Roman.  Underneath the floor are ducts which were part of a central heating system.

A small museum in the park contains many artifacts from ancient Verulamium, including more mosaic floors.

Beyond the park are the remains of the Roman theater.

The town of St. Albans is very picturesque with churches and homes that reflect the architectural styles of medieval, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian England.

The clock tower in the center of town is the only medieval town belfry in England.  It was built in the early 1400s.


I think St. Albans is one of the most interesting towns that I have visited in England.  Since it is only about 40 minutes by train from London, I'm surprised that more tourists haven't discovered it.  But we'll keep it a secret, OK?  

Sunday, June 29, 2014

RAF Museum

Today was another rainy day, so Kevin and I went to the Royal Air Force Museum in the nearby London suburb of Hendon.  Hendon was chosen as the site for the museum since the town has a long association with aviation.  The first British factory for the construction of aircraft and the first airfield in the country were located here.  The museum contains over 100 airplanes from the early days of aviation, through World Wars I and II, on to the post-war period.

 The first airplane to cross the English Channel

Adjacent to the Air Force Museum, is the Battle of Britain Museum which documents Hitler's unsuccessful attempt to bomb the United Kingdom into submission, the hardships of the English people during that difficult time, and the RAF pilots who confronted the German air force.
 Kevin in front of a Spitfire, the most famous RAF plane of the Battle of Britain.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

More Cousins

Last night my cousin Kevin and his wife Sue invited me over to their house for supper.  Every Friday they go for carry-out from a local place that serves fish and chips.  I couldn't leave England without having fish and chips at least once!  The breaded cod fish fillet was enormous, and I ate my chips (French fries) in the traditional way with malt vinegar instead of ketchup.  It was a very tasty supper... so much better than the fish and chips served at some restaurants in the U.S.

(photo taken by Sue)

After supper we watched a tennis match from Wimbledon, the famous tennis tournament that is held each summer just outside of London.  The United Kingdom's top tennis pro, Andy Murray, was playing against a player from Spain.  Murray won the men's title last year, the first time that an Englishman had won in over 70 years.  The British are hoping that he can repeat his success this year.  I enjoyed watching the match, and even though I love Spain, I was rooting for Murray along with Sue and Kevin.  Murray won easily, and advances in the tournament.  His toughest competition will probably come from another Spaniard, Rafael Nadal.

Today I went to St. Pancras station and caught a train to the town of Market Harborough.  Market Harborough is located in the East Midlands about an hour via high speed train to the north of London.  My reason for going there was to meet yet another cousin, Clive.  I had made contact with Clive through my genealogical research.  His great grandfather was a brother of my English great grandmother.  That makes him my third cousin just like Kevin, but Clive is descended from a different brotherWe have been in contact via e-mail and Christmas cards, but we had never met face to face.  Clive said that we should meet the next time I traveled to England, and we had made arrangements to get together.

Clive was at the train station to meet me, and he drove me to his home in the nearby village of Lubenham.  There I met Clive's wife Helen, and two of their three children, Emily and William.  In addition, Clive's brother Nigel and his wife Julie had come from Gloucester.  So I met another third cousin!

(photo taken by Nigel's wife Julie)

 Clive is to the left and Nigel to the right.  I felt quite short between my two cousins.

Helen served a lovely lunch for us all.  Afterwards, Clive and Nigel showed me old family photos.  The picture below is of their great grandfather William and his wife, who would have been my great-great-uncle and aunt.

Unbeknownst to my parents when they named me, William is a recurring family name in the English branch.  My great-great-great grandfather was also named William.

Unfortunately, it was raining all afternoon.  I was unable to explore Lubenham and Market Harborough which both are very old and picturesque towns.  But the hospitality and good company of my distant relatives more than made up for the dreary weather.  They are all very lovely people, and I am so fortunate to have met so many wonderful cousins through my genealogical research!

Friday, June 27, 2014

The British Museum

After six days of dry weather, the forecast for today called for rain.  So today I visited the British Museum, one of the world's greatest museums of archaeology and history.  The museum was founded in 1753, and through the years its collection has grown to include more than 8,000,000 objects that represent the world's cultures from ancient times to the present.

On my previous trip to England in 2009, I had visited the British Museum.  But I had been walking all over London that day, and by the time I got to the museum I didn't have the stamina to spend much time there.  This time I saw much more of the museum, but I still have not seen it all.

Many of the museum's stellar attractions are on the first floor.  There is an enormous hall filled with artifacts from ancient Egypt.  One of the most impressive pieces is a monumental bust of the pharaoh Rameses II.

The Egyptian collection also contains the famous Rosetta Stone, the stone inscribed in several languages which led to the decipherment of the Egyptian hieroglyphics.  (It is always surrounded by crowds... just as visitors flock to the Mona Lisa in the Louvre... so I was not able to get a picture of it.)

The museum's collection of ancient Assyrian carvings is the largest in the world outside of Iraq.  Carvings from the palace walls of Nimrud and Ninevah are on display, as well as huge statues of creatures that are half man and half winged lion.


One of the most famous, and most controversial, treasures of the British Museum are the so-called Elgin Marbles... the carvings taken from the Parthenon in Athens, Greece.  In the late eighteenth century, Lord Elgin, the British ambassador to the Ottoman Empire (which at that time owned Greece) was given permission to remove sculptures and carved friezes from the Parthenon and ship them to England.  Greece insists that the Elgin Marbles should be returned to their homeland.

The Elgin Marbles fill an entire hall of the museum.

Another hall contains sculptures from the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus, which was considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.  Included are larger than life statues of King Mausolus and his wife, and a portion of a gigantic chariot horse which once stood atop the mausoleum.


On my first trip I never even made it up to the second floor.  There is much more to see there.  One hall contains treasures uncovered in the cemetery of the ancient Mesopotamian city of Ur(I have seen pictures of these objects in my history books.)

Several halls deal with the history of early Britain and display artifacts from the earliest inhabitants, the Roman occupation and the medieval period.  The major attraction here is the treasure trove from Sutton Hoo, a seventh century Anglo Saxon cemetery.  Archaeologists found within a large burial mound the remains of an entire ship which contained the remains of a king along his treasure.  The discovery shed much light on early medieval England and showed that the culture of the era was much more sophisticated than previously thought. 

 A gold buckle from Sutton Hoo

 An iron helmet from Sutton Hoo

This a just a small sample of what the British Museum contains.  To see everything would require days!

Thursday, June 26, 2014

The Globe and St. Paul's

My sightseeing today began with the reconstruction of Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.  The original Globe Theatre was built in 1599 by Shakespeare's theatrical company on the southern bank of the Thames River.  Several of the Bard's greatest plays had their premieres here.  The theater burned down in 1614 but was immediately rebuilt.  In 1642 when the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell came to power, all theaters in England were closed, and the Globe was torn down.

In 1997 a replica of the Globe was built close to the location of the original  Although there exist no architectural plans of Shakespeare's theater, the new Globe was based on descriptions from the era and is probably a close approximation.  Special permission was granted to allow the building to have a thatched roof like the original.  (Thatched roofs were outlawed in London after the Great Fire of 1666.)  The roof of the new Globe, however, is treated with flame retardant and has a sprinkler system.

Today performances of Shakespeare's works are given here.  I was hoping to view Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar" which is currently running.  However after checking the availability of tickets online, I found that every performance during my stay here was sold out with the exception of the pit.  (The pit is the open-air area around the stage where the "groundlings"... the poor folk who only paid a penny for admission... stood through the performance.)  As much as I would enjoy seeing Shakespeare in the Globe, I did not relish the thought of standing through the entire play, not to mention taking the risk of being rained on.  So instead, I took the guided tour of the theater.

After visiting the Globe, I crossed the pedestrian Millennium Bridge across the Thames to St. Paul's Cathedral.

The present St. Paul's stands on the site of an earlier Gothic cathedral.  The earlier church was built between 1240 and 1314 and was one of the largest in medieval Europe.  The building was gutted in the Great Fire of 1666.  Three years later, the great architect Sir Christopher Wren was given the assignment of rebuilding St. Paul's.  The new Baroque cathedral, which was finished in 1704, was equally imposing.  It is topped by an enormous dome, and for many years St. Paul's was the tallest building in London.  The Cathedral survived the German bombings of World War II, and the sight of St. Paul's dome still standing proudly, gave hope to the beleaguered Londoners.

The cathedral is one of the most impressive churches that I have seen.  I think it is much more spectacular than Westminster Abbey.  Unfortunately, photography of the interior is prohibited, but I found some images from the web to share with you.

Visitors are allowed to climb 257 steps to reach the Whispering Gallery, the balcony around the interior base of the dome.  The view from nearly 100 feet above the Cathedral floor is breathtaking.  (The climb is literally breathtaking.)

I was a glutton for punishment and climbed another 271 steps to reach the outdoor Golden Gallery at the top of the dome.  A panorama of all of London is spread out below you.

 A photo taken by a kind tourist is my proof that I made it to the top!