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That Was England

Okay, so maybe it was just London with a little English countryside thrown in for good measure.

I think I've mostly recovered from my west-bound jet lag, so it's an appropriate time to write up my recent vacation (it's also a good way to kill time while negatives are scanning...). Valerie and I returned yesterday from about a week in the United Kingdom. We travelled there particularly to attend the wedding festivities of her cousin Stephen (he and his new wife work/live there, so it wasn't *technically* a destination wedding), but being US residents with crappy American vacation allotments, we decided to make a big trip of it.

Thanks to my overzealous initial planning we lucked out with the flight and hotel package from Expedia. Booking in early January meant that, despite our trip's timing around a holiday weekend, we were able to take advantage of the British Pound around the time it was bottoming out relative to the US Dollar. What this meant in practical terms was a non-stop flight from Dulles to Heathrow on Virgin Atlantic and a stay in a nice 4-star hotel across the street from the Victoria and Albert museum. Our flight was okay, but the hotel was actually quite nice - the nicest hotel in which I've yet stayed in Europe, in fact - and conveniently located a short walk from The Tube.

Before I divulge the details of our day-to-day, I have to take the obligatory tangent to express my love of European rail transportation. While NYC's subway is still my favorite (hard to beat the coverage/fares), London's Underground is a very close second. The trains were nearly always on-time, mostly clean, extensive, and easy to understand. Additionally, all our short jaunts out of the city were quick and simple on the regional train lines.

Anyway, Valerie, her mom, sister, and I took an overnight flight from D.C. to London and arrived too early to check in at our hotel on Friday morning.. So we let our baggage with the concierge, headed back to the tube, and did some mild exploring to kill time. I was caught delightfully off-guard by the enormity of Big Ben and the houses of Parliament when we emerged from the Westminster stop because, really, photographs can scarcely prepare you for just how magnificent such a site appears before your very tourist eyes. The same went for Westminster Cathedral and its scale and beauty. Oh yeah, and I found the memorial for Joule (nerd glory!).

Seeing as a family occasion brought us to the city on the Thames we were obliged to meet up with an aunt, uncle, two cousins, and the spouse of one cousin from dinner on Friday night. At a tourist-y pub called...The Sherlock Holmes. Yeah. The beer was fine enough, but...well...Okay, so after dinner, those of us that weren't retired decided to hit another pub closer to our hotel. That pub was The Hoop and Toy which served up a decent enough collection of beverages, notably Staropramen (from the Czech Republic!!!) and Fuller's London Pride. This was a fun conclusion to the evening, but I should have had more water between pints because...

While the whole squad was supposed to meet up at St. Paul's Cathedral on Saturday morning, I woke a bit dehydrated and aching in the cranium. I went back to my room after a sparse breakfast and some Advil, and not only did the nap take care of my dome, it also conveniently put me on London time. I met the rest of the crew outside St. Paul's around noon and, after a light lunch, I went with Val's immediate family to stroll by Buckingham Palace. Then it was back to the hotel for a short break so I could change for Steven's bachelor party.

I parted ways with the fellas when they left the restaurant entertainment, but everything leading up to midnight was quite a night. We all gathered in a private back bar at the Boisdale of Belgravia for pre-dinner pints and conversation. After everybody was either introduced or caught up we moved to an adjacent private dining room where we ordered from a pre-fixe menu. I then proceeded to have one of my best meals abroad. My appetizer was a ceviche of salmon with a chili-oil sauce that I couldn't quite place except that I knew it was delicious. My steak was a dry-aged, grass-fed ribeye that rivaled my filet from my own rehearsal dinner at (the sadly, now closed) Cabo's here in Richmond. My dessert was a burnt lemon and vanilla tart (that is, burnt lemon - the tart was cooked perfectly), but this came after an interlude on the upstairs terrace to smoke Cuban cigars and sip single malt Scottish Whisky.

I passed on the cigar (though I took a puff...soooooooo good), but I did have a healthy dram of Oban 14-year single-malt with a few drops of water to open it up. I never thought I'd say it,, heck. I liked the Scotch. I took my first London cab ride back to the hotel (very nice cabs in London, actually) and was pleased to find Valerie awake in the lobby surfing the Internet. I finished my evening conversing with my wife...just the way I liked it :-)

Sunday was spent mostly around the cute town of Hitchin to the north of London where the whole family (and overseas guests) converged for a really nice luncheon thrown by the parents of the groom. The entire affair was at the Hitchin Priory, an event space occupying the site of a former monastery dating back as far as the 14th century. Many of us continued to hang out afterward in the town and grabbed a pint at a pub somewhere off the main square...I can't recall the name, though.

On Monday we attended the wedding itself in Little Wymondly. Like the luncheon before, this occupied nearly the entire day. After a short ceremony everybody proceeded to drink, eat, drink, eat, photograph, drink, socialize, and drink. It was the fastest 8.5 hours I've ever experienced with fantastic weather outside, fun conversation with some British relatives of the bride at my dinner table, and an introduction to one of my new favorite cocktails, the Pimm's Lemonade (where by "lemonade" the Brits mean "Sprite").

Tuesday and Wednesday were filled with miscellaneous site-seeing and shopping (including the afore-blogged visit to the Jerusalem Tavern) that included the acquisition of an English-made badger hair shaving brush and some traditional shaving creams. We also had the privilege of meeting up and hanging out with our friend Rebecca Honts on Wednesday for part of our adventures, such as seeing an original copy of the Magna Carta at the British Library.

So now I'm home again, and I return to work on Monday. Transitions like this always suck, but at least I'll have had a long weekend for recovery. The end of my vacation will do little to take away how much I loved London, though. I sincerely wish I could have stayed another week or five...