Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Winchester: Third Time's a Charm

Sunday Josh and I took the train to Winchester to visit the Christmas market at the Winchester Cathedral, which is said to be one of the nicest in the UK (both the cathedral and the market, actually).  We also wanted to visit the cathedral itself, since we have failed to do so on two previous visits to the city.  The first time we went was when my sister was visiting over the summer, and we were mislead by our guidebook as to how late the cathedral is open on Sundays (it closes at 3).  Our second visit was at the tail end of our epic, two-day walk from Salisbury to Winchester.  Since we didn't get into town until after 6 pm on a Sunday, and we were dead tired, we headed straight to the train station.

This time, we arrived around mid-day and gradually made our way to the cathedral.  We stopped briefly at the Great Hall, part of Winchester Castle, which hasn't changed much since it was built in the 13th century.  Hanging on the wall is the top of what was once believed to be King Arthur's round table, but is now known to be a more "modern" construct from the 13th century that was painted as it is seen today for King Henry VIII.
"Round Table" in the Great Hall
window detail
An extensive family tree!
We also paid a quick visit to the medieval Queen's Garden behind the Great Hall, where a little bird kept a close eye on us.
In the queen's garden
Garden guardian?
Even thought it's almost December, and quite chilly, we enjoyed the sunshine and some fall color.
Not sure what kind of tree this is, but it's pretty!
After a nice lunch at the Forte Tea Rooms, we headed straight to the cathedral to make sure we had time to tour the inside before it closed at 3:00. 
Winchester Cathedral
A church has stood on this site since 636 (and no, I did not forget to type a '1' in front of that).  The current cathedral was consecrated in 1093, and after centuries of renovations and additions, settled into its present form about 500 years ago.  Henry VIII's daughter, Mary Tudor, was married here; and, centuries later, author Jane Austen was buried here.  On a previous visit to Winchester, we saw the house where she died -- which is still a private home today.
Jane Austen's grave
Jane Austen memorial plaque
This stone font depicting the works of St. Nicholas dates back to the 12th century!
12th century font
The interior of the cathedral is beautiful.  I took A LOT of photos!

stained-glass window
The crypt
The quire
The Great Screen

The Lady Chapel
Memorial to two brothers
The window at the "front" of the cathedral -- the one seen in the exterior shot -- was pieced together in 1660 from fragments of the cathedral's stained-glass windows that were shattered during the English Civil War.
Reconstructed window
Overheard inside the cathedral:

Impressed Little Boy: "Gran, was this church built before Jesus was born?"
Distracted Lady: "Yes, dear."

Then it was time to hit the Christmas market, which was set up right next to the cathedral.  One of the big attractions was a living nativity scene, with a donkey, cow, sheep, and goat sharing a pen with a man and a woman holding a plastic baby.
Sadly, I only got butts in the shot...
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, so the market was bustling, as was the ice rink in the middle.
We stopped to get a snack.  Josh opted for roasted chestnuts and mulled cider, while I patiently waited in line for a Belgian waffle with chocolate and whipped cream.  YUM!
Well worth the wait!
After completing a circuit around the market, we went for a short walk around Winchester while the sun was setting, and then came back to experience the market after dark, when it was all lit up.
By the light of the slivery moon...
The lights were lovely, and it was much less crowded, so we could get a better look at what the vendors were selling.
Christmas market at night
As we walked back to the train station, we enjoyed the festive lights and big Christmas tree on the high street.
Lights on the high street
Christmas tree
Mission accomplished!  If a day like that doesn't put you into the Christmas spirit, I don't know what will!

Monday, November 28, 2011

Thanksgiving: a Holiday So Nice We Celebrated Twice

Thanksgiving is probably my favorite holiday.  Despite being an American celebration, it has managed retain its traditional meaning without accumulating a thick crust of commercialism.  It's that rare breed of holiday where you get together with family and friends, reflect on what you are thankful for, eat WAY too much food, and maybe watch a parade or football on TV.  But you don't feel compelled to send cards, exchange gifts, decorate your house, or even buy anything other than groceries for your Thanksgiving feast.

Thanksgiving is also one of the most difficult times to be an American in London.  First off, it's not a holiday here, so you don't get 2 or more days off work to travel/cook/recover. And, you're thousands of miles away from the people you usually celebrate Thanksgiving with.  If you decide you still want to cook a traditional meal, many of the ingredients are hard to find or fiendishly expensive.  There are enough Americans in London that many specialty foods stores will stock things like canned pumpkin, evaporated milk, Stove Top stuffing, cranberry sauce, and even those cans of Durkee fried onions at this time of year, but a turkey can cost upwards of $100, and has to be special ordered as most places don't sell them until Christmas.  Oh, and make sure it's not TOO big, or it won't fit in your tiny British refrigerator or oven.  Add the fact that it's pitch dark by 4 pm at this time of year, and I can see why many Americans go back to the US for Thanksgiving -- and often don't return until January.

But not us.  Since we are going home for Christmas, we decided to stick around for Thanksgiving.  Our friends Bethie and Jason invited us over for a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, but Josh and I still wanted to do something festive on Thursday, even though he had to work.  I got all the ingredients to make a pumpkin pie for dessert and invited my neighbor Anna's family over for pie that evening.  I briefly explained that it was an American holiday where we traditionally have a big turkey dinner and various side dishes and desserts that we rarely eat any other time of year.  As I mentioned before, she is from New Zealand and her husband is Australian (and they are both of Chinese origin), so they were not familiar with Thanksgiving, nor had they ever had pumpkin pie before.  Anna thought it sounded like fun, and took it a step further.  She offered to roast a chicken and some veggies and bring them over for dinner, since she thought her kids would enjoy eating at our house.  Even better!

So, Thursday afternoon I got to work on the pie.  It was a bit more complicated than I expected as it is a bit challenging to translate American recipes to work in a British kitchen, and vice versa.  The evaporated milk came in 170g cans, so it took some Internet research (and math) to figure out how many I needed if the recipe called for 12 ounces.  And the oven temperatures here are in Celsius, which is further complicated by our fan-assisted (convection) oven, which I learned requires adjusting both the temperature and the cooking time, so you can't just convert from Fahrenheit.  Nevertheless, the end result was a pretty decent looking pie!
Homemade pumpkin pie!
I also made oven-roasted butternut squash from a Barefoot Contessa recipe I found online.  Everyone was a bit late for dinner thanks to a Christmas parade in Wimbledon that evening.  Josh ended up in the front of it on his bike, and waved to the crowd as they cheered him on.  Anna got stuck behind it after picking her daughter up from a netball game.  (What's netball?  She says its similar to basketball, but you can't move with the ball, you can only pass it to another player.)  But when our neighbors did show up, their arms were laden with quite a feast!  Roast chicken, stuffing, gravy, roasted root vegetables, carrots, broccoli, and sugar snap peas.  Add the butternut squash and a bottle of wine, and it was the closest thing to a Thanksgiving dinner we could have hoped for. 

We did our best to explain the origins of Thanksgiving to our Kiwi/Aussie/Chinese/British neighbors -- which was a bit comical -- and went around the table to say what we were thankful for.  Josh started by saying he was thankful we had such friendly and helpful neighbors.  I seconded that and said I was also thankful for the Internet, which not only keeps me connected with my friends and family, but helped me figure out how to find ingredients for and make the pie and squash.  Our neighbors' 8-year-old son said he was thankful for his mum for giving him life, while their 12-year-old daughter said she was thankful for socks.

That definitely got is into the Thanksgiving spirit, so we were excited to celebrate again with our friends Bethie and Jason on Saturday.  They invited us to come over early to watch Thursday's football games, which they streamed online from Jason's laptop onto the TV.  Since they cut out all the commercials, we were able to zip through three games before dinner!  In honor of Charlie Brown, we brought popcorn and jelly beans to snack on, along with some California wines.
Watching football while Jason cooks
Since none of us are huge football fans, we were much more entertained by baby Charlotte, who performed a lovely duet of "If You're Happy and You Know It" with her mom, who is a professional singer.
She's happy and she knows it!
We were joined later in the day by several other Americans, including neighbor Mary and her baby daughter Emily, our new friends Ben & Katie, and musicians John and Andrew, with whom Bethie has performed.  We were curious how Jason and Bethie were going to accommodate all of us for dinner, since their dining table only seats 4 people.  We were assuming we'd just eat with our plates in our laps, but Bethie came up with a much more elegant solution.  Using a piece of plywood that she and Mary carried a mile on their heads (no one has a car here!), she converted their sofa into a dining table.
This sofa converts into a bed AND a dining table!
Charlotte and Emily supervise
Once it was set up, it was just the right size for all 9 adults and 2 babies to sit around it comfortably -- on the floor, of course.
Emily decorates the table with her Thanksgiving bib
Despite having an even smaller kitchen than ours, Jason and Bethie cooked up a magnificent feast -- turkey, stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and green bean casserole -- with pumpkin and walnut/pecan pies and a pumpkin roll (by Mary) for dessert.  I couldn't tear myself away from the fantastic food and company to take any photos of dinner, but Bethie has a few good ones on her blog.

Afterwards, John played the piano (in harpsichord mode) while Bethie sang a piece from the Messiah.  It was a bit like a scene out of a Jane Austen novel, except it was an electric piano... and, well, everything else was probably different, too.  A good time was had by all.

So this Thanksgiving, I am thankful for adventures with Josh, good neighbors, new friends, and, of course, the Internet.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Covent Garden

I've been to Covent Garden several times, but never for more than half an hour or so.  It's a nice area to wander around when you have some time to kill before seeing a show in the West End -- which is how I've always ended up there.  It seems like a fun mix of small vendors, independent shops, and high-end stores, with a variety of places to grab a bite to eat and the added entertainment of the always-present street performers.  Wednesday I decided to spend some quality time there to get a better look, and maybe even do a little Christmas shopping.

In the 13th century, this area was used as a vegetable garden by the monks of Westminster Abbey -- aka a "convent garden."  Even after the neighborhood was developed about 350 years ago, Covent Garden continued to be associated with fresh produce, and was home to an open-air fruit and vegetable market.  A flower market was added later, where the likes of Eliza Doolittle once worked.   Nowadays, you are more likely to find flower-scented soaps or fruit-flavored gourmet ice cream at Covent Garden, but it still has the look and feel of a shopping destination.
Fruit and Veg
The covered marketplace is all decked out for the holidays, with some of the largest ornaments  I've ever seen.
Big Balls!
I browsed around several shops in the main market hall and then wandered through other parts of the neighborhood.  There were so many shops!  Many of them tucked away in cute little alleys and courtyards.  Of course, just like the rest of London, everything was ridiculously expensive, and they don't seem to have big Christmas sales here like they do in the US.  I bought a few small gifts, but not one single thing for myself.  A Christmas-shopping first!

As I walked back towards the train station, I was treated to a glimpse of the giant topiary reindeer all lit up.
Rudolph after dark
I also saw what is easily the Worst Christmas Window Display Ever:
Nice try, FCUK
I was never particularly tempted to shop at a store that rides on the coattails of its own ridiculous initials (French Connection UK), but this makes me want to actively boycott them, and perhaps even throw eggs at their boring, cardboard-box-filled windows.  Or perhaps I should throw something more brightly colored -- rotten fruit?   At least that would make it look a little more festive.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Getting Into the Christmas Spirit

Saturday evening Josh and I took the train to Waterloo station to check out the Christmas market at the Southbank Centre.  We had come across this market purely by chance when we were here last December and found it quite charming.  German-style Christmas markets are VERY popular all over Europe, and there are several in London alone.  At any other time of year, you couldn't PAY Josh to visit anything Christmas-themed, but now that it's almost Thanksgiving, he is ready to get into the Christmas spirit.

We discovered that there was also a Tea & Coffee Festival going on over on the other side of the Southbank Centre, so we made a quick circuit around that and realized we were starving.
Tea & Coffee Festival
Rather than indulge in all the cakes, cookies, and pastries they were selling to go with the tea and coffee, we ducked into Ping Pong for a proper dim sum dinner, and THEN went back and treated ourselves to cookies and pastries.  Once sated, we crossed over to the brightly-lit Christmas market along the Thames waterfront.
Southbank Christmas Market
Part of the whole market experience to sip mulled wine as you stroll among the little wooden huts selling crafts and food.  We were pretty full, but we shelled out the £4 for a little paper cup of hot, spiced wine to share as we took in the sights.
Mulling the mulled wine
Most of the stalls were little wooden huts selling crafts, jewelery, souvenirs, hats, and assorted knickknacks.  There were some larger huts selling food, and a few shaped like a German "pyramid."
The Steak Hut
Since the market was right on the bank of the Thames, we had a lovely view of Parliament and the London Eye all lit up.
Christmas Market with Eye and Parliament
Once we had seen -- and eaten -- everything there was to see, we walked across the bridge and up towards Oxford Street to check out the festive lights in the main shopping areas, since Josh hadn't been up that way yet.  It gets dark by 4 pm at this time of year, so the holiday lights are probably very effective in luring shoppers out of their cocoons after the sun goes down.  It does make the city look quite pretty at what would otherwise be a very dark and dreary time of year
Near Piccadilly Circus
Regent Street
Along Regent Street, we finally came across a store with very Christmas-y window displays (unlike Selfridges and Harrods).  Hamley's toy store, the FAO Schwartz of the UK, had adorable LEGO-themed windows.  If the store hadn't just closed, we would have been drawn right inside.
LEGO Advent Calendar
LEGO Christmas tree
We took a little detour along Carnaby Street, which had holly and mistletoe themed lights.  This shopping area has been pedestrianized, so (once you find it) it's easy to stroll around and take in the sights.

Carnaby Street
All the stores were closed by this time, so we continued on to Oxford Street, which was all lit up as well.  The other big department stores did not have very interesting window displays, but at least there were lots of pretty lights.
John Lewis on Oxford Street
Debenhams department store
Boots (the CVS of the UK)
Not a bad way to spend a Saturday night -- if you are a cheap date, like the both of us.