Monday, July 30, 2007

Food and Lodging

They say nobody ever went to England for the food; they're right. The trouble with England isn't pub food - some pub food is quite good. The trouble is that, with very few exceptions, even places that call themselves "restaurants" serve pub food; and the pubs do it better. Also, places that call themselves "restaurants" tend to open for dinner quite late - sometimes as late as 7 or 7:30 PM. So if you want to eat at 6:00, your only option is the local pub. (Or, of course, the MacDonald's, the Burger King, or the Subway; but I don't eat at any of those in the U.S. and I'm certainly not going to do so in the U.K.)

So what is pub food? Well, it's fish and chips; or steak and kidney pie and chips; or steak and ale pie and chips; or mixed grill and chips; or ... you get the idea. (For those who don't know, "chips" are what Americans call "French fries." American "chips" are called "crisps.") I found the best option was often the fish and chips; sure, the fish is batter fried, but you can peel the breading off, and underneath, you have a nicely cooked, usually non-greasy, fillet of haddock or plaice. But apart from potatoes (fried, or mashed - that's what the "mash" is in "bangers and mash" - or boiled), the only veggies you'll see are peas (whole or "mushy", which means overcooked and partly mashed) and carrots, and an occasional cauliflower.

The English diet runs to MEAT. Lots of meat. Take that common offering, the mixed grill. (Please.) To quote from The food lover's companion:

A dish of grilled or broiled meats, which can include lamb chops, beefsteak, liver, kidneys, bacon and sausages and is usually accompanied by grilled or broiled mushrooms, tomatoes and potatoes.
If you ever wondered where the American midwestern "meat and potatoes" diet came from, now you know. The "full English breakfast", which you order by that name, includes fried sausages, fried gammon (aka ham), fried bacon (aka Canadian bacon, which is ham), fried eggs, fried bread (I am not making this up) and fried tomatoes. (Actually the eggs can be scrambled or poached.) All this comes with about 6 pieces of dry toast in a rack (which virtually ensures they are too cold to melt the butter before you get them). In English B&Bs, it's sometimes hard to get a non-fried breakfast, as the selection of dry cereals is loaded toward what children like. I ate a lot of scrambled eggs and toast. "Fruit" tended to be canned grapefruit segments, not my favorite. The one thing you can get lots of is TEA!! I rarely had to ask for a refill on tea. Jim, on the other hand, says the coffee was awful.

England really does have only one sauce; you'll find it in little packets at fast food restaurants, along with the ketchup and mayonnaise, labeled "Brown Sauce."

A good non-fried option for lunch is packaged sandwiches, made in reasonable serving sizes, the way my mother used to make them. (In fact, I noticed that English serving sizes generally were smaller than American serving sizes. One scoop ice cream cones, for instance, have one scoop of ice cream. What a concept.) That's the plus side. The negative side (for sandwiches) is that it really helps if you like tuna salad sandwiches (I don't) because that's at least half the ones on offer. You can get ham and cheese sandwiches (with butter!), but since they have no vegetable content at all (no lettuce, tomato, etc.), they're pretty dry. I usually settled for egg and cress sandwiches; this isn't egg salad, it's a boiled egg or two, sliced into pieces and put in the sandwich. And it's buttered too.

We ate in two non-ethnic restaurants that gave us really good, foodie-class meals, including good food presentation: Wood's, on the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, and Shakespeare, in the Castle Hotel in Conwy (Wales). For the rest, the best we could do was to hope that the pub had a decent cook (and maybe some banoffee pie, an English delicacy I became addicted to in 1996: bananas and toffee on a custard base with a graham cracker crust). Oddly, some of our best meals were in the restaurants associated with National Trust properties: the restaurant at Castle Powis in Wales had a custard to die for.

The other oddity of English dining I must mention is the water. American restaurants, as you know, assume that you will have at least one glass of iced tap water, and the good ones have someone circulating with a pitcher for refills. This does not happen in England. Ever. If you want water, you have to ask for it, in addition to whatever else you might want to drink (and pay for it; and you never ever get tap), and choose whether you want still or sparkling bottled water. We usually went for sparkling. I noticed that the water tended to be local - in Kent you got Kentish water, in Devon you got Devon water, except for York where you got Scottish water. I don't recall ever seeing anyone walking down the street swigging from a water bottle, as one does in America, either; the English just must not have this fixation with staying hydrated.

As for lodging: well, we learned on this trip that "bed and breakfast" in England and Wales is an entirely different animal than "bed and breakfast" in California. One should not assume luxury. (A friend with some travel experience tells me that anybody with a spare room can call themselves a "bed and breakfast".) I also learned that it's a bad sign when the travel agency gives you a list of the places you'll stay and a package price rather than an itemization of nightly charges. So what did we get? (In an attempt to avoid lawsuits, I will omit specific names and places.) In U.S. B&B's you'll sometimes get really good cooking for breakfast: frittatas, omelettes, fancy muffins. In the U.K. you get either the Full English Breakfast, or some subset of it (poached/scrambled eggs, with/without toast), or dry cereal and orange juice. That's it. I never saw oatmeal offered, or any kind of bread except thin toast.

When we arrived at our first B&B, the landlady scolded us for arriving before 5 PM. When we showed her our voucher, which said anytime after 3 PM, she said, "Where's your book?", and then scolded us because our travel agent hadn't given us the book (which, when she got us a copy, did say "after 5 PM"; it was one of those advertising guides to inns). She then complained that we'd booked through an agency which had skimmed off too much of the price (by this time I was wondering why she'd accepted the booking, and rather wishing she hadn't), and finally showed us to our room, which was up a staircase that was just barely large enough to take my large suitcase. (Her husband, who cooked the breakfast, was much nicer.) The room had 2 twin beds and a shower; the shower just barely worked. In fact, in all but one or two of the B&Bs, the water pressure in the shower was so low you could barely get the soap off. In a summer where they had water coming in the basement (metaphorically speaking) from flooding, this seemed odd, but I suppose it's a different water system. The sign asked us to conserve water "as the house is on a meter"; since I've had water meters on my house since I think 1976 this didn't impress me much. The bathroom had been converted from a closet, not by a professional (I recognized the signs; my dad did something very similar, only without a shower). The room had a laminated set of Rules for residents, very nanny like and nagging: no doing laundry in the room; no plugging in ANY electrical devices; turn down the TV after 9 PM; no eating in the room; residents only in the room (i.e. no girlfriends). I picked up a business card and found that the place advertises a specialty in Funeral Teas and Small Family Gatherings. It had a (covered) swimming pool about 8 feet long in the back yard. Breakfast actually fairly good, very light scrambled eggs. The decorating scheme was based on the theory that a wall or shelf with only one thing on it is wasted and barren space, and having things together that match is unnecessary effort.

Our second B&B was a small pub in a small town. This was the first of 2 lodgings we had that had changed hands between the time we booked the room and the time we arrived. The new owners had been there about 6 weeks; and it was clear from my pre-trip conversation with the travel agent that they had no clue about the change. The travel agent also told us the place was closed between 3 and 6 PM, which was simply not true. (It's a pub, for God's sake.) Our room was huge, with an equally huge bathroom, and very sparsely furnished; it was also directly over the bar, which was interesting on the Friday night when they had karaoke night. Fortunately they stopped shortly after 11 PM. Jim put in earplugs and went to sleep; I went down to the bar for awhile and sang Elton John's "Daniel" to the karaoke machine, to the admiration of all the locals who didn't expect the lady tourist to join in. Breakfasts here were OK but the dinner menu looked iffy, so the first night we scouted around and found a really good pub called the Elephant's Head, well out in the country; and the next night we ate in the nearby town.

Our third B&B, on the outskirts of Torquay, was very nice, with one exception. To make changing the bed easier, all but about 2 of these places had a duvet, covered with sheeting, instead of a top sheet and blankets. In the cold winter I'm sure that's very comfortable; but this was summer, and the weather was warm and muggy, and the option was either sleep with no covers at all (which I simply can't do), or sleep under the damned duvet. There was occasionally a spare blanket, but there was no sheet to go under it. This place had The Duvet, but was otherwise very good, with a lovely garden, a charming hostess (with whom I negotiated to do 3 loads of laundry, yay!), and interesting other guests to chat with at breakfast. The shower was OK but very very small (another characteristic).

The next place was the nicest we'd seen yet; nice decorating scheme, chairs to sit in and read, a bed with
a top sheet and blankets, whee! Too bad we only stayed one night. I didn't use the shower; Jim did and said it was competent. This B&B had the weirdest toilet I ever listened to; it was a "shredding toilet", whatever that is, and it made grinding noises at unpredictable intervals, even in the middle of the night when you hadn't used it.

Our next stop still leaves me boggling. This was in Wales, and the building was stone, with 2 foot thick walls, and right on the A5 road through town; it had been the police station and courthouse in the 1880s. The landlord and his wife were absolutely charming, a very old couple (all they would admit to was "over 70", but he was a WWII veteran!) doing this as a retirement job, taking only as many people as they feel like doing for. A single traveler willing to put up with a bathroom down the hall could rent one of the old jail cells, nicely done up with a single bed, chest of drawers, mirror and sink. They left the original cell doors but have sealed the Judas windows. We had a room (not a cell) with bathroom "en suite", tub and shower combination; reasonable water pressure. (If I seem to be harping on the showers, let me just suggest that you try one with water pressure so low that if you turn the hand shower upside down, it won't squirt upward. In some of these places I could have done better with a hip bath and a maid with a bucket.) The room was short of space but had a chest of drawers; and the walls were so thick that storing stuff on the window seat was quite feasible. This was one of the few that didn't have The Duvet, they had a sheet and blankets. Of course, the bed sagged in the middle but we were so happy to have sheets that we forgave them. They never did give us a key to our room, they said we didn't need to lock up; and in fact, nothing happened.

Our second to last, and a 3 night stay, was another establishment that had recently (3 weeks previously) changed hands. It had a spectacular location with a view of the (still functional) city walls, as long as you didn't mind a very steep 50-75 foot climb up from the sidewalk to the front door. There was a parking area above the house, at the top of an unpaved driveway with at least a 15% grade; God help you in wet weather. Fortunately while we were there it didn't rain. They initially put us on the top floor (5 more flights of stairs, the last damned steep; I'm sure we were in the old servants' quarters), and regretfully informed us that since the shower in our unit didn't work, we'd have to use the shower in the hall bathroom, 3 flights down. ("No one else is using it.") The room had a bed, 2 nightstands with 1 drawer apiece, a heater (top floor on a warm day, hardly needed), a large armoire with 4 hangers and no shelves, and a table. No chairs. No chest of drawers. And no fully working bathroom, although we had asked for and (we thought) paid for one. I was hot and sweaty from touring gardens so I went down to use the shower; at this point I found that the hall bathroom had a clear glass window above the tub, facing onto the path up to the parking area at the top of the hill, which was covered only by a 3/4 length lace curtain. Also, no working fan, and no shower curtain - there was a frosted glass panel 1/4 the length of the tub. Since it was daylight and I wasn't backlighted, I went ahead with my shower, to discover that the water pressure here was very high indeed, but only for the cold water - also the ubiquitous hand spray shower had been pointed toward the room, with the result that I covered the tile floor in cold water and had to throw one of the towels onto it. The hot water pressure was very low indeed and it took me almost 5 minutes to produce a water flow which was neither scalding nor icy. By the time I finished my shower I was approaching hysteria and was quite ready to march down the streets of the town looking for somewhere else, anywhere else, with a "Vacancies" sign out; Jim went to talk to the landlord and got us moved down 3 flights of stairs to a different room with twin beds and a working shower; one of the best showers we had, in fact, since it had a "geyser" that controlled the water flow, so we didn't have to worry about the different pressures between hot and cold. Still no chest of drawers but at least we now had a desk with 3 usable drawers and a chair.

If I seem to nag on about chests of drawers: I've never mastered "traveling light", and this was a 3 week trip; in this room and a couple of others, there literally was not room for us to put the suitcases on the floor and still move around. Chests of drawers allow me to unpack, get the big suitcase out of the way, and get the clean clothes out where I can find them.

The landlord, who really was a very nice man and I wish him well, then revealed that the person who had sold him the B&B had, upon leaving, stripped the place of everything he'd agreed
in the sales contract to leave behind, and further had failed to pass on to them the reservations that had been made directly with him by phone or email; so for 3 weeks they'd been madly buying furniture and curtains, ordering equipment, etc. while dealing with customers they didn't know they had (and taking care of their 3 year old daughter). It occurs to me that something like this might explain the discount-outlet furniture in the earlier pub that had also changed hands; but they'd had 6 weeks to recover.

Our last B&B, another 3 night stay, was uneventful and well furnished, and we were (thank God!) on the ground floor. These people had obviously been in the business for awhile and knew what they were doing. It had The Duvet, but it also had a top sheet (so did the B&B From Hell, to give the devil his due), which was much more workable.

Our last night in England was in a hotel near Heathrow (details of that in my post, ... Leavin' on a jet plane ...) which was a perfectly capable hotel notable only for the two facts that it had no airport shuttle, and it didn't start serving breakfast until 7:30 AM (which meant that we couldn't eat breakfast there at all).


  1. European plumbing is just weird! At the Savoy in London our shower was an immaculate tub, but the shower nozzle (an enormous affair, with a head about 12 inches in diameter) hung straight down and was NOT adjustable, so one had to position oneself directly under it as it deluged (no other word for it) a torrent of water onto you, which is fine when you're rinsing the shampoo off but you can't just stand there and soap because the soap is instantly whisked away and your eyes are closed because you're literally UNDER WATER. All very mad mad mad. The worst place for services we've seen was in Italy, where they insist on plug adapters--every outlet has one plug connected to two more plugs, two "adapters" and then several cords coming off of those. Water is almost always a problem, because the touristy "old towns" were all built BEFORE modern conveniences were even invented and therefore everything is retrofitted, and that not well-done. That includes plumbing, wiring, air-conditioning (where it's been tried), parking, phone service, gas, everything. My favorite shower was at L'Hotel, in Paris, famous because Oscar Wilde stayed there at the end of his life. The bathroom WAS the shower--how can I say this?--one stood in the middle of the floor and the shower "attacked" you from two sides. EVERYTHING in the room was soaked. All very avant garde; I'm sure Duchamp would have loved it--a readymade! (Or as they say in Italy, a fiasco!)

  2. I can't recall offhand where it was, but on one of our trips we saw a shower like that - it was in a very old house, too, one of those tours of rich people's places, and it dated to a time when most people were doing well to have a tin bathtub. I have the feeling it wasn't in the U.K., it was somewhere in the U.S. or maybe Canada - can it have been that place in Toronto? Anyway, the shower was separate from the rest of the bathroom, but it had something like 5 levels of nozzles at spaced up and down the pipes; sort of like a car wash for people.

    I can't speak to the plumbing anywhere but England, but I did notice that nowhere, not even in the hotel in Kensington, did we have a built-in shower. They all had hand showers in a rack. I have no objection to this, mind you; I just thought it was unusual. If you walk around some of these cities and go into alleys, you can look up at all the old stone buildings and see the plumbing pipes clinging to the outside of the back wall, from when they put in the "mod. cons." in the early 20th century.

    I saw some plumbing at the Eisteddfod (I'll get to that in a bit) that amazed me: the toilets in one of the temporary women's rooms had overhead tanks and pull chain flushes. The rest of the place was fairly standard loos, but this one place had these old fashioned toilets; they must have been harder to manage than chemical port-a-potties. Still, the Eisteddfod seems to be a semi-permanent fixture in Llangollen, so they may have invested in some infrastructure. But why that infrastructure??

  3. I am glad your B&B and dining experiences provided you with such memorable adventures! I also found the plumbing in our London B&B to be odd, and concuded that, lack of obvious body odor to the contrary, this whole concept of "showering" must be completely alien to England. And what's the deal with washcloths? I know of at least two British references to "face flannels" ("Tempted By the Fruit of Another" by Squeeze, and "I wouldn't give an old face flannel for the lot of 'em" in the radio version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy), so unless they've gone out of vogue, I don't know why they're so hard to find.

    It was my impression that everyone in England just eats Indian take-out. Did you have any while you were there?

    And did you have any clotted cream? I had it once and got addicted. Thank goodness Wegman's carries it, in the gourmet cheese section!