London, Day 1

Last week on Thanksgiving I was flying to London instead of packing away turkey and stuffing. I had been invited to a one day convention called Dragonmeet that dates back to the 80s. Nicole and I had gone in 2002 but I hadn’t had the chance to go back until this year. It was a whirlwind trip but I squeezed a lot in and had an excellent time. I had planned to write only one post about it but the day 1 write up went so long I’ve decided to break it up into installments.

Traveling on Thanksgiving was actually quite nice. Both of my flights were half empty so I didn’t have to sit next to anybody. I had some sake on my layover in Detroit, hoping it’d help me sleep on the transatlantic flight, but no such luck. I was wide awake the whole time and arrived in London at 7:30 am Friday not having slept a wink. It did give me a chance to finally finish The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 by Antony Beevor, which was excellent.

I took the tube to Kensington and found my hotel. Took a while for them to find my reservation and even then they wanted to charge me a 35 pound early check in fee to get in the room at 9 am. I had planned to take a nap for a couple of hours and go out in the afternoon, so I said to hell with it and opted to reverse that plan. I checked my bag, went back to the tube, and found my way to St. John’s gate in Clerkenwell. I opted for that area for two reasons, one historical and one culinary.

My first stop was the Museum of the Order of St. John. They were an order of medieval knights known as the Hospitallers, similar to their better known brethren the Templars. St. John’s Gate was the entrance to the order’s English priory (their headquarters basically) and now it serves as a museum for both the original religious-military order and the modern day charitable organization that is its successor. The museum had been closed for a 3.7 million pound renovation and had only re-opened on November 2. The staff said I was one of the first 500 people to come to see the new exhibits.

The museum is of modest size but well presented and filled with interesting artifacts. The centerpiece is a huge model of the sort of order galley that fought the Ottomans and Muslim pirates in the Mediterranean. I thought it was a modern day reconstruction but it turns out the model dates to the 1700s. It apparently comes apart down the middle to display the interior of the galley, so it may have been used as a teaching tool. While the museum’s main focus is on the order, it also covers the history of St. John’s Gate after the knight’s departure. It was the site of the Revels Office, where 30 of Shakespeare’s players were registered. The Gentleman’s Magazine was also published here in the 18th century. This was the first modern general interest periodical and the first to call itself a magazine. Interesting stuff.

Across the way the Order of St. John has a church. Normally, the church should be open for visitors at the same time as the museum but it was closed that day due to staffing issues. However, it so  happened that an American couple from Atlanta was there at the same time as me. The husband was a member of St. John Ambulance, and he is apparently organizing a fund raiser for the organization. Since he dropped by, they rustled up a staffer to give he and his wife a guided tour of the church. Since I had asked about it, they let me tag along. The church itself was blown up during the Blitz in 1940 and had to be rebuilt. The crypts beneath date back to 12th century and the earliest years of the Order of St. John in England. I suppose English people are blasé about this sort of thing but it was pretty cool to go into a crypt built in the 1140s.

After a couple of hours of history nerding, I was ready for lunch and luckily for me the aptly named restaurant St. John was a block away. This is one of the those foodie destinations that books up weeks in advance. I dropped in to see if I could get a last minute table. I was rebuffed from the dining room by a classic snooty maître d’, but they had an attached bar with a more casual atmosphere and much of the same food so I went there. I was able to get the roasted marrow bones I had been wanting, as well as Welsh rarebit and cider. It was quite delicious but the marrow was so rich that I found I couldn’t even finish the rarebit.

I got back to the hotel around 2 and was finally able to check in. By this point I had been up something like 25 hours straight and I had to get a bit of sleep. I did not want to go down for the day though, as that would screw me up for Saturday and the con. So I sleep for about two and a half hours and got up. I got in touch with Angus, my genial host, and made plans to meet up with him and other Dragonmeet folks later for drinks. I then went to Kensington High Street to walk around and do a bit of shopping. I needed a winter hat for one thing because I didn’t have one in Austin to bring with me and it was quite cold in London. Also found a perfect little something for Kate that I’m saving for Xmas.

Feeling rather fatigued by this point, I did not want to go on another tube excursion so I opted for something nearby for dinner. Martin, a friend of mine from high school, had recommended a place called Maggie Jones and it was right off Kensington High Street. The only available table was right in front of the door, but I sucked it up and I’m glad I did. Their fresh game special that day was partridge and I knew I had to try it. All I knew about partridges was their penchant for pear trees, at least in song, but I had never eaten one. So a partridge is basically a game bird and they wrapped the whole thing in bacon and roasted it. Nothing wrong with that! It was served with peas and more bacon and then I got some mash on the side. I really didn’t need dessert but when I saw they had bread and butter pudding with hot custard my willpower crumbled and I ordered it. A very fine meal all in all, though getting dessert added an hour to the experience due to a slow kitchen.

Finally around 9:30 I met up with Dragonmeet folks who were also staying at my hotel for drinks in the bar. There was cider and the first of many good conversations. By the time I went to bed at midnight, I was ready to crash hard. I had to be up the next morning for Dragonmeet itself.

Originally published on LiveJournal on November 30, 2010. 

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