Test-kit tour of the UK

Pulteney Bridge, Bath
Pulteney Bridge, Bath

Once upon a time, I planned a trip to England.

Three postponements later, I was finally able to set off. Traveling internationally during a global pandemic required some additional measures.

In total, I took three COVID-19 tests—one within three days of flying, one upon arrival in London, and one within three days of returning home.

The first I took at a local pharmacy; the second, at a test station within Heathrow Airport; and the third, in a hotel room using an online test kit. All were uncomfortable. All were quick.

In England, wearing masks was mandated on public transport, such as trains and the Tube. Elsewhere, they were optional. Few of the British wore them.

At the time of the trip, eighty percent of England’s population over the age of twelve were fully vaccinated (compared to not quite sixty percent in the United States).

Due to travel restrictions, foreign tourists seem to be curiosities in England. At Waterloo station, I asked an agent to validate my rail pass. He seemed fascinated by it. “I haven’t seen one of these in two years,” he said.

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Town and gown

King's College, Cambridge
King’s College, Cambridge

English cities York and Cambridge were both settled in the Stone Age and ruled in turn by the Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. Over the centuries, a fascinating cast of characters walked their streets while making history.

York, a quintessential market town, served as world headquarters for four different Roman emperors.

Cambridge, home to one of the oldest and finest universities in the world, inspired both Isaac Newton and Pink Floyd.

Oddly, its founding was prompted by a spate of killings.

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Mersey beat

Cavern Club, Liverpool
So ferry, cross the Mersey
’Cause this land’s the place I love
And here I’ll stay.

Gerry and the Pacemakers

My daughter, Allie, called going to Liverpool my pilgrimage. Maybe it was.

In the summer of 1963 I was twelve years old and on the cusp of entering junior-high school. Most people recall those transitional years between childhood and adolescence as awkward. Many, including me, struggled to manage more freedom, new social skills, and raging hormones.

One evening that summer, I walked with a friend to a party at a swimming pool in my neighborhood. From a distance, we could hear electrified thumpings and twangings. A high-school group, the Vandals, performed, playing garage-band nuggets by the Kingsmen (“Louie Louie”), the Safaris (“Wipe Out”), and the Beachboys (“409”).

The musicians were only two or three years older than me, but seemed like grown men. Girls fawned over them. I was mesmerized by it all—the music, the swagger, the adulation. It had never occurred to me that someone close to my age in my hometown could do what they were doing.

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When I emerged from the underground station near Big Ben, I was surrounded by thousands of people, most wearing red poppies in their lapels.

Some wore medals pinned to their suits and military berets on their heads. Others were in uniform.

London bobbies were everywhere, guarding the barricades and warily eyeing the crowds. Whitehall and its side streets were closed.

It was Remembrance Sunday.

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Hiking through the hyphens

Broadway, Cotswolds
Broadway, Cotswolds

The Cotswolds of south central England is known for its rolling hills, stone villages, and hyphenated names, such as Stow-on-the-Wold and Bourton-on-the-Water. An extensive network of trails connects its small towns, many of which seem untouched by time.

Hiking through the Cotswolds became especially appealing when I found a tour company that would arrange the lodging along the route and transport my bag each day.

All that was left for me to do was walk.

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Hallowed ground


It’s an old story. Father sends son away to college. Son returns home with a social disease. Son is thrown out of the house.

In this telling, the father is the king of ancient Britain. The son is a prince and next in line to the throne. The disease is leprosy, once greatly feared.

The son, named Bladud (meaning Wolf-lord), returned home from Athens, Greece, after hearing of his father’s death. Instead of being crowned king, he was treated as an outcast, due to the stigma associated with leprosy and the unsightly sores on his skin.

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In pursuit of pirates


I was expecting to be swashbuckled in Penzance.

Pirate restaurants, pirate tours, pirate harbor cruises. Guides in three-cornered hats and flouncy shirts. Gift shops selling souvenir eyepatches.

I was almost dreading such an obvious tourism strategy.

Yet, incredibly, the town of Penzance does not commercialize pirates. Which is odd because: (1) it has pirate cred and (2) there’s that opera.

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