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Of pubs & princes
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So we’re driving along, heading back to London’s Heathrow Airport, where we’re to return the rented car, comfortable -- finally -- with sitting behind a steering wheel on the right, driving a car on the left and negotiating the dizzying roundabouts, Britain’s unique and tricky way of dealing with traffic that no one warns you about in the guidebooks, so comfortable in fact that we’ve ditched the useless GPS (“A POS,” my travel mate tells the people at National Car Rental, a piece of you-know-what, although she says the what) and we’re playing the radio when all of a sudden one of Britain’s jocular morning disc jockey types, in introducing a rock-and-roll song about love, touching and togetherness, starts in on a lighthearted, jovial and ridiculous riff about love, touching, togetherness -- and penises.

“Did I hear what I thought I heard?” I say.


They may speak properly (“Make inquiry at the gate,” we’re told when sking about the Queen’s horses) and quaintly (“No one took notice of me when I lived in London”; that from a young girl who moved back to Wales from London).

They may strive for precision in their signs (“Do not allow your dog to chase, worry or injure the wildlife,” reads a

warning on Lake Long Water in Hyde Park). They may eat parsnips, prune their shrubs to resemble poodles, require cab drivers to study three years before getting into the well-known Black Cabs and compete seriously for sales jobs (One in 100 who apply to work at the prestigious Harrods department store gets the nod).

They may insist on proper pronunciation, even for foreigners (“Get it right, madam,” admonished a man on the street when I asked for directions to Cheltenham, mangling, in the process, the name of the town).

And they may take their security seriously. Consider their system of hidden cameras, employed in lieu of patrolling police, which one cab driver said probably photographs every person in London at least 600 times.

But there’s nothing prudish about the British. Not even remotely close. They love tales of domestic drama, celebrity mishaps and murder and mayhem, the more grisly the better. Just look at their tabloid-oriented newspapers.

One day it’s a story about Carol Thatcher, Margaret Thatcher’s daughter, who -- while being filmed for a television show, “I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here” -- was photographed squatting in the wild, “answering the call of nature.”

The next day it’s a huge front page story about “The banker who was murdered for being too rich,” followed by, “The man whose snoring cost him four wives,” and “Lap dancing club first for Mid Wales.”

On television, the “breaking news” of the week centered around George Best, a popular footballer (as in soccer) but a bit of a rounder and a scalawag since his playing days, who despite a kidney transplant was in the hospital fighting for his life. When he finally passed away, the country observed a moment of silence.

We know they love their Queen, who along with the rest of the royals seems to get around the country quite a bit. At one country restaurant, where we stopped on a rainy Saturday afternoon for parsnip-basil soup, fresh baked bread and hot tea, we saw a photograph of Prince Charles on the back of the lavatory.

Turns out Charles -- who one cabbie said they like to call Charlie -- is the patron of specialized cheese makers. Slightly less classy is the Prince of Wales Car Sales that we passed.

But now I hear they love our “West Wing” television series -- and they’re mad for Krispy Kreme doughnuts, too. The pride of Winston-Salem, N.C., is sold at the posh -- a favorite British word -- Harrod’s down the aisle from the Hen-Cam flat screen TV which, as we speak, is broadcasting live pictures of Burford Browns and Olde Cotswold Legbar hens, from “their natural environment at Clarence Court.”

They love their pints of ale at the pub -- or my particular favorite, a whiskey mac, a single shot of whiskey and a large measure of ginger wine.

Despite their apparent reserve, the English have no trouble finding an excuse to talk, or better yet, a chance to laugh. And what better reason than a couple of goofy Americans on their way to Wales (in November) to see sheep (which outnumber people) to look for fine wool for knitting.

In most cases our accents, a dead giveaway, worked to attract a lively crowd, especially outside the more cosmopolitan London.

It was in the English town of Leominister, not too far from Birdlip and Much Birch, a border town between England and Wales -- which along with Scotland (to the north) and Ireland, across the Irish Sea, make up the United Kingdom -- that we found ourselves on a cold and snowy Thanksgiving afternoon.

I like traveling in winter. Fewer tourists, shorter lines, better vistas. The only drawback is the light.

The U.K. is pretty far north, right up there with the Netherlands. So around 4 o’clock the day starts to fade. Which is how we found ourselves in Leominister’s The Grape Vaults pub right about the time our friends and family -- five hours earlier -- were putting in the turkey.

To celebrate, we ordered cottage pie (a fancy chicken pot pie with beef) and a dish called faggot (various parts of pig minced with onion and sage, formed into a meatball, roasted and served with gravy, peas and mashed potatoes).

No one knew why it is called faggot, but the irony of the name did not escape the people in the pub.

The Grape Vaults is a “proper pub,” they took measures to explain. No music. No television. No darts. No computers. Just talking.

Everyone seemed to know about our Thanksgiving, including a former rugby player from Wales. He was in Paris once during Thanksgiving, when an American invited him and 30 other people over for to celebrate.

“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “The best part was no one had to bring any gifts; a holiday strictly about getting together and having a good time.”

At Hay-on-Wye, another charming Welsh town, we had more serendipitous encounters in pubs. After several dead-ends looking for a place to stay on a farm, we met a man, tipping back a pint, whose twin sister lived on a farm outside of town.

A phone call later we had our accommodations. That night we ate organic lamb from sheep that a week earlier had been grazing outside our bedroom.

More than sheep, Hay-on-Wye is known for its 38 used bookstores that snake up and down the town’s hilly center. In one store I spotted a hardcover of Flannery O’Connor’s Everything That Rises Must Converge selling for 125 pounds, or nearly $215.

It was an eccentric book-lover named Richard Booth who some 30 years ago introduced the used-book angle to the town that already had plenty of history.

Then, in 1977 he backed a movement to make Wales an independent republic. That’s when people started calling him King Dick.

What else would you expect? He’s wacky. He’s harebrained. He’s British.

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