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London and the mysteries beyond (10250)

10250Advocate Travel2003-10-22

London and the mysteries beyond

England swings
like a
pedulum do
at Popstarz!

A couple of gay travelers determined to scope out as much of the United Kingdom as possible start their trip in the capital and move on to Brighton, Lewes, and Manchester--checking out the best hotels, restaurants, and shopping opportunities (including almost every CD store) along the way. They return with a wealth of souvenirs, travel tips, and Web links.

Lawrence Ferber and Matthew Dalton

Welcome to the New United Kingdom: Long gone are the days of criminalized cruising, wearing green carnations to secretly signal your sexual orientation, and the equally surreptitious gay slang known as Polari. Today's British gay scene is refreshingly open, varied, and politically vocal. Which is not to say that all traditions have been lost: Britain still has its monarchy, after all, now starring two hot young princes, not to mention a whole gaggle of another sort of queen--and lesbians and transsexuals--who are ubiquitous in urban life.

For visitors, the U.K.'s tourism office, VisitBritain, offers gay-specific information and assistance. There are diverse gay communities--especially in London and Manchester--with endless varieties of daytime excursions and nighttime clubbing. Smaller getaways like Brighton and Lewes are a couple's paradise regardless of the overcast skies; we can certainly testify to that.


We adore Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airways. Crossing the Atlantic, we experienced Virgin Upper Class, which can make the difference between a miserable first day overseas and a happy one. You'll delight in the comfy red seats that recline almost flat, cushy pillows, blankets, personal video monitors playing a dozen movies, music videos, television shows, news channels at your command, and a bag filled with spa products and other toiletry staples. The free massages came as a complete surprise--you have an option of foot, face, or shoulders. The food was outstanding (try the lamb shank) and can be ordered at any time during the flight.

Getting into central London from Heathrow or Gatwick airports is speedy. The Heathrow and Gatwick Express trains bring you to Paddington and Victoria stations, respectively, in about 30 minutes. From there you can ride the subway or a taxi around the city. London taxis, by the way, are among the world's best. The drivers train extensively until they're intimately familiar with the city.

You may want to buy a daily or weekly public transportation ticket. The Underground subway system (a.k.a. "the Tube") is extensive and clean; the double-decker buses are classic but much slower, as automobile traffic within London is a miserable affair, especially with the illogical one-way streets that plague the city. It's still bad, even though a congestion charge for private car owners was recently instituted, cutting down city traffic by 15%.

From Paddington Station we took a spacious black cab to the Dolphin Square Hotel, one of the few all-suite hotels in London. Our dwelling was huge and modern with a kitchenette chock-full of everything you'd need to prepare a meal and a bedroom with a queen-size bed and fresh flowers. The hotel also includes 24-hour room service, an indoor pool, a sauna-steam room, fitness center, spa, hair salon, and a small shopping mall. One drawback to the Dolphin Square: our room faced a junior high school across the street that swelled with a preadolescent din throughout the day, particularly when the kids hit the yard.

We also shacked up at the uber-hip Metropolitan Hotel, located just off Hyde Park. The staff wear slick Emporio Armani uniforms, which go nicely with the hotel's chichi lounge, the Met Bar, reserved for A-listers and hotel guests only. Apparently, it's featured in gossip columns on a regular basis. The Met's martinis--of which there are 26 varieties--ranked dandy, but a number of hetero hipsters grumbled when they spotted us holding hands. We're not clamoring to be fag-bashed for a Page Six mention, so we only spent a few moments inside. Upstairs, our room's decor was chic and modern with business-friendly details like high-speed modems, ISDN lines, and a personal fax machine.

Wherever you stay, pick up Time Out magazine--a comprehensive entertainment and event guide--upon check-in. It will give you details on many gay events, including the London Gay and Lesbian Film Festival in April and the London pride celebrations in July.

The boys from Arena show their pride (photo courtesy of Essential)

For our first evening, we joined friends at the Clipper Bar inside the Dolphin Hotel, a small and atmospheric cocktail lounge. On the topic of cocktails, a favorite local drink, Pims, proudly proclaims itself England's "number 1 cup." Pims, a herbal liquor, is best prepared with lemon-lime soda, slices of fresh fruit, and mint leaves. You're likely to get a good Pims if a waiter or bartender recognizes your request right away. Don't go with a novice--if prepared without the proper flourishes, Pims's "Cup" rating can sink far below number 1.

The hotel's restaurant, Brasserie, is just as tiny and friendly as the Clipper, with a window filling one wall showcasing the indoor pool below. Lechery with your soup, sir? Our prix fixe menu included steamed muscles in garlic broth and Greek yogurt, bacon tart, Japanese fishcake in breadcrumbs, and grilled lamb.

After a restful night's sleep, we piled into a Backroads Touring Bus, passing Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament en route to the Royal Academy of Arts in Piccadilly for the Aztecs Exhibition. For our visit, the Royal, which regularly houses new exhibits, is a maze of statues, artifacts, centuries-old gems, and Mexican history, documenting the rise and fall of the Aztec civilization from 1325 to 1521.

Across the street from the Royal is the gourmet shop Fortnum and Mason, where you'll find a melange of yummy treats, pastries, chocolates, tantalizing liquors, and...chocolate-coated scorpions? Indeed. And if you're not heading to London any time soon, there's a UK-based company called Edible that produces similarly unusual foodstuffs: vodkas flavored with scorpions and snakes, giant wasp honey, and canned insects--absolutely perfect gifts for friends with a taste for the unusual, or whose uptightness would ensure you a cackle.

For lunch, we chose the luminous Just St. James, known for its meat, vegetables, sauces, breads, wines, and sticky toffee pudding, a U.K. staple. FYI, "pudding" is a dense cakelike dessert, not the creamy American stuff.

Afterwards, we visited the Tate Modern, a multistory museum of contemporary international art from the early 1900s to the present. Visitors to the Tate are greeted by Anish Kapoor's titanic trumpet structure, which looms some four stories in height. A highlight of the Tate is the bookstore, so leave an extra half hour for browsing. And if you're thinking of buying a poster or print while traveling, you are best advised to buy a poster tube. Trust me, even clever ways of packing posters--in a bigger disposable poster, etc.--rarely work and aren't worth the risk.

Come evening, we attended a live taping of Channel 4'sV. Graham Norton at London Studios. For those who haven't caught Norton on BBC America or during one of his stateside live stand-up acts, he's a massively popular openly gay--as opposed to just openly gay--talk show host. (The V. is short for "very.") His U.K. fame is on par with David Letterman's in the States, even among the most laddish straights. For a culture so long identified with sexual repression, this says something about how times have changed.

For dinner, we chose the drop-dead gorgeous Baltic, a nouveau Polish-Eastern European restaurant in south-of-Thames London, an area previously avoided by all but central casting for EastEnders. Baltic's bar alone is worth a venture in: Their cocktail menu is unique and stunning, with fresh berry purees, ginger, and endless flavored vodkas (and the bartenders were oh-so-cute). The dining room is exquisite and dreamy, illuminated by candlelight and engulfed in late-night romance. The rabbit braised in cider and sauerkraut was sublime, the saddle of wild boar with black cabbage, bacon, and cranberries definitely a must. U.K. food has certainly made culinary turns for the better in recent years. You can still find traditional bangers and mash or fish and chips, but even old-school corner pubs are reinventing themselves as "gastropubs," dishing up fusion fare and upperbrow versions of traditional dishes.

A cab ride later, we're in London's very gay Soho neighborhood. There are loads of gay pubs, hangouts, and shops. Make sure to spend some daytime here as well--nearby New Oxford Street and Charing Cross Roads are jammed with stores, including some really good bookstores. We found Holly Johnson's out-of-print biography (he's the main homo from Frankie Goes to Hollywood), a couple of U.K.-only Quentin Crisp biographies, and Marc Almond's autobiography.

But back to clubbing. We visited the Sanctuary SoHo, a thriving club boasting a cozy VIP room. Absolutely Fabulous's James Dryfus--he played Edina's hairdresser, Christopher--is lounging inside with a friend. Thanks to the owner, Paul Richardson, we join him. Champagne (again thanks to Paul) flows all around, followed by a strawberry cheesecake shooter, and then off to another club just a couple of blocks down, The Shadow Lounge. It's more hip than shadowy, with legions of trendoids slinking about. If you told me I was in Manhattan's Chelsea, I'd have believed you.

Hanging out at Miss Shapes (photo courtesy of

The nerdy and indie pop set gravitate to Miss Shapes, a Thursday club night, while Saturdays boast kitschy Wig Out at Ghetto. Bears, chubs, and chasers have a touchstone every Wednesday and Saturday night at XXL.

London is one of the rare cities where gay women have a fair share of things to do at night. Pick up G3 magazine for a lineup. Party flyers, coupons, and free gay magazines (QX Magazine is the bible these days) for all tastes were plentiful at First Out Cafe, an absolute must-visit.

A few steps from First Out is the Astoria/LA1, perhaps the least pretentious mainstream gay club in London. Locals are known to call it "naff," but they still go to Thursday's one-pound G-A-Y Music Factory nights and pack the floors to Kylie, '80s tunes, and some admittedly naff disco (naff, by the way, springs from the acronym-based Polari lingo; it signified "not available for fucking"). On Saturdays, pop acts and wanna-bes perform, including many boy bands. Heaven, the most well-known and largest club on the continent, offers musical variety in several rooms and a pretty hot-to-trot clientele. At Heaven we're greeted by a bald Sinead O'Connor-like hostess and escorted to the huge, smoky VIP room, which is blasting a mixture of Kylie and Madonna dance remixes. A beefcake sporting nothing but jockey shorts brings us shots and, one at a time, pours them into our mouths. It's very momma-baby bird.

Come morning, we take the Kairos Gay and Lesbian history tour, which occurs every Sunday at 2 p.m. regardless of the weather. We're led around the city and told about the people and places of queer historical importance, some well-known and others obscure. Amid tales of the gruesome prison sentences many gays and lesbians suffered in the early part of the 19th century, Quentin Crisp's former haunts, an Oscar Wilde memorial, and the First Out Cafe are amongst the stops.

A couple of hours and seemingly endless Starbucks Coffee joints, which have all but overtaken London, later, we're at Masala Zone. A two-years-young Indian restaurant, Masala Zone is brimming with exotic designs, Art Deco, and impeccable food. We recommend the menu's grand thali, a prix fixe of sorts chock-full of variety and gigantic portions.

There's a wide variety of ethnic food at the Camden Town Market, a favorite place to spend a day. It's not your mall food court by any means. The market is packed with all sorts of goods, including a great selection of pop culture T-shirts that friends back home will ask "where did you get that" about. We've gotten great mileage from a Transformers T-shirt. Shoes are also in abundance, notably Doc Marten's. Be sure to compare prices and haggle before plunking down poundage. The salesmen are well aware that Docs are generally highly priced in the United States and will juice your American-accented butt if given opportunity.


The ride from London to Brighton and Hove, a beach resort town, is about 90 minutes, traffic allowing.

A very romantic and well-kept establishment, the Grand Hotel, sits on the beachfront in Brighton. Our room is amazing: beautiful and snug, although incredibly spacious, overlooking the famous Brighton pier. Built in 1862, the Grand is furnished in Italian renaissance-style decor. There's the King's Restaurant downstairs as well as the Victoria Lounge; the Midnight Blues Nightclub, which runs every Friday and Saturday night; the Conservatory, for high tea; the Harmony Hair and Tranquility Beauty salons; the De Vere Leisure indoor pool; and the Tropicarium gym. The gay bars are an easy walk, as are numerous restaurants. Best of all, there are fish-and-chip stands right outside the hotel that are open late into the evening.

There's a more boutiquey hotel option nearby, the Hotel du Vin. Their Bistro is a gorgeous and sumptuous restaurant and should be visited by all. Lush with candles, dark wooded walls, paintings, and a bar-living room as homey as anything we've seen in a restaurant, the meals are exquisite and tasty. Potato and watercress soup is served piping hot while the main course of Angus fillet steak is mouth-watering. More sticky toffee pudding with caramel sauce and clotted cream (clotted cream, by the way, is like sour cream, only not sour) with some Earl Grey. Their waiters are well versed in wines--ask for a recommendation and they fire off queries to ensure you get the perfect sommelier's choice.

Clubbing-wise, Brighton's best and biggest gay bet is Revenge. A multifloor joint with pulsating music and neon-green laser lights flashing over the dance floor, the crowd is mostly young (and we mean young) and flirtatious. Incidentally, many locals (and people from all over the U.K., for that matter) hook up at these days, where you can get a sneak peek of what could be waiting at Revenge. Meanwhile, the Harlequin's Friday nights have a good reputation as all-sorts fun, from 18 to 60, male, female, tranny, as well as cool straights. Check the GScene and 3Sixty monthlies for Brighton and Hove's queer rundown. G3 magazine, mentioned in the London section above, lists Brighton's best girl bets, one of which is Candy Bar on St. James Street.

Come morning, we're drenched in sunshine (the clouds were left in London), touring the beachfront and historic Lanes with our Blue Badge tour guide, Glenda. All of the small venues and restaurants on the boardwalk are closed, although Glenda informs us that they will be open come nightfall. Summer is like one big beachfront party. The place isn't as thriving in winter, though, and the lack of noisy tourists and the hustle and bustle has us relaxed. That said, many London residents hit Brighton on weekends throughout the year--Boy George was DJing during our visit.

By the beach, one sign of Brighton's queer-friendliness is a black monolith depicting engraved faces of straight and gay couples kissing. We can't resist joining them.

The Royal Pavilion

Our tour ends at the resplendent Royal Pavilion, a lush and otherworldly palace built by George, Prince of Wales, in 1783 and sold to Brighton in 1850 by Queen Victoria. We're guided around the estate and its rooms: the Long Gallery, the Great Kitchen, the Banqueting Room, the Music Room Gallery, etc. Some of the furnishings are authentic and originate from the early 1800s, though most of the Pavilion's lavish fittings were taken to London by Queen Victoria and remain at Buckingham Palace.

We lunch at Donatello, an Italian restaurant in the heart of the Lanes--a cluster of mazelike narrow streets. The multilevel place is busy and the food smells wonderful. Make sure to order pasta. Unfortunately, the sardine appetizer didn't agree with one of our friends and he spent the rest of the day in his room at the hotel.

Afterwards, we venture through the surrounding streets of shops. We hit music stores; Brief, an underwear store; as well as a chocolate shop, Choccywoccydoodah--which, sadly, had little beyond expensive Belgian chocolate designer cakes and pies. On the subject of chocolate, one U.K. specialty is chocolate-covered dates, which are incredibly rich. Joyously, we discover a Lush store, a bath and shower-related store selling bath balls that explode with scent and sometimes flower petals, coffee grains, etc. These phenomenal shops haven't yet invaded the United States, but they most likely will in 2004.

After a change of clothes, we headed down to the Hotel's conservatory for afternoon tea with general manager Richard Baker. The tea (Earl Grey again) was warm and pleasant while the food encompassed a wide, if not traditional, range of finger sandwiches (like egg salad and cucumber), pastries, scones, and clotted cream.

That evening, we attend the Tate Royal for a pre-West End performance of Enid Bagnold's The Chalk Garden. Let's just say they thought its trip from pre- to post-West End would be in record time--if it even makes it that far. Strangely, we notice that almost every regional theatrical production stars someone who at some time was on the popular U.K. soap opera EastEnders. Is this a mandatory prerequisite to work as an actor anywhere in the United Kingdom?


We depart Brighton for East Sussex's Charleston, a 17th-century house that was once home to Vanessa and Clive Bell (Virginia Woolf's sister and brother-in-law) and served as meeting place for the artist-writer-intellectual circle of friends dubbed the Bloomsbury Group. The rustic domicile, surrounded by greenery, is a haunting and magical nest of poetry, art, and long-ago but not forgotten romance. Much of the original furniture and wallpaper still adorns the dwelling, which is open for tours from April to October. Sadly, we're forbidden to photograph any of the house's interiors, and attempts to surreptitiously snap shots of the artwork result in blurry images.

If you're into obscure local town histories, the Ditchling Museum, just down the road, charts generations of villagers in the Ditchling area from the early 1900s. The cafe inside is quaint, serving coffees and teas and cakes. After a quick shuffle through a nearby market (we're curious about a bottle labeled "Curiosity Cola"), it's off to the small town of Lewes. Peppered with bed & breakfasts, Lewes is a quiet, romantic getaway. We're first-class all the way, shacked up at a 16th-century inn, Shelley's Hotel. Our room is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, with high ceilings, fluffy carpeting, extravagant furniture, huge bay windows overlooking a garden, and a bed big enough to fit a half dozen queens. It's honeymoonesque, to be sure. After some jealous eyeballing from friends with much smaller (but equally charming) digs, we spend a couple of minutes frolicking and partaking in the room's trove of complimentary gourmet cookies and teas (at least half of those tea bags ended up in our suitcase--shh).

Come lunch, local pub John Harvey Tavern offers hearty traditional dishes: plates of cheeses and meats. Afterwards, scouting the main road, we find everything from a fish-and-chip stand to a used record store to numerous secondhand bookshops to a small, hidden-away chocolate shop, Bonne Bouche (3 St. Martins Lane, +44 (273) 47-2043). Mrs. Elizabeth Syrett operates the Bonne Bouche and makes most of the chocolates by hand; her chocolate covered dates, orange peels and caramels are fantastic. Within an hour we returned for more. And she got sassy with us: "I've been here for 15 years, of course they're good," she said after we complimented the wares.

Lewes Castle is at the town's center. It's something out of a medieval sword-and-sorcery epic, about as old as an English castle gets, and is very picturesque. We snap a couple of pictures, take a look at the "closed" sign hanging on the office door, and scuttle back to the hotel for dinner. Lewes has certainly retained its olden charms, and barring a few skater-type kids and a goth or two, a bygone era lingers here.


The flight to Manchester on VLM Airlines is barely 45 minutes from London. Going by train, assuming the trains are on time and there's no rail crisis, takes around three hours.

Manchester received a shot of attention in the 2002 film 24-Hour Party People, which chronicled the rise and utter collapse of Factory Records (erstwhile home to New Order and Happy Mondays). The "Madchester" and rave scenes, and dark legends of Joy Division, took place here. Music is still very much a part of Manchester culture, and there's a load of good record shops; many can be found near a must-visit new-and-used CD shop for Brit-pop lovers, Vinyl Exchange, on Oldham Street.

Gay culture is a strong presence as well: The original Queer as Folk revolved around Manchester's famous bar- and club-packed Canal Street. Each year Canal Street becomes a party during Manchester's Gayfest, the last weekend in August. In August 2003, Manchester hosted Europride, which reportedly attracted over 250,000 people.

The Lowry, Manchester's only five-star hotel, is our home for a couple of evenings. The rating is justly deserved. The room, overlooking a canal and bridge running past the hotel, features modern conveniences like a fax machine, modem ports, a minibar, satellite television, three phones, a walk-in closet, and a bathroom adorned with beautiful mosaics and fancy bath gels.

Straight to dinner at Lounge 10. Our private dining area, on the second floor, is gorgeous, with red walls, a small crystal chandelier, and the branches of a faux tree. Rumors of a Vivien Westwood designer ladies' toilet spark curiosity. Cuisine in Manchester is quite good. One afternoon we tried a gastropub, the Ox. Coldplay's "The Scientist" played in the background. Another good dinner can be had at Stock, in the middle of Manchester's former stock exchange. The basement-level restaurant serves award-winning Italian cuisine and is teeming with gay patrons.

A walking tour of Manchester by Jonathan Schofield of Blue Badge kicks off a final morning. Nowhere near the industrialized zone that some imagine, Manchester actually gives London a run for its money in the architectural department: It is a city full of stunning buildings (like the new all-glass Urbis and modern museum), lovely restaurants and shops (Selfridges and Mars & Spenders at the Millennium Quarter, or, for the more luxurious shopper, Armani and Diesel on King Street), and markets. Arndale is another must for shopaholics, and it's conveniently located right in the middle of the city.

The Royal Exchange Theatre

We also get a chance to go inside the Royal Exchange Theatre, which is actually a separate, smaller podlike building inside the original structure. Many top-billed actors of stage and screen (yeah, and frigging EastEnders vets) got their starts here, including Sir Ian McKellen and Helen Mirren. One Manchester must is the Salford Quays, for its stunning bridge and the Lowry, a waterfront complex of theaters, art galleries, bars, and the Artworks attraction.

After dinner, we hit gay ol' Canal Street and the homo hangouts (Manto is one of the most famous). First up: Bar Below, which features a bar, a tiny dance floor, and a sitting area. We're also treated to a shooter called the red, white, and blue, made especially for us Americans by the flirtatious bartender. As we downed them and listened to the new Melanie C album, patrons filed in, 90% sporting the trended-to-death faux-hawk made especially popular by sex idol and soccer star David Beckham (now that he's ditched Manchester for Spain, we'll see if his local popularity holds). It's a little frightening, the singular dronelike hairstyle thing going on here. Clearly these guys are aware other people have the same haircut--it's worse then showing up somewhere and having the same H&M shirt on as that guy across the room. Looks like the gay community packs its share of conformists.

Essential-wear (photo courtesy of Essential)

At least there was some stripe of variety at Baa Bar, a colorful, glitter-ball illuminated haunt offering a dizzyingly massive menu of flavored shots ranging from banana to strawberry. Next, we gang into one of Manchester's top gay clubs, Essential. A three-story plaza of everything queer, Essential is bustling with rhythm. The dance floor downstairs is enormous, with strobe lights and cages containing bikini-clad muscle men, one wearing a bullet-chain belt. Perhaps in support of the troops in Iraq?

Essential boys (photo courtesy of Essential)

Between the beats, one can listen to keyboard clicks: There are a number of computers on which clubbers anxiously scour Gaydar's chatrooms. A couple of boys--probably still teenagers--anxiously eye their fellow onliners, aware they may be in the process of picking up or exaggerating stats to the guy the next seat over.

Much like Essential, Cruz vibrated with energy. Tonight's theme is Disco Inferno, the speakers scream with '70s and '80s favorites. The crowd is mixed, from spindly teens to snow-haired. There seem to be an awful lot of barely 18-year-olds at these U.K. clubs, but the culture seems to place them at the top of the heap. Magazines like Attitude and Gay Times feature endless pages of smooth white lads. If that's to your taste, make sure to spend time at these dance clubs: The eye candy will keep you busy. Or just hit

Back home in New York, we're missing the Pims. And a pair of shoes. The top-notch service often saw our dress shirts and shoes kindly hung up in our hotel room closets; unfortunately we failed to dummy check at least one closet upon checking out. At least we've got the tea bags.

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