John Carter, Now & Then: A trip to the city and beyond

Travel Talk

A little while ago I trotted (well, tottered) up to the City of London, having been invited to an evening reception by a travel firm named Hayes and Jarvis.

You’ll probably remember them. They were serious players back in the 1960s and 70s – and even later – but I thought they’d vanished from the scene. I was wrong, for they are still selling top quality long haul holidays, and wanted to let hacks like me know what they are currently up to.

So they laid on drinks and snacks in a historic hostelry, and gave us some facts and figures, the most important of which, as far as I am concerned, is that they are backed by serious money, and that the quality of their holidays is as top-rate as it always was.

You can find out for yourself by logging on to their website, so I shan’t bother you with details. But I’d certainly like to tell you about the venue that evening.

It was “Williamson’s Tavern”, tucked away in a narrow courtyard off Bow Lane, a short distance from Mansion House. Bow Lane itself is lined with pubs, all of which were doing remarkably brisk business that particular Thursday evening. Crowds of young folk were drinking and conversing, packing the pavements and spilling on to the road itself.

I mentioned this to one of my chums, when I finally carved my way through the throng and reached my destination. I couldn’t understand why Thursday evening was so popular, but he pointed out that as far as the world of finance is concerned, Thursday is the new Friday. On the morrow, those lads and lassies would be “working from home” and not returning until Monday, at the earliest.

Judging by the amount they were spending that evening, it seems the cost of living crisis has not affected them, as it has their counterparts in other cities and towns throughout the country. And, not for the first time, I pondered on the fact that when people rob banks they go to prison, but when banks rob people they pay themselves large bonuses.

Williamson’s Tavern claims to be very old, though the present building is not. It has other claims, too. One is that Sir John Fastolf, the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Falstaff, used to drink there.

I don’t believe that. For one thing – despite the similarity of name – Falstaff was probably modelled on a fellow named John Oldcastle. For another, Fastolf owned land and properties in Southwark, one of which was a pub. Would a chap from south of the river venture into the City to drink when he had his own place closer to home?

Williamson’s also claims that Sir Christopher Wren used to pop in for lunch when he was supervising the re-building of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

I’ve decided to go with that, though I think it, too, is a trifle dodgy.

The place is also supposed to be haunted, which I think is over-egging the pudding. Still, it’s a pleasant and welcoming venue, and I shan’t hesitate to use it if I find myself again in that part of London.

Changing the subject somewhat drastically, I want to hark back to last month’s essay in which I mentioned the Lehar musical “The Merry Widow”.

Now I haven’t seen that performed for well over half a century, but decided to find out if it was available via YouTube.

It is, in the form of a performance by the New York Opera company, broadcast “live” from the Lincoln Centre by the local PBS tv channel. A little rough around the edges, technically, but most enjoyable, it brought back a lot of memories.

However, once I had gone down that particular rabbit hole, I found myself searching for other shows I haven’t seen for many years, and was rewarded by three Gilbert and Sullivan performances, superbly staged by the Stratford Festival. Stratford, Ontario, that is.

“Iolanthe”, “The Gondoliers” and “The Mikado” were a real treat, and if you have the time and inclination, I urge you to find them. If, like me, you have a whizzy smart tv set which offers a YouTube channel, you’ll enjoy the experience even more.

Because the performances are from so long ago, those who appeared in them are either very, very old, or no longer alive, which is a sobering thought. Richard McMillan is one sadly departed. He died, aged 65, in 2017.

However, his outstanding talent is preserved in those performances. A brilliant Don Alhambra del Bolero in “The Gondoliers”, and great as Pooh Bah in “The Mikado.”

Which, by a stretch of the imagination, brings me back to Hayes and Jarvis, because they offer a selection of pre-packaged, or tailor-made holidays to Japan. To Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, of course, but also other destinations and experiences – everything from hot spas and tea ceremonies to Zen gardens, temples, and sumo wrestling.

According to this morning’s paper, the travel trade is generally optimistic about 2023. Booking are healthy, airports getting back to pre-Covid passenger numbers.

So maybe a long-haul holiday – to Japan or somewhere else far-flung, isn’t out of the question.

In which case: “Tanoshi tabi o”.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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