Since we became village people, hardly a day has passed when it hasn’t rained – drizzle one day, deluge the next and endless dreary skies. Even the ducks have had enough. So at this time of year a young (and not so young) man’s fancy turns to a bit of cheap fun in the sun. Unlike the ducks, we’re flying south to Gran Canaria.
Whereas in 2019 we lodged in a bijou men-only bungalow complex for wrinkly friends of Dorothy, this time we’ve going large and going upmarket. While it would be rude not to venture to the bars at least once for our annual no nonsense in-yer-face, up-for-anything fix, I suspect the main event will be chick-lit under a parasol by day and cocoa laced with a medicinal nightcap by bedtime.
We arrived early in Chelsea for our close encounter with Tut’s bling giving us the chance to wander round my old manor where, back in the day, I was the money counter in Habitat. Come Saturday afternoons, I used to hang out at the Markham Arms with punters spilling out onto the pavement, trying to catch the eye of a likely lad who might. And many did. The King’s Road was where London swung in the sixties and, in the seventies, glam rockers minced and punks strutted. These days the unique boutiques and the avant garde have given way to chic shops for the filthy rich surrounded by some of the most expensive property on the planet. The Markham Arms is now a bank.
Another pub where my youth was gloriously misspent was the Queen’s Head in (wait for it) Tryon Street. The scene of my undoing was probably Britain’s oldest gay pub, with a pink lineage stretching back to the buttoned-up fifties. Last time I looked back in 2013, the pub had been saved from developers wanting to make a mint converting the handsome building into luxury flats. Alas, it was a pyrrhic victory as this image confirms.
Still, it wasn’t all doom and gloom on my trip down memory lane. Liam got to stand outside the former home of PL Travers, the author of Mary Poppins. It made his day.
This year, Liam and I jollied in London for our birthdays. A state of the art, hi-tech micro-room in St James’ was the perfect base for our foraging. We arrived on Remembrance Sunday and the centre of town was buzzing with blazers, badges and bling under a canopy of Christmas lights. It was fun being tourists with time on our hands to roam and drink it all in, something we rarely did when we were worker bees on the treadmill.
Talking of drinking it all in, no trip to the West End is quite the same without a jar or two in a local hostelry. As seems to be our habit these days, we ended up at Halfway to Heaven, a gay bar just off Trafalgar Square and the splendid den of iniquity where Liam first caught my roving eye 13 years ago. Quite by chance, we arrived just in time to catch their annual Remembrance Day show.
The pub was rammed with military veterans – men and women, young and old, straight, gay and everything in between, all in their Sunday best – enjoying a convivial mingle with the regulars.
Halfway to Heaven has become something of a safe and welcoming place for ex-military LGBT people. Who knew? But it was a wonder to behold. When we were at the bar ordering drinks, a middle-aged woman was chatting to the manager.
“Thank you for being so nice to my dad and his husband,”
she said, pointing at two old soldiers in the corner.
One thing we confirmed during our cheery jolly to Shrewsbury is that, according to Salopians (as Shropshire folk are called), it’s pronounced Shroosbury, as in ‘Taming of the…’. We also discovered that it’s tranquil, polite and stuffed with interest – from amazing ‘olde worlde’ architecture along Dickensian streets with quirky names to match to an embarrassment of watering holes and eateries to suit all tastes and pockets. And rain didn’t stop play – well this was the wet West Country (or rather the West Midlands as pointed out by an old friend – you know who you are). It’s west of East Anglia so that’s good enough for me. In fact, the number of Welsh accents we heard almost convinced us we were actually in Wales.
After a good old gander round the narrow streets and little lanes, we happened upon ‘The Nag’s Head’, a bijou pub on Wyle Cop (yes, that’s the name of the street) to be welcomed by an old codger at the bar supping Guinness. He said…
I knew you were comin’ so I put ABBA on.
‘Dancing Queen’ was followed in quick succession by Freddie Mercury, Elton John and George Michael. As Liam slurped his large Merlot, I googled ‘gay bars in Shrewsbury’ and guess what came up? Yep, The Nags Head.
Britain’s longest river, the Severn, wraps around Shrewsbury like a leafy boa (very much like Norwich’s Wensum) which presumably provided an effective defence against the marauding Welsh way back when. These days the calm waters provide a pleasant riverside stroll and opportunities for a tipple or two on sunny days.
Day two was spent in lovely Ludlow, a genteel medieval, Tudor and Georgian assortment sitting on top of a hill overlooking rolling Shropshire countryside. Poet Laureate John Betjeman described Ludlow as ‘probably the loveliest town in England’ and we could see why. The sun poked through the clouds for market day and judging by the posh merchandise on offer, we knew Ludlow was a notch or two above. The town is famous for food so, after a good look around, we settled on delicious Thai for lunch provided by an Anglo-Thai gay couple. We seem to have a nose for the gay thang.
So that was Shrewsbury and Ludlow. Are they on the leader board for our dotage? Shrewsbury certainly, Ludlow less so. Lovely as it is, I don’t think we’re nearly posh or genteel enough.
Sir Ian Mckellen, star of stage, screen and gay bar, turns 80 this year. To celebrate this remarkable milestone, he’s trolling round the country on a nationwide tour of theatres big and small, illustrious and humble. The boards don’t come more illustrious than the Old Vic in London or more humble than the 300-seater Maddermarket Theatre here in old Norwich Town. It was to the Maddermarket we trolled to catch his one-man show.
And what a show he put on – from Gandalf to Shakespeare via Gerard Manley Hopkins and TS Eliot, all sprinkled with intimate memoir and gossipy anecdotes – like spending the evening with your favourite uncle, the one with a racy past and funny tales to tell. Wise, witty and utterly charming, Sir Ian (or Serena as he’s affectionately known to the brethren) doesn’t hide his light or sexuality under a bushel. He’s very matter of fact about both – modest about his immense talent and a ‘so what?’ attitude about his love life. How he can drop into character, instantly recalling long, complex soliloquies from the Bard is beyond me. His campy, high-pitched Juliet was pure joy.
There are many wonderful stories about Serena but perhaps my favourite is the time he arrived in Singapore to roll out his King Lear. Man-on-man hanky-panky was (and still is) illegal in the city state where the punishment is the cane and up to two years in Sing Sing. He was being interviewed on breakfast TV and asked the host where he might find a gay bar. I suspect one or two viewers choked on their muesli.