If only all tour guides had the charm of Hugh Grant and the looks of Cary Elwes.
Dying to know the latest trends in British food, fashion and nightlife? Save yourself a flight across the pond: British Airlines and Visit Britain have teamed up to open The Big British Invite, a free pop-up event open to the public this weekend in New York City. Located in a SoHo event space, the pop-up highlights the best of English, Welsh and Scottish culture.
Tickets to The Big British Invite are sold out but I snagged an invite to the press preview on Thursday night, hosted by Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens (who plays idealistic hottie Matthew Crawley) and Grammy-winning singer Estelle.
The slimmed-down, dark haired and very charming Dan Stevens led a group of five journalists on an intimate tour of the pop-up. Read on for the highlights of his guided tour and for a glimpse into British tourism’s hottest US event.
First Class Fare
While waiting for Dan and Estelle to arrive, I mingled with other writers in the British Airways Pre-Flight Supper Station. Set up like a cocktail reception, the lounge features immaculately dressed British Airways stewardesses and a chef serving actual fare from the first class menu.
The appetizers I tasted– crisp sweet potato slices dotted with cheese and apple pieces– beat the free peanuts served in Economy.
Uncovering Dan’s Skater Punk Past
After a brief introduction from Visit Britain, Dan joined our group and we officially embarked on our tour of the pop-up. The Downton Abbey star looked a bit nervous to be guiding his first of two tour groups of the evening, especially without a publicist present. He gamely stuck to the tourism talking points as he answered our questions about Great Britain attractions, and displayed an impressive knowledge of UK history.
Displaying the humble charm of a Hugh Grant character and the facial hair of Cary Elwes in Princess Bride, Dan tried his best to answer any travel-related questions we threw at him. However, he bowed out of any activities that might make him look goofy in the blogosphere (like dancing in the rave room) and deflected questions of a more personal nature.
While in the surprisingly graphic punk room, which featured mannequins in full-on bondage wear, Dan did reveal exclusively to Downtown Traveler that he went through a skater punk phase in the 1990s that saw him wearing “enormous trousers.” That’s certainly a far cry from the refined tweeds of Downton Abbey!
The Chocolate Room
Britons love their candy. Their penchant for chocolate was on display in the first showroom, which featured a massive “edible cityscape” created from chocolate bars and hard candies. The treats were provided by the London Candy Company, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
While some of the landmarks were obvious (the London Eye, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the Loch News Monster), Dan had to explain the more subtle sculptures. Fortunately, we had a British journalist from the Daily Mail in our tour group who also provided insight into these offbeat attractions.
The most bizarre sculpture was crafted from Crunchie chocolate bars, and represented the steel Angel of the North sculpture in Newcastle, England.
Magic Mushrooms and Strawberry Tea
The next stop on this whirlwind tour of British culture was a high tea room sponsored by Sanderson, a luxury boutique hotel in London. The impeccably-dressed reps from Morgan Hotels cited Alice in Wonderland as their culinary inspiration, and offerings included “magic mushrooms” (fruit-flavored marshmallows), finger sandwiches wrapped like sushi rolls and strawberry creme-flavored tea.
Just as I loaded my plate with green tea chocolates and strawberry cheesecake we were ushered into the next room. I didn’t have a chance to taste these confections but they looked delicious!
Not Your Granddad’s Pub
After our spot o’ tea, we entered a modern version of the classic British pub that was meant to resemble the Purl bar in London. The bar was lined with take-out cups of a tasty gin punch, created by Fluid Motion (a UK-based collective of trendy bartenders who look like they hail from Bushwick, Brooklyn).
The friendly barkeep explained that Victorian speakeasy bars are all the rage in London and are known for their theatrical drinks, made using ingredients like dry ice.
When pressed about his drinking habits, Dan Stevens revealed that his preferred cocktail is a Hendrick’s gin with cucumber, which sounds incredibly British, and named The Experimental Cocktail in London’s Chinatown as his favorite bar.
Dan Reveals His Favorite Destinations
After a brief stint in the rave room, which caused a collective 1990s flashback, our group stopped at a long table filled with cheese. Apparently Wales is the Wisconsin of Great Britain and, as Dan explained, it is known for its exquisite cheeses. The pop-up’s spread was provided by Brooklyn-based The Bedford Cheese Shop.
Dan was clearly a strong advocate for Welsh tourism, citing Cardiff as one of his favorite vacation spots (after Brighton) and revealing that he spent part of his youth in the country. The Visit Britain tourism rep added that Wales is the “only country in the world that you can walk all around” due to its extensive walking trails.
We continued our culinary tour at a table manned by chefs from Highlands, a Scottish gastro pub located in New York’s West Village. I took a break from grilling Dan on his travel habits to sample the desserts– salted shortbread cookies piped with caramelized whiskey ganache. The booth enhanced my view of Scottish cuisine, which I previously thought was limited to haggis.
I turned back to Dan in time to hear him reveal that the “Suffolk coast is very special” to him, as part of his childhood was spent in the area.
The Ultimate Job: Cab Driver?
Did you know that cab drivers can be helpful, plan a route without GPS and provide helpful life advice to passengers?
As a New Yorker accustomed to rude and unhelpful yellow cab drivers, the esteemed reputation of London’s black cabbies came as a real shock. “Black cab drivers can sort out all of your life problems,” Dan conceded; I wondered if he sought career advice from a black cabbie before deciding to leave Downton.
An entire section of the British pop-up is devoted to drivers of black cabs; visitors can even sit in the backseat of a mock cab and ask the driver for advice. One lucky guest this weekend will win 2 round-trip tickets to London and a three-night stay in a chic hotel just for participating in this cabbie therapy session.
The cab was surrounded by red telephone booths, bondage wear and a brick wall splashed with stencil graffiti, creating an interesting mashup of London street culture.
All Good Things Must End
After a brief demonstration on how to properly tie a silk scarf, our tour came to an end. As we posed for photos with Dan, we peppered him with questions, hoping to uncover his favorite hangouts in Great Britain.
Dan revealed that what he missed most about Great Britain is the Indian food. I scrambled to write down his favorite Indian restaurant but due to a language barrier (he speaks in refined English tones and I talk like a New York valley girl), I only caught a mash of syllables that sounded like “newtayab.” As far as I can tell, his pick was Tayyab’s Restaurant in London.
As a diehard Downton Abbey fan, I am already experiencing Dan Stevens withdrawal; it doesn’t help that his character Matthew is unlikely to ever return to the series. However, this event did renew my interest in visiting Britain– if only to find a cab driver who actually knows where I am going and how to get there!
The Big British pop-up is a free showcase of English, Welsh and Scottish culture open to the public on Saturday March 23 and Sunday March 24, 2013.
For a glimpse of the pop-up tour led by singer Estelle, visit The Cultureist website.
What’s your favorite British destination?
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