1-14 November 2000
The flight is uncharacteristically bumpy in the middle of the night, but smooths as we approach the south coast of Ireland. Only when the final descent begins do we feel the force of the rainstorms of this day.
England is soggy and many areas of the south are literally under water, rivers cresting at fifty-year highs.
The trip in on the Gatwick Express train offers a splendidly odd glimpse of British commerce by forceful personality. Sitting across from us, speaking loudly into a cell phone ear-mike is a woman doing some sort of business planning, calling the person on the other end "My Darling" in nearly every breath. Very odd - very Brit, we smugly assume.
Roads around London are clogged due to weather - train delays as well - but we make our way to the Arran Hotel in less than an hour following our Gatwick departure.
We check into the Arran House Hotel, ostensibly a B&B, but remodeled along the lines of what we expect from moderately priced European hotels - plain, small, and quite clean. This will do nicely.
A short nap and off to the pub for lunch - across from the British Museum. Sure enough - giant levers to pump ale - pub food of sausage or fish and chips. The most delightful event, however, is watching a family - American with child - being turned away because children under 14 are not permitted! What a great deal!
Then a somewhat confused saunter down Shaftsbury Avenue to Picadilly Circus. Stopping at the Apollo Theatre to buy tickets for Noel Coward's "Fallen Angels".
On to the tour bus for an attempt to see a few sights and get our bearings. Very cold on this trip as the bus really races on its course past monuments and sites of all types. Little earphones allow one to hear the descriptions - and tons of Euromusic in between all we see.
By the time we are forced by the cold to move down into the interior of the double-decker bus, it is dark and the sights invisible. But we get what we seek.
Getting off at Oxford Circus, we strolled toward home and spied an Indian restaurant called Malabar Junction. After appetizers in the bar, we went upstairs, expecting a decent meal in usual surroundings for Indian restaurants back home. Instead, we had a terrific meal in a lovely, non-traditional setting - couldn't have been better.
7:30 breakfast is hot, solid, and okay. That is very reassuring after the shower of intermittent warmth and plenty of 70-degree water.
A trip now to Harrods by way of a tearoom across from Dodi's store that is a lovely, simple setting for everyday folk. The store is massive and literally offers a map of its own. Hard to decide if it is overpriced generally, or exotic and worth it particularly. A snack at the tapas bar allows us a free trip to the loo - luxury, that is - and to make our way to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square with a full stomach.
The Gallery is representative of all that Europeans and their colonists have come to expect in our collections. A look in the catalogue and gift shop shows that all the curators of Western museums are in sync - from a collection and a marketing standpoint. Very worthwhile and precious nonetheless.
The streets are incredibly crowded. All trains in the Tube are brimming with eager riders - and I think many are on holiday of short or long duration. Yet many have to be natives choking on the crowds. But markers are generally good and transit is really easy.
A stop near the Arran House at "Planet Organic" yields water, bread, salads, wine, and cheese. Perfect before the nap.
Back out for the play at 8:00pm. The 1924 script is massaged to life very professionally to a humorous, sometimes hilarious, result. The language and characters are intricately British, but played broadly enough in order to bring joy to an audience of old Coward fans and new appreciators.
An easy walk back and a stop at a corner French-sort-of-place for a glass of wine and dessert. Nice. Home and to bed.
Breakfast, then Portobello Road for miles of antiques and, more dauntingly, crowds cheek by jowl and toe to heel. This old market was swarmed, but clean and the goods worthy. It was near impossible, however, to stop and view a thing. The same pipers and violinists sounding Peruvian were there - they show up at any international gathering. In any case, we were good for only an hour.
On to Covent Garden and lunch before the Savoy Theatre. Lunch was at a small place - La Baroque - 14'x35' on two floors - with an amateur foreign staff under the direction of an autocratic, but ineffectual, young English woman. Once we broke past the menu exclusions and changes, we had some decent - no, very good - food and wine. A perfect preamble for...
The Mikado at the Savoy. The jolly, silly, Gilbert and Sullivan stuff never fails to delight. The difference here is that unlike every other version we've seen is, of course, that the quality of voice throughout the company is superb. A couple of the men are clearly latent vaudevillians; the voices were just wonderful.
As might be expected, many an audience member nodded and hummed and sang with their favorite pieces. Exactly what we wanted. The restored theatre and the production values were excellent as well.
Back home for a rest and then out to the truly local pub - Marlborough Arms - for fish and chips, and beef and ale pie, washed down with ale. Very satisfying and quite reasonable compared to "pubs" back home. Good sleep.
The Tower of London.
10:00am queue - 90% American when the guide asks for a show of hands. These "Yeoman Warders", dressed in Beafeater regalia - are retired military of distinguished career. The one-hour talk, divided into four pieces, makes the place quite alive. One of the best tours ever.
The Crown Jewels are on display and the line to see them proceeds as does one at any Disney or Six Flags ride: numerous rooms where you think you're almost there at each one. Summer crowds must be oppressive.
So much in this place is spoken of in every legend and history one reads of British royalty. It is pleasant enough to stay all day.
But, a short jump over to the Museum of London is our plan. Here, the focus is Londinium - the first Roman outpost in Britain - with amazing findings from digs in recent years here in London. The thematic approach of all museums these days makes for a sense of deja vu when looking at pot shards and paraphernalia of ancient folk. Than it's sort of a walk to the present and a nod to recent generations.
We're beaten now - legs are gone. Home for a nap and back out to Marlborough Arms for pub food before sleep.
Breakfast and a read of the London papers - again - focusing on the American elections. Their view is pretty thorough, but occasionally they are loony in the extreme - as in saying a victory for Bush and for Hillary means Hillary for President in 2004. Wow...
A ride on the Tube to Marble Arch and a brisk walk back this way, up Oxford Street - London's 5th Avenue. It's wet and sprinkling, so we make haste. Still it is a worthwhile trip - satisfying.
Lunch at Pizza Express - very nice place - then to the British Museum.
Seems the Brits have been among the world's best at rounding up - not to say, pilfering - antiquities. Certain that such items are safer here, they have gathered what was left of the Parthenon, huge examples of ancient Mesopotamian art and architecture, and then made Napoleon cough up the Rosetta Stone. A great museum.
Home for a rest and out to the theatre - quick pasta next door to the Duchess Theatre. This time it's "Copenhagen", an historical drama parsing the thinking and the ironies of action surrounding the development of atomic research during World War II by Niels Bohr - who was Danish and worked eventually with Americans at Los Alamos - and Heisenberg - a German captured and brought to England after the war.
If you think that's a long sentence, you should see the script for the play!
Hard Rock T-shirt time. Marisa must buy for her brother-in-law a t-shirt in every town. We find the place - in a very toney neighborhood - and limp home happy.
Travel DayUp at 7:00am to make a quick finish of breakfast so that we may pack after, then take the train to Heathrow for our rental car.
All goes well until our train remains at Gloucester Road Station, the driver announcing a "signal failure ahead". The subsequent route change adds an hour to the trip - but we had anticipated the unexpected and arrived on schedule.
Now to drive to Bath, approximately 110 miles away. A Hyundai Sonata (s'not a real car) with the steering on the wrong side. The process of adjustment is challenging in surprising ways.
The most difficult is knowing which direction to look for trouble - turning right is completely weird, and Wade keeps leaving the left side of the car too close to the side or parked cars!
But, we make it to Bath anyway - lovely, old, impossibly mapped - Bath.
Our B&B at 30 Crescent Gardens is just great. Easy walk into town to find a very European, old village with slopes and streets in all directions, shops and pubs and restaurants. The people are mixed among all ages.
Wade stops in at The Griffin, a tiny pub with a cast of working men got old, having a pint or a whiskey and speaking with the music of all the United Kingdom - not another word does he understand initially, but "fuck" is certainly prominent - as adjective, verb, gerund, noun - it's everywhere, just as descriptive as we've learned to expect at home.
Into town for a meal at The Vault - the restaurant beneath the Royal Theatre. We have the place to ourselves once the audience leaves for the show. A fabulous meal and an easy walk home.
Wake at 2:30am to check the election - up for 3 hours to no avail - no decision.
Still no President.
Excellent breakfast and conversation with a couple from the Isle of Man, here to visit their son.
A walk to the Royal Crescent, all built about the time Britain was losing America. Residences in a semi-circle, joined to the Circus, then more old shops and dwellings.
Into and down to the bottom of a bookseller's - wonderful collection. We really want the two-volume Johnson dictionary ($900), but we really also want the 1824 London publication of Don Quixote in two volumes. We got 'em!
Bath is wonderful for shopping. Marisa scores big and Wade takes care of Christmas as well.
The tour of the Roman Baths themselves is great. Excavated relatively recently, the size and function of this pre-A.D.400 shrine is amazing - about 350 years of active use as originally built. Starting in the seventeenth century, revived for exclusive use of the well-to-do, the whole area is a resort development extraordinaire.
Tea in the Pump Room with wonderful little sandwiches, clotted cream, and desserts. Back for a nap and out for jazz in the former train station - Green Park Brasserie. A trio of three kids under 20 - very respectable jazz with a standing bass, sax, and piano.
Great day - lovely town.
Same couple at breakfast, very agreeable beginning of the day with sausage, bacon, egg, broiled tomato, mushrooms, juice, fruit, toast, tea, or coffee - wonderful!
Now to drive again. First navigating out of Bath. NOT easy - actually very hard.
Then to Avebury, site of a broad stone circle, much older than Stonehenge (3700 B.C. or so). A village sits among these unknowable symbols. Nothing much to say about them, but the effect is somewhat haunting. The weather is 50's and breezy - fast-moving clouds and blue sky. Perfect, in short.
Sheep graze and the town quietly moves about - with vertical, irregularly shaped 8-14 ft. stones sticking out of the ground!
Stonehenge next, by contrast, is somewhat less daunting than expected and, obviously, is a good deal smaller in circumference than the Avebury circle. The stones are bigger and the famous shape is, indeed... haunting.
What it was? What it is...
Old Sarum after that. High above the surrounding farms and roads, this ruin is what remains of the predecessor to Salisbury. The height of this 11-12th century city and its protective moats and mounds are impressive even today - especially since they were built without sophisticated machinery.
Back to Bath for tea at Sally Lunn's - the oldest house in Bath (1482). Great, big rolls with clotted cream and jam are the specialty - delicious.
Slow walk back by way of the Rat and Parrot pub, then the Firehouse Brasserie that serves pizza - great food, again.
By the way, this morning we discover that our plans left out a day. Neither of us notice until Wade asks, "Where are we going to be Friday night?" Marisa doesn't know - sure enough, we had left London one day too early. Our hostess in Bath had been gracious on Tuesday, but in retrospect, very surprised. So! an extra day in Bath!
To Wells and Glastonbury Abbey.
A drive of about 17 miles from Bath is Wells. This small town has the most perfectly kept cathedral we have yet seen - and between us we've seen hundreds.
Built in the 12th century, nearly every feature from there forward is not only discernable, but very much as it has always been. The Close in front allows one of the best viewing areas for a facade that we've seen. So often towns are pressed in upon old churches, so one cannot back up and see it all. Not so here.
Now over to Glastonbury where the abbey was taken in force by Henry VIII, ransacked and destroyed. The place is eerie and the story laden with many ironies. Lunch at the Abbey Tea Room is great.
Home to rest, eat bread and butter, and have tea. Walk into Bath looking for sustenance to bring home. Ask a storekeeper where to find bread and he sends Wade to a little indoor, very new mall with a fine grocery store - Waitrose.
Goodbye to Bath as we head back to 30 Crescent Gardens.
Breakfast brings two new people - ladies - one from Rhode Island, one from England. Then off into the rain to find St. Ives on the tip of the southwest Cornish coast.
Three hours of more or less constant rain and a few dodgy narrow roads, and we wind down into the tiny streets, expecting beauty, but distracted to the utmost by the small, unforgiving streets.
We select a car park high above the city center and attempt to reach the proprietor of The Grey Mullet, our destination for the night. No luck.
Now we walk, mist falling down toward the sea. The town is a jewel. Even in the rain.
After awhile, we ask directions to "Bunkers Hill", the address of our hotel. We're standing only 100 yards away. The old inn is charming and the street is named for the battle near Boston (right - Bunker Hill, not Bunkers Hill), which ages the place very clearly.
Wandering the streets is easy and Wade brings the car down to a nearby car park - surprising even himself!
At a place called the Queen's Arms, Wade meets a St. Ives couple, about his age, owners of a tea shop around the corner for 23 years. Fascinating and clever couple. A great hour of talking. They recommend Cafe Pasta for dinner and ask the bartender to call for a reservation. Very nice.
Then to a working man's conversation about the differences in cultures. One man - a tradesman - introduces Wade to his wife, who is a teacher, and black. She has many questions about America, as Wade has about the U.K.
But we have reservations! Cafe Pasta is excellent and reasonable. Home to sodden, sated sleep.
Marisa is out for an early walk in the mist and sun that now wash this day. As the mist subsides, she returns to collect Wade and show the town.
After breakfast in the stone-walled basement of The Grey Mullet, we walk out to the water and to the pier. The houses on the hills reflect light off mostly white exteriors. Moss shines emerald on the rooftops. Bells ring from churches and don't tell time. They must be tolling for soldiers again - Remembrance Sunday is still a day of special services here.
St. Ives is a jewel.
We arrive in Lyme Regis at about 1:30pm and crawl down to the water in our car again.
This ancient city is stretched along a larger bay than is St. Ives, with the huge "Cobb" - a pier and breakwater made of large stones, curving out into the ocean. We stroll and look about after we check into the Bay Hotel, then have fish and chips in a local pub.
In the evening, the moon shines on the bay as we see from, literally, our bay window - just beautiful. Of course, the sound of the ocean is hypnotic.
Wade goes out to "Open Late 8", just in time to score bread, a cake, ham and cheese. We sit in chairs by the open window, sipping Santenay bought in Bath. The night grows late with the sipping and nibbling - perfect.
The morning is burning bright and the temperature is mild. We stroll to the end of the Cobb, trying to find the very best photo ops.
Breakfast starts with us and two boys - maybe 9 and 10 - who are barefoot, but well behaved. Soon they are joined by their family and conversation is lively. We eat and look out on the beautiful sea.
We wind out and up to the A30, heading to Crawley-Gatwick by way of the port cities - Plymouth, Weymouth, Portsmouth. Arriving safely in Crawley at the Holiday Inn Express means the car is safe and we have done England... for now.