Saturday, November 28, 2009

Day Nine

After tea yesterday, we went to Bath and walked around for the afternoon. We looked at book shops and charity shops and toy shops and whatever else took our fancy. Parking is sort of a nightmare in "downtown" Bath so we had to pay L3 to park for 2 hours then move to a parking garage for 4 hours more and pay again. The parking garage has a 4 hour limit and if you stay over you have to pay an extra L25 to get your car out, so needless to say, we were watching the clock carefully. We were planning to eat in the pretty park along the Avon River but guess what?? You have to pay to get in there too! So we sat on the bridge with our takeaway lunches and looked at the park from up there! We were entertained for several minutes by a little girl chasing a duck. She and the duck had a similar sort of waddle and they just went round and round and round with neither of them really gaining any ground on the other.

On our way back to the car we stopped in at the Pig and Fiddle for a swift pint then headed back to the hotel to face the task of packing our bags. Thanks to all my book purchases, the bags are very heavy and it's taken us awhile to pack everything up because we have a lot more now than what we came with.

After breakfast this morning, we set out for London. We stopped again at Lacock along the way and spent more time in the town. We had a good pub lunch there next door to the little tea room we visited last time. From there we drove on to London and returned our rental car. That got a little stressful because Matilda kept doing weird things like recalculating the route as if we'd made a wrong turn but were in fact, not even moving. Then the traffic light would change and we'd be in need of some directions but Matilda's map would be blank. So, after returning the car, we also returned Matilda.

After that we needed to get back to our hotel near the airport. The concierge had told us we would need a bus because the tube didn't have a stop close enough. The bus was new for us; we hadn't used it at all when we were in London before. But we finally figured out the bus line we needed. We had some adventures on the tube because the line we needed was closed and we had to go a round about way. Then, because of the line closings, the platform of the open line was overcrowded and the Underground personnel stopped the escalator. We were right in the middle of the escalator. The staff were yelling for us all to go back up but the people the top wouldn't budge so we simply waited while people in uniforms yelled instructions and nobody listened. The ticket stalls were still admitting people from above and so more and more people kept trying to crowd on to the stationary escalators. All I can say is, I'm glad we were toting the kids with us! Apparently, issues on the tube are fairly common and sort of a joke in Britain. But overall, it still seems a great way to travel. Anyway, we finally caught our bus but our stop was sort of a non-official stop and the bus driver did not stop (despite assuring us she would) and at the end of the line she kicked us off her bus and shrugged. Very helpful. We weren't the only ones now stuck in the middle of the city with no transportation - a young Saudi man got kicked off along with us and so after wandering for a bit we all shared a cab back to the hotel. Luckily our cabbie was very friendly and helpful and helped us in figuring out what our route to the correct airport terminal the next day would be. When we finally got back to the hotel it was well past 8 and we were hungry and too tired to try searching the area for a place to eat so we ate at the hotel restaurant which was good but way over priced.

I loved all of our driving through the English countryside. We took a different route to Lacock today and saw even more fantastic houses and beautiful land. The little town of Pickwick in particular had streets filled with great houses that looked at least 400 years old but all in beautiful condition. At lunch in Lacock, we sat next to an interesting group: and older man and wife with his sister and the sister's son, who looked to be in his forties. The mom kept leaning over to us a making comments when the others weren't looking. She ended up engaging us in full conversation. She is from the north of England and was telling us how we need to come to England again and see the Lake District and other wonders of the north and travel to Scotland. Her son was polite but clearly a bit embarrassed that his mum was talking to complete strangers. I would imagine it happens quite a lot but he's still not quite used to it. Anyway, we thought she was delightful!

So, this is it. Our final night in England. Tim is already sound asleep. Our wake up call at 5 am will be here before I know it so I should get some sleep but somehow it's hard to simply go to bed on my last night here. Maybe a few pages of Scandalous Britain will help me doze off...

It's been a terrific trip - only a couple of rainy days and warm temperatures mostly. There's a lot we didn't get to on our list but so many really wonderful things that we did. I can't believe how the time has flown by. I can't wait to see the kids but I know I'll miss England!

Day Eight

We were completely lazy today. We had breakfast around nine then I took a cat nap while Tim watched TV. It was a homes show and this couple were looking for a house in the English countryside, so I ended up watching most of it too. They picked a newly restored farm building with oaste (sp?) towers. Oaste towers were used to store and dry hops for beer. The towers themselves were red brick and gorgeous and the interior was all newly remodeled but had kept the original wooden beams and because of the towers there were two round sitting rooms. It was so cool!

Now we're sitting at the cafe tables on the grounds of our hotel and waiting for a cream tea. I've been reading back issues of Jane Austen's Regency World magazine which sounds hopelessly twee (and some of it is... as is the fact that I actually just used the word twee...) but overall it's pretty interesting as it offers a lot of history on all sorts of things during the Regency period and sheds a lot of light on things mentioned but not explained in writing of that period, because, of course, at the time it was written those things were well known and part of the current culture. There was also a rabidly critical review of the film Lost in Austen. Though I thought the movie played havoc with Austen's characters, I thought the movie could be taken with laugh. Clearly, this reviewer did not agree and it was a little humorous how angry he (yes, HE) got about the whole thing. Apparenty, the film caused quite a stir here in the UK. I also read in the mag that there is an American team working on a musical version of Pride and Prejudice. Now, I really can't see that being good...

There is a group of about six older British ladies also sitting out here, taking tea and diagnosing the ills of the world. It reminds me of my girlfriends and me. True girlfriends are much the same the world over and across generations. Truly one of the best things in the world!

There is also a dreadful English mother shouting at her son Felix, apparently every time moves a muscle. Thankfully, they are getting up now. Tim says I've scared them away with my evil eye.

Tim's been looking through our pictures. He's got a great one of the Underground train but he took it with the flash on as it was pulling into Charing Cross station and it earned him an angry horn blow from the driver. It is a good picture though. Also, it appears that I am obsessed with doors. I've taken all sorts of pictures of all manner of doorways. I think it's because there is such a mystery implied - there are sorts of possibly wonderful things behind that door.

I've observed a certain similarity between American and British roadways. It seems to be a matter of course in both places to randomly set out orange cones and road work signs despite the fact that no one ever seems to be actually working on the roads. I believe it is a sort of perverse show of power by those in control of the roadways. Or maybe there is just such a overage of orange cones that they have to be put somewhere.

Oh heavens, Felix and his horrible mum are back.

Day Eight

Today was our trip to Wales. We didn't have any real plans because we don't have a Welsh guidebook. We had two fantastic books for London and Bath which helped immensely in planning our days. I got online before we left home to look at Wales but still didn't have a ton of information. I wrote down a few potential places to visit but couldn't find that paper today - probably sitting on my desk at home. So, thinking we could just find some info once we hit a city, we headed for Newport, just across the channel from England and not too far from the Welsh capital of Cardiff.

Matilda the GPS, led us to a rather sketchy part of the city and we seemed to have hit a dead end because nowhere that we tried had any kind of tourist information. We were used to the tourist hotspots of London and Bath and Wales is just...well, different. We were about to give up when we wandered into an indoor open market hoping to find some gifts for the boys. We were looking for some rugby apparel and stopped into a small shop where the owner was a very friendly older man who not only fixed us up with the just the right gifts for the boys but also gave a tip to check out Tredegar House nearby, which turned out to be one of our best stops of the whole trip.

There is a different feel in Wales - nothing I could articulate exactly but definitely different. The architecture seemed somewhat darker and heavier than what we had seen in England - more fortress-like, maybe? Also, there seemed less concern with protecting the historic feel of the buildings. It wasn't unusual to see an old stone building with a McDonalds, for instance, tacked on to the side. Of course, we only saw a small part of Southern, coastal Wales and nothing at all of the more rural areas.

Anyway, Tredegar House was a good call. It's a beautiful house - parts built as far back as the 1490's. There is a huge park open to the public and a lake with a walking trail around it. Ducks and swans inhabit the lake. The house belonged to the aristocratic Morgan family from the 1490's to the 1950's. After that it was used as a girls' school for about 30 years. It is now owned by the city of Newport (I think) and is undergoing ongoing restoration and preservation work. A great deal of the house is already open to visitors. They have year round activities that involve the community - Christmas celebrations, educational tours where kids dress in Victorian clothing and learn about life in a large Victorian home, Easter egg hunts and more. They even have a Pirate Day in honor of Captain Morgan (yes, just like the rum - it is named for him) who was a cousin of the Tredegar House Morgans. He was a privateer (read pirate) sentenced by the Crown to hang but redeemed himself by capturing Jamaica of which he was made Governor instead. There are lots of other very interesting members of the Morgan family as well. Evan Morgan especially was, to put it mildly, a character. He was a friend of the infamous Alistair Crowley and apparently a practitioner of black magic himself, but was also a Chamberlain of the Pope. His parents lived apart because his mother flatly refused to live in Wales. There was also a wife of one of the other Morgan men who tried on three occasions to murder her husband, actually running him through with a sword on the third attempt. He survived and she was "put away" - probably in an insane asylum.

Tredegar House is decorated in different areas of the house, as it was during a certain era, so that the house itself shows a progression of history. There are also servants quarters which we hadn't yet seen on this trip and which were really interesting as a comparison to the opulent quarters of the family. We had a fantastic guide who was funny and knowledgeable and gave lots of little details that made the family and the house really memorable. Probably the best tour of our trip.

Two days ago Tim was getting a feel for the roads in England and driving like a crazy native Brit and saying he would actually miss driving on the left side of the road when we got home. Then we went to Wales and he decided that left-side driving is highly overrated. Matilda the GPS, has become like a third person in the car - a necessary but highly irritating third person. She got a bit cheeky the other day and Tim threatened to put her back in the box. She knew it was an idle threat though - she's got all the directions.

We don't have any set plans for tomorrow which is nice. All this vacationing is tiring! I kept nodding off in the car on the way home from Wales when I was supposed to be helping to navigate (Matilda requires supervision). Back at the hotel we could barely drag our sore feet up to the room. We have walked and walked and walked this week and gone up and down more flight of steps than I could even guess at. So maybe we'll just hang out and enjoy the grounds here.

Another interesting thing about Wales: In Wales all the signs are in both English and Welsh. Welsh is a completely indecipherable language, by the way. "Cardiff" in Welsh is Caerdydd, which is so bad but "Wales" in Welsh is "Cymru". Say what?

Speaking of Wales, here's another story about Evan Morgan of Tredegar House. He had a portrait painted of him wearing his Chamberlain's robes (he was a Chamberlain of the Pope, remember) with an angel depicted at his shoulder. When he was informed that only the Pope himself should have an angel at his shoulder in a picture, Evan responded, "Well, then, I'll be the Pope of Wales." Given his involvement with the occult, his Roman Catholic religion seemed the worst kind of farce but, interestingly, when he died his will stated his desire to be buried at a holy place (an abbey, I think) and he left money to have mass said on his behalf monthly for several years following his death. Clearly he was searching for something.

Day Seven continued

We had a great time at the market in Wells yesterday. It was a fun mish-mash of flea market, farmer's market and open air food vendors. There were tons of fresh fruits and veggies, lots of local dairy and meat, jellies, chutneys, honeys, mustards, homemade cakes and shortbreads, juices.... There were also arts and crafts, used book and movie stalls, jewellery, clothes... Organic food and dairy are more accessible here - I think the movement has been "mainstream" here awhile. Prince Charles had been interested in the organic foods movement and actively supportive of organic farming for over twenty years. We bought an assortment of juice, jelly, honey, mustard and curd to bring home. We also got some homemade desserts to have later at the hotel. There were several places serving up fresh made curries and sausages and other good food. It smelled amazing but we were still full from breakfast.

After the market, we visited the Wells Abbey which is breathtakingly beautiful and has a gorgeous garden. Next to Lacock Abbey, this may be Tim's favorite spot. We could have spent all day just admiring. After the Abbey, we walked around looking at some of the other gorgeous medieval buildings all around town. There is a large open lawn in front of the Abbey and I loved the layering of history as we watched a group of college age guys playing rugby on the lawn with ancient buildings rising up in the background.

On the way back to the car, we stopped at the grocery store to buy more penguins (chocolate covered tea biscuits) to replace the ones I bought for Joni but then ate...

After Wells, we finally made it to the Jane Austen Centre and the Fashion Museum. Tim chose not to join me for the Jane Austen tour :). There were some fun replicas in the exhibits but the best thing was the 20 minute talk given by the curator about Jane and her family. I also loved the tiny gift shop packed with ALL THINGS Jane Austen. I have noticed that nearly every image of Mr. Darcy, everywhere we have been so far, is modelled after Colin Firth in the 1995 BBC version of Pride and Prejudice - not a one modelled after Matthew McFaddyn, who starred as Mr. Darcy in the 2005 Hollywood version. These Brits know their Austen:) Did you know there is even a Jane Austen magazine??? There is!

After my visit with Jane, Tim and I went to the Fashion Museum which our guidebook raved about but which we found disappointing. It was a rather short tour considering the admission price and as pictures weren't allowed I won't really be able to recall even the really impressive displays. But while we were there we did view the Bath Assembly Rooms, which are in the same building. That was very fun for me since that figure prominently in Jane Austen's "Bath novels" Northanger Abbey and Persuasion.

We ate dinner in a great local pub, the Pig and Fiddle. We had our usual drinks and burgers with chips. They were very good and reasonably priced. Some people (you know who you are!!) will think we're completely mad, but we are loving the English beef!

We finished the day relatively early but it will be nice to relax in the room a bit. One of my favorite BBC series, Midsomer Murders, is coming on soon so we're looking forward to an evening with Insp. Barnaby and Troy and a nice cuppa with caramel shortbread. YUM!
Coincidentally, we passed Midsomer today...

Day Seven

I've been reading Nicey and Wifey's Nice Cup of Tea and a Sit Down. It is an impassioned treatise on the art of tea and biscuits - a thoroughly British obsession. The way he feels about drinking tea in America is the way dedicated American coffee drinkers (like Tim!) feel about drinking the standard cup of joe in Britain: you can manage it but really, why put yourself through that? I have to admit that though I love a cup of good English tea, it's just not the same as coffee in the morning. The difference though is that if you're willing to put in a little time and effort you can always find a Starbucks in England but I can't think of any such easily recognizable tea shop in America for the Brits. This bolsters my theory that Starbucks is after world domination, one cup of designer coffee at a time.

I have been reading Rules Britannia, a tongue-in-cheek guide to being British. It's funny, but a newbie to British culture would be totally lost. You have to be already somewhat in the know to appreciate the humor (humour). Even a fairly dedicated Anglophile like me can't always get the joke.

The plan today is to go to Wells, a small town near here with lots of medieval buildings and today is there market day. It looks to be chilly and wet again today but you just never know here.

Later, from Starbucks in Wells:
We are such addicts - to coffee that is. I tried to make do with just tea this morning but by the time we got to Wells I was nursing a monster headache and needed "real" coffee. Tim has been on a never ending hunt for real coffee since we got here. Imagine our utter gratefulness when we entered charming and historic Wells, known for it's ancient architecture... and parked directly across from Starbucks, purely by chance. Now... okay, I was going to say more about the relative merits of Starbucks brew versus other American brews that I like better but I'm beginning to think that I need to just move on from this topic - like, NOW!

I love the fact that everyone here seems able to grow green things. This nation certainly loves its vegetation. Even the most shabby houses that we pass on the roads seem to have gorgeous front gardens - or at the very least colorful and well-tended pots and orderly shrubs. I'm afraid I would be rather deficient in the area if we ever set up house here. I would have to stick to herbs - I haven't killed mine at home for several years running which probably means that short of ripping them out by the roots and taking a blowtorch to them, they actually can't be killed...I'm fairly certain my mint would survive even that...

Another thing we have observed here is that the roads seem narrower than in the US. At home, I sort of dislike driving in the residential areas right around campus because the streets are narrow and you have to dodge parked cars and oncoming traffic. Here, every street is like that, even the main ones and even in London. Also, they have an inordinate amount of roundabouts and if there is any real system for entering and exiting them, we haven't yet figured it out. It seems to be the general rule that if the person with the right of way hesitates even for an instant, you have the right to catapult yourself forward past them and into the rotating traffic. The worst of these roundabouts, obviously, are the really busy ones with two lanes of traffic entering from each side. Tim's gotten fairly adept at handling them but we've taken to counting exits aloud just to be sure we've got the right one. Tim has done really well with the driving but he says it takes all of his concentration. The other day he pulled out going the wrong way and I asked, "Tim, are you on the wrong side of the road?" He answered, "Yes, I am." It was all very calm and understated. Very British. I probably would have yelled but I wasn't quite sure myself. It's happened a couple of times, but only when there wasn't any traffic around. I mean, if there were cars heading straight at you, you'd catch on pretty quick, wouldn't you?

Tim and I laughed yesterday when we saw a road sign, sort of like a school crossing sign in the States, only in was an "Elderly people crossing". Truly. A triangular sign with red edging and a silhouette of two hunched-over "elderly" people with walking sticks.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Day Six

We started early today, setting our alarm for seven. Having stuffed ourselves at breakfast (which is really good here - I love the Cumberland sausages!) we set out for the Avebury stone circle. It is really amazing - these massive stones in a circular pattern with two rings inside the larger outer ring and surrounded by massive ditches. One of the great things to me in England is this incorporation of ancient sites into modern life. A road goes through the Avebury circle and the town is built up (picturesquely, of course) around it and there are sheep and cattle grazing in the fields among the stones. It was chilly and drizzling a light rain as we walked, which we agreed was fitting for the surroundings and only added to the ambience. It was great fun tramping around the fields and climbing the ridges to look down. You do have to be mindful of the sheep and their offerings though!

By the time we finished at Avebury the rain was coming down more steadily but we pushed on to Lacock, a charming little village between Bath and Avebury. It was once an abbey town but when the monasteries were shut down by Henry VIII and his lustful urges, the lands were sold to William Sharington, whose daughter married John Talbot and the abbey (turned into a private home) and village remained in the possession of the Talbot family for over 400 years until it was all given to the National Trust in 1944. The National Trust now preserves and maintains the historic air of the town. There are residents but they are all tenents of the National Trust. The town has been used in filming for several films including the BBC's Pride and Prejudice and Cranford, another of my BBC favorites. The Lacock Abbey (which was one of our very favorite sites) was used in the filming of the Harry Potter movies. The abbey was built in the 1200's and even though there have been many changes made over the centuries, there are parts virtually unchanged. There are even places where you can still see the traces of the wall paintings that were a part of the original abbey. It is calm and silent; austere but beautiful and with an air of meditation and prayer. It is not at all hard to close your eyes and hear the soft tread of the sisters going about their day or the faint echoes of daily prayers. I could stay here all day.

During WWII the abbey served as a school for evacuee children from the cities and housed mothers with infants who were also escaping from the danger of the cities. At one point, it even served as billeting for soldiers.

Just beside the abbey is a museum dedicated to William Henry Fox Talbot, one of Lacock's former owners. He was very brilliant, it seems. He taught himself to read heiroglyphics and cuneiform and was the first to translate some ancient texts. He was also involved in politics and felt a burden for helping the common man AND he was the father of modern photography! Pretty impressive.

By the time we left Lacock, it was raining even more heavily but hating to waste daylight, we made one more stop.

Oh! But first - we finally had a cream tea at a charming little tea room with a gorgeous garden in Lacock. A cream tea is pretty basic and simple but it's delicious and I've never had anything like it in the States. It's just tea and scones (but fresh, hot, soft and moist scones not the hard crumbly things you usually get in the US) with cream whipped to butter and some preserves. FABULOUS! Oh, also while driving between towns we stopped to admire the Cherhill Horse. It's one of several enormous hillside chalk figures in Britain (most of them horses) and is visible from miles away. During WWII, it was turfed over so German war planes couldn't use it as a guide. Along our route we passed hundreds of the most charming houses, big and small. The whole area was very beautiful. On the way to our next stop, Castle Combe, there weren't many houses but the countryside was gorgeous. Rolling hills like a patchwork quilt in various shades of green, dotted with little fluffs of sheep.

Our last stop of the day was Castle Combe, at the southern tip of the Cotswolds. It was tiny and the shops were closed when we got there but it was enough just to wander around and look - talk about picture perfect...even in the pouring rain! The church there is very graciously left open at all times so we were able to go inside and view it.

After that, we were soaking wet and not a little hungry so we headed back to the hotel. The GPS started talking and now won't stop! Tim has taken to calling her Matilda. We are really glad to have her though - we'd never have been able to see so much of the area without the car and GPS.

Having eaten a burger (for me - and I'm sorry Joni, but I love the beef here!) and fish sandwich (for Tim) from room service, we are now thoroughly contented, sitting in our window seat, sipping our ale and being in England!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Detail on a pew at Bath Abbey

The view from our hotel in Bath

Avon River in Bath

London Underground
Charing Cross Station

Silver gilt chalice circa 1250 AD
British Museum, London