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

Day Five

We slept in today - so late that we missed breakfast altogether! We headed into Bath and bought pasties at a shop on Pulteney Bridge and sat along the Avon River to eat. The pasties weren't nearly as good as yesterday's but cheaper so that's something :) I bought charms for Ivy's bracelet and we stopped at an Oxfam shop and I stocked up on cheap books. There are lots of charity shops in England, several along the main road in Golders Green and we've seen several so far in Bath as well. (Oxfam is like Salvation Army or Goodwill). We walked in a big circle, crossing the river and back and then on to Bath Abbey. The first king of England, Edgar, was crowned here in 973. How cool is that? (Well, he's the first depending on who you ask but still...) The abbey is amazing. I can't even describe it really. I took lots of pictures but they can't do it justice. I think it's a shame we don't build churches like this anymore. To me the workmanship involved shows such reverence for the house of God and it is beautiful and awe-inspiring. It really does lift the soul toward heaven. I'm sure that worship in such a place could help one feel closer to God. There is an air of the sacred about it.

From the Abbey we went to the famous Roman Baths which were also amazing - though of course in a very different way. I'd no idea they were so large. The baths were an entire complex in the days of the Romans, complete with a sort of sauna, temple and sacred pool where the people could throw in their requests to the goddess Sulis Minerva. Sulis Minerva was a sort of meshed Celtic-Roman deity. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom and Sulis was a Celtic goddess. I find it so interesting that this didn't seem to affect belief in the deity even though she was a sort of created hybrid. Most requests that have been recovered from the ancient pool and translated are requests for vengence on a wrongdoer. For instance: "Make the person who stole my toga die a horrible and violent death and also lose all his hair." I'm paraphrasing but that's the general idea. There was a sophisticated piping system for the waters and the "sauna" had a raised floor that allowed the naturally heated waters to run underneath and warm the room. We looked into the Pump Room (so well known to Jane Austen readers) where you can drink the "healing waters" but it's now a very pricey restaurant so we didn't stay long. We were all turned around by this point so just wandered a bit looking for a place to eat supper. We ended up in a more modern pub where Tim ordered bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) and I had a curry. We literally zigged and zagged our way all over Bath as we searched for our car. English towns (at least the ones we visited) aren't laid out on a grid system as a lot of US towns are. Streets curve around and have lots of little branches. Usually, at home if you miss a turn you can just turn at the next corner and end up parallel to your original course. Not the case in Bath. We didn't mind really though, we were getting to see lots of the town this way.

Down by the river there were pigeons everywhere. They were clearly used to all the people around and pretty much ignored us. Until I accidentally dropped some of my pasty. Then what had been a very Mary Poppins-esque scene became a bit Alfred Hitchcock in a matter of seconds. Tim saved the day by throwing some of his lunch well away from us and the birds left. My hero!

We've been very glad of the GPS. It got us to and from town today and we would very literally be lost without it since we still couldn't read a British road map to save our lives. Anyway, the driving in town bit is nerve-wracking enough without trying to figure out the route as we're driving. Bath has the narrowest streets ever and there are always cars parked on either side, lorries (I just can't say "trucks" in England - it doesn't sound right) park to make deliveries and take up half of the road. Tim actually first learned to drive on the left side of the road as that's how they drive in New Guinea but it's been awhile and our car is a stick shift which requires more attention. I can barely drive a manual at home, so no way could I do it here.

I've been disappointed in the TV. Because I love so many BBC productions and I was hoping to enjoy some here. We haven't had much leisure for TV really but I've tried it a few times. The first time I caught a talk show hosted by Kyle Somebody-or-other that seems to be the British equivalent of The Montel Williams Show. It was kind of fun to hear people being referred to as "plonkers" and "daft cows" but only for about 30 seconds. Last night when we first arrived at our new hotel (which is so fantastic - I LOVE it) I flipped on the telly while I was unpacking. And what was on BBC1 I ask you? Die Hard! Bruce Willis should not be who I am watching on the British Broadcasting Corporation channel in England! Come on! Tonight, I found a show called University Challenge which was only interesting because I saw a James McAvoy movie called Starter for Ten where he plays a contestant on this show.

We were too late today getting back to the hotel for tea so we have yet to experience an English cream tea. Maybe tomorrow. We called home for the first time tonight (I tried in London but my cell phone wasn't working). We talked to each of the kids briefly and they are clearly not pining away at home missing us! They seem to be having a great time with Grandma and Mimi and Papa.

My favorite feature of our hotel room is the huge window seat - it's big enough for both of us to sit comfortably and looks out over the countryside. If we ever build our dream house it's going to have a window just like this!

Our plan tomorrow is to see the Jane Austen Centre and maybe the Fashion Museum here in Bath then check out a town called Lacock where parts of Pride and Prejudice, Cranford and Harry Potter were filmed. Then on to Avebury which is, I hear, something similar to Stonehenge. Though I can hardly believe it since I used to be so fascinated by Stonehenge, we will probably skip it on this trip. I'm told Avebury is more accessible (Stonehenge is roped off) and there are too many things on our agenda for us to do both!

Day Four

Well, it was a long day. We spent about seven hours trying to get a rental car. My second bit of advice for those travelling to England will be: if you need a rental car, sort it before you get there! At 7:30 this morning the guy at the front desk of our hotel told us with complete confidence that there was a place to hire a car just down the road. We walked half a mile or so until we came to a big intersection heading into the next small town. So, we walked back and looked very carefully to make sure we hadn't missed it. We hadn't. Back at the hotel the guy at the desk told us with complete confidence that the car wash business just down the street also rents cars. He was wrong. We knew there was a car rental place at Victoria Station downtown but as it was Sunday we couldn't be sure it was open (lots of places here don't post their hours and as Joni warned me, lots of places don't open on Sundays.) Going to Victoria Station meant lugging our bags onto the tube and into the massive and chaotic swirl that is Victoria Station. Pulling our bags is bad enough when you only have to ride on one line straight to your destination but if you have to switch lines on the Underground, it inevitably involves long passages and flights of steps crammed fulled of madly rushing Londoners - not so fun with luggage. Also, we had some phone numbers to try for car places but could get no answer. So...we considered taking the bus to Bath which had the advantage of being cheaper than a rental car and didn't involve our having to navigate London on our own in a car and (we thought) we could catch the bus in Golders Green and avoid having to get on the tube with our bags. (We had to take our bags, by the way, because this was our last day in London; we had to get to our new hotel in Bath). The downside to the bus was that it would take a lot longer than driving ourselves and we would probably still need a car once we got to Bath. In the end, in turned out that to take the bus to Bath, we'd have to go to Victoria Station anyway... So after walking back and forth to the bus ticket office and trying to find a car rental place via the internet with no luck, we checked out of our hotel at about 9:30 and compromised by calling a taxi to take us to Victoria Station. London drivers (and perhaps drivers in any big city) are crazy. It's just a fact. People weave in and out of traffic, pull in front of other cars, seem constantly to accelerate and then slam on the brakes, and it seems also that no one pays much mind to lane lines. Riding in the taxi was somewhat terrifying (though nothing to being in the front seat while Tim was driving in London traffic...or Bath traffic...or Wales traffic... which is no slight on him - me driving would have been infinitely worse.)

Once we were at Victoria Station (where, by the way, you have to pay to use the toilet - no, I'm not kidding; 30p per use!) we checked the information desk to see if another car place existed nearby. They only knew of the one we already knew of which was closed but with no hours posted so we had no way of knowing if they might open. No one at information seemed to have any idea either. So we rushed with all our bags to the ticket desk to get seats on the 11:00 bus for Bath. When we arrived we were hot and sweaty (truly the station is huge and actually more than one building - it ought to have it's own post code) and not in time for the 11:00 departure. That gave us roughly an hour and a half until the next departure to find a car instead. Thankfully, the ticket agent thought there might be a Hertz rental place nearby. Could it be true???!!! We were almost afraid to hope! Having learned by now not to drag our suitcases around on what might well be a wild goose chase, Tim left me and the bags at a cafe table and went looking. Just as I was worrying that he might have gotten lost, Tim returned with great news. There was indeed a Hertz a few blocks down. Off we went dragging our things (things meaning our brand new bags that have wheels but don't roll - can you tell yet that this REALLY bugged me?) We stood in line at Hertz for quite awhile only to be told they had no cars and couldn't help us. BUT there was another place that might be able to. We made sure right away that this next place would actually be able to get us a car. We were willing to take pretty much anything we said and the guy promised to fix us up but we still had some waiting to do.

Finally, around 1:30 we had access to a car (HOORAY!) and loaded our bags into it then headed back to the tube to try to get some sightseeing in. On the way, we got ourselves a GPS which we decided was absolutely neccesary because having looked at the English road map we had no earthly idea how to even get out of the car park. We tried to comfort ourselves by telling ourselves we can download new maps in the US and keep using it at home because it's a pricey purchase that we weren't really counting on.

After all this, we were pretty hungry so we bought Cornish pasties (like a meat pie) and ate them on the steps of the National Gallery. I have wanted to have a real Cornish pasty for years - they just always sounded good when I read about them in books and they did not disappoint. I had bacon (which in Britain is really more like ham) and cheese with onions and potatoes and Tim had steak with stilton cheese. The crust was so yummy - flaky and light.

By the time we had eaten it was already 3 pm so we hurried over to the British Museum which is really, really, really big and full of stuff (um...artifacts, I mean). It was full of the most fascinating displays covering everything from medieval Europe to ancient Egypt...and more, but we were so tired! And the sheer volume of all there is to see was a little overwhelming. It might not be evident from this log but during our days in London we walked and walked and walked and walked some more. My feet were so sore and I had blisters on my heals and little toes! We stayed at the museum for nearly two hours but I felt like I was hardly able to take anything in so I took lots of pictures and got a little book for the kids that shows many of the exhibits that we saw so I'll have to go back and read up on all of it again later. You know, when I get home to my house and my kids and work and have all that leisure time. Oh, wait...

After the museum we stopped at Sainsbury's to get a snack for the road and some things for Joni then back to the tube and back to the car.

I love the tube by the way. So fantastically easy and convenient (as long as you don't have baggage). We could read or listen to music or rest our eyes while being shuttled around London. Wish we could travel this way back at home!

Back in the car, we set up the GPS and headed for Bath. London was a bit (a lot) tricky but once we hit the M4 (like the Interstate) it wasn't so different from driving here. It really even looks the same in a lot of ways. Lots of trees and animals grazing, big open fields and fields of corn, the occasional farm house or old barn. The differences were subtle at first - no billboards, much smaller cars (I saw maybe one or two SUVs and there was not a Hummer in sight - even the vans are smaller: more narrow and ending abruptly as if chopped off). As we got closer to Bath, there were more distinctly English sights: houses and old stone buildings that could never be seen in America and even what looked from a distance like the tower of a castle. I really began to feel that we were in England when I spotted swans on a pond and sure-footed sheep on a hill so steep the sheep almost looked like they were standing sideways. Oh, and also there was Bollywood music on the radio. As we got into Bath there were row houses and and crowded streets that may not actually be but seem to me to be quintessentially English. Stone walls, hedgerows, drunkenly winding streets. We entered the long, long driveway to our hotel and it was canopied with trees so tightly intertwined at the top that it blocked out the little bit of sunlight left. Tiny deer and rabbits skittered past. London for all it's beauty and history is a big city and seemed in some ways like other big cities. It evoked, for me, thoughts of MI5, Inspector Lewis and Sgt. Hathaway, Tommy Lynley and Sgt. Havers, even Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. And Hugh Grant as the Prime Minister, of course. I loved London with its bustle and excitment but now we were entering another England - the England I picture Elizabeth and Jane Bennett in. The England Darcy was master of. The animals and trees remind me of Beatrix Potter and the farmland of James Herriott (also, with complete geographical inaccuracy, the canopied drive reminded me of PEI and Anne of Green Gables). This is the England I see in my mind's eye when I read Jane Austen. As we pulled into our hotel, a large and stately manor house now converted I wonder if tonight I will dream of Jane!

More London Pics

Rhys modelling the Union Jack hat

The London Eye

Big Ben

The Houses of Parliament

Pictures from London

Westminster Abbey
Flowers in St. James' Park

A view of the lake in St. James' Park

The Horse Guards
Trafalgar Square
In one of the books we brought the kids a little girl sits on one of the Trafalgar Square lions and it comes to life and takes her on a tour of London.

Day Three

Our first stop off the Underground was the Trafalgar post office to mail postcards to the kids. Then we went back to Trafalgar Square to snap all the photos we couldn't get yesterday. We wandered down toward Downing Street just enjoying the buildings and the perfect weather. We passed the buildings that house the Home and Foreign Offices and ducked into the Cabinet War Rooms though we didn't do the tour. The Cabinet War Rooms are the underground rooms where Winston Churchill and his advisors more or less lived during WWII. We then crossed the street to St. James' Park which is absolutely beautiful. We took lots of pictures there of the lake and gorgeous flowers. There were lots of people in the park - lots of families picnicing and little ones with ice cream. We followed the park path to Buckingham Palace which was flying the Union Jack signalling that the Queen is not in residence (the Royal Standard flies when she is in residence). This was a little confusing because it used to be that NO flag flew over Buckingham Palace when the queen was gone but at the time of Princess Diana's death, the queen was at Balmoral and the Union Jack was raised at Buckingham Palace to half-mast in honor of the princess. Since then, Jack flies when the queen is absent. We were too cheap to pay the entrance fee to the Cabinet War Rooms but not to pay the entrance fee to Buckingham Palace because afterall, it is BUCKINGHAM PALACE! So, currently we are queing to buy tickets for the palace tour. We stopped earlier to buy the kids some touristy but totally fabulous gifts: a little black "I love London" purse for Ivy and a jester's hat decorated like the Union Jack for the boys.

At Starbucks this morning Tim asked for cream in my coffee, which they took to mean real cream. So far as I can make out there is no such thing as half and half in this country. Instead there is milk, pouring cream (what we call whipping or heavy cream) or whipped cream. So I had coffee with heavy cream in my coffee. Tastes good but if I keep this up I'll gain a couple of dress sizes!

Following the tour of Buckingham Palace (which was amazing), we thought about stopping for tea at the outdoor cafe - I mean how often can you say "I had tea at the Queen's house today"? But HRH charges a pretty penny (a pretty pence??) for a cuppa on her grounds. Instead we moved on to the gift shop and spent a bundle there :) While we were in the palace it started raining...then stopped...then started...then stopped...then started in real earnest. Luckily, we had remembered to bring the umbrella despite the day's perfect sunshiny start. Unluckily, we had a hard time fitting both of us under it whilst walking so Tim, gallant man that he is, gave up and resigned himself to a good soaking while I and the bags stayed relatively dry. I wore a long dress today and my feet and hem are soaked. I feel like Lizzy Bennett after the walk to Netherfield.

After the gift shop we walked back around to the front of the palace (which, by the way, is a pretty good hike) to take the pictures of the front that we should have taken before the tour but didn't because we were in a hurry to get our tickets. But it's a nice walk and we got some exercise.

We walked to Westminster Abbey and viewed it from the outside as it was already closed for the day. I was sad to miss going in but the outside is gorgeous and awe-inspiring as well. Our initial delayed flight means that our time is shortened in London and we won't get to everything we wanted but that's just all the more reason to come back right?

We also viewed the Houses of Parliament (which somehow always remind me of Colin Firth and I've no idea why because I've never seen him play a government minister...who knows...). Anyhow, they are really and truly amazing. We saw Big Ben and the London Eye. We stood and watched the flowing of the Thames River, so central to English history and apparently, also a very good place for disposing of bodies. Just before the Westminster Bridge is the statue of Boadicea and her two daughters - she was a famous Celtic warrior queen who fought against the Romans. She's very fascinating even if no one really knows how to say her name.

We looked at the London Eye but I couldn't quite conquer my fear of heights to get on it. I know, I'm a weenie but it's so high up there...ugh... We listened to Big Ben chime (or maybe "boom" is a more appropriate description) and then walked in a giant circle looking for the New Scotland Yard just so I could say I've been there. Tim very sportingly trudged through rain and puddles with me. We definately took a scenic route but the bonus was that we happened on a great park with a gorgeous view of the Houses of Parliament and it also contained a memorial gazebo dedicated to Fowell Buxton who worked with William Wilberforce (one of my heroes) to abolish the British slave trade.

We also happened upon a great pub, the Strutton Arms, which was much better than the Clarence for both taste and price. Tim ate fish and chips (again!) and I had a beef and rosemary pie and you guessed it...peas! ("Would you like those regular or smashed?") Tim prefers his peas smashed, it seems. To drink : Guiness and a shandy again.

Monday, August 10, 2009


After a couple of days of Nescafe, Tim and I needed some real coffee! Notice how big that cup is.
My love of (nearly) all things British does not extend to their version of joe.

Day Two - Part Two

We ate lunch at a pub called The Clarence. It was named for the Duke of Clarence and there has been a pub on the site for the last 400 hundred years. It had good reviews in our guide book but we were disappointed in the food. We had fish and chips (of course!) but the fish was bland and the chips utterly boring and Joni was right - they serve peas with EVERYTHING! What is that?! On the other hand, the building itself was great - lots of old dark timber and a narrow, winding staircase - and our drinks were good: Tim had Guiness and I had a shandy. And really, isn't good beer the point at a pub?

After lunch we walked around and saw more sights. We stopped in front of No. 10 Downing Street (where the Prime Minister lives). Thanks to all Tony Blair's publicity in the American press following the death of Princess Diana and the movie The Queen and thanks to Love Actually, I will always picture the main resident of No. 10 as either Tony Blair (who really was PM once upon a time) or Hugh Grant (who really was never PM :) ) . Ironically, even when Tony Blair was the PM, he didn't live at No. 10. Anyway, we stood out front for a bit with the crowds but you can't really see much as there's a gate and guards in the way. We saw the Horse Guards and other fun British sights but discovered we had left the camera at the hotel so deferred the rest of our sightseeing to the next day and hopped back on the tube for some shopping. We braved the crowds on Oxford Street and were overwhelmed by Marks and Spencer and Selfridges. We returned to the hotel laden with delicious and fattening food - most of it incorporating heavy cream or custard. We got some Thai take away and had dinner in our room. We stopped along the way at a corner shop to get fresh strawberries to go with our double cream (YUM!). As it turns out, Nescafe (the instant coffee you get almost everywhere in Britain) isn't so bad with a good dose of said cream. I can already hear the scales groaning back home. I finished supper off with some pear and butterscotch yougurt (doesn't sound good but is amazing) from M&S. Why don't we have this stuff in the States? It's so good. This morning I had vanilla yougurt and fresh strawberries. Yeah, I know you can get vanilla yogurt in the States but I swear it's not the same. Not as tangy and rich as in England. Must be something to do with the extra "u" - yougurt vs. yogurt???

I slept really well that night being aided by being completely exhausted, having drunk (very unusually for me) alcohol, and needing benedryl for my allergies. In fact, I more or less passed out almost as soon as my head hit the pillow. Tim had made coffee and everything but I was long gone. I was up and ready to go (well, ready to eat yummy stuff and drink coffee) at 7:30 the next morning (which was like, 2:30 am at home???? I think???) but Tim was still sound asleep so I puttered around in my pjs, reading and drinking my Nescafe until Tim was roused by the loudest fire alarm I have ever heard. Apparently, they were "testing" the system - the young man who came around to check things was very apologetic - but since it was 8:30 am on a Saturday morning in a hotel, I have to wonder if it was an intentional test or if the kitchen staff sort of accidentally "tested" the alarm.

I spent about half an hour planning the course of our day and it seems likely we will return to the hotel with sore feet and weary bodies again tonight - but filled with knowledge and British tea and culture, of course. Tim is buried in the final Harry Potter book and I am eating cereal while reading Rules Britannia by Rohan Candappa - one of yesterday's buys. Tim is looking forward to a "real" cup of coffee. Though we searched in vain yesterday in London for a Starbucks (they're there, we just didn't find one) there is, mercifully, one right on the way to the tube... Mind the gap! Oh...sorry...It's a sort of Pavlovian response thing...

Day Two

So many, many, MANY hours after we set out from home, we arrived at around 6:30 in the morning at Heathrow. We met a really nice college student on the plane who is in England to join an archeology dig near Canterbury and talking to him was really interesting.

We made it (FINALLY!!) to our hotel which is in Golders Green, a little bit outside of London. My first piece of advice for other people planning to visit London is going to be: Don't do the Underground with a lot of baggage. It's hard and tiring and the bags get really heavy and the tube is crowded - even fairly early in the morning. DON'T DO IT!!! Once we made it to Golders Green tube station, having lugged our luggage (by the way, is that where the term "luggage" comes from? Meaning something that you have to lug around?) all over Heathrow and up and down Underground steps, we had about a mile to walk from the station to the hotel...oh, and did I mention that the wheel bearings on our not-so-rolling suitcases went kaput and we were literally dragging our bags? There was so much friction between the bags and the pavement that when I tried to fix my wheels, I burned my hand!

The hotel was not all that we hoped for but it gave us a place to put our things and take showers before heading back into London proper. There seems to be a large Jewish population here - we've seen many of the men and boys out and about. Also, there is a beautiful Greek Orthodox Church just down the street. Bet there will be some great food in this town!

After we freshened up in the room, we got back on the tube (I will be hearing "mind the gap" in my sleep!) and headed to the National Portrait Gallery and Trafalgar Square. The NPG is huge and just a portion of the National Gallery. We saw so many portraits and I tried to connect them all historically for Tim (Me: "That's James II - mainly based on his conversion to the Catholic Church, his daughter and son-in-law, William and Mary, deposed him. Over there is Mary...and there is William." Tim: "They kind of look alike." Me: "Yeah, they were cousins...all the royals are related to each other pretty much...") since that is much more my area than his, which was a lot of fun (for me; maybe not so much for Tim) but I couldn't always keep them all straight myself. Also, we were both going on very little sleep. The highlights for me were the Tudor portraits, Jane Austen's portrait drawn by her sister Cassandra (the only known picture of her drawn from life) and a fantastic full length portrait of Dame Judi Dench - possibly my favorite actress of all time. We also saw a recent photo of the "kids" from the Harry Potter movies in the Gallery. Who knew Daniel Radcliffe had so much chest hair??? We had tea at the NPG cafe (by tea I mean that I had tea and Victoria sponge cake and Tim had coffee -or what passes for coffee in the UK) and I discovered the bliss of a sugar cube and milk in a good strong cup of English tea. At the bookshop we picked up some postcards for the kids and a magnet of King Henry VIII (because who wouldn't want Henry on their fridge, right?) Tim said if I got Henry I needed all the wives but alas, I couldn't find them all. Only Katharine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn (can't believe she was the sexy one!) and Katharine Parr, looking a lot like Elizabeth I when she was young. I guess Anne of Cleves hardly qualifies - not nearly English enough and barely a blip on Henry's marital timeline. Poor Jane Seymour and silly Katherine Howard bit it before they could make much of an impression on history. Oh, also I bought books (anyone surprised?).

We went down the crypt (which sounds way creepy but isn't) of St. Martin-in-the-Fields church to check out the brass rubbings you can do down there. Very cool but more something to do with the kids and not cheap.

Day One - part two

New plan - we are in Chicago until 5-ish and will arrive in London around 6 am tomorrow (UGH!) So, lunch and a rousing game of hangman at Macaroni Grill are on the schedule. After that I guess we'll have to talk to each other...or there's always Harry Potter... The good news is that after about forty minutes on the phone with Expedia we are assured that our hotel room will be held and we can check-in as soon as we get to London, so no schlepping our bags around Buckingham Palace...

Day One

We went to bed around 11:30 last night and got up around 3:30 this morning. We arrived at the airport at 5:20 to catch our 7:20 flight. So far so good... But it's now 8:30 and we are still sitting in the terminal and with each passing minute it looks more and more likely that we will miss our connecting flight to London from Chicago. So...we've always wanted to see Chicago and we may well have the chance today! If we miss our 9:20 flight from Chicago, we'll be stuck there until 5:30 tonight. The good news is when we do get to London I'll be ready as I am now in possession of L200 of Her Royal Highness' currency!