Tuesday, August 11, 2009

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!

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