London, Oxford, Bath,
I first noticed him as he carved a large carrot with his you'll-never-lack-for-any-tool Swiss Army knife. Not a slim grocery store carrot with a long thin root, but a sturdy stubby-rooted Farmer's Market carrot. This was unusual, but with both of our hands deep in a plastic bag of "wholesome" cocktail nibblies - pretzels, salty crunchies and nuts - we weren't in a position to be judgmental.
His green Tupperware "lettuce keeper" (a big seller at Tupperware parties) overflowed with bulbous deep red vine-ripened tomatoes, at least one avocado, a basket of sprouts, two cans of tuna, a bag bulging with a head of lettuce. Everything was carefully placed on a tray in front of him. A hefty can-opener wound around the top of a tuna can. A large plastic squeeze jar of French's mustard globbed and splatted its contents into the tuna, now in the bottom of the green Tupperware bowl. He stirred vigorously.
Soon layers appeared on a "super burrito" sized round of dried seaweed. First, most of the mustard-tuna mix. Then thin slices of tomatoes, a thick layer of sprouts, and finally chunks of avocado. A picnic meal fit for a spring day at the beach!
But he occupied seat 29C, across the aisle from us, on our way from San Francisco to London, and our "vegetarian special meal" paled in comparison to his sushi handroll picnic.
Greenland! 12:30 PST. Eerily dawn below. Low mountains of white snow and granite with a few twinkling lights clumped along a piece of the coastline. An orange glow of lights appeared to be covered with a skinny white blanket as they reflected off ice and snow. These seemed to be much lower and less impressive mountains than those of winter Alaska - and so remote and unforgiving. My daughter Kim snoozed a few rows up so I couldn't share this otherworldly scene with her. Fingers of water abruptly ended frozen and jagged into the white. What animals could possibly live there? Polar bears? Suddenly even the plane seemed colder. To me, the picture beneath me epitomized "frozen wasteland."
Red-gold splays of dawn colored the clouds below. It was a short night!
We landed at 12:15 p.m. I didn't get much sleep as I don't do this well on airplanes. Maybe just the proverbial 40 winks just prior to "breakfast" put out at us ("serve" is too elegant a word to describe how breakfast arrived).
After working our way out of Heathrow, actually remarkably easy for so many foreigners arriving, (though I much prefer Gatwick) with nary a blink by immigration and customs, we were on the Tube for Kensington and our new "home," Holland House Youth Hostel in Holland Park, blocks from Kensington Park and Palace.
The hostel was rather much as I remembered from my 1991 stay. Kim was sleepy and a little grumpy, but cheerfully so, if one can be cheerfully grumpy.
First stop, having checked in and freshened up a bit (such as is possible after forever on a cramped airplane) was Leicester Square and the half-price tickets booth for a show in the evening. The line was long as was the wait at the window itself - the computer age is long removed from this process. Each transaction required a phone call to the theatre to confirm ticket availability! Our first choice, "Art" was sold out; with a snaking line behind us hissing with impatience, this transaction alone took nearly 10 minutes. However, our second choice, Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband" was available (£13 per ticket). Not bad.
With no real food since leaving San Francisco a long time ago, we were hungry! First stop, however, was the National Portrait Gallery, close by the ticket booth, and en route to the theatre (at least *our* circuitous route). I was fascinated to see a bronze bust of P.L. Travers of "Mary Poppins" fame, and disappointed to see what Charles Dickens looked like. Didn't fit my mental image. And Henry VIII was there in all of his pomposity and portly splendor.
If you've ever tried to find your way around Leicester Square, it isn't. Seemed more triangular and wandering cow trails. We were hopelessly befuddled as we tried to find the theatre. It reminded me ever so much of the "Shambles" in York!
Although the Brown Hotel is noted for fine (and expensive) high tea, we managed to find the low class, but still pricey, " clotted cream tea and scones." We needed the caffeine and calories. The ambiance was nil - but London!
It was chilly, and dipped to near 40F. Since we had a Tube day travel card (£4.30 for zones 1 & 2, after 9:30 a.m.), trips back to the hostel were easy, and we scurried back to get another layer of clothing. And what did we find when we returned? A hostel full of noisy enthusiastic 5th graders. Hmmm. Hoped they would be well wearied by 11 p.m.
And back to Leicester Square. We surely were getting our Tube travel pass's worth today. I was driving Kim crazy in my need to find a good map of London. I love maps and I wouldn't be happy until I had accomplished this mission. I tried to subjugate this "need" as we wandered around, but it finally overtook me as we passed our fifth (or so) bookstore. And there I was, in front of the "Local Maps" section. A particular map had been recommended. It was there, and I purchased it. I was satisfied.
The play was excellent. During the first half, I lapsed into slight snooze mode; I recollect my head making a big embarrassing flop. Kim acknowledged that her eyes were getting swimmy during the second half. I was fascinated to note that they serve (allow you to buy) ice cream inside of the theatre, to be eaten there at your seat. This is unheard of in my American theater experiences.
A post-theatre dinner is often a psychologically satisfying meal, combining the pleasures of a recent cultural experience with that of a comestible. Ours was what one might define as lacking in anything more than satisfying the most basic instinct of pure hunger... fast, cheap and easy -- a quick "take away" vegetarian falafel, as we tried to retrace our steps back to the Tube.
Kensington High Street hadn't changed much since my visit in 1991. The Safeway is still there, and a plethora of other US stores. The world is surely a very small place! As we observed, however, if it were a "true" Safeway, it would be open 24 hours. I doubted that my Safeway customer card (for in-store specials) would work eight time zones from home.
The dogs -- big dogs, little dogs, dogs which looked awfully much like their owners, obedient dogs, stubborn dogs -- all frolicked through Holland Park for their daily exercise. I envied them the opportunity to socialize and wished that I had access to such a park for my two dogs. Most dogs avoided the "doggy toilet" sandbox, preferring the grass instead. Owners moved in behind them with the requisite plastic bag.
A few homeless men were settled in for the evening, claiming their real estate - usually a doorway or under a bush.
The next morning (Wednesday; chilly and light rain) we arrived at the "full English breakfast" served in the hostel cafeteria and were two of only a few very tall people, surrounded by hundreds of 8 to 12 year olds. Many school groups were stashed here somewhere; perhaps another building.
Off for sightseeing. It was too early to buy the Tube pass, so we began walking. Kim revisited her old stomping grounds of eight years ago when she participated in a summer theater/literature study program.
Kensington Palace and Park. More happy dogs! Flowers were in full springtime bloom. Bulbs, flowering bushes and trees. Little gardens were tucked behind tall bushes and beckoned further investigation. Next time.
Harrod's food floor is famous, and it was on our itinerary. Not since the last time I browsed there have I seen so many varieties of smoked bacon; such an array of whole fresh fish, their eyes full and clear; a three foot tall milk chocolate Easter bunny standing guard at the end of the chocolate aisle; a sushi bar; a cheese bar. It was unlikely that I could have a gastronomique desire that couldn't be satisfied immediately. And, of course, a tea room, complete with espresso machines. We opted, again, for morning cream tea. Harrod's = expensive.
On to the Tate Gallery. I thought I was forever lost in the maze of the Turner exhibit! I'm good only for about an hour or two at galleries or museums, so after I saw more than I ever wanted to see of Turner's work, and then some of the moderns, I was ready to leave. My culture-vultureness has its limitations.
Back into the drizzle for a walk to Westminster Abbey. Elizabeth I, Mary I, and Mary Queen of Scots are all entombed there. I'm quite taken with gothic architecture after visiting Yorkminster and Notre Dame Cathedrals (and taking a Stanford course about gothic cathedrals of Europe) and incredulous at the engineering feat required to design and construct these marvelous building.
The Tube provided a quick and dry means to Covent Garden. I was disappointed in it. It was mobbed with people (that this week was spring break for students added to the hoards of humanity, I'm sure), all jostling to get to the same bizarre stalls at the same time. I found none of it attractive.
We considered getting a late lunch at one of the take-away stalls but gave up and found a pub with an upstairs dining area...The White Lion. (I loved the pub names: the White Lion, the Rat and Parrot, the Bear and Lamb, and so forth.) We each ordered fish and chips. A big mistake. Unlike what I expected to see for pub grub, this was a complete 1/2 fish, surrounded by chips (French fries). We could have ordered one meal and each been well sated. As it was, we were stuffed to the gills (so to speak).
Enough touristing; back toward the hostel we wandered -- through Kensington Gardens and along "embassy row." We obviously were staying in an upscale part of town.
The T@CO-London get-together was artfully arranged by Eric. We had explicit directions as to where to meet (Earl of Lonsdale pub - about 15 min. walk from the hostel), instructions as to what to carry (a newspaper under the arm), what to say ("Lovely weather isn't it?") and what response to expect from Eric ("I wish I were in Majorca"). This may work in the spy business, but Eric forgot his not-so-complicated "Joe sent me" routine. No matter. I discretely donated my newspaper to the pub.
Six of us gathered for a brew or two while we got acquainted. As Rob cheerfully commented, it was like a group blind date. With all of the positives and none of the negatives, in my opinion. Our blind date consisted of Eric, the master planner, Rob McIvor, Bob and Pauline McLeod, and Paul Smee. Rufus, sans bike - his first non-bike trip, and Paul's biking mascot, Duck, kept each other company.
While we were settling in, having another round at the pub, Rob presented me with an Urbancyclist@cycling.org commemorative t-shirt! It was such a nice thought! And something that, as a (sub)urban commuter, I could both appreciate and identify with. Thanks Rob!!
The T@CO dinner itself was a wonderful conglomeration of dishes at a small Indian restaurant. Eric provided an array of restaurant possibilities. We nixed anything that smacked of McDonald's, of course. And when presented with the choice that included "excellent and inexpensive Indian food very near by," that was it. Rob, having spent six months in Calcutta, took charge of ordering an array of delectable vegetable side dishes to complement our individual main courses. Conversation ranged from cycling (commuting; helmets - no, no helmet wars at the dinner table; touring; Switzerland (where Eric had spent time)); Bob and Pauline's children and grandchildren; Adventure Cycling Association and CTC; our jobs (or lack thereof); brevets; and on and on. We didn't lack for topics. We were a group meeting for the first time, but were already old friends. What a wonder the net is!
During dinner, we compared notes of the cost of living/housing in London vs. the San Francisco Bay Area/Silicon Valley. I was horrified to hear that it can cost £500/week (!) for a 1 bedroom/1 bath apartment near Holland Park (where the hostel is located). Considering the current exchange rate, that's about $3,400/month. Even Silicon Valley isn't THAT expensive! Whew!
Our evening ended as we bade each other good-bye in the very cold night air. Paul and Bob/Pauline had long trips before they would be snug and warm at home. Rob was headed across London. Eric lived close-by. I walked home to the hostel, wrapped in the warm fuzzy feeling of new friends whom I expect to see again. Bob would be touring the US this summer with a possible stop in California. Maybe we talked Eric into thinking about self-contained touring. And I had a feeling that some might also see each other for "local" rides.
The morning hostel activity was earlier than usual. Three older (Bedford?) British ladies, slightly round - rather dumpy, actually - sat in their hostel beds talking, making no attempt at being quiet while others tried to sleep. Their fascinating discussion included a long dissertation on how to dust radiators and Venetian blinds. For God's sakes!! At 8 in the morning?! And then some snarling and snapping about the noisy children who were staying in the hostel. Something about pots calling kettles black kept trying to explode from my tightly sealed lips. (They hadn't seen anything yet - wait until they saw the out-the-door line of kids which awaited them at the breakfast cafeteria!) From there to a discourse on the dangers of being out at night in London. (I mused mean thoughts: that they had absolutely nothing whatsoever that would cause them to be in any danger.) And on to a prescription description of the their bifocals. Fascinating! Not. Actually, I was waiting to hear about "hoovering," a verb which never ceases to amuse me - it's such a useful word, and unused in the States.
A visit to Oxford was on our list of "must dos" so we were on the mid-morning stop-at-every-possible-station BritRail train. It was raining, blurring our view of the countryside.
We couldn't have timed our arrival into Oxford less conveniently, as nearly all of the colleges and their interior quads were closed for the long noon-hour, most until 2 p.m. Kim had been in Oxford before, so was tour guide and direction finder. We walked miles around and through the town in the on-and-off drizzle, admiring the skyline of spires in the old part of the town. Christ Church College was beautiful with its expansive green and historic buildings and clock. The nearby well-appointed botanical garden, in partial bloom, is the oldest in the UK. We nearly had it to ourselves as we admired the plantings, and even identified some California native plants.
St. James College provided a more serene beauty than Christ Church College. Daffodils and bluebells circumscribed the lawn while a lovely wooden table and pair of empty chairs waited for two people and a warm spring day to complete the Serrat-in-progress scene.
The High Street area ruined the otherwise appealing ambiance of the town. The same ugly storefronts as found in every other large town provided the same eyesores. They were particularly unattractive when seen against the centuries of tradition of the 35 colleges that make up Oxford. The commercial attractions detracted significantly from the beauty and wonderment of the ancient architecture. Fortunately, you can get away from it and imbue yourself in the Real Oxford.
Never in my life have I watched five large tour buses try to navigate the same space at the same time while going opposite directions around a 90º corner in a downtown area teeming with pedestrians aimlessly crossing willy-nilly, small cars oblivious to the potential death around them, and cyclists looking straight ahead - "if I don't look, then it really isn't there." Nary a scratch on any vehicle nor pedestrian.
We each ran out of sightseeing steam shortly before 3 p.m. Enough was enough. There was much that we didn't see, necessitating a future visit. Back to BritRail and the express train to Paddington Station.
We recuperated at the hostel while contemplating our next major decision -- where, close by, to have dinner? Our idea of another theatre experience was moved forward one night.
A wine bar on Portland Street was at the Right Place after we had walked the Proper Distance. In other words, we were tired of walking aimlessly when we happened upon it. It was a tiny place with eight or nine tables dressed in pink linen - a theme carried from our morning tea at a shop also with pink linen table cloths. The service was caring but excruciatingly slow; however our light meal was quite good.
When I travel, I enjoy reading a book reflecting where I am. Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson provided me with a slightly different viewpoint of many places I had visited a few years ago, or was experiencing on this adventure. My giggling may have distressed those about me, and I feared a straight jacket might be in my immediate future. Bryson had captured the stereotypical essence of England, often with more cynicism than I find appealing, but nevertheless funny.
"Mind the gap. Mind the gap. Mind the gap." It was everywhere in the Tube -- painted on the platforms and reminded by the conductors. But the gaps weren't large enough to worry about. I wondered what caused such concern. Perhaps an accident such as that on the Golden Gate Bridge six months ago when a toddler fell through a very large gap between the auto lanes and the pedestrian walkway? Shudder.
Friday, our last day in London, was errands, catch up with friends, squeeze in a bit more sightseeing, and attend another play. Naturally, as we were preparing to leave London, the weather began to clear slightly. No rain.
From the sounds of it - all of the sounds! - the British ladies were packing up to leave. With each other they were friendly, but otherwise dour indeed. In the hostel dining room, the group of British 8 year olds suddenly transformed into patio-smoking French 15 year olds. It must be the rain that grows them so quickly! For some reason the 10-14 year old groups weren't affected. Odd.
Based on a recommendation from a friend of Kim's, we visited the Sir John Soane's narrow but multi-storied house-turned-musuem. It was stuffed with antiquity of the ages, from BC Egypt forward. To me, the most memorial was the whole series of original paintings that comprise Rake's Progress.
Fortnum & Mason, a famous purveyor of food to the Queen was on my list. I occasionally buy a tin of F&M fancy loose tea at our local upscale grocery store and wanted to investigate the original source. F&M's food floor (the ground floor as you walk in; what we in American call the first floor) rivaled that of Harrods's food floor. There on the left side of the store were the coffees and teas. I found the tea that I wanted and was astonished to discover that it was more expensive in London than in Menlo Park, California! By more than the 17+% VAT difference. I decided to keep my business at home.
I hadn't realized what a pricey area Kensington was (obviously with Kensington Palace there we weren't talking "slum" in any sense of the word) until I visited the Boots Pharmacy at the High Street Tube stop and also one on Piccadilly. Julie wanted a specific brand and color lipstick, obtainable only in England. I tried to oblige, and after having purchased one in Kensington, I thought perhaps a second tube would be a good idea. That was when I discovered more than £1 difference in the price between the same store in different locations. Blatant over-charging in Kensington!
Kim and I started to enter the Royal Academy of Art, but a £10 entrance fee sent us right back out the door. We would have to catch the "Icons of Russia" exhibit somewhere else, or perhaps not ever.
That bookstore that starts with an "H" on Piccadilly...wandered through what could be Lord Uppercrust's beloved, wood paneled, spiral-stairway'ed triple floor library. A book lover's heaven of titles, so many signed by authors that they must shuffle them through like a revolving door.
Kim had various Yahoo! plans in the longish noon hour so I did my poking about for a generator bike light, a Carradice saddle bag, and other interesting goodies that I might run across.
Friday afternoon at 2:15. As I write, here I sit on a bench on the Queen's Walk along the south bank of the Thames. It's cloudy, about 55F but no rain. Walkers carrying crinkly plastic bags interrupt my sight line of Big Ben and the House of Parliament as well as my reverie. A polyglot of tongues catch on the breezes. I am headed to the Hungerford Foot Bridge to cross the Thames.
My bike store mission was 2/3's successful. No generator lights. Patrick and I would have to mail order them from the U.S. However I did find the Carrdice Nelson Longflap saddle bag that I wanted. I think it always more fun to buy at "the source" than mail-order from someone in the US who mail-orders from England. And it will fit nicely on the back of the Trek 2120.
The poor salesman at Evans Cycle shop! I don't think they have to do VAT refund forms very often. And with a £53 purchase, it made sense to get the VAT back. It was a good place to browse, see a variety of panniers and saddlebags, including the Carradice Nelson Longflap which I purchased. They stock a variety of touring frames, including the Dawes Super Galaxy and their own.
Work seems oh so far away, but too close.
There was so much history in England! The land of most of my ancestors. I headed to St. Paul's, my last London sightseeing goal of this trip. Next time, back to the British Museum and Hampton Court.
£4 to visit the nave of St. Paul's?! I don't think so! I couldn't believe the price gouging to see the cathedral where Chuck & Di were married. So I missed seeing, from the nave, Christopher Wren's great (greatest?) work. I "gave it a miss" and hied myself to the basement gift shop's postcard rack. The views were on a smaller scale, but uncluttered by moving bodies and poor light. Afterwards I sat on the cathedral steps and listened to the three bongs of the tower bells. From the front, I observed that the large formerly white columns badly needed cleaning/sandblasting to remove years of accumulated grime. On the other hand, in their present state they surely presented a nice contrast to Diana's white wedding gown as she stood on the steps.
While in the cathedral gift-shop, I was greatly tempted by a Taylor of London bar of lily of the valley soap for £2.95. This in contrast to the £8 per bar at the arcade on Piccadilly Street, by another equally obscure (to me) vendor of fine soaps. Suddenly Crabtree and Evelyn (long available in Palo Alto, CA) didn't look quite so expensive. An Irish linen tea towel also caught my eye, but not my wallet.
The Tube! What an invention! One of the great wonders of the civilized world...tawdry as it may seem to those who are used to it. My daily travel cards have been about as money-making for the underground as a hungry cyclist at an all-you-can-eat buffet.
Notting Hill Gate was an excellent tube stop for the hostel. Yellow/circle line. About equi-distance from the hostel to either Kensington High Street top or Notting Hill Gate. Choices.
The Barbican, home of the Royal Shakespeare Company. "Hamlet" was our choice for a Friday evening theatre experience. It was a comedy of errors (pun intended) to locate. What with the wrong Tube choice and a maze of sidewalk detours into the theater complex, which merely put us further below ground in a nearly vacant parking garage, we eventually surfaced close to where we wanted to be.
As our budgets became more restrictive, we opted for the least expensive tickets possible - £8 for the upper gallery. (The choices were £8, 16, 20 or 27 as I recall.) Warned prior to leaving home to always ask for "concessions," (often given to educators, students, the elderly, and others, and for which I had brought my Stanford ID) I did just that. I image the man took a dim view of someone paying for the least expensive ticket to then turn around and ask for a discount. However, our £8 upper gallery tickets magically turned into a pair of tickets in the "stalls" - 12th row back and in the center. Perhaps my elegant attire (my best blue jeans and theater dress shoes, navy loafers, instead of my ASICS) caused sympathy ("These Americans must be poor!"), or my request for "concessions." ("Concessions for an £8 ticket?") Nonetheless, no concessions, but excellent seats. Kim suggested, rightly so I'm sure, that they wanted the audience congregated close to the stage; not two people by themselves off in the upper reaches of the theatre.
The production was excellent. My barometer is "snooze time during a performance." I didn't. Returning to the Tube was significantly easier; we followed the crowd.
Sign of the times: cell phones ringing everywhere. One rings, and seven people dive into their briefcases, handbags or pockets. I was amused at the highly personal conversation carried on by the person sitting next to me on the Tube. Eyes normally roam around the car, vacantly, avoiding contact with anyone for more than a fast blink - as in an elevator. Except when one is part of the phone conversation audience. People forget to look away.
Finally it was time to take on BT (British Telecom) for a coin paid (I didn't get a phone card) long distance call to Bristol. With serious instructions from the hostel desk clerk, I remembered to put no money in until Paul actually answered and the connection was in place (which is different from how we make coin calls). The LED readout indicated 10p (rather unreasonably inexpensive, I thought, but...) which I dropped into the slot. Soon after I said "Hi" the line was dead, as the LED indicator rapidly retreated from 10 to 0. Hmmm. With more money in my hand - 50p - I tried again. I was ready. As was Paul, who didn't answer with a polite "Hello," but with firm instructions: "Put bigger money in this time!" (He kindly didn't say, "Dummy...what were you thinking with only 10p?!") We completed our arrangements for our rendezvous in Bristol the following day.
London air! And the world thinks Los Angeles is bad? Now I understand why cyclists wear carbon filter masks when riding in London.
Crossing streets. It was a wonder that I returned home whole and unscathed. Doing the traffic tango crossing first to an anorexic safety zone in the middle with all the new friends you didn't know you had squeezed together, and then, when traffic seemed scant, a quick cha cha cha to the opposite side. Green "walk" lights were of little help. They went from "it's safe" to "Oh my God a car is coming!" in approximately five seconds! No wonder the Brits seemed to be a nimble lot.
Saturday morning. We were leaving London for Bristol and the hospitality of Ann and Paul. In our seats-two-facing-table-between, we had strewn our variety of newspapers on the table...our method of adding a sense of possession to the other two seats in the nearly empty car. But as Kim had commented earlier, the British have a very different sense of personal space than Americans. Perhaps because of their close living quarters. With the car still nearly empty, two British matrons in their very serviceable beige wool coats and slightly more colorful cardigan sweaters (one was faded coral with large faux gold-tone on wood buttons, the other well-washed aqua) sat down in "our" seats. These two were in contrast to the twenty-something young women on the London streets with their long lithe legs, showing them off with short skirts, high platform shoes and colorful stabs of hair.
Enroute to Bristol, with perhaps an hour prior to arrival and feeling the effects of caffeine, I went wandering off to find the toilet. Since the one at the end of our car was occupied, I looked further afield. Success in the next car. The door was ajar so I went in, firmly pulling the door closed behind me, not by a handle but by the door itself. I had to do it twice before I could get the door closed properly. Crammed in the small space was the usual gray stainless steel basin and metal canister toilet. Suddenly I realized my terrible mistake. There was no door handle! There was a square peek hole where the handle parts should have been. THAT'S why the door was ajar! THAT'S why I had to work to get the door properly closed! Within 15 seconds, my adrenaline was on the way to "extreme agitation." I was trapped! My caffeine loaded bladder had retreated far down on the "problem" scale. With the toilet located somewhat between cars, screaming and yelling didn't look like a useful option; the train was too noisy for anyone to hear me unless they were moving between cars. Banging on the metal door might create enough resonance for someone to hear. And I really didn't want to pull the red emergency handle located above the window. How long would it take for Kim to begin to worry about me? In a moderate-but-escalating state of distress -- after all, who wants to spend an hour in the loo, miss their stop, and end up who-knows-where? -- I tried to settle down and assess my options. I had my Swiss Army knife in my "bum bag" (when in England, adopt to the preferred verbiage), but it wasn't the "gets-you-out-of-ANY-situation" model and therefore had no fits-door-handle-square-little-hole included. There was no interesting tool box stashed in the corners nor hidden behind the metal mirror. As I looked carefully around, I noticed something gray on the gray basin ledge. The handle! Both the inside piece, the outside part, and the square bit between, all screwed properly together. Odd that the door wasn't included. Now this I could deal with.
Locked in a loo. Not a feeling I ever want to experience again.
The skies were overcast as we detrained in Bristol. We spotted Paul first, and then Ann, waiting for us on the platform. How good it was to see them! Paul and I "met" on one of the biking newsgroups a few years ago when he advised me on some question or another about one of my UK bike trips. He and Ann stayed with me on their visit to California, and they were part of the Divide Ride Dogs mountain biking tour last summer (and upcoming). What a treat to see them in their home.
We were again in hedgerow country. I've become enchanted with hedgerows, but it was odd to see them mostly leafless in their winter state. These were not the fuchsia hedgerows that line the roads of my Ireland bike trip, but something else. Ann said they were hawthorn (called "may"). What leaves I could see resembled the leaves of my hawthorn tree at home.
Daffodils were in bloom everywhere along the sides of the highways, roads, and lanes. Great patches of yellow and white flowers with the occasional orphan tulip competing in the bulb bouquet. Linear groups followed fence lines and hedgerows, while others were in grand irregular clumps. It was such a pleasant interruption of the landscape.
An interesting sign: "Buy British Food." Apparently in reaction to the mad cow scare?
The Roman baths, in Bath, were incredible! How else to describe them? Ancient old. Build by the Romans to "take the waters" with a temple erected to Minerva. Excavated and restored beautifully with an outstanding explanation created for each area of the bath/bath house. Tourists are given self-guiding listening devices (similar in size to a cell phone) to listen and move through at one's own pace. The original "plumbing" bringing hot water from the underground source is still in use with a simple but effective means to maintain the water level in the pool at a specific depth.
Before exploring the baths, we toured the Bath Abbey, and while there, listened to a Bach concert rehearsal. I love sitting in churches hearing beautiful music. Ethereal.
The town of Bath, as the various guidebooks indicate, is a nearly perfect 18th century town oozing of Jane Austin and her characters. The Circle Apartments were quite intriguing...contemplating who lived there now, and who might have lived there some time ago.
Browsing an extremely well equipped kitchen shop where a tourist and his/her £s are soon parted, I was educated as to what a pie crust black bird looked like (ceramic, like a squatting fledgling), and its use (holds the upper pie crust off of the filing). Although I've made hundreds (or more) pies in my life, I never realized what was lacking. I will continue to lack this charming piece of children's lore.
Bath was Kim's and my final chance to experience an authentic afternoon high tea. Not cream tea, but the expensive works. It was on each of our "make sure to do" list. We had chosen The Pump Room at the baths as the restaurant of choice. It came well recommended Too well, it would seem. At 3:50, after touring the baths, we proceeded upstairs to get in line. Too late. Closed for a private party. Argh! But, clotted cream tea wasn't such a bad substitute. The caloric and cholesterol load of clotted cream must be astronomical, which of course is why it tastes so good. I tend to slather on my scone as deep a layer of the clotted cream as I can possibly get without it looking like a wedge of scone tucked under the cream.
The Clifton Bridge in Bristol is the world's oldest suspension bridge. And as a tourist attraction, besides serving as a major bridge, it is completely outlined in small white lights, sparkling against the night sky. Nearby we stopped for a pint and watched the bridge do what bridges do and the lights gleam. It was very peaceful.
Ann and Paul's Bristol home is a wonderful three story house with a storybook garden. While we were there, it was blooming in yellows and blues, primarily. I was astonished to see California natives and other Mediterranean area plants. My Ceanothus (California wild lilac) was blooming when I left California, and I arrived to see theirs also cloaked in small blue flowers. A stream of water burbled over rocks (when the solar panel was energizing the pump), all guarded by a small lawn duck given to Paul last summer in Montana. The daffodils were dying back, as were the camellias. They were having spring flowers at the same time we were. Interesting how the Gulf Stream mitigates their climate.
I added a new country to my "list." Wales. I have friends who have cycled in Wales, and others who have visited without cycling. Observing the hilly terrain with a practiced cyclist's eye (as one who climbs hills only because they are there, not from great joy), cycling looked to be as difficult as it's reputed to be.
Enroute to Hay-on-Wye, the town that is a bookstore (or is it the bookstore that is a town? I forget), we passed through delightful villages entered/exited by single vehicle lanes. How remote. How quaint. I wondered how the villagers earned their incomes. Farming seemed the most likely.
Now the signs included not only English, but Welsh. For me, totally unpronounceable.
Again in my travel notes were comments about the wild daffodils clumps along the sides of the roads and lanes, naturalized in the fields, and poking through brambles. What a cheerful comment in an otherwise foggy drizzly day.
The pasture lands were replete with ewes and small bundles of tight wool springing about on short dark legs. Spring lambing season (or is it springing lamb season?) had occurred. And Easter was only two weeks away....now leg of lamb for Easter dinner wasn't appealing in the least.
Chickens, squirrels and pony trekkers were all sharing the road, not to mention cars from the other direction wanting "our" lane.
Across the ridge line as we drove to Hay-on-Wye, a pair of mostly-black border collies, flying bits of dark fur darting up and down the hillside, were herding up a flock of sheep. My dog Pete is a "border" and I've often wondered what he would do if given a flock of sheep to play with. And the sheep that we saw had tails! If I recall, the sheep that I've seen over the years didn't have tails. Paul and Ann each tried to explain the reasoning behind to dock or not to dock sheep's tails. I don't recall that there was a consensus about it.
Arriving at Hay-on-Wye, we snugged up our rain hoods and looked for a place for lunch. The first cafeteria, which looked quite interesting to me with its selection of foods that I didn't recognize, was nixed by Kim because she couldn't recognize anything. I disliked the next place - too dark and smoky with a boring menu. We all gave the third place a thumbs down - too expensive with too much food. Everyone had used the allotted "veto power" so the next had to be it. A pub, with pub grub. It was fine. And I discovered Scrumpies cider. Now, how could anyone with a love of words could NOT order something named Scrumpies?
Hay-on-Wye is a small town of narrow winding streets. It's claim to fame are the thirty or more bookstores (mostly used/previously owned books), many specializing in a certain type of book or subject matter. Children's books. Comics. Antiquarian prints/maps. Publishers remainders. Victorian life. Applied social sciences. And "Hay's smallest book shop with the world's finest stock of books on bees and apiculture." Now that's specialization!
Monday morning we put Ann on the train for her three day conference in Northampton and headed to Wells via the Mendips (low mountain range). (After a Stanford class on Gothic Cathedrals of England and Europe, I wanted to see Wells.) Paul gave us a driving tour of the area, meandering to Wells through the low-lying clouds (fog!) of the Mendips. He said the area was really quite pretty. That as we were driving through Priddy, a wee village. Not much visible beyond the cottages and trees along the lane. What I could see appealed to me - the village cottages, single wide lanes lined with hedgerows, and where the hedgerows opened up, small fields filled with sheep and cows, scribed by more hedgerows. And down the slopes to Cheddar. Yes, the original place of Cheddar cheese! Through a cut gorge filled at the bottom with caves to visit (cheese storage area of ages past). We skipped the caves...one of those tourist rip-offs...often discerned by the number of tour buses parked along the road. Of course, a stop to taste and purchase Cheddar from Cheddar.
Along the way, a homeowner was tidying up his authentic dry stone wall in the drizzle and damp. Those walls are truly an art form.
From the car park (parking lot) in Wells, the first spired building hints to the unwary that the cathedral is but a stone's throw away from the 60p parking ticket dispenser and "you are here" map. Not so. Merely a large ornate parish church.
Wells Cathedral, the first truly English gothic cathedral, was stunning. It's beyond my comprehension the engineers, architects and stone masons geniuses, among others, who were able to create these magnificent structures in the 1100-1200's. There were occasional miscalculations and a wall or section would no longer be supported by its flying buttress, but in general, the mathematics were exact. Wells, however, had problems with one section of the church sinking a bit. To support it, reinforcing "scissors arches" were created in the nave area. The settling stopped; no problems for the past 700+ years.
While touring through the cathedral, a men's chorus was rehearsing chants and choral arrangements. It all was overwhelmingly appropriate.
The famous Wells Cathedral clock (indicates everything from the phase of the moon and sun to the minute, complete with Swiss-clock-works type characters on-the-hour chase, and another character which kicks his heel against a gong, also on the hour) is said to be more of a tourist attraction than the cathedral itself. No accounting for the [lack of] sophistication and tastes of tourists! In order to "remind" visitors who come to see the clock that they are in a house of God first and foremost, a rector recites, hourly, a prayer at the base of the wall-mounted clock, captivating his audience for the two to three minutes prior to the clock's shenanigans.
Unlike St. Paul's in London, Wells does not charge an admission fee. Visitors are requested to contribute a "voluntary admission" AFTER they have enjoyed the splendor of cathedral. I felt that the suggested £3 was well deserved.
Our timing - not good. We were there at 1p.m. Only one bong. Extending our cathedral experience, we ate a tasty cafeteria lunch in the Refectory. Quiche for each.
Somerset? Did our cathedral guide with the sonorous voice and oh-so-British accent, tinged with his five years in the Australian army, say "Somerset"? "Is Somerset close?" I asked Paul. The far reaches of my mind were still in "bike light systems" mode, and I thought that St. John Street Cycles was in Somerset. Perhaps I could find a generator light system after all! I knew, from previous email, that they carried a variety of brands. Paul patiently explained to me that Somerset is a county, not a city. Oh. I had thought Somerset was somewhere in the upper reaches of the country, perhaps near Scotland. Anticipating my next question, he suggested that we had time to drive to St. John St. Cycles in Bridgewater (Somerset). It was rather on the way home to Bristol. A fortuitous opportunity. Totally unexpected. Feeling very badly that I had cleaned out my pack of extraneous papers, including the instructions for purchasing a lighting system for a friend, I quietly bought an AXA-HR system with a Lumotec head lamp and a few extra 3w halogen bulbs.
But before Bridgewater, a stop in Glastonbury, said to be the hippie capital of England with its crystal shops and new age (and age old) relics. We arrived a bit too early for the third annual Goddess Conference to held in the summer. Dang. I wondered if Rain Goddesses were invited.... The old abbey (King Arthur and Guinivere are said to be buried near the high altar) is in ruins, and it is said that Gastonbury is the site of the ancient Isle of Avalon. Other commentary indicated that it was the first place of Christianity in England, with Joseph of Arimathea building a church there in the first century.
The drizzly weather was clearing. Our last evening. Time flew by. We had a month's worth of things to see and do. Indeed, we crammed about two weeks worth into our 6 and 1/2 days.
For our final dinner, I wanted Indian food again. Paul and Kim were amenable and didn't exercise veto power. Within walking distance of Ann & Paul's was a Indian/Nepalese restaurant on Gloucester Street that Paul liked. First a pub crawl for one last beer/cider/whatever. Crawl was a bit of a misnomer as I am only good for, at the most, 1 pint of beer. So we walked into one place and stayed.
The Restaurant of Original Intent was not yet open. Rather than wait, we walked up the road for about 15 minutes, inspecting the shop windows (all closed), turning around at an Indian restaurant at the other end of the street (second choice restaurant). Hungry and ready to settle down with the menu, we returned from our walk to find that the restaurant still wasn't open. "Maybe they open at 7:30 instead of 7" we thought. Rather than waiting, we hiked back up the road, where we had an excellent and mighty filling meal.
As we left Bristol early in the morning, the sun was beginning to burn off the fog. Public transportation from Bristol to Heathrow is more than a little inefficient, so Paul took a long detour into work that morning. (About 200 miles round trip.) With tea/coffee/scones under our belts, we gave Paul a quick good-bye and began the long trek through Heathrow security. The first control officer couldn't believe we weren't carrying anything electrical and queried us a number of times: No hairdryer? No. Shaver? No. No hairdryer? No. (Did he think we would suddenly remember that we had one?) I commented, as we left him, that I appreciated the tight security of Heathrow and commented that American security wasn't quite so good. He shot back, "American's don't HAVE security." Well, in comparison, he was right. And then passport control and more baggage checking. With an hour (we thought) before our flight, the PA system announced, "United Flight 955 now boarding Gate 14." At 9:05? Not to argue, we scurried to Gate 14, and another baggage security check. No time for browsing the Duty Free Shop. Harumph. They lied to us. The plane wasn't boarding at all. It was just United's effort to clump passengers (sheep) in the lounge for 45 minutes. Grumble.
Paul said that the weather cleared nicely about the time we were passing over the English shoreline. We settled in for the cattle-car/sardine can ride home. Plane chocked full, not a seat to spare. Interminably long flight. But worth every uncomfortable minute of it. I'd return to England in a heartbeat!
Copyright Judy Colwell, 1998. All rights reserved.
Last modified: August 13, 2004