Thursday, June 7, 2012

I’m back in Castle Combe this morning, but given the pleasant surroundings I can hardly complain. I’m spending a second day with Mad Max and today’s “Cotswolds Discovery” tour overlaps slightly with yesterday’s itinerary. As our driver, Chris, tells the story of Sir Walter in the Crusades, I slip outside of the church of St. Andrews to photograph the deserted street, just as it arcs away from the old court house towards the post office. Yes, it’s raining. Again. But I’ve decided not to care. There’s a cool mist rising above the trees in the distance and the macadam of the road is glistening wet. There are lush green vines growing up the honey-colored stone of the houses along the street, and there are pennants and Union Jacks and an RAF ensign hanging from the windows. It’s charming, really—both the town itself, and the experience of being here to see it dressed in its patriotic best—and that picture will become my favorite of the trip.

By the time we reach Bibury, it’s already mid-morning and we stop for a cup of tea before walking past the trout farm and along the river to Arlington Row, an historic collection of weaver’s cottages. We follow a path through the woods and emerge in front of Arlington Mill, and listen as Chris tells us its long history, and its connection to the Custis family and Arlington National Cemetery just outside of Washington, D.C.

For lunch, we make a long stop in the market town of Stow-on-the Wold, where the six of us from the tour dine together around an old plank table at the Queen’s Head Inn. After finishing off a hot dish of cottage pie, I head out alone to explore the shops in town. I’m excited to find a peridot lavaliere for a reasonable price at Grey House Antiques and I snatch it up as a worthy souvenir.

We spend the rest of the afternoon walking about Upper Slaughter in the rain, and browsing gift shops in Tetbury, all the while listening to Chris’ lively stories in the car. He tells us about Prince Harry’s drunken exploits as a teenager at Highgrove, about James Dyson, the inventor of vacuum cleaners and Airblade hand dryers, and about Barbara and Ian Pollard, the “naked gardeners,” the latter of which brings peels of laughter at the very thought of pruning rose bushes in the buff.  

Back in Bath, I opt for dinner at Sally Lunn’s, just around the corner from my hotel. When I last visited the city in 2007, I took a picture here since it is purported to be the oldest building in town, but I did not stop in for one of their famed “Sally Lunn buns.” The photograph I took that day was later published in a Bradt guide to the Cotswolds, so I this time around I feel a sense of obligation. The waitress shows me to a comfortable, if rather overstuffed, dining room upstairs, and I order a traditional “trencher” meal served on bread, a medieval custom before the advent of plates. Afterwards, I walk to the Pattisserie Valerie nearby for dessert. They’re closing for the night just as I pull open the door, and the kind young man behind the counter offers me two leftover pastries free of charge.

The wind is kicking up and the night air is wet, but for some reason I am loathe to head indoors. I walk around the Abbey and then down to the weir and back, past an ornamental crown in the parade gardens, marking the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. The shops have all closed for the night, and for a moment I stand in front of Jacks of Bath, its lit windows crammed with all manner of bric-a-brac: pillows and tea sets and Paddington Bears. It’s nearly 10 PM. I turn and head back to my cozy, little room at 3 Abbey Green, knowing that there will be time to see more of Bath in the morning.

Friday, June 8, 2012

When I finally wake up this morning, I roll over and look at the time. It feels good to sleep in, but it’s late and it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve missed one of Sue and Derek’s wonderful homemade breakfasts downstairs.

When I head out the door of 3 Abbey Green, I have to brace myself against the pounding wind and pouring rain. By now, I’ve grown weary of wearing the same black raincoat day in and day out, so I on a whim I buy a new mint green scarf with a butterfly pattern at a small boutique called Pink Lemons Too. It’s the least I can do elevate my mood, and it will help to keep me warm.

On my first visit to Bath in 2007, inclement weather and a cranky mood drove me back to London early, so this time I am determined to be more resilient. I want to visit the Abbey and a number of small museums in town. The church is what’s close, so after pausing for a moment to admire the stone angels that rise and fall upon Jacob’s ladder on either side of the west front entrance, I pull open the heavy wooden doors and walk in.

In truth, I’m not a religious person. I am, at best, a lapsed Catholic with an interest in art history and architecture. Nevertheless, I find myself drawn to Europe’s cathedrals time and time again for reasons that speak more to the heart than the head, and Bath Abbey is no exception. It is a glorious space—open and flooded with colored light, even on a gray and dreary day, owing to a plethora of stained glass windows. The small guidebook I purchased from the gift shop on the way in says that the Abbey gives pilgrims “a glimpse of Heaven from their places on Earth.” In craning my neck toward the fan vaulting high above the nave, it would be hard to disagree. The carving is delicate and beautifully proportioned, rising between tall windows and splaying out like the pleats of a scallop shell.

By now, my stomach is growling. I stop for lunch at a branch of the West Cornwall Pasty Company and then wander aimlessly about the streets of Bath for a while, looking in shop windows. At the Makery Emporium, there is a folksy bust of Queen Elizabeth knitted entirely of yarn, and at the Uttam Boutique there is a gaudy pair of Union Jack panty hose on display.

I walk further to the Bartlett Street Antique Centre, and then on past The Circus to John Wood’s Georgian masterpiece, the Royal Crescent. It is a graceful arc of thirty townhouses, all crafted from the same honey-colored stone in the same conservative, Palladian style, dressed in rows of Ionic columns and stone balustrades. The overall effect is somehow greater than the sum of its parts, a triumph of order and symmetry that stands proud against a massive lawn in front. Because of all the rain, Britain’s lawns have never looks so green.

To escape the howling, wet wind, I duck into No. 1 Royal Crescent, a small house museum operated by the Bath Preservation Trust that presents a typical, wealthy interior from the period, with a sumptuous dining room and an elegant drawing room with green damask walls.

By now it’s mid-afternoon, but still cold enough to wrap a scarf tight around my neck. I retrace my steps back toward the Abbey and decide to stop at Hands Tearoom for a bite to eat. As I wrap my frozen fingers around a hot cup of tea with milk and bite into a fresh Bath bun to find a melted lump of sugar inside, I sigh and marvel at how easy it is to find pleasure in the smallest of things.

I walk across Pulteney Bridge and down Great Pulteney Street to the Holborne Museum of Art and finish the day by exploring its eclectic galleries of Old Master paintings, majolica dishes, and portrait miniatures.

For dinner, I settle into a cozy table at Tilly’s Bistro and order a plate of Pork Dijonnaise— tender meat in a rich, mustard sauce. On the short walk back to my hotel afterwards, I stop to enjoy the stained glass windows in the Abbey. The sky is growing dim, a stormy cobalt blue, and the colored panes of glass are glowing from light within, which makes the imposing old church look warm and inviting. Perhaps there’s a service or a concert inside, but my brain is too tired and my muscles too sore. For now, all I want is sleep.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I can’t believe my groggy eyes this morning. There is sunshine in Somerset. Oh, hallelujah!  

I rush through my breakfast at 3 Abbey Green and then dart up to the Royal Crescent and over to Pulteney Bridge and back. I’ve got to catch a train to Oxford, but I am determined to get at least one picture of Bath with a pleasant, blue sky overhead before I leave.

By the time I arrive in Oxford, it’s just past one in the afternoon and dense clouds have gathered overhead, casting a dull shadow over the city. I check into the Royal Oxford Hotel just down the street from the railway station, where my accommodations remind me vaguely of a dorm room. I drop off my bags and then follow the map in my hand down Park End Street and across to George Street and Broad Street, which are lined with book stores and souvenirs shops that have an endless variety of Oxford University t-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, and coffee mugs in their front windows.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, with such beautiful and harmonious architecture that the poet Matthew Arnold once called it the “city of dreaming spires.” Both C.S. Lewis—author of the Narnia Chronicles—and J.R.R. Tolkien—who wrote The Lord of the Rings series—taught here and met regularly at a local pub as part of a literary discussion group known as The Inklings.

My own academic credentials are sturdy enough. I was fortunate to spend six years at Yale University in the 1990s, earning two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., but for the first time ever in my intellectual life—as I wander past the Sheldonian Theatre, Radcliffe Camera, and the Bodelian Library—I find that I am green with envy. Sterling Memorial Library at Yale is beautifully ornamental, with stained glass windows and gargoyles and fan-vaulted ceilings, not unlike those seen around Oxford, but Sterling was built in 1931 in the neo-gothic style, a modern ode to the great cathedrals of Europe. In contrast, the Bodelian Library dates to the mid-15th century, and the circular Radcliffe Camera with its beautiful Palladian proportions, was completed in 1749, when Yale was still in its infancy.

The sprawling Oxford campus, make up of 38 individual colleges, is impressive to say the least, and on this June afternoon it is pulsing with energy and excitement because there are new graduates, dressed in black gowns, hoods, and mortarboards, posing for photographs alongside their proud families.

From Radcliffe Square, I slip between Brasenose and All Souls College and emerge onto the High Street, where I spend some time browsing Jigsaw, Reiss, Whistles, and L.J. Bennett—all of Kate Middleton’s favorite shops, if Britain’s tabloid press is to be believed. When I reach the clock on Carfax Tower, with its two “quarter boys” chiming the bells at every quarter hour, I turn left down Saint Aldate’s, past Old Tom and a bookstore that inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Old Sheep Shop” in Alice in Wonderland, and into the War Memorial Garden at Christ Church.

The sun has broken through at last, and the view of the cathedral is sublime. The manicured lawn looks emerald green against a stone retaining wall, from which cascading waves of purple flowers fall. For the first time in more than a week, I take off my jacket and sit on a park bench, my head tilted back, soaking in the rays.

I check my watch and see that there is still time to tour the Christ Church before the evensong service at 6:00 PM. I head down the stone path to the Meadow Gate and follow a small crowd inside and up the stairs toward The Hall, a grand dining room crowded with old portraits and heraldic shields that inspired the filmmakers who created the Great Hall at Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. There are parallel rows of long wood tables that run the length of the room, lit with charming sconces and set with college china, and there is a medieval ceiling supported by thick, oak beams high overhead. I glance around and wonder if they would mind if I pulled up a chair and stayed for dinner and some delightful conversation? The looming presence of a guard tells me they probably would, so I take my pictures in quiet resignation and file out toward Tom Quad. 

The tour also includes Christ Church Cathedral, which serves both the diocese of Oxford and the college as its chapel, dating back to the days of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. It’s a small space by the standards of European cathedrals, but it lacks nothing in grandeur. There is a long nave and a chancel with a fan-vaulted ceiling, and a beautiful rose window in stained glass above the altar. There is also an impressive early-17th century window depicting Jonah with the ancient city of Ninevah.

I rest for bit in the War Memorial Garden and then make my way back to the cathedral in time for evensong, which by tradition operates on “cathedral time,” five minutes late. There is a mixed choir tonight, make up of both men and women, the harmonious sound they create is peaceful and soothing, the perfect end to a busy day.

For dinner, I’m not in the mood to wander or to wait. It’s after seven on a Saturday night in a bustling, college town, so I’m more than grateful that a table is available at a chain restaurant named Bella Italia. I order an arugula salad with parmesan cheese and a bowl of pasta carbonara, and both are reasonably tasty. On the walk back to my hotel, however, I can’t help but wonder what they’re serving in the Christ Church dining hall tonight, and the graduate student I used to be, countless years ago, wishes I was there.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

This morning, I’m sitting at the Pret a Manger on Cornmarket Street in Oxford with a cobbled together breakfast—a cup of fruit, a chocolate bar made with digestive biscuits, and a cappuccino. The man behind the counter surprised me by stenciling a Union Jack on top of the frothed milk in cocoa powder and I find myself staring at it, reluctant to disturb the pattern by taking a sip.

Actually, I’m thinking something through. I had planned to visit Blenheim Palace today, the grand country estate at which Sir Winston Churchill was born in 1874, but the sky overhead is threatening rain, and I’m tired and not much in the mood to walk to the train station in search of a bus to take me there. Instead, I check my notes and see that the Tourist Information Office offers a two-hour walking tour titled “The University and the City.” I glance down at my watch and see that there’s still time to buy a ticket, but first I need to visit an ATM to get cash.

On my way back to the TI on Broad Street, I find a Barclay’s branch with an automated teller on Turl and pop my card into the slot. There’s a sketchy guy pacing behind me, which makes me nervous, so when the money comes out I grab it quickly along with the receipt and tuck it into the back of my wallet. As I turn to go, a sense of horror washes over me. I look down and realize that my card wasn’t ejected. It’s been eaten by the machine and there’s nothing I can do about it, especially on a Sunday.

Feeling deflated, but determined not to let it spoil the day, I decide to join the tour as planned. Our guide’s name is Linda and she leads us first to the Divinity School to see a magnificent vaulted ceiling that dates from 1483. We also walk through the Exeter College chapel and the city’s covered market, which has been active since the late 18th century. We emerge onto High Street and continue on past Oriel College and Merton College, and along the way I take pictures of nearly every gargoyle and grotesque I see clinging merrily to the stone façades, but my heart isn’t in it. I’m counting Pounds Sterling in my head and wondering if I have enough to get me through all the way to Edinburgh. I use my credit card for hotels and most meals, so I’m sure to get by, but I feel vulnerable nevertheless.

After the tour, I walk morosely back to the hotel to call my bank and tell them what has happened. Then, as luck would have it, I pull out my wallet and find the card stuffed between the bills and the paper receipt. In haste and without conscious thought, I must have pulled it out and folded everything together. Suddenly, I feel stupid. Ridiculously, embarrassingly stupid. And old. Surely, this is the start of a slippery slope toward senility. But on the bright side, my ATM card has rematerialized before my very eyes and it has not yet been cancelled by the clerk on the phone. Thank the Lord!

With a new found spring in my step, I head back into the city intent on spending a lazy afternoon wandering the eccentric halls of the Pitt Rivers Museum, with its clutter of shrunken heads and powder horns and Japanese nesuke. Afterwards, I move on to the endless galleries of the Ashmolean, where it’s easy lose oneself among the Egyptian artifacts. But I find myself struck most by a view of Oxford painted in 1810 by Joseph Mallord William Turner because—cars and pavement notwithstanding—it looks nearly identical to the High Street that exists today.

My legs give out shortly after five and I’m starving, so I opt for an early dinner at Jamie’s Italian, a chain owned by the celebrity chef, Jamie Oliver. I order a plate of sweet roasted peppers on chickpea flatbread to start, and follow that with a massive bowl of Tagliatelle Bolognese, which disappears quickly and happily into my stomach. I need to keep up my energy for things to come.

It’s time to leave the literary home of Bilbo Baggins, Lucy Pevensie, and Alice Liddell. Other adventures await. I’m heading to Shakespeare country in the morning.

Monday, June 11, 2012

A few years ago, an old World War II poster was rediscovered among a pile of dusty, antiquarian books. It read: KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON. That simple slogan, so quintessentially British, is plastered everywhere now—on T-shirts and coffee mugs, and in endless variations, such as KEEP CALM AND STUDY (in Oxford) and NOW PANIC AND FREAK OUT (back in London).

I thought about that poster this morning as I sat at the train station in Leomington Spa. I was traveling between Oxford and Stratford-Upon-Avon, but I missed my connection in Banbury. A conductor there told me to go on to Leomington, where I learned that my only two options were equally bad—either wait two hours in the cold and pouring rain for a direct train to Stratford, or take a train all the way up to Birmingham and another one back. Instead, I pulled out my iPhone and used the GPS to check my location. Incredibly, I was just 11.6 miles away from my hotel.

What’s the practical answer to keeping calm and carrying on? I took a cab!

So here I am in the city of Shakespeare’s birth, eating a late lunch at Café Rouge, as droplets of rain creep down the red and gold letters painted on the window in front of me—Plats du Jour, Menu Enfant, Prix Fixe, and Vins Fins. I’m enjoying a croque-monsieur, a decidedly French sandwich that reminds me of Paris, but the weather and the steaming pot of tea before me are entirely British, and for the latter, at least, I am grateful.

I’m staying at the Legacy Falcon Hotel on Chapel Street, next to a fine row of 15th century almshouses and a grammar school. It’s a creaky, old building with exposed oak timbers turned black with age. There’s a cozy lounge inside with an open fireplace and a straight-back settee with worn red cushions and soft pillows. It’s the kind of place where Falstaff and a young Prince Hal might stop by for a pint. There is a new building sewn onto the original, however, and my room is situated there, pleasantly large and blessedly modern.

After settling in, I grab my umbrella, walk down Chapel Lane and then bear right along the River Avon, toward Holy Trinity Church, which holds the grave of William Shakespeare. It’s a beautiful place in its own right, with a graceful Gothic spire, but most of the 200,000 tourists that come here every year do so for one reason only, and the church is pragmatic about it. A sign out front confirms that Shakespeare’s grave is inside, and another in the nave gently points “this way.”

Shakespeare is buried beneath a funerary monument mounted to the wall in the church’s chancel. A badly eroded stone slab in the floor below displays his famous epitaph:

GOOD FREND FOR IESUS SAKE FORBEARE,
TO DIGG THE DVST ENCLOASED HEARE.
BLESTE BE YE MAN YT SPARES THES STONES,
AND CVRST BE HE YT MOVES MY BONES.

When Washington Irving visited Stratford-Upon-Avon in the early 19th century, he came to Holy Trinity Church and stood where I am standing now. “As I trod the sounding pavement,” he later wrote, “there was something intense and thrilling in the idea that in very truth the remains of Shakespeare were mouldering beneath my feet.” And here they stay, long turned to dust. Because of the threat in his epitaph, Shakepeare’s remains were never reinterred in Westminster Abbey alongside other great English writers and poets.

For some reason, the site reminds me uncomfortably of the time I wrote an essay on Henry IV, Part I in 11th grade English based almost entirely on Cliff Notes, and I hang my head in shame for the “A” that I received, convinced nonetheless that I am not alone in my angst over reading Shakespeare’s verse.

Determined to make amends, I stop by the Royal Shakespeare Company on my way back to the hotel and inquire about tickets for the night’s performances. I have two options. I can see a re-imagined version of Julius Caesar set in contemporary Africa on the main stage, or I can watch an evil-hearted Richard III cry “A horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse” in the smaller Swan Theatre next door.

Years ago in school I had to memorize the famous monologue in which Brutus says: “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears; I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him. The evil that men do lives after them; The good is often interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar.” I’ve also seen the Temple of Caesar in the Roman Forum in Italy, marking the place where Caesar’s mutilated corpse was cremated. Seeing the murderous act and hearing the speech on stage appeals to me, but admittedly the post-modern setting does not. In the end, the intrigue of the princes in the tower wins out, and I opt for the hunchback.

After a relaxed dinner at Pizza Express, I head back to the Swan and settle into the cheap seats high above the stage, in the second row of the second balcony. For £16 I’m not expecting much, but the view is shockingly good! The theatre is small and intimate, and there is a wooden railing in front of me. I lean forward against it with my elbows and prop by chin in my hands, transfixed by the world that has been conjured before me.

This is not the Shakespeare I struggled to read in my youth. Despite—or perhaps because of—the spartan stage, the minimal props, and the vaguely modern costumes—the text has come alive, and I watch in fascination as Rupert Goold’s Richard spins off kilter into a final, neurotic insanity before meeting his fate on Bosworth Field.

For a night at the theatre, I’ve had a rollicking good time, as playwrights always intended in the Elizabethan era. It was an age when audiences were crammed with boisterous groundlings, willing to throw rotted fruit at plays that met their displeasure. Somewhere along the way, we got it in our heads that Shakespeare was high brow, and that actors needed to recite his lines with a proper and mannered respect.

“What fools these mortals be,” he might say. 

On the short walk back to my hotel in the dark, I can’t quite remember why I ever feared the Bard.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

This morning, I’m standing in front of William Shakespeare’s birthplace on Henley Street, waiting to buy a £21 ticket for all five properties in town run by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, including Hall’s Croft, Nash’s House and New Place, and two sites farther afield—Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and Mary Arden’s Farm—for which there’s a hop-on, hop-off sightseeing bus.

Shakespeare was born in a half-timber frame building with tan plaster walls, pointed gables, and diamond-paned windows—not terribly impressive in its own right in a city awash in Tudor homes, but because of its literary connection, this has been a tourist destination for more than 250 years, visited by the likes of Charles Dickens, John Keats, Thomas Hardy, and, of course, Washington Irving, who wrote of his visit during a “poetical pilgrimage” to Stratford-Upon-Avon in 1820. Even then, it was a “small mean-looking edifice of wood and plaster,” but one that was undoubtedly, he said, “a true nestling-place of genius.”

Irving was hardly the first to write about his visit. When the city of Stratford erected a statue to Shakespeare during a Jubilee celebration in 1769, the playwright David Garrick penned these fanciful lines in a lengthy “Ode”:

The fairies by moonlight dance round his green bed
For hallow’d the turf is which pillow’d his head.

The bed is indeed draped in a green coverlet to this day, but as I wander from room to room, it occurs to me that the house says more about those who admire Shakespeare than it does about the Bard himself; more, it would seem, about his reputation after death, than about his earliest years of life. Of that we know remarkably little, aside from the register of his baptism at Holy Trinity Church. Instead, what stands out here is the original window from what is traditionally thought to be the birthing room (in all honesty, historians have no idea in which room Shakespeare was born). The tiny panes of glass were covered with so much graffiti through the years—with so many etched names of ordinary visitors, as well as literary giants such as Sir Walter Scott and Alfred Lord Tennyson—that it had to be removed for safekeeping.  

Shakespeare is credited with coining a great many words and phrases in the English language, including these: “A plague upon both your houses,” “All that glitters is not gold,” and “As dead as a doornail,” later used so memorably by Dickens to describe old Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol. Standing here among the relics, I am reminded—just a bit—of a line from As You Like It: “Too much of a good thing.”

Outside in the garden, things are less hallowed, but far more lively. There are two actors performing scenes from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and there is a small crowd of school kids dressed like characters in a Harry Potter book, with black jackets and red and yellow striped ties. When one of the men asks a question and a young girl raises her hand to answer, I’m reminded of Hermione Granger and think: “Five points for Gryffindor!”

The younger of the two actors has a sweet voice and tuft of ginger hair, and he turns and says:  

 If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumber’d here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding than a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
if you pardon, we will mend:
And if I am an honest Puck,
If we have unearned luck
Now to ‘scape the serpent’s tongue,
We will make amends ere long;
Else the Puck a liar call;
So good night unto you all.
Give me your hands, if we be friend,
And Robin shall restore amends.

We all applaud appreciatively. It’s a fitting cue to leave, so I walk to the corner and grab the sightseeing bus to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage, which is just a ten minute ride down the road. This is the childhood home of Shakepeare’s wife and it’s a decidedly romantic place with climbing roses and a thick, thatched roof, and there is a sea of flowers spilling out across the yard. Oddly enough, I recognize it immediately because of a blue and white china plate I once bought at a small antique shop. For years, I used it every day for lunch until it finally broke.

Inside, the cottage is cramped and cozy, with a large open fireplace and a low-hanging ceiling supported by dark oak beams. In the hallway on the way out, there is a corkboard where visitors can leave a note behind that reflects on their visit. It reminds me of Juliet’s house in Verona, Italy, and I wonder if it’s covered with similarly inane commentary. It is! One slip of paper reads: “Zip, zip. Wisconsin, USA” and another, “Where is all the Batman stuff?” But my personal favorite is: “I am cool like sausages.” This one makes me burst out laughing. I suspect that William Shakespeare would turn over in his grave to see how we waste the English language today.

I hop back aboard the sightseeing bus and ride on to Mary Arden’s Farm and the adjacent Palmer’s Farm, where I break for lunch. I look over the menu and because I have no idea what it is and it intrigues me, I order the “Bay & cider infused pot roasted hot hog & pippin bap, sage seasoning with old English slaw.” I am somewhat disappointed to see it’s simply a hot pork sandwich with potato chips and rather conventional looking coleslaw, but it’s warm and satisfying nevertheless.

The farm is a lovely place to be, even on a dreary day. There’s a woman playing a flute, the heavy smell of charcoal embers, and a bevy of farm animals under foot—pigs, goats, sheep, chickens and geese. Nearby, a Falconer is demonstrating her technique with a barn owl. There’s even a group of schoolchildren roaming about in Tudor costumes. It feels as though I’ve stepped back in time.

I finish the afternoon back in Stratford-Upon-Avon with brief visits to Hall’s Croft, the home of Shakespeare’s daughter, Susannah, and her husband, and to Nash’s Hall, which rests alongside the foundations of New Place, the excavated site of Shakespeare’s final home on Chapel Street, long since demolished. Then, I wander down to the RSC and ride the elevator to the top of the tower to survey the town and the surrounding countryside. From here, I can spot the Legacy Falcon Hotel and the adjacent Guild Chapel, and when I look past the swans and the weeping willows along the River Avon, I see the spire of Holy Trinity Church rising high above a forest of green.

With some time left before dinner, I decide do a little shopping and buy a tiny silver mirror embossed with angels for my Mom at the Stratford Antique Centre on Ely Street. Then I make a loop, darting in and out of shops, and walk back along Henley, where there’s a street musician singing “In the Summertime.” You know the song. “Sing along with us, dee dee dee dee dee. Da da da da da, yea we’re hap-pap-py.” For the second time today, I actually laugh out loud. Why? Because it’s freezing cold in Britain, despite what the calendar says, and this poor woman is strumming her guitar while wearing a winter coat, hood, hat, and gloves! I drop a one pound coin into the open case at her feet. Surely, she’s earned it.

I explore some menu boards posted outside by local restaurants before selecting Vintner on Sheep Street for dinner. The breast of chicken I order is roasted in lime butter with mango and spinach, covered in a mild curry sauce, and served over basmati rice. It’s my best meal of the trip so far, and as I eat one delicious bite after another I thumb through a cute little book of Shakespearean insults I bought for my nephew in the gift shop at Nash’s House. It’s called The Bard’s Guide to Abuses and Affronts.

“Thou art as loathsome as a toad.”
“The tartness of his face sours ripe grapes.”
“Out of my sight! Thou dost infect my eyes.”
“I was searching for a fool when I found you.”
“I do desire we may be better strangers.”

I think about those lines later as I sit in the lounge of The Legacy Falcon and try in vain to connect my iPad to the hotel’s wireless router so that I can upload some pictures from the day’s events. There is no signal in my room and this has been an ongoing source of frustration. I talk to the clerk at the front desk. She is surly and seems to have heard the complaint before, but she insists that the hotel doesn’t advertise internet access, therefore I haven’t been deprived of anything I was promised.

Feeling challenged, I stomp back to my room and return with a printed copy of my reservation and point to where it says, very clearly: “Free! Wi-fi is available in the entire hotel and is free of charge.” She is unrepentant. She shrugs mildly and says nothing.

I doubt I could deliver a line with the same flourish as those actors in the garden this morning at Shakespeare’s birthplace, but perhaps with a little practice and small amount of daring, I might just say:

“There’s no more faith in thee than in a stewed prune.”

I don’t, obviously. But I wish I had.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

This is my final morning in Stratford-Upon-Avon and when I part the drapes in my room, I see a crystal blue sky. Always a day late and a dollar short. As far as I know, Shakespeare didn’t write that, but he may as well have. Like in Bath, I hurry through breakfast and make a mad dash around town trying to improve upon my pictures before I catch the train back to London.

By 10:00 AM, I’m bound for Marylebone station. I’m prepared for a dull, two-hour journey, but then something extraordinary happens.

I meet Eileen Sullivan.

She’s an elderly woman with a kind face and a tremulous voice. She’s heading to Chester for an historical society conference and in case she nods off, she wants me to wake her up in time to make her connection. She says she’s been nervous about making the trip on her own and she hasn’t slept all night. She’d rather stay alert, so we talk. And talk some more.

Eileen was one of those brave souls who kept calm and carried on. She was twelve when Hitler invaded Poland, so I ask her what it was like during the Blitz, and she tells me that after the bombs fell over London she could walk across broken glass because her bare feet had been toughened by the sharp pebbles on Brighton beach. She was a working class girl with little education and there were few opportunities back then, so she took a job at a biscuit factory. She never married. And after all these years, she still remembers how rationed cheese tasted like cardboard during the war.

When we pull into her station, I help gather her things and I wish her well, which seems inadequate somehow and far too mundane for the extraordinary life she has lived. She nods, and as she climbs carefully down the steps to the platform to await the next train, I am grateful for whatever random circumstances allowed us to meet.  

I take a black cab from Marylebone station back to the Rubens at the Palace hotel on Buckingham Palace Road and when the doorman’s hand reaches for the handle, he recognizes my face through the window and smiles. It feels good to be back!

For this last stint at the Rubens, I’ve splurged and gone all out. I’m staying in the Royal Wing, where there are themed rooms devoted to various British monarchs. Mine is Henry VIII and the furnishings are appropriately lavish. There are heavy drapes in deep red, patterned with gold lions, and there’s even a Henry VIII teapot on the table at the foot of the bed. In all of my years of travel, only my room in Paris at the Hotel des Grands Hommes in 2007, with its toile fabric walls and view of the Pantheon, comes close to matching this. I crash on the bed, with a half canopy overhead, and find that it’s as soft and comfortable as it looks. I’ll be sleeping here for the next four nights, and I may never want to leave.

I’m devoting the afternoon to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms near Downing Street, a visit made all the more timely by my serendipitous meeting with Eileen Sullivan on the train this morning. This is the underground bunker where Churchill and his cabinet planned their military strategy to defeat Hitler, and the rooms appear to be frozen in time, left just as they were at the close of the war. There are columns of figures tacked to the wall noting how many Nazi bombs were launched each day, and how many casualties—fatal, serious, and slight—resulted. The numbers are staggering.

I also squint at a map on the wall, outlined in colored pegs, and spot München and Würzburg and in between a small white pin near Rothenburg ob der Tauber. I think of the repaired medieval walls I walked there just last year, and I shutter to think of the damage done on both sides.

The adjoining Churchill Museum is equally fascinating and thoroughly modern. There are electronic ticker tapes, giant video screens, and interactive timelines, as well as photographs linked to motion sensors that play radio recordings of Churchill’s most stirring speeches as visitors approach. Still, I am most moved by the relics themselves—an Enigma machine used to encode German messages, the prime minister’s gold pocket watch, a desk diary used by a secretary in the days leading up to D-Day, and a letter from George VI dated 1944 in which the King writes:

My dear Winston,

     I have been thinking a great deal of our conversation yesterday & I have come to the conclusion that it would not be right for either you or I to be where we planned to be on D day. I don’t think I need emphasize what it would mean to me personally, & to the whole Allied cause, if at this juncture a chance bomb, torpedo or even a mine should remove you from the scene; equally a change of Sovereign at this moment would be a serious matter for the country & Empire. We should both I know love to be there, but in all seriousness I would ask you to reconsider your plan.

My head swirling, I climb back up the stairs and emerge into London at rush hour. I walk the short distance to Trafalgar Square and then on to Covent Garden. I grab an easy dinner at the Café in the Crypt at St. Martin in the Fields, and then wander down to Embankment where I cross the Golden Jubilee footbridge and follow along the Thames to Westminster Bridge and back, stopping off at a souvenir shop on Whitehall to buy a London sweatshirt. It’s about time I had something warmer to wear.

As I fall into my luxurious bed back at the Rubens, I think once again about Eileen Sullivan, and I can almost hear Churchill’s voice from the recording at the museum ringing in my ears:

“We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender…”

Thank God they never did.