Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I’ve rolled the dice and decided to go all in this morning. It’s 9:15 AM and I’m standing along Parliament Street waiting for the parade to begin. Yes, the day in cold and the sky is threatening rain. And yes, I will be standing here for hours. Again. What can I say? I’ve been caught up in the spirit of the moment. I am in the front row, and I want to see the Queen in her carriage.

Before long, I’m joined by a pair of lovely English ladies, Lilly and Reeny. They’re veterans of these royal events, having been somewhere along the street together when Kate Middleton married Prince William last year. I’ve also grown chatty with the local police, including Constable Olivier, who offers to have his picture taken with me, and the handsome Officer Blonsky, who my companions decide I should marry.

The hours melt away pleasantly, and as the crowd grows in size the police officers lining the route take turns conducting the wave. Across the street, there are several young girls wearing paper crowns, and one in particular with ginger hair who has a gigantic headdress of flags upon her head. Over a loudspeaker, we can hear the service going on at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

At a quarter to one, the Queen’s limousine speeds by and I see her as a blur of mint green. She’s on her way to a luncheon at Westminster Hall, and she seems rather in a hurry to eat. I only have time to get off a few frames on my Nikon D5000, and in one of them Reeny’s left pinkie finger covers the Queen’s face entirely. I tease her about ruining my opportunity and Officer Blonsky jokes that she should keep her hands down next time, especially since her own camera is about to run out of battery power. I exchange e-mail addresses with the ladies on the street and promise to send them my best shots of the day.

Once the parade begins, we are treated to a dizzying array of horses and brass bands and military uniforms, many of which I recognize from Saturday’s review on Horse Guards Parade. They’ve had a busy few days. We know that the Queen is about to arrive because sailors with semiautomatic rifles and bayonets have been dispersed along the street. I understand the point, but I feel rather indignant nevertheless. I’ve been waiting at the front of the crowd for nearly five hours, and now, at the last minute, my prime viewing position has been compromised not only by the police officers who stand facing the crowd, but by a new row of men who take up position every few yards. My window between them for photographing the Royal family is narrow indeed. As the security detail slides into place, Reeny turns to me and says: “Well, I hope they give us one of the short ones!”

It’s twenty past two when the Queen’s carriage arrives at last, led by two men in red coats and black top hats, riding a pair of Windsor Grays. She’s not in the Gold State Coach that drove her to her coronation in 1953, much to the disappointment of a little girl I overhear complaining to her mother nearby. Apparently, despite its opulence, it has little suspension and makes her seasick. Instead, she’s with Charles and Camilla in the 1902 State Landau, a carriage I saw in the Royal Mews just the other day, and its open top allows everyone to see them clearly. My camera is set for multiple exposures, so I hold down the shutter and hope for the best. One, two, three, four… a dozen shots or more. When I look down later, I’m relieved to see that some are quite good.

Prince William comes next in a carriage of his own, accompanied by his wife, the Duchess of Cambridge, and his brother Prince Harry, who I capture looking towards me with a bemused expression on his face. Kate is smiling and dressed in beige lace, her hand raised in a wave. It’s a wonderful picture, really, and when I pull it up on the camera’s screen it earns the admiration of Lilly and Reeny, and even Officer Blonsky, who has been a good sport all day to put up with us.

The crowds are too heavy heading over to The Mall, so there is little hope for me to see the balcony appearance at Buckingham Palace. I decide to head back to the Rubens instead. I still have a train to catch and the afternoon is nearly done. From the sidewalk in front of the hotel, though, I am able to see the flypast, with its squadron of World War II aircraft and a formation of nine Red Arrows that trail vapors of red, white, and blue behind them.

By the time I gather my things and check out of the hotel, the rain which has held off most of the day is coming down in sheets. Buckingham Palace Road is still closed to traffic, so a doorman walks me around the corner to call a taxi, and waits with me, holding an umbrella over my head. At the last minute, as I slip into the backseat of the cab, he thrusts a half dozen British flags into my hands and wishes me well. In just a short period of time, the Rubens has become my favorite hotel of all time, and their staff the kindest I have known.

From Paddington Station, I board the 4:30 PM train to Bath, exhausted but exhilarated by the weekend’s events. I meet Sue, the proprietor of 3 Abbey Green, and settle into the Lilliput Court room. I also take her advice by stopping for dinner at Demuths, a vegetarian restaurant just around the corner near Sally Lunn’s. I order a “mushroom parfait” as my main course, and while it’s an attractive plate of food, drizzled with parsley oil, the overabundance of purees make it taste a bit like baby food. It leaves me feeling hungry.

Afterwards, I take a short stroll around town, past the Abbey and several souvenir shops that have closed for the night, their windows cluttered with flags and t-shirts and waving queens. Bath is quiet once the day trippers have gone home, and even more so in the misting rain. The last time I was in Bath was in 2007 and I cut my visit short because of the weather, so it’s painfully ironic to see the city looking just as sodden this time around.

As I head up to bed, thinking of the bus tour I’ll take in the morning to Stonehenge and the Cotswolds, I can’t help but pray for a break in the clouds, knowing all the while that it will not come. I am here for what is destined to be one of “the wettest, dullest and coldest” Junes on record in the UK. It’s best I make my peace with it.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

In the gift shop this morning there is a sweatshirt that reads: “Stonehenge Rocks.” It’s so cold outside that I’m almost desperate enough to buy it, despite the cheap pun.

Almost, but not quite. I have my dignity to consider.

I’m on a Mad Max minibus tour with Sally and Frank, a middle-aged couple from my hotel, and a dozen or so other hearty souls brave enough to face the weather. Stonehenge was our first stop, and an important one at that. After all, it’s Britain’s greatest prehistoric monument, and one of those “1,000 Places to See Before You Die” sites. This is the stuff of bucket lists. Nonetheless, as I stood there gazing at it, I was reminded of what Bill Bryson wrote about Stonehenge in his book Notes from a Small Island: Impressive as it is, “there comes a moment somewhere about eleven minutes after your arrival when you realize your fascination has peaked, and you spend another forty minutes walking around the perimeter rope looking at it only out of a combination of politeness, reluctance at being the first from your bus to leave, and a desire to get £2.80 worth of exposure from the experience.”

We’re scheduled to spend an entire hour at Stonehenge, and I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve squandered much of it here in the gift shop keeping warming and eyeing up that sweatshirt.

Our driver’s name is Tim and he says that most people are disappointed when they see Stonehenge. Because of the notoriety of the site and the fear of vandalism, visitors can only view it from a distance, which means it looks exactly like you would expect it to look from the postcards. He assures us that we’ll be much more impressed once we get to Avebury, which has a larger and far more accessible Neolithic henge surrounding the town.

After a drive through the Wiltshire countryside and a glimpse high on a hill of one of the region’s chalk “white horses,” we arrive in Avebury to a perplexing sight. There are four or five people clustered around each stone, and they’re leaning in to touch the rock with their hands and heads. Tim says that it could be worse. Today, the New Age groupies are fully dressed and holding umbrellas or wearing raincoats with hoods. On the summer solstice, they often show up naked. He waves us on and adds: “Let’s go make fun of some people, shall we?”

We have some free time in Avebury, so after wandering around the stone circle I visit the parish church of Saint James, which has an impressive 11th century Saxon nave. Before long, though, we are back on the road again, heading for the village of Lacock.

Owned almost entirely by the National Trust, the tiny village of Lacock is often used as a film set, most notably for the 1995 BBC production of “Pride and Prejudice,” and the 2007 miniseries “Cranford.” I’ve seen both on television, so the town has a well-worn and familiar feel to it. I’m eager to take a turn about, but for now lunch is in order. I take a seat at the Red Lion pub and order a spinach, mushroom and goat cheese tart, as well as a pot of hot tea. It seems that tea is growing on me. I’ve been out in the inclement British weather long enough by now to understand its appeal.

Feeling fortified, I wander around Lacock, taking in the unspoiled view. Nearly nothing in town post-dates the 18th century, and there are no telephone wires or TV antennas to mar the happy illusion of time travel.

Our last stop of the day is in Castle Combe, once named the “prettiest village in England.” Given its meandering street of honey-colored homes and slate roofs, all dressed in patriotic bunting for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, it’s not hard to see why. We gather around the town’s 14th century market cross and then tour the medieval church of St. Andrews, which contains an effigy to Sir Walter de Dunstanville, a Norman knight who died during the Crusades. Tim also treats us to a story about a local resident named Pat. He says that for months after Osama bin Laden was killed she would come out of her house whenever the tour bus pulled into town, hoping there would be an American on board. If there was, she would shake their hand and say “thank you, thank you, for getting rid of that obnoxious man!”  

It’s been a good day, but a long one. By the time we arrive back in Bath, I’m too tired to go out to dinner, so I walk around the corner to my ever faithful Pret a Manger and pick out a sandwich and a Bakewell tart to take back to my room at 3 Abbey Green, where a warm bed and a mug of hot chocolate await.

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, July 22, 2007

Oh, bloody hell. When I get home I really must commit myself to learning a greater variety of British swear words. What little I know I learned watching “Billy Elliot” last night! More would certainly come in handy. Take this morning, for instance. I’m groggy from my late night at the theatre and the cumulative effect of three days of solid walking, but I am determined to make the 9:07 AM train to Bath. Actually, my original plan was to take the 7:37, but even I know that is sheer folly. I stumble across the street to the Gloucester Road tube stop only to find that the District and Circle line trains are not running, which means trouble if I’m going to get to Paddington Station on time. For a moment, I consider my options. “I could take the Piccadilly line to Green Park and then transfer to…”  But that would take time. I opt for a taxi instead. The driver gets me to the station with time to spare, but I can’t believe what this is costing me. Nearly $25 dollars. 

Once inside the station, I check the departure board and all is well. The train is on time. Engrossed once again in Harry Potter, I look up when I hear the crowd groan a few minutes later. The train has been cancelled. Not late… cancelled. I listen in as angry customers approach the service desk. It’s something about lack of staff. I hang my hopes on the 10:07. When it finally arrives the crowd is even larger and more unruly. I have my rail pass in hand, but no reservation. I count heads, the seats are limited. As soon as the track number is put on the board, people dash madly to the train. I do the same. It feels like a descent into The Lord of the Flies. Panting, I collapse into the first unoccupied seat I find and rejoice for it.  

By noon, I’m in Bath at last and ready to put my troubles behind me. But trouble is not yet ready to let me go. I walk out of the station to face the glories of Bath, to see Georgian architecture at its finest. Instead I see a construction zone. Not just any construction zone. This looks like something out of World War II, the Blitz perhaps. An entire city block has been razed. All that remains is rubble. I check my directions to the hotel: “Exit station walking left along Dorchester Street to end of buildings, go around building…” OK, the building is gone.  “…over bridge, under viaduct, through subway and turn right.” Here is where things go seriously wrong. I head up the hill and look for the comfort of a street sign that says Wells Road, but see nothing. No street signs at all. I stop and ask a group of men standing outside a pub for directions. They point further up the hill and tell me to keep going. By now my legs are burning and I’m grumbling audibly about the “8 minute” walk from the train station advertised on the hotel’s website. Were they carrying luggage when they timed it? I don’t think so. It dawns on me that the men outside the pub are probably laughing by now. They have sent me seriously off course. A kindly woman points me back down the same hill.

After a 30 minute odyssey, I find Oldfields at last. I tell a sympathetic woman manning the front desk of my plight and she says “That’s not good, is it”? It’s another rhetorical question and it reminds me of the businessman on the train to York. I smile for the first time in hours. 

With a bacon, leek and cheese pasty and a bag of chips in my stomach I feel refreshed, my optimism renewed. I sit eating on a park bench by the Bath Abbey watching a changing selection of street performers. When I’m done I buy a ticket for the City Sightseeing bus at the tourist information office and pick up the “Skyline” loop to the Prior Park Landscape Garden.

I stand at a top of the hill looking down into the valley, toward the Palladian bridge and an impossibly perfect herd of cows. I stop to catch my breath, not because of the climb, or even because of the morning’s stress, but because it’s just that beautiful. I follow the path down through the woods until I come to the foot of the valley, circle around the pond and walk slowly to the bridge itself. I stop to read the graffiti carved into the stone pillars and wonder what it was like the day J.D. was here on the 26th of May, 1810. I feel that I am not just miles away from the rest of the world, but centuries as well. In my head, I imagine I am Lizzy Bennet hoping for a chance encounter with the infuriating Mr. Darcy.

Back in Bath, I transfer buses to continue on the main “City Route.” There is live commentary and on the way to the Royal Crescent the tour guide tells us about the wealthy people who made Bath fashionable in the 18th century. As an aside, he improvises a line about Americans and how we are all rich, too, aren’t we? Well, no we’re not. But there’s that rhetorical question again.

As we move on it becomes clear that Bath is justifiably proud of their connection to Jane Austen, but the more I listen to stories about where she lived, the stranger it all seems. By the time we get to the Gravel Walk, where Anne and Captain Wentworth finally declare their love for one another in Persuasion, I remember with irony that Jane disliked Bath a great deal. And so did Queen Victoria, we are told. After a critical reception here in 1819, she did not return to the area again until her Diamond Jubilee in 1897 at which time she instructed the coachmen to draw the curtains on her carriage, lest she see the city again.

Here in the 21st century, the sun is shining and the day is long. Despite the opinion of these two fine women, I find that I like Bath very much indeed.

I end what has become a lovely day with a quick visit to the Fashion Museum, dinner at the Pump Room restaurant, and a late trip to the Roman Baths which by now are illuminated by torch light. I head out of town and back up the hill on tired legs, glad to find the hotel easily this time, even in the dark.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Rain, rain go away. It’s raining in Bath this morning. Pouring down rain. For Britain this is not exactly news. It’s been raining all summer. There is flooding everywhere. But as a tourist I am ensconced in my own little world. It is rude and narcissistic, I know, but the weather is interfering with my plans.

As in York, the full English breakfast I have at Oldfields warms my stomach, but this time there is no avoiding the messiness of the situation. If I walk into Bath for the day I will have to walk back up this bloody hill. I had planned to leave my bag at the train station, but the desk clerk tells me they no longer have left luggage facilities. Would I like to leave my bag at the hotel instead? They could arrange to have a taxi drive it down to the station later. This sounds quite odd to me. My bag riding alone in the backseat of a cab. I decline. But I can’t carry it either. The circumference on my travel umbrella is quite small, and putting the bag on my shoulder means it will immediately soak through. I decide to rest on the laurels of yesterday afternoon and take an early train back to London.

By afternoon I am back, for the third and final time, at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel. My friend at the front desk has come through for me in spades. I am directed to a palatial Club room on the 3rd floor. It is so large I could do cartwheels down the center. Well, theoretically at least. I have not done a cartwheel since I was twelve. I love upgrades.

I venture out briefly, first to the gift shop at Kensington Palace to pick up a DVD I regretted passing up last year, called “Tales from the Palaces.” My second stop is at Starbucks for a chai frappuccino. It’s raining in London and Harry’s final adventure beckons. Drink in hand, I spend most of the afternoon curled up on the couch in my hotel room reading.

By 5:30 PM, things are getting intense. The Battle for Hogwarts is raging, but it’s time for me to head off to the Lanesborough Hotel for afternoon tea. When I made my reservation weeks ago I was told that the Conservatory would be closed for renovations, but I am delighted to find that it is not. I am escorted to a choice seat facing the center of the room and I anticipate an elegant experience similar to one I enjoyed at the Ritz last year. Alas, it is not. A server delivers a meager looking tea tray with a few tiny pastries and sandwiches. At first, I expect it to be refreshed, but it is never is. The service is not just indifferent, it is almost non-existent. I guess after they won the UK Tea Council’s top prize in 2005, they stopped trying. It’s among the most expensive meals of my trip, but the only truly disappointing one.

I spend my final night in London watching “Les Misérables” at the Queens Theatre on Shaftsbury Avenue. Perhaps it is because of the comparisons I draw to “Wicked” and “Billy Elliot,” or because I am fighting off hunger following that dreadful tea, or maybe it’s because I finish reading Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows moments before the curtain rises and my mind is reeling, but it is my least favorite of the three. It’s very good, of course. Nothing on the London stage is ever bad. But it does not captivate me in the same way as the others.

On my way out of the theatre I realize that I’ve been in this city off and on for five days and I have still not seen Big Ben. In a light rain I walk to Trafalgar Square and stand for a good long while at the base of Nelson’s column looking down Whitehall. The view satisfies some small part of me and I say goodbye to London.