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.

Thursday, August 3, 2006

This morning I awake and find that I cannot quite remember when a double-decker bus ran over my body, but I am convinced that it must have happened in my sleep because I can barely move my muscles! I wish I had brought a pedometer to measure just how far I have walked for it is surely miles and miles. I tell my body to stop its pointless protest and get up.

Just as I hoped, I find myself at the doors of Westminster Abbey when they open at 9:30 AM, well in advance of the maddening crowd. I sign up for a guided tour and am thoroughly entertained by my verger, Ian—although simultaneously aghast by what was done to Oliver Cromwell’s body. I mean, it does seem a bit pointless since he was dead already and all… I smile as Ian shames away the hangers-on who refuse to pay for the commentary, but nevertheless lean in to catch all the gory details. Apparently, this happens all the time. So does theft. I listen to stories about how pilgrims came to pay homage to Saint Edward the Confessor and stole small relics from his tomb along the way, and how tourists carved their initials into the coronation chair used by every British monarch since the year 1308.

I love Westminster Abbey and marvel in the collected beauty of its marble busts and statues. When seeing it on television during the funeral of Princess Diana it looked vast. Here in person, it is warm and cozy and almost cramped, but in a good way. A very good way.

Before I leave I stop for lunch in the cloisters café and munch on a ham sandwich with piccalilli and enjoy my first slice of chocolate fridge cake made with digestive biscuits. I wonder what digestive biscuits are, but convince myself that I have indulged in a health food of some sort, where calories are not strictly counted. I make a mental note to search for a recipe when I get home. I eat perched on the windowsill overlooking the courtyard and still cannot quite believe that I am here.

After a quick trip through the gift shop to buy a guidebook—the perfect solution to the “no photography in the Abbey” rule—I head down to Westminster pier and use my travel card to get a discount on a City Cruises trip to the Tower and back. The views are lovely, but it is cloudy and dreary by now and chilly on the water, even with a jacket and scarf. I decide to forego the return part of the trip and head straight for Pimlico on the tube to save more time for Tate Britain before returning to Westminster Abbey for Evensong at 5:00 p.m.

Oh, the irony! To fly all the way across the Atlantic to attend an Evensong service at Westminster Abbey, only to find a guest choir from Houston, Texas on hand. Ian, the verger on my morning tour is kind enough to save me a seat in the quire, which I gratefully accept, seat cushion and all, after a long day of walking. As a lapsed Catholic wholly unfamiliar with Anglican church services, I am totally unprepared for the glorious acoustic sound of the music, which wafts up into the highest peaks of the cathedral ceiling before disappearing into the air. The clearest of blue skies greet me as I leave.

Following Evensong, I eat dinner at a nearby pub on Victoria Street, the Albert. The Victorian décor in the dining room upstairs is lovely, but the food from the carving station is overpriced and a bit mediocre. Afterward, the still blue sky encourages me to walk across Westminster Bridge and along the south bank of the Thames on the Jubilee Promenade. I buy a bag of fresh roasted peanuts from a street vendor and go as far as Blackfriars Bridge before turning back. I stop to enjoy the mournful sound of a clarinetist under the arch, and after rewarding him with a quid, remind myself to stop thinking about all those £1 and £2 pound coins in my pocket as little more than loose change.

I find a seat just across the river from Big Ben and wait for dusk and the monument lights to turn on before taking what will become my favorite picture of the trip. I stop off at an internet café to post it online for friends and family to see before heading off to bed.