Friday, June 1, 2012

I feel, dare I say, a sense of optimism this morning. It’s a gloomy day in Britain, but my flight arrives on time at Heathrow Airport, and despite endless stories of endless lines at immigration due to budget cuts, there is no waiting at all. I meet my driver from Exclusive Airports and fall into a comfortable nap in the car, all the way into the city and the Rubens at the Palace Hotel on Buckingham Palace Road, where a festive silver crown and the number sixty are enmeshed in a carpet of fresh greens just above the entrance. Despite the early hour, room 438 with its soft pillows and gray felt walls is ready and waiting for me, and it feels good to crash upon the bed. In the simple act of arrival, there is relief. It has been a triumph of efficiency. So far, so good.

I walk around the corner to a Pret a Manger near Victoria Station and buy an Edam cheese sandwich and a bag of chips for an impromptu picnic on the grass in Grosvenor Gardens. I’m tired already, with some combination of jet lag and residual illness, but now that I am here I’m determined to keep moving. I walk down the road and buy a ticket for an exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Queen’s Gallery at Buckingham Palace, and afterwards stroll through the Royal Mews, across the street from my hotel. I see the stables in which the monarch’s famous Windsor Grays are kept, and the Gold State Coach that carried a young Queen Elizabeth to her coronation in 1953. By the time I’m through, I’m ready to lay down for a bit before the 5:00 PM evensong service at Westminster Abbey. This has been my one great determination of the day and it’s as glorious as I remember inside, with its vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows and the most heavenly sounds coming from the cathedral choir, but honestly, I can barely keep my eyes open.

For dinner, I am sensible and I opt to stay in for the night and head down to the Old Master’s Carvery restaurant at the Rubens. From the buffet, I select slices of beef and pork, roasted potatoes and Yorkshire pudding. It’s not an earth shattering meal, but it’s hearty and warm and the traditional fare reminds me that I am in England.

At long last, I am a traveler again.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

It’s a foggy day in London town, and there is fine misting rain. Nevertheless, I am up at 7:00 AM to get ready for the Major General’s Review, a full dress rehearsal for the Trooping of the Colour—the Queen’s annual birthday parade—which takes place in two week’s time. I wasn’t able to snag a ticket for the genuine event on the 16th, but this sounds plenty impressive as it is, minus (of course) the presence of Her Majesty, who one can assume has practiced quite enough over the past six decades.

My stomach is in need of a full English breakfast and in the elegant dining room downstairs at the Rubens I enjoy one while perusing The Independent, which was left outside my hotel room door. This morning there’s an article titled “60 Things You Never Knew about the Queen.” Some of them are rather indulgent and unconvincing, such as #4: “Even at the age of one, she had what I call ‘royal manners,’ one of her first nannies, Nanny Wilkins, once revealed.” Others are humorous, if downright obvious. Case in point, #57: “For some time now, Prince Philip has suffered from a compulsion to insult people, even heads of state, whom he meets.” But the comments about her children—that only Anne turned out “as expected,” that Charles wants to be “cleverer than he in fact is,” that Andrew would have been a “perfectly good regional manager for a carpets firm, and much happier,” and that Edward is “sweet, gentle, and hopeless”—come across as insightful and intensely human.

I stuff the newspaper into my bag and head out the door. There is a buzz in the air as I make my way down Birdcage Walk toward Horse Guards Parade, and at Wellington Barracks preparations are already underway. There is a cavalry unit lining up their caissons, and I pause for a few minutes to watch as steam rises from the horses’ nostrils in the cool, morning air.

The Diamond Jubilee weekend is about to begin and the city is teeming with people. At the far corner of St. James’s Park, I overhear one policeman say to another: “It’s fucking going to be like this every day, I tell you. For the next four days, it’s fucking going to be like this.”

I turn left onto Parliament Street and look for signs into Horse Guards Parade. First I see Stands F, G, and H, and later around the block, Stands A, B, and C, but someone has forgotten to include Stands D and E and no one knows quite where to go. After being directed to one entrance, than another and back again, I make it to my seat at last, perched in a corner on the highest row of bleachers. It’s a perfect spot for taking pictures.

The troops arrive promptly at 10:00 AM and for the next two hours, I snap happily away as a cavalcade of color marches in precision before me to the beat of drums and bagpipes and brass bands. There are Foot Guards and Life Guards, Scots Guards and Irish Guards. There are cavalry units, like the Blues and Royals, and the King’s Troop of the Royal Horse Artillery. Some wear tall bearskins that rest low and heavy on their foreheads, while others have pith helmets of polished silver and gold, ornamented by red horsehair plumes. It’s an astonishing spectacle that reminds me of the might of the British Empire. After all these years, they still know how to put on a show.

Afterwards, I am swept by the dispersing crowd into Trafalgar Square, where I duck into the café at the National Gallery of Art for a quick lunch made up of a coronation chicken sandwich and cupcake whose white buttercream icing has been stenciled with the red and blue stripes of the Union Jack. With the British, it seems, there are no details left undone.

From there, with some time to spare before a 2:00 PM reservation at the National Portrait Gallery, I decide to visit “The Arnolfini Portrait” (1434) by Jan Van Eyck. It’s in the Sainsbury Wing next door, and for a moment, the long, slow flight of stairs to the second floor reminds me uncomfortably of Munich’s Alte Pinokothek, where I fell ill a year ago.

The exhibition I am waiting for is called “The Queen: Art and Image” and it brings together an eclectic mix of portraits of Elizabeth II from throughout her reign. Some are iconographic, others intimate. There is the Queen in Westminster Abbey, dressed in her coronation robes, wearing a crown and holding a scepter, but there is also an enchanting behind-the-scenes photograph from the day Diana married Charles, where the Queen is little more than a mother-in-law, an accessory to a growing celebrity destined to outshine her own. And then there is a luminous, holographic image by Chris Levine titled “Lightness of Being,” which captures the Queen with her eyes closed, resting between exposures.

By now, it’s mid-afternoon and the crowd inside the museum is hot and suffocating, despite the timed admissions. It’s time to get back to the Rubens, claim my bags, and grab a taxi toward the Thames. As I turn to leave, one of the hotel staff, a friendly man with close cropped hair and a thick Polish accent named Bogdan, asks if I was going to sneak off without saying goodbye. The staff at the Rubens have been wonderfully kind to me, and I remind him that I’ll be back in the few days. He gives me a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and lifts my suitcase into the waiting cab outside.

The sun is breaking through the clouds—at least momentarily—as the driver takes me over Westminster Bridge and we turn west along Albert Embankment. The Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant is tomorrow afternoon and I want to be close by. I check into a large, modern room at the Park Plaza Riverbank, which is draped for the occasion in red, white and blue bunting and a sign that reads “Congratulations Your Majesty,” and then go out scouting for dinner. Directly in front of the hotel there is a glorious view of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, but the neighborhood is otherwise rather barren. I walk up to Vauxhall underground station and settle on a take away sandwich from another Pret a Manger, and while I’m there I stock up on supplies—breakfast for the morning, and another sandwich and a Love Bar to get me through the afternoon, assuming I’ll be pinned in place by the crowds along the Thames.

On the walk back to the hotel, I feel tired, but excited, and I think again about what that policeman said in the park this morning: “It’s fucking going to be like this.”

Yes, I suppose it will. And won’t it be grand?

Sunday, June 3, 2012

I’m up early again this morning, enjoying a nice, relaxed breakfast in my room, while the BBC is playing in the background. From my walk to the local Pret a Manger yesterday afternoon I have a slice of lemon poppy seed cake, a cup of mixed fruit with mango, blueberries, and pomegranate seeds, and a bottle of apple juice. And for good measure, given the spitting rain and frigid temperatures outside, I heat some water using the electric kettle on the desk and use it to mix up a steaming mug of hot chocolate. According to the live news report on the TV, I’m going to need all the sustenance I can get.

This is London in early June, and while I wasn’t foolish enough to expect warm summer sunshine, I did plan for seasonable temperatures. In fact, while I was packing my luggage last week and deciding what to bring, I had looked at the weather forecast online and things seemed to be perfectly delightful, with highs well into the 70s. This morning as I peruse my wardrobe, it’s clear that I miscalculated. It’s in the mid-40s out there. Stoically, I pull on two pairs of socks, two pairs of pants, and two sweaters, followed by a black rain coat with a nice, deep hood. It’ll have to do. I also fix a plastic bracelet around my wrist. The front desk at the Park Plaza Riverbank is worried that throngs of holiday-makers will descend upon the restrooms inside, and this identifies me as a legitimate hotel guest.

By a quarter past nine I’m standing on the embankment just outside the hotel, surveying all that is before me. I look west to Vauxhall and then east to Lambeth Bridge and beyond, where a thick blanket of fog has settled over Big Ben and the Neogothic towers of the Houses of Parliament. The crowd at this hour is in a thin, broken line, so I decide to join in, to be sure of a front row seat. This is what I’ve come for, and there is no use wimping out now.

I pull out a small, folding camp stool I had packed in my suitcase, open an umbrella, and settle in with some music on my iPhone. It’s going to a long wait until the start of the pageant in mid-afternoon. I’m grateful that the white ear buds help to block the wind as I flip through a British-themed playlist I’ve made for the occasion. How apt it seems now that I should be listening to Matraca Berg’s “A Cold, Rainy Morning in London in June.”

There is a long and glorious history of flotillas on the Thames, one celebrated this month, not coincidentally, by a special exhibition entitled “Royal River” at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. The diarist Samuel Pepys wrote of one such pageant that he witnessed in 1660, a year after the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II. According to Pepys, the king and queen sailed down from Hampton Court to Whitehall “under a canopy with 10,000 barges and boats, I think, for we could see no water for them.” In 1716, Handel’s Water Music was composed for King George I, and had its premiere from a barge on the Thames. And around 1746, Canaletto painted a majestic armada of boats beneath the towering dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral in a canvas titled “The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day.”

Today, during what is formally known as the Thames Diamond Jubilee River Pageant, more than 1,000 vessels will sail from Battersea Park to Tower Bridge, making it the largest flotilla the river has seen in more than 300 years. Boris Johnson, the ever colorful mayor of London, has promised that it will be “like Dunkirk… only more cheerful.”

So far, despite the rain and the cold, Boris is right. Things are downright giddy among the million or so spectators that have lined the banks of the Thames by early afternoon. A man and a woman walk by in coordinating raincoats patterned with the Union Jack flag. Someone tall is wearing a cardboard mask of the Queen on the back of their head, and I’m amused to see her diamond tiara bobbing up and down above the crowd. My favorite, though, are two men—brothers, perhaps—who are holding court on the terrace just outside the hotel. They’re decked out in red, white, and blue from head to toe, from bow ties to blazers to sunglasses, and both are sporting patriotic Mohawk wigs. I call over to them and point to my camera, and they pose enthusiastically for me.

By now, I’ve fallen into an easy rapport with those around me in the crowd, and everyone seems surprised—and grateful even—that someone from America has come all this way to celebrate their Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

It’s 3:00 PM by the time we hear the Royal Jubilee bells that mark the arrival of the procession. Then we see the Gloriana. It’s a gilded barge rowed by more than a dozen straining souls, and there is a man in a red waistcoat and knickers perched on the bow, waving to the crowd in white gloves. I envy those gloves. By now, I’ve been out in the cold for nearly six hours and I can hardly feel my fingers.

An array of man-powered vessels follow—canoes, kayaks, gondolas, and dragon boats—each plowing doggedly through the choppy waters. They are succeeded by a squadron of Sea Cadets sailing under the flags of the Commonwealth countries. Then, at long last, comes Her Majesty, on a barge christened the “Spirit of Chartwell.” The boat is draped in red velvet bunting and swags of red roses, and under a gilded canopy I can see the Queen, dressed in white, standing resolutely alongside her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh, and other members of the Royal family, including Princes William and Harry. All of the men are dressed in their military finery.

As the barge passes under Vauxhall Bridge, there are scores of drenched Brits cheering loudly along the shore—and at least one American surrounded by her new friends from Gloucester and Cheltenham—waving back with their Union Jack flags.

For the next hour, we watch together as the Dunkirk little ships pass by, along with a series of steam ships, working boats, and motor cruisers, including the Jolly Brit from the Royal yacht Britannia. But at just past four, the rain begins to pour at last, and after taking a quick picture of my companions, we say our goodbyes. They rush back to the tube and I duck into my hotel, dripping from head to toe. There will be no flypast today and no need to wait. There is a small group clustered around a projection screen in the lobby, watching the BBC’s coverage on TV, but all I can think about are the warm blankets on my bed upstairs.

Sometime later, feeling refreshed, I take a stroll to the east, all the way up to Westminster Bridge. The night is still young, but some of the street lamps along the embankment have already flickered on, confused by the fog and the brooding, gray sky. It’s a sodden and solitary walk. The buoyant crowds of the day have scattered and gone home. When I can’t find anything suitable for dinner, I turn and head back to the hotel with a craving for room service and a fat, juicy cheeseburger with fries.

It’s a decidedly American meal I eat, curled up in bed in my pajamas while watching a replay of the pageant on TV, but at long last I am warm, dry, and fully fed. As a columnist for the Telegraph will write in the morning, the inclement weather “really didn’t dampen the atmosphere; it simply made it more British.”

They are a hearty lot, the Brits. And today, I was glad to be among them.

Monday, June 4, 2012

It feels good to sleep in this morning. Soon, I’ll be heading back to the Rubens so that I can be close by for the BBC concert in front of Buckingham Palace tonight, but there is no need to rush. I take my time getting dressed and then walk down the street to a small grocery store for a chocolate croissant and some orange juice. On the way back up to my room to get the luggage, I overhear the following conversation in the elevator:

A spry, older woman with an English accent says to her companion: “What are we doing today, then, going to the Golden Eye?” The companion says: “It’s the London Eye, not the Golden Eye. What do you think this is, James Bond?” And the woman says: “How do you know? Maybe he’ll be in there waiting for me!” I find it hard to suppress a laugh.

By the time I get back to the Rubens hotel and settle into a new room decorated in shades of silver and gold, I feel dizzy and my stomach is doing cartwheels. I enjoyed the pageant yesterday, but in truth I spent too many hours standing in the freezing cold and now I don’t feel well at all. And I’m not the only one. The BBC is reporting that the Duke of Edinburgh has been taken to the hospital with a bladder infection. He’ll have to sit out the remainder of the weekend’s events. Determined not to let that happen to me, I decide to skip my plans to see the Wallace Collection and lie down for a few hours instead.

It’s mid-afternoon by the time I venture out. I walk around the corner toward Victoria Station and stop at a Carphone Warehouse to buy a SIM card with a data plan for my iPhone from a nice young man named Quentin. From there, I open the London A-Z app on the phone and use its GPS to navigate my way down Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park Corner, and then along Piccadilly. All the while, to my right, I’ve been following the perimeter of the Buckingham Palace Gardens, and there is an extraordinarily long line of people waiting patiently just outside its stone walls. They’ve been invited to a tea party on the lawn.

I continue on past Berkeley Square to Oxford Street, intent on a little window shopping before a 5:30 PM reservation at Claridge’s. I have a tea of my own to attend, and given the state of my stomach, tea and sandwiches sound just about right.

Oxford Street is a riot of color on this Monday afternoon. The sidewalks are congested with shoppers and the road itself with red double-decker buses. Overhead, there is red, white and blue bunting, and row upon row of Union Jacks hanging between the lampposts on either side.

There is a car in the front window at Selfridge’s department store. It’s painted like the British flag and it’s being driven by a corgi. I wander inside and make my way to the food hall, where there is a replica of the state crown made entirely of jelly beans. There is also an aisle devoted exclusively to the “Foods of America,” which has me intrigued. I shudder when I see that we are associated so entirely with junk food—with Pop Tarts and Lucky Charms, marshmallow fluff and microwave popcorn.

I rest for a bit on a park bench in Grosvenor Square, near a quiet memorial to the British victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The clouds part to reveal a brilliant, blue sky, but it’s swallowed up again within minutes. I’m getting cold sitting here. It’s time to head to dinner.

The menu for my afternoon tea at Claridge’s in Mayfair is inspired by the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. It includes coronation chicken salad, a selection of sandwiches on artisanal bread, raisin and apple scones with Cornish clotted cream and Marco Polo jam, and a selection of British pastries decorated with gilded chocolate crowns. I don’t have the legs to walk back to the Rubens afterwards, so I take a taxi instead.

By the time I reach St. James’s Park, it’s just after 7:00 PM. I take one of the diagonal paths past the pelicans in the lake, intent on working my way over to The Mall, but there are barricades everywhere to control the crowds and I find myself pushed all the way down to the Guards Memorial. By now, the sky has cleared off properly and the sun is too enticing to resist. On a lark, I veer off course and head through the archway at Horse Guards Parade and emerge onto Whitehall. I’ve never seen London so peaceful and so entirely abandoned. I stroll down to Westminster Bridge, where a lone bagpiper is playing for no one in particular, and then back past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. By the time I feel inclined to head back into the park, it’s been closed off completely by the police. The crowds have grown too massive to let anyone else in and I’m forced to navigate my way back to the Rubens along narrow back roads.

Though I intended to be on The Mall tonight, I’m happy to be back in my room watching the concert on TV, where the view is better and the surroundings more agreeable, if less electric. I watch as Gary Barlow and the Commonwealth band perform “Sing,” the official anthem of the Diamond Jubilee, and see Charles’ speech to the eighty-six year old Queen, whom he calls Mummy. I join in, too, when the crowd is asked to cheer for the absent Duke of Edinburgh so that he might hear their support in the hospital. The old codger is ninety years old, and yet they both stood in the freezing rain yesterday all the way down the Thames, refusing to sit down. Say what you will about the monarchy, but they have lived a long life in service to their country, and within the narcissism of the modern world that deserves admiration and respect.

The band is playing “I Vow to Thee, My Country” as the fireworks begin, and suddenly I feel the walls and windows in my room shake. Absorbed by the spectacle on television, I had forgotten—really and truly forgotten—where I was. I pull on my jacket and rush downstairs. I am out on the street in time to see the streaks of color and smoke high in the sky over Buckingham Palace, and in that moment I feel perfectly well and fully alive.

It’s been a long journey here, in so many ways, and the past year—like today—has not been precisely what I planned, but sometimes detours have rewards of their own.

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, 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.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

I’m spending the day at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry and I couldn’t be happier about it.

Or, rather, I’m going to a close approximation of Hogwarts.

This morning, I’ve booked a ticket to the Warner Brothers Studio Tour, “The Making of Harry Potter,” which opened just a few months ago in a warehouse about 20 miles northwest of London.

When my nephew was young, we devoured the Harry Potter books together, one after the other. And I still remember buying the last, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, on the morning of its release at a bookshop in York, England back in 2007. Because I value reading and imagination above all, I’ve not been a big fan of the movie adaptations, but I’m excited nonetheless to see the sets and costumes, props and animatronics, that were created for the films.

First, I have to get there. By public transportation, I could have taken the tube from Victoria to Euston Station (£4.20 roundtrip on my Oyster card), a train from there to Watford Junction (£9.80 for an advance fare), and then a private shuttle bus to the studio (£2), where I would still have to pay a whooping £28 for admission. But for just £10 more, I’m opting for a far easier plan. I’m going with Golden Tours. Their bus departs just a few short blocks from my hotel, the ticket price is included, and as a bonus, I’m riding on the top deck of what looks remarkably like the Knight Bus.

The Warner Bros. studio is a boisterous, crowded place, but admissions are carefully timed to minimize congestion, and as I wait in line, I get a glimpse of the cupboard under the stairs, where Harry slept at the Dursleys before discovering he was a wizard. As part of the 11:00 AM group, I watch a short introductory film in a small theatre, and then the screen rises to reveal the massive wooden doors of Hogwarts castle, which open and allow visitors to pass through into the Great Hall.  

What comes next is a feast for the eyes. There is the Weasley family’s Burrow, Hagrid’s hut, Dumbledore’s office, the Gryffindor common room, and the potions classroom run by the onerous Snape. And there are props and costumes, too: the Sorting Hat, the Marauder’s Map, Herimone’s dress from the Yule Ball, the blue Ford Anglia that Harry and Ron fly onto the Hogwarts grounds, and the Mirror of Erised, into which Harry imagines a life in which his parents had not died.  

I take a break half-way through and buy a Butterbeer, which is cold and frothy and sickeningly sweet. Outside in the courtyard, there is a model of the Dursley’s house on Privet Drive, and in front, a teenage girl poses with a T-shirt that reads: KEEP CALM AND KILL THE DARK LORD.

I head back inside and wander by animated models of Hagrid’s giant spider, Aragog, and Buckbeak, the Hippogriff that carried Sirius to safety at the end of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. I emerge next onto Diagon Alley, in all its glory. I see the crooked pillars of Gringott’s Bank, the cluttered windows of Ollivander’s wand shop, as well as Flourish & Blotts and Eeylops Owl Emporium, before spotting the garishly wonderful Weasleys’ Wizard Wheezes at the far end of the street. The highlight of the tour, however, is an intricate scale model of Hogwart’s Castle that fills an entire room.

I glance down at my watch. I’m running out of time to meet the tour bus. There is one last room, however, and it’s made to look like Ollivander’s wand shop. There are stacks upon stacks of boxes on the shelves, and on the end of each box is printed the name of someone who worked on the films. It’s a rather fitting tribute to a vast army of talented people. But here’s the thing… Everyone around me is scrambling to take pictures of Daniel Radcliffe’s name, and Rupert Grint’s and Emma Watson’s—the actors who portrayed Harry and Ron and Hermione in the films. But J.K. Rowling is right there, too, and no one seems to care about the author who created this wonderfully magical world. I run my finger lightly across her name in gratitude, and then head to the gift shop for souvenirs.

Back in London, I’m too exhausted to go out for dinner, so once again I turn to Pret a Manger for takeout and pick up a salad and a falafel with halloumi to eat back at the Rubens. I relax for a bit, sorting through the pictures on my camera, but I have one more event to attend and I can’t afford to be late.

As I head to the Victoria underground station, I look down at the ticket in my hand. It says I have an “Invitation to Witness the Ceremony of the Keys” at the Tower of London, which has taken place every night, without fail and nearly without delay, for at least 700 years. Once, during the Second World War, the ceremony was interrupted by a German bomb that fell on the guardroom just as the Chief Warder and his escort were coming through the archway of the BloodyTower. Being British, they dusted themselves off and carried on. 

The sky is growing dim and it’s raining steadily by the time I arrive at just past nine, and our small group is let through the gate with military precision at 9:30. I’ve gone to some trouble to be here—applying by post months in advance and following careful instructions to include an International Reply Coupon, which wasn’t easy to find. I’m surprised, then, and more than a little annoyed to see a large number of people join our ranks for the ceremony minutes before it’s scheduled to begin. They are wandering about and giggling, and their umbrellas are blocking everyone’s view. There’s a swank corporate event going on at the Tower of London tonight and the Yeoman Warder apologizes, saying the group has paid “an exorbitant sum of money” to be there. Clearly, he’s not happy about it either. 

At precisely 9:53 PM, a warder marches in with a large ring of keys, accompanied by four guards. I can hear the patter of raindrops and the sound of their foot falls in unison against the pavement, but I can’t see much, nor can the kids in the crowd who have been far better behaved than the corporate suits.

As the warder and his guard approach Traitor’s Gate, a sentry steps forward to challenge them.

Sentry: “Who comes there?”
Chief Warder: “The keys.”
Sentry: “Whose keys?”
Chief Warder: “Queen Elizabeth’s keys.”
Sentry: “Pass Queen Elizabeth’s Keys. All’s well.”

They turn into the courtyard by the White Tower, the Warder says “God Preserve Queen Elizabeth,” and a bugle is played. The corporate suits rush ahead of everyone else and once again block the view.

By the top of the hour, it’s all over—a mere seven minutes—and I’m back on the tube, heading home to the Rubens. Try as I might, I’m still feeling disgruntled as I turn in for bed with Henry VIII and his six wives looking down upon me from their portraits on the wall. The Tower of the London is one of the world’s great fortresses, and the tradition I saw tonight demanded more respect than it was given. Surely, old Henry would have had something to say about that. He’d probably have had them drawn and quartered.

Friday, June 15, 2012

I’m heading to Greenwich this morning by ferry, so after another fine breakfast at the Rubens, I take my usual route down Birdcage Walk toward Westminster Bridge. When I reach the corner of St. James’s Park I look over at Buckingham Palace to admire the view. For the first time since my arrival, the Victoria Monument is unencumbered by scaffolding and stage lights for the Diamond Jubilee and traffic is flowing freely. At the palace, the Royal Standard is flying high overhead and that means that the Queen is home. Of course she is. Tomorrow is the annual Trooping of the Colour, which means yet another carriage procession, and yet another balcony appearance, with more smiles and more waves. What a strange life it must be.

I walk all the way down to Embankment, intending to take the Thames Clipper to Greenwich Pier, but it breaks down along way and we have wait to change vessels. Dense clouds have formed overhead and a stiff wind is kicking up, which makes the river choppy. Once back on the water, I retreat inside the cabin, pull my scarf tight, and watch raindrops gather on the window as we pass the Monument, Shakespeare’s Globe, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and Tower Bridge. By the time we arrive in Greenwich an hour later, I’m properly seasick.

I’ve booked an 11:00 AM reservation to see the Cutty Sark and because of the mechanical difficulties we had along the way, it’s already a quarter past, so there’s no time to sit and gather my bearings. I’ve got to plow on.

Built in 1869, the Cutty Sark was one of the last, great clipper ships to sail during the tea trade. It was nearly destroyed by a fire in 2007 and its restoration in the years since has become a source of national pride. The ship may be dry docked permanently for public display, but as I walk through the hull, trying to focus on the exhibits, I can still feel the rocking and swaying of the ferry that brought me here. I take a few pictures, then make a hasty retreat in search of fresh air.

After resting a bit at the visitor’s center, I walk to the Old Royal Naval College to see the chapel and the Painted Hall, the latter of which was decorated with a series of allegorical murals about the British monarchy and its naval power by Sir James Thornhill between 1708 and 1727. By the time I leave, my stomach has improved a bit, enough at least to take a chance on lunch. I slide onto a bench at Goddard’s and order a traditional plate of Pie and Mash with a parsley sauce known, oddly enough, as “green liquor.”

Next, I explore the halls of the National Maritime Museum. Through the years, I’ve passed through London’s Trafalgar Square many times and I’ve always liked Nelson’s Column, with its protective ring of bronze lions at the base, so I’m especially pleased to see Admiral Nelson’s bloodied uniform from the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

I check the time on my watch. It’s nearly 2:00 PM and I’ve reserved a ticket online to see a special exhibition titled “Royal River: Power, Pageantry and the Thames.” I pause for a long while in front of Canaletto’s canvas of “The Thames on Lord Mayor’s Day” in 1746, marveling at its minute details. Perhaps it’s artistic license, and just maybe it’s the blue sky overhead, but compared to the Diamond Jubilee river pageant two weeks ago, things looked rather more grand back then. I feel like a traitor for saying so, but it’s true.

I trudge on to the Queen’s House to see the tulip staircase, but my stomach does flip flops when I look down at the geometric floor of the Great Hall from the balcony above. I’m really flagging now, but I’m determined to check one more item off my list. I can’t leave Greenwich without standing on the Prime Meridian.

On the long walk up the hill to the Royal Observatory, I have to stop twice to rest on park benches, but I make it to the top and through the museum, past a portrait of John Harrison and the timekeepers he designed that finally solved the Longitude Problem in the mid-18th century, out into the courtyard.

There is a line inlaid in the pavement marked with the names of various cities around world—Sydney, Buenos Aires, Ottawa, and Chicago. I place one foot on either side. I am at Latitude 51˚25’ 38” North, Longitude 0˚0’ 0”. It’s not an earth-shattering moment, exactly. A meridian is nothing more than an arbitrary line running north to south, chosen by astronomers as a central point from which to take measurements. But this is the Prime Meridian, which means that for this fleeting moment I am standing with one foot in the Western hemisphere and one foot in the East. I pop a one pound coin into a machine and receive a certificate in return that reads:

 On 15 June 2012
I stood astride the world’s Prime Meridian
in the Courtyard of the Royal Observatory Greenwich

 I have stood, it says, at the “home of time.” And with that, I am well satisfied.

Back in London, I’m thankful that I have a few hours to recuperate before dinner at L’Arco and a night at the theatre. I’m going to see “The Phantom of the Opera” at Her Majesty’s Theatre near Covent Garden, and I have a wonderful seat in Row G of the Stalls. Maybe it’s because I’ve been feeling sick all day, but I’m in a melancholy mood.

Phantom premiered in 1986, the year I graduated from high school, and my sister Patti bought me the soundtrack on a set of cassette tapes for my birthday. As a teenager, I never imagined that I would ever travel to London to see it performed live on stage, and yet many years later, here I am.

My sister—who died young—is not.

When Christine sings:

Wishing you were somehow here again,
Wishing you were somehow near.
Sometimes it seemed if I just dreamed,
Somehow you would be here,

I can’t help but think of Patti and of how much she would have enjoyed this trip—the royal parade, the tea at Claridge’s, the window shopping on Oxford Street, and the tromp through Bath and the Cotswolds in the footsteps of Jane Austen.

In an unexpected way, all of this comforts me, because it draws her memory close.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I’m not going to do it.

That’s what I’m thinking at breakfast this morning. Really, I won’t. I’ve seen Her Majesty the Queen twice already. There is no need to stand in line for hours to see her yet again during the Trooping of the Colour. Surely, there are other, less congested things to do in London. I could go to Kew Gardens, for instance, or to Kensington Palace for lunch at the Orangery.

As I enter the lobby at the Rubens, I can overhear the concierge telling someone about the schedule for the day’s events, and where they might stand if they’d like to see the parade.

I think to myself: Been there, done that.

I wait until the concierge is free and then ask him for help in getting a theatre ticket for tonight. It’s my last night in London, and I’d love to see something. Actually, I’d love to see “War Horse,” but I’ve already checked online and tonight’s performance is completely sold out. Or maybe not. He holds up his finger and asks me to wait. He makes a call and snags me a premium ticket, but he’s appalled at the price. I hear him say into the telephone receiver: “£109! What does she get for her £109? Is the bloody horse going to sit next to her in the audience?”

Hee. Let’s hope so! I nod at him and tell him to seal the deal.

When I head out onto Buckingham Palace Road, I see a flurry of activity at the Royal Mews across the street and in a moment of profound weakness I turn right, instead of left toward Victoria underground station. I’m just going to take a peek, that’s all. It’s a quarter past ten and as I approach St. James’s Park, I can see a healthy crowd gathering. Perhaps, just maybe, I’ll stay for a bit to catch a glimpse of the carriages as they head down The Mall. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a parade.

The Royal Standard I saw flying above the palace yesterday has been replaced by a far larger version, and there are TV cameras mounted beneath it on the roof. The timing is perfect, actually. Within minutes of my arrival, the Household Cavalry begin to march and after a short lull, the Duchess of Cornwall and the former Kate Middleton, Duchess of Cambridge, emerge in a carriage with Prince Harry, followed by another with Prince Andrew and Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, and finally the Queen.

I certainly don’t have a front row position this time around, but for a wait of no more than twenty minutes, it’s not half bad. Besides, the view of the crowd nearly swallowing the Queen—a sea of arms outstretched and cameras held high—is an intriguing one that says something about the enduring power of tradition in the modern age, or maybe just the lure of celebrity.

Within seconds, the carriages are out of sight and on their way to Horse Guards Parade for the Trooping of the Colour. By standing on Parliament Street during the Diamond Jubilee carriage procession, I couldn’t get anywhere near Buckingham Palace to see the royal family’s balcony appearance, so on a whim I decide to wander about for a bit. I’ll come back in time for the 1:00 PM fly past.

I walk up to Oxford Street and then to Gray’s Antiques in Mayfair. There are at least 200 dealers inside, but most are closed and after browsing those that are open, it’s immediately apparent that I can’t afford to buy anything anyway. I wish I was antiquing back in Stow-in-the-Wold instead.

I wander down through Green Park, where there is smoke rising through the trees from a gun salute underway, and arrive just in time to see the Queen and Prince Philip waving to the crowd from the balcony of Buckingham Palace, which is draped for the occasion in scallops of red velvet with gold trim. They’re soon joined by the entire family—Prince Andrew and his daughters, William and Kate, Harry, and even little Lady Louise and Viscount Severin, the children of Prince Edward and Sophie, the Countess of Wessex. It feels like a fitting finale to my time in London during the Diamond Jubilee, and when a squadron of RAF fly past spraying plumes of red, white, and blue, I take my leave.

I retrace my steps back through the park to Fortnum & Mason, where I stop for lunch in their newly refurbished Tea Salon, then head across the street to Ladurée for some Parisian macarons. I unwind back at the hotel for a while, pack my suitcase for tomorrow’s trek to Edinburgh, and then grab some tapas for an early dinner at the bar next to the Rubens.

My last night in London is a memorable one. The puppetry in “War Horse” is extraordinary and the experience is worth every pence of the £109 I paid. Before long I find myself forgetting that Joey and Topthorn are made of cloth and metal instead of flesh and bone.

The sky is black when I emerge from the New London Theatre onto Drury Lane, but even at this hour Covent Garden is a bustle of activity. As I make my way back to the Rubens one last time, I think of something that Samuel Johnson once said to his biographer and friend, James Boswell, who lived in Scotland: “Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”

I am reluctant to leave myself, but leave I must.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Since I’m bound for Scotland this morning, a Robert Burns quote seems to be in order:

“The best-laid plans of mice and men oft go astray.”

Indeed.

My train was to depart from Kings Cross this morning at 9:50 AM, but it’s running late. The departures board overhead flashes ominously and the crowd around me groans. I had been preoccupied taking pictures of Platform 9¾ from the Harry Potter books, but the sudden noise causes me to look up quickly. CANCELLED, it says.

Confusion follows, then people start sprinting towards alternative routes. The official explanation is “overrunning engineering works on the tracks,” whatever that means. I’m instructed to take a train to Peterborough and change lines there, which I do grudgingly because I know it will negate the money I spent on a first class seat reservation.

By the time I make it all the way to Edinburgh, it’s late afternoon and I’m in a foul mood. It’s freezing cold and pouring down rain—of course—but from a practical standpoint it means that I can’t hold an umbrella and carry my luggage at the same time. I pull up my hood, tighten my scarf, and mumble something about staying calm and carrying on under my breath, followed by an expletive.

I’m so weary that I feel like Joey the “War Horse” dragging my luggage up the ramp and out of Waverly Station to my hotel. After checking in to a bright, modern room at the Apex Waterloo Place, I venture out across North Bridge toward the Royal Mile in search of the nearest restaurant, which happens to be an Italian place called Prezzo. It’s warm and inviting inside with the fire from the brick ovens and their bruschetta with sliced cherry tomatoes, fresh basil, and pesto does wonders for my mood. By the time I finish off a plate of chicken ravioli, I feel refreshed and ready to explore the city in the morning, and determined to brace myself against the weather by buying a tartan wool shawl.

Tuesday, August 1, 2006

I arrive at Heathrow Airport at just past nine in the morning after a fitful night of would-be sleep on an overnight flight from Philadelphia. Adrenalin, however, rules the day when I open my eyes to patchy blue skies over the UK and a growing sense of excitement. London, baby! I have never ventured abroad before and certainly not alone, as I am doing here, so I follow the crowds of more savvy travelers through baggage claim and immigration and in the blink of an eye find myself and my luggage stowed comfortably aboard the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station. For fifteen peaceful minutes I congratulate myself on my decision to splurge here on the most expensive train ride per mile I have ever taken. I would not have wanted to struggle with my bags on the tube. Watching others do it later, over and over again, only confirms the sentiment.

After a short taxi ride from Paddington, I arrive at the doorstep of my home for the next eight days, the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel on Gloucester Road. Still amazed at my success in fooling my body into thinking it is mid-morning rather than the crack of dawn, I gawk about the lovely lobby, check my luggage in with the bellman, and set off into the “Streets of London” humming that old Ralph McTell song as I walk. First stop, Tesco’s for a quick sandwich. Next, the Underground station across the street where I ask confidently for an Oyster card with a 7-day travel card fare for zones 1-2. I notice that the attendant seems genuinely relieved that he does not have to explain fare options to yet another foreign-born tourist, and I can hardly blame him given the growing length of the queue.

I hop on a westbound Circle line train for a quick trip to High Street Kensington and purchase an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone from the Virgin Megastore there. I stop briefly in the square in front of Saint Mary Abbots church to call my family in the states and tell them, in my best faux British accent, that they can “ring me on my mobile.”

With a ticket for the Big Bus Company I printed online in my pocket (£2 saved) and a camera at my side, I start searching for the nearest tour stop, boarding at last in front of the Royal Albert Hall. Like everyone else, I sit on the upper deck and find the recorded commentary on the “Blue” line to be surprisingly good. I hop off at Piccadilly Circus to pick up brochures at the tourist information bureau and then switch to a “Red” line bus with live commentary, only to find the guide’s timid voice drowned out by the sound of traffic in the street. Not caring enough to switch buses again, I catch my first glimpse of Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London. I spend most of the afternoon grinning like a child on Christmas morning.

When I return to my hotel late in the day I am shocked at how big my room is. It is a Club room, so I expected something a little better than average, but this is very, very nice—European-style linens, two comfy armchairs, robust air conditioning, and a deep soaking tub! What more could I ask for?

I decide to eat an early dinner at the Taste of India restaurant right up the street. The chicken tikka masala is good but not great, and the sticker shock of a lousy exchange rate is starting to sink in. Afterward, I take a long, slow walk through Kensington Gardens. I knew Londoners had suffered through successive heat waves in July, but somehow I am surprised by the look and feel of the parched grass that crunches beneath my feet. I enjoy the Flower Walk and Italian Gardens and begin to suspect that while Brits may be willing to sacrifice their lawns in times of drought, they seem to find a way to save their flowers! I walk further and find the Peter Pan Statue and the Princess Diana memorial fountain. I wonder how much the royal family must have hated Diana to allow such an odd and unimpressive thing to be built in her honor.

Back to the hotel, and a night of blissful sleep.

Wednesday, August 2, 2006

After a quick breakfast of fresh-squeezed orange juice and an almond croissant at the Patisserie on Gloucester Road, I tube over to Green Park to take pictures of Buckingham Palace, and then walk along the Mall through Admiralty Arch into Trafalgar Square. Somewhere along the way I realize just how much I appreciate the British aesthetic. Buses should be red and taxis should be black. Why do we in America not know this?

I am thoroughly impressed by the hustle and bustle of Trafalgar Square and am delighted to find Old Nelson fresh and clean and free of scaffolding. The view down Whitehall towards Big Ben is as wonderful as my guidebook claims. I snap more pictures and begin to wonder how long the 1 GB storage card in my camera is going to hold out at this rate. I grab my only real bargain of the entire trip from a nearby convenience store—a 40p bottle of water—and retrace my steps back to Horseguards Parade for the changing of the Queen’s Life Guard at 11:00 AM. The crowd is small, the horses and their riders lovely, and the action nearly imperceptible. People wait, then murmur and shrug, not quite sure if what they saw was what they were supposed to see, and then disperse.

I head back to Trafalgar Square and call my family on the cell phone and tell them it is time to do the “webcam thing.” This I discovered some months ago and resolved to stand in the square in view of the camera while I waved to the folks back home, the picture of which they would save on their computer for posterity. And so here I am, a grainy, indistinct mass standing in the center of a traffic island in Trafalgar Square, half a world away. We all think this is cool.

I head to the National Portrait Gallery and rent an audioguide tour, which takes me through a lively tour of England’s Kings and Queens. Then, I walk to the nearby church of St. Martin-in-the Fields for lunch at their Café in the Crypt. It sounds a bit strange to me and I pause to think about the tombs of those on which I trod, but alas I am hungry and head quickly for the food—a mushroom tart and cucumber salad.

In the afternoon, I rent another audioguide, this time for the National Gallery. This one is much less interesting, but the art is impressive all the same. On leaving Trafalgar Square, I walk up Charing Cross Road and buy my nephew the latest Harry Potter book in paperback, then across into Covent Garden for dinner. There is a “Punch and Judy” show and street performers pretending to be statues—quite successfully! I drop 50p into a hat and one of them springs to life and blows me a kiss. I enjoy a traditional Cornish pasty and chips al fresco along with a single bottle of diet Coke, and find myself missing the unlimited refills we enjoy in the states.

By 8:00 PM I feel completely knackered, but I am motivated to “power through” by late hours at the Victoria & Albert Museum near my hotel. Some of the galleries are closed, but the 15th and 16th century stained glass windows are a thing of beauty. I am glad I came.

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.

Friday, August 4, 2006

I am an early bird again this morning, trying to be at the Tower of London when they open at 9:00 AM.  I grab a quick bottle of orange juice and a maple pecan “flapjack”—which, as I discover, is not at all like a pancake—at a food stand nearby before heading in.  Once inside, I go straight for the crown jewels and find myself alone with them, except (of course) for the heavily armed guards.  I hop on the moving walkway, go around several times, and decide that I like Queen Victoria’s tiny crown the best.  Next, I meet up with a tour led by one of the Tower’s Yeoman Warders (or “Beefeaters”) and discover, much to my surprise, that bloody executions of the innocent can be quite amusing when the stories are told in the right way.  I spend the entire morning exploring the buildings and grounds, before stopping for lunch at the New Armouries Café, at which I once again stumble across that glorious chocolate fridge cake.  It must be fate.  

I tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the afternoon and sign up for a “super tour” with a wonderful volunteer guide named Chris at 2:00 p.m.  Afterward, I decide to brave the climb up to the dome.  I make it up the Whispering Gallery just fine.  Onwards and upwards I climb to the Stone Gallery.  Still OK.  Along the way to the Golden Gallery my legs tire and my heart begins to race.  Unmistakably, I begin to spot old graffiti carved into the plaster walls.  In a flight of fancy, I imagine a similar soul making the same trek a century or more ago, writing his last words to family and friends before dying of a heart attack!  I approach the last flight of narrow spiral stairs with trepidation, especially after seeing the open ironwork on the stair treads, which makes me dizzy.  But thanks to my nephew’s fondness for his “Lord of the Rings” DVD set, I think of Aragorn’s speech in “The Return of the King.” I say to myself: “There may come a time when the courage of men fail, but it is not this day.”  I push on and on, and…  Oh, the view!  Completely worth it! 

I climb back down and stay for evensong at 5:00 PM.  As at Westminster Abbey, the resident choir is on holiday, but the organ and the guest choir are both lovely.  Following the service, I walk across the MillenniumBridge—which, thankfully, no longer wobbles—toward the Tate Modern.  I eat dinner at the Pizza Express next door and then make my way into Shakespeare’s reconstructed Globe Theatre for a production of Simon Bent’s “Under the Black Flag.” I am disappointed, and not just because my aching feet have made it impossible for me to fulfill my dream of being a “groundling.”  The seats, even with a rented cushion, are very uncomfortable and at nearly three hours in length the play is overly long and tedious.  There is much death and mayhem, but the story would be better told by one of the Tower’s Beefeaters.  Here, it is just not funny, even though it tries hard to be. 

As I exit the theatre, the view of St. Paul’s illuminated in the night sky is beautiful.  I take pictures and then walk east, past Southwark Cathedral, to the London Bridge tube stop, stopping by the edge of the water in front of City Hall to snap more pictures of Tower Bridge.  As I balance my camera on the railing to keep it steady, the drawbridge opens and a ship sails through.  Another great picture.  I marvel at my good fortune.

Saturday, August 5, 2006

This is my earliest morning by far, but as an avid antiques collector, I am determined to explore the shops and stands along Portobello Road before heading to Windsor Castle for the day.  Unlike in the states, I see real antiques here, not “collectibles” and flea market junk disguised as antiques.  I love everything, but can afford nothing.  I am especially taken with a tiny porcelain box that has a hand painted view of St. Paul’s on the lid and the words “A souvenir of London” written underneath.  It dates to the mid-18th century and costs £495.   Seriously.  There’s just no way.  At Alice’s across the street, I overhear a good-humored argument between the proprietors about one partner’s drinking and carousing the night before, which delayed their opening the shop.  To soften the loss of the St. Paul’s box, I settle for a pair of reproduction Staffordshire figurines from them instead, which puts a temporary stop to the bickering.
 

 

By 10:00 AM I am on a train for Windsor, heading out from Paddington Station.  I switch lines at Slough and arrive well in advance of the Changing of the Guard, only to find that they have changed the schedule instead.  I missed it the day before…  I thoroughly enjoy Windsor Castle and its state apartments nevertheless.  I do wonder about the common sense of some people, however, and greatly sympathize with the poor guards who have to stop them from taking pictures at every turn-sometimes the same person two or three times in a row.  For goodness sake, just buy a guidebook!  Perhaps the ancient art of drawing and quartering should return as a punishment for those who cannot listen.  Just kidding.

I break for lunch in town at the Café Rouge, where I order a pastry filled with goat cheese and roasted vegetables, then walk back to see more of the castle and St. George’s Chapel.  I saw a few episodes of “Windsor Castle: A Royal Year” on my local PBS station last year and wish I could remember more about the Order of the Garter.  I will have to rent it when I get home. 

By 6:00 PM I am back in London and at Harrods, where I eat a rotisserie chicken dinner in the food halls.  Overall, I am not as impressed with the store as I thought I would be.  It seems a bit crass.
 

 

I end the day with a flight on the London Eye at 9:00 PM — the last of the night.  Perfect weather, perfect time.  How I wish I could go around twice, once to take pictures, once just to enjoy.  Heck, why not go round and round all night?  The view is that good. 

In the darkness, on my walk back to the tube across Westminster Bridge, a bagpiper stands upright and alone, playing his heart out.  This is a great city.

 

Sunday, August 6, 2006

I venture out of London again this morning, this time to HamptonCourtPalacevia the South West trains at Waterloo station.  Just like the day before, no one comes around to collect my ticket.  How does this work?  Is it some kind of honor system?  A less honest person could save some real money here. 

Once there, I am relieved that I cancelled the full-day bus tour I had originally planned, combining WindsorCastle and Hampton Court.  Staying at Hampton Court for only two hours would be a travesty.  I wind up spending that in the gardens alone, to say nothing of the four audio tours of the Tutor kitchens and state apartments.  Like the audioguide at the National Portrait Gallery, these are very well done.  The hours tick by, and I hardly notice.  I love this place.

Somewhere along the way I stop for lunch at the Tiltyard Café where I discover, and fail to resist, my third piece of chocolate fridge cake.  See, it is fate.   

Before I leave Hampton Court, I try to find my way to the center of the Tutor maze.  Naturally, I get lost among the tall hedges and find that I keep meeting up with the same people, who are also lost.  About ten minutes in, I have a silly Harry Potter moment and decide to stay on the alert for blast-ended skrewts and giant spiders.  Where’s my wand?  I could send up red sparks!  I do not want to be a Muggle.  I want magic.  Now.  The built-in sound effects are egging me on.  I hear whispering and snatches of laughter.  A disembodied voice tells me I am getting closer.  I do not believe her.  Eventually by happenstance, I emerge into a clearing to join a dozen other dazed souls.  I take a picture of myself by the sign to prove that I was there, then take the short-cut out.  I am not heading back in there.  Mad-Eye Moody might be lurking in the shadows… 

I return to the hotel around 6:30 PM and rush through a quick sandwich from Tesco’s before heading to a promenade concert at Royal Albert Hall.  The hall itself is a lovely space, but the lack of air conditioning makes things quite stuffy and uncomfortable.  I can only imagine how much worse it is during a heat wave.  From my vantage point on the balcony it seems that people are sleeping on the floor of the arena in front of the stage, or perhaps they have collapsed from a lack of fresh air.  Either way, I hope none of them feel justified in buying the “Prommers do it standing up” T-shirts for sale in the lobby downstairs! 

The first piece of the evening is one newly commissioned by the BBC, titled “Heaven is Shy of Earth.”  The program says it is inspired by the poetry of Emily Dickinson, but I just do not get it.  I have always thought of Dickinson as a melodic poet, but to my ears this is an atonal mess.  After the intermission, I much prefer Ravel’s “Daphnis and Chloe,” and am reminded midway through that Sarah Hughes used this music in her long program when she won the gold medal in ladies figure skating in 2002.  I think it must have been much cooler on the ice that night.

Monday, August 7, 2006

An offer of free admission on Mondays means that I start my day with a brief tour of the Courtauld Gallery, where I see Van Gogh’s famous self-portrait with a bandaged ear.  Then, because I missed the Changing of the Guard at WindsorCastle, I decide to brave it at BuckinghamPalace.  Sort of.  Instead of planting myself in front of the palace gates like other mere mortals, I arrive late and stand instead by the Wellington Barracks.  The band is playing an eclectic mix of music, from Sousa marches to Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma,” and even throw in a few pop songs.  I like it.  Who ever said the Brits were stuffy?  There is a highly evolved sense of humor here.   

After the guard is inspected, I follow them as they parade toward BuckinghamPalace, then pause for a picnic lunch in St. James’s Park, which I bought earlier at a Prêt a Manger.  By the time I finish eating, the old guard leaving the palace provides another nice photo opportunity.  Perhaps I missed the major action in front of the palace (although given my experience with the Queen’s Life Guard on Wednesday, I am not so sure about that) but it is a pleasing compromise given the crowds.  

In the afternoon, I head to the British Museumto see the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone, but enjoy the Enlightenment exhibit in the King’s Library best of all.   

I made reservations long ago for afternoon tea at the Ritz at 5:30 PM.  I arrive early enough to wander through the Burlington Arcade first, followed by a turn through Fortnum & Mason, which I like much better than Harrods.  I am just in time to see their mechanical clock spring into action at the top of the hour.   

Tea at the Ritz is sublime.  I am a convert, now convinced that tea bags are the root of all evil.  The sandwiches are pretty good, too.  The clotted cream is not quite what I expected (less sweet), but a very nice accompaniment to the scones and jam nevertheless.  I chat with two lovely English ladies seated at the table next to mine, Judy and Gill, and take a picture for them.  It is their first visit to the Ritz, too, in honor of Gill’s birthday.   

Following tea, I tube to Leicester Square and walk to the Prince Edward theatre for an evening performance of “Mary Poppins.” I sit in the Orchestra Stalls, Row K, and have a fabulous view of the stage.  It is costing me a small fortune, but thankfully it is worth every pence!  The special effects are astounding.  How did they do that?  Just as appealing to me is the emotional range of the show.  It is much deeper and more satisfying than the Walt Disney movie, especially in the characterization of the adult actors.  When a statue in the park named Nelius comes alive by magic, I am reminded of the street performers in Covent Garden.  I love every minute of it, especially the choreography of “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” which, needless to say, is far more ambitious than what the Village People did to spell Y-M-C-A back in the 70s. On my feet, I join the rest of audience in applauding wildly at the end.  

Tuesday, August 8, 2006

I am heading home today, but not before one last morning out and about in London.  I walk down Kensington Church Street in search of antique shops, but find few open for business on a Tuesday.  I wander towards KensingtonPalaceand the sunken garden, and then over to the Princess of Wales playground, before returning to the palace grounds in time for lunch at The Orangery.  Finally, there is iced tea on the menu.  The American rejoices!  It is a lovely concoction made with sparkling water, infused with rosemary and lemon.  I have an open-faced sandwich of York ham and piccalilli, and a slice of their signature cake for good measure.  It is a sweet ending to a very sweet trip.  From here it is back to the hotel for my luggage, then back to Heathrow for the long journey home.   

After arriving in Philadelphia, an immigration officer barrages me with a standard set of questions about my trip, asking me at one point if I am travelling alone.  When I answer “yes,” he breaks visibly from protocol, looks up and says, as if in disbelief: “Really?”  I nod, and then say with a smile, “and I had a great time, too”!  He waves me through, shaking his head.