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.