Monday, July 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.