Friday, July 20, 2007

Today is the beginning of a very odd itinerary. I’m heading by train to York where I will spend the night. From there, I want to go to Bath, but the most efficient route returns me to London first. So, I go from London to York, back to London, then to Bath, and back to London before heading to Paris. It is one of those things that seemed like a good idea at the time. But with the need to change hotel rooms every night, I have grown skeptical of my own travel plans.  

I booked my London hotel through and the rate includes a nice continental breakfast. After munching on a bowl of fresh fruit and a croissant, I head off to Kings Cross with my camera and a small (but surprisingly heavy) overnight bag. The Bailey’s Hotel has kindly offered to hold my suitcase until I return. Once at the station, I stand in line to validate my BritRail pass. Financially, it hardly seems worthwhile for the two roundtrips I plan make to York and to Bath, but I wanted maximum flexibility. I suspected weeks ago that my best intentions for early morning trains were likely to fall to the necessity of sleep. I was right. My itinerary says I will depart London at 7:30 AM. It’s more like 9:30 when I actually do. 

On the train to York, I make what I think is an interesting observation about manners: The British have a knack for turning unpleasant news into a polite, rhetorical question. I am sitting in an aisle seat next to a businessman whose unfurled newspaper covers both our laps.  His partner is sitting a few rows forward. She needs to discuss something with him. He gets up from his window seat, excuses himself and disappears. He comes back minutes later, and then repeats the cycle. After a few rounds of this, he leans over and says to me, “This is going to be quite a difficult trip, isn’t it?”  I realize that he means difficult for me, not for him. I close my eyes and think “Yes, it will.” 

Actually, with my iPod for company, it’s not half bad. The time passes quickly and before I know it I’m walking out of the train station towards York Minster. Its gray Gothic towers stand tall among a sea of red brick, which makes it easy to find my hotel. I am staying at the Guy Fawkes Hotel on High Petergate, opposite the cathedral. It’s a lovely old townhouse with a cottage in back, purported to be the birthplace of Guy Fawkes himself. “Remember, Remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot?”  I do, from my trip to the Tower of London last year, which makes this an intriguing place to stay. The rooms all have names associated with the scheme to blow up Parliament, such as “Powder Keg” and “Treason.” I am staying in “The Plot,” a cozy little room on the second floor.

By now I am starving again. I want to eat at the Bettys Café in St. Helen’s Square for lunch, but the line is out the door and around the block. Remembering a fine meal I had last year at a Café Rouge in Windsor, I opt for a branch of the same here in York. It’s a bit chilly out on the patio, but I am grateful to see a few snatches of sunshine. I enjoy a “Tarte Paysenne,” filled with smoked bacon, mushrooms and cheese, before heading back to York Minster for an afternoon tour.

This is the reason I came to York, to see the Minster and its glorious stained glass windows. I fell in love with medieval stained glass last year when I saw fragments on display at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Here, the glass is where it should be, set into delicate stone tracery that rises high above the floor into fine Gothic arches. On a docent’s tour, I learn all about the history of the church and how difficult it is to maintain. For centuries cracks in the glass were repaired with additional leading. Those heavy lines gradually obscured the images by breaking them visually into smaller pieces. It also added weight, causing the windows to buckle. Today, glaziers can remove the glass piece by piece and bond the breaks with epoxy resin, but it is a slow and expensive process. Restoration of the “Saint William Window,” finished just last month, took ten years and more than £400,000 to complete. I stand at its base and marvel. I am looking up at a window that looks much as it did when it was new in the early 15th century. That’s worth every penny.

My last task at the Minster is to climb the 275 steps to the top of the central tower. The stairs, which turn in a tight spiral, are steep and narrow. I begin to feel tired and dizzy, and use the ancient graffiti carved into the walls as an excuse to stop and catch my breath. In the end, the view of red rooftops in every direction is beautiful (even under increasingly cloudy skies), but I am even more impressed by the humorous “grotesques” that populate the tower’s façade. They remind me of the faces in the Chapter House downstairs and I smile. The Middle Ages were anything but dark.

With my feet back on firm ground, I take a nice slow walk to the Shambles, York’s oldest and most famous street. Once used as a butcher’s market, it’s now lined mainly with souvenir shops. It’s quaint and incredibly narrow, and the overhanging second stories of several half-timber buildings nearly touch in the center. My department chair back home was born and raised in York. Apparently, he was a bit wild in his youth and used to drive his car down the middle of Shambles. Now that I’m here, I don’t know which is harder to imagine, a car careening down this tight little street, or my boss actually doing it. He’s quite a proper English gentleman. Or so I thought!

After a quick turn around Clifford’s Tower, I circle back to the Minster in time for Evensong. The resident choir is on summer holiday, but I feel lucky that a guest choir from Abbey Gate College is here to stand in. Their combined voices are extraordinary! I always enjoy the architecture of cathedrals like this, but tours are no substitute for experiencing the space for the purpose in which it was intended.  

When I return to Bettys for dinner, I find that the line to get in is manageable at last. While reading several books about the Minister I purchased in the gift shop earlier, I feast on a warm spinach and chicken salad and fresh raspberry lemonade, with several delectable petit fours for dessert. The atmosphere is lively, but relaxed, with a pianist playing in the background.

By 10 PM I am so tired that I long to go to bed early, but a moment later I change my mind and wander out into the misting rain. The night air is cool and crisp, and street lights reflect in the puddles that have started to form in between the cobblestones that run down the center of the Shambles. Aside from a stray tourist here and there, the city is empty and quiet, the shops all closed, weekend revelers not yet disgorged from the pubs. By the time I wind my way back to the hotel an hour later, I feel quite at peace in the world.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

It’s still drizzling this morning, but I am up early and ready to go. My nephew and I have been reading the Harry Potter series together for years and today is the release of the seventh and final book. I flip on the TV in my room while I dress and see an interview on the BBC with a child psychologist. She’s giving advice to parents on how they can help their children cope with the darker elements in the book. I wonder what they know about the plot and begin to worry that Harry’s a goner.

The “full English breakfast” must have been invented for mornings like this. The eggs, bacon, sausage, mushrooms, tomato, and baked beans the hotel serves warm my stomach well. With an umbrella in hand, I walk around the corner to the Borders bookstore in St. Helen’s Square. There’s a large display of Harry Potter books, and blessedly no line in sight. I buy the adult version and glance at the epigraphs before heading back out into the rain. They are ominous. Good lord, she really is going to kill him off.

For now, Harry’s fate at the hands of Voldemort will have to wait. My first stop is the Merchant Adventurers’ Hall. It’s a beautiful building with a first-rate audio tour. From there, with the fog lifting and the rain tapering off, I seize my best chance to walk the walls. I start at Micklegate Bar and head clockwise toward the Minster, over Lendal Bridge, past Bootham Bar, ending at Monk Bar. It’s a bit slippery and I wonder about the lack of railings. In the United States, surely, this would have led to some whiny lawsuit by now! But the views are stunning and I come to the realization that this weather suits York well.    

After a warm cup of chai tea at a local café, over which I devour the first chapter of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, I reluctantly head back to the hotel to gather my things. Because it’s so near the station, I stop by the National Railway Museum for an hour or so, but finally set off on a train bound for London.

Onboard I sit by the window in group of four seats. A young man is directly across from me, and a mother and her daughter are in the aisle seats next to us. The young man says he’s going to Boston this fall. I think Boston, Massachusetts. I look up from Harry Potter and tell him that it’s a wonderful city. He’ll have a good time. He says no, it’s a town called Boston in Lincolnshire, but am I from the America? I am. All three chime in. What’s Florida like, they ask? Hot, I say. How about Texas? Even hotter. They think this sounds wonderful, which I suppose makes sense given the dreary weather. They ask why I’ve come to the UK and seem surprised to learn that I did it on purpose. Why would I want to go on holiday here, they ask? I think, why would I want to go to Florida? For the first time, I truly understand what it means to say that the “grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” I suppose we all just want to be somewhere else for a while.

Back at the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel I run into a problem. My keycard won’t work. I fiddle with it for a few minutes before heading back down to the front desk. The desk clerk is cheerful and kind and follows me upstairs. Afraid of embarrassment, I pray that the door will not open for him. It doesn’t. I stay put while he goes back downstairs for another card. At last the door opens and my eyes are delighted to see that it’s a Club room, a complimentary upgrade for being a repeat customer. My nose, however, is less thrilled with the strong odor of cigarettes. I joke with the desk clerk about the hotel’s non-smoking policy and the fees they impose for non-compliance. I want someone to be billed £200 for this. He offers to call someone to sanitize the room. I’m skeptical because the smell is strong and it will take at least an hour. He says that they can give me another room, but it will have to be a standard double.

I’m already running late. I have to eat dinner and get to the theatre by 7:30. He understands and offers to deliver my luggage to a new room while I’m gone. He’s sorry about the Club room, but I smile and tell him somewhat sheepishly that I will be back in London for one last night on Monday, so perhaps he can upgrade me then. He promises that he will.

For dinner, I decide to go to an Italian restaurant called “Il Posto” near the Victoria Palace Theatre. I have a Caesar salad and spaghetti Bolognese. I snap a picture of my plate, which arouses the curiosity of the owner. I explain that I am keeping a photo diary of my trip, and I’ve come because his restaurant was recommended by various Trip Advisor members. He seems genuinely pleased. He is proud of his food and hands me a business card.

When I arrive at the theatre to see “Billy Elliot” I see that the Theatre Monkey website has once again given me great advice. My seat in Row F is perfect, and so is the show. There is a constantly rotating cast of young Billys. Mine is Travis Yates, a 13-year old from Middleton. I’ve seen the movie, but the musical is absolutely fantastic! I laugh until my sides hurt as the cast sings “Merry Christmas Maggie Thatcher” wearing giant Thatcher heads made of foam rubber, and find a lump in my throat at the end when Billy walks away up the center aisle, suitcase in hand. 

When I get back to the hotel late, I find a smoke free room with my suitcase safely stowed in the corner.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 23, 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.