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.