Tuesday, November 18, 2008

England part 2 June 2007

White Stage Inn-where we stayed in Widcombe just south of Bath
Artichoke in hostel garden

Pultenay Bridge Bath

Day 10: BIG NEWS!!!!! AND BATH. Sitting in Charlie’s kitchen, we learn of the impending marriage. We take another long walk and meet up at the station later with Charlie and our bags and 3 trains later, are in Bath. Bath is a university town and today is graduation which made my search for a room nearly impossible. Also the requirement that we stay 2 nights when we had only one night to spare also complicated the search. We stay in a hostel-The White Hart-right outside of Bath in Widcombe but very close to the station- that is on top of a fairly expensive and popular restaurant. It is not cheap for a hostel. We have to walk through the restaurant to get to the staircase that goes to our room. The communal rooms look very dingy and beat-up reminding me of Stevens co-op where I lived as a student. Our breakfast was to be in one of these rooms full of back-packers but we fled to a near-by café. Our room-one of the few non-communal rooms-is fairly nice, clean, good bedding with a funky shower. The water (no temp controls) comes out in 20 sec bursts that one needs to keep pressing a button to repeat. They have a nice garden that we can sit in that has ripe artichokes. These are related to the thistle plant but aren’t as prickerly. I though one needed a California climate to grow them-up in Monterry-but I guess they survive as long as the ground never freezes. They are 5 feet tall. I have pictures. Bath was discovered by the Romans who built the baths around the springs 1800 years ago. About 300 years ago, they decided to build the city up and hired father and son architects that designed the city to look like Rome complete with the Seven Hills so lots of Roman architecture that looks pretty much the same. Beautiful gardens all around. We have lunch in a good Thai restaurant in the city center taking a break from the English fare of the last few days. Some graduates in their gowns are eating there too. We by-pass the spas as it is $30/person to get in but do look in the Pump Room where high tea is $40 versus $12 is the cute towns we were in before. The cathedral is off-limits as graduation takes place in it. Lots to explore and we walk for miles and miles. We return to the hostel totally exhausted and rest. Later we can’t get enough strength to walk to Bath for dinner so Steve brings up take-out Tandoori from a Widcombe place. I get some energy back and want to climb the Widcombe Hill-very steep-that would give us a good viewpoint of Bath but I could only drag Steve up a quarter of the way. We just sat in the garden instead trying to plan the next day. Two options-stay in Bath and take a 100 mile round trip bus tour that includes Stonehenge, Avebury (a larger but less known version of stone circles) and a tour of Lacock-a village that was Merilliton of Pride and Prejudice fame-BBC version that Steve keeps watching over and over as he has a crush on Jennifer Ehle who plays Elizabeth. Second option-take a train to Salisbury-catch a bus from there as it is only ten miles away-but what do we do with our luggage as the left-luggage option is no longer in the train stations. But the Salisbury- to- London train gets us closer to our hotel than the Bath- to- London train plus we get to see Salisbury and its cathedral-one of the better in England. Music is still playing in the restaurant below and the back-packers chat outside our door as we fall asleep.
Day 11:STONEHENGE. I get up early and run in the drizzle along the towpath that follows the Avon canal. With a little more energy, I could take this canal up to Stratford 100 miles north but it is a nice run. People seem to live in the canal boats I pass and I am surrounded by those 7 hills. No hills for me except to get around the locks. On my return, I check out the grim breakfast situation with instant coffee and toast from bread that numerous backpackers have pawed through so despite the pretty garden setting, we go to the café for good coffee and bacon on a bap. On to Salisbury. It turns out a nearby bar-The Cat Bar-for a price, will watch our luggage. Despite its name, the smoky bar is full of dogs that want to sniff our luggage. Dogs are welcome in restaurants and bars in general in Europe. We hop on a double decker and on to Stonehenge. Our bus has Americans on it. Haven’t seen them in a while except for the Pfizer exiles. So American tourists seem to have 2 main stops on their limited itineraries: London and Stonehenge. A few make their way to the Cotswolds. The roads have no shoulders and the bus carves out a path through the dense vegetation branches thumping against our windows in parts. We are told that if a road is straight and surrounded by beech trees, it is an old Roman road. Romans liked straight lines but the various groups that make up the English seemed incapable of getting anything straight-even their houses lean. This is the Plain of Salisbury. Mainly flat surrounded by chalk hills that over the years various groups have made carvings into that are 100 to 200 feet high. We did see the 200 year old horse carving from our train but missed the nude giant who appears happy to see you-I’ve seen pictures. We pass by the old Roman ruin of Sarum. At Stonehenge, we are dropped off for an hour or two hours if we really want to stay. Another choice to make-pay $24 to get into the fenced area or view the stones 4 feet further away outside the fence for free. We wouldn’t get to see the backside of the stones. We remembered that we are to be soon unemployed, might need to pay for two weddings, had recently purchased two new cars during a recent, unbelievable day of 2 abrupt car failures (one of which we better get repaid for) and possibly pay for a new air-conditioner, which Shanna had informed us via e-mail (buried in the big news email) that ours had failed during the 90 deg days making life tough for our heat intolerant elderly pug Spud and made our choice. After 20 minutes, I still didn’t feel the magic I was supposed to-maybe the fence blocked it. I’ve had enough and do Sudoku until the bus returns us to Salisbury. Salisbury is very nice-impressive cathedral-preserved medieval gates-lots of beautiful gardens, varied architecture (versus all the same in Bath). We eat in a pub recommended in our bible-Rick Steve’s Backdoor England-outside in nice gardens along a picturesque stream. Much more reasonable prices too vs Bath. I have a mushroom cheese pie with salad and a pint (and their pints are bigger than ours) of cider. American cider is unfiltered apple juice in their lexicon-but the stuff in pubs has quite the punch. More walking-a stop at a Brazilian coffee house and on to London. We try to time our arrival past rush hour but apparently the stations are always packed. Our station (there are about nine London railroad stations) conveniently is linked to the tube’s Jubilee line that our hotel is on. A subway in English is an underpass in American. The tube’s pricing structure is unbelievably complicated dependent on time of day, zones traveled-we could never figure it out other than it was four times pricier than NYC and has many more lines than even NYC. The tube is protected by a glass shell that has doors that open only when a train is there so one wouldn’t get pushed by the teeming masses onto the rails. We push ourselves and luggage into the tube that is only half the diameter of the NY trains after letting one pass that was way too full. Fortunately they show up every 3 minutes. We squeeze in with bags. Gradually conditions ease in the following 30 minutes when we get off in Canning Town-theoretically part of the revitalized Docklands area but apart from building the shiny, new Holiday Inn Express we stay in, has a long way to go. The rack rate here is an astounding $320/night to stay amongst abandoned dock buildings and grim public housing projects. I did get an internet deal that was less than half of that but our London stay of 3 nights still made up a good portion of our total budget. In the US, Expresses always have free WiFi but here, $60 for our stay. Since Steve always needed to keep tabs on his project dealing with the crisis du jour, I guess we could have had the company pay for this but I was just annoyed and bitched to the clerk. He blandly pointed out this was London-not the US-and that I paid less for my room than anyone else and he still doesn’t understand how my rate was so low so….I guess shut-up. Our room was clean, cute, and efficient in an IKEA way. The showers have the best water pressure in England. We were off the London map that Steve bought. From my perch, I could see a pub in the distance but many more signs of urban blight. We could buy the overpriced food downstairs but instead feast on wine and Mark and Spencer treats that I was going to bring home-almond raspberry tartlets.
Day 12: TERROR STRIKES LONDON!!!! This was the headlines we awoke to. I skipped my morning run as I was not ready to interact with the bleak, busy surroundings that I still didn’t have a map for. The hotel restaurant was full of Americans concerned with what the BBC was broadcasting while we ate our continental breakfasts. We were going to see Picadilly Circus that day where the undetonated car bomb chock full of nails and propane tanks was found smoking in front of a packed nightclub. As I write this a week later, another one is found later. A car full of explosives rams the Glasgow airport (John Lennon Airport) two days later. Eight men are eventually arrested of various nationalities but 7 are doctors, which I find shocking. But I am hopeful this is an isolated incident and we go to London. Despite how expensive it is, the good museums are free, walking both sides of the Thames are free and so are the numerous gardens. We emerge from the tube in front of Big Ben and the Parliament building. We walk by Westminister Abbey, Downing Street (lots of extra police presence given the State of High Alert we were under and through the spectacular St. James gardens where there are topiaries shaped like bicyclists to commemorate the Tour de France that starts there this Sunday ending up later that day in Canterbury. The pond is full of diverse water birds. Unusual ducks of every sort, grebes, pelicans, Hawaiian geese-elaborate flower beds. We watch part of the pageantry of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I take a picture of a Queen’s horse that was interested in tasting Steve. We go to Trafalgar Square where there is an internet café to check up on things-no more news but apparently the news about London had reached the US so I reassure people that we are still alive. We go to another Rick Steve’s Pub nearby and I try an English hamburger. Weird texture-no fat but it tastes all right. The ale tastes even better. Steve is fond of ’jacketted’ potatoes-a split open baked potato filled with whatever you want. We go to the National Musuem of Britain which is enormous and very ornate. So much to see and so little time. We concentrate on the Impressionists, my favorites-and they have the biggest collection I’ve seen outside the Musee D’Orsay. We walk along the Thames to the Tate Modern built in a converted power house. Very stark filled with weird art that I am afraid I am not appreciative of. Past the Surrealists-I don’t get it. My favorite was a film by a Brazilian woman of leaf cutter ants. She has sprinkled colored pieces of plastic in their paths that they mistake for leaves. Lots of ant close-ups struggling with the pieces that they take to their underground chambers. We take a boat downriver to the Tate Britain-all British artists of several centuries but aside from Turner and Gainsborough, I haven’t heard of any of them. We eat dinner in a nice French restaurant named Grumbles in the Pimlico district. Pricey but it turns out to be the only dinner we eat in London.
Day 13; THE TERROR CONTINUES The dining room is abuzz with the discovery of the 2nd bomb car. There could be MORE!!!. I overhear one bossy lady telling her friends: ‘you don’t understand the gravity the situation-we can get killed-we have to stick together-no more going off by yourself (and thus escaping her). We are seeing the London Tower today and that will be it.’ To me, it is like escaping lightning. Never know when it’s going to strike but useless to worry about it too much. Again I found walking in our immediate neighborhood at night scarier. It is a Sat. morning, forecast of rain, and the streets of London are relatively empty. We start with the tower bridge and the futuristic city hall and the interesting plaza surrounding it when it begins to rain. We start to explore London by bus going to Coventry gardens and market before ending up at our real target –The British Musuem, which we explore for hours. The history of civilization is more or less stored there. We see the Rosetta stone, numerous Egyptian, Greek, Roman and from many other civilizations that I really didn’t know much about- artifacts, sculptures. All were quite interesting and we could make a whole day of it but…
We ate lunch nearby at an expensive chain that promises real Roman pizza –okay but not fantastic. None of the Indian restaurants are open on a weekend during the day, which I was in the mood for. We try to get to Harrod’s by bus but this new terror business has shut down some of the routes so back to the tube and transfers. Harrod’s was a trip with its extremely ornate Egyptian Escalators. They even had an opera singer singing arias from Aida in the wings. Hard to get good pictures inside. Down to the food halls. Unbelievable. They had various food stations set-up featuring different cuisines, elaborate pastries, gelatos, sundaes, cakes, meats, cheeses. Anything you could possibly imagine. The pizza area had a tenor singing opera while he threw the dough around. When we were in Paris, on the Champs d’Elsyees, we had these intensely flavored fruit gelees that were heaven. I had searched for them vainly in England and forgot to look for them in France (damn) but here they were called ‘fruit slabs’ for $30/lb. I got a few-almost as tasty as I remember the French ones being. I did buy a few items for souvenirs. Actually their baked goods weren’t much more than elsewhere so we bought a few items for a picnic. The rain had abated so on to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens where we had our deluxe picnic. Just as we were getting to the elaborate garden part, it started to really pour. We emerged from the tube in what I thought was Soho but instead it was the intensely crowded shopping area of Oxford street. So crowded. Worse than anytime I’ve been in Manhattan. It was making me claustrophobic. We ducked into a side street for coffee in the café while we considered our next move. It was still pouring. We find a Mark and Spenser and buy provisions for the night-some interesting salads and cheeses and of course, wine.
Day 14: BACK TO THE USA. I need a run. I hope the criminal element is asleep on an early Sunday. Not raining for a change. I find a park quickly whose perimeter is about a half-mile but quickly get bored and run (or whatever one might call my spastic movements) towards where the water should be but I can’t get past all the buildings. Later I find if I were a bit more persistant, I could run to a foot tunnel under the Thames making my way to Greenwich which was due south of us (and thus our hotel was very close to the prime meridian)where it is supposed to be pretty. I see maybe one person the whole time that I’m out even though I am in a residential area. I manage not to get lost or mugged. After breakfast, time to leave. Our subway to the London Bridge Station to the Brighton line that stops in Gatwick. Not the Gatwick Express but to get to that would involve subway transfers that are hell with luggage. More security measures at Gatwick due to the high alert so lines are long. I try futilely to get on the same plane Steve is on. We would have had an easier time getting him on my plane as they give no consideration to the redeeming miles people versus the full fare (paid by Pfizer) people. So he flies to Detroit and I go back to Minneapolis not in business class. I get to DTW 5 hours after him. Oh well. I’m well equipped with novels, Sudoku, Kakaru and my much smaller movie screen. The food is barely edible.
AFTERMATH AND RADOMN THOUGHTS: The wedding will probably be in October at St. Mary’s in Livonia-a huge church that all the Christian Arabs in the area attend. I’ve seen the inside already as a Lebanese colleague was married there and I saw her pictures. Very pretty. They have to confer with the priest first for the exact date. Shanna also has to promise to bring up her child(ren) in the faith. Hmmm. Ramy’s family consists of 156 people that can’t possibly be excluded plus he has many friends. Our air conditioning unit just needed a new fuse. I don’t have to go to court. My brother had misinterpetted a communication from the court about a paper that they thought I needed to file (which I had) and had e-mailed me causing me to fret. It turns out the court had the paper needed but sent out erroneously a notice that I was to be ‘terminated’ as a personal representative and the estate ‘would be closed’

Streets in England: Twisty things with a high speed limit. They don’t need to stop at intersections which are all roundabouts so good luck trying to cross without a crosswalk. Theoretically they are to stop at ‘zebra crossings’ if someone is in it but not all obey that. In London, they have signs to remind you which direction the traffic is coming from but still Steve ignored that. These whizzing cars were a bigger hazard than the terrorists. They occasionally had pedestrian activated lights to stop cars. In the country, no shoulders and sometimes the roads were too narrow for two cars to pass at every point. So one would have to back-up until a wider portion was found. Hedgerows were to the edge of the road. Our minibus ride through the Cotswolds was especially harrowing.
Plumbing: Righty-tighty. Lefty Loosey does not apply here. Everything is ‘anticlockwise’. Water pressure is very low except in our London place. Toilets have an inch of water in them but are under pressure. Experienced all kinds of different showers-my favorite was in the Cotswolds. First one pulls a chain then presses a button indicating how hot and how high of pressure (not high enough), then you press a button and you’re good to go. Each one was an adventure to figure out. Toilets thankfully more plentiful and usually free than on the Continent with soft toilet paper. Interesting and diverse flushing mechanisms. I preferred the ones in which you just wave your hand across an eye.
English TV: Not much choice. Usually there was a soap opera to watch with the same plot lines of American soaps but they don’t just use pretty people for actors. Some of the characters were quite homely and rarely did anyone have straight teeth. Again, they don’t do anything straight here. I did like the cooking show The F word chef although he explains the F word is fast. He does use the real F word liberally while he cooks as in today we are going to cook a f***ing chicken. This is on regular TV.
Another favorite: Various house hunting shows with the premise that the English can’t afford anything in England so on to Spain or Portugal where they weigh the pros and cons of various houses Rarely do they have a tidy ending like ours and end like ’well Crispin and Elsbeth certainly are picky. Maybe next week we’ll find something for them. Stay Tuned.” Then BBC news where we could check the daily progress of the Sheffield floods and this is where the train people wanted us to stay. Lots of ‘sports’ like cricket and rugby, the former being the harder to understand.
Public access The right to walk anywhere you want is in force. Public walkways cross farmer’s fields and go through private property with signs about locking gates to keep the livestock in. Lots of people hike from village to village especially on the Cotswold Way.
Lots of bike trails also but don’t go out on anything designated for peds or 500 lb fine.
Misc The exchange sucked. Basically if you don’t keep reminding yourself that each pound is 2 dollars, it would seem somewhat reasonable. We spent a day panic stricken because we thought both of our ATM cards broke-even though mine worked fine in France the day before because we tried to take out 100 lbs at a time and it wouldn’t let us. It turns out that our bank limits transactions to $200/day. Problem solved. Language. Words mean different things here. A check is a bill. Like they use ‘scheme’ for plan. Here if you have a scheme, you are up to no good. Everything is a scheme there. Toasties are toasted sandwichs. I can go on and on. Suduko-the English are Suduko fiends. The Times has 3 daily puzzles with different twists. One was a karuko-suduko combo that took me an hour to figure out (they said average bright people should take 35 minutes-oh well).

I’ll stop. I learned a lot and had a lot of fun.


1 comment:

HappinessSavouredHot (Julie Saint-Mleux) said...

"I learned a lot and had a lot of fun". That sounds like the resume of a good life! :-)