Digressions of a Traveling Housewife.
Sunday, April 06, 2003
Day 8, England (Going Native)
Well, we made it both to Stonehenge and Back to Londres, where we've been having a raucous good time. With Jon's frequent travel, we scored a couple of nights at the Excellent Hilton Metropole, near Paddington Station tube stop. Part of the hotel's excellence is the Executive floor, which includes... you guessed it... a computer with free Internet service.
Despite this convenience, I've not found the time to write a travelogue for a while. And now, we're about to check out, so this installment will be necessarily brief (or as brief as I can manage).
Wow. Need I say more? No. But again, Wow. You know what it's like to see a famous monument rise on the horizon, looking at it for a moment as if your windshield were a movie screen before realizing the REALITY of it all. At first, of course, it seems surreal. It's very Descartian; I see it with my own eyes, therefore I know, not just believe, it exists.
Stonehenge is a fabulous enigma wrapped in a mystery wrapped in hurricane fencing. It's huge stones and careful planning can be examined from all angles, using a path that encircles it and keeps you ten paces back. The truly sad part of various exhibits we've seen is that conservation (in the curator's sense) was lacking until recent centuries, and many of Britain's best sites have been damaged or destroyed by pilgrims seeking to take home a souvenir piece of rock from Stonehenge or a tile from Westminster's mosaics. Thank heavens now we have free brochures and audio tours to slake our thirst for "a piece of history."
Jon and I have noticed the prevalence of self-guided digital audio tours at museums and major sites. You know, the little handheld recorders into which you plug the appropriate numbers, and out streams a short history and interesting factoids about whatever it is you're standing in front of. So far, we've rented one at the Roman Baths, Stonehenge, and Westminster Abbey. Jon thinks the Dali Universe museum suffered for not offering it. The point is, I love being married to a man who doesn't even question whether we should get these, but just heads over and plunks down some quid for them. The only drawback, as far as I can see, is the inability to chitchat about the articles with your partner.
After the "hanging stones," we popped off to a service island for a quick Burger King burger, and some petrol. Yes, we ate Burger King. It was bad. 'Nough said.
Then off to London to return the car. Jon's driving on the "wrong" side of the road has improved dramatically since his first effort back in Oz last July. In fact, he always did better than he expected. He noticed this too, saying, "I think the reason I don't have much trouble driving on this side of the road is that I don't have a great sense of left and right to begin with."
Tis true, tis pity, and pity tis, tis true.
Speaking of Shakespeare...
One of my favorite bits has been the trip to Westminster Abbey, burial place of royalty and those who most faithfully serve the British Crown. Chaucer's buried here. Shakespeare, Burns, Austen, Auden, and many other poets and writers have memorials here in one arm of the cross-shaped building, called "Poet's Corner." The church is 800 years old (the newer bits). Initially built by Edward the Confessor, and added onto by Henry 7th (following his devastating defeat of Duke of Lancaster in the War of the Roses), the Abbey is phenomenally huge, with the most intricate stonework, famous Rose window, and two truly moving memorials to British forces lost in WWII.
Mad Queen Mary and Elizabeth I, at war during their lives are buried in the same tomb.
Astronomer James Herschel, discoverer of Uranus (insert obvious joke) is buried in the Nave.
harles Darwin, is buried next to Herschel.
More soon! (Dali, London Eye, excellent dinner).
A Dialogue with an Antique Dealer in Cheltenham,
I meandered into an antiques shop on my last morning in Cheltenham, braving the front door which was masked by scaffolding an ladders. The proprietor was sipping tea behind the counter, and startled at my cheerful "Hi! How are you?" accompanied by a large smile. (In America, this is considered extremely polite.)
His surprise prompted a small outburst: "How am I? I'm fine! You're an American, aren't you?" (In Britain, this may be considered polite.)
I replied, smile faltering, "ah, yes, I am. How did you know?" (Still polite.)
"Well, Firs' there's the accent, idn't there? Then there's the cheery 'Hi and how are you. And you know you're not going to buy anything, you're just going to browse, and now's not a good time for that cuz I've got ta move all this out front, haven't I?" Gesticulating toward several small pieces of furniture. (I'm not sure at all if this was polite, but it was progressively louder.)
Chastised by the truth of this, I ventured "How do the British do it?" (Grinning impolitely at his vehemence and little-old-man bluster).
"They come in and say a quiet 'good morning' don't they? (I didn't know), if they say anything at all." He did not elaborate on their purchasing power.
By now having surpassed the hope of polite, if dishonest, traditional retailer-shopper chit chat, and deeply amused, I considered several retort tactics while perusing his wares.
Scare Tactic: "Yes, you're right, I'm just browsing while my husband's working over at the ministry of Defence."
Nyah Nyah Tactic: "Yes, well, I don't suppose I should buy anything else, my luggage is full to overflowing with everything I've already bought."
Propaganda Tactic: Go ahead and buy something.
French Tactic: Avoid conflict by leaving quickly, but set up a protest on the sidewalk.
Beatitude Tactic: Leave meekly and inherit the world.
In the end, I opted to look around (I didn't want to disappoint his expectations) and leave with an over-loud "Have a nice day, I'll come back when you're not so busy" and laughing all the way home.
The truth is, I window shop a LOT. In the US, if they suspect it, they'd never call you on it, because they are not yet jaded enough, still believing that anyone's a potential sale. But, you know, I feel a grudging respect for his honesty.
Is it wrong to window shop?
Friday, April 04, 2003
Writing Home Day 6, England
Have been bustling about Cheltenham and the surrounding area for the last few days. Now I've plenty to write home about, including shopping, fish and chips, and DID Jon let me use the car? All in this issue of Writing Home.
After visiting the information center and checking out the Promenade, I spent the afternoon at the Suffolks, a crossroads (both named Suffolk) of antique shops and boutiques (lots of places to have your dog groomed), and two or three restaurants, as well as a launderette which I would visit later in the week.
Cheltenham is definitely a leisure spot, streets of stores and boutiques that cater to rich tourists from London and other places. They have definitely built a Spa Town here, complete with festivals of every sort from Jazz to Lit., sports of all sorts (no Rachel, I haven't forgotten) from races to relaxation. There's even a Christie's branch here for those with ready cash. Pricey little boutiques forbid me from doing more than winshowshopping that first day (and onward).
Tuesday and Wednesday, I braved the rain and went out. My visit to the Art Gallery and Museum was very informative. Apparently, the Director of 20 years was forced out, ushered by much hullabaloo within the local council, who has set up a triumvirate directorship of curators, with themselves at the helm. What is sad about this move is that George Breeze (the director) had spent his tenure gathering a fantastic collection of furniture and collectibles from the Arts and Crafts era, for which this area is famous. The council took over once the museum became a huge draw.
There is also a large exhibit chronicling the eras of life in Gloucestershire county, from the pre-Roman era through the modern age. I found many items of interest, including the Iron Age "toilet set" (complete with tweezers, nail cleaner, and ear scoop). Ubiquitous pottery shards, bone needles, and bronze swords prove the existence of an advanced pre-Roman civilization of which I was densely unaware. All my knowledge consisted of a vague sense of Celtic priests in long robes rolling stones around to different fields. So, I actually learned things from this museum, despite its being (in the words of a Canadian traveler) "really tiny."
Those of you with toddlers or kids will be interested to hear of one innovation that I've never seen before (though maybe I wasn't looking), which seemed very bright to me. Every so often, near each new Era display, the museum placed a tot-sized table and chairs, along with coloring sheets relating to the display and some coloring pencils (wise of them to understand the destructive power of crayon). American museums take note! Occupying children for a minute gives parents a welcome chance to learn something, too. Such as...
What types of Home Comforts did ladies of quality enjoy throughout the ages? At each interval, the museum had placed little displays noting the changes in standard household items, including cutlery, plates, and haircombs. It really helped put the whole eon in perspective, to see the bone hairpins become tiaras, the bronze knives become guns.
After my visit, I freaked out a Fish N Chips deli counter employee by offering him a tip. I ate then napped, and wrote, and had dinner with Jon and his friend at the excellent Montpelier Wine Bar (asparagus-stuffed chicken breast wrapped in prosciutto with a light cream sauce...mmm).
Thursday was a blast. After a quick trip to the laundrette where I cleaned clothes and got to know the little old lady population (who apparently have a laundry club on Thursdays, judging by their numbers and the sheer volume of support hose hanging 'round), I approached my husbands' bosses' wife (Anna) to ask her (gulp) if she'd like to take a drive to Hay-On-Wye with me. I felt as nervous as if I were asking someone out on a date. But she agreed, and is a lovely, intelligent woman and lively conversationalist whose company I enjoyed all afternoon.
A mere hour's drive from Cheltenham, over the border in Wales, is a "Book Town" begun by Richard Booth in the 1970's. He set up several specialty and second-hand bookshops. Now, it is the lead buyer of second-hand books in the world, and has more than 30 bookstores, plus antiques, collectibles, and pubs.
We feasted at the Blue Boar, she on Guinea Fowl and I on smoked haddock. Walking the narrow cobblestone streets, popping into shops (my favorite was "Everything's £1", though I'm ambivalent about remaindered books for which the authors receive nothing), and having an ice-cream teatime. Books, I maintain, are good for the soul. Book shopping is equally as nice when there are so many shops whose proprietors knowledgeably and excellently pick out fine books. Bibliophiles know what I mean; usually, the selection at second-hand stores is so poor or messy it's hardly worth driving by.
Ah, but driving through the backcountry of Gloucetershire, past the sheep farms and drywall fences (stone fence without mortar), punctuated by the occasional village or massive country estate-cum-B&B. Ah, lovely. Ah, England.
So, the answer is yes, Jon did let me use the car, and I drove very well, too. Only hit the curb twice, though Anna warned me many more times that I was getting close. On getting back to the Lypiatt House, we found our hubbies gathered in the drawing room, and we sat talking and looking through the books and feeling very British.
Jon's finished with his work, and the plan for today is lunch followed by a visit to Stonehenge, then off to London for the weekend.
Tuesday, April 01, 2003
England, Day Three
Ah. Felt much better after sleeping 14 hours Sunday night on into Monday morning, and having a spot o' breakfast.
We spent Monday touring Bath. First, we went to the Roman Baths which were excavated by the 17th C. builders who rediscovered them after people complained that their basements flooded with hot water. The houses were bought up and knocked down, the area excavated, and voila! The fully functional bath and spring was still there. Even the lead linings of the main bath (as big as you community pool) are still watertight. The water, however, is green with algae from exposure to the elements. There used to be a huge, heavy Roman roof, but it's now open.
The museum provides a lengthy audio tour which took us through the remains. A pagan temple, Sacred Spring temple to Sulis (Celtic goddess), and the courtyard around the bath, as well as several chambers for sweat baths (steam rooms) kept us occupied for several hours.
A bit of History: The Romans funneled the marshy area and natural hot spring into the baths and constructed a run-off into the River Avon. Working in concert with the Celts, they dedicated this amazing natural resource to both Minerva, Roman goddess of Wisdom, *and* Sulis, Celtic goddess of the spring. Brilliant bit of acculturation for which the Romans are famous. Though Roman baths were an important part of daily life, only a few baths had a religious component, and of those, Aquae Sulis (Bath) is the best surviving example.
The Baths were covered over by many layers of silt following the Roman departure, then by houses and roads before being rediscovered in the 17th C. In fact, the current road level is about 15 feet above the bath, which would have been at street level during its heyday. Excavations in the 17th c. and on up until the 1980's unearthed many antiquities, including Minerva's head (from her statue-- a rare gilded statuary), the Gorgon's Head Pediment, and lots and lots of roman coins. Apparently, the practice of throwing coins into fountains and wells originated very early, with these offerings and prayers of the faithful. It also helps date the use of the Baths, from the beginning of Roman Briton until the fall of the Empire.
I enjoyed my visit to Bath, which focused on the two most prominent periods of the town -- the Roman era and 18th C. British, when the waters of Bath were physician-prescribed to treat everything from fatigue to gout. Of course, in that time, Bath was more for social interactions than strictly healthful ones.
Tourists (who one can argue support Bath's third most prominent era) still drink the waters fresh from the hot spring. Containing 43 dissolved minerals and iron, the water is... not tasty. Yes, I tried it. It was ok. It smells of sulfur. Jon didn't like it. See more here.
Next, we were off to Arabesque for a bite of lunch. This excellent Lebanese restaurant features a tasty buffet for just 6 pounds per person.
Following this was a visit to the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street, just a block from her old address at No. 25. (They couldn't get No. 25 because the dental surgeon wouldn't vacate.)
A quick introduction followed by a small museum and short film, all chock full of information and emphasizing that Ms. Austen did NOT like living in Bath. She wrote very little here, beginning a novel (the Watsons) which she never finished. The most interesting tidbit I came away with was the fact that there is NO accurate picture of Jane. She never sat for a portrait, and the one which was drawn from life was by her sister Cassandra, who was not very talented, and which does not resemble her (according to family members). Several variations of her portrait exist, some of which you have undoubtedly seen. They range from very unflattering to comically adorable. A forensic artist has looked over all of these, and letters that mention her looks, and compiled a painting of what she may have looked like.
Although Jane didn't like Bath, and didn't write there, two of her novels (Persuasion, Northanger Abbey) are set there. Our guide pointed out that, in typical Austen style, only her least likable, petty, vain, and shallow characters enjoy Bath. After these outings, Jon and I made our way to Cheltenham, a mere hour's drive north on the M46. We're currently ensconced in the front room of the Lypiatt House, directly across from the drawing room. The high ceilings are dizzying at around 14 feet. Apparently, fire code during the era of gaslight required this. Our huge window overlooks the garden/parking lot, but boasts some truly awful floral print drapes in dark green. Backlit by the streetlamps, the ghastly flowers *glowed* in the night, startling me when I woke. Truly scary.
The B&B provides "full English" breakfast, including Canadian bacon, sausage, an egg, toast, a soggy blanched half-tomato, and tea or coffee. Not bad. Though Sunny warned me to bring peanut butter or starve on British food, the only bad experience I've had has been at the Kingsmeade Fish n' Chips place. This morning Jon went off to work. He still won't let me drive the car, company's paying and all that. Not sure if I'm covered. Hmm. I'm working on it, because I'd like to drive to Gloucester. So I walked into town to find the tourist Information store, which was closed and doesn't open til 10. It's started raining again, English drizzle, and I've bought the cutest umbrella with cartoon cats chasing little mice around the edge. Since it's almost 11 here now, I'll pop off to the Information Store and see where the day will take me.