Friday, December 27, 2013

London, Our Epic Adventure

Much of this was written a few weeks ago, while Felicia and I were cooling our heels in the Spokane airport, awaiting the arrival of Mark and Jay before driving over to Wilbur for Grandma's service. I also wrote a good bit on Christmas Day before the fire at Mom's. So much time has passed since the trip! I'm glad I took notes. I carry around a little notebook that I picked up at conference and take little notes regularly. It's helpful when I fall behind on my blog. Anyhoo, without further ado:

It was a very long couple of weeks leading up to the London vacation. I worked all the week prior, spent a day traveling (with M made it so much better!), then worked two conferences over six longs days. But they were the last two events of the year! They went very well. It was my first experience with Armistice Day, and we did have two minutes of silence during lunch in the Exhibit Hall, which I appreciated. On that Wednesday, the day that the two conferences overlapped, I planned a women's networking reception and it turned out to be a first--the first time there were more men than women in attendance. That was kind of strange, but the women's community leader who spoke with me did a good job of outlining things that people could do to help and that's always good for guys to hear.

View from the Hilton Metropole

Actually, the hardest part of the work week was checking Facebook and seeing all of the adventures that M was having solo. This was his first trip to Europe so I can't really begrudge him that extra fun. Also, it gave him time to learn the Tube and bus routes, and get acquainted with some of the neighborhoods, so that was a time-saver when we sallied forth together.

Unlike the last couple of times I visited Europe, I wasn't affected much by jetlag. Maybe the timing of the flight and the fact that it was nonstop helped. So I did have enough energy to go out with M on that first Sunday night after a conference setup day, which was not overly strenuous for me. We did a night tour of the city, just to get a sense of where things were in relation to each other. The open-topped bus was a little chillier than I was prepared for, but we soldiered on.

London Eye and the Thames

St. Paul's Cathedral

On Thursday night while I was still working the conference, operating on a tip from Mom, we when to the church of St.-Martin-in-the-Fields to hear some music. They also had a pretty decent cafeteria-style restaurant in the crypt so we dined among the graves before the concert began. This was where I learned that even though a restaurant may look like a cafeteria and food is dished out for the taking, you actually are supposed to let the server behind the counter place it on your tray, not grab it yourself.

We sat on our coats in the rigid pews in the lovely church and listened to some of classical music's greatest hits by Bach, Handel, Vivaldi, and more by candelight. We were also treated to a world premier,"Flight," written particularly for the violinist whose last name was appropriately Peacock, though I guess that's not a fowl known for its aerial prowess. The composer was in the audience, so he stood and was acknowledged. There was also a lot of plucking of strings in the piece. Was that also a reference to birds and what we do to them? The conductor, in his 60s, looked like an interpretive dancer, swaying and using every inch of his small platform. The concert concluded with a wonderful Argentine tango, "Oblivion."

Candlelight concert, St.-Martin-in-the-Fields

For me the vacation started on Friday night. I hightailed it out of the conference as early as I decently could and M and I set out for the theater, er, theatre district. We had an awful dinner then made our way across the Thames to the beautiful Old Vic for a production of Much Ado About Nothing. Unfortunately Vanessa Redgrave was indisposed, but her understudy did a wonderful job as did James Earl Jones. It was set in England during WWII and Benedick and his buddies are flyboys from the American South. Not everyone could handle the Bard's verse in a Southern accent with aplomb, but it was an interesting idea. They did a nice job with the set, just a simple wooden frame with plain wood for the back wall, serving as various rooms and an orchard. (Side note: I had rented the Joss Whedon version of Much Ado from Netflix, but didn't have time to watch it until I returned. I recommend it.)

In front of the Roman wall with
Emperor Trajan
Saturday morning I went to the hotel's gym for the first and only time. Then we made our way out to see The Tower of London. I really enjoyed it. We took a tour led by Yeoman Sergeant Warder Bob Loughlin, who was very entertaining and enlightening. I was standing right next to him during his descriptions of some of the beheadings that happened on the hill near The Tower and he used my head to demonstrate how the executioner held up the severed visage for the assembled crowd to see. We took in the crown jewels, which were pretty spectacular. I'm glad we were there in the off-season--I was able to do several trips on the short moving walkway that regulates the viewing of the most important crowns and royal accessories. We had lunch at a little outdoor café with views of Tower Bridge and the Thames, taking advantage of the clear day, then headed back towards the hotel. We stopped to do a little shopping at a couple of pop-up shops then braved Fortnum & Mason, but not for very long--they had just put out the Christmas items and it was mobbed. Poor M parked himself against a column while I fought my way through the crowd.

Lunch after The Tower tour

Sunday dawned gray, er, grey, and we got down to the hotel lobby by 7:30 a.m. to meet the tour bus shuttle. We were dropped in a queuing area near Victoria Station and herded with many other out-of-towners onto busses heading for parts rural. We had chosen the Stonehenge-Salisbury-Bathtour, which I had been conflicted about at first. A tour, ugh, and certainly there was enough to see in town. But I thought about being so close to Stonehenge--when would I be back in the UK again? So we did it and I'm so glad we did. We had a lovely tour guide in Pete, a former music roadie, and Amrish was a very good driver. Pete was almost a British stereotype with his crooked Austin Powers teeth. He kept the narrative to a minimum as we cruised out of the big city and into the countryside, shorn golden fields cross-hatched with hedgerows and stands of trees. M spied many Chinese pheasants strutting in the stubble while I spied on the Japanese teenager in the seat ahead of us who spent most of the trip to Stonehenge primping and making minuscule adjustments to her stocking cap and hair, which she promptly undid when boredom set in and she decided to nap.

We had 45 whole minutes with the mighty stones, which was adequate, but barely. Pete was right, they were just stones. But still, something about them was very regal and some combination of mystical and mysterious. Pointy Pal Julia had said that just being there, taking in the scale and the setting was worth it, and she was right. We ran into some of my work colleagues there, which was kind of funny, seeing them so far from home and in such a different context.

And then we were back on the bus and off to Salisbury and its cathedral. We arrived right before noon just as the service was letting out and we heard the great bell chiming its dozen. We decided to have lunch first since the cathedral had a cafeteria style restaurant (in the chancery rather than the crypt), which I think was part of its way of feeding the hungry--paying customers helped offset the cost of the free meals, which I thought was very nice. They sold beer and wine there too, how civilized! Er, civilised. The gift shop was well stocked. It was a lovely structure filled with many intricate tombs and windows, the world's oldest clock--no face it just worked the bells--and the best remaining copy of the Magna Carta. We were the last ones on the bus, arriving just a minute before the time deadline, and off we chugged to Bath.

That's Pete to the far left.

Apparently the spire is not quite plumb.

The clock

Pete felt that Bath was the best of the sights on this tour, and it was an interesting location in a very pretty, almost Italian, town. Bath Abbey is a gorgeous church next to the Bath edifice. The Bath structure itself is well done, guiding people through its history and displaying the artifacts in a good context. I was again grateful to be there in the off-season. We drank of the waters, and had enough time left to wander a few blocks of the town.

We rumbled home through the Cotswold region as dusk drew up, seeing a few of the traditional thatched cottages and stone buildings dotting the beautiful countryside. We didn't realize how far west we'd traveled until the way home--it took over three hours to get back to London. Pete recommended a pub near Victoria Station when we got back into town, but it turned out to be one of the Taylor-Walker franchises, so we ate in the hotel sports bar instead, happy to watch some American football since the time zones were working in our favor.

Monday was another out of town trip--we caught the train at Victoria and headed south to Portsmouth and the historical dockyard. M has been wanting to see the HMS Victory since forever. We had been corresponding with Colin Honey, Nick's dad, since his summer visit to California. He lives between London and Portsmouth, so we rendezvoused at the entrance to the dockyard.

This was all Colin's idea

After catching up over coffee, we took a tour of the Mary Rose, Henry XIII's ship that sank in The Thames and was fairly well preserved in the mud. After an amazing, two decade feat of preservation, there's a lot on display, from the hull to personal possession, weapons, and tools from the crew. We had lunch in the little cafeteria, talking a little local politics, then took a tour of the Victory. They were doing a lot of renovation, including caulking with the original rope and pitch recipe--apparently she didn't respond well to modern caulk. The topmasts and rigging were also struck for maintenance, so while understandable, I feel like I missed the majesty of the vessel. Like the USS Constitution that I had seen earlier in the year in Boston, I was again amazed at how many people they crammed onto the ship. Nelson's cabin was set for a dinner--because she's still commissioned, they were having a naval event onboard that night. After the Victory, we wandered around the Warrior, an iron clad steamship. It was a good way to experience 300 years of shipping history in a day. It was really great to visit Colin in his neck of the woods, too. The two hour train ride back to London again seemed so long, but mostly because we traveled in the dark and seemed to be gazing mostly at our own reflections on the way home.

Hull of the Mary Rose

With Colin and HMS Victory

Our final full day in London, we started at St. Paul'sCathedral. M had been there before, but it's a pretty remarkable place. There was so much ornate, encrusted sculpture and mosaics (I have "casino" as a simile in my notes) and woodwork to take in: the perfect detail of the wing of an angel lowering a general into his coffin, the sleeping lions supporting Nelson's huge sarcophagus in his dusky eight-sided chamber, the stained glass casting jeweled shadows on the two-story polished altar. The smell of incense was pervasive, we could hear music wafting up from the crypt as the organist warmed up for a private service. The scale of the place was pretty amazing too. I wished they allowed photography inside. One thing M hadn't done the first time: we climbed up to the Whispering Gallery and then up to the Golden Gallery at the very top. It was steep and a little claustrophobic near the end, but the views were well worth it--we were lucky to have a clear, dry day. Much better value than the London Eye!

We wandered down to the Royal Courts of Justice where M listened in to a trial and I learned that wigs were made of horsehair as it holds its shape, then finally had lunch in a real pub, The George right across the street. I tried a pint of the eponymous beer that had to be pumped from the taps in several pulls, as well as a sample of Dark Star that the bartender had brought for M to try. We were there as the courts let out and were a little surprised to see some lawyers and court staff having beer and wine with their meals. The afternoon was on the wane and we felt a little desperate to make the most of our remaining hours, so we headed to Westminster Abbey. I had visited nearly 30 years ago, but I had forgotten how densely packed with dead folk it is. I remembered Poets Corner, which was inspirational somehow. But I hadn't remembered the grouping of Newton, Darwin, and Kelvin, the queens, the other nobles practically stacked on top of each other, maybe gathering together for warmth in the chilly gloom of the abbey. I loved the memorial to the master ceiling mason: a mirror set on a table where you could easily admire his work without having to crane your head back. While we were there, a pleasant voice came over the loudspeaker and asked us all to pause for a moment of prayer. It was a good reminder that we were in much more than a place for tourists.

We had just enough time for a quick lie-down and change of clothes in the hotel before heading out to our last evening's entertainment. In his London adventures, M had met a theater (theatre!) director and he had kindly set aside good seats for his show, Barking in Essex. Not willing to risk another crappy tourist dinner, we dined again at St. Martin's Café in the Crypt, then took in the show. I appreciated being able to bring my wine to my seat! Sadly, I didn't think much of the production, but M liked it pretty well.

On our last morning, I got up early and marched to Hyde Park, leaving M alone in the room, feeling poorly. It was colder than I expected and of course it actually started raining, something it hadn't really done before. Though I was pretty miserable at first, fingers and toes chilled to the bone, hello, I was still in England! Kensington Palace within walking distance! Royal Albert Hall and his over the top memorial! My hips were aching as I dodged traffic, paid too much for latte and restroom access, appreciated gloomy but glorious autumnal views in the park, then made my way back to the hotel along Edgware Road. We packed up then headed to Heathrow in plenty of time to hurry up and wait since our flight was delayed. There was some consolation when we finally took off to have the row to ourselves.

That's Kensington Palace in the distance

And then we were home. I had taken a few extra days off of work, and was glad I did--gave me some time to actually unwind from both the work and vacation activities.

One thing I learned, which I knew of course, but didn't *really* know the impact: four days just isn't enough for London. Even just one more day would have a big help in squeezing in just few more sights. This was very clear after the first day when we spent so much time at The Tower that we didn't have much daylight for anything else. What I regret I didn't have the time to do: Visit Hannah in York. Set foot in a museum. Tour a palace other than the Tower. Ride in a cute black hackney cab. Search out some really great food--we had a good Malaysian meal and an Indian one, but nothing that was epicuriously memorable.

Some other things I learned: Churches can have good food. And booze, outside of what you'd drink as part of the service. Touristy bus tours can serve an important purpose, and aren't all bad. Pleasant and knowledgeable tour guides are also A Good Thing. I really like cask ales. Some men in London wear brightly colored pants to good effect.

Some random thoughts that don't really fit into the narrative:

-We couldn't help ourselves from making comparisons between London and New York. That wasn't an awful thing, but I also felt like I sometimes didn't just absorb the environment for what it was, I kept relating it to what was already familiar to me.

- I was constantly struck by how the ancient, the old, the modern, and the brand spanking new were mashed up together everywhere in the city. The Tower on a Roman wall. Views of the Gherkin and the Shard from the dome of St. Paul's Cathedral. Decades-old red double decker buses running the same routes with their newer versions. Construction cranes were everywhere.

- Returning to the hotel on the Tube one evening, we were joined in the car by an interesting group of young men, all dressed in stylish but somewhat rumpled suits, long blond hair pulled back into ponytails, bracelets that looked like they belonged to surfers or stoners peeking out from their white shirt cuffs, one with a worn leather motorcycle jacket over his suit. They began to sing softly in a language we didn't recognize. When they paused, M asked the language--they were Swedish, coming off of a choir rehearsal.

- Tattoos, at least obvious ones, don't seem to be as prevalent in London.

After being in such a great city with a rich and varied past and present, M and I asked each other about where we'd rather live--where we are or a place like London. On the Saturday after our return, we took a motorcycle ride along Alexander Valley, one of the popular wine roads north and east of us. We had a crazy wind storm the few days before, so the air, aside from the gray-brown smudges of smoke from the many fires burning, was incredibly clear. We wound our way among our fall colors, the grapevines turning golden and bare in the valley flat, surrounded by the sharply upright hills crowned by exposed lava. It had rained just before we returned, so we could smell the earth and nascent leaf decomposition. It was hard to know where to look, there were glorious vistas on either side and even above as we sped beneath the archways of oak branches sheltering the road. The monuments of nature make me feel more at home these days. Though I'm very lucky that I visit beautiful and important cities on a regular basis--I really don't have to choose.


At 8:15 AM, December 28, 2013, Blogger Brenda said...

Yay, glad for that final decision!
You certainly did a lot on your trip. I regret not being to stonehenge. It hasn't appealed to Don, but perhaps I'll go myself next time..if there is one.


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