I have become a part time resident of England, and I travel differently about the country than a tourist. England is a wonderful place to be, especially in the summertime, when days last 18 hours. For other reasons I find myself spending Christmas holidays in England now when days have only 7 hours of daylight. Here I write about a few interesting experiences, places, and thoughts developed over my two Christmas holidays in England.
The person who is most likely to get lost is the person who almost knows where he needs to go, and the person to get burnt bad in travel is the one who is completely comfortable with it, namely me, the World's Worst Tourist. My British friend (now wife), Pauline, cringed as I told her that 3 hours is enough time to allow for leaving to the airport on Super Shuttle. She is a much more conservative traveler than the WWT. On a good day, I can drive from my house to LAX in 30 minutes. On a horrible day, including a freeway accident, maybe it takes 2 hours. Nevertheless, to raise her comfort level a bit, since Christmas is the busiest travel time of the year, I called Super Shuttle to add another half hour.
pI should have gotten worried when I was unable to get through to their 800 number, only busy signals, time after time. I should have gotten more worried when their local number put me on hold for 20 minutes. What? Me Worry?
The shuttle driver was about 10 minutes late, shaving down our safety margin, which was so large anyway that I didn't worry. Then he told us he had to pick up a second passenger down near the ocean. Half an hour later, we wandered hopelessly looking for the guy’s house. Pauline began to worry seriously; I began to get annoyed with myself for getting us into this. We blew an hour before we were back to where we started just about to hit the 405 freeway. At this point, the timing was getting risky, especially since it was December 22, 2000, the first day of Christmas holiday.
Just as we were ready to enter the freeway, we got another bit of terrifying news. A slightly annoyed dispatcher asked the driver why he hadn't picked up his third passenger......Oops!!! At this point Pauline was near to tears and I began to look for alternatives. Maybe I could hail a taxi. My car was parked about a mile away; maybe I should drive to the airport myself. We could see our Christmas holiday sliding away fast. By the time we picked up the third, frantic, passenger, we had two hours before the flight and an unknown 30 miles of holiday-laden freeway ahead. This 23rd of December was predicted to be the most congested day of the year, especially at the airport. With all the nightmares we had heard about the airport and the freeway, it seemed that the universe was through playing with us. In a sort of reprieve, we sat in front of the United terminal about 30 minutes later with less than the recommended time, but enough.
Even as we boarded the plane, I began to feel the universe was playing games with us, tossing in one challenge after another. I began to make simple mistakes, requiring recovery. To begin with we sat in the row 20 instead of the correct row 21, requiring a move, simple, but somewhat unsettling. I was feeling cool after successfully pulling off the wwt no-wait toilet maneuver (NoWaT) of hitting the toilet shortly after meals are served. Wait until meals are finished and the line is the length of the plane. However, in the toilet I pushed the flight attendant call button instead of the flush button. The flight attendants have to assume that someone had a heart attack while sitting on the pot and come blasting in.
12 hours later we pulled up to the London Heathrow terminal after a textbook flight over the Atlantic. I have made dumb mistakes in airports the world over; I have been lost in airports the world over. In Heathrow I proceeded to make about the dumbest mistake one can make and if it were not my duty as the wwt to tell only truth in these tales, I would alter this account. To enable me to bring Christmas presents to relatives, I had bought a new bag, a green roll-on, odd looking, but very practical. For the first time in years, I checked a bag to England including my old trusty that has been everywhere with me, usually in the overhead bin. At Heathrow the bags came along the belt together. I pulled them off and to make absolutely sure, I opened the nametag on the small one and began to open the nametag on the new one. It was so obviously mine; I forewent the gesture and headed out the door.
Outside, while waiting for the shuttle bus to take us to a car rental, I leaned over to take my heavy coat from the big bag. MY GOD! I didn't recognize the clothes. It was not my bag. A friendly United Airlines ticket agent laughed and helped me recover quickly by walking me back past customs. Even he couldn't believe that the two bags looked so much alike. "It happens all the time," he said reassuringly. Some poor slob (or maybe I should say, 'some poor bloke') was out there in the cold without his bag.
After a brief trip to the town of Flitwick, pronounced, "Flit' tick or Fli' ick" (no 'w'), which is in Bedfordshire, about an hours drive on the M1 motorway northwest of London, we stayed up until midnight, took some melatonin and slept 8 solid hours. In addition to curing jet lag, I have discovered that Melatonin, promotes dream sleep and I had some of the longest dreams I could remember. Flitwick, in the county of Bedfordshire, now my official summer home, is a typical English country village that (unfortunately) grew up to become a bedroom town for people commuting into London, since it sits near the end of the Thameslink rail line. Trains leave for London every 15 minutes, 24 seven and arrive at the King’s Cross/Pancras station 45 minutes later. This makes a quick trip to London for a ride on the London Eye, a visit to the National Gallery, or a musical completely practical and is one of the great things about Flitwick.
We spent Christmas Eve in the town of Tamworth and Christmas Day with Pauline's relatives, her nephew, a solicitor (lawyer), niece, sister, spouses, cats and dogs. This day was packed with new survival knowledge including discovery of new language and a new theory about the evolution of roundabouts. I have always believed that roundabouts make a lot of sense for many intersections. When one enters the roundabout one has to look in only one direction, to the right in England, of course, and to the left in most other countries. One yields the right of way to anyone already in the circle. So it should be safer and easier to negotiate an intersection with fewer decisions and no need for a traffic light. Roundabouts make intersections of multiple lane roads without traffic lights feasible.
Leave it up to the British bureaucrats to screw up a good thing. At first roundabouts were so useful they seemed like a panacea for traffic movement at every conceivable intersection even the places where a minor road crosses a larger one. For the British traffic engineer, it is impossible to have too many roundabouts. For many well-established intersections, there was no room for a retroactive roundabout, so they added a small hump about eight feet in diameter that is suppose to act like a roundabout. Most Brits after a minor swerving gesture in the middle of the intersection just drive over it like it wasn't there.
The next unforeseen problem was that roundabouts work best when the traffic volume is low enough to allow people to always enter the roundabout. Since a roundabout actually slows the traffic down, it will no longer function when the traffic volume reaches a bumper-to-bumper condition. If a roundabout is completely full of cars, then it takes Richard Petty to get in, so some little old lady (or tourist) would cause a gridlock. The fundamental problem is that if one has to stop before entering the roundabout, then it inherently slows down the traffic movement.
Then some real traffic engineering genius concluded that the way around this was to transform the intersections into the roundabout into roundabouts, resulting in what is perhaps the most confusing and possibly the least efficient combination of intersections conceivable. We knew exactly where our hotel was and could even see it, but the four back-to-back roundabouts that had to be negotiated to get there made it extremely difficult and we missed the correct turn even after we had been through the route several times.
The problem is caused by the knowledge that one must take into a roundabout to enable one to leave it. Street names are useless. One needs highway numbers and names of towns in the correct direction to get past a roundabout. One also needs to be a speed-reader. Each exit has typically a dozen or more highway numbers, town names, historical sites, and local attractions to process. One can go around several times before being able to process the data and make the correct move to get out. Now imagine stacking seven or more of these one right after the other. One can easily wind around this maze for long periods of time and end up at the beginning. Even the seasoned drivers get lost in their own territory.
Ultimately, when everyone in England got at least one car, recognizing that roundabouts did not work in some places because of the traffic volume, the traffic genius added traffic lights. They didn't seem to figure out that the only thing the roundabout served in the first place was to obviate a traffic light at an intersection. If you have a traffic light, the roundabout seems to have no purpose other than to increase the number of traffic lights needed and to have cars going around in circles between traffic lights.
Christmas Day was filled with tradition and good cheer. It is a great pleasure to observe and share the traditions of others. Everyone had a stocking filled with enticing gifts, we had a flaming Christmas pudding, a huge Christmas meal and I had my first experience with Christmas crackers. Christmas crackers are a British tradition and we received them with meals in restaurants also. It is a tube-like roll that is pulled apart with a crack, with the help of someone else. Inside are a gift and a joke.
Pauline Putting Angels on our Flitwick Tree
England is crisscrossed with water canals that served as a transportation route over England during the industrial revolution. Barges were pulled by horses that walked along a path beside the canal. Today, motorized barges can take one almost anywhere in England and the canal system is mostly for entertainment. The horse paths are now excellent public footpaths. In the evening we walked along the Tamworth canal passing a few pubs and a set of locks where the water level is changed. Watching a canal boat maneuver through a lock is a great past-time. Boats docked along the way held families and party groups celebrating Christmas.
Lichfield Cathedral near Tavebury was built in the sixth century. Ironically, buried in the cathedral are the bones of St. Chad. By the time this is read the infamous "hanging Chads" in the Florida
presidential ballots of 2000 may be long forgotten. Ironically, Saint Chad's bones and belongings were lost for centuries until they were discovered again about 10 years ago, a fitting history for a name that can be associated with the Florida presidential debacle of hanging chads. One of the oldest illuminated manuscripts, the Lichfield manuscripts, can be seen in the cathedral. Also shrouded in mystery, the manuscript was apparently associated somehow with Chad. Except for the coincidence of the chad debacle in Florida, I would probably not have taken a second look at St. Chad.
Many people refuse to take me seriously when I discuss the fact that an excellent understanding of American English does not guarantee that one can understand or be understood in England. Once I really began to listen to British, I realized how much I did not understand. Some of the language is totally different, without parallel, and some is interpretable, but humorous. Looking for a TV program, I read the following description; "A corrupt cop shops a pretty young lady suspected of drug use." This is a common way of saying that he is going to tell on her. I received strange looks when I ask for garbage bags in a hardware store. What I should have asked for was "refuse sacks". I would have thought the lady was trying to make out with me if she hadn't been about 80 years old. She kept referring to me as “love”. I defy any American to read the complete story in any British newspaper and understand every sentence without asking someone. See the movie "The Full Monty" and you will get an experience of what understanding the language means. This language in this movie is REAL. The "Full Monty" is an expression that originated with the English Field Marshal Montgomery in the North African Campaign where he always insisted on having a full English breakfast each day. Now it means “the whole banana”. In the movie “The Full Monty”, they strip off all of their clothes.
I got my first real taste of a British winter day during this trip. The typical day begins with a little light at 7:15 A.M. On a few days the sun broke through the clouds by 11 A.M. and came in and out for a few hours, and sat 20 degrees above the horizon at noon. By 3:30 it was getting dark and by 4:30 it was dark. I found myself getting excited about seeing the sun and for the first time I understood why my European friends marvel so much about the California sunshine.
One cold day we visited nearby Woburn Abbey, a fifteenth Century abbey, which had become the official home of the Duke of Bedford. Strangely enough, the Duke of Bedford lives abroad, has a statue in Tavestock, while his son, the Marques of Tavestock lives in Bedford, at the Woburn Abbey. Don't ask me to explain this. A large park, gardens, a wild animal park, and many old buildings surround the home. A magnificent sculpture gallery behind the mansion is available for events such as weddings. (See WWT Gets Married)
The sculpture gallery is entered from a rose garden through a long hall that is lined with classical Greek sculpture. The gallery, itself, is a long room in classical motif, supported by tall Ionic columns and contains renaissance paintings and Greek sculpture.
The English countryside is unique in its makeup of hundreds of smaller villages separated by a mile or two of farmland. Most Americans will enjoy stopping and just staring at any of these villages. The typical village has at least one pub, which acts like a gathering place, a very old church with a fascinating graveyard attached, and lots of little houses that look like something out of a movie set. In the summer flowers are everywhere and the pub looks like a florist shop.
Every fifteen miles or so is a town of 30,000 or more. The English have done a remarkable job in maintaining these greenbelts where usually no homes are visible, just rolling hills, forests, and beautiful countryside. This provides a misleading feeling that one is far from population. Surprisingly, Bedfordshire has over half a million residents. Observing the near gridlock situation on some of the narrow country roads offers a clue to the population situation.
Living in England is like living in Disneyland for an American. Unfortunately, everything costs just like it was Disneyland as well. Everything (except for the cost of living) is miniaturized, cars, houses, roadways, refrigerators, and stores. The novelty of this makes it interesting. An English pound, which cost $1.50, buys about a dollars worth of anything but petrol (gas). Gas is about 5 dollars a gallon. So far, England has not adopted the new Euro currency, but most people believe it to be inevitable within a few years.
Driving in England
Eventually, having less space to live in becomes reasonably comfortable, and even rewarding in its own way. The car situation never became comfortable. Even though the cars are smaller, villages and narrow winding roads are simply not designed to handle the kind of traffic that has evolved in England. The fact that they drive on the “wrong” side of the road doesn't help, though even that became comfortable after a few weeks. The traffic problem seems just about critical almost everywhere in England now and gets worse with every trip. Seeing bumper-to-bumper traffic in an otherwise beautiful countryside is rather strange.
In England and some other European countries where building space is at a premium it would appear that no one wants to take responsibility for providing parking space. The result is that people park in places that are completely ridiculous. With roads in many places hardly wide enough for two small cars, they park cars in the road taking up an entire lane reducing the road to a single lane. They even do this on major highways. Meeting cars routinely play Russian roulette with each other every single day in every village in England. It is amazing that more accidents don't happen. It really gets serious when many cars park along the road making it a single lane road for a long distance. One car must anticipate who goes first and one must wait on the oncoming car to clear. One weaves in and out of the parked cars in stepwise fashion. English drivers, even the little old ladies, do this with great skill. Cars zooming in and out of these mazes with one near miss after another are truly a sight to see.
I observed a similar phenomenon in the moors and countryside where roads are oftentimes simply paved over wagon trails with 10-foot high hedges on either side. Every 100 yards is a wider place where one car must wait while an oncoming car passes. The driver who makes it to the waiting spot first gets a reward of "thank you" from is oncoming opponent, a heartwarming custom.
Cars in many European countries routinely are parked on the sidewalk, often rendering it unusable by pedestrians, so the pedestrians often wind up walking in the street. I have never figured out the rule for when you can and cannot park on a sidewalk. I can imagine at some point in time one guy did this and the police overlooked it for some crazy reason. Before you knew what happened drivers saw this as a new parking resource usurped from the pedestrians.
Different countries have totally different rules for passing. A really strange one used by England and a few others I know of is the ability to pass on a two-lane road even with oncoming traffic, requiring the fitting of three cars on a two-lane road at high speed. We could call this a real 'encounter of the third kind'. How people learn to do this life or death driving is beyond me. Somehow the three cars communicate to each other non-verbally. Put verbally, it would go something like this. "Hey, guys, I realize that there is an oncoming car doing 80 miles and hour, but I am going to pass anyway, so both of you move over to make a car width between you ...or else die in a head-on collision. It must take a lot of judgment to survive many of these encounters. I have not figured out what happens in two guys approaching in opposite directions decide to pass at the same time. I don’t think four cars will fit.
In addition to brief trips to places like York, London, Coventry, Stratford, Cornwall, Winchester, Canterbury, I was amazed to find many interesting sites within a few miles of Flitwick, itself, including walks on public footpaths. I found wonderful parks, abbeys, ruins, and stately homes within a rocks throw. These included Woburn Abbey, Wrest Park, Flitwick Moors, Maulden Wood, Houghton House, and others whose names I forget.
One late evening summer evening walk proved a little more of an adventure than we had planned. We had hiked along a public footpath past the ruins of a church near the village of Clophill. The church is haunted because of a black mass that involved grave desecration. A local travel guide warned us not to be there past dark. After leaving the church with the idea of making a loop back to the car, our map led us astray because (we concluded later) a new turnstile had been added causing us to make a turn too soon. After realizing we were lost and facing oncoming darkness, we debated backtracking past the haunted church or taking a risk at hitting a road somewhere. Everyone voted for the road, which fortunately was not too far away.
We spent another late evening searching for glowworms in nearby Maulden Wood. The female worm of these relatively rare creatures glows a bright green at mating time, attracting males. We succeeded in finding at least a dozen horny females and many more males who were doing whatever male glowworms do to the female. You could tell they were surely excited about this female.
During the week of my wedding in August, 2001, having already been on several "honeymoons" and having my family in the country for the first time gave us cause to show them some of England. We did London before the wedding and afterwards we ventured around to see our favorite parts of England.
During the summer of 2001, the tourist industry of England was turned on its head. A few years before, the deadly mad cow disease had ravaged the cattle industry. This disease, which apparently evolved out of feeding cattle a mixture that contained ground up meat waste, was associated with an infecting protein that is practically impossible to destroy, even by sterilization. At this time there is no cure and the disease is fatal. How many people will ultimately die from it is still unknown, but apparently the cause has now been removed. This was soon followed by the foot and mouth disease that almost destroyed not only the farming industry, but also the tourist industry. The disease, which does not affect humans, is extremely contagious among animals, requiring public footpaths and access to many tourist attractions to be closed. Would be tourists confused mad cow disease and foot and mouth disease and stopped eating beef.
Although many tourist attractions were open again by summer, tourists avoided the countryside and flocked to the larger cities. Cities like London and Bath were more of a zoo than ever; wonderful small towns like Glastonbury were practically empty. At one point the Commissioner of tourism created a great fury by accusing the hotel industry of running off tourists with high prices and poor value. When you look at the cost of hotels, it is easy to see why he came to such a conclusion. Hotels in London start at about $150 per night in what would be a one star hotel and over $200 for a two star. Staying in the center of a village like Lacock or a city like Winchester will cost you nearly $300 per night. In Salisbury, the going rate was about $175 per night. Bed and Breakfasts, on the other hand, save the day, with a very nice B&B in Salisbury costing us about $75 per night for two. In Bath the B&B's were even better bargains.
For our stay in London we had found a super special in the local paper and stayed in the Regents Palace at Piccadilly for about half the regular price. The rooms were clean, but steaming hot and noisy and had no air conditioning. The bathrooms were so small that when my brother-in-law, Wallace, dropped his towel on the floor and bent over to pick it up, he banged his head on one wall and his butt on the other. Finally, he maneuvered himself with a knee bend to retrieve the towel. The location was perfect, however; we were two blocks from Trafalgar Square, which is a great place to begin a walk.
I have stayed in every range of accommodation in London. I still prefer staying right in the center of the city, though it costs more and is usually less comfortable. The convenience overrides the other problems.
Our visit to London included a combination of walking, tube rides, tour bus rides, and a stint on the London Eye. Early on we mounted the upper deck of a multiple stop tour bus, which gave us a two-hour glance at London. We left the tour bus to take a look at Buckingham Palace. The first thing we encountered was a never-ending queue for those who planned to tour the Palace. Our decision to stay outside came pretty fast. It happened that we had arrived shortly before the changing of the guards at 11:30 AM. We decided that this might be worth hanging around for. As it turns out, this may be London's worst tourist attraction; in fact, watching the police handle the tourists is more rewarding than the changing of the guards, since the setup makes it practically impossible to really see.
The area in front of Buckingham Palace was roped off, leaving gate access and paths for safety purposes. Reasonable people who had arrived early moved behind the ropes as instructed by the police, who were both on foot and on horses. Eventually, the roped areas were completely full of people with no room left. This is where it gets interesting. It is hard to see why a person would conclude that it is okay for him to move up to the front and stand outside the ropes. How is it possible for one person after another to conclude that the empty spot (in front of the ropes) had been overlooked by 10,000 other people who also wanted to see but had obediently located themselves behind the ropes?
Over and over, the police ordered such people to keep moving and not stand outside the ropes. I was completely impressed by the coolness of the cops and how nice they were to so many people that actually deserved to be summarily executed on the spot. Latecomers attempted everything imaginable to get a spot with a view. Women with babies attempted to gain sympathy, disable people hobbled along hoping to gain special attention. Others paraded slowly back and forth along the opened path, constantly being herded by the cops. In one case a lady accompanied a man who pretended to be blind and disabled. When they stopped and she began taking pictures, the cops ordered them to move. Later, we saw the two separated and still attempting to usurp a spot. After having waited for half an hour for the ritual to begin, I found myself packed in a herd, looking at the back of someone's head. People raised their cameras above the crowd shooting blindly, hoping that they could capture something that would justify their being here. It is truly amazing what extremes people will endure to see something as unimpressive as this.
Among the items created for the millennium are the Millennium Footbridge, the Millennium Dome, and the London Eye, one home run and two strikeouts. The Dome has been a financial disaster since the start. The Millennium Footbridge had to be closed because it shakes too much when people walk on it (great esthetics, piss poor engineering). Of these, the London Eye is the most remarkable success in many ways. It is hard to imagine how someone got permission in face of environmentalists and a sensible public to place a 250-foot diameter Ferris wheel on the edge of the Thames in the most visible area in London. Some unbelievable way, the public accepted the idea, and though it was behind schedule and missed the millennium, it has become a great success story. Some day, the London Eye will be to London what the Eiffel Tower is to Paris. One enters a glass room and rides 250 feet in the air on an engineering marvel for half an hour to experience spectacular views of London. The whole process is surprisingly efficient. I figured that this money machine loads 20 people every 15 seconds at $20 a pop for a whopping $100,000 an hour into the coffers of British Airways, not counting concessions and souvenirs. And it is well worth the sometimes one hour wait to board
Our visits outside London include some of our favorite villages, gardens, cathedral towns, and castles. We covered the towns of Bath, Glastonbury, Wells, Chedder Gorge, Adcock, Salisbury, Lacock, Stonehenge, Winchester, and Windsor. We began to notice a strange and suspicious occurrence of rain and sunshine. Each time we entered the car to move to a new location the rain would begin; each time we stopped at a viewpoint the rain stopped. This happened no less than 10 times in two days. Someone had to be doing this deliberately. Fortunately, they were doing it in our favor.
A few cities like Bath, Stratford on Avon and York apparently get a lot of press. They are so packed with tourists and cars that ones experience automatically becomes touristy and somewhat stressful. Bath is a beautiful city inspite of the traffic jams. There was not a single room available in Bath, so the walk around technique would not work here. We did better with a B&B outside of town anyway. The city is excellent for walking late at night when most of the tourists are in bed and the traffic has thinned out. The river is especially beautiful with its bridge and shops and even a labyrinth. The Roman Baths get a lot of press and act as a tourist magnet. The most important thing to know about them is that there is a nice toilet near the entrance and a great teashop. The rest of the place is strictly a tourist trap and not really a great way to spend time.
Amazingly just a few miles south of Bath is the wonderful town of Wells, which was practically empty. The town itself is like a dream world. We wandered around the cathedral, a palace, had cream teas and generally just felt like hanging out there for days. The cathedral, especially, is one of the most interesting in England. The outside sculpture is extraordinary. Inside, a wonderful old clock is said to be the oldest moving clock in England. Every hour a two knights ride against each other and one kills the other. This has been going on for over four hundred years. The white knight has won every single time. An unusual flight of stone stairs leads to a charter house and splits off to a separate part of the church. The church also sports a very unusual double arch. I liked Wells so much I went shopping and even bought a pair of house shoes.
From there we headed on to Glastonbury. In 1530 there were a thousand monasteries in England. In 1540 there were none. In just a few years, Hank (the eighth) shut them all down, took their properties, killed many of the monks, destroyed many of the churches, sold off the assets and was soon broke again. He didn't just kill the men of cloth. At Glastonbury he hung the priest from a nearby tower in public view, cut off his heads and mounted it in the town and cut up the body and displayed the parts all over England. CAN YOU BELIEVE THE COUNTRY’S LEADER DID THAT?! To be able to do such to a respected priest and get away with it must have taken a creative spin-doctor. In the information age, where news and knowledge move quickly, it takes much more planning to kill off a lot of people. His overall achievement was no doubt aided by lack of communication about the country and between monasteries as well as his cunning ability to exploit the greed of the people. He began with the small monasteries, assuring the large ones that they would not be affected; the large ones did not object to that. By the time he had wiped out all of the small ones, most of the larger ones were so intimidated that they sold out rather easily getting what they wealth they could out of what many generations had created during hundreds of years. The ones who didn't go along with this were murdered. Even the locals were quick to harvest the stones to build stores and houses.
Henry the Eighth is an interesting example of a phenomenon that would seem impossible in today's environment. The deeds of Henry the Eighth done in the 20th century would gain him a place right beside Hitler, if not worse. Examining what he did can give us a true perspective on England in the 1500's. Apparently killing someone was not such a big deal. In fact, a hanging often took place in a party like environment. The USA wild west days would seem almost tame compared with England. You could never have gotten away with hanging a preacher in the Old West. One guide told us that people partied and drank at hangings leading to the term "hangover".
Did he do us a favor or is this one of the disasters in the history of humanity? We lost many magnificent cathedrals and abbeys in the fiasco. Much sculpture and art was destroyed, but also much found its way into private and public collections, where it is available today. These same people had murdered their own share of victims in the inquisition. Perhaps this combined with the corrupt state of the church at the time gave them what they deserved. It is hard to imagine the abbeys operating today as they did in 1500, although they would make great tourist attractions. Some, now in ruins are still wonderful places to visit, even as ruins. I would choose a visit Glastonbury Abbey over a zoo like Westminster Abbey any day. As we walked over the Abbey grounds I could count the number of tourists in a quick scan, maybe 20 or 30 on the entire grounds. Compare this to Westminster Abbey where there are so many people you can't see anything for the people.
Lacock is a perfect place to experience an ancient English village. Our hotel, "The Sign of the Angel" was at the center of the village. The village sits off the main highway and is so quiet at night one can hear a rooster crow on farms that are miles away. Walking around the town is like magic. If we could only eliminate cars. What can be more obscene than a row of cars jammed up on a cobblestone walkway against a leaning 14th century flower-covered pub?
We walked around the remains of Lacock Abbey and visited the ruins of the cloister. Time has done wonders in evolving how society looks upon mass murderers as well as how they are able to operate.
Leaving Lackock we headed for Salisbury, making a stop at Stonehenge on the way. Stonehenge is one of those tourist attractions that has gone full cycle in tourist adaptation. My friends tell me of the days when they could climb on the stones. At one point I lamented the fences installed around Stonehenge, but seeing it again made clear that this was the correct thing to do. One can view them at a distance against the sky, free of people. The process is going even further now with roads being moved further away. Some day I will be telling my grandkids. “I remember when you could get close enough to see them with the naked eye.”
Fortunately many cathedrals survived by changing their allegiance from the pope to the King. Each one is unique in some way, architecture, stained glass, towers, chapter houses, art and furnishings. Salisbury Cathedral houses the oldest working clock in the world. It also houses the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta is an amazing piece of work. Generated in 1215 it includes the demand for freedoms that we have come to take for granted. The requested freedoms, like requiring someone to explain why they are going to take away your home, seem so obviously just, and yet King John wanted to renege on the agreement even before the ink was dry.
Winchester Cathedral and the city of Winchester is one of my all time favorites. Having the longest nave in Northern Europe, it also has an accessible library that houses the Winchester Bible, an illuminated manuscript produced in the 1300's. Monks and artists worked on this bible for 35 years without actually completing it. Contrast this with some of my customers complaining because a monthly report is a few days late. A memorial military service is held in the Winchester Cathedral the second Tuesday of each month at 11AM. In this service two military officers, including a bugler enter the Cathedral and join the Priest. Together they open two books that contain the names of soldiers who gave their lives defending the country. Names are read from the book in remembrance combined with a bugle call that echoes through the cathedral. I found the service extremely moving and felt a tear roll down my cheek as the names were called. Pauline and I have visited Winchester Cathedral twice. On both occasions, this service took place. This sort of magic combined with the behavior of the rain made me realize that had I lived in the dark ages I would probably have been burned at the stake for witchcraft.
Winchester has other attractions, castle ruins, the home of Jane Austen, King Arthur's round table, a University, a beautiful river walk, and a sunset walk that rises high above the city. After I have seen everything else in England, and probably before that, I will visit Winchester over and over and show to visitors.
Winding our way back to Heathrow, we visited Kew Gardens, the largest variety of plants housed in one place. One needs at least a day to explore even the highlights of the gardens. We sampled it for just a few hours. We ended the day by looking for a place to stay the last night before taking guests to the airport. Beginning at Ascot we worked our way northwards towards Heathrow. At Ascot one hotel was booked; another was exorbitant in price. B&B's were few and far between and all booked. Finally we hit Windsor and pay dirt with a small Hotel Royal Adelaide with rooms overlooking Windsor Castle. We found the town of Windsor delightful to walk in. Pauline had a small cardiac attack upon discovering a McDonalds, Burger King, and Pizza Hut across from Windsor Castle.
Upon returning to the United States after a summer in England, one of the greatest shocks to my system was the “bigness” of everything and the vast spaces. I was used to the miniature world of England. Now as I drove to work on a six lane Costa Mesa street in my Lexus, I sensed there was too much room. The car is too big; there is too much space between the curb and me. There is not enough stuff in the distance I am traveling. My house is too big. I can even pick up the soap in my shower without banging my head and ass at the same time. Strangely enough, this extra space seemed uncomfortable for a while.
I was looking forward to two weeks of leisure mixed with Christmas spirit. I already knew about the short days and the weather turned out exceptionally well, with sunshine almost every day. An hour walk in a frozen wood is all one feels obligated to do to earn a cup of tea and a biscuit. I had also mastered the Internet from a British address. America On-line advertises worldwide service, a totally misleading boast. It took me almost all summer to determine that the only reason I had so much trouble getting on line in England is that British AOL and American AOL are really two different companies. One cannot hook up to the local AOL line with an American membership. Ultimately, I determined that the AOL lines that could be used by an American would not support even the outdated versions of Microsoft Windows. I solved this by dumping my American membership and signing up in England. However, the effect of the different languages must be accommodated. The first letter I wrote with the English version was almost destroyed by a British spell checker that does not like the American way of spelling. Apparently British English does not use the letter 'z', for example. After this colourful experience, I would highly advise you not to use the advertised British spell checker.
One of the nicest experiences of the wwt is being met in a foreign airport by a local, who makes the experience of entering a strange world really pleasant instead of terrifying. Pauline's Uncle Des served many years as the official airport greeting committee at London Heathrow. He always had a system for making the process more tolerable starting with knowing the best place to park and how to handle bags. Seeing his face after a long wait in customs was always a pleasant experience.
Des had worked as an engineer for Vauxhall for many years before his retirement. In addition to being an avid golfer and a connoisseur of English Ales, he also knew ways to get places unknown to any other. In recent years a failing kidney had caused him more and more trouble and had reduced his quality of life considerably. On Christmas Day, three generations of the family met at the French Horn in Steppingley for a celebration. It took no expert to see that he was not in his best spirits, but also, it was easy to see how much he enjoyed being with his family, which included wife, son, two grand daughters, and two nieces. I was touched to see how openly the grand daughters showed their love for the grand parents. I never had the pleasure or even the desire to hug my grandmother or grandfather, so seeing them giving genuine hugs to the grand parents almost brought me to tears of joy. I suddenly realized how important the hugs of my own grand children had become.
The meal was first rate. Everyone had turkey except me. Turkey is okay by me, but how can one turn down lamb or duck in an English pub, even on Christmas day. Like last year we did the Christmas crackers. Everyone read out their fortunes and swapped the prizes. The best prize of all was a propeller on a stick that we spun in the air from one table to the next. Des no longer was allowed his pint of beer, but he still enjoys a half. I had acquired most of my beer expertise from Des, who on our first pub experience accused me of selecting "women’s" beer.
The meal came complete with Christmas pudding (essentially a piece of fruitcake). I explained that in America fruitcake is quite often ridiculed as the bane of Christmas. People use fruitcakes as doorstops, boat anchors, and occasionally for bashing in doors, but not for eating. British fruitcake is actually iced with a thick white icing under layered by a sweet almond paste. (It’s even worse than American fruitcake). Christmas pudding seems to be soggy fruitcake without the icing. I ordered an apple tart, again accompanied with derision from the pudding people, who could not understand how anyone could not like fruitcake.
A week later Pauline and I, accompanied by her sister, drove Des to Cambridge for one of his three times a week dialysis treatments. After leaving him at Addenbrookes Hospital we took a city bus to the center of Cambridge where we wandered the streets around the town center and the colleges and, of course, tea. I paid my respects to Isaac Newton, whose statue is in the Chapel of Trinity College beside that of Roger Bacon and a few other giants. To our great surprise we discovered that the marble floors of the chapel are heated, offering real pleasure from the freezing cold outside. As I stood before Newton's statue, I commented that I should have alerted Stephen Hawkings to my visit so we could discuss theory. "What theory?” came the dubious question of a suspicious bystander. Without hesitation, I responded, "Trolinger's theory of 'Whatever is available is necessary and its first corollary, whatever is necessary is available'." That seemed to stop further questions so I moved on.
We had another hour to spend and decided to go separate ways to achieve different goals. Pauline headed for a famous bookstore on Trinity Street called Oxfam. Allison headed for a shopping spree. I had two problems at the moment, one I was freezing my ass off and the other I needed to pee. Peeing in a strange foreign town requires great skill and knowledge. It seemed I had two choices, a public toilet 300 meters away and pretending to be a customer in a big store. I chose the latter and headed for Brookstones, a large bookstore right in front of me.
Walking past the signs that say 'THE TOILET IS FOR CUSTOMERS ONLY' and pretending to be interested in the books as well, I entered a toilet so small that I could piss, wash my hands and shave without moving a step. Imagining that a large force of toilet police were all waiting outside to check and make sure I was a legitimate customer, and pounce upon me otherwise, I decided looking at books was a small price to pay for a pee, especially when I could also stay warm. The damndest thing happened. I found a book I actually wanted, "Ways of Seeing", and made a purchase. I left the store feeling totally genuine. The toilet police would have to nab some other infringer.
We arrived back at the hospital with half an hour to spare and decided to have lunch in the restaurant. As we sat there, I looked up from a cup of coffee to see five feet away, Stephen Hawkings coming through the restaurant, apparently taking a shortcut to avoid the cold. As he approached I said, "It's him!" I was tempted to rise and do whatever the equivalent of hand shaking is with Stephen Hawking, but I didn't. I just looked and wondered what he was seeing from his tilted-over head view of the world. What kind of dialogue transpired between him and his nurse to bring about his leaving his wife for the nurse.
Des was in better spirits and clearly felt better after his dialysis, though it was difficult to know how much pain he was really in. Pauline and Alison had agreed earlier that no how hard he attempted to direct us along one of his scenic routes on return that we would stick to the main road on which we had come. The problem they feared was that as soon as we found ourselves off in the boondocks somewhere he would fall asleep and we would wander around England for five years before being found. Nevertheless, he would not take “no” for and answer, giving every assurance that he would remain awake.
He was true to his word, remaining fully alert and apparently enjoying passing over some of the country he loved. We drove through the village of Grantchester (the location of Rupert Brooks’ famous line ".....stands the church clock at ten to three....." and past the home of Lord Jeffrey Archer, also famous novelist (currently residing in a British jail for fraud). We wound our way through half dozen villages, all of which looked like movie sets to me, and I could see why Pauline was hesitant to try this on her own. I could also see that she was very happy and enjoying it with an uncle she loved.
That was New Years Eve. We celebrated the coming of the New Year in the traditional way of counting down with Big Ben (on BB 1 TV) and watched neighborhood fireworks. On the 2cd of January, the phone rang early in the morning, one of those calls that one always answers quickly because they often signal emergency or bad news. Des Cole had passed away in the early morning hours, at last free from his pain.
I had taken some excellent pictures of the entire family during the Christmas meal and had given him a few of the better ones. I wish I had taken more.