Saturday, June 27, 2015

A Dream of England - Day Seven


     This is our last full day in England. I have planned our trip well and have few regrets, but there is one small thing nagging at me: I wish I had purchased one of the Roman coins for sale in a shop I visited on Portobello Road. My husband insists we take the tube up to Notting Hill after breakfast and buy a coin before traveling on to the British Museum. I would dearly love to know whose likeness is stamped on my coins.

     It seems surreal to me that as I view the iconic artifacts on display in the British Museum, I am carrying two chips of antiquity in my own pocket. Again, there is too much to see in one day. We visit the ancient Near East, Roman Britain and Medieval Europe exhibits. I learn that Rameses II erected more colossal statues of himself than any other pharaoh and encouraged popular cults in which he was deified. He even reworked the facial features of the statues of previous kings to resemble his own. Hubris, the oldest of failings. The poem, Ozymandias, by Percy B. Shelley is written about one of these colossi. I see the broken fragments displayed around the museum and remember these lines:

And on the pedestal these words appear:
'My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
    Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

     My husband is fascinated with the Rosetta Stone. He has been here before, but he wants to share the thrill of it with me. I linger over the Roman and Saxon helmets and cloak pins. And the treasure hoard of Sutton Hoo. I have read of its discovery, but I didn't know a portion of it was housed at the British Museum. These things we are seeing give shape to the dusty images of the distant past. What feels like shadows and sounds like myth moves closer, becomes real. It's like fist bumping a pharaoh.

     Time travel works up one's appetite and we stop at Pret for one last crayfish and avocado salad. Would you think less of us if I confess it is the fourth one this week?  

     Bloomsbury is also the home of the London Review Bookshop. I pick up H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. The cover art has lured me. The synopsis sounds promising. I scan a few pages and paragraphs and the writing seems good. Has anybody out there read this book? No matter, I have broken my rule again and bought it. I just don't see how I can come all this way to London and then go home again without a book or two by British authors in my luggage.

      My husband sits on the sofa by the front window and takes photos of me looking at books. He says the outfit I am wearing today looks literary. He knows how to charm a girl. We stop for tea at the tiny cakeshop next door. My coffee drinking husband orders a pot of tea that tastes and smells like a campfire. Oh my, the day is passing too quickly.

     We have eaten some tasty meals while in England, but we have saved what we hope will be the best dinner until our last evening. Of course, it could turn out all wrong since we have never been here before and Google is not foolproof; but as it happens, it is one of the best meals I have ever eaten. The restaurant is across the street from St. Barnabas Church in Pimlico, and the 19th century church has a charm of its own.

     We are seated one floor above the street and I look to my right to see the peak of the old church framed beautifully in the paned windows. The evening sun breaks through the clouds and paints shifting leaf shadows on the gray stone walls. A crow flies past and perches on a chimney pot. I am feeling bubbles again, effervescence.

     My husband orders pollock with lemon mash and asparagus tips. I order rabbit saddle and confit leg wrapped with pancetta, grilled spring onions and mustard fruits. We share bites. Oh heavens, the chef is an artist. It is the kind of meal one should eat slowly, savor every bite. The portions are not large so there is room for dessert. We share those too. Mine is the best: lemon posset with passionfruit jelly and crushed mint meringues. If only I could prepare food like this. If only I could describe food like this. I need Molly at remedial eating to potion the words for it.

     Twilight lingers this far north, but it is late. I am counting my blessings as we walk back to the tube station in the chilly dark. I do not take any of this evening for granted. I am supremely happy. It has been a perfect first trip to London and it has been a perfect way to end it. My dream of England isn't a dream any is a memory.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Dream of England - Day Six

     It is Monday morning and we begin our day early. We are taking a train from Paddington Station up to Oxford. The countryside between is made of green velvet stitched with brick. Poppies, daisies and yellow broom bloom alongside the tracks. We bumble a bit with directions and nearly miss our connection at Didcot, but sort ourselves out just as the train to Oxford arrives.

     I have booked a tour of Oxford Castle. Not much is left of the original castle besides the Norman motte and St. George's Tower which is now believed to predate the Conquest of 1066. I cannot quite absorb the fact that I am standing in the shadows of Saxon England with my digital camera in my hands. So much of this trip has already been veined with juxtaposition.

St. George's Tower

The flag of St. George, dragon slayer and patron saint of England

     I have been practicing for weeks to climb the 100 stairs to the top of St. George's Tower, up and down our own 13 stairs at home until I can do a hundred at one go without my legs feeling wobbly. Our guide, a lively young man who is posing as a medieval executioner and is an accomplished storyteller, delights and horrifies us with the history of the castle and tower. I am so thrilled to be here, trailing my hand along the smooth, ancient stone of the inner wall as I ascend the dim circular stairway; at the same time, I am relieved to be living in the 21st century. Can one be a romantic and realist at the same time?

     There are bicycles everywhere, even more than in London. The train station is crowded with them, lined up, waiting for someone to claim them. Some are decorated, others wear seat covers or shower caps depending on the inventiveness of the owners. I suppose the idea is to keep the seat dry in wet weather. Where are all the people who belong to these bikes?

     After lunch we take a walking tour of the University. Oxford is a beautiful city with an interesting history and I regret that we do not have more time to explore it. It is exam week for the students who have recently voted to keep the 900 year-old tradition of wearing a proscribed formal dress, complete with cap and gown, to their final exams. I can't see that ever happening in the United States, but I like it. On this island whose history has often been influenced by its class system, there is a sense of elegant egalitarianism or class without class in the present tradition.

     In our small tour group there are three amiable ladies from Warwickshire. We talk about blackbirds and how much we could all use a cup of tea after our two hour walk. They ask what part of America I am from. I tell them this visit is a dream come true for me. Given more time, I think we could become friends.

     When the tour is over, we wander the streets taking pictures, hoping to capture with our cameras some sense of what we are feeling. I have seen Magna Carta and one of Shakespeare's first folios at the Bodliean Library. I have stood on the spot where Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer were burned for their faith. I have paused beneath the sign of the Eagle and Child and peeked into the pub where C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met with the Inklings. I have listened to the stories of Queen Maud's midnight escape in the dead of winter from the siege of Oxford Castle; of the ghost of a seven-year-old girl who haunts the chapel Crypt beneath the bailey; of Rowland Jenkes, a saucy, foulmouthed bookseller who stood trial for scandalous words against Queen Bess and cursed the court, many of whom fell ill and died horribly thereafter. I am feeling crammed to the ears with history and myth.

It is a lovely feeling.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Dream of England - Day Five

St. Helens Bishopsgate and the Gherkin

     We go to church on Sunday morning at St. Helens Bishopsgate. It was the parish church of William Shakespeare when he lived in the area in the 1590's. Our friends in Pimlico attend. They are concerned that we will have difficulty on the way because of the tube closures at the weekend. We have not checked for the closures beforehand and are compelled to follow a circuitous route, but I have left plenty of time for surprises and we arrive at the church well before time.

     St. Helens is an Anglican church that sits in the shadow of the Gherkin. Parts of the building are 800 years old, but parts of it were rebuilt after IRA bombs damaged it in the 1990's. We already feel an affinity for this church because we often listen to their Sunday morning talks online.

St. Helens in the 1870's

     After a proper Sunday roast dinner with Yorkshire pudding at The Folly we explore the surrounding area on our way to the tube station. I am looking for the smallest sculpture in London and I find it close by on Philpot Lane.

     We stumble onto the hanging signs of Lombard Street. Among them is the sign of the cricket. The cricket, seen in various places around London, is the crest above the Gresham coat of arms. Sir Thomas Gresham, a Tudor financier and one of the richest men in Elizabethan England, is buried in a tomb in the central meeting hall of St. Helens Bishopsgate. We sat with him this morning in church unaware. Small world.

     The hanging sign which distracts me the most, however, is on Gracechurch Street. I often shop this chain at home though none of the stores in Chicago are located in buildings like this one. It is like catnip to me and I do not even try to resist. TK Maxx (TJ Maxx in the States) is a discount store, but Prince Harry and Kate Middleton have been seen shopping the store on Kensington High Street.


     I wonder if the Duchess of Cambridge found a pair of kicks as sweet as the ones I did. Are they still called plimsolls in Britain?

     It is on our itinerary to see the Tate Museum today, but we are footsore and tired of walking. There has been a great deal of walking this week. More than I am used to. The museum is near our hotel, but we walk past it. I fall asleep in our room reading Wolf Hall. Just a short nap and then I am ready to go again.

     We walk down to the river in the evening, and I discover that MI5, the Security Service, is behind our hotel. I wave discreetly to one of the many cameras mounted outside Thames House. Just across the river in Vauxhall is MI6. Every morning as I wait for the hotel lift, I have been looking out the window into James Bond's backyard. How could I have missed it? I have enjoyed watching spy shows since I was a child. Man From U.N.C.L.E, Get Smart, The Saint, Spooks, the Bourne trilogy--I've seen them all. I decide that we have been staying in either the safest or most dangerous spot in Britain. Cool.

M watching MI6 explode in Skyfall

Sunday, June 21, 2015

A Dream of England - Day Four

"No minute gone comes ever back again
Take heed and see you nothing do in vain"

Liberty of London clock with Father Time

     Saturday is a leisurely morning because we are meeting friends at their flat in Pimlico for lunch. We walk up to the Sainsburys to inspect the groceries. Interesting. The mortadella bologna is studded with pistachios. My husband lingers at the meat counter where hamburger is called beef mince and the pork chops are unskinned. There are no fillers in the taco seasoning. Cello wrapped packages of Scotch pancakes are sold like crumpets. I buy packets of Jamie Oliver's stuffing mix and Cadbury chocolates to take home.

     After lunch we ride the tube up to Oxford Circus. It seems the whole of London is out shopping. They can't all be tourists, can they? We stroll along Regent Street and pop in to Liberty of London. It is a fine old building with wooden floors that creak at every step.

     I am told I should buy my tea at Fortnum and Masons because the packaging is so lovely, and it is, but I find that I am content with my boxes of English Breakfast from Waitrose. I've heard the Queen gets her groceries from Waitrose. My husband isn't interested in shopping today, but he is interested in photography and Regent Street offers plenty of diversion for him.

     He is patient with me when I step into Foyles bookshop on Charing Cross Road. I have forgotten to bring my list of books to look for, so I shop from memory. The selection of books by Terry Pratchett is large. I have only read one book and one short story by him, but I think he is a clever writer and he is hugely popular in the UK, so I break my rule of reading a book before I buy it and purchase Equal Rites. It gives me a tickle to be buying a book at Foyles. I hope I like it.

Friday, June 19, 2015

A Dream of England - Day Three

     It rains this morning. Of course it does, but I didn't come to London without my umbrella. The rain moves off and leaves the day as humid as Chicago. We are shopping the outdoor market on Portobello Road in Notting Hill. I buy a linen dress made in Italy and a doorknob.

     I have planned too much to do for such a warm day. By the time we have ogled the mansions and embassies in Kensington Palace Gardens on our way to the Natural History Museum, we are flagging. Regrettably, I will have to save Hyde Park for another time. I hope there will be another time. I had visions of sitting alongside the Serpentine with a sandwich and novel for an hour or two.

Green Ringneck Parakeet in Kensington Palace Gardens

     The architecture of the Natural History museum is incredible. It is the primary reason we have stopped here instead of the Victoria and Albert just down the street. If you don't already know, we have a passion for architecture. So despite the heat and fatigue, we take over a hundred photos of windows, tiles, arches and columns. I have difficulty selecting a modest half dozen for my blog post.

     I suppose there were some exhibits to see in the museum, dinosaur bones and the like, but our eyes were too full of stone to notice.