September 23 8:25 am
I awoke in England this morning, excited to follow in the footsteps of so many of my heroes and heroines of literary renown! I will hardly match their eloquence, but if you are following along with my journal, you know already that “quantity” will not be lacking!
These last two days have been wonderful for their utter lack of stress (that is the stress of having to visit things and be a tourist). Our last full day in Amsterdam was the best one – we updated all our web pages in the morning and Gerry and I went to the Stedlijkmuseum (the museum of modern art) in the afternoon, by ourselves. Actually, that seems to be the best way to visit art museums – childless! The museum had some very famous works from the earlier part of the 20th century and some equally weird “art” from the later. A big exhibition of Kirchener was notable.
After the museum, we went to Vondel Park (just for you Frankie!) and took a stroll. The park is immense, and filled with people walking, roller-blading, walking their dogs, playing soccer, eating, and of course, bicycling! The day was lovely, sunny and cool, and so we also decided to walk back to the apartment. If you know Amsterdam, you know that isn’t something to scoff at!
Saturday was another nice day, but basically we just packed and went to the airport. We went early, expecting a lot of security but having nothing to compare it to, everything seemed pretty routine.
Our flight took us to Stansted Airport, about 45 km north of London. We took a bus from there (very convenient) to Victoria (Coach) Station, where we picked up a cab for our hotel. The bus ride was an hour and a half, and the cab another half hour ride. The flight was 40 minutes…Oscar was not pleased!
It was a beautiful day and the bus ride took us through the countryside and the outer London neighborhoods. It was a great first impression. In fact, coming to London on a Saturday perhaps was a good idea – there might not have been as much traffic and bustle as on a weekday…Wait ’til Monday and I’ll let you know if that is true. Today, Sunday, is a “lying in day” according to our hostess, so we’re off to a late breakfast and on to the City!
Our hotel is a bed and breakfast in the very southern part of London (It actually has a London address, but it is not on the tube system). The neighborhood looks a little iffy – certainly in the US it wouldn’t qualify as one you would walk around in at night…but, apparently, it is quite safe. We are minutes from two different train stations which are each about a 15 minute ride to downtown.
September 24 8:10am
A little reprise on our B&B: By the light of day and after a good night’s sleep, it turns out that our B&B is just what I wanted when I booked it. First, it is family-run. Our proprietress was helped out yesterday morning by her 16 year-old daughter and today we met her husband. I wanted to be able to meet some people during our stay because hotels can be so impersonal and lonely. I also wanted a communal breakfast and common areas (again, so we could meet people), that it have an personality of its own (no chain hotel decor) and be beyond the bustle of city life. Our B&B meets all of those AND the neighborhood by day seems a different place altogether. The house across the street has a big, old Jaguar and a Mercedes in the driveway.
Had a great day yesterday. When we finally were all up, we had a nice breakfast with our “hotel mates”…a couple from Vancouver who had just finished what sounded (only to me, apparently) a wonderful 11 days on a canal boat in central England. (The boys collectively thought it sounded like too much work…I guess I was thinking that for them, yes, it might be a lot of work, because I’d be sitting, sipping my wine, watching the scenery go by.) Anyway, our other co-guests were a very young couple. He was just finishing 3 years studying in Barcelona and they were planning to stay in England for a year.
After breakfast, we headed into London on the train. We arrived at Charing Cross, which put us on the street at Trafalgar Square. The weather wasn’t ideal, so most of our pictures have raindrops, but it was nice enough to really appreciate the views. In fact, just about everywhere we were in London yesterday it was important to turn around 360 degrees and look up from time to time – you’d see the most amazing things! Both times I remembered to do that, I was rewarded with views of Big Ben! From Trafalgar Square, we dodged raindrops down Whitehall, passing the Horse Guards and taking a foray to the edge of St. James Park, past Downing Street and Great Scotland Yard to Westminster Palace. We stopped there, because we had an appointment at 2:30 at Kew Gardens, and needed to eat lunch and give ourselves about 45 minutes to get there. Back tracking on Whitehall, we ran smack dab into a DRAMA.
Police cars had stopped and then surrounded a car on Whitehall Street. They pulled out and handcuffed a man (Yes, the driver was Middle Eastern looking) and then ordered us to clear the area. My imagination was running wild! Earlier in the morning I had seen the Daily Mirror headlines saying that another terrorist attack, this one planned for London, had been foiled by Scotland Yard! (Ok, so it was the Daily Mirror. I didn’t say I believed the story – just that the two events kicked my imagination into high gear. I was imagining a car bomb!) We headed for the Underground! In fact, we took the underground to Kew Gardens and had a fish ‘n chips lunch there before we met up with Robyn, a friend from Syracuse.
The gardens were beautiful and we spent about 3 hours exploring. Mostly the weather was not raining, but it was cold and damp. Walking and talking, we hardly noticed. We wandered past decorative beds of vegetables; in and out of hot houses, both tropical and desert; through the forest to find little cottages used by long dead princesses and queens. The Kew Gardens are the Royal Botanical Gardens and the gift shop, too, was worth a look. I don’t know where I have seen more beautiful books on plants, anywhere.
We had a lovely evening with Robyn and her father at her house. A restorative (got that word from a nice Rosamunde Pilcher book I picked up in the B&B for mood reading!) cup of tea, and then an even more restorative gin and tonic, got us in a good mood for the delicious dinner Robyn cooked for us.
Traveling home by train was a long trip, mostly because of bad timing, but it was uneventful and gave us ample time to study our fellow travelers which is, perhaps, my favorite form of sightseeing!
September 26 8:30am
The weather has been wonderful for the last few days! You would hardly think this was the same England everyone assured us would be rainy and cold…We have had sunshine all but one day, and though it has been cool, it is fall-like cool – perfect for walking and being active outside.
The weather has controlled to some extent our choice of activities, too. On Monday, we took the double-decker bus tour. We saw a lot! It was cold up there in the wind, but it was such a pleasant day and we could really see everything. In the afternoon we took Oscar to the Imperial War Museum. If you know Oscar, you know how exciting that was for him. To actually touch a Sherman tank that saw action in World War II! I didn’t see him for most of the three hours we spent in the museum. His Dad ran after him from exhibit to exhibit. JJ’s only comment was “I can’t believe he actually knows the names of all these guns!”
I went through an excellent exhibit on the Holocaust. It began with an explanation of the conditions in Germany that permitted Hitler to rise to power and went all the way to the liberation. The exhibit was multi-media in the best sense. Parts of it were so disturbing however, that I had to skip them. One thing is knowing a thing, and another is seeing pictures of it. I simply could not look at the display of torture instruments and their effects.
Monday evening, we went to Leiceister Square for dinner and walked to Picadilly Circus and Buckingham Palace on our way back to the train station.
Yesterday, we headed into London again. We finished up our bus tour (ticket was good for 24 hours) and hopped off at Madame Toussaud’s Wax Museum. The kids had a ball! It was pretty entertaining for us older kids, too! It’s also educational – believe it or not. Each of the figures has a plaque explaining who the person was (I am thinking of the not-so-obvious figures from history here). What I guess is most fascinating is how this whole thing began as a result of the French Revolution. She started out on Marie Antoinette’s severed head making a death mask!
The day was so beautiful we finished the afternoon with a walk in Regent’s Park and a stroll through the London Zoo.
We had dinner in London and took our trusty train back down here to south London. The kids have been jumping in bed to read every night since we got to London. Oscar is totally engrossed in Ender’s Game and Gerry just finished Murder on the Orient Express. I am reading fluff – a couple of short Rosamunde Pilchers to get me ready for our week in the Cotswolds.
September 26 5:00pm
Today was a relaxing day. We did about two hours of school work this morning and then went south on the train, about 4 towns, to go shopping. (I had promised Gerry Jr. I would take him.) Came home with a mobile phone – something we felt we needed – and a few replacement articles of clothing. We had planned to go play some basketball in the afternoon but the facilities were busy all night with the practice session of a local club. (That surprised me! I haven’t even seen a basketball hoop since we got here!) Tonight, JJ and I are on our own, as Gerry Sr. and Oscar have gone in to London to see a (what else!?) WWII cruiser that is in the river and part of the permanent display of the Imperial War Museum. Tomorrow, it’s the Tower of London, for sure. We are still trying to schedule the Natural History Museum, the inside of Westminster Abbey, Greenwich (which is right next to the town where we are staying), and perhaps, the British Museum. The kids are pretty negative about art museums but maybe I’ll force them to see just one. Our current thinking has us coming back to London for a few days before we go to Paris, so we may pick up more at the end, too.
September 30 5:00pm
Just as an aside, I need to say that we have easily eaten the best pizza I have had in my life, including my four years in Italy, in the last four weeks. Everywhere we have pizza, we get these delicious, thin crusted jobs, with little or no tomato sauce and cheese, but interesting combinations of vegetables, meats, herbs and even fruit instead!
Our B&B turned out to be just about perfect…We had an interesting and talkative group at breakfast every morning, so ended up meeting lots of people we will want to remember: Ben and Marta from Barcelona; the two aunties from Ireland; the couple from near Heidelberg, and two couples who lived in the same town in northern England and met at the breakfast table, the Canadian couple who gave us a ton of suggestions for visiting Scotland. Our hostess, Frances and her husband, Vic, were great and so were Frances’ English breakfasts every morning.
Backing up a bit… Thursday (9/27) we did go to the Tower of London. We got there at about noon, because the kids were studying and accomplishing something, too! The Tower was great! If you plan to see it, plan for almost an entire day there – there is so much to see and just being there is a trip back in time. See if you can resist it! Any guide book can give you the details so I won’t here. It wasn’t what I expected inside…From the outside you see these imposing stone walls that “tower” silently above you, but inside the walls – you find a little town! There is a variety of styles corresponding to the different times in which the buildings were added – but these are homes for the soldiers, guards, chaplain, etc., and their families. Of course, there are palace-like buildings too, because this was really a royal residence and not just a famous prison. Our first “castle”.
I didn’t think I would like the crown jewels very much as I am not much into jewelry and probably less still into diamonds and precious stones, BUT the amount of twinkling that comes off of thousands of tiny diamonds mounted together is irresistible. The many gold items couldn’t hold a candle to the crowns themselves. Believe me, a punch bowl, the size of a small bath tub, made out of gold isn’t something you see every day. Fortunately, since it is the “off season” we were permitted to loop around and stand on the moving sidewalk and pass the crowns and scepters a second time.
We met our friend Robyn for a pizza dinner in the Leicester Square area.
Friday, we got out late again (studying again!) but headed to Greenwich to see the Prime Meridian and the Royal Observatory. It was certainly worth the trip – again – more than a half day’s things to see. Greenwich is now part of the city of London, but it has a flavor of its own. The town is very quaint and worth a walk around. We visited the Cutty Sark, a clipper ship that is restored and in dry dock there. The guided tour was excellent. Nearby is a sail boat called the Gypsy Moth 4 in which a solo round the world trip was made…the size difference is impressive.
We also visited the Maritime Museum, which would have been more interesting if we had had time to really look at the exhibits. I especially enjoyed one on the history of passenger sea travel, having just gotten off the cruise ship. We also visited the “Queen’s House” which has a huge exhibit of paintings. I didn’t look at the paintings though, because we were running out of time and what I really wanted to see was the architecture of the building. Finally, we were on our way to the Observatory!
The observatory sits atop a huge hill (you have to walk up and it is steep!). The view from there is breath-taking! You can stand on the Prime Meridian, with one foot in each hemisphere, and guess what? You feel just the same as if you were standing any place else on Earth! Afterwards I thought about how many times we crossed and crossed back over the meridian, from eastern to western hemisphere just in the course of our afternoon visit.
In the Observatory Museum is a very thought-provoking exhibit about the measurement of time and the “longitude question” as I guess it was called in its day. The whole issue of time in those days was how to measure it when there were changes of temperature and motion, like on ships. There was a contest to see who could “solve” the problems, and not a mathematician or astronomer, but a clock maker solved the puzzle. You can also see the observatories – the original room and the current one.
Friday evening we went on the London Eye, or the Millennium Wheel – a large observation wheel that gives you a view of London from something like 125 feet up in the air. If you haven’t seen pictures of it, it looks like a Ferris wheel with these pods on it. I don’t know how many people fit in one, but we were about 10 in ours. We started up at dusk, so our trip was mostly at night. I recommend going at night, though I cannot tell you what it is like in the day. At night it is spectacular! The lights of the city give you an idea of just how immense London is, and just below the wheel on the other side of the river are the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, which are professionally lighted and therefore very dramatic at night! It wasn’t inexpensive, 29 pounds for the four of us, but it was worth it. Is it scary for those worried about heights? I wasn’t too scared and my stomach was okay as long as I didn’t look back at the machinery of the wheel. It moves very slowly so that when it stops and starts you can hardly feel any change at all. It takes about 30 minutes which is definitely long enough.
Yesterday, Saturday, we said good-bye to our B&B, climbed in our hired car and drove from London to here – Moreton-on-Marsh. First, we picked up the car and drove back to the B&B to get the kids. I am sure it happens to most Americans, but we did lose the mirror on the left side of the car within a few blocks of the car rental place (The previous drivers must have been Americans too as the mirror was badly cracked when we got it!). Driving was hair-raising, to be sure, and to add to our problems the car wasn’t big enough for us and all our luggage. We had to go back to the car rental place and arrange for another car, which we will pick up tomorrow in Oxford.
Trying to get out of London was another odyssey. First you need to imagine what driving was like… Fortunately, Gerry was at the wheel. (I would not have survived!) We’re on the “other side” of the road, as well as the “other side” of the car. It is a standard transmission…do you realize where that puts the gear shift?? Next to your LEFT hand! Then, we are in city traffic: Similarly to San Juan, cars are parked going both ways on both sides of the street, leaving a very narrow passage for one car in what was a two way street. The traffic signs look nothing like ours, so there is a translation factor in here – suffice it to say we missed a lot of turns and drove around in circles for a long while. We finally went east to go west and got on the “Orbital” or the big multi-lane highway that goes around London. From there it was pretty smooth sailing, except that 2 1/2 hours had gone by and the kids were starving, but too shell-shocked by the traffic and driving to say anything. We almost had an 11-year old meltdown, but found a place to stop and eat before he hit critical mass.
We arrived at 5:15pm, drained, emotionally and physically, though definitely to Gerry’s credit, the experience became less and less frightening as he gained experience and confidence.
Our cottage is great! It is right off the main street or High Street in Moreton (pronounced like the salt, Morton). The town is just one main street. The houses and shops are all made from the Cotswold stone, a beautiful yellowy-orange stone. There is ivy everywhere and the leaves are beginning to turn. It is evident why New England was given that name! As we drove in, we could see the patchwork of fields and hills – it is really lovely. The cottage is two stories, with a little, but well-equipped, kitchen, entry, bathroom, living room and dining room on the first. Upstairs there are two bedrooms and an ample landing. The second story is just under the roof, so there are a number of projections on which to hit your head. Despite the warning from the landlady, I bonked mine the very first night.
Our landlady is the owner of an interior decorating shop. She must have practiced on this little place for it is very nicely decorated. We are quite content here – snug and homey.
Our weather today was windy and gray, so the kids and I took a break. They studied and played and I read, drew and worked on these website pages, since we got very behind in London. Actually, I physically needed a rest, too. My legs ached from all the walking, but especially stair climbing, we have done in the last four weeks. I don’t believe I have lost any weight and my legs are still fat, but now they are firm and fat!
We are debating whether to try to stay an extra week.