Our Trip To London, April 2003
We flew out of JFK airport because it was so much cheaper than taking off from any of the DC-area airports, so we had to drive for nearly five hours to New York, then sit around in Kennedy for another three hours before boarding the plane. We had a very easy flight, taking off just before sunset and landing just after sunrise, a little less than six hours in the air. We were on a very new plane with little screens built into the backs of the seats and eight movie channels running simultaneously, which was good and bad news, because the kids were extremely quiet and cooperative but did not sleep at all as they went from 'Scorpion King' to Disney cartoons. We didn't get dinner until nearly 10 EST, then had breakfast barely three hours later as we watched the sun come up over Ireland. I read 'The Da Vinci Code' most of the way and was totally engrossed, especially at the end when the protagonists were chasing the Holy Grail in the Temple Church in London.
We landed at about 6:30 a.m. London time and had to wait about 20 minutes to get through customs, during which time both kids pretty much collapsed on the floor. Adam dragged himself through the airport and fell asleep in the van on the way to the rental car. (I am NEVER driving in England; I got a little carsick just sitting on the left as a passenger.) Both kids slept the whole way to Windsor Castle, during the course of which we got lost several times and ended up parking at the bottom of Windsor on the Thames. The weather was magnificent, sunny and warm but not hot.
The Queen was in residence at Windsor so the changing of the guard was quite spectacular, with a band that apparently played for longer than they do when the Queen is not there. The castle itself was spectacular too though Adam slept on Paul's shoulder the whole way through the town of Windsor and most of the tour of the castle grounds, which probably would have interested Daniel with all the talk of William the Conqueror and Henry VIII had he been more awake. We rushed through the doll's house but spent a lot of time in the rooms with armor and Adam was particularly impressed with the paintings on the ceilings.
We had lunch at a little soup and sandwich place in Windsor and walked along the Thames to see the swans before driving to the apartment where we were staying in Catford, a neat multi-ethnic neighborhood with lots of Indian and Caribbean restaurants right next to a place that serves eel and mash, plus something called faggots and pease that I am afraid to wonder about. Our apartment backed up to a courtyard with a little walk-in aviary that also housed a guinea pig, plus there was a big yellow cat in residence so we felt right at home. The courtyard also had some play equipment despite a sign warning against playing football. We all shared one bedroom with a double bed and two roll-out beds, so it was crowded in there, but we had a big kitchen and living room with a television, couch and fold-out kitchen table.
We wandered into Catford to buy food (Nestle markets Cheerios here, and there was Cadbury Easter chocolate everywhere). Then Paul took the boys swimming in the indoor pool, which is decorated like a Roman bath, while I called my friend Veronica whom we had plans to meet on Monday. For dinner we had chicken tikka masala picked up at the supermarket. We all went to bed very early.
Sunday Paul was under the silly impression that, having gone to bed at 9 the night before, he would instinctively wake up by 7 GMT. By the time any of us actually woke up it was closer to 8:45 and we were already running late. We planned to leave the city for one of our many side trips to avoid crowds for the London Marathon, so we raced out to Bath (after stopping to buy a Sunday 'Times' which failed to make me appreciate the football playoffs any more than I did before). The town of Bath is mostly dirty beige buildings and looked rather drab under overcast skies, though it was clearly thriving; the approach to Aquae Sulis is through the center of a big shopping arcade with a Marks and Spencer and a discount bookstore, both of which were mobbed. There must have been something going on at the university there because thousands of students were milling about in the streets. We drove past the Jane Austen house but I had no particular urge to go in, not being a big Austen reader.
The Roman ruins were fascinating, for it was quite incredible to be seeing something so old, and the tour was superbly designed with audio that could be activated at numerous points along the way. It starts at street level next to the pump room, looking down into the main bath, then moves through various rooms of architectural bits and mosaic murals to the level of the hot spring, which runs off via a waterfall at one end. The water is very green and signs all around warn people not to drink or touch it, though the hot spring still sends bubbles right into the middle of the main bath (apparently Bath sits on a fault line, hence the spring).
There's a lot of information about Minerva and the supposed healing properties of the waters. But it was very crowded and we were pretty rushed as our original plan was to get to Glastonbury and Stonehenge the same day, since they're both roughly in the same direction a couple of hours outside London. So I couldn't really take it all in, and between taking photos and video and trying to explain various things to the kids, I didn't feel terribly connected to any of it.
We ate lunch in the car on the way to Glastonbury, which Paul was muttering about perhaps having to skip so that we could get to Stonehenge before the official tours stopped at 6, but I convinced him that we probably didn't need the official tour so we kept on. Glastonbury Tor is visible for several miles out of town, and the moment I saw the hill with the tower on the top, I knew there was no way I was leaving without trying to climb it. Moreover, the moment we entered the town proper and I saw both the abbey and the numerous stores devoted to Pagan and Celtic pilgrims, no one could have gotten me to Stonehenge that day without dragging me away.
We toured the abbey, which is an enormous ruin covering several acres. There's a museum first with information on the history and legends (St. Patrick was there, King Arthur had been buried there...the legend that Mary Magdalene was brought there by Joseph of Arimathea was not included but I had read it several days earlier) and some of the smaller bits of sculpture and stone that had fallen when the roof of one of the main chapels collapsed. The kids did rubbings of knights while I took photos of the alleged grave site of Guinivere and what had been the crypt of the main chapel. Then we walked through the rest of the abbey, including a nearly-intact round chapel and a storehouse, plus the wooden outlines of buildings that no longer exist. Considering all the positive press Henry VIII got at Windsor Castle, it was interesting to get a reminder of how horribly unconverted Catholics were treated during the English Reformation; the last abbott at Glastonbury was beheaded and chopped into pieces to set an example.
It drizzled while we were on the grounds though the sky was bright and eerie over the Tor. I don't know how to explain my reaction to the place except on a spiritual level. I had both 'The Mists of Avalon' and 'Holy Blood, Holy Grail' on the brain (the latter courtesy 'The Da Vinci Code' which was the perfect thing to have read on the way over), and I also kept thinking about the number of people, Christian and Pagan, who had celebrated rites on that land. So I had chills the entire time I was there. I only saw the sacred well from a distance but I was very aware of feeling like I was near Cerridwen's cauldron. The surrounding land also looks like a postcard of my expectations for English countryside, with sheep grazing on the hills and bright flowering spring bushes around the metal gates of courtyards.
When we left the abbey, after dropping into a couple of shops that ranged from feminist spiritual bookstores to unashamed New Age crystal emporiums, I insisted that we were going to try to climb the Tor. It's a twenty-minute walk from the abbey just to the base of the path to the top, and I wasn't at all sure the kids wouldn't be too tired to climb, but I refused to leave and Paul agreed that we could probably go to Stonehenge from Oxford later in the week so there was no rush. We walked to the base of the Tor just past the Sacred Well, and Adam immediately said that he wanted to climb the mountain. Which we did. Naturally, despite some initial complaining, the kids got up with less strain than Paul or I did.
The path has a lot of steps which we ended up abandoning to walk in the softer grass. On the walk up I met two women, and American and a Brit, who had met online and were traveling together who took a picture of all of us at the summit. It's very windy and cold at the top; the wind blows straight through the tower, which is open at the bottom on two sides. There's a circular map of the surrounding area but nothing to indicate whether there was ever a ring of stones at the top. It was overcast but the visibility was pretty good; one side of the Tor looks down on Glastonbury and a hillside of sheep above the Sacred Well, while the rest looks over fields that stretch for miles (and at this time of year there's a lot in bloom). I was absolutely thrilled to be up there, on Palm Sunday and close to Beltane when surely other pilgrims make the trip for religious reasons.
When we came down we ate Italian food at a little restaurant in town and I bought a set of rune stones -- I had to get something spiritual from Glastonbury and I wanted something tactile, not a pentacle to dangle around my neck. It was a long ride back to Catford, nearly three hours, enough time to listen to 80-minute CDs of Loreena McKennitt and October Project plus some Indigo Girls, perfect for my feminist-spiritual mood. I saw in the late headlines that Sheffield United had lost their game and briefly felt sorry for Sean Bean; then I realized that despite being in England I had scarcely thought about Tolkien or 'Lord of the Rings' -- maybe at Oxford later in the week.
Monday we got up early so we could take the train in to meet my friend Veronica at the Globe Theatre, passing Sir Frances Drake's Golden Hind on the way. A man on the train had left behind a copy of the 'Sun' so I got to see a Page Three girl and read the outraged reporting on football scoring. Veronica arrived laden down with books on London for us and proved to be entirely evil by paying for things before we'd even caught up with the kids.
We took the theater tour, which includes some wonderful audio-visual segments -- bits of old performances on video and recordings of famous actors doing great speeches, so the kids got to hear Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) and Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) as King Lear and Richard III respectively. There's also a costume exhibit, some traditional props and a bit on Elizabethan life on display before entering the Globe itself. I was a little startled by how garish the colors seemed, especially the fake marble pillars and the green windows, something that's not often illustrated in books on Shakespeare where the colors tend to be muted -- I guess to make things seem aged. The acoustics inside are phenomenal; we could hear every word of everyone else's tour as well as our own. We weren't allowed onstage (only student groups are) but we got to sit in the balcony and to stand just below the stage to get a sense of what it was like for the penny customers. With the lights and the sprinkler system it's not really possible to pretend that one is in the Renaissance, but although I didn't feel in touch with Shakespeare himself, I did recall a lot of fond moments in Stratford, Ontario and at numerous other Shakespeare performances over the years.
From the Globe, Veronica led us across the Thames on the Millennium Bridge with a view of fog-obscured Tower Bridge and London Bridge, past St. Paul's and through London back alleys to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese -- a restaurant that has been in continuous operation since it was rebuilt after the fire in 1667 -- where both Mark Twain and Charles Dickens reportedly ate. There we had traditional English food...fish and chips, bangers and mash, pork loin (I didn't eat any of the pork and we all refused to eat European beef so no one had steak and kidney pie, but close enough). We walked from there to the Temple Church built by the Knights Templar on the model of Solomon's Temple in Jerusalem, but it was closed due to rehearsals for Easter so we were only able to see the outside.
Then we wandered through Lincoln's Inn and the law college to catch a double-decker bus (the kids' choice) to the British Museum, where we saw the Egyptian and Celtic displays and had tea in the cafe (Veronica's choice). It was pretty amazing to see the Rosetta Stone in person, though the displays on early Celtic Britain were a bit disappointing; lots of rusted weapons and silver torques, but the probable human sacrifice found in a peat bog was particularly potent for souring any admiration for Druid relics. I didn't have anywhere near the same emotional reaction to the British Museum as I did to being at Glastonbury or inside the recreated Globe.
The kids were pretty fried after going through the Egyptian and British antiquities so we didn't try to see any more of the museum, but headed back to the main streets (I did stick my head in Forbidden Planet while passing, and nodded my head to Bloomsbury). We took another double-decker bus ride to go see the platforms in King's Cross Station because of their connection to both Thomas the Tank Engine and Harry Potter, but there had been a bomb threat and the station was being evacuated. Instead we walked down to St. Pancras station and took the tube to London Bridge, where we caught the train back to Catford. We had a little shopping to do so we stopped in the food store on the way back to go to the pool. We had dinner in our apartment and caught up on our journals.
Tuesday we took the train to London Bridge again, this time so we could walk from there to the Tower. There was a twenty-minute queue outside, but within the crowds were manageable and even the hugely popular parts of the tour like the Crown Jewels were easily approachable (the Disneyland style people-movers past the crowns certainly helped in that regard!). The kids were most impressed by the site where the scaffold used to be, though the program guide did not contain a single illustration of an actual scaffold, let alone a beheading, which disappointed them. Paul and I were most impressed by the restored Salt Tower and the now-waterlogged Traitor's Gate. Most of the Bloody Tower is now an exhibit devoted to Sir Walter Raleigh, whom we have read far more about as the founder of Virginia than as a suspected traitor, and I had almost forgotten about the story of the dead princes until we were on our way out. We didn't take one of the all-day tours given by the Beefeaters but the kids did ask them a bunch of questions about who owns the jewels now and what happened to all the stained glass windows.
We ate lunch on one of the picnic benches within the Tower walls, walked through most of the exhibits (the DeBeers diamond collection was most informative but we were mostly curious to see the parts of the Hope Diamond that did not end up in the Smithsonian) and did some reading about Edward I. I found I had a hard time imagining Princess Elizabeth or Thomas More within the walls filled with modern tourists, but it was still a neat lesson in history.
Then we headed out and took the Tube to St. Paul's, which we had seen from the outside the day before. The interior of the cathedral is undergoing a massive restoration so much of the ceiling is hidden from view, but I was more interested in the tombs in the crypt and in seeing William Holman Hunt's 'Light of the World' which is on display there. As a Pre-Raphaelite worshipping spot, St. Paul's is spectacular; Millais, Hunt, Leighton and Alma Tadema are all interred there, and it was a thrill to see Wellington's and Nelson's graves as well. But I am always ambivalent about Christian churches, particularly big historical ones where who knows how much anti-Semitism and other prejudices have been institutionalized, so the ornate crosses and chalices only impressed me on an artistic level. Despite a chamber group practicing Easter music in the main chapel, I did not feel very spiritually uplifted. Unlike Glastonbury, this ancient church mostly made me think about ancient religious conflicts.
From St. Paul's, we walked across the Thames to the dock near the Globe, where we caught a boat to Greenwich after meeting a grandmother and granddaughter from Bethesda who identified us as American by our accents; the grandmother was clearly a New Yorker and after some brief Jewish geography (she had taken her granddaughter to London as a Bat Mitzvah present) we determined that we live 15 minutes from each other. On the boat we had a very amusing tour guide who taught us a great deal about the architecture and history of the waterside sights, including Captain Kidd's place of execution and the Millennium Dome. He also told us that the oldest observatory in England had been at the top of one of the White Tower turrets, so we knew before arriving that the great observatory in Greenwich was not the first. The weather remained spectacular and it was a wonderful day to be on the water; I felt as if I still hadn't seen typical London, as we had mostly seen it under clear, sunny skies without even much morning fog.
We met up with my friend Gloria, whom I had previously known only online, below the prow of the Cutty Sark. She led us through the park to the ruins of a Roman temple and past the fallen hollow oak where Queen Elizabeth I used to sit in the shade. There were many other great old oaks growing around the park and the boys tried to climb several of them. It was a gorgeous, sunny afternoon and we were all happy to be outside, though unfortunately the maritime museum closed before we got there and the observatory was closed as well so we didn't get to stick our heads inside. We took the obligatory photos on either side of the prime meridian and walked through the gardens nearby before going out for Indian food, checking out Greenwich's funky bookstores on the way. Afterwards we took a train back to Catford and Paul took the boys for a brief swim while I recharged the camera batteries.
Wednesday we went to Leeds Castle in Kent, which is on magnificent grounds with acres and acres of ponds, gardens and sheep grazing on hillsides. We walked through the duckery (which also contained swans, geese, pheasants and huge peacocks) to the castle, which is decorated downstairs as it looked in the Renaissance but upstairs as it was restored in the last century by Lady Baillie. I liked the lived-in feel, quite different from Windsor where the parts of the castle that are not a museum are off-limits to visitors, and it was interesting to see later artwork hanging on ancient walls, rather than only Renaissance tapestries and portraits.
The views out all the windows are spectacular -- huge green fields, gardens of both cultured and wildflowers, and water everywhere as the moat is still intact. The outer ruins look much older than the interior of the castle, which has been restored several times and is now used for conferences and banquets. My favorite room (no surprise) was the library, though I also enjoyed the cool, cavernous vineyards as it was an uncharacteristically hot day; I ended up buying a souvenir t-shirt for utilitarian purposes as I had not brought a single short-sleeved shirt to Britain with me.
We walked through the aviary, which has dozens of parrots and toucans, and into the hedge maze where we promptly got lost and Daniel and Paul had an argument about who was most likely to be able to lead us out. Daniel successfully navigated us back to the beginning of the maze, from which we cheated and entered the grotto from the exit. But I'm glad we did because it was the highlight of my visit to the castle -- an underground waterfall through the mouth of a Green Man-type face, and even though the guidebook identified all the fish and deer imagery in the stone tiles as stemming from Greek mythology, it had a very Celtic pagan feel.
It was quite a long walk back from the far side of the castle, where we had ice cream and the kids ran though a simpler ground stone maze to a metal replica of the castle, to the car, winding past fields of sheep with lambs and ponds with ducks and ducklings. There were tulips, daffodils and roses in bloom everywhere, and peacocks showing off their plumage in the middle of the paths. We ate lunch in the car as we set off for Dover, encountering some heavy traffic headed for the tunnel before we could see the cliffs.
Dover is an interesting mix of ancient history and modern industry; the cliffs are nearly obscured at sea-level by dozens of huge ships and storage facilities, but the castle high on the hill overwhelms everything in the city below and can be seen from almost everywhere. We walked down to one of the rocky beaches for a few minutes to stick our toes in the Channel, then wandered into town to glance at some of the older buildings before driving up to the castle. The grounds of Dover Castle are nearly as extensive as those of Leeds Castle but its centrality as a strategic location has made it far more spare in its décor, inside and out; there are tunnels from the Middle Ages and from World War II that enclose hidden prisons and hospital facilities, and the walls are ringed with artillery weapons left over from World War II.
We took a bus ride up the steep slope from the parking lot and went first to an exhibit on the Siege of 1216, where visitors wear earphones and walk through an audio-visual presentation that shows via films and sound and light effects what it was like when Louis nearly took over England, leaving Dover Castle to defend against the French invaders. It was really well done, engaging without being Disneyfied, and parts of the films were oddly reminiscent of the preparations for battle in 'The Two Towers' which made it relevant for the kids who were also excited about the trebuchet in the keep. We went through the medieval tunnels, some of which date back to the 1200s, and climbed on the parts of the outer wall that were open to visitors so we could take pictures of the white cliffs and the Channel.
Back at our apartment I took the kids swimming while Paul went hunting in the store for matzah and grape juice for our makeshift seder, which lacked a shank bone and egg (unless the Cadbury variety counts -- thought not), but had quickly-made haroset, bitter herbs, parsley, and microwaved honey-mustard chicken. Between us we managed the Four Questions and a brief retelling of the Passover story, though we had forgotten to pack the haggadah with the seder plate, Kiddush cup and candlesticks so we kept the Hebrew to a minimum. (We did have all-important Afikoman prizes.) I had hoped to get together with Gloria and her friend Kate late in the evening, but they were pretty fried after work and were headed out of town for the weekend, so we just talked on the phone and they gave me advice on visiting Avebury on the way to Stonehenge.
Thursday we got up very early to drive to Stratford-Upon-Avon to see Shakespeare's birthplace. The town is extremely beautiful, though quite tourist-oriented; from the main parking lots one must walk through a little park by the river and then down two blocks of lovely, expensive gift stores before reaching the Shakespeare house. The gardens around larger-than-life sculptures of Shakespeare's characters were in full bloom, both flowering trees and hundreds of bulbs; there were boats on the water, and swans, and hundreds of people just sitting on the grass enjoying the sunshine of another warm, bright day.
Shakespeare's birthplace has been restored several times since the house became open to the public, and the guest registry shows that John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited it together. There are also panes of glass on display that used to be in one of the bedroom windows upon which many people have etched their initials as proof that they'd been there, from Ellen Terry to Walter Scott. Before entering the house proper, there's an exhibit on Shakespeare's life and work, including a model of the original Globe that looks strikingly like the full-size reproduction in London.
I was surprised at how wealthy the Shakespeares were; I knew he hadn't grown up poor and had gone to a good school, but the house seemed large and nicely furnished, with bright tapestries and color on the walls of the many rooms. The guides talked more about the furnishings of the home than what sketchy details are known about the lives of Shakespeare and his siblings, but there were nice exhibits on tanning leather and storing food in the pre-Elizabethan era. Most of the artifacts have little direct connection to Shakespeare but were excavated from elsewhere in the town and dated to the right era. Still, the kids were talking about Macbeth so some of it must have sunk in.
We decided to have a literary day on Thursday and a Pagan day on Good Friday when lots of museums would be closed, so we put off Stonehenge for another day and scrapped plans to go to Birmingham so we could visit Avebury as well the next day. Thus went from Stratford straight to Oxford, eating lunch in the car yet again. We parked outside the city and took a double decker bus in, which allowed us to see the beautiful houses before entering the university area. In terms of sheer volume of magnificent ancient buildings, Oxford far exceeded anything we had seen before. The architecture covers several centuries but almost none of it is newer than the United States; it has a very ancient feel, despite the McDonald's, Borders and music stores on High Street.
We went first to the Ashmolean Museum to see the Pre-Raphaelites and landscape paintings there before the kids got tired and crazy. Then we briefly stepped into the Bodleian Library before heading past the impressive Radcliffe Camera over to Christ Church College which was of principal interest to the kids because of its Harry Potter connections. The Great Hall was open, though the portraits on the walls didn't move or talk and there was a physical ceiling rather than a reflection of the night sky, though the boys were impressed with the paintings of Henry VIII and his associates and with the huge dining tables and fireplace.
We went to the chapel, which cleverly had a scavenger hunt for kids to find interesting gargoyles and faces on the walls, though one of the Jesus illustrations on an altar was covered for Lent. My beloved Burne-Jones had designed many of the stained glass windows in the church, and the ceilings and carvings on the sides of the pews were intricate and intimate -- not as vast and foreboding as St. Paul's...a more powerful place to spend Maundy Thursday as far as I was concerned.
After the chapel we walked around the grounds of the college including more beautiful gardens and students sitting shirtless in the windows of the centuries-old dormitories. Then we walked through several of the other Oxford colleges and the streets of shops, looking for a place to have dinner that wasn't a pub and therefore off-limits to anyone under 18, stopping in several bookstores (though Paul was disappointed that the Alice In Wonderland shop had closed before we got there, we did see the tree that the real-life Dinah had frequented). We saw the duplicate of the Bridge of Sighs from Venice and the spectacular German Lutheran church which based on the number of shrines to the Virgin Mary looked to me to be a converted ancient Catholic church. I was surprised at how little information there was on Lewis and Tolkien compared to Carroll.
We ended up having Indian food again (Daniel's insistence, and I never object to Indian) at a place called Café Zouk that was exceptional, especially the chicken korma and biryani. We were the only people in the place since it was early by British standards for dinner, and we talked with the immigrant owner and his niece about changes in British coins and the neighborhood since they'd arrived in the 1980s.
We got back late and got up early to join holiday weekend traffic heading west out of the city en route to Stonehenge. Many people had warned me that I would be disappointed -- that visitors couldn't approach the stones, that it was really just a bunch of rocks in a field. Those people are cracked. It's true that Stonehenge feels more tourist-oriented than Glastonbury Tor, in that the stones are protected by a rope barrier and there's a sophisticated information center with gift shop and restaurant, but the plus side of that is that for the cost of admission, visitors get to walk under the nearest road while listening to a handheld audio tour that lasts about half an hour and contains a great deal of information.
As for the stones themselves, I don't think any number of photos could have prepared me for the size and scope of Stonehenge. I was sorry not to be able to walk among them and touch them, but that's a small price to pay to protect them from vandals. For some reason the British seem determined to pooh-pooh anything mystical connected to Stonehenge, as even the audio tour went on at length debunking myths (the Druids probably have no connection to the standing stones, Uther Pendragon probably isn't buried there, etc.) but it's impossible not to learn all the scientific implications of the placement of the millennia-old stones and not get chills, or at least it was for me.
We had another absolutely perfect day, weather-wise -- not a cloud in the sky, warm enough to wear short sleeves despite a breeze, and the stones were very gray against a deep blue sky with fields in the background alternately green and gold with flowers and grass, plus sheep grazing just behind the monument. There were quite a lot of people and the parking lot was quite full but we never felt crowded. I was sorry afterwards that we hadn't held the audio recording up to the video camera and taped it all the way around Stonehenge.
After another lunch en route, we arrived at Avebury, which I had originally scratched off the agenda so we'd have time to go to Birmingham another day until Gloria and Kate convinced me to reconsider. I am so glad they did. Unlike Stonehenge, which is spectacular but somewhat remote, the stone circle at Avebury goes right around and through the village, including markers for stones that are no longer standing; it seems that for awhile local craftsmen would come chip at the stones or take them completely. We could walk right up and touch them, lean against them to take pictures, and walk in a circular trail around them that went past the old farmhouse and church in the center of town.
The tourist center is in a chapel that was actually holding Good Friday services, but we arrived while they were outside doing the Stations of the Cross so we were able to see it briefly. We walked the perimeter of the semicircle that rises high on a hill on one side of town, giving beautiful views of fields of yellow flowers and lots of grazing animals that could be smelled as well as seen occasionally when the wind changed direction. The parking lots are a bit out of town so while there were many tourists, it felt even less crowded than Stonehenge, with people spread out across several fields by the dozens of stones.
Right near Avebury is the West Kennett Long Barrow, an enormous burial mound with a stone chamber at one end that's about half a mile walk from the road, crossing over a small stream. On this magnificent day we hiked up and inside the open chamber, which is even older than the stone circle in Avebury, though the tombs were desecrated over the years by people searching for bones and treasure. At the top of the barrow I felt a bit the way I had felt atop Glastonbury Tor, looking out at miles of perfect countryside and Silbury Hill, another enormous burial mound.
We drove back through a bunch of little towns including Marlborough, which has a gorgeous university and a main street that's a wonderful mix of old buildings and new stores -- like Oxford, only more Dickensian. Unfortunately we got stuck in more horrible holiday traffic on the London Orbital, exacerbated by an accident that closed several lanes, so we didn't get back to Catford until almost 8 p.m. I took the boys swimming one last time in the apartment complex pool while Paul ran down to the store before it closed to get dinner. We ate chicken cottage pie very late, but going to bed late had been on the agenda anyway so boys would be on a schedule to sleep later and stay up the next night for the theater.
Saturday we got up to check out of the apartment by 10. We drove to the London Bridge Travel Inn to drop off our luggage, then to Victoria Station to return the rental car. From there we walked to Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guard, which was just as crowded as it had been at Windsor and even more so in the surrounding park where a paralyzed man was finishing the London Marathon several days after it began. We were very amused when the band segued from some traditional march into the James Bond theme music. The gardens were beautiful, dozens of colored flowers in bloom, and the sky was overcast so I got my first glimpse of London as it is reputed to look most of the time -- not as we have seen it this trip.
After Buckingham Palace we walked to the Tate past a very crowded Westminster Abbey, where we met my friend Veronica, who walked me through the Elizabethan paintings and the Pre-Raphaelites while Paul did some of the wonderful children's activities with Daniel and Adam (make your own Victorian comic strip, identify Ophelia's flowers, etc.) I spent a lot of time looking at Burne-Jones' Golden Stairs and Sargent's Hearts Are Trumps. The Tate has fabulous art but horrible lighting, and most of the paintings are hung one above the other, so the track lights leave a green line across the top of the upper paintings. This was the fate of Waterhouse's Lady of Shalott and Millais' Vale of Rest. Nonetheless the collection is incredible and I was in heaven.
From the Tate, where we also ate a quick lunch in the cafeteria, we headed to Westminster which we were very sorry to learn was closed for Easter rehearsal, so I did not get to see the tombs of Elizabeth I or Sir Isaac Newton. Veronica took us across the street to the centuries-old Jewel House, which houses the official weights and measures of Britain as well as an exhibit on Parliament and the era of Cromwell; from there we walked past Whitehall, where King Charles built himself a pleasure palace behind which he was later executed. We walked through Trafalgar Square to the National Portrait Gallery where we had tea and scones (actually carrot cake and chocolate biscuits), then headed through Covent Garden and its street fair filled with music and acrobats to Waterloo Bridge and the Tube back to the hotel.
We crashed for half an hour with Veronica before going back to Charing Cross Station and the Drury Lane Theatre, where we saw the excellent revival of 'My Fair Lady' which Daniel found absolutely fascinating and Adam rather enjoyed though he was annoyed that we couldn't get ice cream at intermission -- we didn't have enough pounds and couldn't cash a traveler's check. It was great fun getting to see historic London reproduced on the stage in London and to hear cockney accents much stronger than any we've encountered; Veronica says that since BBC TV started entering homes all over London, all the traditional accents of Yorkshire, Cornwall, etc. have been softened and gentrified.
The sets were superb, on moving walkways with, and from our seats in the balcony we could see the computers in one of the boxes that controlled them, so the boys were wide awake and interested as the show ran late into the night, though Daniel rolled his eyes at the love story (him and G. B. Shaw!) We took the tube back to London Bridge Station along with many drunk young Londoners, some of whom were throwing up all over the trains, then took a cab back to the hotel, where we found nothing to eat in the pub but junk food and beer, so we had a late dinner of salt and vinegar crisps and breakfast bars. None of us were asleep until after midnight.
Sunday we ate a huge breakfast at the hotel, then took the Tube to the Museum of London where we met up with Veronica again. She walked us through the Roman ruins -- both the collection inside the museum and the remains of the Roman wall outside that used to mark the outskirts of the walled city. This is an excellent museum for kids with hands-on exhibits on Roman weights and measures, a film about the Great Fire, appropriate music playing in exhibits on different eras and a wonderful collection of prehistoric artifacts: "London Before London" as they call it.
From the museum we took the Tube to Kensington Palace where we had lunch in the Orangery, a teahouse where we ate potato soup, scones, ham and cheese sandwiches and, of course, tea. We walked around the palace and the beautiful grounds, which include a formal garden and a lake; there were many people around, both tourists and Londoners enjoying the swans and the big grassy fields where some were flying dual-string kites. The kids' favorite thing was the Peter Pan playground, including a large pirate ship with a mast they could climb, a big jungle gym and a fake Indian encampment. Unfortunately the entire playground (a tribute to Princess Diana) was filled with sand, so we all left with sand in our hair and shoes. But the sun was out, the temperatures were in the low 60s and we had yet another magnificent afternoon.
We went briefly to Piccadilly Circus but nearly everything was closed for Easter -- except for the tourist shops, where Daniel insisted on getting a t-shirt with a map of the Tube, which we then took back to Covent Garden to take pictures of the Drury Lane Theatre, the carousel and other things we'd seen the night before when it was too dark for photos. The stores were closed but the street fair was in full swing: there were people riding the flipping space chair, people giving impromptu performances as clowns and musicians, and one man balancing a bicycle on his head. It started to drizzle while we were there -- pretty much the only rain we had seen the entire week. So we took the Tube to Tower Bridge, and since the sky had cleared by the time we got there, we walked across and back to our hotel, where we had dinner (salmon, fish and chips, fried chicken) in the restaurant there. There was a family there with a boy about Daniel's age who said they were from Yorkshire; Daniel asked them if they knew Sean Bean, but they laughed and said they weren't even from the area where Blades fans congregate. When we went upstairs we had to pack to return home.
Our cab to Heathrow drove us past a few remaining places we had wanted to see in London, like the Wellington Arch and Harrods. I bought 'Sharpe's Prey' in one of the airport bookstores and read most of it on the plane; I also watched 'Tuck Everlasting' which was quite good. We landed nearly 45 minutes early, but lost most of that time in customs and taking the bus to the long-term parking lot. We all survived the five-hour trip home in holiday weekend traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. Spring arrived full-force while we were away, so we had flowering trees all the way through three states right to the azaleas in our front yard.
And for the first time in more than a week, we saw seriously overcast skies.
Click for photos of:
The Globe, Churches and The British Museum
The Tower and The Thames
Leeds Castle and Dover
A Makeshift Passover
Stratford-Upon-Avon and Oxford
Buckingham Palace, The Tate, Westminster