No ice, sir?

My better half has a new-found affection for ice since so little is to be found in British restaurants. Unlike U.S restaurants, service does not automatically start with a glass of water. And, when one asks for water, it does not come with ice. This scarcity, coupled with our inability to overcome our accents to make ourselves fully understood, has led to many glasses of tepid refreshments in various establishments. Today he asked for a lot of ice with his water.  Somehow that was interpreted as, “no ice, sir?” and I saw a flash of desperation cross his face as he began to pantomine a glass full of ice (no easy task!). I make a feeble effort to suppress a laugh and then dissolve into giggles.

My battle with British plumbing rages on, leaving me unusually afraid of bathrooms. The shower in our bed and breakfast, hardly big enough to turn around full circle, alternates between scalding me and shocking me with blasts far cooler than anything we’ve had to drink. And every shower is set up so that the hapless user has to lean in all the way to get the taps on. I’ll leave the result to the imagination.

Moving to a slightly more delicate subject, I have encountered some amazing toilets, including one that probably dates to the time of invention, with the tank above my head and a long pull chain. Figuring out how to flush them has been an adventure. Then there’s sinks – all kinds of them. The more historic the building, the more interesting the sink, including one so tiny it would not fit a baby Chihuahua, never mind a normal size pair of hands. Bending over trying to use it, I felt like Gulliver.

Meanwhile, my better half is working on a business plan to sell ice to American tourists in England.

If you visit period buildings, be prepared for unusual bathrooms!
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An abbey for the ages

Londoners take their sidewalks seriously. They barrel down the pavement at a clip that must qualify hordes of them as speed walkers. The tube (subway) is especially interesting for the pace of foot travel. Standing on the escalator, we are careful to stay right, as people shoot past on our left, taking the moving stairs two at a time. I see a man hop on our tube car only to be slammed on both shoulders by the closing doors. He wriggles his way in, but his rolling briefcase is stuck outside. Everyone remains silent except me – I exclaim, Whoooaa!” as I hit the open door button. Still complete, unnerving silence from everyone else. The man yanks in his case, takes his place and cracks open a newspaper as if nothing has happened. Without uttering a sound. I have never felt so loud in my life.

Westminster Abbey

We emerge unscathed from the tube in the heart of London and navigate huge crowds to reach Westminster Abbey. After paying our 16 pounds ($24) each for entrance, we step into a cool, cavernous cathedral. It’s amazing to be walking up the same aisle that Prince William and Katherine walked when they married. Even more amazing to learn that this church was founded in the 10th century and that 3,500 notables are buried within its walls. Many more are memorialized with plaques, statuary, crests and more. The priest says that no matter where we stand, we are probably standing above someone’s remains. The listening tour group shift their feet and look down. The priest seems to enjoy the reaction – probably comes from working in a giant tomb.

My better half heads off on his preferred section of the self-guided tour as I walk over to Poets’ Corner. Beginning with Chaucer, writers of note through the ages have been buried or memorialized in this area. Dylan Thomas, one of my favorites, has a memorial plaque that reads, “Time held me green and dying though I sang in my chains like the sea.” I wonder if he chose this as his parting phrase. Charles Dickens’ remains are here, along with the ashes of Rudyard Kipling and Thomas Hardy. Handel’s gravestone reads “I know my Redeemer liveth,” from his famous work, the Messiah. (Later that day we see an early composition draft of this work in the British Library.) It is sometimes difficult to keep one’s footing on the ancient floor so I slow my pace and then notice some beautifully touching eulogies written about wives and mothers in medieval times.

Prayers are said every hour in the abbey and for this reading we hear a lovely English accent asking for blessings of peace. I am moved by the spirit of the place and the thought of countless prayers said through the centuries. We exit into the throngs of tourists and late summer heat of this complex and deeply  interesting city.

The seat of power

The House of Commons with Big Ben in background

Parliament is located along the banks of the Thames in the heart of London. On the way to our tour, we pass through security that is not quite as stringent as the airport. It makes me a bit sad to think of this venerable and historic democracy having to arm its entrance, but I later learn some historical facts that give me perspective. Today we are with my auntie and uncle, who have traveled from Needingworth in Cambridgeshire to join us for a day of sightseeing. We enter through the Westminster Hall, the oldest surviving section of Parliament, built in 1097-1099 by King William II. I look up to consider the roof, which dates from 1401, and think about roofs in the U.S. that last 20 years. I stand on a plaque noting the date that the Speaker of the House, Sir Thomas More, was condemned to death in 1535. He also was the Lord Chancellor of England and author of the book Utopia. During the tour I learn that various kings would take a disliking to the activity or opinions in the House of Commons and would send soldiers to storm the doors and haul off hapless politicians. I imagine poor Sir More being in this group. In those days one really did need a serious commitment to one’s political platform!

With the exception of Westminster Hall, all of Parliament burned down in the mid 1800s and a new, larger set of structures were built at that time. Practically new by English standards. During World War II a fire forced leaders to choose which buildings to save – they allowed the House of Commons to burn in order to save Westminster Hall. The House of Lords loaned their chamber to their colleagues and there Prime Minister Winston Churchill made many speeches, thumping his fist on the desk for emphasis, leaving dents in the wood. The emphatic damage to the desk remains to this day. I am intrigued by how the British value their past.

Guarding the House of Commons

As we walk over to the Churchill War Museum, I remember my grandmother’s stories about the air raids in London, running to the tube (subway) with her children – my mother and uncle –  holding a small wash tub over their heads in case the bombs hit before they descended to relative safety. The tube was not always safe, sometimes collapsing, sometimes flooding. My family was fortunate to survive, though my grandmother never was able to stop hoarding food and basic supplies (things that were rationed during the war). When she died decades after the war, the family found an enormous supply of toilet paper in the attic.

Union Jack flying above Parliament

Churchill was not only an accomplished leader and strategist, but also an author, ultimately winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1953. The BBC website has a terrific page dedicated to his accomplishments. I like him most for his eccentric ways (more to come about that in another blog) and his bravery. We are standing in his underground bunker, where he ran the war with a staff of military and civilians. It is just as it was left at the end of WW II – dark, spartan and cramped. The sleeping quarters for all but the PM and high-level staff is awful. The PM had his own room but rarely slept there. He preferred to be above ground and often went on the roof to watch the bombing raids. After one near miss at the front door of the building above the bunker, which was top secret then, he went out to examine the rubble. Churchill also was one of the few in the bunker who knew that the building above them was never completely bomb-proofed.

As I listen to a recording of air raid sirens, still alarming, I think about the determination of this culture, the stoic way they went about surviving month after month of bombing raids. My family, dashing for shelter, with that sound shrieking in their ears. My grandmother had a lot of spunk and I can imagine her yelling to her children to stay close as she railed at the enemy overhead. She talked about the war for years afterward. As a child, I was riveted by her stories and her very colorful descriptions of the enemy.

We pack ourselves onto the tube at the end of the day – another marvel of British ingenuity. The first tunnel opened in 1863, during Charles Dickens’ lifetime, and it was the first in the world. Some parts of it still function today, which is quite stunning to think about as we hurtle down the track.

Tomorrow we head to the British Library – the largest in the world – which holds a vast collection of written records spanning 1,000 years. For now, we sit in the tube train, stuffed with people yet quiet. That British reserve in operation. I feel I understand it, and my own heritage, a bit better.

Gracious gardens

I am chomping on a raspberry meringue that we purchased in an Italian deli, on the same street as several other delis, a collection of small restaurants, and many boutiques with stylish clothes and shoes. We feel very international even as we continue to be stunned by the price of real estate. The 600 square foot flat (apartment) we are renting would likely sell for at least one million pounds (add half again to figure U.S. dollars). We cannot imagine how all the young faces around us manage to live in the neighborhood.

Beautiful Kew Gardens

I reflect on our visit to Kew Gardens, where we walked through time with my cousin Karen and her husband. As with so many large tracts of land, the history of Kew is all wrapped up with the British royals, who owned much of the prime real estate in centuries past. The gardens began to take shape in the 1700s with successive royals adding to its size and splendor. We stroll through grove after grove of trees, each so thoughtfully planted and carefully tended. Peacocks, large wood pigeons, colorful ducks and other birds wander around with an air of ownership. We see the occasional swan in ponds laden with water lilies. The most amazing feature of the gardens are the large, very spectacular “glass houses,” ornate greenhouses filled with the more exotic plants in the collection. They are old to us, being built at least 150 years ago, but in Britain, the word old takes on a rather different meaning. Here, old goes back 1,000 years and ancient is even older! I see the trees as a cast of thousands, creating a frame for the main characters – the remarkable glass houses. Together with the water features, a small palace and other structures, they tell a wordless but eloquent story of the loving labors of many generations.

A spectactular glass house at Kew Gardens

One aspect of our trip involves discovering our family history, which has gaps we hope to fill during our travels here. This is the first time I’ve met my cousin and as we walk under the great trees, we try to share a lifetime of hopes, joys and disappointments. In such a rooted place, I feel my lineage stretch away into the distance.

One tree in a cast of thousands at Kew Gardens

Later we visit a pub in Richmond-upon-Thames, the White Cross, which sits on the edge of the Thames. I am astounded to learn that the lower patio and entry way floods every day with the tides on the river. Patrons take it all in stride, arriving before or after the tide. I am both amused and fascinated that the pub posts the tide times on a sandwich board outside. Inside we meet a regular and his dog, Louis the First, who is very deft at cadging morsels from my cousin’s plate, using his brown Schnauzer eyes to best advantage.

It has been a day full of family photos, reminiscing and exploring. As we hug goodbye, my cousin and I agree that much is left to be said and done.

A quiet moment at Kew

Learning the ways of the city

My better half’s perky internal clock has him up at 5 a.m. doing battle with our european kitchen to make tea and toast. He emerges victorious, his bread toasted on one side. I enter my own battle with the shower with a set of taps that confound me. No matter what combination I try, the water pours out blazing hot. The taps are placed in such a way as to ensure the erstwhile bather gets an early soaking. Eventually I emerge victoriously clean and slightly scalded. We gaze out the window at Abbey Road and see men cleaning the streets with brooms and bins on bikes. A bit later we see a motorized street cleaner driving by. Now we understand why this huge city teeming with activity and packed with people stays so clean and tidy.

Our flat is to the left of the church – unique!

Yesterday we toured Kew Gardens – an enormous landscaped tract of land in the middle of the city. Today we are off to see Parliament, that bastion of great debate. More on that and our other adventures later!

Street cleaners on Abbey Road, London

London – a place of creative and cultural power

We have arrived in London, which feels like the melting pot of the world. We are thrilled with our decision to hire a car to take us from Heathrow Airport to our digs on Abbey Road – yes, the road immortalized (can a road be immortal?) on a Beatles album. The roads are very narrow, cars very fast and of course all of the action is on the other side of the street from our norm in the U.S. Our driver, Abdul, tells us he is Persian and that his family was from Afghanistan, where they had lived for generations. The family was forced to flee when he was not yet 10 years of age; he and his sister rode donkeys across the border, trying not to look at the bodies of an earlier group of refugees, killed by Russian artillery. That was 40 years ago and today he is grateful to live in peace. He tells us that the highway that circles London is about 140 miles long and that it does not encompass Greater London. We marvel at the giant presence of this city whose name we are told was coined by the ancient Romans when they moved in.

The studio seen with a small part of the wall laden with handwritten greetings to the Beatles and each member of the band.

Our rental apartment is in a converted church, which is charming. I am struck by the irony of an empty church looking out at droves of devoted followers collected across the street taking photos of Abbey Road Studios. They are very brave (or something) as they plunge onto the crosswalk on a busy street full of drivers unconcerned by their celebratory stroll (did I mention people drive at a fair clip here?), recreating the famous album cover. We walk off a dose of jet lag and find the former home of Sir Thomas Beecham, a composer and impresario who had a major influence on Britain’s classical music in the early to mid 20th century. He even wrote a book – a biograpy of his favorite composer, entitled “Frederick Delius.” Everywhere we walk, we encounter British history juxtaposed by the chatter of a host of languages used by passers by. We stop and ask  a young lady directions and she has an American accent but uses British slang. Very fun for us.

Real estate here in the heart of west London is not for the faint of heart. A 2,000 square foot townhome can cost 4 million. Pounds, that is, so add half again to estimate the U.S. cost. We look at all the young faces and wonder how they manage.

Today we are surrounded by musical history. Tomorrow we are off to Twickenham.