Saturday, October 8, 2011

From the Queen's Digs to Ours

Winchfield Inn - Hook, England

Thoughts this morning as I ponder life. (1) We had an interesting experience in the parking lot last night in Bradford-on-Avon. Seems the parking meter machine accepts only credit cards with the electronic chip on them. When will the US catch up? This issue has bitten us in the butt on auto-routes and gas stations as well. Not even sure who we could lobby back home. A very nice young man used his card for us and was reluctant to let us pay him. You can never underestimate the generosity and goodness of people. (2) The sign above the entrance to our Inn is the classic coat of arms with a Latin phrase below ,AUSPICIUM MELIORIS AEVI, and for the second time in as many days I paused to think of the long lasting effects of decisions made early in life. Does one take Latin in school and understand more of life, or French and understand life more? And then there are the words themselves. I am fascinated by words, and how the right ones in the right sequence can provoke strong emotions. And the sounds; Latin spoken or sung during the Latin mass was beautiful and magical, the French language lyrical and soft, and I always enjoy hearing the Portuguese language spoken. German still irritates a little, but less so now that we have visited and heard it in situ. Arabic is awful on the ears (and I lived in an Arabic speaking country for 2 years, so I know of what I speak). Today we will be immersed in good old fashioned English and may even have a "chin-wag" with someone. (Ed. Note: the Latin phrase translates to: "An Omen of a Better Age" and given our random encounter with the generous young man, it all makes sense. Sorry, I may have gone a bit Glastonbury on us here.)

I mentioned that staying in this little Inn feels a little like being at home, and wondered what I would have found had I ventured beyond our door in the middle of the night. Can you just go down to the pub or the kitchen for a nocturnal snack or pull a tap for a bevvy if desired? I should have asked the very nice Mrs. Rooney as she checked us out. It was a good experience, and sleeping above the pub was fine, not noisy as we had feared, and found the rumble of the train as it passed across the street not annoying; not soothing, but not annoying.

It was a grey day, fine for motoring with no sun in our eyes as we headed east. Checking the map as we sat in the Winchfield Inn parking lot (with the cool London Taxi adorned with WI data) it dawned on us that we had a very short drive (about 50 miles) ahead of us to get to our last hotel of the trip, and a full day to get there. What along the way seemed interesting? This is one of those things that makes traveling so much fun. We both sparked on the same little town: Henley-on-Thames (with the dashes by the way), which seemed familiar to us. We liked the name, that much was certain, but then it came to us. An accounting manager where we had worked, was into sculling in college, had raced in H-on-T and had a poster on his wall of the event with big block letters spelling out the town name across the top. We had looked at that poster many, many times. Another omen all those years past? We had to go.

Henley-on-Thames, England

We have not adhered to the admonition not to drive into these small towns in England. It seems there is always a big blue P(arking) sign prominently displayed with excellent directions to the lot. And getting out is even easier as they post signs at the exits pointing to major "directions." If only the street signing people were as good. Henley-on-Thames is a very pleasant, very picturesque village situated (obviously) along the river. It's notoriety comes from the regattas that are held on the river and it is host to the most famous of them all: The Henley Royal Regatta. It is a pilgrimage site for rowing enthusiasts. One area of the river is called "the reach", a straight passage ideal for rowing competitions.
There are pleasant walks along the river, places to tie your boat if you are just motoring through, and beautifully landscaped gardens. And the architecture is interesting. All we needed to complete this picture was a place for lunch and this time we hit the jackpot.

Maison Blanc, is a chain of French boulangeries, and their product is as authentic as anything we have eaten in France (and much better than the American Au Bon Pain. As we took our bounty out to the village square and planted ourselves on a park bench, the sun came out in all it's glory. What a great way to spend an afternoon. As we took inventory we realized we had left something back at the Inn (a piece of jewelery), so we got on the telly (we got the number from picture of the WI London taxi - how fortuitous), confirmed that they had it, and thought how grateful we were that this had happened in England and not France. The food might be better en francais, but our language skills were not, particularly on the telephone.

The drive back was enjoyable. Keeping to the back roads we marveled at the various road hazard signs we had encountered, some got us laughing: Bumps, Dips, Deer, Elderly People, Falling Rocks, Severe Curves, Humped Zebra Crossings, and one plain old exclamation point (!) all by itself. What is left? Beware of raining frogs? Recovering our left jewelery, we again bid farewell to Mrs. Rooney and headed for Heathrow.

LHR Windsor, England

It was about 1600 when we arrived and Emma, the desk clerk of the Marriott Windsor, quickly became our new best friend. We have business lifetime relationship with Marriott and have never been disappointed. With a quarter million points in the bank, most of the airport hotels are a great bargain (some only costing 20K points a night), as they cater to business people and have all the amenities expected. Once settled in, you are sure to make your flight with a minimum of hassles. We asked about where we might do a little sightseeing and find a nice meal to boot. We asked about Slough (Sow, like the pig, with an L in it). Emma, in a very Bridget Jonesesque-like voice said; "To be honest - it's crap." Stay local. Looking at the hotel sign, we finally got it. We were in Windsor, for heavens sake, neighbors of the queen for a night.

On this Wednesday night Windsor was pretty much deserted, and we snagged a parking space with little effort. It's expensive to park, but so what? We wouldn't be long, just dinner, it was our last night and a good way to get rid of the bulky English coinage. (The printed receipt you place on your dashboard was good until midnight, long past when our eyes would still be open, so upon leaving we handed it to a woman who was just coming in to park. A small payback to all the nice people we had met.) There are picture ops at each corner, and we strolled around taking pictures as if we owned the place. It was nearing 1800 and we were hungry.
We fleetingly thought about going into the Windsor Royal Shopping Mall (which looked very upscale), but decided instead to stick to the main street. Right next to the local Mickey Dee's we found just the sort of food we were in the mood for: The Thai Place Restaurant and Bar. It doesn't look like much from the outside, but inside it was tastefully decorated and the food was excellent. A great choice. And I'm sure it beat Slough by quite a mile.

Thursday, October 6 - 32K feet above the English Channel

At Heathrow - 0730 after awakening at 0530, showering, etc. and returning the car. - I try to leave out, and forget about those little negative things that happen when one travels. Life is way too short, and it seldom makes me feel better just to vent, however .... Arriving as required 3 hours before departure, the board showed our airline had 3 wide body flights all leaving in close proximity to one another: first JFK, then Miami, and finally ours to Boston. So roughly 800 or so passengers to check in and screen. The airline, in it's wisdom decided to open two check in counters, each staffed by relatives of Attila the Hun. The nearer we got to the counter the farther away we seemed as they continually cut the lines with passengers of the two earlier departing flights. Finally all that was left were the Boston passengers, steam rising from scalps, tired of standing for an hour and a half. At that moment 4 more positions opened (bringing it to 6) and we were through in 5 minutes. Delta Sucks. At times like this it is worthwhile to pull out the camera and mediate upon one of the more peace inspiring photos taken: the cloisters of Salisbury Cathedral -

Whew! I'm done. Thanks for listening.

We are happily cruising along in our flying palace, a nice big 767 with the 2-3-2 seat configuration which gives Kat an aisle seat and me a window seat. Perfect. There are movies on demand, TV, and a progress map on the display in front of us. I love Delta. It was seven hours of peace, after which we landed in Boston, cleared customs and waited for our domestic flight to Dulles. The cool, brisk autumn air outside the terminal was continuously punctuated by car/bus horns. Why did this seem so alien? It had been almost 3 weeks since we heard anyone beep one. Love the Brits.

Our flight to IAD was comfortable, we were a little tired, but not overly so. There is something invigorating about being back in your own country after being away for a while. Rick (our good friend from Centreville who was keeping our car for us) picked us up and drove us to his house where his wife Carmen and daughter Victoria seemed genuinely disappointed when we told them we would drive directly back to Studley, rather than spend the night with them. We would not have been good company, and it was only 90 miles back to home.

Saturday, October 8 - Studley, VA

Another trip in the log book. And a great one. This old journal might have seen it's last trip, and will take it's place alongside the others in the study bookcase. It's been a good friend. Spread across the kitchen table is most of the shopping we did while on travel. There are small souvenirs for the grandkids and refrigerator magnets for us, just to prompt memories. They all fit neatly into one of our backpacks.

Best part of the trip? It's hard to say. The weather was glorious, the food excellent, the accommodations more than satisfactory, and the people we met along the way were friendly, gracious and memorable. We love the British sense of humor - like the sign outside a restaurant in Chepstow, Wales - the Five Alls. What would we skip? Glastonbury probably, but that's about it. What was the most enjoyable? That one is easy. The time spent in Rhode Island, with the kids and grandkids. They make us laugh - a lot! We are both feeling pretty healthy (Kat has a slight case of the sniffles), I'm down 5 pounds in weight making me think maybe travel should be our natural way of life.

And of course, spending time with Rich and Lu in London was a blast. They are great travel mates, so generous, and fun to be with. Great not only because we love them, but because we like them as well. Enough said.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

New Friends - Circling Avebury - Sleeping Over a Pub

Forge House - Southwick, England

Thoughts this morning? A few. First, love the signage around here. Not the street signs, which as I have mentioned exist only in some village planner's imagination. It's the directional signs that are so well done and far superior to anything we have back home. In almost all instances you can go from totally lost to back in navigational control simply by finding a roundabout or taking an exit off a motorway. For example the one to the left was on an auxiliary road. Answers all your questions. Great graphics as well.
Second, the accommodations here are wonderful. The setting is tranquil, our en-suite bedroom very tastefully decorated, and the shower made us a tad envious. The little bronze statuette on the side table is is a fine touch and certainly mood provoking. Click here if over 18. Third, we certainly don't feel like leaving anytime soon and even though we have a grey day for a change it upsets us not at all.

Around 8:30 we descended to the kitchen and were greeted by Lance and Sharon, preparing breakfast, the adjacent dining room table set for four. While having our meal made for us (what a luxurious treat), we were joined by Graham and Jen.
It seems that on every trip we run into a really nice couple with a great sense of humor, a grand outlook on life, and easy conversationalists. In this case we had double the fun. We love listening to and kidding around with the Brits as our shared heritage can always be relied upon for a few laughs. L&S opened their house for guests just four months previous, and G&J have been totally retired for a few years and much like us, are enjoying their time and freedom. They had also gone into B/Avon last night and eaten alone (at the Swan I think) sorry that we had not made acquaintance earlier in the day. As Graham put it, "we could have had a genuine chin-wag." Normally breakfast is a half hour affair, but on this day it was a social occasion and we all reluctantly agreed to end it as the clock was chiming 11. Sharing email addresses, agreeing to write when we felt like it, we bid a fond farewell and headed off on our next adventure.

Avebury - one of two neolithic stone circles erected long, long ago in the beautiful Wiltshire area of England. Everyone goes to Stonehenge, except us. We had each been in previous lives, and I had seen "Sparky" Griswold knock it down in European Vacation. Since then the National Trust has obviously resurrected it and even put a metal fence around it to preclude further accidents, and keep the Americans from touching it. So, we decided to go to Avebury, which in the past had it's own Griswold experience back in the 14th century. It was built in 2600 BC, predating Stonehenge by 600 years. The townfolk built their village right in the middle of the circle, and, I'm guessing, because it spoiled the view, knocked a good bit of it down and buried what they could. Some of the stones were burned (don't ask me how you burn a stone, but the story is that they heated them up, quenched them, and broke them into pieces. I guess if you set your mind to something ...) and used the baby stones for building some of the houses in the village.

In the 18th century some enterprising folks dug them up (by that I'm guessing they mean removed the soil from around them as some are huge and could hardly been hidden that well), decided to make a tourist attraction of it, and now you can drive right through the middle if you desire. The main road is the old ritual procession way (Rt. B-4003). We followed the signs to the National Trust parking lot, where for 5 quid we could park all day if we wished. We love the National Trust. They are so easy to deal with. Noting that there were no metal fences around the stones I asked about their rules (thinking back to Glastonbury Tor) and was told: "You can kiss them, lick them, or kick them if you want." Love that.

Fabulous stop. It is large and peaceful and requires a little stamina to make your way around the whole circle. And what you see besides the beautiful views of a beautiful countryside is stones. They are large and small, some mere fragments, some just markers of where the stones had been and it takes imagination to form a mental image of what it must have been like back in the day. There are no lintels at the Avebury site, unlike Stonehenge. Also, you have to wonder how it was built. No big Caterpillar earth moving equipment back then. Half way around you can make a stop in the village if desired.
The other remarkable bit is that as you circumnavigate the path to the vertical top of the circle (about 30 feet high) you get a sense for the proportion of it, and the moat like ditch which surrounds the circle (about 30 feet deep). We wondered where the vortex was and tried to be sensitive to any extra-ordinary sensations. Alas, we felt none. On this day there were thatch repairs underway on one of the buildings. Talk about labor intensive. I was surprised to find how thickly the reeds were applied. No wonder the roofs last so long.

In the little village was a dovecote. We have read all the Elizabeth George novels (they are set in the UK) and she mentions them a lot. What a neat building, but we wondered why go to all the expense and bother to build a big bird house. (Ed. Note: According to Wiki: Pigeons and doves were an important food source historically in Western Europe and were kept for their eggs, flesh, and dung. In the US we treat pigeons like seagulls. Flying rats. That answers that question.) We noted that you may be able to park at a local village shop but upon reflection were glad we paid our 5 pounds at the lot. Our buds at the National Trust will maked good use of it. We didn't spend a lot of time there, but you don't have to in order to appreciate it. We recovered our car, left natures wonderland behind, did a drive-by of Stonehenge, and headed for one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the world: Salisbury.

The city of Salisbury has been around a long time (since about 1220 - to me that is a long time), is riddled with rivers (5 of them) and sits astride the Avon. (Hmmm ... wonder who decides whether on not to add the -on-Avon suffix. Just a thought.) It's a pretty city even without the cathedral and if you have to pick just one between Wells and Salisbury, our vote would be for the latter.
As to the cathedral, this 13th century masterpiece is not only breathtaking in it's beauty it also has some other notable items of interest; Britain's tallest spire, one of only four surviving Magna Cartas, peaceful cloisters, and Europe's oldest working clock. All in one place and only 11 pounds for entry, and you can take your own photos without extra charge. It is a bargain. There are the requisite tombed bishops and an amazing choir. Even if you are tired of touring churches the visit to the Chapter House (where the Magna Carta is housed) is worth the price of admission. Don't forget to look up and see the beautiful fluted column that seems to spill stained glass windows down it's sides.

The Magna Carta in it's protected case was a bit difficult for us to read as it's written in Latin and both Kat and I took French in school. The translation points out that this was THE first document ever forced upon a king that would limit his powers (King John at Runnymede in 1215 - read about it if interested). It is the basis for many constitutions throughout the world, including ours in the United States. Our founders, however added one more basic right, one we have certainly bought into, the right to pursue happiness, which we are doing with a passion.

Winchfield Inn - Hook, England

Right now the pursuit of happiness includes sitting in the Winchfield Inn garden with a good cigar, a very good beer (Sharps - Doom Bar - Rock Corwall), and an even better wife, my favorite person in the world. This 17th century inn is a pub as well, and staying at this type of accommodation is a new experience for us. We went to the bar upon entering, registered with the barkeep and was given a room key and directions up the back stairs to our cozy little room. Nothing fancy but certainly sufficient for our needs, exactly the type of place we were looking for. We are about 50 miles from London, and this inn is often used by on-travel commuters with business in the city. The train station is a short distance away.

It felt a little funny leaving our room, and walking down to the pub, as if it was a family affair, unlike a hotel. It was nice, cozy like our room and without that institutional feeling you sometimes get even in the better restaurants. Aged dark honey colored wood with a nice patina as the experts would say, enveloped us. The menu is quite good, more extensive than what we now know is called typical pub grub fare. I had the fish and chips without the mushy peas. Like I used to tell my mom, I tried them. It was quiet and we felt quite relaxed ... maybe there was something in that Avebury vortex thing that was having a latent effect. Or maybe it was the beer.

Just a note: I know I carry on about the pictures and paying for the right to take them sometimes. I enjoy taking them for a very simple reason - when I look at them later on I am immediately transported back to the moment I clicked the shutter. There is some connection in my brain between the physical act and the emotional feeling of the moment. They are meant to be clicked on. I love the detail these modern little digital cameras capture. Either I or Kathleen took all the pictures on this blog with a few exceptions and hopefully I have noted them as I went along. On this page the column in the chapter house at Salisbury Cathedral with the stained glass windows came from Pininterest ... it was a dreary day, and the light just wouldn't cooperate. So thanks to the anonymous donor for that great picture.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Say Cheese - Wells of a Cathedral, and New Age Glastonbury

Monday - The Beeches - Churchill, England

Only time for a few quick thoughts this morning as we pack up our clean clothes and prepare to go back in time to the "New Age" mid 60s of tie-dyed shirts, magic, Arthur, the Grail, and spiritual awakenings. The major vortex at Avebury will have to wait til tomorrow as we don't want to overload our psychic senses all in one day. Before leaving the sanity of our wonderful lodging here in Churchill, I took a look out the window and spent a few minutes reflecting on the neat patio (with plenty of bird feeders) below us. It was easy to imagine sitting there on a beautiful spring morning with my honey, a cup of coffee and a good cigar, having a chat with Steve and Mandy. That is my kind of spiritual healing.

Sitting at the "Road to Cheddar" lay-by on Route 371 we overlooked the Somerset lowlands, a beautiful expanse of farmland, villages and in the bright morning sun, sparkling greenery. The Mendip hills stand out and their creation (when two tectonic plates collided) resulted in a number of outstanding topographical formations. The two most famous are Wookey Hole Caves and Cheddar Gorge, both of which are shamelessly promoted everywhere (except for roadside billboards which apparently, and thankfully, seemed to have been banned).

There was a stone monument in front of us with a plaque that read:

Somerset literally means set hard in summer. The flat levels before you would flood every winter before we stepped in with drainage channels and sea defences. The massive limestone ridge of the Mendips would then jut out into the sea providing a safe refuge for people and animals in the winter. Protected today for it's natural beauty the Mendip hills played a vital role in keeping people high and dry.

Two things struck us about this. We hadn't realized we were so close to the ocean, but a quick check of the map settled that point. The term high and dry is clever as normally it means "without help or hope of recovery," like when it started to snow in the Donner Pass that year. I like this connotation better.

As we contemplated the view, the hole and gorge faded from thought. Our travel down this beautiful road had one purpose: to eat cheddar in Cheddar. Like drinking champagne in the Champagne region, port in Oporto, or cognac in Cognac, some experiences should not be missed if you have the opportunity. (Musing now; wondering how many more of these connections there are and whether or not eating off china in China would apply. And is there a nice compact single word to describe this phenomena? Like scotoma, one of my favorites, that connotes the blind spot we have to things around us until some event makes you aware. For instance you see and fall in love with a unique painting then become aware that it is popular and appears everywhere you look - it's just been in your blind spot. Sorry I get carried away sometimes and head down these flights of linguistic fancy.)

Arriving at the Cheddar Gorge Cheese Factory early, and shortly after the fresh local milk had arrived, proved fortuitous. The staff was just setting up and with a wave and a smile we followed the signs toward the back to watch cheese be made. It was just the two of us outside a windowed wall that gave a great view into the surprisingly small one-room factory where all the magic took place. Beside the single table/vat the little old cheese-maker-man was just adding the culture and the rennet that would turn this common product into an extraordinary cheese. The fact that there was just one vat made it clear that not much cheese is produced each day, making us more anxious to taste the real thing. Our guy went about his work, smiling at us every now and then, clearly enjoying his work. On a wall mounted TV a 25 minute documentary played explaining the process from start to finish. It was very well done. We left the viewing area in great anticipation of getting to (rather than through) the obligatory gift shop you must pass through at the end of every tour in order to exit.

Back home cheddar is to cheese as vanilla is to ice cream, and we have eaten plenty of it. This was excellent and bore no resemblance to what we were used to. There were various flavored cheeses (think herb/peppercorn, not chocolate), various ages, and vintages. You could sample all you wanted, and of course buy chunks, at what we thought were pretty steep prices but probably were not given the artisan type quantity they produce. It does not travel well, must be kept refrigerated, and they will not ship to the US. So, for real, fresh cheddar this was the pilgrimage site. It was a great stop and we got in and out before the tour buses arrived. There were plenty of them angling their way into our parking lot, and in the rear view mirror we saw the silver tops flash in the sunlight as the buses disgorged their contents.

Our next stop was Wells. It's a nice small town with easy parking and a Disneyesque medieval town center. By the way, the reason they named Wells Wells is because there are three wells in the city of Wells and of course the plural of well is wells. Well, we didn't see any wells in Wells, however (all right I'll stop). What we did find was the magnificent Cathedral Church of St. Andrew known throughout the world as Wells Cathedral.

The front is breathtaking and it's difficult to take it all in at once. It stands proud in a beautiful park-like setting and I thought rather intimidating, with lots of sharp angles and a sufficiency of verticality. Once you enter the cathedral however you cannot help but be awed by the softened beauty of the architecture within. The interior support is provided by unique scissor arches, shown in the picture below (It is customary to make a 10 pound "donation" upon entering, which we were glad to do, however neglected to pay the 3 pound photography permit fee. This picture must have accidentally been taken as I was holstering my camera). After marveling, we meandered through the chapter house (built circa 1300, and still in good shape), scooted through the gift shop and emerged back into the glorious Somerset day. It was a nice stop but not sure we would do it again.

Driving along I prepared myself for our next way-point, the interesting little town of Glastonbury. It has quite a storied past; it started out as an Iron Age village, has associations with both King Arthur and the Holy Grail, has a famous Abbey, and now has somehow become a New Age "cultural" center. Determined to go with the flow we were on the lookout for any good vibrations (and for me the sweet smell of cannabis wafting on the wind - not that I would partake but love the aroma). There was an aroma all right, but not pot as we made our way past the cows and sheep that graze on the prominent Tor hill. More on that later but we started at what was left of the Abbey Church.

In 1191, monks at the abbey claimed to have found the graves of Arthur and Guinevere to the south of the Lady Chapel. (Ed. Note: If you believe the history the remains were later moved and were lost during the Reformation. Many scholars suspect that this discovery was a pious forgery to substantiate the antiquity of Glastonbury's foundation, and increase its renown. Today Glastonbury Abbey presents itself as "traditionally the oldest above-ground Christian church in the world," which according to the legend was built at Joseph's behest to house the Holy Grail, 65 or so years after the death of Jesus) We parked at the ruins of what must have been a beautiful abbey, a shame that old Henry VIII couldn't take the pope's rejection of his divorce petition with a little more grace. We thought it a touch excessive when he had the last Abbot (Richard Whiting) (Whyting)) hanged, then drawn and quartered as a traitor on Glastonbury Tor in 1539. The tower might be more interesting than we first thought.

Glastonbury is a weird place, and worth a visit. The high street has storefront after storefront housing mystic healers, tarot card readers, New Age medicine doctors, etc. There are cool little alleyways with creative decoration which are fun to explore.
Mixed along with the mayhem is the occasional historic building with suits of armor clad dummies standing at attention. The architecture delights and if not for the other side of the street with the faith healers and crystal balls, you could imagine you were back in medieval England. The average person walking the street (which we were quite obviously not) looked like a Woodstock refugee, decked out in tie-dyed clothing, barefooted, pierced, tattooed and hippily dressed.

We decided a nice climb up the Tor would be more our style.

The site is run by the National Trust and their only requests were that we not litter, not start a fire, and try not to damage any trees. Easy-peasy. Built upon a natural land formation that juts from the earth (not as imposing as Le Puy, but certainly out of place among the flat farmland), the tower rises 561 feet above street level, higher than the Washington Monument in the District.
Our calves were burning by the time we hit the base of it, and we were a little thankful that we couldn't climb it, because if we could have we probably would have. The hill is terraced and cows and sheep run, graze, and defecate freely, providing an earthy scent as we gained altitude. It didn't start life as a tower at all; it's what's left of the Church of St Michael built on the site in the 14th century. Whatever, it's pretty cool and the views are wonderful.

The descent was easy, though no less aromatic. We skipped the Chalice Well at the bottom figuring it was a trap to relieve us of any loose money. The same with the shops along the high street. We had had our fill, gotten some good exercise, and were soon motoring our way toward our stop for the night, Southwick (pronounced Suthick we think as many times the w is silent like our k in knight), a few miles from Bradford-on-Avon.

Our B&B for the night was the very nice, very modern Forge House, (check out their classy web site for some great pictures) owned and operated by two of the nicest people we have met on our trip; Lance and Sharon. The home is tastefully decorated, the artwork and sculpture evocative, and the shower the best we had encountered. (Note the picture on the wall behind L & S. Sharon had mentioned that she was the decorator, and when I commented on that particular piece of artwork she blithely said "Oh that's me", followed with a little smile and a quick "I picked that one out.". It tickled us and I imagine she has used that line a number of times). After freshening up, we descended to the kitchen where our hosts were having tea with the other newly arrived guests (Graham and Jen we latter learned), so being the Americans we are, rather than join (we were invited), we asked for directions and recommendations for dinner.
It was a pleasant drive to Bradford-on-Avon, and were disappointed to find that since it was a Monday night the recommended restaurants were closed. The town itself was worth the ride, though. It is littered with building that you think may fall in upon themselves at any moment. Would love to have gotten a look a the interior of the Bridge Tea Room & Restaurant.
We settled (and I'm not using that word as a pejorative) for the Dandy Lion on Market Street. We ate in the Pub downstairs and the food was excellent (we even had pudding), with a great atmosphere. We wondered why we had not taken Sharon up on the invitation to join the tea group. Isn't that what travel is all about?

Returning to the Forge, we let ourselves in and settled into the comfy bed for the night. It had been a great day. Our last full day of sightseeing was only hours away and if things went as planned we would spend part of it encircled by one of only 11 known major vortices in the world. Stonehenge's baby sister/brother - Avebury. Maybe we could get our spirits back in alignment post Glastonbury.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Bath Time

Sunday - The Beeches - Churchill, England

Kat is upstairs showering while I lounge in the breakfast room of the Newport Hilton, freshly showered and shaved (it is Sunday after all). I've been studying our itinerary for the last four days of our trip. It looks like a lot of driving but there are frequent stops and lots of places that we have read about and want to see packed into a small section of this beautiful country. Since we were unable to get our laundry done here, it would have to be Bath. We love our Rick Steves guidebooks and within moments found just what we were looking for. The Spruce Goose Launderette in Margaret's Building (whatever they are) conveniently located between the Royal Crescent and the Circus. Not cheap, and no change machine (we had plenty of coins) but who cares, and right in the area we wanted to be anyway. This should be fun.

Random thoughts:

(1) On the telly is a rugby game, more popular in Wales than anywhere else in the world, save perhaps, New Zealand. No helmets, no pads, no sense.

(2) The British are an orderly lot when driving; measurement is in miles, and all would be perfect if they only drove on the correct side of the road. We've done OK. The few lapses into the wrong lane have occurred when there are no lines or traffic islands with nice pointy blue arrows. Only had one close call, that in a parking lot when I was taken by surprise by a turning car in front of me and my instincts told me to steer right. Wrong. There appears to be a dearth of stop signs. I remember from a previous trip how pleasant it was to approach a stop sign where there is no gambling required. Their number appears to be shrinking with the number of traffic lights increasing which is the downfall of vehicular (and maybe general)society. Driving in the Cotswolds is a pleasure, even the small villages whose narrow little roads should be one way but aren't. The line down the middle is strictly there for guidance, and is not taken seriously. I know this because many of these roads are marked with signs that read: "Beware of Oncoming Traffic in Middle of Road." You have to pay attention and duck into little side spaces reminding us of the same strategy required while walking the streets in Azorean towns.

I've only pissed off two people that I know of while driving here. Once in a roundabout (of which I am a huge proponent) where I failed to remember that those already in have the right of way. Oops! In my defense it can be really tricky at the larger ones (some are three lanes - not as bad as L'Etoile, but close), and you have to know which lane to be in based on which exit you want to take off the circle. Sometimes we haven't. The other time was when I took a left turn onto a road in Sterling, clearly surprising the Mercedes driver who was approaching from the right (too fast in my opinion). Sometimes I revert to New England driving and as long as you don't make eye contact you can go. He flipped me off and beeped his little horn just for effect. I didn't feel that bad as it was only a little C class. Another example: The highway to Cardiff was all backed up (4 miles according to the sign) and crawling. The left lane was fairly empty, so I scooted into it and made great time passing many, many vehicles. The reason (of course) is that it turned into an exit only lane about a mile down the way (it's easy to forget that if you drive on the right you exit on the left). I put on my blinker and was generously waved into the right lane. It appears they are used to queuing for everything including a traffic jam - very civilized.

(3) Everyone says "Sorry" instead of "Excuse me" which kind of changes the whole dynamic, doesn't it? They also do that. Make a declarative statement into a question, don't they? I wanted to console them. Lovely.

On the Road

Just 43 miles from Newport, it takes about an hour to make the very pleasant journey to Bath. We love that we will pass Chipping Sodbury (great name) on the way down. We are always a bit nervous driving into a city like Bath for the first time. Our readings told us that the roads were narrow, most were one way, and getting around tenuous. We had read all the rave reviews of the city and some of the history. It is filled with architectural delights, most from the Georgian period and build in cream colored limestone. The old Roman town and the baths/spa were buried over the centuries.
Street level today is about 18 feet higher than it was when the baths were built, so you look down on them from the sidewalk. (Ed. Things like this always startle me. It reminds me of Paestum in southern Italy with all the Roman ruins, that because of a mosquito outbreak was lost for centuries? No one looked?) Appears it was just a muddy bog until good (and infertile) Queen Mary took a dip in the baths and 10 months later gave birth to the future king. Queen Anne said it cured her gout. Before you know it all the riffraff flocked to the place. It attracts about 2 million visitors a year and that is a lot. We hoped none of them were looking for washing machines that Sunday morning.

We prepared for the worst and was surprisingly rewarded with the best: a nice blue P sign just south of the Royal Crescent which even on this bright sunny morning was sparsely populated. It wasn't cheap (nothing is in Bath apparently), a hefty 8 pounds 50 (about $13). The positive is that there was a spotless public WC right there, the negative is that the parking machine sucked in most of our coins. Grabbing our laundry we walked through a very pleasant park and found ourselves on the main connecting road (Crescent to Circus) and almost directly across from the alley we were seeking.

The Spruce Goose Launderette with it's white bow-window front and bright yellow interior beckoning to us was a glorious sight - a full days discussion and planning (or so it seemed) had gone into this moment. Was it open? Yes. Were the machines working? Yes. Was there one available? Yes. Oh Happy Day! I know I'm making more of this than necessary, but when you are putting on the sixth and last set of clean clothes (we travel lightly), an open launderette is gold, pure gold. Using our very last coins, we loaded the wash into the machine and began a search for change to dry them. We solved that problem by each of us making a trip to the coffee shop across the street, (who must get tired of people asking for change) once for coffee, once for pastry. We had enough 20p pieces to ensure a semi-dry set of clean clothes that should take us through the remainder of our trip. The industrial strength equipment made short work of our clothes and before my cigar was finished we were on our way back to the car to drop off the clothes and do a little exploring. Life is good.

Bath is easy on the eyes. People were just starting to stake out their claim on a patch of lawn in front of the Royal Crescent, as the day was warming quickly. We never expected to see people in shorts and tank tops sunbathing in October. (A good chat friend of mine went to University in Bath and I can understand why he enjoyed it so much. It is to him and his family that I dedicate this page.) Everywhere you look something pleasing catches your eye, the bath stone buildings in perfect harmony with the attendant gardens with carefully planned and maintained flowerbeds.
And curves make things interesting so the crescent and circus (from circle by the way - not the clown type) seem unique and interesting when compared to the ninety degree angle building you see most everywhere else. The interior trim work to accommodate the exterior walls must be fantastic (we had trouble trimming out the top of a few arch windows and that was just working with two dimensions).

Having walked the forum in Rome and wondering why, I reluctantly agreed to tour the Roman Baths, fearful that it would be tacky, touristy, and tedious. In fact it was none of the above. The self tour allowed us to linger where we wished (we tend to read everything) and the audio guide was excellent including some commentary by one of our favorite authors, Bill Bryson. The water (a bright green) is replenished by an underground spring to the tune of 240K gallons a day, the average temperature of which is about 115 degrees. Now that is some hottub. By the end of our tour we were able to visualize the entire complex as a working bathhouse easily imagining what the experience might have been like. We would really recommend taking the time to "immerse" (sorry) yourself in the experience if you have the opportunity.

Leaving the baths we ascended to street level and peered into the famous Pump Room Restaurant (beautifully appointed with a chandelier that I would hate to clean) where the prices were a little too rich for our tastes: ($4.50) for a cuppa coffee. We could only imagine what the afternoon tea service would cost.
We did however stop at the well appointed public WC in the hall then headed off to soak-in a little more of the Bath experience.

We were a little surprised at how uncrowded the city was on such a beautiful day, with nary a car in site. Perhaps everyone else knew something we didn't or perhaps it was just karma .. our day to have the city to ourselves. Whatever, we were enjoying it immensely. It was a pleasure just walking around, stopping at Jane Austens' house, where in homage to our niece Ellen, Kat had her picture taken. We searched out the architecturally interesting little things the designers had done that made the city seem so harmonious. There is green everywhere and walking down some of the car-deserted tree lined streets you really could mentally transport yourself back to late 19th century. Very pleasant.

The only decision left was whether to eat in Bath or head to this night's B&B and try to find something around there. As we walked past our launderette on the way back to the car, we caught the unmistakable aroma of Italian cooking and our stomachs made the decision for us. A few doors down from the Goose was the Rustico Bistro Italiano We caught them just before they were about to close at the end of their lunch service. And glad we were indeed.
We enjoyed one of the better meals of our trip; mine the perfectly prepared tuna steak with rocket, Kat the Penne Rustica. The chef (and owner) spent some time with us chatting (he had spent 20 years in the Carribean) and seemed in no rush for us to leave (although he did turn away another couple looking for a late lunch). It really was a treat, and if in Bath again Margaret's Building seems a full service street.

Our last drive of the day was to a little village called "Churchill", fitting we thought, where our B&B was located. Situated just before a picturesque red stone church it is not terribly difficult to find (though we did miss the sign on the first pass so if you go by the church might as well turn around now) just past a Y fork on the narrow road. Our other discovery was that we found everyone in western England who was missing from Bath. They were all stuck in mile after mile of traffic heading in the opposite direction (thank goodness) negotiating the same narrow roads we had just come down.
Seems this is a "major" road to the British Channel beaches that the unseasonably warm weather had magnetically drawn them toward. We arrived at "The Beeches", the home (turned guesthouse) of Steve and Mandy Harvey, and it was easy to see why they were rated so highly (9.5) on Trip Advisor. Super friendly, we felt immediately at home. Loved hearing about the stone steps in the back that were used to mount horses back in day when they were standard equipment at any lodge.

Deciding not to venture out in the car again (it was nearly 2200 and the traffic was as bad as when we had arrived and still light out) we walked the little streets, and stopped for some pudding (dessert for US readers) at the still open and very busy Nelson Arms up the street. We noticed the little Victorian monument watch tower building up at the Y fork that we had completely missed on our way in when looking for our accommodations. It had been a great and busy day, and from here on out we were free wheeling, speaking of which, I think there is cheese in our future.