Locations: London; Stratford Upon Avon; Edinburgh; Canterbury
Dates: 5/11/97 - 5/17/97
Sunday was the day everyone else spent waiting for me. We started with my getting up comparatively late (8:20, the earliest I've been up on a Sunday in a while) while the others waited for me in the lobby. Missed a train, took the next one to Hampton Court, where we explored the hedge maze, the first such that any of us had been to. I lagged behind in order to improve the likelihood of getting lost in the maze. The maze started out disappointingit was fairly small, and the hedges had few enough leaves on them that you could often see through them to the next aisle over, and the path from the entrance began with a couple of long straight nonbranching segments. But shortly the path began to branch, and I turned a corner expecting to return to an area I'd seen before but encountered a new region entirely, and realized to my pleased surprise that I was lost. Eventually found the center, and then found my way back out. Instead of exiting, though, decided it would be fun to try a mapping exercise. In roleplaying games characters frequently have to map their paths as they go; I thought I'd see how hard it would be to do that in real life. It quickly became clear, though, that mapping the maze would take more concentration than I could muster, and I was a little embarrassed about it anyway; I was reluctant to stand in the middle of a path drawing a map while dozens of other people streamed by.
So I left the maze, but the others had already gone on to other parts of the grounds. As I tried to decide where to go next, the rain that had been threatening all morning suddenly arrived. (Fortunately, I've carried an umbrella with me almost everywhere I've gone this trip...) I figured the others, sans umbrellas, would take shelter in the gift shop, so that's what I did. They weren't there. An hour later I met them at our pre-assigned meeting place; it turned out they'd gone on to the really impressive part of the grounds that I hadn't known existed, and had taken shelter from the rain in the other gift shop, the one I hadn't known about. So they waited for me while I took a quick look at the nifty gardens out beyond the back gate.
While I was there, we missed a train. So we got sandwiches at a nearby grocery store and waited at the train station.
Took the train and the tube to the British Museum. Quickly separated from the others; spent a couple of hours in the British Library rooms looking at old manuscripts and rare books. Examined Beowulf for a while. Chris and I read a page of Canterbury Tales aloud together, from a manuscript copy dating from ten years after Chaucer's death. I bought some stuff in the associated bookstore, encountered the phrase "Syro-Hexaplar Exodus," and saw my third Gutenberg Bible in six months. (There are 51 Gutenberg Bibles known: 12 on vellum, 39 on paper. 20 of them are "perfect," but I'm not sure exactly what that means.)
I also looked at the children's books display, where I encountered the mellifluous phrase "mellifluous doggerel" (it seems children's author Elizabeth Turner created a lot of it) and saw an early book of moralistic kids' verse that was in print for 200 years.
Wandered off to find the others in the Medieval artifacts section. Found Michael in a marvelous room full of old clocks of all varieties, including an amazing rolling-ball timepiece. Was surprised to learn that nobody knows who invented mechanical clocks or when, and that they were in widespread use in Europe by the year 1300, much earlier than I'd thought.
The others waited for me as I perused the Sutton Hoo exhibitway cool purse-cover, stunning gold belt buckle, plenty of other nifty stuff. Then we headed downstairs to the Elgin Marbles. Fran provided great commentary that made them much more interesting than they'd otherwise have been. We just had time for a quick dash through the Egypt section to see the Rosetta Stone, and a quick dash through various of the museum shops, before the museum closed.
Chris and I went back to the Internet café while the others headed back to the hotel. Chris finished with his email and waited around for me to finish my column; then back to the hotel, where we all had authentic fish & chips (or, to be more precise, fish & chips & grease & salt) for dinner. Afterward, we played Outrage, the boardgame of trying to steal the Crown Jewels; it would've been more fun on a full-sized board (I'd bought the cheap magnetic pocket travel edition, which seemed to be photoreduced from the full version).
Monday morning we toured Westminster Abbey. The tour guide was unimpressive; he'd clearly memorized his spiel, and spoke it in the faux-BBC tones I associate with Monty Python, though on the few occasions when he spoke naturally he was quite engaging and entertainingly cynical. Lots of lovely Gothic architecture, lots of marble tombs and monuments. My favorite part by far was the Poets' Corner: Chaucer had been buried in the church because he was a well-known civil servant, and when he began to be known more for his poetry they started putting memorial flagstones there dedicated to other writers. There were memorials for Caedmon ("who first among the English made verses"), Masefield (I didn't know he'd been Poet Laureate), George Eliot, T. S. Eliot, Edward Lear (who was listed as "painter and poet"I hadn't known he painted), Trollope (who it said was a "pioneer of the postal services"), and Spenser. The best of the lot was the Lewis Carroll memorial, with a lovely concentric-circle design. Unfortunately there was no photography permitted. (I continue to be surprised by the variations in what sort of photos are allowed in different cathedrals. Some allow no photos at all, some only non-flash, and some allow any kind you want to take.) Ben Jonson died at a time when burial lots in the cathedral were for sale, but he could only afford a one-foot square, so he was buried standing up...
The Poets' Corner began to run out of space a few years back, so they put in a stunning stained-glass window with room for a dozen or so new names. One of the names already in place was that of Oscar Wildecool.
A nearby corner had the graves of Olivier and Garrick; other dead white males nearby included Handel, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens. The Scientists' Corner also had some famous people's remains, notably Isaac Newton, Lord Kelvin, and Charles Darwin.
We spent a bit of time in the Pyx room and the chapterhouse and other related Medieval bits of the placemore great stained glass, floor tiles dating back to the 13th century, the only surviving Medieval arrow that still has its wooden shaft, and a pair of 10th-century tweezers, among lots of other things. Cool stuff, but my feet were ready to fall off by the time we got through.
We then spent two and a half hours on a train to Stratford, through nice British countryside (and unfortunate ear-popping tunnels). Left our things at a B&B there (quite a nice one, the Penshurst I think it's called) and went off to look for supper. Which we found at a superb little restaurant called The Opposition, located on Sheep Street. If you ever find yourself in Stratford, eat all your meals there. Great service (especially considering it was our waitress' first day on the job) the food came quickly, and it was absolutely scrumptious. The desserts were not quite as superb, but pretty damn good nonetheless. I think this meal was the high point of the England trip so far...
Afterward, we attended the RSC production of Cymbeline. After that it was pretty late, so we went back to our rooms and to sleep.
Tuesday morning we visited the Shakespeare Center, which wasn't worth the admission price. Mediocre museum displays, plus The Birthplace (as the locals call it). At least there was a section of wall covered with glass instead of plaster so we could see the internal wattle-and-daub.
We split up for a while; I spent the rest of the morning in unsuccessful gift shopping, and strolling down to the Avon itself, and almost missing our train because my clock was much slower than I thought it was. Chris stayed behind in Stratford to do research. Michael stopped off in Oxford to see relatives, leaving Fran and Ed and me to continue back to London. Fran and Ed decided not to spend the afternoon at the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum as previously planned, so the three of us spent a couple of pleasant hours in a park near our hotel discussing the rights and responsibilities of children, then did laundry at the laundrette across the street. I decided I needed some alone-time, so retreated to the room I was sharing with Michael and Chris, and ended up napping for a couple hours and doing a little bit of travelogue updating.
Chris returned in time for dinner; the four of us wandered aimlessly for about 45 minutes and then accidentally happened across the place we'd been looking for (another one recommended by Let's Go): Norrman's. It looked like a typical greasy spoon, but the food was pretty goodthough there were only a couple of items on the menu I could eat.
Michael came back later that night, and everyone went to sleep.
We got moving bright and early the next morning (only Wednesday, despite everything we'd packed into the week thus far) to make it to St. Paul's before the heavy tourist crowd hit. I'm not as fond of Baroque architecture as of Gothic, as it turns out, but it was pretty cool anyway. I was particularly pleased by the historical display on the St. Paul's Watch (who protected the place during the London Blitz), as my main connection with the cathedral was via Connie Willis' marvelous short story "Fire Watch." The crypt below the cathedral was also notable, as interred in it were Christopher Wren, Arthur Sullivan, Admiral Nelson, and the Duke of Wellington. Among many others. A memorial to Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and either a memorial or a grave (I forget which) for William Blake. Lots of marble.
Finally Ed and Chris and I walked up a large number of shallow steps to the amazing whispering gallery high above the crossing. Tres cool close-up views of the dome, including statues of saints and trompe l'oeil (sp?) art, plus the nifty effect of being able to speak softly along the curved wall and have your voice be heard halfway around the dome. We climbed many more steeper stairs to an outside vantage point high on the dome, then even more stairs to a narrow upper outside walkway near the very top. Very nice views of the whole city spread out before us, and a cool wind that felt good after the long climb carrying coats and luggage. Eventually we descended again, rejoined Fran and Michael, and got on a train to Edinburgh.
The trip was lovely. The countryside only gets more picturesque as you continue northruined (and not-so-ruined) castles, rolling fields, villages. Also nuclear power plants. There's a lovely late-gothic cathedral top in Newcastlefour airy arches swooping up to the central spire on top.
We were met at the Edinburgh train station by Michael's friend Alice, who was putting some of us up; she gave us keys to her apt, then left to do some work. We took a cab through narrow winding streets, passing by half the scenic sights in the city (and that's saying a lot). Left our things at Alice's (and at the B&B where Fran & Ed were staying) and went to a quite good Indian dinnerI'm becoming a big fan of Balti, a dish I'd never encountered before coming here.
Thursday Fran was too ill (allergic reaction) to join us, and Michael wanted to sleep in. Chris and I walked around to the back of Edinburgh Castle (passing an internet café called Web 13 on the way) and took the steep rocky ascent on that side, past a series of magnificent views, to the front gate of the castle. The castle provided an audio tour, a nicely put together package involving a CD recording in a portable CD player that could only be recharged in the castle. Signposts at various points inside the castle give track numbers; you enter a number on the CD player and it plays the relevant track, giving history and information on the place you've stopped at. (With sound effects, music, and occasionally over-dramatic phrasing.) There are usually two to three levels of info available on each of several dozen itemsmany tracks end with "for more information, enter #xxx." Essentially a hyperlinked information systemit would be right at home on the Web.
The best parts of the castle interior, in my opinion, were the views (we could dimly see a mountain 40+ miles away across the Firth of Forth) and the Scottish Crown Jewels (and some associated items that happened to get mixed in with 'em). Lots of amazingly bloody and dramatic history associated with the castle. We spent two or three hours in the place, and could easily have spent two more if we hadn't been late to meeting the others for lunch.
When we found them, Fran was feeling slightly better (having seen a doctor), so she and Ed went up to the castle; the rest of us walked down the Royal Mile toward Holyrood (pronounced like "Hollywood" with an 'r' in place of the 'w') Palace. On the way we stopped at St. Giles' Cathedral, site of the Thistle Chapel, where knights of the Order of the Thistle meet. The guide at the chapel, who had a lovely accent but no sense of when listeners were getting bored or restless, expounded at great and mostly interesting length on the chapel, the Order, Scottish history in general, heraldry, and so on. The cathedral also contained the usual cool Gothic-cathedral stuffstained glass, vaults & arches & groins, etc. (At some point I think I'll shuffle all my cathedral pictures together and try to sort out which were taken whereI don't think I'd ever toured a cathedral before three months ago, but since then I've been to about seven of 'em, counting Canterbury (see below).)
Continued down the Royal Mile to the bottom. Michael wanted to see Holyrood Palace; Chris and I decided to instead climb to the top of Arthur's Seat, a big rocky crag/promontory/tor not far from the palace. We took a long walk up the path along the face of the rock, only to find that said path didn't go to the top; backtracked, took a steep climb to the top, and only then found the easy path going down a different way... More spectacular views; many photos were taken. Chris told me (at my request) about the Civil War (Charles I, Cromwell, Charles II, etc.).
By the time we came down it was too late to get to the Writers' Museum before it closed, alas. We stopped in a wool shop, where we happened to run into Fran & Ed. Chatted with them awhile, then I headed off to the aforementioned internet café to check email. (What can I say, I'm a Net addict.) The smokiest computer room I've ever been in. Half-hour walk there, then a half-hour walk to the other café previously picked for dinner (everyone was there, including Alice). Which also turned out to be smoky, too much so for Michael, so we walked another 20 minutes to another pub/taverna. I thought the food was okay; everyone else loved it, particularly Chris' haggis (which I had a tiny nibble of; seemed inoffensive considering the ingredients but not great. But then, I feel that way about most meat, so it's not too surprising).
I never did manage to stop by the Walter Scott memorial, a gigantic structure that looks (from a distance, anyway) like the top chopped off of that Newcastle cathedral we passed on the train. Magnificent.
Rest of evening taken up with card games and sleep. Woke up far too early Friday to get on the early train to London, which was almost as nice as the trip up. Switched trains in London; Chris headed back to Stratford for research, Alice went to see a friend, and the rest of us went on to Canterbury in a cramped smoky train car. We mostly passed the time writing postcards.
Canterbury Cathedral was quite nice. Lots of the usual: cool stained glass, marble, bits of Norman architecture, flying buttresses, etc. Visited the Cloisters, listened to a few minutes of the choral evensong, wandered in the town a bit. Shortly after leaving the cathedral, I realized I'd neglected to look for the main reason I'd wanted to go to Canterbury: the tapestry detailing the legend of St. Eustace, which is part of the background for Riddley Walker. Sigh.
Dinner at a weird Chinese placeone wall covered in mirrors, another wall for the copious (and cute) wait staff to stand looking attentively around until they saw a table that wanted something. Food turned out to be quite good, though (as it's been almost everywhere we've gone this trip), including some dishes I'd never seen before, such as the deliciously hot Assam Chicken, which might be Thai instead of Chinese.
Saturday morning we had breakfast at the B&B we were staying at; then I went back to the cathedral and found the St. Eustace legend, which turned out to be a wall painting rather than a tapestry. It also turned out we'd walked right by it the day before... I unfortunately failed to see the second piece of the painting (it looked like it'd been broken in half), which was apparently on the wall behind me. Sigh. I found Michael in a nifty candle-and-lamp store, Amber Glow, and we rushed off to the train station to meet Fran & Ed there. The train ride back was better than the ride out, but not much. We mostly read bits of the newspaper Ed had bought.
At Victoria Station we split up; Michael and I went to the Internet Café, Fran & Ed went to the Victoria & Albert Museum. After checking email, we had lunch at the Space Café next door (which I recommend); then we left our bags in a locker at Victoria Station and walked in the hot sun down to the Tate Gallery. Lots of cool stuff: Turners, Dubuffet, Degas, Constable, Hogarth. Unfortunately, the one item I'd particularly wanted to see there, Richard Dadd's "The Fairy Feller's Master Stroke," wasn't on display. Not only that, it was in Americain Washington, to be specific. I suspect it was on display there when I was there... Oh, well.
We bought lots of postcards, walked on to Vauxhall Station. Tube back to Victoria, got bags, tube back to hotel. Napped for a bit, then had dinner at a tiny Greek place near the hotel. Made it to Piccadilly just in time to meet the others and pick up the tickets Michael'd reserved for a show that night.
After the show, back to hotel. Slept in on Sunday.