Category Archives: travel plans

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour, Part V: A Welsh Interlude

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And then there is Wales.

 

Other than a deep love for Gavin & Stacey, which is set in Wales and that I watch at least twice a year and quote daily, I leave Shrewsbury with no idea of what to expect. This trip has been so ill-planned that I haven’t had time to do my usual research before leaving, wherein I’d meant to read up on the history, immerse myself in some Dylan Thomas (including re-watching one of my favorite Christmas movies, the depiction of his poem “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”), study the guidebooks carefully so I’d arrive in Wales ready to feign a previous acquaintance. Z has been in Wales once on a rugby tour, though his memory of where he was and what he did there is too hazy to offer much insight other than an amusing anecdote about getting spooked in a graveyard of movie-quality mist and eeriness, a quality custom-built into Wales I’m beginning to suspect. We sit on the platform at Machynlleth in the dark, waiting for our connecting train, huddled together in the cold as we try to figure out how a person should say “Machynlleth.” The woman next to us mentions her stop at Aberdovey, and it sounds like Abu Dhabi, and I wonder exactly where this train will be taking us.

 

I’m not being dramatic: as we sit there in the dark with the moon the primary source of light, I fully expect to be attacked by werewolves. I’ve needed the toilet for the last twenty minutes, but my brief attempt to find it on the other side of the station where it is even darker left me scurrying back to Z, convinced that I should hold it until I get on the next brightly lit train that will be taking us to Barmouth, a seaside resort on the Atlantic, and Z’s family friend, July. I snuggle in next to Z and feel very content despite my full bladder and our impending evisceration by werewolf. The Abu Dhabi woman tells us that the next leg of the journey is the best, most beautiful bit, but because it’s so dark, we’ll miss the mountains, miss the descent across the estuary, and into Barmouth. Ah well, Z says. Next time. I like hearing this. I am not a person who easily goes to a place just the once. I like to return.

 

We are no sooner off the train than July envelopes us in bear hugs. We haven’t seen her since our wedding five and a half years ago (which was also when I met her), and I love the sensation of instantly being cared for. For the next five days I won’t be in charge of what we see and do. With July, you know you’ll have a good time and it’s nice to have her at the helm. I can’t say I know anyone like her. I suspect she’s never met a stranger and she’s never said no to any sort of potential adventure. Though she is English, she became a part of Z’s world when he was a teenager and she was teaching with Z-ma in Zimbabwe before heading off to work in Botswana, while Z-ma and Z-pa looked after her children who were in school. She was working in Libya when she got the notion to open a tea room in Wales, and she’s been ensconced in Barmouth now for twenty years, though she has retired to travel. It is no surprise to look at Facebook on any given day and see that July is some place on the globe you’ve heard little about, always with a new set of friends she’s made.

 

And also, she wears purple every day, and it’s really hard for me not to like a person who has that particular signature color.

 

She drives us around the few streets of Barmouth to her place in the upstairs of a 300 year old building on the main drag. Because the place is “listed” (in the U.S. it would be on the historic register), when she remodels or makes structural changes, she has to get permission and is sometimes denied, so the front of the building will remain pink indefinitely. The space couldn’t be more delightful. It is crooked and leany and has low ceilings in some places and high gabled ceilings in others. Black crossbeams go across the ceilings and I suddenly want to write on parchment with a quill pen. The trek from the bedroom we are sleeping in to the bathroom requires that we duck so we don’t conk our heads.

 

In short: it’s exactly the sort of place you want to stay when you are in Wales.

Thank goodness for the English translations

Thank goodness for the English translations

July has gone out of her way to be an excellent host. We’re greeted with a basket of fruit and a bowl of crisps (behind which is sitting the children’s book my mother illustrated). Towels are laid out for us like we are staying in a guest house, and before we lug our suitcases (our blasted, blasted suitcases) up the stairs, she is making us late-night eggs since we had wrongly assumed there’d be dinner to be had on the train or at the werewolf-infested train station. While she talks to Z in the kitchen, I poke around her space, looking at the stacks of books I have either read and loved or want to read, admire her artwork, imagine my life if I were living it here. Her decorating sensibility is geared to entertaining and comfort. Though her living room and dining room is shared, she’s chosen furniture that can expand and retract as needed based on the number of people present. In one corner, there is a reading chair that she tells me sits on a ley line. I’ve never fully understood ley lines, but when I sit there, I do feel strangely content.

 

Ley line or not, my favorite spot in the whole space is the cushion in the wide, deep-set kitchen window where you can look down on the happenings of Barmouth while talking to Z and July.

 

While in Wales, I have my first experience with the British National Health Services because a couple of mosquito bites have gone wonky. My left hand is so red and swollen that I remove my rings before they get stuck. When Z says, “I don’t like the look of that,” I agree to see the doctor because the last time Z said, “I don’t like the look of that” and I ignored him, I ended up with a scorching case of shingles and a threat of hospitalization. July explains that because people go too frequently to the doctor—which is paid for by the state for everyone—there is a new rule that unless it is an emergency, you visit your local pharmacist first to have your ailment assessed, and then you are told whether going to the doctor is necessary. For whatever reason, I feel more ridiculous stretching out my hand to the too-young pharmacist so he can survey my bites than I do actually going to a doctor. Surely this poor man has better things to do like dispense drugs. He suggests the bites are on the verge of being infected, and if it isn’t better in a day or so, I should go to the doctor. The next day, it is no better, is maybe worse, so we make an appointment. We do a little sightseeing before the appointment, me periodically checking in on the redness and swelling, and then, as we drive to the doctor’s office my hand suddenly looks nearly normal. My rings fit easily on my finger. The redness has shrunk down so it’s just around the two bites. By the time the nurse looks at my hand, I feel like a fool. I am one of the idiots who has jammed up the National Health Services with a mosquito bite so people with real conditions now have to see a pharmacist first.

 

July, who never has to pay for healthcare, is outraged when they charge me 30 pounds because I’m not a taxpayer in the UK. Z and I look at each other as we do the calculation with the sub-par exchange rate that makes the UK expensive for Americans and realize that even so, this is the cheapest doctor’s visit I’ve ever had.

 

Barmouth Estuary

Barmouth Estuary

After our short, five-day stay with July, if you asked me what is in Wales, in no particular order, this would be my list:

 

  • more sheep than I’ve ever seen anywhere (and I’ve been to Ireland seven times)
  • the lushest, greenest pastures and hillsides I’ve ever seen (and I’ve been to Ireland seven times)
  • charming villages and towns
  • castles
  • tea rooms and cafés at every turn
  • The Little Trains of Wales
Barmouth

Barmouth

Every night, it rains; every morning, we wake up to a drizzle. Miraculously, by the time breakfast is finished and we’ve made our way to the car, the rain has dried up and we have nary a shower to impede our sightseeing, almost as if the tourist board has made an arrangement with Mother Nature.

The green, green hills (and pastures) of Wales

The green, green hills (and pastures) of Wales

And the rain is put to good work. As we careen around mountains and down into valleys, I begin to worry that when we get to Ireland Z will be unimpressed because this is truly the greenest, most verdant landscape I’ve ever seen. It’s also worth noting, the roads are some of the most narrow too. At one point, we come face to face with a driver on a narrow mountain pass and we have to inch slowly past each other with our side of the road being the one most likely to deposit us down the mountainside. I momentarily think, We’ll die today, and then quickly amend, At least it will be beautiful death.

Thistle

Thistle

July is a master tour guide. Each day is the perfect mix of driving, sightseeing, and stuffing our faces with scones and lemon drizzle cake in some stately home she’s been going to for years, the proprietor of whom is a personal friend or at least familiar with July. In one place in the mountains, the owner’s children offer to show us their chickens and rabbits. In another—the space where July’s daughter got married—renovations have been made that July is not entirely sure she approves of. In another, the server teaches me how to say “Mabinogion”, the name of the earliest prose literature of Britain.

Penmaenuchaf Hall

Penmaenuchaf Hall

My favorite of the spots we go, Penmaenuchaf Hall, is the sort of house I feel certain I must have lived in in a former life (admittedly, probably as a scullery maid who was oft chastised for her poor quality work) because each room is so comfortably and beautifully appointed. While we wait for our tea—served on dishes I find photograph worthy—I sneak into the adjoining library and peer at the books.

Look at those little flowers. How could the tea not be delicious?

Look at those little flowers. How could the tea not be delicious?

After tea, we wander around the formal gardens, sniffing the lavender, getting a lesson on the different types of heather from July. I try at length to take a picture of the hydrangea that line the driveway—a pantheon of color the likes of which seem unwilling to be captured in a photo. I want to live here. Or maybe at least sell a few essays so we can stay for a few nights and have meals served to us on that china.

Penmaenuchaf Hall Hydrangea

Penmaenuchaf Hall Hydrangea

As we travel around, we weave in out of some of the most picturesque villages I have ever seen, most of which could easily be inhabited by hobbits or other characters from some mythical tale, so charming are they. July has to give me pronunciation lessons at each one, as the string of consonants run together make no sense to my brain or tongue.

Waiting for Frodo Baggins to cross the bridge.

Waiting for Frodo Baggins to cross the bridge.

One day, we make our way to Portmeirion, a tourist village/resort that was fifty years in the making and has been used as set for TV shows and movies, most notably for The Prisoner, a series from the 1960s. It is the quirkiest, most brightly colored place I’ve ever seen—it is reminiscent of Main Street at Disney World, only this is even brighter, looks more like something on the Italian Riviera, and has a jumble of items salvaged (or created) from around the world.

Portmeirion, where all is not as it appears

Portmeirion, where all is not as it appears

Trompe l’oeil is used to trick the eye into believing a mural on the side of building is a bank of windows on a villa. Small statues, cleverly used paint, and forced perspective make buildings look larger (or sometimes smaller) than they actually are. There is a huge golden Buddha sitting under a loggia, a town hall despite the fact that this is a resort with no actual residents, ornate doorways that lead nowhere, a ship in the harbor that is really a retaining wall. As Z and I walk around, wrinkling our brows and occasionally mouthing “what is this place?” to each other, July (and everyone else we talk to) is clearly delighted by it. Eventually, we settle into the fantastical kookiness, though perhaps the most surreal moment for me is when I walk into a bookshop in one of the brightly colored “village” shops, and the clerks are speaking Welsh to each other, reminding me again that I am not in some fairy tale Mediterranean village at all but instead clinging to the coast of Wales.

 

There is no light in the Portmeirion lighthouse

There is no light in the Portmeirion lighthouse

 

In every guidebook, in the tourist literature, and on many of the road signs we are pointed to one or another of the Little Trains of Wales. At first, when July refers to them as such, I think it’s a term of endearment that she’s coined, but it turns out this is what they are called. They are the narrow gauge railways built to transport slate that have been repurposed for tourism. Because we have a notion that the trains will be full of the badly behaved children we were surrounded by at the Tower of London and because we still haven’t quite recovered from that experience (seriously, the kids were horrid and left me feeling like the witch from “Hansel and Gretel” without an oven to shove them in), we opt not to ride one of the national treasures.

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The affection with which everyone speaks of the trains and of the different scenery each line affords, however, leaves me wondering if we’ve made a mistake. But then we start touring castles and I no longer care about trains large or small.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

All of the castles we visit were part of Edward I’s “iron ring”, an impressive collection of castles around Wales, built within about a three-year period during the 13th century, meant to keep the Welsh in their place, let them know who was in charge, and sure, also ward off foreign invaders. But mostly, they were about the Welsh. Because of the time frame, the four castles we see are all reminiscent of each other so when Z asks which one I like best, it’s inevitably whichever one I’m standing in front of. That said, they are all amazingly unique. Our first, Harlech, is the closest to Barmouth, and the thing that is most striking to me is that we’re driving down the road and then boom, there it is in front of us, high on a hill letting the whole world know it is not to be trifled with. When it was built, the sea likely brushed up against the rocks on which it sits, but now the village of Harlech has expanded beneath it.

Harlech Castle

Harlech Castle

Later, as we stand on the ramparts looking down, I see a school, people going to shops, living their lives completely unfazed by what must have, when the castles were inhabited by English nobility and soldiers, made the Welsh either quake in their boots or feel seriously pissed off about the liberty-taking invaders. Though it is a ruin, the castle is in remarkable condition; the walls and towers stand nearly to their full height. Z and I walk along the ramparts, feeling a little dizzy as the wind whips us around. I try to snap a shot of the be-dragoned Welsh flag and discover later that it is nearly in tatters from that vicious Atlantic wind. This castle is my favorite.

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

The next castle we visit, also my favorite, is Conwy, which still has the medieval wall surrounding the village it is attached to. As we approach from across the bridge leading into the village, it strikes me that Conwy looks like the castle most of us try (and fail) to build at the beach. It sits majestically by the water and I can’t wait to get inside. Unlike Harlech, this castle was “slighted” during Cromwell’s time, which means some of the structures were partially demolished so it couldn’t be used again as a fortress. As Z and I walk around inside while July has tea in a nearby café, I can’t help hating Cromwell for this (as well as some other sins committed against Celts here and across the Irish sea).

Conwy Castle

Conwy Castle

Inside, you can see arches on what would have been the chapel windows, you get a sense of how grand the royal apartments might have been, how horrifying the drop into the prison cells below. It seems a tragedy to me that it wasn’t maintained. Z and I are also impressed with the small signs that give us just enough information without distracting us from the views (there are no piped in animal or battle noises here, like at the Tower of London!). In this space, it is not difficult to imagine a Guinevere or an Arthur living a life. When we leave, July drives around the narrow streets that weave in and out of the village walls. It’s a place where I wouldn’t mind returning.

 

The narrow roads of Conwy

The narrow roads of Conwy

 

We are too castle-greedy on this day, and when we finally make it to the famous Caernarfon Castle in another walled village, the castle has closed.

Caernarfon Castle after hours

Caernarfon Castle after hours

I’m a little disappointed because this is where the Prince of Wales had his investiture in 1969, and I’ve seen photos of that ceremony. It is formidable with it’s large polygonal towers, and it is no surprise that this is where Edward I determined to make his son the first Prince of Wales, to remind the Welsh that they were no longer their own people. It is so odd to me that if I see castles in England, they seem romantic—fortresses to protect that sceptered isle set in a silver sea. But in Wales, I can’t shake the feeling that the English were just thumbing their noses at the people they’d conquered. If you are Welsh, living in 21st century Wales, do you see those castles as a national treasure, or does it chafe a little all these centuries later?

 

I have an idea how I’d feel.

 

The last castle, Beaumaris, I am sure will be my favorite. The guidebooks I’ve barely cracked mention that it is the most technically perfect castle in all of Britain. It is symmetrical, a sort of castle within a castle, and July agrees that it really is gorgeous. I can’t wait. We save seeing it for our last day because it is on the Isle of Anglesey—the place Prince William and Kate Middleton lived right after they got married—and we’ll be headed to the ferry that will carry us to Ireland. Because we are running a little late, we only do a drive-by of Beaumaris. The road to it is twisty and you can’t see around the bends, so at each turn, I’m sure I will look up and there it will be, this example of castle perfection. The anticipation is almost more than I can stand. And then suddenly, there it is, and all I can think is:

 

huh.

 

It has a lovely moat, gorgeous round towers, I can imagine what it looks like on the inside because I’ve seen an aerial view in one of my books. But it is so short. There is nothing about it that is formidable. Earlier in our trip to the ferry, July decided to drive by some standing stones near her house. I was expecting Stonehenge, but when we got to a rugby pitch, there at the side of it were stones no higher than an average fourth grader. I was instantly reminded of the miniature Stonehenge created for the band in This is Spinal Tap when the band mistakenly commissions an 18 inch replica instead of the 18 foot one they were imagining. This stone circle would have been perfect on the grounds of the vertically challenged Beaumaris. July offers to stop and Z and I wave her on. Maybe next time we don’t have a ferry to catch we can be wowed by the technically perfect interior and I’ll issue a retraction so Beaumaris can become my favorite too.

Beaumaris, how small you look!

The road flattens out in front of us. The trees become short and scrubby and the mountains can only be seen in the rear view mirror as we get closer to the ferry port. I have mixed feelings about leaving Wales and July. It’s been such a wonderful respite to be with her and this gorgeous little country has exceeded my expectations. But Ireland has owned me since I first stepped foot there in 1999, and while we make the final stretch to Holyhead and the ferry, all thoughts of English royalty, castles big and small, and the Little Trains of Wales dissipates.

 

The pipes, the pipes are calling.

 

Ireland is out there somewhere

Ireland is out there somewhere

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-Planned Grand Tour: Part IV (A Shrewsbury Short)

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Shrewsbury, England

Shrewsbury, England

After some trial and error, Z and I have a policy that when we travel we spend at least two nights in any given place, though we believe three nights is better.  With one night, the place you stop is really just a waiting room for the next leg of the journey. With two nights, you are either coming or going. With three, you can settle in a little, maybe unpack part of your suitcase, return to a favorite pub, feel familiar enough with a few places that if someone asks for directions you aren’t lying if you point them up a particular street. Shrewsbury was my first experience with a one-night stand that worked perfectly, despite rain that wouldn’t stop.

Sometimes it’s good when you break your own rules.

Train stations in England seem to be universally designed for discomfort so you’ll spend as little time there as possible. Euston is no exception. We like to arrive extra early when we are departing, so the lack of seats, general chaos, and giant digital board everyone stands gawping at, wasn’t exactly welcoming. Fortunately, we had splashed out an extra $18 for first class tickets which meant we had access to Virgin’s upstairs lounge.

As it turns out, one reason you should pack light when traveling in Europe (or possibly anywhere but North America) is the size and quality of the elevators. Our hotel’s elevator in London felt cramped if another couple got in with us, but the one shuttling us and our five bags of varying sizes up to the first class lounge where we are promised snacks and free wifi is basically the size of a phone box built for two. It is glass, so we watch an elderly couple ascend to the floor above us and then descend because they can’t figure out how to escape the pod. We laugh knowingly with the people in line behind us. Clearly this couple is a pair of boobs, unschooled in basic elevator mechanics. Eventually, the box returns empty and Z and I stuff ourselves in, press the button, and chug slowly upwards. I lean against the wall while we wait for the journey to end—clearly hamsters on a wheel somewhere are powering this thing. Suddenly, the lift stops. We can peer down at the people below us, and we have an idea of our destination above us, but there is no movement. There also isn’t room to dig for the Xanax I’ll need if we are going to be indefinitely stuck in this glass coffin. Then I see a sign about keeping clear of the walls, which aren’t moving with the lift, so I shift myself away from the wall and the elevator starts moving again. When we see the couple that had gotten stuck before us, I look at them and mentally retract my “boob” description. (After spending an hour in the lounge eating our lunch, we opt to descend via the staircase, with Z makes multiple trips to collect our bags and I make a mental list of all the ways we can and will pack lighter next time.)

The trip to Birmingham is delightful with views of bucolic fields and little hamlets, though I find it impossible to stay awake. As someone who often has insomnia, I would be the first in line to buy a bed that is created to simulate both the sound and movement of a train or ferry. I can’t keep my eyes open. At Birmingham, the peace of the first leg of the journey is shattered. The station is crowded and under construction. The platforms are labeled in an orderly fashion except our platform, which is as mysterious as Harry Potter’s platform 9 ¾. When we finally spot a set of escalators that looks like it might lead us to where we need to be, we discover the train is about to leave without us and have to run, rolling our luggage as fast as we can. In movies, running for a train always looks romantic and exciting. In reality, it’s awful. I’m huffing and puffing and my new four-wheeled suitcase doesn’t want to go the direction I’m going. The only car we can reach before the train pulls out is the last one where all the other late arrivers have poured themselves. We are sandwiched with all of our luggage in the little entryway amongst a group of similarly out-of-breath people, including a friendly young woman with a baby in a pram. Every time the baby threatens to whimper, she shoves a Cadbury Finger in his mouth and I worry that he’ll choke but am appreciative of his chocolaty agreeableness. Eventually, a seat opens up that the chivalrous Z directs me to though he has to stand  for another half hour.

Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury

Prince Rupert Hotel, Shrewsbury

Fortunately, the minute we step out of the station and into Shrewsbury, all of our traveling angst disappears. It is exactly the town I’ve wanted to spend a day in even though two days ago I wasn’t sure I’d ever even heard of Shrewsbury. It is medieval with all the little twisty lanes and crooked buildings you could want, and there are flowers everywhere. Our hotel, The Prince Rupert, is on Butcher Row, right across from a a lingerie shop, where spinning mannequins display intimate apparel in the Tudor-era building. A small, picturesque church stands on the corner. Prince Rupert was the grandson of James I and our hotel was his home. It is slightly less luxurious than the website photos indicate, but it is quirky and charming and we aren’t unhappy with it, threadbare as it is.

 

Spin ladies, spin!

Spin ladies, spin!

 

Full disclosure: we booked the hotel when we read that it had an elevator. The excessive nature of our luggage situation makes an elevator a real boon. Then we see the elevator. My mother’s nearly useless, too-small coat closet is bigger than this lift. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise we aren’t both going to fit into it at once, so we take separate trips up and I refuse to ride it for the rest of our stay. (When we leave the next day, I help Z cram the luggage into the tiny thing, then cram Z into the tiny thing, kiss him goodbye just in case, and then race downstairs for the reunion.)

 

The Dingle

The Dingle

We spend very little time in the room because we have very little time in Shrewsbury. After a quick tea at Camellia’s next to the hotel (where I re-discover my love of crumpets), we head into the winding, medieval streets, snapping photos at every turn because the whole place looks like the set of some historical movie. Ultimately, our destination is the Quarry. Unlike it’s name and the quarry where Fred Flintstone earns his living there in Bedrock, this Quarry is a large, gorgeous park that butts up against the River Severn. Inside the Quarry is a gated off section called The Dingle, wherein there are some of the most gorgeous flowers I have ever seen. The brochure we read earlier boasted three million blooms. I don’t know who does the counting, but they may have underestimated.

The Dingle

The Dingle

There’s a formal garden, a beautiful pond with fountain, artfully arranged trees and shrubbery, and various memorials to England’s war dead. The school children must have recently done a unit on the animals who were in service and gave their lives (though perhaps didn’t volunteer to do this!) during the First World War, so in one section of the garden there staked to the ground are children’s drawings of various enlisted animals.

 

Few people speak of the elephants who valiantly gave their lives during the Great War!

Few people speak of the elephants who valiantly gave their lives during the Great War!

Once we leave the Dingle, we see a statue of Hercules that is quite stunning. He used to live in town but in order not to offend the ladies, he was situated so his nethers faced away from the center of town so the “fairer sex” need only see his bare bum. Now, he is living in the Quarry, happily displaying his fig leaf to all. We walk around the Severn, speculating about whether the building we see on the hill is where native son Charles Darwin and Michael Palin went to school (it wasn’t) and greeting passersby as we circle the town.

 

Hercules and his fig leaf

Hercules and his fig leaf

It is the perfect leisurely antidote to the hubbub of London. After dinner at an Italian restaurant with Darwin-themed wallpaper, we stop at Waitrose (a grocery chain) to get a few supplies like bottled water because we don’t know if they’ve replaced the pipes in the hotel since Prince Rupert’s era, and then we call it a night. I have a little trouble sleeping after I read in the hotel brochure that there have been some hauntings.

The next morning we get a late start, check out of the hotel but ask them to look after our luggage, and have a very un-picturesque brunch at Burger King. Surely this alone is proof that I am not a fabulist. A fabulist would have invented something much better, but we want cheap and we want quick because Shrewsbury Castle awaits.

Shrewsbury Castle

Shrewsbury Castle

A smallish and not-that-ornate red sandstone building, Shrewsbury Castle’s original parts date back to the 11th century, though there have been several additions to the present incarnation. My love of castles is largely based on fairy tales and the Fisher-Price castle I had as child that had turrets and a moat and a fire-breathing dragon kept in a dungeon behind a portcullis. This castle is a little less romantic in that it now houses the Shropshire Regimental Museum. It is an impressive collection of uniforms and other military artifacts from the 18th century to the present day (if you can be impressed by such things). Z looks over the displays contentedly, while I try to find more personal elements to distract me from the ceremony of regimental life: a description of life for the wives of the soldiers, letters penned at the front (whichever front it is), photos of individual soldiers. In a huge case full of swords and uniforms, I zero in on a wooden spoon, hoping for some domestic connection, only to discover it was the “prize” for worst bugler.

The wages of bad bugling.

The wages of bad bugling.

We make our way to a room where weddings are held where a photo album of past brides and grooms is displayed. It seems a dubious place to begin married life, surrounded by the accoutrement of war. The photos in the archway by the heavy, ancient-looking door are stunning though.

Doorway to wedded bliss?

Doorway to wedded bliss?

Very little of the castle’s history seems to be covered here other than in a small, stuffy room where there are panels with the castle’s early days recorded there. I’m fascinated to discover that the battles covered in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I are directly related to the battlefields near the castle.

View from Laura's Tower

View from Laura’s Tower

Z and I walk the castle grounds, hike up to Laura’s Tower, where there are great views of Shrewsbury, and then find ourselves in a rainstorm, huddled under our cheap London umbrellas. Since we’ve checked out of the hotel, we’re homeless until our train leaves for Wales in the evening. We see the library across from the castle, housed in a beautiful old building—the former school of Charles Darwin—and so go there to write postcards and wait out the rain.

Chuck sitting around his alma mater

Chuck sitting around his alma mater

While it seems a silly place to spend our precious Shrewsbury time, I love being inside this space with people who aren’t tourists. It has been repurposed cleverly. Ancient-looking beams and other architectural elements have been kept intact. I’d happily spend the whole afternoon here, perusing books, but we have items on our list that we want to tick off: a visit to the chemist’s to get some antihistamine cream for some mosquito bites I’ve acquired, a stop at two stationery stores, a bookstore, and Neil’s Yard, a store I discovered in London in 1992 that sells a variety of potions in cobalt blue bottles. Also, there is the matter of me wanting to stop back by a shop where a gorgeous William Morris coverlet is on sale, though Z declares it “ugly” and I spend the rest of the day, in vain, explaining the merits of Morris designs.

Clearly Z needs new glasses

Clearly Z needs new glasses

Ultimately, we end up in a sleepy pub where we kill time happily for a couple of hours, eating lunch, having a drink, writing more postcards, watching local people interact with each other. It’s a perfect pub in that I think we are the only tourists in residence. It’s dark but cheerful, and one of the customers has his little dog with him. The rain buckets down but we don’t care—we are warm, cozy, and dry.

Cozy pub of the day

Cozy pub of the day

Because the rain won’t let up, we leave the pub and scurry back to yesterday’s tea room so I can have another round of crumpets, then we make our way to the hotel where we camp out in the lobby for 45 minutes while waiting for our taxi to take us to the train bound for Wales. No doubt there are more experiences to be had in Shrewsbury (certainly there were more stores and cafes to visit, and with another day or two, I might have won Z over on the issue of William Morris bedding), but I’ve enjoyed this lazy, rainy day, killing time in what is one of the most picturesque towns I’ve ever been in. I’m glad we broke our own rules.

Shrewsbury, we hardly knew ye!

Shrewsbury, we hardly knew ye!

 

 

 

 

 

The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part 2

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In 1988 when I flew to London with some of my classmates from Anderson University, the song that was stuck in my head was Kate Bush’s “Oh England My Lionheart” which had the most gorgeous, historical and literary lyrics and the refrain, “Oh! England, my lionheart/I don’t want to go.” As we boarded our plane for home, at least half of us were mentally humming this song. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to this city that existed for us previously only on the pages of the books we were studying.

 

As Z and I walk along the Thames, by Parliament, up Whitehall past the statue of Charles I staring forever towards the place where he lost his head, through the tombs in Westminster Abbey where Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I are stretched out side by side despite a lifetime of distrust, imprisonment, and conflicting religious ideologies, what song is in my head? Why, Fergie’s “London Bridge” with lyrics that I won’t repeat here because my mother-in-law reads this blog. It will NOT leave my head. I walk around looking at sights that quicken my heart while mentally, there’s Fergie, getting her groove on: All my girls get down on the floor/back to back drop it down real low.

 

This difference pretty much epitomizes the alterations that twenty years can make on a place. I’m not sure if those differences I see are primarily in my head or if they are in the city itself. Certainly, London has changed. I need only look at the skyline across the Thames to South London to see the difference. Skyscrapers, the London Eye (a massive Ferris wheel built to celebrate the Millennium that wrecks that old world feel I loved so long ago, though demonstrates what a modern tourist destination London is), and the general hubbub makes the south side of the river suddenly seem like the place to be instead of the stuffy historical sites on the north side. (We stay on the north side.) Also, though one of my previous trips was during the tourist-laden summer, London feels positively stuffed to the gills with people. There is no room for us on the tours, on the sidewalk, in the Tube. I can’t decide if this is my age, the fact that now that I live in a city I’m no longer as enamored with them as I used to be, I’ve become a claustrophobe in middle age or because the EU and globalization have turned the city into the world’s oyster. Also, a new development since 1992: at least ¾ of the people we pass have their faces buried in their smart phones with no awareness that the throngs are having to dodge their zombie-esque lumber down the middle of the sidewalk.

 

At one point, I actually think but don’t say, “London may be due another plague to thin this herd.”

 

Lest it seem like I haven’t enjoyed myself and don’t love this city, fear not. Z and I have had a great time. It’s hard to see a red double-decker bus, a red phone box (a few less since last time I was here), or the iconic red mailboxes without catching a little London fever. Samuel Johnson said that when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, and I’m inclined to agree. I will never be “over” London, though I do wonder if Dr. Johnson was ever tired IN London as we have been, and if he didn’t ever long for a little respite in the Lake District. Certainly, at the end of our days, we’re happy to stumble into our hotel room.

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Our hotel, The Regency, in South Kensington, is delightful. Its location just a few blocks from the Tube is why we picked it, but when we walked up to it we knew we’d be in good hands. Queen’s Gate Avenue is a wide, flower-lined street with Georgian homes that lead into the Queen’s Gate in Kensington Gardens. Though the room is small and the water pressure is non-existent, the quirkiest thing about it is the high tech light system that the hotel staff is very proud of. If you get up in the night, the lights sense your movement and pop on. This would be handy if you were in a room by yourself, but with two people, it’s unsettling to have the lights flash suddenly because your spouse needed to make a late-night trip to the loo. The hotel is quiet and they accommodated my ice addiction by bringing me a bucket of ice every night. (Though on the last night, I only got a glass of ice, much to Z’s delight. He couldn’t quit laughing at my disappointed face.)

 

In Seattle, the city parks planners have recently started a “parks to pavement” movement, the result of which means on our block of First Hill we’ve lost about six parking spaces that have been painted aqua. They chained some jaunty folding chairs to sign posts and we’re meant to think it’s a park (and it’s worth noting, it’s five feet from a non parking lot park). But you only need to be in London about five minutes before you see proper parks, both big and small before you realize that Americans often don’t really do parks right at all. The ones in London are under huge canopies of trees and there is everywhere evidence of landscape design. Aside from the big parks, there are also little “squares” in the midst of Georgian row houses that are private for the residents around the block. It’s a bit disconcerting to be on the outside of the locked gate looking in, but it must be such a delight to live across the street from one and know that you have access and can find therein a park that is less likely to have litter strewn about, needles cast aside, and a safe haven from the stress of the city. There should be more of these everywhere and not just in wealthy neighborhoods. It seems like it would foster a sense of community more than our little patch of aqua pavement. If we went to a park every day of our stay here, I’d ask to go to two.

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On our first jet-lagged afternoon, Z and I head off to Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens (the two parks bleed into each other and even my pop-up map is vague about where one ends and the other begins, but combined they are larger than the whole of Monaco!). Henry VIII created Hyde Park for hunting, and London is all the better for it. Marble Arch in Hyde Park was my very first tourist stop in 1988, so I’m always happy to return there, even in a gentle rain. Z and I stop for photo ops at the Albert Memorial, created by Queen Victoria to pay tribute to her beloved husband, and I remember in college how silly she seemed to have gone into a mourning that lasted the rest of her life though her husband died when she was 42 and she would live to be nearly 100. Standing there with Z, it makes much more sense to me now that a woman who ruled half the geographic world would feel she’d lost her own when her husband died. Is it possible that I’m more romantically inclined in middle age than I was as a twenty year old?

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While in the park, we walk along the serpentine–a swan-laden lake that twists and turns—and we visit Peter Pan, pass the Italianate garden that looks like it belongs in another country. It’s a peaceful re-introduction to London.

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The next morning, we manage to get ourselves to what was previously my favorite place in London: The Tower. It’s a fortress comprised of multiple buildings that span centuries in architecture and that was the backdrop for some of England’s more grisly history, including the place where wives lost their heads simply because Henry VIII had in mind to wed another and where people whose faiths differed from the monarch’s were put to death for heresy. When I was 21, this place sizzled for me. I walked along the parapet where Elizabeth I walked when she was being held prisoner by her sister and felt alive, like I was somehow touching the past. I watched the ravens hopping freely across the green and recited to myself the myth that if the ravens leave, the Tower will fall. (They haven’t left because their wings are clipped, and now, sadly, they are in cages.) I traced Jayne Grey’s name, carved in the wall by her husband before the pair of them were beheaded at the end of Jayne’s 9 day reign as queen and got choked up. I stared at the Crown Jewels and imagined which crown I’d get to wear when Prince Edward finally saw sense and married me. Full disclosure, I also stared at Henry VIII’s codpiece and wondered if I could get Edward to don similar armor periodically to keep things spicy.

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On this August day, the Tower is crawling with tourists. Since last I was here, they’ve built a souped up tourist center and started charging a lot more, including a “voluntary donation” that is in the price posted! There are lines for the Crown Jewels that snake around the White Tower and leave Z and I shaking our heads: I’ve seen them before and he isn’t that interested, so we move on. They’ve refurbished apartments above Traitor’s Gate that belonged to Edward I, which are fascinating in their medieval-ness. In other places, I feel disappointed that “improvements” have been made to entertain children—unnecessary sound effects that make it impossible for me to do my own imagining, a lot of hands-on feeling of feather ticks and metal soldiers’ helmets, and an array of animal sounds from the menagerie that used to live there. I understand the inclination to make history come alive so young people will be interested, but what I notice is most of them could care less about the history and simply want to move from experience to experience. I feel sad for them that they live in an age when grown-ups feel they must entertain children instead of helping them develop imaginations that can fill in blanks, but mostly I’m sadder for myself and Z. There is no time or space now for reflection about politics, faith, war and affairs of the heart without hearing “tigers” growling and the clang of swords from a mock joust. Even Tower Green, which used to have a sort of tacky chopping block to illustrate where heads were lost now has a beautiful monument made of glass and stone with a lovely poem etched into it and a sculpture of a pillow.

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I’m still unsure how I feel about this. The poem is nice and offers a sort of benediction for those who have become cartoon characters in the history books of our minds, but it’s a little too pretty. For me that chopping block was jarring reminder in such a beautiful setting that the Tower wasn’t all banquets and Tudor-era tennis.

 

But still, why am I complaining about any of it? For an American whose history barely goes back 200 years, it’s amazing to stand in a structure that has existed since William the Conqueror in the 11th Century. I get chills standing in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula knowing that two of Henry VIII’s wives lie beneath the floor, heads no longer intact, and can’t be having much of a peaceful rest with all the tourists that trek through on a daily basis.

 

Because I’ve always wanted to walk along the Thames—mistaking it, I suppose, for the Seine—Z and I leave the Tower and walk towards Parliament on the Thames River Walk. It is a longer distance than our pop-out map indicates, and more to the point, London is a boom town with a lot development happening along the river, so we walk twenty feet and then have to circle around construction; walk another twenty feet, circle around. It’s hot. We are tired. Honestly, I prefer the Thames in my mind. As we walk away from Tower Bridge, towards London Bridge, Fergie cranks up in my head, and I sigh. I think I’m missing 1988 London. Possibly, I’m missing 1588 London.

I’m Fergie Ferg. Me love you long time.

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The Ill-planned Grand Tour: Part I

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My first trip to London was in 1988 with a small group of my fellow liberal arts majors and my beloved mentor, Gibb. I’d just read 84 Charing Cross Road, I was 3/4 of the way done with a lit degree that focused heavily on British Lit, I was studying British history as an elective, and I had an unhealthy attachment to the Royal Family. (Specifically, I was sure I was meant to be one of them and was holding out hope for Edward.) It was my first trip abroad and as soon as I discovered that the ability to read a train schedule, a guidebook, and a metro map opened up a person’s world exponentially, I was hooked. And so a love affair that began in books was finally consummated.

Four years later, a family friend agreed to act as tour guide for Mom and me, and we spent two glorious weeks living in a house owned by Stephanie, an Austrian octogenarian who was friends with the doctor who delivered Prince Charles and knew from first hand experience that Winston Churchill’s wife’s  Siamese cats had ugly dispositions. Her three-story brick house was on Muswell Hill and on the first day there we looked out the back windows to discover not just rose-covered walls but also a community bowling green where men dressed in whites looked like something straight out of a Merchant Ivory film. In America at the time, we were obsessed with all things British, all things Victorian and Edwardian. It wasn’t just Mom and me; entire stores were dedicated to bringing a little 19th Century British class to our ranch houses and condos. Though the city was modern, it was as if the plane that carried us across the Atlantic had also been a time machine. Because of the lady of the house’s age and social class and the length she had owned her beautifully appointed home, we could, at the very least, pretend we were in pre-Blitz London. At night, I’d eat biscuits and work on a needlepoint project I’d purchased at Liberty while Stephanie and I would watch TV. In my twisted memory, instead of viewing episodes of East Enders though we were listening to the wireless and hearing news about impending troubles in Europe. We were delighted one day when Stephanie was in a tizzy because she couldn’t find her hat for Royal Ascot, and the next day, we were lucky enough to see the entire Royal Family leave Windsor Castle for the big race. They were waving and all be-hatted, while we stood along the road, cheering and clapping and taking blurry photographs. (Sadly, Edward did not notice me, and one of us noticed how miserable poor Diana looked despite the fact we were all about to be surprised by her tell-all biography and impending separation.)

Because Barb, our tour-guide friend, had traveled extensively, I studied her actions carefully. She carried a small backpack so she was always ready with a rain coat, London A to Z, and space to shove bread and cheese from Sainsbury’s for lunch on a train to Dover. She understood the Tube and planned well a day’s itinerary so no time was wasted. I could do this, I thought, unadventurous as I was. I was in my early twenties and determined not to spend the rest of my life in Richmond, Indiana, waiting on the Barb’s of this world to take me to the places I wanted to see.

When Mom and I left, we had an extra suitcase full of all the bits of England we’d purchased in gift shops in an attempt to take the experience home with us. In our carry-on luggage alone, we had three teapots. All these years laters, it remains one of the Big Moments on the timeline of our respective lives.

Seven years later, I fell in love with Ireland and never once looked back  across the Irish Sea to England’s green and pleasant land. I became obsessed with Irish literature and Irish history, and the best I can do to explain this is to compare it to the difference between a first love and a soul mate. There would always be a tiny corner of my heart that belonged to England, but I was in love with Ireland body and soul, and because England had been, over 700 years, badly behaved towards Ireland, it was like realizing that first love of yours was actually a bully who’d been taking your (eventual) soulmate out into the school parking lot and beating him senseless while you were eating a cheese sandwich in the cafeteria. In 1998, I started seeing Ireland exclusively and I never regretted my decision. The landscape, the literature, the people—it all felt like mine. The first week I was there, it occurred to me that  I’d spent my twenties looking for the right man when really what I should have been doing was looking for the right place in the world. Ireland was that place. If I could have easily moved there, I would have. Because I couldn’t,  after every return back to America, I’d start planning my next trip, enlisting other people to go with me, traveling solo if the situation dictated it.

So now Z and I are spending a month traveling through England, Wales, and Ireland, while he does research and I write and stare at views and buildings that quicken the heart. It is the most ill-conceived, ill-prepared for trip ever because we’ve had to postpone it twice and didn’t know until two weeks ago that it was even going to happen because of visa issues. (If you have a US passport, might I recommend you take it out of its hidey-hole and kiss and bless it for the ease of travel it provides–not all passports are created equal). Also, the day I decided to extend my trip to Indiana by a week, we got the news that this trip was a go. I don’t regret being home to visit Mom and her ailing back and to help my stepfather celebrate his 70th birthday, but what this means is I was back in Seattle for just two and a half days before we had to be on our Heathrow-bound flight. And finally, in the eleventh hour, I thought I was coming down with shingles again, which would have thrown a further kink into all of our plans. While in my suitcase there are the clothes and equipment for every conceivable weather condition and natural disaster, the rest of the trip has only the vaguest of outlines. Barb nor my Girl Scout leader would be proud with my planning and preparedness levels at this moment. Case in point, we seem to be in London on the brink of both a train and Tube strike, which could make things interesting.

But even with delays and missed connections and the realization there’s no way to do “it all” in just a few weeks, I’m looking forward to reconciling my past love with my current one and sharing both (plus Wales!) with Z, who is better than any Windsor prince, any day, any time.

Stay tuned.