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UK in winter

Guatemala Journal
Wanderings

 

 uk in winter

27 enero
We took the Piccadilly Line underground from Heathrow airport, headed for a b&b near Victoria Station. My son Adam and I were taking a trip we had planned for years and, for one reason or another, we rescheduled each time. Sean the Wandering Minstrel boarded on the next stop. He played guitar and sang to welcome and entertain the unresponsive passengers for a few stops with the opening words, "here's a song from my latest album, I just bought it this morning…" Getting off the train, a recorded voice cautioned us to "mind the gap" between the train and platform.

What struck me most, especially coming from Guatemala, was the lack of color. Stately stone buildings in shades of tan/beige/gray, painted trim in black, gray or dark green. The graceful outlines of bare deciduous trees in winter against a blanket gray sky. Londoners dressed in black, red double decker buses and old style phone booths the occasional splashes of color, and boxy black 40's style taxicabs made me think I had stepped into a black and white movie, with a grand and quiet beauty all its own.

The proprietor at the Lime Tree Hotel, a former professional rugby player, told rugby stories including the one about the team downing pints of ale on their heads. When we declined some more toast he remarked "thank god for that" (big smile). With some advice from our hosts, we walked and walked through London neighborhoods, squares and parks, and found a few surprises.

The British Museum, far from being stuffy and old fashioned as I envisioned, had imaginatively presented exhibits including a fascinating eclectic group of art and artifacts entitled Enlightenment, indigenous dress and items used in spiritual or medicinal ceremonies from different parts of the world, various museum assistants offering small treasures that we could examine in our own hands, and, to Adam's delight, a special exhibit on Japanese swords. A bobby told us where the Palace guard start marching from, and we followed the guard to the Palace for a different view of the changing ceremony. One night, we taxied to the dark and spectacular "Phantom of the Opera" and mingled with the theatre crowd.

Michael and Irene, friends from our recent Peru trek, treated us to dinner at their neighborhood pub one evening. Eating our way around the UK, we explored the ethnic restaurants and local pubs - including such dishes as bubble and squeak, mince pies, bread and butter pudding, treacle tarts, and kippers and haggis (in Scotland). We frequently sought out the Indian cuisine and discovered London's Brick Lane, also known as Curry Row, lined with Indian shops and eateries. At Irene's suggestion, we found open restaurants on Christmas eve at Edgeware Road, the Lebanese neighborhood. Our lamb dinners there were so large we took the leftovers out in to go boxes, and gave them to two homeless men camped in the underground tunnels.

Not big shoppers, we made the mistake of putting off Harrod's until Christmas Eve day - after pushing through a few absolutely packed rooms on the first floor, we couldn't wait to get out of the crush of last minute procrastinators. A doorman of a nearby building gave us directions to a more affordable shopping area - after first politely asking "permission to speak, Mum", he proudly directed us to Oxford Street.

As usual, the rental car we had booked in advance was unavailable, but we were offered a deal on a larger car - we drove out of London in a brand new, silver Mercedes. It took me a few days to find my "zen" of driving on the left side, especially on those small winding country roads. I clipped the left mirror in one small town against a parked car, we had to repeatedly pop it back in along the way. The road sign "There may be oncoming vehicles in the middle of the road" filled me with terror.

In the town of Bath, we strolled the river walk and quiet streets, everything closed for Christmas Day. All would come alive the next day, Boxing Day, when the sales begin. Looking for a place to eat, we peeked in a pub window where there was a fist fight in progress. A good jumping off place for southwest England, we visited the ancient noble stone structures at Stonehenge, a humbling sight to behold, and the mysterious circle of large stones at Avebury. Glastonbury Abbey, ruins now, must have been an imposing building at one time - the grounds are still beautiful and lush. In the Roman Baths, a naturally heated pool surrounded by Roman statues and stone rooms, you could picture the men with their togas lounging nearby. A light dusting of snow one morning brought birds perching on the chimney tops to keep warm. During breakfast by the window, I looked up to see a hot air balloon float by.

A delightful discovery was the Museum of Welsh Life (Amgueddfa Werin Cymru in Welsh) in St. Fagans, just outside of Cardiff, Wales. The museum began with a donated castle and its grounds, and has added over 40 buildings moved there from different parts of Wales, and representing a diversity of lifestyles and historical times - farmhouses, shops, craftsmen's workshops, mills - arranged like a village. We spent four hours wandering there.

We stayed a few nights in the Cotswolds, a collection of small towns nestled in a picturesque hilly countryside, with our base in Chipping Campden. The buildings in the charming town centers are all connected, like a curving wall of stone broken by doors, windows, signs. Many of the town names are hyphenated: Stow-on-the-Wold, Stratford-Upon-Avon (where we enjoyed a play at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre), Moreton-in-Marsh. As we drove around, we had fun making up our own names: Fiddler-on-the-Roof, Bird-in-the-Hand, you can think of your own!

The classic medieval castle, Warwick Castle, was another fascinating step into the past. Up and down stairways to each tower we climbed, then down into the dungeon. As we entered the torture chamber, a commotion arose in the stairway behind us - a young woman passed out and tumbled head first down the stairs. We later learned she was recovering, and had left in an ambulance.

A long day drive brought us to Edinburgh at dusk - we soon realized it was dusk most of the short day in Edinburgh in winter. Undaunted by the gray and rainy weather, we took a double decker bus to the Royal Mile to shop for Celtic goodies. We arrived for the spirited Hogmanay, a huge end of the year festival with the highlight a crowded New Year's Eve street party on Princes Street, closed to traffic. It was a joyous celebration with bands, bagpipers, dancing in the streets, fireworks on seven hills - three of them visible from where we stood, with the grandest over Edinburgh Castle. At midnight, the bagpipers played, we hugged strangers, shared a Scottish woman's Drambuie and sang Auld Lang Syne - the Scots know more verses than you've ever heard before.

After a rainy visit to Edinburgh Castle on New Year's Day, the rain coming sideways in the bitter wind, umbrellas blowing inside out, my patience with the weather was wearing thin. We drove south to stay in the lovely city of York our last night. We entered York Minster just as the choir began singing Evensong, a perfect backdrop for our visit. A four hour drive back to Heathrow the next morning, and a long flight back to Colorado snow.

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