Friday, August 26, 2005

3d Week in July, Part 3

Last Day in London

Having slept in and thereby missing breakfast, I brought the package of new books (mostly poetry) which I'd cobbled together to the post office down Marchmont Street, thus freeing up considerable space and weight in my luggage.  I woke the boys and we grabbed some terrible stale pastries in the enticingly named Valencia Cafeteria en route to Goodge Street; when we got off we wandered confusedly a bit but wound up where we were supposed to, at the London Transport Museum in Covent Garden.

The boys quite enjoyed the collection of colorful antique buses, trams, trains, and subway cars.  Then perishing from hunger we had a very satisfying if simple Chinese lunch at a place called Loon Fung, overlooking (through pigeon-proof netting) an open-air flea market where folks were selling an amazing array of junk; had a nice chat with the woman who ran the place, who'd lived in Vancouver:  she much preferred London (who could blame her?) -- though I quite like BC myself. 

Now it was time for some real culture; we started for St. Paul's.  But the Piccadilly line (which we'd arrived on) was now closed due to security issues. Fortunately it wasn't far to walk to the Holborn station, which, as with all the others, had a great assortment of talented buskers -- guitarists, banjoists, flautists…  We enjoyed the infrequent but cooling blasts of air at the tunnel junctions.

At the cathedral, after a quick look around the main floor with its gilding and statuary, the boys sped up the ancient grafitti'd spiral stairs, illuminated only by the occasional slitted window, counting as they went; halfway up the 537 at the inner "Whispering Gallery" they edged around the vast pit looking at the tiled floor below, and then up we went to the first outer observation area, the "Stone Gallery," and beyond, up increasingly narrow and spiraling steps to the "Golden Gallery," the cupola at the top of the dome.  Here a number of hardy souls stood in the very limited viewing area, looking out at the hazy London morning.  Ben claimed to be overcome with claustrophobia due to the crowd (rather than acrophobia), so went back inside shortly, but Nick and I hung out for several more minutes enjoying the breeze.

Finally we wound back down all the way to the refreshingly cool and dim Crypt, now occupied by a gift shop and cafĂ© as well as by tombs of British luminaries from art, music, literature, the military, and politics -- Blake, Turner, Nelson, etc.  It's mind-boggling to drink a beer (or eat ice cream) at roughly the spot where King Ethelred's bones once lay, before the Great Fire.

After this cultural tour de force, which went largely ignored by the kids, who were having a bit of a tiff, I spared them the Tate Modern gallery.  Instead we took the tube again to Oxford Circus, transferred to the Bakerloo line, and got off at Regent's Park, which I wanted to see, partly because it figures in one of my favorite Elvis Costello songs, "London's Brilliant Parade."  We wandered through the park along the water with its swans and herons, and through a Japanese garden, and then circled back toward home through an upscale residential district; it was a very long way to the nearest tube stop (not retracing our steps, which would have been too easy!) -- during which it began to rain!  But at last we tubed back to Goodge Street and walked (sigh) the ten blocks or so to the hotel for a well deserved rest and cooldown before dinner, which we took at La Bargiana, just down the street from the Avalon, where the service, if slow, was friendly. 

The next day we undertook the arduous trip back to SeaTac airport.

3d Week in July, Part2

While the boys still hunkered snoring under their blankets, I snuck out for a walk to King's Cross Station this morning -- the third bombing site and again within just a couple of blocks of our hotel. Here too was a pile of flowers and memorabilia. I took a few photos of storefronts in the deserted and somewhat run-down streets and returned in time for breakfast in the basement of the Avalon.

Afterwards we walked to "sunny" (per Donovan Leitch) Goodge Street (it really was sunny, and already hot) -- the nearest tube stop now that the Russell Square station was closed. A small station as they go, there was a very long series of art-deco stairs spiraling deep into the ground before we hit the platform. The train was full of commuters and stifling. We got out at the river and crossed over the Jubilee Bridge so I could treat the boys to the London Eye. Even first thing in the morning (9:30 or so) there was a huge line of international tourists snaking around the base of the gigantic ferris wheel; we shuffled half an hour in the glaring sun before we set foot in the fortunately air-conditioned plexiglass egg. It rose very slowly a couple hundred feet for a pretty comprehensive view of greater London and then back down. Frankly however I like the view from the top of St. Paul's better. More on that later.

We bought some souvenirs, meandered the embankment again, watched an amusing magician, and crossed over the river again to walk to Trafalgar Square. There what had evidently been an Indian cultural fair was just breaking down; booths for food and Hindu information were still set up. We lunched at a Pret a Manger  nearby and then returned via the convenient Covent Garden tube to Goodge Street. Next stop, the British Museum.

They boys attended an Egyptian 3-D show while I did a quick once-over of the exhibits, traversing the spiral stairs under the geodesic web of the ceiling and circling the huge marble rotunda; and then we all toured the Greek (Elgin Marbles etc.), Egyptian (Rosetta Stone etc.), African (masks etc.), and Anglo-Saxon exhibits (Viking and Celtic coins, swords, etc.). (Below is me reflected in the back side of the Rosetta Stone.)

We also enjoyed a huge library-like room of dark bookcases filled with an amazing miscellany of objects from the entire history of mankind. The museum was oddly hot and stuffy, and after a while we scuttled across the street to have frappucinos in the cool basement of a Starbucks.

We retreated in the heat of the afternoon to the hotel, where the boys read their books while I read e-mail and posted an entry here. Then after a cold shower (ahhhh!) I walked around the neighborhood for awhile, camera in hand as usual, returning around 7 to lead the boys to the dinner location I'd spotted, Cafe Mercato, near Russell Square. (High compliment from Nick: "This place sure beats Pizza Hut!") We sat on the cool sidewalk and chatted with a table of Yank retirees. Then, feeling slightly lightfooted after a couple of glasses of wine, I led the boys back to Goodge Street again for a nightime stroll, taking advantage of our day pass. They discovered that the railtracks were populated by tiny black mice (the color of the surrounding soot), and spotting them occupied Nick and Ben fully for the next 48 hours.

We debarked at St. Paul's, the trees blazing electric green from footlights, and crossed the aluminum bridge to the Tate Modern and back along the Thames. There was still red in the sky and the riverside pubs and the promenade were thronged by walkers and partiers, the city lights brilliant against the dark blue, St. Paul's dome illuminated. We walked as far as the Eye; the boys were then thirsty and a bit tired, and after getting them a soda in an arcade, I gave them some money and they rode bumper cars and played the slot machines. About 11 we returned via the Embankment to Goodge Street and thence home to bed (after a final bit of Potter).

3d Week in July, Part 1

Bright Lights

After a morning au revoir  to the elusive Mrs. Bridger, who was having some trouble restraining her spaniel, we headed south to London for our final leg.  We encountered the bane of English country roads -- a slow Citroen -- and in a desperate attempt to get past it I managed to miss a turnoff and got headed in the wrong direction, back whence we'd come.  There's a lesson in that, I suppose.  It took 20 minutes to reach an exit where we could get off and retrace our steps.

We had a deadline to return to car to the rental agency and all was going well even with this delay -- until we hit the M25. Alas this stretch of road, known for its backups, was … backed up.  It took us about three times as long to creep the final few miles as it should have, and only by aggrieved (not to say touristically pathetic) persistence at the rental agency was I able to not be charged for a full extra day.  They were also not unexpectedly perturbed at the gash in the side of the car caused by Melly's gate post, but this was, as I'd hoped, covered by my prudently purchased insurance.

We took a hotel cab into town for a seemingly exorbitant rate, but it was considerably more expeditious than shuttling back to the airport, taking the speedy but not cheap Heathrow Express to Paddington Station, and then taking a taxi to our hotel. It was now after noon and the first of our few days in London was fleeting by.  The taxi had to do some clever maneuvers to reach our hotel, the Avalon, as the surrounding streets, if not actually blocked off due to the recent bombings, were one-way, but we at last arrived, checked in, and had an almost nonexistent schlep into our room, which was conveniently between the front door and the concierge's desk!

As per our usual London habit we immediately bustled off down Marchmont Street (zigzagging a bit due to police blockades) to shady Russell Square for refreshments.  Here we saw the first memorial -- a large quantity of bouquets laid on the grass, festooned with cards, letters, toys and other personal objects (e.g., football scarves) pertaining to the many dead and missing -- sons and brothers, mothers and nieces....  Many people were slowly making their way around it, reading the notes, many with handkerchiefs to their faces.  Carrying my camera as always, I didn’t take any photos because I was too affected by the sadness of the whole spectacle. (I snapped the following two days later.)

After our lunch we walked past the British Museum to the Waterloo Bridge and across it to the southern embankment where a sort of streetfair was taking place, with musicians and other street performers (including many of the ubiquitous spray-pained silver statue-people, a new "entertainment" development I fail to understand).  It was quite hot. The tide was low, which I'd never seen before, and we descended the steps to the flats.  A strange feeling to be walking on the floor of the Thames through centuries of debris and silt.  After thoroughly taking in the scene, we crossed back over to the Westminster side and proceeded up to Piccadilly Circus via Saint James's Park, and located the Waterson's Books, where I'd reserved via phone from Melly's a copy of Brian Aldiss's latest, not available in the US.  The boys also each got a copy of the brand-new Harry Potter.  By this time we were feeling a little pooped and tried to catch the tube but the Piccadilly line was closed for security reasons, so I flagged down a cab.

I phoned Melly's sister Eva -- we were to have met her for dinner tomorrow, but she begged off:  one of her friends had been on the bus that got blown up in Tavistock Square.  Fortunately she hadn’t been killed, but Eva was going to visit her in the hospital in the evening. 

When we got peckish enough, at twilight, we walked around the crescent to the Woburn Tandoori for a very nice dinner in a Dickensian alleyway, and afterwards walked off our repast for a half hour around the area, circling in the dark past the memorial at St. Pancras (Tavistock Square) and around the University of London. As usual there were many Americans around there, which seems to partly explain why the area had been so saturated by explosives.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

2d Week in July, Part 6

A Morning in Diss

Our last day in Suffolk (or Norfolk, depending on where one draws the line) started with a marathon launderette stop in Diss.  My first challenge (after finding a place to park!) was to find change for the washer and dryer. (The perennial problem with ATMs.) I attempted to do this by cleverly purchasing some pastries in the bakery across the road but it was so early in the morning that they had no change yet. I bought several very gooey jelly doughnuts and some cheese breadsticks anyway. The Safeway store (!) satsified me for change, but the next challenge was to acquire laundry soap -- the machine in the launderette was out of order. I didn't want to buy a whole box at Safeway. A nice woman lent me some of hers. While the clothes tumbled I took the opportunity to post a few of these blog entries and check my e-mail around the corner at the newspaper office. Afterwards I lugged the clean clothes back up the high street where, yes, another street market was taking place, with the typical produce as well as lingerie and assorted knickknacks.

Back at the Town Clerk's Cottage, Nick had filled the bathtub to the brim and was about to climb in. I pointed out that he'd better reduce the water level a tad. Finally, in a sufficient state of cleanliness, we headed east along the twisty, narrow, country roads to the coast, about 20 miles.

To the Seaside

Southport is a pleasant town, a far cry from the mega-resort of Blackpool but quite popular nonetheless. We lunched on homemade sandwiches, and Nick and Ben hired a canoe, paddling for an hour in a sort of lagoon amongst islets of weed and a good many ducks, while I wandered uptown for a look at the seafront. Bathing huts lined the promenade -- multicolored, bare, single rooms you could rent for 10 pounds a day. The beach was divided by "groynes" in various states of decay.

A regatta was taking place, many sailboats with wine-colored sails heaving past in the breeze, and crowds lined the pier with binoculars. There was even a TV newscaster there, looking snappy in a blazer. The pier was spartan but there was an arcade at its foot and a restaurant; the boys spend a few pounds on the machines, and then we strolled to the pier's end, stopping at one exhibit of arty mock vending machines, very funny, using TVs and animation (for example, a dog-walker featuring a pixillated view of Southport) , as well as very crude robotics (for example, an automatic customs agent who would frisk you).


After we spent a brief time skipping rocks on the beach, it suddenly began to rain, so we returned to the car and headed to Walberswick, just across the river by foot ferry (which I couldn't locate and someone told me wasn't operating) but a drive of several miles. By the time we got there, the sun was back out.  The village was small and colorful (swinging between run-down and gussied-up). We found the foot ferry but there was now little point in taking it back to the Southport side of the river. A tiny museum pointed out that the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh had had a cottage here. And there was a bowl full of "hagstones," rocks with natural holes through them that you use for good luck. Had a nice chat with the woman at the front desk, who had a daughter living in Mercer Island, oddly enough. Dying for a cup of coffee, we were alas late again and the town was closing up at 5 PM.


So we headed inland to the town of Halesworth a few miles away, where I'd discovered that the poet and musician Martin Newell was giving a reading. We wandered "the Thoroughfare" (the pedestrianized high street) until we found the venue, a coffee shop named The Gallery, and then grabbed a pizza dinner at the nearby White Lion pub while locals stared at us. Halesworth is not exactly on the tourist track.

There was a modest crowd at The Gallery, made up of members of the local poetry society (very reminiscent of their Washington counterparts) and presided over by a very friendly, fat, ruddy, middle-aged fellow -- a bit like Holmes's Dr. Watson. Newell and a ladyfriend were there looking sedately hip. I introduced myself and mentioned I'd come all the way from Seattle to see him, which was more or less true.  He and the emcee were also impressed that the kids had come to the reading. As we sat sipping our steamed milk and lattes Newell gave a very spirited two-hour recitation from a number of his books and uncollected works.  Mostly these were highly formal poems, quite regional, but witty, rather like A. E. Housman crossed with Dorothy Parker.

Halfway through there was a break and I bought a couple of books and we chatted about pop music. Nick and Ben nipped outside and did not return for the second set. I didn't worry too much, given the small size of the town, and sure enough when I went out later they were seated on a bench a few feet away, surrounded by local kids, all chatting cheerfully. Apparently the kids hadn't run into any Americans before, and were asking Nick and Ben to say things like "Dude!" and talking about the differences between the US and England.

On our way home we passed Newell and his friend biking back to their lodging (he lives in Wivenhoe, near Colchester, and does not own a car). We waved them goodbye. Thus ended our stay in Suffolk. Or Norfolk.

2d Week in July, Part 5

In Search of Bentleys

As if we didn't get enough driving yesterday, we again had a road trip today, to the Bedford area, which took a couple of hours. To break up the drive I stopped to let the boys take a few turns around a go-kart course, all kitted out with blue jumpsuits and helmets. This was a big jump from racing cars on the computer, and I was pleased that Nick resisted his natural impulse to crash into things.

In Bedford, we passed through another street market in the town center in order to hit the tourist infomation office, to get directions to the County Records Hall. We lunched at Mill Yard Cafe, sequestered back in a little lane, whose owner reminded me quite a bit of my grandfather in his younger days. Realizing that the John Bunyan Museum was just a couple of blocks away, I diverted us there and I'm glad I did: Bunyan, author of "Pilgrim's Progress," was the son of Margaret Bentley, herself the daughter of William and Mary Bentley, the earliest Bentleys I have been able to trace with any surety. In the museum were a number of amazing artifacts, including the key to his house, his anvil (he was a tinker by trade), the chair he used when preaching, and the flute he carved from a broom handle when incarcerated for preaching illegally. The docents were impressed that I was related, and pulled out a biography of Bunyan that listed William's mother as being named Mary -- information I had not had to date.


We walked along the swan-filled river to the Records Hall; the boys remained outside while I nipped in to try and dig up some parish records for Elstow and Ampthill, where the Bentleys lived and died. William and Mary were so early that there was no record of their births (primarily I was trying to establish William's parents), but there was plenty of corroboration for their children's births, marriages, and so on. The young guy helping me also looked at tax records and finally at wills -- whereupon miraculously he brought me a manila folder with Mary's will (dated 1632) - written in brown ink on very fragile paper. I got a photocopy of this.


From Bedford we drove over the river to the village of Elstow, birthplace of William Bentley (1573) and John Bunyan. This small suburb still has a nimber of half-timber buildings, an ancient moot-hall, and the church where Bunyan was baptised. We wandered the churchyard looking for Bentleys and Bunyans, to no avail. It also has a creek running through it that supposedly was the inspiration for his "Slough of Despond," and it looks the part, much overgrown with weeds and overhung by trees. The boys were getting hot, tired, and hungry (translation: irritable) and so we stopped at the Swan pub, where we were treated kindly by the barmaid; we had a lovely curry in the well-flowered back garden.

Before heading home (it was now about 5 PM) we continued onward a couple of miles to Ampthill, where the Bentleys settled and whence some eventually departed for America. It contains the church (St. Andrew's) where they were buried, but again, so early that no gravestones exist -- but we prowled about it anyway. The town was pretty much shut down except for a pub or two, and was not as picturesque as Elstow, and as we were pretty tired we headed home.

It was Nick's turn in the front seat as navigator, and unfortunately he steered us several miles out of our way, through Luton, which wouldn't have been too bad except there were extensive roadworks (bane of my existence) in the middle of town, and we had to do quite a bit of circuitous (and often signless) driving to get back on the right road. At one point we went right through the Muslim section of town, past a mosque that had been featured on the news the night before with regard to the London bombings.