It's chilly in mid-April! I left in a wool coat, scarf, hat and brolly to walk to Apsley House, Wellington's golden stone home across Hyde Park. I would have worn my lined raincoat, as usual, but the day before I was caught sans umbrella walking from Chelsea and my raincoat was still soggy! My shirt was wet on the shoulders and back, soaked through my coat! Cherry blossoms and daffodils have lasted a long time, but maybe it’s because they’re in cold storage, too chilled to grow faster! They are welcome bright alternatives to spring gray. My Chelsea trip had been for a Pilates class and swim at a modern David Lloyd gym, which has a special joining rate. (David is Chris Evert Lloyd’s ex.) Compared with Seymour Leisure Center it’s palatial, but the long walk fails to motivate me, even given the mildew and peeling paint of Seymour. Maybe if we moved up to Kensington….
Three friends left London yesterday without seeing the sun at all. They paid £250 a night for the Hilton, even with a discount! I’d offered a place, but they felt three were too many with our one bathroom. We first rendezvoused at the Wallace Collection, then went to the Royal Academy for a Chardin show. The Wallace family mansion collection of armor, paintings, and Sevres china is amazing, and yet, like most London visitors, our art-oriented friends hadn’t discovered that great secret.
I’d attended a Chardin lecture and seen the exhibition previously with KCWC. His still lifes have wonderful grays, a hundred colors melded together. Backgrounds are very rich, but quiet. It’s easy to see his influences on the Impressionists and the Dutch influence on him. After the art, we exulted in splendors of a different sort at Fortnum and Mason’s, especially the basement’s imaginative and colorful table settings and the fifth floor antiques. Ancient wooden desks, tables, and chairs surrounded an inlaid grand piano to provide music for those at tea; another restaurant, The Fountain, abuts ground floor aisles stacked with every kind of candy, tea, preserve, spice, and coffee from around the world, often in stunning packaging. Store clerks wear formal dark gray striped trousers and black jackets with tails. Nearby, the floral section overflows with orchids and bamboo arrangements in arresting pots; the deli sells exquisite bits at extravagant prices and the champagne and wine sections intrigue. Tiers of beribboned fabric boxes offered chocolate crème eggs and chocolate rabbits for Easter. Their store windows are always the most elegant in London: they’re the Tiffany’s of food, reveling in oceans of delicious luxe.
The friends came by for drinks that evening, and we were to have fish and chips at the pub and try the weekly quiz, but they were so late we had to go to the little Italian café. No pub food is sold during the quiz! We stopped there for a nightcap—Mike and I were the only ones drinking—so they got a little taste of pub life and posed for photos pulling a beer. The UK has 61,000 pubs, where everyone over 18 may sip a pint or a half--“hoff”, and even 14 year olds may come in unattended if they order a meal.
Social life continued. Beth hosted a discussion group for our new Book Club and I met neighbors. With KCWC I attended a golf coffee, visited Windsor and Eton, heard the Chardin lecture, and toured Apsley House. With the OWL (Offiers' Wives) group, I lunched at Anacapri, near Baker St, and attended a coffee with a speaker on Ireland, held at the Ryslip base. (Most of us can't legally work here.) A friend offered a ride in her new Toyota Camry, bought for her trip home to the states. A ride makes it easy to visit the base exchange and commissary to pick up things not conveniently or economically found in town. Margaret filled her trunk with two more window boxes, groceries, and some bargain priced millennium cognac. It feels odd riding in a left-hand US car here!
Windsor was another freezing day. Our guest Peggy was leaving later on that gray, windy, and rainy morn, so I prepared to blow off my trip until I realized I’d already paid £12 for tours and admissions! Off I tore to Paddington to meet my group at the ticket window at 9:30, only to learn that all trains were delayed: trouble on the tracks! My stomach sank; I’d never catch up, but since I’d gone that far, I might as well continue. After a long sit on a motionless train, whom should I meet, but YES! My cronies-to-be were there and we continued together. (They aren’t my friends yet: I don’t know anybody well enough, but we’re all newcomers and friend-needy.) Richard, our blue badge guide, began a tour from the train station as we walked to Barry Avenue past ducks and boats on the gray Thames. Since the weather was “filthy” there were fewer tourists than usual, he said. We traipsed through town, past the round Victorian postbox to the brick and stone buildings of Eton. Watching red postboxes has become an interesting hobby. The ruler’s initials are upon each, so a V is Victoria, an E Edward, G George, and many ER II’s for the queen, whose initials have now been stamped for nearly 50 years.
Unfortunately, we saw none of Eton’s 1200 young students in striped trouser, tails, black waistcoats (vests) and white shirts, the school uniform, since school was out. However, we met a guide straight from central casting. Tall, heavy, stately as a battleship, with flyaway graying curls, in heavy brown and black wool tweed suit, she waved a stout wooden walking stick designed more for business than aesthetics. Her hefty legs were swaddled in thick beige woolen stockings that disappeared into sturdy brown oxfords. She jangled a set of large iron keys, and led us into classrooms and meeting halls once used by Percy Bysshe Shelly and George Orwell, poets and prime ministers, and luminaries like Walpole, Gladstone, Eden, Macmillan and Douglas-Hume. Brass plaques displayed names of old boys killed in service, and carved desks and windowsills contained hieroglyph initials attesting to ageless jackknife expertise.
Eton’s chapel, with stained glass, fan ceiling, and magnificent organ with painted pipes, was begun by pious King Henry VI for poor boys studying to be priests, and is now attended daily by Prince Will and his classmates. The school is theoretically open to all; it’s easy to see how impossible admission would be without the finest early schooling, which few inner city or foreign students can access. The famed playing fields of Eton, the supposed foundation of the Great War wins, surround the school and offer required sports activities to all students, who must live on campus. We were assured several times that “although once the food wasn’t very good, now it is really very good.” Every time our guide became befuddled, she fretted that we were her first tour this year and the wheels weren’t turning quite properly. She then reassured us on the food! It’s gotten quite good. Boys in the chapel choir often go on to bursaries (scholarships) at “Oxbridge” -- Oxford or Cambridge. The government picks up many college costs in Europe.
There is a dining hall for seventy boys, the king’s scholars, and they are offered free tuition and meals. A shop in town makes underclassmen’s uniforms and seniors’ white starched shirts with “stick up” collars. Boys wear normal starched collars but may “earn their stickups.” Quaint town shops offer silver manicure sets, brushes, sweaters, and high quality male clothing. Girls were briefly admitted to the school, possibly those who lived in town or were children of masters, but “things didn’t work out” and they are no more.
After a bookstore visit and lunch in a charming pub, we met at Queen Victoria’s statue and trudged uphill to Windsor Castle, fighting the wind at every step. Hardy blossoming trees and flowering hillocks softened the stone castle buildings that housed royals for a thousand years. Queen Elizabeth had just returned from one of her visits to Australia: her sitting room chimney smoke indicated she was at tea, a guard confided. She liked a nice coal fire at tea, he added. The chapel and Prince Albert’s chapel are filled with relics of famous lives, punctuated with white marble sculptures.
A remarkable bit of the tour was the royal private quarters, filled with rich paintings, armor, furniture and chandeliers enough to fill several boxcars. A recent fire damaged St. George’s hall, now beautifully restored in time for Elizabeth and Phillip to celebrate their 50th anniversary. Royal goods were saved from burning by a volunteer human chain. The next time I visit, I will take binoculars! It’s too hard to pass by Raphaels and Rembrandts and not be able to see them closely across rooms of gilded furniture and draped beds. (People do come with binoculars for that reason.) Downstairs lies a big tourist hit: Elizabeth and Margaret were once given a one-twelfth size Victorian mansion with furniture, carpets, paintings, garden and garage, all perfectly crafted. Wine bottles hold vintage port, and the tiny chandeliers really light. Garden tools and bedspreads, dishes and tiny china hold one’s attention. I bought books at the shop, saved from the urge to buy more since it was closing. However, everyone—guards, clerks, police—was cheery and polite, never seeming to rush us out.Many gift shops dot the castle premises.
Mike and I visited Covent Garden on an unusually sunny Saturday afternoon. We saw jugglers, musicians, and mimes; the place was densely packed. We threaded through shops and crowds. “Statues” moved when coins were tossed into cups; steel bands on a far corner vied with music played from a guitarist or sung to a canned accompaniment. The mood was jolly and young. Afterwards, we discovered that the trés chic Savoy Hotel has one of the best deals in town: a pre-theater two-course dinner for £15, including service and VAT. There’s a delicious big bread and roll tray early on, and biscotti and chocolate served with coffee, so two courses are plenty, and it’s in the heart of the theater (theatre) district.
We attended Copenhagen, an award winning three-character play about the meeting of Danish Neils Bohr and German Werner Hiesenberg, his former physics post-doc, who may have offered considerations about delay in producing atomic weaponry for Hitler. Would Germany have had the A bomb before the USA? The stage is bare but for three chairs, but the dialogue is riveting, between the men and Mrs. Bohr. Not a carefree evening, but a thoughtful one. This was our first play since moving. The following week, we enjoyed a silly change of pace as we attended HMS Pinafore; it’s in the same building as the Savoy Hotel. Gilbert and Sullivan were fun. The D’Oily Carte Company is fantastic, performing in a refurbished theater, after a fire, featuring shiny silver art deco squares and sleek sculptures. Behind us sat visiting tourists from Houston. We tried Bertolini’s for pre-theater dinner and stopped afterwards at Simson’s piano bar nearby before taking the tube home, since it’s impossible to get a taxi when all the plays are letting out. These evenings aren’t inexpensive, but we’re determined to see what we can while we're here!
We both have degrees from the University of Texas: We made it to the Texas Exes meeting for Thirsty Thursday, a monthly get together at the Texas Embassy, a huge bar near where once an embassy really existed. The bar is owned by Aggies, (Texas A&M University, football foes) and our paltry eight didn’t fill the cavernous upstairs, but we learned that football season is the time for action. We met several expats over longnecks and ‘ritas, and boy howdy! It was nice talkin’ Texas. But it's strange to hear a proper English accent instead of"Y"all come on in" or “Howdy!” We ate supper at a brasserie chain, Café Flo, and walked past my favorite London critters, enormous black carved lions, bathed in moonlight in Trafalgar Square. Splashing fountains and Lord Nelson high above on his plinth are pretty nice too.
In golden stone, column-fronted Apsley House is a museum edging Hyde Park, but the Duke of Wellington bought it from his older brother and entertained there in style when it marked a London entry. Near Speaker’s Corner, it was once at the end of a line of fine homes, since demolished to make way for busy Park Lane and the posh hotels. What a pity! The side windows have a view of the park. I hadn’t realized that besides being a great general, the Iron Duke was also prime minister, Ambassador to France, and held other offices after he left the military. He died at 83. Gifts poured out to him by grateful friends and rulers after he overcame Napolean at Waterloo. Large paintings hang throughout his home, and many exquisite china dinner sets, swords, and silver pieces line walls and cases. The china sets, hand painted, have hundreds of pieces each, with elaborate serving pieces, urns, platters, pots, trays, mugs, and beverage services. The Iron Duke oten used them entertaining his soldier friends.
While busy taking over Europe, Napoleon appointed his brother Joseph the emperor of Spain. Fleeing the allied forces, Joseph leapt from his carriage which held over 200 rolled paintings, looted from Spanish royalty. Wellington sent them on to London, restored them and offered to return them, but the King of Spain refused them, since they were procured honorably. Velasquez and Murillo give a Spanish flavor to the array of paintings large and small that cover wall after wall. An interesting sculpture is a white nine foot marble nude of Napoleon in a Greek god pose, and it sat in the Louvre until the great little man spied it. He spun on his heel, they say, and declared it “too athletic” so the British bought it to present to their hero. It weighs over a ton, so probably will stay put in the curving stairwell.
Wellington’s funeral was the grandest ever in London, still departing from the start after the procession had already arrived at St. Paul’s! Millions viewed the Waterloo victor’s coffin from the roadsides. The tall slender hero supposedly joined the Army because his mother thought his prominent nose too ugly for any other career. Americans are always driven to their history books after visiting European museums, and this one is no exception!
TS Eliot termed April the cruelest month. It is cold, windy, and bitter. When will spring finally come? At Mike’s return from a fruit and veg run to the Church Street market (with a mountain of pears!) we strode off to Kensington Palace, walking through Hyde Park past the round pond, which was added to the landscaped gardens in the 18th century. The palace was originally sought by William and Mary because of his asthma, as a refuge from London’s coal fires, fogs, and horse manure pollution. It was a house remodeled by Christopher Wren to royal standards. Abandoned by George III and bombed during the war, it became the London museum, which today is relocated in the City.
Kensington Palace also housed Diana, Princess of Wales, until her shocking death in 1997. Inside are her couturier dresses and those of court visitors since the 1700' s. It's amazing to realize that many court outfits could be worn only there, yet had to be the finest clothing made. Women’s court dresses dragged trains, initially extremely long, and their heads held tall white ostrich plumes attached to long veils. After presentation to the ruler, on a day following much curtsy practice, women backed up for about 60 feet in these trains in what, except for their wedding, was the most important event in their life. They wore light colored dresses, and their sponsors, perhaps a mother or aunt, slightly darker colors.
In the earliest days, men's dark coats featured a black ribbon rosette below the rear neck to prevent powdered wigs from staining wool fabric. The rosettes continued after the wigs were passé. Men also wore two pair of stockings with knee breeches, long after the style of trousers took over: one cotton pair next to the legs and one silk pair over them, to ensure that no hairy legs protruded from beneath embroidered gold braided coats. Men also carried a large tall hat that was held under the arm. It was thinly folded and never worn, since heads were bare in deference to the sovereign. Silver shoe buckles, leather pumps or high boots, jeweled swords, golden insignia -- all were carefully noted in a courtier' s book of manners, but the book could be dispensed with if one's manservant or valet knew the rules to keep one looking perfect. Which was greater: impracticality or formality?
American visitors sometimes dress quite informally and usually can be detected when the women wear denim or white sneakers—called trainers. European women eschew them. Baseball caps are no giveaway clue for the men, since everyone wears them and the team crests are often immaterial.
Eileen’s Ode Regarding City Denim (March 2000)
The British ladies, so refined,
Dress rather formally, I find.
In heels, they stride down cobbled streets.
(It doesn’t seem to hurt their feets!)
They’re very quick with “if you please,”
And “Lovely, brilliant!” say with ease.
They wear chapeaux for grand events
Adorned with bows and ornaments.
They’re seldom ever seen in shorts
Unless they’re at seaside resorts!
So are they pained in tourist season
Viewing folks with no clothes reason?
I still love my faded jeans--
I’ve worn ‘em ever since my teens--
But in The City, I suppose (Except for parks)
I’ll change my clothes.
And though the Queen’s not my ideal
Of urban chic –- those hats! Surreal! --
I’ll play the game, and, when in Rome,
I’ll dress up till I get back home.
Along with the mind-boggling splendors of court clothing came sobering information: many seamstresses suffered health problems and early death because of poor air, dim light, and long hours they worked beading, stitching, and embroidering exquisite clothing. Poor immigrants with no education sewed silk, yet wore rags.
Although Kensington was never meant to be as grand as some other palaces, there are fine corridors and many huge paintings and tapestries. Rubens, Tintoretteo, and other masters filled walls, and there’s a marked predilection for seventeenth century chiaroscuro and descending angels, plus an admiration of the Greek pantheon. We looked into the brick Orangery, once a building for winter plant storage and now a tea room, and walked home in a misty shower after luckily missing a hard rain, past Peter Pan’s statue and the ltalian Fountain gardens, under a dark violet threatening sky. The ducks, swans, geese and herons seemed unconcerned, but 1 wished I’d brought an umbrella. (Peter Pan’s home was the Serpentine.)
The next day, Palm Sunday, we returned to Brompton Oratory, over the Serpentine Bridge and past Prince Albert. The processions and singing are beautiful, maybe less a religious experience than a music recital and awesome spectacle. The lengthy Passion was in Latin, with the choir being "the people" in four part harmony. The Times today has a hot story about sexual abuse at a Jesuit boys' school here. It's impossible not to question an institution run by elderly celibates living in comfort and celebrating mass (3 concelebrants and 7 others on the altar, plus altar boys) in their all-male club. On the way home, we stopped to watch a Scottish bagpipe and drum troupe practicing next to Albert' s monument. They would play at Albert Hall that evening. That afternoon, Mike jogged in the park and I tried to better my French, conversing with a new computer program.
Have I discussed the washday wonders of our Zanussi Turbodry aka “The Great Wrinkler” that sits under our kitchen counter? Pull open the circular front door and put in clothes. Anything more than 4 socks and a hanky fills the small drum, but dare to stuff in a few more items. First punch in the "wash and dry" cycle, then select the wash temperature (many), the drying temp (two), and set the drier time for 80 minutes. Pull out the little drawer for "washing powder" and partially fill the middle section. Push the on/off switch. The wash cycle will swoosh and swirl noisily, eventually filling and washing the clothes. (Watch through the glass door..) Eighty minutes after they're washed, pull out your clothes, note they're drenched, and set drying time once again. Several jobs, later, check again. When done, attempt in vain to dewrinkle your stiff clean clothes. Damn the fact that there is no gradual heat wash and wear cycle. Wear clothing and repeat. As I write, our flannel king-size sheet is in its third eighty minute cycle! The alternative: take the clothing from the drier while it’s damp, and strew it over every piece of furniture. Leave till the next day. Our garbage disposal has died and we are waiting for Terry ("the Builder”) to replace it, but since this is Easter weekend and a bank holiday, we must wait a week. At home, Mike would be off to Home Depot.
Tuesday the 18th was memorable, albeit again in cold rain. In his tux, Mike was dispatched to the corner to hail a cab for Inge and me, which pulled up to the door, sparing our gowns and shoes. We left for the MV Silver Sturgeon, docked in the Thames embankment behind the Savoy Hotel. Aboard, we were quickly met with champagne, then introductions to some of the Worshipful Company of World Traders for their first livery banquet. We were there because of Inge’s invitation, since she is one of the founding members and has worked a lifetime in shipping. She is thrilled about the new company, and we were thrilled to be included in such an interesting evening on the Thames by our thoughtful neighbor.
As he earlier left the cab, Mike popped his tuxedo jacket button, fortunately retrieved at curbside. For awhile he was in shirtsleeves, as one of the crew quickly sewed it back for him! He offered to give them his shoes next! No takers--and he laughed! We floated down the river dining on a duck dinner after a crab starter salad, cruising past the Tower of London and under Tower Bridge, past the great floodgates and the Old Globe Theater, followed by brief speeches with port or brandy. We sang grace, and stood to sing God Save the Queen. (Since we were in banquette seating, 3 abreast, moving was awkward!) The Right honorable The Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress were there, along with people from many nations and backgrounds; our seatmates were a couple from Folkestone, Kent, and a tall CPA from Virginia, Wales. They, like many we met, seem to travel in and out of London frequently. The toast reply was by the High Commissioner of Canada.
The wines flowed freely, and the varied lapel and neck decorations glistened, hanging from colored ribbons. One man represented the Company of Fletchers, who once made arrows. I asked how they keep up with bankers and computer people in other companies, or if they had evolved into making other defense or military items, and was told that today they are a small and poor guild. They support archery services to the disabled, and had sent archers to Wheelchair Olympic meets and worked with Down Syndrome archers. At the end of the evening, we three could attract only one cab despite our best efforts waving and peering into the dark, but that hack was going home in the opposite direction.. We walked on through the Savoy in our glad rags to catch a cab on the Strand instead. Mike left early the next morning for Italy until Good Friday. The next day's Times had the-official word: this April has surpassed all others ever since records began for London rain!
Here' s a bit of cricket, straight from the sports section. "Ealham was within a single stroke of winning the match for Kent after taking wickets cheaply in both his bowling spells, then hitting with customary power to keep his side just in touch of a target of 176. When the last over, bowled by Mark Ilott started he and Paul Nixon, playing his first match for his new country, still needed 16 to win. Nixon, who had overcome a sticky start by clubbing Ilott over long-on in the 37th over, managed five off the first three balls, whereupon Ealham added two before timing a pull-drive to perfection over the midwicket boundary. That left only three to score from the final ball, but Ilott bowled it straight and full and Ealham, choosing to make ground to meet it and aiming this time to hit inside out, missed. That it was a ball of full length that did the trick is a lesson for Essex to heed as they seek to improve on their disappointing 1999 season. The great majority of boundaries conceded by their swing bowlers were punishment for the cardinal sin of dropping the ball short on a soft pitch that allowed a bit of movement all day."
The postal system is much clearer than cricket. Since our address is W2, that means we are very close to the center of town, west of where they start the mark. (Not sure exactly where.) The 2NU is our street on our side only. Because there are so many streets, avenues, places, parades, mewses, closes, and alleys all with the same first name, and because the towns of, say, Kensington and Chelsea were once separate and probably each had a King's Way and a High Street, this tells exactly which street it is. If you reply W2 2NU to one requesting your mailing address, the person asking will then say number, please? He'll already know the street and area. The High Street is Main Street, where the shops are, in any town.
On Holy Thursday, 1 attended a C of E neighborhood service, but stayed in on Good Friday. (Ágain, it rained!) That night Mike returned, and we used Saturday morning for chores. In the afternoon, we walked down Bayswater Road, planning to catch a bus, but by the time we were on Oxford Street, we kept walking, in the thick of blaring traffic and bustling crowds. We walked past Oxford Circus, stopping in bookstores and shops, and continued down fashionable Regent Street past Piccadilly Circus to St James Place. We stopped in the Godiva store to sample wonderful chocolate and buy a few Easter eggs on sale, the Steinway store for a demonstration from Peter, the salesman, and bought Mike a cashmere coat on sale on Regent Street. We saw statues of Florence Nightingale carrying her lamp near the Crimean monument, and a mounted Edward VIII statue, admired the tall pediments of the classical architecture and swaying blooming irises and lilacs in the gardens. The weather, amazingly, was dry and fairly bright. After a few hours, we took a bus down Oxford Street part way home, hauling our parcels to the upper deck for a better view of the streets below, and got off at St. Christopher's place, a little alleyway packed with restaurants dotted with awnings, curbside tables, and pots of flowers. We chose Christi's, a small Italian restaurant for a marvelous meal and happily completed our walk home.
The next day, Easter, we walked to Brompton Oratory, past a house with the blue plaque where John Kennedy once lived. Eleven o'clock mass lasted until 12:30, with dense crowds and beautiful music, and we were somewhat entertained by a 2 1/2 year old sitting in front of us who wasn't used to such long services. Most adults weren’t either! We discovered the church hall, for cake and coffee afterwards (profits to the choir) and chatted with a lively little old woman from Richmond who sometimes made the long tube journey in by herself because "the group at Richmond aren't too creative." At home we shared dinner with Austin visitors. and even located our Easter table decorations. Our friends gave Mike a George W. Bush pin, but we have never voted for him. I'm not sure George is the right boy--he seems shallow--but if he wins, Austin will have a successor to the LBJ presidential legacy. George and Barbara are still holding court in Houston. Lady Bird is still carrying on in her upper 80's back in Austin, slowed by a stroke.
Headlines on both sides of the Atlantic feature Elian Gonzalez's being snatched from Florida relatives by police, to be reunited with his Cuban father. Bush says that' s deplorable, and is using it as an election issue. Al Gore is distancing himself from the Clinton-Reno order, but over half of Americans support the boy's right to live with his father in Cuba. The anti-Castro Cubans in Florida burned tires and rioted to show their disapproval, and carried sick children to the fence of Elian' s house to be healed, since they felt the child's survival was divine. Ole!
We walked our friends to the comer for a cab, leaving dishes for later, and on the spur of the moment, walked over to the pub. We had heard that on Sunday nights they had music, and thought we'd see if this was true; after all, it was Easter. What a fantastic evening we had! The smoky bar was packed (as opposed to the rear room, where we generally sit for the weekly pub quiz), and we were certainly among the youngest there. Every seat and table was filled, and the roof rang as the boisterous crowd sang heartily, seldom pausing between songs. June, the piano player, changed tunes and tempos as occasionally soloists strode to the fore. She followed them perfectly, thumping out pub nonsense songs, war and patriotic songs, and Broadway tunes. Several performers had excellent voices, and all but one large woman were in their seventies, often bringing in the crowd for a chorus or repeat verse with large waves of both arms.
It was very touching to hear the love songs by these folks, and to ponder what they must've looked like when they sang in their prime. For most, the war songs had been a part of their growing up. There was general encouragement, from "Give us a song!" to whooping and applause after a particularly well sung piece. June carried on, smiling, her curly white head bobbing, past the final call, until the pub closed at 10:30. The barmaid, who had worked alone, was assisted by customers ready to help out, and Maureen, a regular, made a little speech on her behalf and put out an ashtray for tips. June, l was told, never took money for playing. Most singers seemed to be working class British, but at the bar there was a visiting woman from Houston with her boyfriend from Chicago. We found that out during a rendition of Deep in the Heart of Texas which ran right into Oklahoma. Patrons often pointed a finger or waved their arms or stamped their feet at certain times in a song, all in unison, and I don't think it would be possible to detect a shred of unhappiness in the place that night. We felt that we had experienced a precious look at a fast disappearing way of life, and were most grateful for the glimpse. I give it my highest accolade: REAL! We may never be able to watch Sunday evening TV again. Years ago in a smoky Welsh pub, we listened to a very old veteran sing On the Road to Mandalay after urging from the crowd. His was a weak quavery tenor. He’d been in Burma for the war campaign and, as he sang feebly, the entire pub fell dead silent, to catch every note. Tonight was like that: sacramental.
The Monday after Easter is a bank holiday, and six percent of England has left, seeking the sun, so rare here. Mike went to the office for a teleconference, but by late afternoon was home, so we headed for the V &A, a place he had never been, and stayed until it closed, just as we were watching a mini-film about glass making. Today was the first day I have walked outdoors with no coat! Outdoors, I admired Beth and Bob's new plants enlivening the mews, and I also finally finished the London Times crossword puzzle: they’re quite different from American ones. That night we had our neighbor lnge, the Great Dane, here for dinner, and she brought the first course, marinated Danish herring on rye bread, with a jigger of schnapps to whet the appetite. It's morning as I write, nearly one.
The month concludes with our train trip to Bath, booked after I read about a special two-night deal in the Times: breakfast and dinner at five star Bath Spa Hotel, not over a weekend. For years I’ve been teaching about the classical Nash architecture there, but had no idea of what a beautiful and historic place it was! Our golden stone hotel sat atop a beautifully landscaped green hill framed with a fountain and various trees, all above a stone grotto and flower gardens. That same golden Bath stone is seen throughout town in block after block of buildings, with symmetrical columns, large windows, often with pediments, and attractive terraces and doorways. During George III’s reign, aristocrats of all types felt it a must to see and be seen, and thousands of homes were built while royal friends took the waters; some also gambled, gossiped, and danced. It must’ve been a cross between Las Vegas and Lourdes. Some physicians advised drinking 10 glasses of the waters before breakfast, but other quibblers reduced that number to six. There are still examples of wheeled boxes on chairs, into which the infirm were placed, then wheeled into the waters in hopes of a cure. Elaborate clothing, wigs, and carriages played in carefully constructed social rites, shared by everyone from Jane Austin to Lady Hamilton. Pickpockets and bookies found easy pickings. New ways of making china added richness to dining and the table and challenged wallets.
In the Pump Room, adjacent to the baths, the fashionable and the wannabes were serenaded by a six piece orchestra during lunch, but very long waiting queues sent us off after only a quick peek. The mineral-rich water, 50p a glass, cascades from a silver shell into four fishes' mouths to be served by a waiter costumed and bewigged à la 18th century.
Nearby, enormous Bath Cathedral had been conducting different rites since pre-Norman times. Elizabeth I helped restore it, since after her dad Henry VIII stole the abbey to enrich the crown, townspeople plundered silver, roof tiles, carved stones, and lead -- even pews! Today in the crypt museum you see ancient Norman walls, or have ice cream in the courtyard and watch lively jugglers or musicians. Walls inside are filled with more commemorative plaques than any place besides Westminster Abbey, and a book in one chapel commemorates three hundred people killed in a 1942 bombing raid. Britain's last fan ceiling was built, and beautiful stained glass, both later added to the original building. Hourly, a priest prays aloud, urging tourists to join in. Parish services are still held regularly.
Romans used these famous ancient baths once visited by Caesar, but after Rome's fall, the barrel vaulted roofs collapsed and waters flowed back into the Avon River nearby. Romans VIP’s tried to impress peers with the number of slaves attending them, and used the tepidarium to get used to the waters, the caldarium to poach themselves, and the frigidarium for a fast cool down. The pool goddess Sulis Minerva was asked, on small incised lead squares tossed into the waters, to punish robbers or remedy injustices from angry supplicants. When asked why he bathed once a day, supposedly Caesar said it was because he was too busy to bathe twice a day! (Besides bathing, one could have underarm hairs plucked!) In medieval times, kindly monks at the Abbey bathed the ill, listing miracle cures along with the incurable in their notebooks. A hundred years ago, visitors were scandalized by men and women bathing together in a pool; today, it’s visited by an international set wearing Gap and Adidas! It is next to the spring itself, still bubbling away. Today, since a Roman lead shield was removed from the bottom of the pool, there is mud in the waters which breeds a type of amoeba, but there are purification plans afoot so that it once again can be used to drink and bathe. It’s one of the most visited sites in England, and we met some school kids from near Syracuse NY along with French and Italian kids on school break.
We sauntered to the low-ceilinged Sally Lunn house, c. 1480, where the bun of that name began, and admired the Adams woodwork and art in the town's guildhall. Walking along the river or through the attractive streets, with classic circuses and crescents of Bath stone architecture, is a pleasure itself. One night we walked to the next town of Bathhampon, a mile or two down the road, and stopped at the George, a picturesque old stone pub along the canal, where several narrow boats moored. (We had rented similar canal boats years before, with friends.) Picnic tables and benches dot grassy canal banks. We arrived in time for Mike to help one longboat moor between two others in a tight docking space. In the dark pub, a big black cat sat at the window sill, then patrolled the rooms. The evenings are already growing longer, and it doesn't get dark until after 9, but the jovial pub bartender called a cab for us, pointing out that our trip back was uphill in the dark.
There are several art galleries and museums in Bath. Stonehenge and castles are within an hour's drive, and although we saw a lot, there is more to see on our next trip. The hotel food was delicious and elegant, and we both overate, but tried to work off a bit in the pool and exercise room. (Most hotel pools are big tubs pretending to be pools, but this was long enough for a swim!) Basically, we had a blast, despite a few showers. I’ll soon be in the US for a month. We’re on track as the rainiest April in London since record-keeping began in the seventeen hundreds, when the US was a colony and Tom Jefferson wore silver shoe buckles. I think it’s rained every day. The amount always seems a mystery. TV announcers say things like “three times normal in Brixton” without ever saying what normal is, and then I go to our refrigerator map to locate Brixton. The papers almost never mention weather. Mike's favorite TV forecast is, "Showers, with periods of heavy rain."
Shop window near Piccadilly Circus in the smart St. James area, known for bespoke clothing.
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