There Never Was An England

London Travel Blog

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You know, there comes a time when even the best job loses its thrill, and yes, there comes a time when the soul as well as the body needs an escape. This is the story of a man who day-dreamed about the young boy from Ohio who always wanted to cross the sea. It seemed so impossible to fulfill that he finally concluded that for him, "There Never Was An England....." On a Tuesday in April Sitting up straight, unable to sleep, the man-boy fidgeted through a polar flight from San Francisco to Heathrow Airport, just south of London. Instead of sensibly settling in to accommodate his jet lag, Joe took the Underground into London, and then a train northwest to County Cheshire, and the city of Chester. It was over twenty hours since take-off when Joe fell asleep in a little bed-and-breakfast. Up with the sun the following day, he set out on awalking tour. The town reached its peak in the 13th and 14th centuries as a bustling port, but the River Dee gradually silted up and the sea trade shifted to Liverpool. Although similar cities were either torn down or badly fragmented, Chester retained its identify and its two miles of fortified city walls. One part of its distinctive character is undoubtedly the galleried tiers of shops in the center of town known as "The Rows." Shopping thrives in this traffic-free paradise; jewelers, antique dealers, tobacco shops, restaurants, department stores, etc. Each day at noon and 3 PM the Town Crier loudly makes announcements in the square about local events, sales, and attractions. Just walking around and soaking in the atmosphere was a treat for Joe, and he ended the day sitting in the coolness of the cathedral and listening to an organ concert. The next afternoon, after a short ride to Holyhead, Joe walked aboard the Sea Link Ferry for a three and one-half hour cruise across the Irish Sea to Dublin. Near Heuston station he found a B & B. It was on the fourth floor and the bed must have been old when Joe was young. Never-the-less, after a hearty pub dinner and a couple pints, he managed a smooth night's sleep on a lumpy mattress. The following morning he "joined a band of merry leprechauns" on a train to the southwest and County Kerry. About half way there a man across the aisle saw Joe referring to his travel guides and offered his assistance. It turned out he worked for a branch of the national tourist office and was a veritable fountain of information. They chatted about travel, politics, economics and history. You might gather by this time that this fellow-traveler was not a bashful Irishman -- if indeed there is such a thing! The simple beauty of Killarney warmed Joe's heart so much that without a second thought it became his adopted home. He wound up staying at the "Orchard B & B," run by Mrs. O'Donohoe. There was still time left before dinner, so Joe asked for directions to the lakes. The landlady sent him down the street, past the convent school, to the caretaker's cottage for a grand estate from the past. "Follow the stream from there," she said, "and you'll find the magic lakes in just a short while." Walking downstream, past herds of grazing cattle on green meadows, Joe wandered for about a mile through a friendly forest. The trail began to disappear until finally it was just a faint line in the grass. Then, through the trees he could glimpse water ahead, and a few more yards brought him to the magical shore of Lake Killarney. He sat on the trunk of a moss-covered tree that had fallen long ago and savored the beauty of the lake, with its backdrop of rolling hills reaching to the clouds above. It was easy, he thought,to see why people fell in love with Ireland. Joe discovered later that night that there was no heat in the room, so he bundled up under a sheet, two wool blankets and a comforter, In the morning he awoke with a bass voice and the feeling that a cold was coming on. He decided to eat breakfast out, preferably in a heated coffee shop. As he munched on breakfast the view outside the restaurant in Killarney looked ominous. Police gathered on the corner across the street. Soldiers stood grimly in front of the bank, armed with machine guns! "Good Lord, it's a terrorist attack," he thought. It turned out, thank goodness, that it was the Army delivering money to the local bank -- a safer method, it seems, considering local conditions. The next day Joe bought a ticket for the Ring of Kerry tour. As happens early in the season, not enough people showed up to fill a bus. There was just Joe and a lady from Detroit, with her 28 year old daughter. Joe persisted with the agent, so finally they rounded up a car and driver and took just the three of them on this 132 mile trip. Past marshy areas where they cut up turf (peat) for fuel, past spring lambs forming white dots on green hillsides, they headed around the peninsula to the Bay of Dingle. The sun floated in and out of the clouds as they followed the coastline. After lunch in a small fishing village they continued on until they encountered a wandering shepherd urging his flock across the road. The driver stopped so they could photograph the adorable spring lambs up close. Of course they kept edging away each time the camera was aimed, but finally an anxious ewe made a turn close to the car and they got a quick picture before the flock "took it on the lamb." Going back to Killarney,they stopped for a few minutes to gaze through the Gap of Donloe to the majestic lakes below. The gracious lady from Detroit invited Joe to share late afternoon refreshments at their hotel. Seated on the wide veranda they watched the sunset, toasting the beauty of the present and the somber memories of the past contained in the ancient cemetery and ruined abbey across the road. Mrs. O'Donohoe, God bless her, gave Joe an electric heater for his room, and in spite of a worsening head cold, he spent a comfortable night. Leprechauns arise! It's on to Limerick. Three blocks from the railroad station Joe found a rather bleak B & B, an old four story building. It was strictly managed by two old Irish ladies who were barely four feet tall. Short or not, they weren't in the least intimidated by Joe's six foot, two inch height. There was no doubt as to who was in charge! In the morning, after getting directions from the landladies, he walked through a flower-lined church yard across the street and caught a bus on the other side to Bunratty Castle. It was not, he discovered, a style of castle that most Americans would picture in their mind. Instead it was rectangular in shape and about five stories high, with square towers at each corner. The castle stands on what was formerly an island at the northern bank of the Shannon River. Built in the middle of the 15th century, the lower rooms were used by officers and soldiers. Above them is the main hall, and above that the King's private chambers. Nearby is Dirty Nellie's, a pub built in 1620 and still operating. It was the favorite hangout of soldiers stationed at the castle. In 1959, during the extension of the runway at Shannon Airport, it became necessary to remove an old farmhouse. Subsequently it, and several others from the region, became part of a folk park behind the castle. Joe explored one structure which had been the home of a wealthy farmer from County Clare. It was full of period furniture and it 4 seemed that you were walking into a lived-in house, with the farmer and his family out tending the fields. It even had peat burning in the kitchen fireplace, and fresh-baked scones were on the table. Down the lane from this house Joe watched an old-timer and his teen-age apprentice re-thatching a cottage roof. In these days of artificial roofing it seems a lost art. All in all it was a pleasant day for our wandering gypsy, and he capped it off by visiting an Irish singing pub that night -- mixing sour notes with sweet Guinness stout. Our traveler took a bus north from Limerick to beautiful Galway Bay, and the small suburb of Salthill. After this many days on the road it was time to do laundry before dinner. Then it was out to another singing pub, complete with folk songs and young people dancing Irish reels. After a sound sleep and a hearty breakfast, Joe got a walking map of Galway from the tourist office and set out to explore a city which was founded before the year 1200. For most of its history it was a small city-state, ruled by wealthy merchant princes. At Eyre Square in the center of town is a stone doorway and facade from one of their old mansions, a visual reminder of better days from the past. At Four Corners he found Lynch's Castle. A town castle in the late 15th century, it passed through several hands before finally becoming a branch of the Allied Irish Bank. Nearby on Lombard street is the Lynch Memorial Window, a house facade backing onto the grounds of St. Nicholas Church. It was at this house in 1493 that the mayor, James Lynch FitzStephen, hanged his own son. The son had murdered a visiting Spaniard who had become involved with the son's girlfriend. When townsfolk refuse to convict him, his father hung his son from this window, originating (they claim) the term "Lynch Law." After a leisurely stroll around the harbor, Joe feasted on a lunch of famous Galway Oysters and boarded a train where he napped on the way back to Dublin. Walking is always the best way to see cities, so Joe got a city map which showed how Dublin is divided by the River Liffey. On the north side of the river O'Connell Street serves as a main artery with department stores and hotels on each side. The Old Post Office, a site of violence in the political upheaval years ago, is on O'Connell Street also. South of the river is the "fashionable side," with old mansions, parks, and Trinity College. 5 Founded in 1591 by Queen Elizabeth, Trinity College is the site of an ancient monastery. Its library holds the famous Book of Kells, an 8th century illuminated manuscript. Placed in a glass case in the center of the library, each day the curator turns one page to view. Walking on from the college one passes former homes of Oscar Wilde and W.B. Yeats. It was five hours later when Joe crossed to the north side of the River Liffey. It was time for a bite to eat and a pint of stout in a friendly pub before catching the tram back to his B & B and a well-deserved night's sleep. According to the tourist office inexpensive bus tours were available at the central bus terminal, so the following day Joe set out to tour south of Dublin. His bus rambled down the coastside past Kalkey Harbor, reputed to be one of the smallest in the world, and then inland to Glendalough. In this lovely valley St. Kevin founded a monastic order in the 6th century. They had no cement for construction then, so they assembled the grey stones with a mortar mixture of sand, lake clay and oxen blood! A little cemetery nestles around the stone church, and there's two lovely lakes in the background which form the backdrop for this historical jewel. Further on in the tour the bus passed through the Vale (Valley) of Clara to Avoca. Here two beautiful rivers come together at a place immortalized by a national poet of Ireland, Robert Moore. His poem, "Meeting of the Waters," reveals his feelings about that lovely spot: "There is not in the wide world a valley so sweet, As that vale in whose bosom the bright waters meet. Oh, the last rays of feeling and life must depart Ere the bloom of that valley shall fade from my heart. Sweet vale of Avoca! how calm I could rest, In thy bosom of shade, with friends I love best. Where the storms that we feel in the cold world should cease, And our hearts, like thy waters, be mingled in peace." The next morning Joe skipped breakfast in order to catch the 8 AM ferry back across the Irish Sea to Wales. A short train ride brought 6 him to the small town of Llandudno Junction. He located a nice B & B through a friendly station master at the depot (who also happened to be the uncle of the landlady). Looking across the bay from the village streets he could see Conway Castle, his destination for tomorrow. Walking contentedly in the early morning sunshine, he crossed a milelong causeway and a bridge to magnificent Conway Castle, built in 1290. From its towers one can see the old town encircled by walls. Afterwards Joe wandered through the narrow streets. He looked at one of the first houses built in 1300, and the wealthy merchant houses constructed later. Inside one of the remaining ancient houses he could see the waffle-wall construction (interlaced willow branches daubed with mud) and time-worn floors whose sloping angles reflect the heels of ancient ghosts. Early next day, after a hearty Welsh breakfast, Joe headed for a laundromat. His gracious landlady allowed him to hang his wash along with hers on the backyard line. Then he boarded a bus for the seven mile trip into the mountains to Bodnant Gardens. The great grandfather of the present Lord Aberconway bought the house and estate in 1874. From the main house the grounds slope into a valley lined by a series of terraces which were developed over the years. To aid the family's efforts a Head Gardener was hired in 1920, and he was succeeded by his son in 1947. The gardens now contain more than 80 acres of flowers, trees, and shrubs. Bodnant, it turned out for Joe, was more than an attraction, it was an experience! As he wandered down the paths to the stream at the bottom of the valley, he was overcome by bursts of color, even though it was early in the Spring. A hundred different odors tweaked his nose as he strolled. At the bottom he rested for nearly an hour on a rustic bench, just looking around the valley: watching the giant water wheel turn at the nearby mill. It was a place that tugged at his sleeve when he started to leave, and the most difficult part of the day was to board a bus at the end of the afternoon and leave it all behind. The next day our traveler chugged out of Llandudno on a train whose rails carried him a thousand feet into the Welsh mountains to Blaenau Ffestiniog. The train passed through wooded areas and then past rock-strewn mountainsides. He had come to see what had been the largest slate mine in the world. The little boy in him could hardly wait to explore part of the forty-two miles of tunnels that coursed through the interior of the mountain. Walking from the village he found the old miner's path that leads up to the mine. At the entrance he was invited 7 to join a group of Welsh college students and their instructor, who were also there to tour the mines. The operation had virtually closed down during World War II, but there was still a mill where they produced slate products, and a museum which related stories about "Affairs of Slate." Joe was lucky because one of the oldest retired miners was there to show how slate used to be split by hand for roofing. Afterwards he lead the group through the mine and told how, as a boy of fourteen, he went to work in the mines in 1926. He labored there underground all of his working life. After this marvelous tour with the students and the old miner, Joe explored the quarrymen's cottage and then caught a bus to see a remarkable railroad nearby. The Blaenau Ffestiniog-Porthmadoc Railway, when it first began in 1836, used horses to bring car loads of slate from the mountains to the sea. Thirty years later the first steam engine was introduced to the line and it prospered until the quarries closed in 1946. Soon the tracks were overgrown with weeds and the engines and cars rusted away. In 1954, however, a restoration was begun by Welsh railway buffs. They produced an absolutely marvelous train which hauls tourists down to the coast in summertime. The steam train Joe rode on looked practically new, and as the whistle echoed through the valleys he became another little boy looking excitedly out the windows. From Porthmadoc, the train on the regular line was a monster -- two whole cars long! The first car contained the engineer's cab and first class, with second class in the following car. Joe felt a little guilty sitting alone in first class, uncomfortable with the stares from the packed second-class car. In spite of that, it was a leisurely and very scenic ride down the coast, arriving at the coastal resort of Barmouth in the early evening. The next morning turned out to be Sunday, and everything in town was closed except the church. Undaunted, Joe explored the cliff trails above the village, meeting several silent sheep and a few garrulous hikers eager to share a quiet sabbath. Starting a new week, Joe boarded another abbreviated train and headed south along the coast. In Aberystwyth he found a nice guest house only three blocks from the station. There was even a nice little market nearby where he bought fresh fruit for his lunch. In the afternoon he took the narrow-gauge train through the Vale of Rheidol. The scenery was impressive, but the tracks and equipment were in poor condition, and it made for a bumpy, slow ride through the mountains. Still, it was another adventure for a boy who loved trains. At the end of the line was Devil's Bridge, which spanned a spectacular wooded gorge with waterfalls cascading down the side over huge boulders. The oddity here is that there are three bridges stacked over one another, built over a period of seven hundred years. Wales had been a great adventure, and with glistening eyes Joe boarded the train back into England and the city of Shrewsbury. Superbly set in a huge loop of the Severn River, this beautiful and unspoiled town is famous for its half-timbered buildings and picturesque streets. Downriver from Shrewsbury is Iron Bridge, and it was here that Joe had a chance to observe one of history's important sites. It was here the Industrial Revolution began, with new developments in the production of iron and steel. Spanning the river is a splendid iron bridge that was built in 1779, the first of its kind in the world! (It was used regularly until the late 1930s when they banned auto traffic on it.) Also in the valley are several industrial museums with indoor and outdoor exhibitions. At the Coalbrookdale Museum they not only displayed fancy iron work of the past, but also showed how the use of coke, instead of charcoal, to make steel (along with improved furnaces) heralded the birth of the Industrial Revolution. The world, Joe recalled, was never the same again. On the next leg of his journey Joe spent the night in Bristol and continued on by train to Exeter. Enroute he met a nice English gentleman named Norman Foster; typically British, right down to the pipe and tweed jacket! He and Joe had a spot of tea and talked about American politics, perhaps the most puzzling subject to discuss in the world, other that the theory of relativity. It was only late morning when Joe got settled in Exeter, so he decided to hop the train southeast to the historic city of Plymouth. Assisted by a map from the tourist office, Joe began walking the historic area of the old town section called The Barbican, and the quays along the harbor. He walked where Sir Francis Drake departed and returned when he went around the world. He stood on the stone quay where the Pilgrims rowed out to the Mayflower to sail to America. He even visited the building where they make Plymouth Gin, but to his great chagrin it was closed that day to tours. Plymouth has a modern-looking downtown principally because 75% of the city was destroyed by Nazi bombers in World War II. One place that wasn't damaged was an old fortress called The Citadel. As it turned out this was the first day of their tourist season, and Joe was the first tourist. Consequently he got a red-carpet tour with his own docent guide and just the two of them explored the ancient fort for a couple hours. All of the fort that is, except for the restricted area where they train British commandos! Returning to Exeter Joe had a hearty dinner at his B & B, and a bargain at that. For $4.50 he had a half-chicken, potatoes, gravy, vegetables, tea and a cobbler dessert! (Yes, prices were lower back then!) Bath was Joe's next outing. The city is a spa resort of Georgian terraces, crescents, and squares arranged around spacious landscaped parks. Its fabled waters, the source of the city's prosperity, still bubbles into cisterns and baths built by the Romans some 2,000 years ago. The Roman Baths were his first stop and he wasn't disappointed. A brash young guide, who was a character straight out of "My Fair Lady," cheerily recounted the history of the Baths and the city, right up through modern times. Afterwards Joe did a walking tour of the remainder of the city and came across a curious piece of information. On the wall of an old theater he discovered a plaque honoring some famous actors named Kemble. Who knows, perhaps the ham that is came from the hams that were, with only a minor difference in spelling. Joe moved his headquarters to Leamington Spa, a delightful small town on the north edge of the Cotswolds. Once settled in, he formed an itinerary and set off on a bus to see Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shakespeare was born here in 1564. His childhood home contains an excellent museum related to his life, and the old Guild Hall that housed his school still stands. After he toured these sites, Joe walked along the river Avon. It was a sunny morning, almost too pleasant to be believed. Ducks and swans contentedly paddled through the water. Boats filled with young couples gazing dreamy-eyed at one another drifted along the banks. In a small park nearby a statue of Shakespeare smiled benevolently down at his hordes of admirers, one of whom was Joe. "Nice town, Willy," Joe said, half aloud. "Yeh, a really nice town." The following day was Sunday and train schedules were as thin as a drinking husband's excuses. So, onto another red Midlands bus for a twenty minute jaunt to Warwick Castle. It was a castle different than Joe had previously seen. Its exceptional Norman (and later) structure hides an interior completely rebuilt during the 17th century. The castle is still occupied, but there's access to the state rooms. There was beautiful furniture in all the rooms, and the decor, partly reflecting the Victorian era, was warm and inviting. Another area he visited was less warm, and certainly less inviting -- the dungeons. 10 There was a torture rack and all kinds of devices guaranteed to produce excruciating pain (somewhat reminiscent of compulsory attendance at city council meetings). Arriving back in Leamington Spa in the late afternoon, it seemed like a good idea to walk through the park along the river. And a good idea it was. The flowers were absolutely gorgeous, and families were out on their Sunday strolls, complete with babies and perambulators. With such pleasant surroundings images of the dungeons just visited soon faded. At his "digs," the Westella Hotel,four elderly ladies were chatting in the lounge. Sinking into an easy chair Joe hid behind his newspaper for a few minutes, but soon they were asking him questions about America and his travels. Two and one-half hours and two pots of tea later they finally ran out of questions and went upstairs to take a nap. Whew! Carlisle became the next central point from which Joe would explore the area near the Scottish border. During the Roman occupation Carlisle was a strategic center of the frontier that separated the largely Romanized peoples of the south from the wild northern tribes. Incursions from the north finally resulted in construction of Hadrian's Wall, but more about that later. A baggage man at the station directed Joe to the Sherwood Hotel about two and one-half blocks from the station. The front of the place looked pretty tacky but he discovered the back half had been remodeled by its owner and proprietor, Miss Skelton. Joe had barely settled in when Miss Skelton brought him tea and biscuits. (Those young ones - over 65 - really go for Joe!) Since it was a Bank Holiday everything was closed, so he just walked around getting his bearings, locating the Post Office, banks, tourist office, etc. The day ended in an Indian restaurant with a hot curry dinner that during the night reminded Joe again and again how good, and how spicy, it was. Joe had seen the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian during a previous trip to Italy. Now it was time to see one of his accomplishments, Hadrian's Wall, in what is now England. He took a little diesel train from Carlisle, east to Bardon Mill, then walked to the site of Vindolanda, a former Roman fort and small town. From there it was a two mile walk to the site of the Wall. Hadrian ordered the construction of a defensive wall seventy three miles long to keep marauders from the north from invading the largely pacified territory to the south. It was a major engineering achievement, plotted from one natural 11 advantage to the next. It was built of the materials most readily available --stone in the east and turf in the west. Along its length were twenty or more major forts, with milecastles and signal towers in between. Getting there sounds relatively easy, but it was all uphill and down for Joe. The last two miles were "as the crow flies and the cow walks." Finally there, he sat down on a rock and read more about the history of the place for about half an hour, and then foraged through his duffel bag for lunch -- Scottish apples, English cheddar cheese, and a little French cognac to wash it down. He stretched out on his back and from his little hillock was able to see a panorama stretching from the winding path of the Wall to the cloud-filled heavens above -- just he and the ghost of Hadrian sleepily looking at history. Despite loud protests from his feet, he finally got up and slowly moved his creaking joints through the meadows back towards his starting point. Amid stares and funny sounds from sheep and cattle, Joe shouted across the hills, "Goodbye Hadrian, goodbye to your 13,000 soldiers and 5,000 cavalrymen, goodbye to your Wall. Next time I'm near Carlisle I'll look you up." The next morning brought a pleasant surprise. Miss Skelton not only returned the shirts he'd asked to be laundered, she ironed them! What a dear. Today it was south on the main rail line to Oxenholme, then another shortline to Windemere. After getting a map at the tourist office, Joe walked the one and one-half miles down to Bowness on Lake Windemere. Since his Brit Rail pass was honored on the lake steamers, he hopped aboard to go to Ambleside at the north end of the lake. Windemere, one of the most beautiful lakes in England, is the largest of the many lakes in this region. It is ten and one-half miles long and one mile wide, with a number of charming little islands. Joe walked through the small village of Ambleside, enjoying the sight of stone cottages and a couple signs reading, "Caution, Duck Crossing." On the leisurely cruise back, Joe munched on his "bag lunch" comprised of New Zealand apples, double-Gloucester cheese, washed down with London ale. You may have to travel cheaply, but you don't have to eat poorly! Joe bade a fond farewell to Miss Skelton and Carlisle. Now it was time to cross the Scottish border and the 100 mile per hour train got him into Edinburgh in a short time. Scotland's largest city and its capital since 1437, it stands on seven hills between the waters of the Firth of Forth and the 2,000 foot summits of the Pentlands mountains. He arranged for a room through the tourist office next to the train station. It was the first office he'd encountered that was computerized. You request the kind of lodging and price range, and after paying your fee you get a printout with the necessary information. A ten minute bus ride got him to a quiet sidestreet and a three-story guest house. (Yes, Joe got the top floor again.) Quickly checking in, Joe hopped a bus back downtown just in time to go on the Grand Tour. First stop was Holyroodhouse, Scotland's finest royal palace. They were able to walk through the ruins of the 12th century Chapel Royal adjoining the palace, and the palace courtyard, but couldn't tour inside because someone from the royal family was in residence. Next was St. Giles Cathedral, mother church of the Presbyterian faith (1243 AD). Then came Robert Lewis Stevenson's home, the churchyard where little Greyfriars Bobby pined away for his master, and finally The Grassmarket, formerly the site for public executions and now a Bohemian quarter. Two stops remained: Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano above the city, and Edinburgh Castle which overlooks the picturesque streets of the Old Town from its lofty summit. The castle has a history of at least 1,000 years and is quite interesting to explore. After the tour Joe walked the length of the Royal Mile, the main business thoroughfare along Princess Street, which runs from Castle Rock to Holyroode Castle. He was tempted to buy a kilt, but windy drafts along the streets quickly killed the idea. After a long sleep in a short bed (causing him to change rooms) Joe was ready to train northward to a fabled castle in the highlands, Blair Castle. Enroute the train crossed over the Firth of Forth to Fife. Try that on your clarinet! Since he wasn't with a tour, Joe had to hoof the two miles from the train station to the estate's entrance. It was well worth it. The center of a 135,000 acre estate, the castle in Tayside has been the fortress home of the earls and dukes of Atholl since the 13th century. The main entry hall has a magnificent collection of ancient arms displayed on the beautifully paneled walls surrounding the two-story staircase. Starting on the second level Joe wandered wideeyed through 32 rooms of handsome furniture, paintings, tapestries and sculptures. One high point was the main dining room which had a solid silver stag about twenty inches high as the centerpiece. Nearby were storage rooms for the place settings, kept in floor-to-ceiling glass-doored cabinets. The guide noted that the family could use a different china and silver servoce for every meal for at least two weeks before repeating a pattern! The few days in Edinburgh were hardly enough, and Joe knew he had to return some day. Time, however, was winding down in his six week odyssey, so he climbed aboard another train and head south along the eastern coast to York. The coastal scenery was a welcome change from the rolling hills and highlands of the past week. As the train got closer to York, glancing out the window seemed like scenes from "All Creatures Great and Small." The greenery of the fields was so intense it hurt his eyes. Joe's luggage cart died a warrior's death in Edinburgh, beaten to death, as it were, by too many cobblestone streets and high curbs. The six block walk to the tourist office and the additional four block walk to the guest house showed Joe just how much he missed his dearly departed cart. Once settled in it was time for a stroll about town. York was a capital under the Romans in 71 AD. It has had a long and important historical role and is still the chief city of northern England. He started out walking atop the old city walls to gain a visual perspective of the various historic sites. The walls complete a three mile circuit around the medieval boundaries of the city. Perhaps its greatest glory is the magnificent Minster cathedral which towers over the old town. It is the largest gothic cathedral north of the Alps, and its fine windows contain more than half of all the medieval glass surviving in Britain. Nearby Joe visited St. Williams College, founded around the time Columbus sailed to the New World. Next was the Shambles, York's best known and preserved medieval street. It's a narrow cobblestone street, with buildings on each side so close that it looks like you could lean out a window and touch the place across the street! Like other wide-eyed tourists he also climbed to the to the top of Clifford's Tower, all that remains of a stone castle built to replace one of two Norman wooden castles on either side of the river. The highlight of his day, other than the gorgeous weather was his visit to the Castle Museum. The museum's founder was a doctor who collected things while visiting his patients in rural Yorkshire at the turn of the century. His goal was to preserve items from the Victorian era for succeeding generations to see. The city turned the old Female Prison and the Debtors Jail into a museum and filled it with his collection of everyday things from the life of country people -- farmers, craftsmen, shopkeepers, and others. In one part of the museum they built a cobblestone street called Kirkgate (named after the founder, Dr. John Kirk). It's lined with old shops and stores, complete with authentic merchandise of the day. It even has a hansom cab with mannequin driver and passengers, pulled by a life-like stuffed 14 horse. The period rooms in the museum range from a neoclassical Georgian dining room to a Victorian parlor, to a sitting room in a English house from the 1950s. Joe spent two hours going through the museum, enjoying every minute. He wound up the day with a walk along the river at sunset; tired but feeling good about the sights and sounds of York. The next morning was Sunday, so Joe slept in a little later than usual. He just made the breakfast deadline, however, and then walked around the corner to a news agent to purchase his London Telegraph. About 11 AM he walked to the Minster and sat quietly in the pews listening to the choir and giant organ. He'd heard that a special bus to Castle Howard left nearby at 12:45, so he got in line at 12:30. At 1:10 the bus still hadn't arrived, so Joe said, "To heck with it, I've seen my share of castles this week anyhow." Instead he went to the National Railway Museum and spent the next three hours looking at antique locomotives, passenger cars, and luxurious private rail cars (including one for Queen Victoria). Afterwards he just strolled around town and along the river like a thousand other tourists, enjoying a peaceful, relaxed Sunday afternoon. He had roast beef and Yorkshire pudding for dinner and earned the undying gratitude of his feet by going to bed early. Now it was south along the eastern coast to Peterborough. His usual luck in finding quarters near the train station didn't hold this time. His new digs were ten long blocks away. After getting directions from the landlord, he took a bus downtown where he got information and a map from the tourist office. Peterborough has over 100,000 people and it's expected to reach 300,000 in twenty years with its planned new developments. It's an hour from London by train and consequently is a suburban haven for those working there. Well, if you're any kind of a man-boy, you can't visit this region and not go to Nottingham. A couple blocks from the train station Joe asked a traffic warden directions to the tourist office. Believe me, with him on duty they didn't need a tourist office! He explained how all the sights were close to where we were standing, and if I went to the tourist office I'd just have to walk back. He then proceeded to give me a ten minute history lesson in the middle of the street, with traffic whizzing by on both sides. It seems the growth of this ancient city was influenced by the Saxons, Danes, and Normans, but it was the industrial revolution that made it into a thriving commercial center famous for fine lace. Commerce was aided by access to the River Trent, on which manufactured goods flowed to its customers. Now it's a thriving city 15 of over 280,000 with huge enclosed shopping malls, pedestrian malls, and a free bus service that circles the business district. The town castle, built and rebuilt many times in many wars, now houses a Robin Hood Museum and an art gallery. Seeing Nottingham accomplished half Joe's mission. The other part was to see Sherwood Forest. A forty-five minute bus ride through pleasant countryside took Joe to the small village of Edwinstowe. From there it was a 1/4 mile walk to the Park Center. The original forest, 700 years ago, spread from Nottingham to Worksop, punctuated by tiny villages and busy market towns. Today most of the old forest is farmland, the tiny villages have grown into busy communities, and the market towns into industrial centers. Now Sherwood Forest is reduced to about 450 acres of oak and birch. From the park center numerous hiking trails branch out in several directions. Joe's imagination, and memory, was working overtime as he walked through the woods to the Major Oak, a tree six feet in diameter. It was here that Robin and his Merry Men gathered. If you sort of half-closed your eyes you could envision Friar Tuck and Little John just around a curve in the approaching trail. And, of course, the evil Sheriff of Nottingham and his motley crew were hiding in the shadows in the next grove of trees. Egad, what an experience to recreate that memorable tale of childhood! At the end of the afternoon Joe walked back to the village to catch the 4:30 bus. Well, it never came. An old fellow and his Shelty dog came by and could sense Joe was a stranded stranger. He sat down on the bus bench and struck up a friendly conversation. He told how he had retired from the nearby colliery (coal mine) where he'd worked since the age of thirteen; and his father and his grandfather before him. He and Joe talked for over an hour -- he stayed to make sure another bus came. Joe suspected that if he'd missed the last bus, the old gent would have offered to put him up for the night. It was nearly 9 PM before Joe got back to Peterborough. He stopped at a pub near the guest house where he bumped into one of his fellow boarders. Shamus, it seems, was in the construction trade and had worked in San Francisco and Fresno in years past. It proved to be an interesting conversation, although Joe found out you do a lot of listening when they're Irish. The following day, Joe discovered, was a national labor protest day, one of many during that particular time. It was supposed to involve all unions, including transportation. On the 8 AM news they said auto traffic was "trick-backed" (backed up) for five miles on each major motorway. That meant that trains were probably cancelled also, so it would be a good day to catch up on the laundry. After doing laundry Joe telephoned John Bell, a Canadian he and his wife had met on a prior trip. John is a professor, and was teaching and doing research on a fellowship at Cambridge University. He invited Joe to spend the weekend with his family at Cambridge. After lunch Joe decided to take a last look at Peterborough and with his tourist office walking map covered all fifteen major points of interest in town. About four o'clock he took time out for tea and biscuits, and then --- and then --- he went to the Circus! The tourist bureau had given him a half-price ticket and he used it for a seat in the first row, right next to the performing ring! He sat so close he could almost reach out and touch the animals. "Gosh, Ma, did I ever have a good time!" he said to himself. After a light dinner he stopped at an Irish pub near his guest house. It seemed that every Irish expatriate in Peterborough had found this place. In one part of the bar room they were playing darts, and another group were playing cards at tables along one wall. There was a noisy pool game on the other side. Four old Irishmen were playing cribbage with dominoes in the corner. A couple more were playing a slot machine in the center of the room, and the bar was full at the other end. All were chattering away like a flock of Irish magpies. It was almost like seeing another circus! Joe discovered the next morning that the unions were satisfied for the moment by their national show of solidarity, and the trains were running on time again. He thought it would be interesting to see the East Anglia area of England. His train took him first to Norwich. He could see along the way that a lot of marshland had been reclaimed over the years and and converted into flat, fertile fields. Views from the train window changed constantly as fields fluctuated from dark plowed areas, to bright green fields, to bursts of vibrant yellow in mustard fields. In Norwich he found a city with ten centuries of traditions and historic associations. England's second largest city, it has a landscape of church spires. dominated by a medieval cathedral. Nearby is an area called The Broads; 10,000 acres of rich wildlife and quiet villages along two hundred miles of tranquil (man-made) rivers. In Norwich's downtown Joe found the post office had a philatelic office, so he purchased some special issue packets for a friend back home. He also got duplicate copies for himself of the issues: Police, British Birds, and the old Manchester railway. One of the locales Joe had read about in his guide book was the Bishop's palace, now part of King Edward VI School. As he wandered through the building and grounds it was a nice feeling to be following in footsteps left by some of its celebrated pupils: Horatio, Lord Nelson, and the famous linguist and writer, John Cotman. After a brief respite in the coolness of the cathedral (built in 1096), a Ploughman's lunch at a corner pub sated Joe's hunger and he boarded the train again, enroute to Ipswich. Ipswich is one of the oldest towns in England, dating back to Anglo- Saxon 10th century. Designated as a "heritage town," it has a wealth of medieval buildings, including a dozen ancient churches. As he strolled through the old town Joe passed the Great White House Hotel, described by Dickens in the "Pickwick Papers." Ancient houses in the area had splendid examples of 15th century pargetting, a kind of decorative exterior plasterwork for which the region is famous. He also visited Christchurch Mansion, set in a park in the central part of Ipswich. As he strolled through the furnished rooms he was struck by the similarity of rooms and furniture he had seen in our own Williamsburg. It was like visiting the homes of early Britains before they became "Americans" in the New World. Joe caught a commuter train back to Peterborough in the early evening, traveling through the trees and rolling hills common to Ipswich area. It was late in the evening when he got back to the guest house, but he'd had an entirely satisfying day. Now it was on to Cambridge! After arriving Joe called Judy Bell for directions to their home, discovering that unfortunately it was over ten blocks from the train station. The Bells had two children, boys aged three and four. They looked like angels and behaved like devils, not too different from a lot of American kids. John Bell came home for lunch and Joe walked back with him to his lab. Enroute they talked about their respective travels since they'd last met in Amsterdam. Joe spent the afternoon exploring Cambridge. He found that the university is a federation of individual colleges. The first students came from Oxford in 1284 when Peterhouse College was founded. Most of the colleges date from the Middle Ages, but there are a few contemporary ones, including the Churchill College built in 1961. The grey-stone buildings are best seen from The Backs, an area along the River Cam at the rear of the major colleges. The most spectacular is 18 King's College. Its chapel is known as "the finest flower of late Gothic in Europe." The fan vaulting ceilings and exquisite stained glass are incredible to see. While walking around, Joe bumped into the ghosts of Oliver Cromwell, Christopher Marlowe, the poet Milton, Samuel Pepys, and others. Mumbling apologies, he started to cross one of the quadrangles and discovered that only the faculty may walk across the lawns! He also discovered that there is a small bar at the entrance of each dining hall where one can imbibe before their meal. "God," he said to himself, "I'd hate to teach afternoon classes here." Back at the Bells' residence, Joe opened a bottle of wine he'd bought for his hosts, and after dinner they and another faculty couple went to a couple pubs for an evening's entertainment. Joe was quite pleased with the evening, having the opportunity to meet and talk with a lot of students and faculty. In one pub, with wall-to-wall people, Joe found his way to the Loo (bathroom) blocked by an attractive young lady. Eager to test British humor, Joe asked her if she was in charge of the Loo. She replied, "Yes, of course I am." Joe then asked, "Does that make you the loo-tenant in charge?" Response....a blank stare. It must be said that several pints of strong ale also contributed to his evening's happiness. About 3 AM the ale woke Joe up and said it was time to go to the "loo." It was not a situation with an easy solution. The flat was two-storied and his room (which normally was occupied by the two little boys) was at the top of a steep flight of stairs. They had put a child's gate across the top of the stairs at night as a safety factor for the boys, but unfortunately had forgotten to tell Joe. He barked his shins on the gate, nearly flying down the steep stairs before he became aware of the barrier. He couldn't find the latch on the gate, and as he fumbled in the dark the ale kept reminding him he'd better get downstairs without further delay. Finally, in desperation, he climbed over it, almost impaling himself in the process and nearly vaulting down to the loo instead of tip-toeing quietly in the nighttime. Completing the round-trip without further mishap was a pleasant relief indeed. Up at 7 AM, bright and somewhat bleary-eyed, Joe climbed over the gate again (this time he could see it) and shuffled downstairs for his bath and shave before the household awakened. John had a lab experiment to check on, so after breakfast Joe walked with him to his college and then resumed his walk-around tour. The term "college" is really a misnomer, because the pictures Americans see of Cambridge (and Oxford) are really of the dormitories. The lecture halls and labs are in other structures in a separate area of the town center. In any event, they're dorms like Joe had never seen before. On the street side they're built to the edge of the sidewalk with thick, ivy-covered stone walls, replete with carvings and gargoyles (and garboys) at the roof lines, looking altogether like an English mansion of huge proportions. Entering an arched gateway, one passes a porter's office and on into a great, grassy courtyard. Behind that square is another and often bigger landscaped lawn, often with a fountain. Most of the colleges also have a formal garden, a couple of which are really outstanding. Everywhere you go there are students on bicycles, pedalling to their next class (or the corner pub). In the afternoon Joe and his adopted family drove through the countryside to Lavenham, England's most complete surviving example of a medieval town. The center of this small town (2,000 people) focuses on the market place atop the hill, with a timber-framed 16th century guildhall which features an exhibition on the woolen industry through the ages. The Swan Hotel, a superb 14th century coaching inn, is still in use. Strolling around the town one could see marvelous examples of half-timbered houses (some leaning at precarious angles) and buildings with beautiful pargetting designs. To make it complete, the weather was lovely. (In the morning paper Joe read that London had had seven consecutive days of sunshine for the first time in 51 years!) Joe and the Bell family made one stop before returning to Cambridge. They paused briefly in the town of Bury St. Edmunds. The abbey there was one of Europe's greatest, according to the Bells, so Joe looked around for some kind of magnificent structure inside the walled property. What he found at one end of a large lawn area was ruins of a wall of the original structure. Other than that, all that remained of the cathedral was the concrete outlines of the foundation. According to the Bells, at one point in time the congregation rebelled against the orders of the church and in protest simply burned the place to the ground. Well, if you don't like the Bishop, that's one sure way to irritate him! As a special treat the nest morning Mrs. Bell fixed Joe Kippers for breakfast. Not a "fish fan" in site of his Nordic heritage, he politely demurred, trying at the same time not to "barf," and asked for bacon and eggs. He decided that a Sunday would be a quiet time to travel, so after warm goodbyes to the Bells, he entrained to Woking, on the main rail line, just thirty minutes south of London. He located a nice little hotel, the Crosslee, just two blocks from the rail station. It cost more than he had previously been paying, but after checking his money supply he decided to spurge for the last ten days and pay the requested $16.00 a day (including breakfast.) He took an orientation walk around the town center, purchased the London Sunday Times, and went back to his digs to wash some things. Ah, a traveler's laundry never ends! A veteran of World War II, Joe could never forgive himself if he visited England and didn't see the White Cliffs of Dover. It was a bright sunshine day when Joe caught the fast Inter-City train into London, and then on to Dover, a bustling port known as the "gateway to England." The Romans called the town Dubris, and over the centuries it has been subjected to many attacks and invasions. Richard the Lion-Hearted embarked on his third crusade from here. The town's castle withstood a siege by Louis VIII of France in 1216 and in so doing most likely saved England from French rule. Joe toured the castle and climbed to the top of the keep (tower) from which he could view the harbor and the English Channel. On a clear day, he was told, one could see the French coast. He inspected the Roman lighthouse below the castle and then walked a short distance to view the towering chalk cliffs which bound the harbor on both sides. Looking around to be sure he wasn't heard, Joe belted out two choruses of "There'll Be Bluebirds Over the White Cliffs of Dover," a hit song during World War II. An appreciative audience of seagulls squeaked their approval, and Joe walked back to the train station with a big smile as he hummed other songs from his Hit Parade of memories. On the way back to London Joe stopped off at Canterbury, a city known to have been inhabited centuries before the birth of Christ. With its magnificent cathedral it has been the spiritual center of Christianity in England ever since the arrival in 597 of St. Augustine (who became the first Archbishop of England). As Joe walked through its streets, he elbowed his way through crowds of ghosts from the past; Julius Caesar, Chaucer, Becket, Richard the Lionhearted, the kings and queens of Kent, and innumerable archbishops of the holy, and sometimes not so holy, cloth. The centerpiece of the city is undoubtedly its Cathedral. Its foundation dates back to the time of Augustine, but the earliest part of the existing building is the great Romanesque crypt built in 1100. The structure built over this was destroyed by fire in 1174, only four years after the murder of Becket in the northwest transept (because of his denial of the king's authority over the church). It was almost immediately replaced with a 21 magnificent building, the first Gothic style church erected in England. The sheer size of the cathedral is overwhelming. In addition, it had the loveliest stained glass windows that Joe had ever seen. Many of the rare stained glass sections depicts miracles performed by Becket. It's something of a miracle that the windows escaped Henry VIII's agents of destruction as well as Hitler's bombs (part of the cathedral was hit during WW II). Joe stretched in bed as the morning light peeked through the curtains of his hotel. He could hear the sound of patter wasn't little feet, it was rain. Faithful to the mail carrier's creed, Joe didn't let the rain daunt his tourist's curiosity, and he left after breakfast to see Oxford. The city pre-dates the university, existing as early as 912 AD, when it was known as "Oxenforde," a spot where oxen and people could cross the river. The university began as a cluster of religious communities before the Norman Conquest. As he toured some of the colleges he noted that here, as at Cambridge, the student dining rooms looked like a movie set, with statues, flags and plaques on the walls, long wooden tables, and china service set for each student. Joe wasn't as impressed with Oxford as he had been with Cambridge. Perhaps it was the rain, or perhaps because it was a much larger city, the ambience was different. In any event, it provided an interesting day and another piece of history observed first-hand and up close. Since Joe had been a sailor during the war (albeit a sailor on a submarine) he thought it would be neat to journey to Portsmouth, the port linked throughout its history with the Royal Navy. Charles Dickens' father worked for the navy, and the novelist was born here. Located seventy miles south of London, German bombers in WW II virtually leveled the city, hitting about nine-tenths of its buildings. It was from here on June 6, 1944 that Allied troops, in what was known as Operation Overlord, set sail to invade occupied France. What Joe wanted to see in particular was the Lord Nelson Museum and his ship, the HMS Victory. The museum was fascinating, crammed with Nelson memorabilia of his exploits at sea as well as his occasional journeys into Lady Hamilton's bed chambers! There was a large-scale panorama of the Battle of Trafalgar, which made the event much clearer than had high school history books. Another great part of the exhibition was a large number of figureheads from the bows of old sailing ships. Each had been meticulously restored and painted in the bright colors they bore when the ships were first launched. Mounted on a the dock next to the museum was the HMS Victory, Nelson's 104-gun first-rate ship of the line. It was on this ship during the Battle of Trafalgar that Nelson defeated the combined Spanish and French fleets, and paid the price with his life. Now modern-day sailors of the Royal Navy take tour groups aboard the Nelson, describing its history and how it operated. Unfortunately, in Nelson's day the average sailor was only 5'-4" tall, and they built the overhead accordingly. When Joe took his 6'-2" frame below deck he did most of the tour in his "Quasimodo position." He loved it anyhow, and let his imagination run wild as he "fired" the cannons poking through their ports. It was all he could do to restrain himself later when the group went back on the main deck again as the rigging of the tall masts tried to lure him aloft. From Portsmouth it was only a short train ride to Arundel. This small and beautiful town nestles at the foot of one of the most spectacular castles in all of England. Near the Arun River is the ancient and muchrestored Arundel Castle, home of the Dukes of Norfolk for over 700 years. Joe trudged up to the main entrance, crossing the moat into a castle rich in furnishing and art treasures. It had the loveliest Italian marble stair cases Joe had ever seen. It was like walking through a fairy tale, expecting to see handsome knights and fair ladies traversing the long marble corridors to the great hall. Arundel, in Joe's mind, became the standard of comparison for castles in Britain. It was difficult to leave and return to the 20th century. "Good Lord," thought Joe. "It's Thursday already. Where has the week gone? Not only that, where has the six weeks allotted for this trip gone? Only a few days remain and there's so much more to see. What's next on my schedule? It's Brighton. I hope it's worth the trip to see. Brighton, 53 miles south of London, was one of the first great seaside resorts of Europe as the result of the 18th century health fad for sea bathing. After the 21-year old Prince of Wales (later George IV) took up residence here in 1783, the town became the summer camp of the king and his rich and fashionable entourage. Beau Brummel and other dandies of the day turned Brighton into something of a swinging town. Joe had seen a British television series on the Prince of Wales and wanted to see the Royal Pavilion built for the prince in 1787 by Henry Holland. He was not disappointed. The Royal Pavilion is a magnificent Oriental-style palace, patiently and meticulously restored 23 over the years by its present owners, the City of Brighton. It started off as a farmhouse which the prince had enlarged and converted into an elegantly classical building. When an architect was commissioned to do an expansion, he designed the interior to indulge the prince's taste for Chinese decoration. It became a unique architectural fantasy. After the prince became king he visited Brighton less and less. In subsequent years his highly expensive whim was not appreciated by Queen Victoria who sold the pavilion to the city in 1849 and placed the furniture in storage in London. In this century, as the English began to discover more glamorous spots on the continent, Brighton fell on hard times. During WW II the pavilion served as an army hospital, and fell into disrepair following the war. The city, through public fund-raisers, was eventually able to retrieve much of the original furniture from storage and resume their restoration program. The results that Joe saw were absolutely smashing! Joe didn't see much of the rest of the city other than walking a short distance along the boardwalk amusement area. Then he boarded the train in mid-afternoon to see Knole Mansion on the way back to Woking. When Joe got off the train in SevenOaks he learned the mansion was over two miles from town, so he took a cab. The long road from the entrance of the estate to the mansion was 1 1/2 miles long. Bordered by beautiful trees, landscaping and grazing deer, it provided a marvelous view. The mansion, one of the largest private houses in England, was begun in 1456 by Thomas Bourchier, Archbishop of Canterbury. It was later given by Elizabeth I to her cousin, the poet Sackville. It's been the home of the Sackville family for over three hundred years. The present owners gave the estate to the National Trust, but have retained apartments on each side of the mansion. Joe toured the grounds and state apartments, somewhat disappointed with the condition of the furnishings and general lack of restoration. Ready to return to SevenOaks, Joe had problems solving the mystery of British telephones. One of the docents said she was returning to town and asked, "How large a party are you?" Joe, deadpanned, "Well, Mam, I'm about 230 pounds...." "Oh no my dear boy, I mean..." she stammered. "Oh dash it all, you're pulling my leg, aren't you?" They both had a good laugh and talked non-stop on the way back to town. It was time for something a bit different in Joe's oddysey. His choice was Britain's greatest flower show, the Chelsea Spring Flower Show in London. Gigantic circus tents are erected on the grounds of 24 the Chelsea Hospital by the sponsoring charity, and florists and flowergrowers from all over England and the continent bring their best for exhibition. Joe arrived early at 9:30 AM when the place was only halffull. He wandered through the mammoth displays for over two hours, jaws agape, feasting on the sights, colors and smells that titillated his senses. He quite frankly had never seen its equal in his life; so much so that he took slide after slide with his camera, hoping to capture the beauty so he could share it with his family at home. When he left he got an added bonus. Across the street from the hospital the Irish Guard were drilling in full uniform on the grounds of an army base, complete with a military band playing martial tunes. It seems they were rehearsing for the upcoming birthday of the Queen. Next stop was Windsor Castle, about an hour east of London. Joe used the time on the train to refresh his memory. It was William the Conqueror who founded a castle on a hill overlooking the Thames. The present castle, built on the site of earlier fortifications, became a royal residence in Henry the I's reign. It encompasses thirteen acres within its walls. Tourists like Joe approach the castle from the town center. At the base of the hill is St. George's Chapel, one of the finest church buildings of its kind in England. One proceeds up the paving-stone drive to the castle entrance where tickets are sold. The first exhibit inside, near the terrace of the state apartments, is Queen Mary's Dolls' House . The doll house, which is over five feet high, was given to Queen Mary by the nation in 1923 and is overflowing with miniature delights. It's a replica of a mansion in the 1920s, complete in every detail from the plumbing to the electric lights -- all of which are in working order. Joe was particularly fascinated by the garage filled with perfect scale-model cars, motorcycles and vans. The State Apartments are filled with treasures ranging from china and glass, paintings, arms and armour, to tapestry, furniture and royal regalia. As Joe wandered from area to area (under the watchful eyes of attendants) his imagination worked overtime picturing the famous figures of history and contemporary times who had walked the same path as he. It was an incredible place to see. Time was running out and Joe wanted to spend some time just wandering around London. For background he went to see "The London Experience," a multi-media show which tells the history of London. It uses seven screens, with synchronized slide and movie projectors forming a giant picture of events. He then walked along the Strand and paid a sentimental visit to Ye Old Cheshire Cheese Pub, where he and his wife had lunched on their first trip to London. On to Covent Gardens where Professor discovered Eliza Doolittle, then an unguided tour of St. Paul's Cathedral. St. Paul's is truly an architectural masterpiece. After the Great Fire of 1666, which destroyed most of the Norman-Gothic cathedral, Christopher Wren designed the new cathedral as the centerpiece for a whole new plan for the city. Under construction for 36 years, the last stone of the dome was set in place by Wren's 79 year-old son. It was damaged during WW II, but saved from destruction by a special corps of fire-watchers. It's been the setting of many big state occasions, including the funerals of Nelson, Wellington, and Churchill. Joe explored every nook and cranny, but resisted the urge to climb to the top of the dome after he learned it was 528 steps each way! After having seen Covent Gardens in passing, it was only fitting that he relive the story by seeing the musical, My Fair Lady. He was lucky in getting a cancelled ticket to the 4 PM matinee just before showtime. What a joyful show --- Joe could barely hold back singing the songs along with the cast. During intermission he struck up a conversation with the couple next to him. They were from South Africa, on holiday in England, and a delight to converse with. Joe didn't sing in the theater, but he did sing all the way across Waterloo Bridge, on his way to the train for Woking. The next day was Sunday and time for a pleasant unhurried excursion. First was Hampton Court, on the Thames. Walking across the river from the train station, Joe could see hundreds of Londoners out on their boats for the day. There was everything from rowboats to yachts! Hampton Court proved to be quite unique. Built by a cardinal (Wolsley) in 1515, its splendor attracted the attention of a jealous king (Henry the VIII) who thereupon seized it for himself. The present building houses many historical and art treasures, and as a result of past re-building is a remarkable marriage of the Tudor and English Renaissance styles. It also has two unusual things: the first indoor tennis courts, and a giant grapevine in a greenhouse that was planted in 1768 and is still alive! Back in London, Joe joined weekend strollers past Westminster, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace, finally to Hyde Park and Speaker's Corner. A corner of the park has been designated a place of public debate since 1872. Orators bring short step ladders or boxes to stand on, and begin making outrageous statements on a particular theme to 26 attract a crowd. Once they have their attention, they'd launch into a long and often brilliant exposition of their cause and/or beliefs. Joe was fascinated. It was a people-watcher's paradise, and he'd never heard so many brilliant speakers in one place in his life. Admittedly some were a little (?) weird, but it was most entertaining, particularly when hecklers would challenge their positions. Exciting, controversial, it got the juices flowing! Only three days left to explore, and the next day was a Bank Holiday. What are good places to go? How about The British Museum and The Tower of London? The British Museum contains one of the world's greatest collections of historical treasures. With exhibits ranging from the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon to library exhibits of the Magna Carta and Shakespeare's First Folio, it becomes addictive to the unsuspecting visitor. One visit won't do it, Joe found out too late. He partly regretted going because what little he saw simply whetted his appetite for more days to see it all. He finally tore away after a half day of browsing and went on to the Tower of London. The Tower was begun as a fortress by William the Conqueror in 1066. It was added to over the centuries and was used as a royal residence, prison, and place of execution. (Its last prisoner was Rudolph Hess in WW II.) Joe whiled away the afternoon seeing the treasury and jewel house, mint, armoury and museum. All are attended by the brightly costumed Yeoman Warders known as the "Beefeaters." Throughout the grounds are ominous black ravens. It's believed that if these leave, the Tower will fall and England will be doomed. Consequently they're treated quite well. Even Joe threw them a snack before leaving! Two days left! Joe was getting a bit weary as his six week journey was ending, so he decided to do some fun things that didn't involve trips of long duration. Checking his guides he found that it was only a nine mile trip on the Underground to one of the country's premier botanical gardens, Kew Gardens. Under royal patronage the gardens grew in size and splendor from the 17th century onward. In 1772 they were landscaped by Lancelot Capability Brown, and in 1841 the 300 acre gardens were given to the nation, both as a park and as a scientific institution. Getting off at the Richmond stop, he discovered the gardens were a real haven for a weary tourist to find peace and solitude among hundreds of other inquisitive souls. There were interesting buildings, such as the Kew Palace, a Jacobean mansion by the river, but the real pleasure of the place was to wander through the paths and greenhouses. And, of course, there was the magnificent arboretum containing species of palm trees from all over the world. To Joe's delight there were wrought iron circular stairs at some points which enabled him to climb high enough to examine the very tops of the palms! Walking along the garden pathways, he discovered the landscapers had thoughtfully created seclusion areas with one or two benches. You could be only a dozen feet from the main path, but you were so sheltered by high shrubs and trees it was as though you were in another world. Joe gratefully accepted the solitude, his mind registering the colors that caressed his eyes, delighting in the songs of birds and insects that wafted by his ears. It was a reluctant Joe who, after about three hours, retraced his steps to the entrance and headed for the Underground back to London. Back in London Joe decided to do some final shopping. His first stop was Selfridges, on Oxford Street. He'd heard it was one of the largest department stores in Europe, and it was -- more than 550 divisions, selling everything from flowers to groceries. From there it was on to the shopper's mecca, Harrods! Rather hard to describe -- it's the department store to end all department stores. It covers at least one full city block, and has about six floors, each a complete specialty store in itself. In a small sidestreet at one end is a very long line of Rolls Royces, with liveried chauffeurs awaiting their wealthy employers who are inside shopping, desperately trying to reach the limit on their husband's credit cards. Joe took the lift to the top floor and leisurely wandered down through each floor, looking with great interest at items he never in his wildest imagination could afford. The most interesting section to him, however, was the tiled market section, with a fancy cathedral ceiling looking down at a variety of vendors below. There were fresh fish from every ocean of the world; caviar from a half-dozen countries; cheeses; and every variety of meat and wild game. (Unwilling to leave empty-handed, he purchased some jars of wild honey from Spain.) There was also huge Scottish salmon, arranged in a six foot tall display resembling a giant floral piece. Nearby was a special section featuring over a hundred different brands of Scotch whiskey. Joe gawked through, looking at some of the oddest brand names he'd ever seen. The added treat was that samples were being dispensed by beautiful Scottish lasses in formal full-length plaid skirts. The combination of winning smiles and free Scotch was terribly difficult to resist. Joe finally headed for Waterloo Station and the train back to Woking, pleased with his special purchases, and mellowed by the several samples of fine Scotch he'd imbibed. Suddenly, it seemed, the six weeks had disappeared, like the last grain of sand in a timer. The man and the little boy packed their bag in sullen silence. It wasn't fair to see this grand adventure end so quickly. It wasn't fair to place them so close to history and then unceremoniously pull them away. The bus ride from Woking to Heathrow seemed like a time tunnel in which Joe and the little boy saw their boyhood fantasies grow smaller in the distance. It was a long plane-ride home to San Francisco. As he reclined in his seat Joe could smell peat burning in an Irish fireplace. He could see grand vistas from the tower of a palace; he could feel the warmth of sunshine reflecting from the shimmering waters of a lake beneath his boat. He could envision armored knights at his side as he strode along a battlement; he could hear voices of history retelling their stories. He could be happy, because that young boy from Ohio had finally realized his dream. Now, for him, there really was an England!
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photo by: ulysses