Archive | March, 2009
March 21, 2009

Day Four: Kensington

Our earliest appointment this day was at 10:30 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, so we ate a leisurely breakfast before heading to the station to board the train to Victoria and, from there, the tube to Kensington. It was another bitterly cold day, so we bundled ourselves up appropriately, me fervently wishing I’d brought one of my favorite wool hats! As you can see, Benjamin was wrapped from top to toe, ready for the day in his borrowed stroller. After arriving in South Kensington, I couldn’t figure out which side of the station we’d exited on, so I stopped to ask a newspaper vendor for directions to the V&A Museum. Mistake! He sent us completely around our elbow to get to our toe, far out of the way toward Royal Albert Hall and Kensington Palace. After we’d gone about half a mile, I felt this had to be the wrong way to go, but I didn’t have my map with me, so on we trudged. After three blocks, we were forced to make a right turn (building ahead!), and I spotted Kensington Palace across the road. That’s when I knew we’d been sent in the opposite direction, so we headed back down toward the station, me looking for Exhibition Street, which was my memory marker for the museum.

We arrived rather breathlessly at 10:45am, 15 minutes late for my appointment with the costume curator, Susan North. Now, in my folly, I had not printed out Susan’s note with her phone extension on it, and when I asked for her at the desk, I said, “Susan Hunt.” Why I did this is beyond me, as Suzi had already corrected me on this in an early email when I got the name mixed up! I guess the mistake just stayed in my head. The poor ladies at the desk could find no “Susan Hunt” in the directory (naturally!), and when they called up to the fashion and textile office, they got an answering machine. They also called the other information desk to find out if anyone was waiting for me or had asked for me. No dice. So, Bria and I headed into the fashion exhibit, telling the ladies at the desk we’d be there if Susan Hunt ever turned up (which, of course, she didn’t!). I forgot to take out my camera the entire time, so these are all Bria’s from the V&A.

After browsing the fashion exhibit, we headed into the wonderful British galleries (1500-1780s), Bria stopping to snap lots of pictures. After that, we walked over to the medieval galleries, which were in the midst of being revamped. The only place open was the plaster cast room, which contains life-sized replicas of some of the most famous sculptures (pagan and Christian) in the world. Many were breathtakingly huge, and we wondered how on earth they were placed in the room! An artist was in this room with a large sheet spread out on the floor, sketching the exhibit in charcoal. Her work was really spectacular. Along one side of the gallery were many tomb effigies from the 12th and 13th centuries:

We wandered around, open-mouthed and exclaiming like a couple of Mark Twain’s “Innocents Abroad” until we decided it was time to head to Kensington Palace. We had noon lunch scheduled in Kensington’s Orangerie with Suzi Clarke and her friend, Anne, and we wanted to be in time for that!

The walk back to Kensington was cold but worth it. We went through the long park, passing the incredible memorial to Prince Albert placed by grieving Queen Victoria. It really is a sight to behold–more like a pagan shrine to a god than a memorial to a mere man, I must say! But we all know how Victoria loved Albert. He sits there in gilded majesty, looking kinglike save for the missing crown. He is surrounded by intricate sculptures, and paintings adorn the sides of the pergola under which he sits. There’s a big fence around this memorial that didn’t used to be there years ago — a testament to the times, I suppose. Though I can’t see why a terrorist would want to blow up Albert, as he sits alone in the middle of a vast park! Below is a close-up of his statue. It really is amazing.

We wended our way through the long park, enjoying the spring flowers beginning to peek out, and finally making our way to the palace proper. We passed this statue of Queen Victoria on our way around to the entrance:

As we passed the sunken garden, we could see the Orangerie on the right:

In Victoria’s time, this would have been a hothouse to grow fruit. It has now been transformed into an utterly charming restaurant:

We had arrived a few moments early, so we took our seats to wait for Suzi and Anne, who arrived only a tick or two later — perfect timing! Somehow in all the fun of greetings and eating, I totally forgot to get a photo of us together. Phooey. Suffice it to say that lunch was delicious and dessert exquisite. I had the traditional beef stew, while Bria had a rich broccoli soup. For dessert, Bria tried the raspberry meringue, and I had the special “Orangery Cake”–lemon and orange with citrus frosting. And, naturally, I added a pot of Earl Grey to my lunch! It was all prepared perfectly and served beautifully, and the atmosphere so friendly and warm. It will be such a delight to take our entire group to this wonderful place for lunch in the fall! Suzi and I talked over the itinerary, she providing lots of excellent suggestions for our day in Greenwich and talking about settling our museum dates. I told her I hadn’t been able to find Susan at the V&A, and she gave me a look of blank astonishment when I said, “Susan Hunt.” She then reminded me that the name was Susan North, and I felt like such an idiot! So I’d missed our appointment for no good reason–just my bad memory! I wrote an email of apology to Susan that night!

After a lovely hour’s visit, we parted ways, Bria, Benjamin, and I heading into the Palace for our short tour. Photography is, unfortunately, not allowed inside the palace, which is a shame. We skipped the audio tour, as we were short on time, but I hear it is excellent, and that’s what we’ll be doing this fall. At right you see the front exterior of the palace behind its low brick wall (close-up below). It has a wing to the far left as well. The interior has its grand spaces and amazing rooms, but when you see the Princess Victoria’s bedroom, you’re rather astonished that it isn’t grander. Then you recall her rather unhappy childhood and realize it’s just as it would have been. In one room is an exact replica of the dress Victoria wore on her first day as queen when she met with her privy counselors. It’s a black dress (mourning for King William) with a white pelerine–really very pretty. And when you see it, you realize afresh how small Queen Victoria was. She’d have come just above my shoulder.

We had a lovely time going through the rooms and halls of the palace, though we had to carry Benjamin’s stroller up and down several flights of stairs. Good exercise! There is a current exhibit about the last debutantes presented at court (to Queen Elizabeth II in 1958). The debutantes donated many of their gowns, stockings, gloves, and even lipstick to the exhibit. There’s a fun room where you can try out dance steps of the 1950s or learn a proper curtsey (the deep, bending kind you give to royalty at court). All in all, it was a fun stop, and I know our fall tour folks are going to enjoy it, especially as the gardens will be fuller then (they were just stirring to life while we were there).

From Kensington, we were slated to hop a bus to Brompton Cemetery so I could perform a favor for a family friend. I had in my possession a giant skeleton key to one of the most famous mausoleums in all of London. According to legend, this tomb inspired the father’s tomb in “The Phantom of the Opera.” It dates back to 1915, when oil tycoon James McDonald I was buried there. His wife and son are also buried with him, but no one since. James McDonald V lives in the states and asked if I’d drop by and check on the mausoleum, as it hadn’t been opened in years. He wanted to ascertain its condition and see if any cleaning or repairs needed to be done. Needless to say, this was a very exciting errand! Having been provided with a map to the cemetery, I was armed and ready. Bria and I headed back over toward South Kensington Station to find the right bus stop for our bus, but it eluded us. It was not in the spot the map told us it should be, so I finally went into a Whole Foods market that offered home delivery, figuring they should know what is where. Sure enough, they knew where we needed to go, and as we trotted up the street, we spotted our bus just reaching the curb. Hurrah!

It took about fifteen minutes to get to Brompton, but the street we stepped out onto provided no clues as to the location of the cemetery, and I wasn’t sure if we should turn right or left. Looking left, I spotted a funeral home office and knew they’d be able to direct me. I popped in the door and was greeted by such a stereotypical sight that it was all I could do not to burst out laughing. Two grave men (pun intended, I assure you!) were seated at matching desks, both wearing black suits with vests and black ties. Oh, how English! It was like something out of a Dickens novel. I fought back my smile and tried to look appropriately sober as I asked for the way to Brompton Cemetery. The younger man stood up and asked my business at the cemetery, to which I replied, “I’ve got a key to a mausoleum that I am to open and inspect.” He did not even bat an eyelash but replied, “Quite right; quite right.” Then he led me back to the doorway and pointed out where I needed to go — just two blocks down to the right. I thanked him and rejoined Bria, grinning at the whole scene. I’m sure it’s probably beyond normal in Britain to encounter Victorian-looking undertakers with three-piece suits, but it just tickled me!

We walked briskly down the street and entered the enormous cemetery gates. I was pretty sure we were at the wrong end of the cemetery, as this did not match my map, so I stepped into the “Friends of Brompton” office for assistance. The chap who came out positively pounced on the key and exclaimed, “We don’t have a copy of that; any chance you could have a duplicate made?” I promised I’d ask and followed his directions through the cemetery to the other side, passing the gigantic cemetery office in the center:

Now, this cemetery is famous for more than this mausoleum, of course. There are many well-known people buried here, but it is best remembered as being a favorite haunt of Beatrix Potter, who found on tombstones names for many of her beloved animal characters. There is a “Tom Nutkins” buried here, as well as a “Peter Rabbet” and a “Jeremiah Fisher.” You can read about this fascinating discovery HERE. There are many beautiful tombs and monuments in the cemetery, including lots of carved angels (so popular during Victorian and Edwardian times). Here are a couple I snapped as I passed:

We finally reached the mausoleum at the far end of the cemetery. It was certainly on the largest plot, surrounded by a large patch of ground where other tombs were positively crammed together. Quite an impressive sight–very art nouveau and very ornate, guarded by two angels on either side of the door:

Years of pollution and rain have made it look like the right-hand angel is crying. The door also had a green patina from years of rain and snow. It was no doubt bronze or possibly copper (more likely bronze):

As you can see, the glass has been broken out of the bottom of the door behind the floral design–a great pity. This must have occurred many years ago, as no traces of glass remain inside the tomb. You can see what the glass used to look like in this detail shot of the upper door:

It was now time for the moment of truth. Out came the key, and I swung aside the little rectangle covering the keyhole. Bria snapped a shot of me trying the lock:

The key turned in both directions, but, after a certain point, it would not budge. Vastly disappointed, I determined to see if I could find someone to help at the cemetery office. Accordingly, I marched back to the center of the cemetery and knocked at the door. No answer. I’d passed a policeman on a bicycle on my way around the building, so I headed back in his direction. He was just finishing up a conversation with an elderly gentleman when I walked up. I asked him if he might be able to assist me, and, when I showed him the key, his face lit up. In a thick cockney accent, he said, “Oi was just about ta ‘ave a cup uv tea over in the office, love. Why don’t you step in and ‘ave a look at the keys we ‘ave ‘angin’ around?” I followed him through the massive green door and watched as he fished around through several drawers before triumphantly producing a grocery bag absolutely loaded with skeleton keys. He dropped it with a clatter on the counter and began pulling out large groups of keys on chains. He knew which ones belonged to the cemetery gates and discarded those. I could only marvel at the sheer amount of keys in the bag–none of which were labeled. How on earth could anyone know which one would open which crypt? Not a single key matched the one I held in my hand, which I’d suspected after the Friends man told me they had no copy. Disappointed, the policeman asked if I could “wait a tick” while he had his tea. I told him I had a friend waiting and would head back down to the mausoleum. He promised to catch up quickly.

By the time I’d reached Bria and Benjamin, I could see the policeman heading towards us on his bike. It’s a good walk halfway through the cemetery! He came up and held out his hand for the key. I explained that it would turn, but only so far, and I was afraid of breaking it. He mentioned that leaning into the door might help. At any rate, he gave it his best try, but, finally, afraid of breaking the key off the lock, gave up as well, every bit as disappointed as we were not to get inside! He said, “You’d best ‘ave a locksmith out ‘ere to get at the lock, Oi’d say.” I mentioned that my husband would be coming through in a couple of weeks and could have a go at it with WD-40. He thought that might be worth a try. We stood around talking about the tomb for quite a while, and the policeman was extremely knowledgeable about the cemetery and its occupants. Turns out he is an absolute history nut and reads voraciously when he’s not working. He had anecdotes about all kinds of famous people buried in Brompton, about Beatrix Potter, and about all kinds of other historical figures in and around London. It was quite an amazing half hour we spent with him!

Since I couldn’t get into the tomb, I put my camera through the lower half of the door and photographed the interior, which is exquisite. Below you’ll see the altar, stained glass windows, tall vase, and vaulted ceilings.

Note the black marble columns flanking the altar. Extraordinary. Below are photos of the tomb vaults:

I also snapped a few more pictures outside the mausoleum. You can see beautiful little snowdrop lilies just starting to bloom in the yard around the tomb:

At the very front is a gateway with hinges bearing evidence of the gate that used to hang there. The yard is also surrounded by posts that used to have chains in between, all missing now.

The helpful policeman told us that many gates and chains were taken for scrap metal during WWI and never replaced. As this would have been right around the same time the last English McDonalds were buried there, it’s no surprise they were never replaced.

I snapped a few more pictures before we left, capturing the stained glass from the exterior and the cross on top of the front:

At long last we made our way to the gate, obtaining directions to the nearby station from the policeman on our way. We left the angels guarding the locked tomb and turned our thoughts toward high tea back at our host home in Dulwich. After two brief train rides and a short bus hop, we were back home and so happy to get into the warmth! Benjamin was thankful to see his bed, and Bria and I sat down to a delicious supper (“tea”) and a final evening’s visit with our friends. It was a lovely evening all ’round. We couldn’t believe our journey was already over and we’d be flying back across the ocean in half a day’s time! Our trip to the airport next morning was uneventful, and we boarded right on time. We arrived home ready to crash, get over jet lag, then share pictures with you! All in all, it was a fun quick stopover, and I look forward to fall all the more!

March 11, 2009

Day Three: Church and the Dulwich Picture Gallery

Bria and I thoroughly enjoyed having a day to sleep in, as we didn’t leave for church until 10:15am, and breakfast was about 9:15. It was wonderful to get all that sleep after our long day of walking in Bath! Benjamin obliged by sleeping in himself, which is a rarity for him. Hurrah! The day started out sunny, though still quite chilly and windy. We enjoyed going to church at the Metropolitan Tabernacle (the late Charles Haddon Spurgeon’s church) with our host family, then came home for a delicious, thoroughly English lunch. Afterwards, an immense thunderstorm blew in, bringing driving sleet and amazing thunder and lightning. What a turn the weather can take! During the storm, I took a brief nap until Benjamin woke up fussy. After feeding him and getting him settled back down to sleep, I decided to brave the outdoors and walk to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, down the Common and across beautiful Dulwich Park (which is what you see in this photograph). Our hostess walked with me through some fitful rain, showing me the right path to take through the extensive park.

The Picture Gallery was the first public art gallery established in England. The history of the gallery is a fascinating one, as is the origin of its collection (you can read about it here). It contains some very famous works of art by artists like Thomas Gainsborough, all beautifully displayed. The interior is flooded with natural light from the domed skylights of the roof above, and the rich red coloring of the main walls makes it feel like you’re walking through a jewelry box. It’s just luscious. I was surprised to see one of my favorite works of art on display–Rembrandt’s “Girl in a Window”–as I’d thought it was in a larger museum collection elsewhere (“Girl with a Broom” is in the National Gallery of Art in D.C., for example). So it was a treat to see it here. The painting just leaps off the wall and overshadows everything around it due to Rembrandt’s deft use of color. It really was a “gasp” moment to see it framed in a doorway as I walked past! My photos can’t do it justice, but I had to take some:

The gallery contains many wonderful portraits from the 17th and 18th centuries, rich with detail. I especially enjoyed all the amazing details of the ladies’ gowns. Below is a portrait with an interesting story. Titled “Mrs. Elizabeth Moody and her Two Sons,” the portrait originally only included Mrs. Moody. She died when her sons were much closer to infancy, and they were painted in later (one in her arms, and one holding her hand). She never lived to see them at the age they are depicted on canvas, sadly.

Across the doorway from this portrait is one of the Linley sisters from the 1780s:

Seeing these up close is amazing, as the details of fabric and trimming are just eye-popping. Every wall contains amazing portraits. I loved the one below of a 17th-century gent in his gilded armor:

The detail level is unbelievable. 1550-1870 was the height of English portraiture when it comes to realism. I like the impressionists, but you lose the photo-realistic detailing that all of us who love historical costuming prize. In these portraits, it is possible to see the exact pattern of the lace on a cuff or the embroidery on a lady’s gown. It’s breathtaking. Here’s another wonderful portrait of a lady from the 1770s (very high up on the wall):

To the left you see a tiny portrait of Queen Victoria at four years old. This portrait was extremely popular after Victoria became queen and prints of it found their way to many parlor walls across the kingdom. It really is darling and looks very much like the older Victoria. What is interesting is that a copy of this portrait is used in the film, “The Young Victoria,” which just opened in England. However, the portrait used in the film is about three feet by fo
ur feet, and this original (not including the frame) is about nine inches by twelve inches! It’s quite tiny. I remember the first time I saw some of Vermeer’s portraits in the National Gallery, shocked at how tiny they were. Things look a lot bigger in coffee table art books than they often are in real life! For such a tiny portrait, this one is nevertheless filled with amazing details. I believe the princess is wearing an ermine tippet crossed in front, with cuffs to match. So cute!

Below is one more beautiful piece that I enjoyed. It is actually just a small section of a much larger canvas that was, unfortunately, destroyed at some point. The detail of two women’s heads is lovely–the front lady’s hairstyle is wonderful:

After enjoying an hour and a half in the gallery, I walked outside into glorious sunshine and snapped this photo of the grounds that surround Dulwich Picture Gallery:

I rounded the corner and headed back through Dulwich Park toward the house. Below is a picture of an adorable Tudor-style cottage within the park grounds. It has been boarded up and is not inhabited. My hostess tells me they wish the park would fix them up for tenants rather than letting them just sit to deteriorate. I couldn’t agree more. Anyone for a darling English cottage in an extensive park?

Next time I’ll tell you about our day in Kensington!

March 9, 2009

Day Two: Bath!

Saturday started out overcast and gloomy — rather foreboding for a trip out west to Bath, which is typically colder than London this time of year. Bria, Benjamin, and I hopped the train from West Dulwich to Victoria and from there to Bath by way of Salisbury. We quickly found out we were in the wrong train car, as only the last three would be going all the way to Bath Spa Station! You really have to stay on your toes to successfully navigate the English transportation system. You can be on the right train in the wrong car and end up (for example) in Weymouth far to the South if you don’t watch out. With buses, you can be on the right number but on the wrong side of the road, going in the wrong direction. It’s dizzying at times to keep up. We moved back to car #7 with all the other folks en route to Bath. In the picture you see Bria showing Benjamin the view out the train window. As you can see, the sun did come out! The clouds burned off outside of London, so I had high hopes it would be more pleasant in Bath than in London. The ride from London to Salisbury isn’t exactly beautiful (you see a lot of building backs and grafitti), but the ride from Salisbury to Bath is really lovely. We were, unfortunately, too far away to see Salisbury Cathedral, but we could glimpse the steeple from our seats.

The beautiful hills and fields near Salisbury.

With all the stops, the journey out took 2.5 hours, but it seemed to go by very quickly. We arrived in Bath at 11:45, and I hailed a taxi to drive us up to the Jane Austen Centre for lunch in the tea room there. The sun was still out, but the wind had picked up, and it was very chilly. I didn’t want to attempt an uphill walk to Gay Street in the wind with the stroller, and taxis are much less expensive in Bath than in London, thankfully. We arrived at the Centre just before noon and went straight up to the charming tea room on the third floor. Bria ordered a Bath Special (including a sweet Sally Lunn bun), and I ordered the Lady’s Afternoon Tea, which featured cucumber and cheese sandwiches, a scone with clotted cream and strawberry preserves, and a pot of Darjeeling tea. It was all absolutely delicious, and the service was friendly. Below is a picture of our table with all the treats!

After this luncheon break, Bria and I browsed the Centre’s gift shop, which is (of course!) crammed to the ceiling with all things Jane Austen. We oohed and ahhhed and made some purchases for friends back home. The Centre actually carries my Regency patterns in its online store, so I introduced myself and told them I looked forward to being a part of the costumed promenade in the fall.

After putting Benjamin back into the stroller, we walked down the hill, around Queen Square, and up Crescent Gardens, which contains practically a whole row of B&Bs in Bath. I’d already made an appointment to meet with one of the staff at Brooks Guest House, which is where my group will be staying during the Bath Extension in September. The B&B easily deserves its four-star rating, having been recently refurbished from top to bottom. The rooms retain their traditional charm but include very modern amenities. I thoroughly enjoyed the tour I was given by Michael from reception, who was obviously a bit “house proud” about the place!

We headed back around the corner to Queen’s Square toward the city center. By now, the sun had disappeared behind the clouds, and the wind had picked up a bit, so it was chilly. Oh, well…. I had to stop to photograph this beautiful blue door. Those who know me know my passion for the blue front doors of England. And, yes, I know they have greens and reds and golds, too, but I just really am keen on the blue ones! By the time we got down to the Pump Room, there was a huge crowd there. Lots of market stalls were crammed into the walking areas, and street performers called out to people to stop and watch their antics. Right through the collonade into the Abbey yard stood a bronze statue of an elderly man in a trench coat. As Bria and I watched, he turned and reached out to someone passing by. A living statue! This was so much fun that I stopped and shot a video. If I ever figure out how to post it, I will, because he was so incredibly good at what he did. He stood stock still until someone dropped coins in his bucket, and then he’d beckon to the person, shake his hand, and slowly go back to his original position. Our host family later told me these actors cover themselves in a very thick latex kind of paint that becomes basically a full-body mask. They can’t wear it for long, as it blocks up the pores. Sounds like something very unpleasant to get out of, but it was so much fun to watch! The most fun, though, came when a teenaged girl walked up who didn’t know this was a man rather than a real statue. She walked right up to him, presumably looking for an identifying plaque or card, and he reached out to pull her hair. She shrieked and jumped a foot! Bria and I got a good laugh out of that, and I only wish I’d caught it on film!

We decided to tour the Abbey first, as I’d not been in last time I was in Bath. It was so cold outside that we were more than ready to get into the warmth, so we headed into the breathtaking cathedral. There must be more stained glass in Bath Abbey than I’ve seen in one place before. It is positively everywhere and amazing to look at — just the sheer scale of work is enormous.

Looking down from the back of the cathedral.

The enormous Abbey pipe organ.

The elaborate baptismal font.

Bria and I spent a lot of time looking in nooks and crannies, and I was very surprised to find a memorial marker for a Cromwellian soldier and his wife (in an Anglican church, of all places!) This gentleman commissioned the memorial for his beloved wife and had himself carved into it so that he is looking into her eyes, and she is gazing up into his. The detailing of the clothing is amazing (true of a lot of effigies). Check out the detailing of his armor below.

These two infants are on either side of the adult effigies, but the plaque doesn’t name them, so I’m not sure if they are meant to represent the couple’s children or are just decorative.After browsing through the Abbey shop, we crossed the churchyard to look into the National Trust store and pick up a few more gifts. Then we crossed over again to the Pump Room and Roman Baths for a tour. Very few people were there, so we had an easy time getting in. Turns out we hit the ticket line just right, as we saw the entire room jammed with tourists as we were leaving! The Roman Baths are interesting, though I confess it’s hard to get worked up about a pagan temple where people used to go throw curses into the water or leave gifts for the goddess in the hopes of receiving favors in return. ;-) The smell of sulfur is pretty strong, and the water is a very unpalatable brackish green. Bria bent down to test the temperature, surprised at how warm it really was.

Looking down into the main bath from above.

Actresses portraying Roman ladies visiting the baths.

I was surprised at just how exensive the baths were. There are over a dozen sub-rooms, making up a rather amazing complex of steam rooms with heated floors, dressing rooms, storage rooms, and more. There are several smaller pools, including a “cold plunge” pool. Much of the original temple to Minerva has been excavated, including floor mosaics and parts of the pediment from the front of the temple (with a gorgon’s head in the center). Many of the curses that people wrote on pewter and tossed into the water have been recovered and are on display. Some are fairly funny — like (roughly) “To the man who stole my second-best robe, may his hand wither and fall off.”

We worked our way through the displays and back up to the main entrance, where we retrieved the stroller. We walked through the beautiful Pump Room so Bria could see it. We paused by the fountain where tourists can “taste the waters,” but, after seeing where the water came from, Bria was not at all tempted to partake. ;-) I’d already had my taste in 2006, so I passed it by without a regret, either! Out in the hallway, we found some beautiful sculptures that I’d never noticed before. They were made of Carrera marble and depicted mothers with their children. I especially loved the one below of a mother praying with her child.

The amazing dome inside the entrance to the Roman Baths.

After leaving the Pump Room, I was determined to locate Bath Old Books. My husband remembered it being behind and to the left of the Abbey, but I remembered it being up near the Royal Crescent. So I compromised by starting out to the left of the cathedral and working my way up a side street full of shops. I popped into a charming children’s shop to pick up a few more gifts, then asked the proprietor if she knew where the old book store was. She told me it was further up and toward the Crescent. Ah ha! So we continued up the street until I saw a store with gorgeous scarves in the window and remembered my promise to pick up a scarf in Bath for my wonderful cover artist, Anna Lankford. After having my purchase wrapped, we kept going upward and onward through crushing crowds of shoppers. We ended up at the Circus, and continued toward the Royal Crescent. As we passed a side street, I spotted a familiar yellow storefront and surprised Bria by calling out, “That’s IT!” I knew the book store would be up at the end of the street on the corner if it was still in existence. Sure enough, we’d found it, about two blocks away from the Royal Crescent.

Peering through the shop window.

I let Bria take a look first, and then I followed. I had a delightful chat with the shop owner (the wife of a husband-wife team who says the shop is just what overflowed from their home, which is every bit as crammed with books as the shop!). I found two treasures to take home and asked the owner if she had heard about the new regulations in America that could outlaw used children’s books. She was appalled and said, “Do they think children eat books? Surely they have parents to prevent them doing that anyway!” I heartily agreed, and we talked about what a terrible loss it would be to ban children from reading antique books.

I finally tore myself away from the shop, and, since we were so close to the Royal Crescent, I encouraged Bria to take just a few more uphill steps so we could stop in at Number One Royal Crescent (the most famous house and the most prestigious in Bath). It was open to vis
itors, so we stepped in and gave ourselves a tour. The rooms are sumptuously decorated (particularly the drawing room). The ladies’ bedroom was fascinating with all its accessories, including a long head scratcher, as ladies often left their towering Georgian updos in place for a month at a time with no washing (ugh!).

By the time we left the house, it was getting darker and was even colder, so we headed back downhill toward the train station, which was about a mile and a quarter away. I’d thought we might grab another taxi, but I never saw one, so we just kept trudging, thankful it was all downhill.

It was a long, cold walk to the station, but we did make it and managed to be there with ten minutes to spare. We boarded our train and got back to Dulwich in time for a late supper. We then collapsed into bed, anticipating a wonderful day of rest on Sunday. Next time I’ll blog about our delightful Sabbath with our host family!

March 7, 2009

Day One in London!

I’m finally feeling myself today — enough to stay up late and post some photos! We arrived at Gatwick ten minutes early Friday morning due to a tailwind, then breezed through customs in a matter of minutes, as there was hardly anyone in line. This threw my timetable for a loop, as I’d fully expected it to take us an hour or more to make it through the passport line and out through customs. We sat down on the Gatwick Express to Victoria station at one minute ’til eight and zoomed into London thirty minutes later. The sun shone very bright, but it was deceptive, as the temperature wasn’t far above freezing that morning. Bria and I were so glad we had carried our coats instead of packing them! Benjamin looked snug in his little snow suit. I snapped this photo out the train window while zipping across the Thames (you can just barely see the Globe Theatre to the right across the water).

Once at Victoria Station, I pulled out my UK cell phone to call our host family to let them know we were about to board the train for West Dulwich. To my dismay, I discovered that the phone was out of minutes. So I walked toward the Vodafone store in Victoria Station to top off and found the store was closed! I then went in search of a public telephone, but the only one there had been vandalized and wouldn’t accept change. So much for calling ahead. We got our tickets and boarded the train. Remembering what had happened to Miss Melissa in 2006, I warned Bria that train stops are very, very fast. You have to be at the door and jump off onto the platform as quickly as you can. With four pieces of luggage, a baby, and a carseat, that was going to be tricky. So I warned her that, if we got separated and she ended up on the platform alone, she needed to stay put. This turned out to be a highly prophetic warning, as this is precisely what happened when we reached our station. First, the door didn’t open automatically, and when we finally figured out that you have to push the “open” button, we didn’t have many seconds left. Bria got out with three suitcases, and the door slammed shut on me with Benjamin in the carseat and a suitcase in my other hand! I mouthed, “Stay HERE!” through the window as the train lurched forward. Another woman with a baby also got stuck, and she told me the next station was just two minutes away. So we got off there, then walked to the opposite platform to go back toward West Dulwich on the next train.

I say “walked,” but it was more like “hauled ourselves,” as she and I both had babies (hers in a stroller) and luggage, and the only way to the other side was up two flights of stairs, across a footbridge, and down the opposite two flights of stairs. When I arrived on the other side, a teleprompter announced the next train would be there in six minutes. I spotted a pay phone and dashed over to call our host family. Foiled again — this phone had also been vandalized! The train arrived in five more minutes, and I boarded it for the two-minute journey back to West Dulwich, where I found Bria waiting on the platform as instructed. Victory!

Now we had the joy of discovering that the train station in West Dulwich did not have a phone. I remembered that our host family lived close to the Dulwich Picture Gallery, so, seeing a sign for it, we steeled ourselves, buttoned up our coats, and started walking. About half a mile later, we reached the gallery. I left Bria inside the courtyard, parked on a bench with all the luggage and Benjamin, while I went inside to inquire after a telephone. The two German ladies in the cafe’ told me I’d have to walk three minutes into the village for a phone, so, instead, I asked if they knew how far I was from the address of the house we needed to reach. They gave me a blank look and said I should try asking in the museum shop. So off I went. The very kind lady behind the counter said, “Please use our phone, as that is a very local call!” So I got hold of our hostess, who said she’d come pick us up. Relief!

It was now about 10 in the morning, and Benjamin was so exhausted he’d gone to sleep in his carseat (a rarity for a little one who loves his bed!). I decided to call and cancel the 12:30 meeting I had scheduled with the hotel manager near Piccaddilly and just rest instead. So we unloaded our luggage and sat down for a refreshing cup of tea and conversation with our hostess. We had a very relaxing morning, but Bria was beginning to droop, so she went off for a nap right after lunch. Benjamin was also down and very out, so I thought I’d just run off and do my errands while they slept. Our hostess dropped me at the underground station, where I found a Vodafone store and topped off my phone–hurrah! I got to Green Park, just off Piccadilly, around 2:30 pm. It was a short, pleasant walk to the Flemings Mayfair hotel from the station, down a very quiet side street. When I told the lady at the desk who I was, she said I would still be able to meet with the manager after all, so I took a seat in the beautiful library sitting room, which you can see below.

Karen showed me over the hotel, which has absolutely beautiful rooms and a lovely tea room and full restaurant downstairs. The hotel was originally a Georgian townhouse built in 1730 and is supposedly the second-oldest hotel in London. It is incredibly quiet for central London and is a regular rabbit warren of halls and stairs and nooks and crannies. You could easily get lost, so the staff frequently help people to find their way back to their rooms! It’s really a lovely spot, and I know we’ll enjoy staying there with the tour group this fall!

Next, I called Hillary at the Museum of London (costume curator) to let her know I’d be slightly late for our 3:30 meeting — I’d be there closer to 3:45. It was getting windy and quite
a bit chillier since the morning, so I chickened out of walking all the way to the Piccadilly underground and instead asked a cab driver what it would cost to get me to the museum. This was a bit of foolishness, as cabs are the most expensive way to go in London. But he quoted me a very fair price, so I hopped in. I arrived at the museum with a couple of minutes to spare and made my way up to the cafe’. Hillary arrived moments later, and we immediately hit it off. She bubbles over with enthusiasm for the museum’s extensive historical costume collection (it’s in the top three of all costume collections in the UK). I could tell immediately that she was a kindred spirit, and she is very excited about catering the study tables for fall to the interests of our group. We’ll be able to choose the kinds of things we want to see and then examine them in detail. FUN! After talking with Hillary, I took a quick walk through the museum galleries, which feature London’s history from ancient times up through the Tudor period, including a fascinating exhibit on the Great Fire of 1666. I wished I’d had more time to stop and look, but I wanted to hurry back to be there when Benjamin woke up. I hoofed it up the hill to St. Paul’s, snapping the shot below on my way around the great cathedral:

I knew I needed to get to Blackfriar’s Station, but I didn’t have a map printout with me, so I went by memory as best as I could. I knew I was going the right way when I came out on Queen Victoria Street. I hurried, as the wind had really picked up. I was so glad I hadn’t brought Benjamin out in it; he would have been miserable. I reached the bottom of the hill and saw Blackfriar’s across the road with no crosswalk — and then remembered the tunnel. Found the entrance and went beneath the road to get into the station. The ride back to West Dulwich was very quick, and I had no trouble getting off before the doors clanged shut. ;-) I grabbed the bus and managed to make it to the right street but got off at the wrong stop. It wasn’t far to walk back to the house, though, and everyone was just sitting down to a lovely high tea supper. Bria and Benjamin were both wide awake. We ate and talked, and then I felt my eyelids dropping, so I called it a night at 7pm and crashed into bed. Thankfully, Benjamin was still tired and also went to bed!

After a good night’s sleep, we got up this morning to head to Bath — and I’ll post about that tomorrow if all goes well! Here’s a teaser picture for you — Miss Bria and Miss Jane Austen: