The Final Adventure

All good things come to an end and so it was with our trip to England. On our final day we decided to go to the “High Street” shopping areas of London. We began our adventure at Harrods which is perhaps the most famous of the city’s department stores. To say that we were in awe of what we saw would be an understatement. We literally walked through aisle after aisle of every single floor and soon learned that we would not be purchasing much unless we decided to take out a bank loan.

I’ve never before seen such a variety of handbags, all of which were gorgeous with prices to match. Virtually every well known designer was featured in the clothing areas. I was drooling at the designs but didn’t feel too badly about having to pass on them because most of them were made for much younger bodies than mine. My sister-in-law Becky inquired about a sweater that she like but decided not to purchase it when she learned of its twelve hundred dollar price tag. The interesting thing is that so little of the merchandise came with a price tag which made me think of the old saw that if you have to ask how much something costs it’s probably too expensive for your pocket book. Nonetheless we enjoyed seeing so many lovely things and wondering who the people are who have the income to purchase them.

One of my favorite areas was the home section that featured incredibly lovely china. I actually bought a small bowl for one of my daughters and didn’t break the bank doing so. I also found a unique pot holder that was reasonable. I had to laugh at the idea that only I would walk through Harrods and end up with a potholder, but the truth is that I love to cook and I enjoy a well stocked kitchen.

I also broke down and bought a lipstick. Luckily the cosmetics were priced exactly the same as they are in Macy’s. I wanted a lovely berry color from the Mac Aladdin collection but they were sold out so I settled on a nice pink that I have already enjoyed wearing. Later I found the Aladdin lipstick at Macy’s and bought it there with fond memories of my foray into the upscale world of Harrods.

Eventually we found our way to the basement where all of the tourists go. The affordable items were down there. I bought a little purse for my granddaughter, some toffee for my grandsons, a couple of tea towels, some tea, and a bag that I now use to hold all of the books that I collected at the various places in London that we visited.

From Harrods we went to Oxford Street and wandered over to all of the bespoke clothing stores. These are places where men order custom made suits that are tailored to fit the individual exactly. I was interested in seeing them because one of my former students is hoping to one day open his own bespoke clothing business and also because Mike had told me about the methodical process used to make the incredible looking pieces. I took Mike’s picture in front of many of the establishments and we all joked with him that he should order one of the suits for himself. Sadly it takes six weeks to complete a suit with numerous fittings in between, not to mention a cost of many thousands of dollars.

Eventually we headed toward Selfridge’s Department Store with a few stops at other places in between. Selfridge’s was a fun place but the quality of the items just wasn’t as exceptional as those at Harrods, and yet the prices were not that much lower. We had lunch there and I splurged by calling a strawberry sundae my meal. Not only was the treat quite yummy but the people watching was great fun, not to mention noting that Selfridge’s sells fresh produce and meat right along with clothing and household goods. Who knew that one might do all of the necessary shopping under one roof?

We ended up purchasing some wonderful Earl Grey tea and a tin of biscuits at the store. The tea was so good that I am tempted to order more when we run out. I wanted the tin mostly because it celebrated Queen Elizabeth as the longest reigning monarch in the history of the country. It has a sweet photo of her and has ultimately become a respository for all of my trip postcards.

Ironically we all decided that we wanted to return to Harrods. Mike and I wanted to purchase a few more items from the gift shop but first we stopped for tea and found out that Harrods also sells produce and meat of very high quality with prices to match. We placed our packages on the floor as we sipped on yummy Earl Grey and shared a divine pastry. It was great to just sit and relax for a time before going back to the basement to get the rest of our purchases.

We had no sooner left the area where we had been enjoying our afternoon repast when Mike realized that he had left the package that he had been carrying. It was the one that held the items  that we had purchased from Harrods earlier in the day. We rushed back feeling certain that someone had found it, and given it to one of the employees. Sadly it was not there and the waitress indicated that a woman had briefly sat where we had been and then very suddenly announced that she had changed her mind about ordering something and had scurried off with a Harrods bag in hand. No doubt she had taken our things probably believing that she was going to find something wonderful inside. She must have been very disappointed to learn that she had a pot holder, two tea towels, some tea and a bit of toffee, along with a purse for a young girl.

We actually had a  good laugh and then rushed around repurchasing everything that we had lost. We did all of this with time to spare as we hurried to the designated meeting place where we eventually were reunited with the rest of our group. We felt that other than our driving adventures we had just experienced the best story of our trip.

We ended our wonderful day at an Italian restaurant that was surprisingly good. We sat back and enjoyed various forms of pasta and chattered endlessly about all that we had seen. It felt somewhat bittersweet to think about returning home but we knew that the morrow would be spent winging our way back to Texas. It had been the perfect ending to a perfect adventure and one that would hold a very special place in our hearts.

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A Roman Treasure

Bath

We often forget that the Romans had outposts in Britain long before the nation had become organized enough to have kings and its own government. There is evidence of the Roman era in great walls around cities like York, and in the magnificent edifices in the city now known as Bath. We journeyed to that ancient area not certain what we would see as we looked farther back into the history of England than even the medieval cathedrals and towns had been able to take us.

The Romans found the natural hot springs of the area and created magnificent spas and temples around them. At the time of their conquest it was a thriving region where Roman citizens came to worship their gods and goddesses and to bathe and relax. The discovery of the remains of the magnificent structures that once stood there must have been quite exciting to those who accidentally found them, and thankfully they understood the importance of unearthing and preserving the ruins.

Walking through the site is a profound experience. There is something quite humbling about seeing the engineering and architecture of people who walked the earth so long ago. The sheer beauty of their creations is breathtaking, but the idea of witnessing how their way of life must have been is even more exciting. They were unbelievably advanced in their knowledge of how to move and drain water and how to build great structures. It is fascinating to think of them traveling to this distant place from Rome and putting their lasting mark on its landscape. We spent hours inside the complex where all of the ruins are housed, mesmerized by the ingenuity of its creators.

The city of Bath is a treasure not just for the contributions of the Romans but also for the magnificent buildings that were created in later eras. It is a place of elaborate churches and beautiful apartment buildings. There is something exceptionally creative about the place that attracts singers, painters, and artists of all sorts. 

We listened to the singing of a woman with a wonderful soprano voice, and jigged in place when a trio of musicians played English folk tunes. We’ve witnessed a number of exceptional street performers in many cities, but we agreed that the artists in Bath were some of the very best. With the pleasantly cool weather and the preponderance of seating we might have tarried all day in the main plaza of Bath had our tour of the Roman baths not taken so long, and we had another appointment that we wanted to keep. We were hoping to get a glance of Highclere Castle where the television hit Downton Abbey is filmed, so we needed to leave by mid afternoon.

We reluctantly said our goodbyes to Bath and were off again in the hopes of taking some selfies in front of the well known castle. First we paused for some lunch at a rest area and perhaps took a bit longer than we should have. When we finally entered the road to the famed estate we were stopped by a sign announcing that no tourists would be allowed after four in the afternoon. Since it was well past five we knew that we had missed our opportunity to explore the grounds. We had been led to believe that we could walk around the area until seven each day, but soon learned that the late hours do not start until the summer. We were profoundly disappointed because we had gone well out of our way to get there, and besides we might have spent more time in Bath had we known that our trip was to be fruitless.

It was time to head back to London and our old familiar haunts. Soon enough we were back at our hotel and planning to meet up in our favorite pub for some dinner and perhaps a game of Jokers and Marbles at the big table that had in some ways become ours. We had a great time recounting our adventures and looking on the positive side of even our disappointments. I enjoyed a lovely bowl of soup with some delicious bread and we women kept our winning record with the game intact. We also had some laughs with the regulars who seemed to come to the pub each evening and made our plans for our final day in London.

We planned a shopping day in some of the most famous mercantile areas of the city for our last hurrah. We agreed to allow ourselves a bit more sleep time and then we would be off to Harrods, Oxford Street, and Selfridge’s to see what wonders were inside these famous places of which we had only heard stories in the past. There was something quite exciting about the prospect of dressing up and mingling with the in crowd along with a horde of tourists like ourselves. I love to shop whether it is in thrift shops or elegant department stores. The thrill of the hunt has always fascinated me. I only wished that my mother was with us to enjoy the moment as well. I know that she too would have been extremely excited about perusing the wares of London’s most exclusive merchants. I seemed almost like the night before Christmas to me.

The Cotswolds

 

The Cotswolds are perhaps one of the most delightful areas of England. Filled with rolling green vistas, grazing sheep, fields of lavender, and quaint farmhouses the area is picture postcard delightful. We left the highway and journeyed down narrow lanes that were often devoid of traffic save for ourselves. We traveled slowly and almost aimlessly, enjoying whatever came our way, and stopping often to soak in the beauty.

The landscape was awash with wild flowers of every sort that captured our fancy and our interest. We seemed to stop every few miles to take more photos of what we saw. Along the way we encountered a trio of horses who immediately came over to greet my sister-in-law Allison when she called them to the fence that kept them corralled. They we beautiful animals and quite friendly as well. They enjoyed a snack of apples from the bag of fruit that we had brought along. It was such a delightful moment that we might have tarried much longer but we wanted to see as much of this lovely area as possible before the sun set.

Soon enough we came upon a little town called Stow on the Wold. It was a sheep shearing day but we never quite found the place where that was being done. Instead we wandered into the little town where we came upon a sweet antique shop that was filled with quite remarkable items. I found yet another piece of Willow Ware for my collection, a large platter for serving perhaps a Sunday roast. There were also some sweet framed sets of embroidered birds. My sister-in-law Becky and I liked them so much that I purchased four and she bought the remaining four along with a gorgeous antique tea set. I also found a child’s teapot for my niece, a trinket box for my granddaughter and a small dish for my daughter. Our men folk were rolling their eyes and wondering how we were going  to get all of the things into our suitcases and onto the plane for our return trip, but I already had a plan.

We had searched high and low for a tea towel or other such memento of baby Archie’s birth all to no avail when suddenly we found exactly what we wanted inside a toy shop that featured some of the most unique items that I had seen anywhere. I was also drawn to a little black sheep ornament that I decided to buy for the travel tree that I decorate each Christmas. It reminded me of the peacefulness of this part of England, but also of the hilarity of our conversations inside the car as we laughed our way down impossibly narrow roadways.

Sooner that we might have liked we left Stow on the Wold and continued our drive toward Chipping Campden, a small market town in the Gloustershire district of the Cotswolds. We were quite taken by the cottages with thatched roofs that seemed to be everywhere. Sweet English gardens stood in front of them making them seem to be right out of a fairytale. We wondered who the folks were who were lucky enough to enjoy living in such a picturesque place. It felt as though each new scene was more breathtaking than the next.

Before leaving the back roads we purchased some lavender products and walked through another quaint town but all too soon we were back on the main highway heading toward the hotel where we planned to stay the night in Cheltenham. We were quite excited to find that the Malmaison was a boutique inn that had fused old architecture with modern decor. It was far more lovely than we had imagined when we had made our reservations months before.

For some reason we were all craving Chinese food and we found a five star Cantonese restaurant not far from where we were staying. It featured a lovely setting that felt more like a perfect spot for a high tea with its chintz chairs, starched white table clothes, and delicate English china. Happily the food was scrumptious and the service was even better. We left quite satisfied and drove around town for a bit just to see what it was like.

We were quite tired from the day’s journey so we retired and slept peacefully in our beautifully appointed rooms. We rose early and ate breakfast at the hotel. We enjoyed eggs benedict, hot tea, and an assortment of rolls and jams. It was all quite yummy which ended up being fortunate because it would be many hours before we ate again. We were off and running toward Bath where we hoped to see the Roman structures built around the natural hot springs of the city.

Somehow we all agreed that we really wanted to spend more time in the Cotswolds just hiking and maybe even sitting on a porch taking in the views. It seemed too soon to be leaving such a spectacular area and somehow we secretly pledged ourselves that we might one day return until then we would have to be satisfied with our photographs and the sweet memories that filled our heads.

A Road Less Travelled

Robin Hood's Bay

We had planned our trip to England so that we might make the most of every minute of every day. After all, we might never be able to return again, so we did not want to waste time. Nonetheless we had left some leeway with our road trip to York, so when two different people from the area insisted that we travel to Robin Hood’s Bay before returning to the big city we thought it would be a nice diversion. We had little idea how impressive and memorable our little side trip would be.

Robin Hood’s Bay is an old fishing town and historically the site of smugglers and who knows what sort of mischief. It is just a bit more than an hour northeast of London sitting on waters that lead into the North Sea. These days it is a sleepy little place filled with tourists, retired folk, and those who have opted for a quieter way of living. Every inch of the town was filled with flowers and interesting buildings on the day that we visited. The people were open and enthusiastic about welcoming us to their little town so we felt right at home from the start.

We easily found a public car park and began a stroll through a different and lovely way of life. We first encountered a group of older folk playing a game of bowls on a lovely village green. We weren’t quite sure of the rules of the game, but it was fun to watch for a time. Because the lure of adventure was calling we soon continued with our exploration, walking leisurely past beautifully manicured homes and sweet inns were people sat enjoying the glory of a perfectly beautiful day.

Soon we reached a point where the shoreline was surrounded by imposing cliffs and the view appeared to stretch all the way to Norway which we learned was about five hundred miles away as the crow flies. It was quiet and breathtaking there, and we felt compelled to just stand in awe of the striking landscape. Of course we took multiple photos while we contemplated the grandeur of the spot and as we stood frozen in awe my own mind raced to thoughts of the people who had come ashore from places far away as well as those who may have launched their boats in search of fish or some grand excitement. I felt as though I might be willing to stay in that place for the remainder of my days simply enjoying the bounty of nature and the largess of the people in a quiet yet exhilarating respite from the craziness of the world.

We continued our exploration on a pathway that led to inviting little shops and eateries. One place in particular caught our attention. It was a store called Bertie’s that featured unique woolen clothing. The items for sale were quite different from anything we had seen and they were both stunning and reasonably priced. We learned from the proprietor that the styles were all based on the nautical history of the town. The sweaters featured a knit pattern created specifically for the area. In olden times when sailors were lost at sea it was often difficult to identify them after they had been in the water for a time. Their bodies would become bloated and unrecognizable. To be certain that they would be respectfully returned home the women began creating different weaves for different places. The clothing would immediately identify from whence a lost soul had originally come. Then it was a fairly easy matter to determine who the person was.

My sister-in-law Becky and I were particularly taken by the sweaters made of British wool and we decided to each purchase one. She chose an olive green and I wanted one done in burgundy. It had grown quite chilly outside so we decided to wear our lovely new garments while we continued to walk through the town. With her tiny figure and her long dark hair and sunglasses she was exceptionally stunning. 

We strolled all the way to the end of a pathway that meandered through the village where once again met up with the water. What had been a comfortable downhill journey became a bit more difficult when we trudged back up the hill as the day began to draw to a close. At the top of the rise we saw a little eatery boasting that it served the best fish and chips served anywhere. We were unable to resist the delicious aroma wafting in the air and we were famished, so we each procured an order and sat at a picnic table overlooking the enchanting views. The food was indeed as good as advertised and we wolfed it down through animated conversation and lots of laughs. 

We finished our visit by speaking with a resident who had come to Robin Hood’s Bay to live with his son. He was quite an interesting man and we might have tarried longer to hear his story but it was growing late and we knew that our return trip to London would take us almost five hours. It was time to say goodbye to Robin Hood’s Bay even though we hated to leave.

As we rode in the dark we spoke of a dream of one day returning to one of the inns and securing a seaside view. It sounded quite delightful to simply sit for a week or so relaxing and enjoying the landscape. We each carried the image in our minds and reveled in the joy that we had shared on our serendipitous side trip. Our road less travelled had been one of the highlights of the trip and we knew that we would never surely never forget how wonderful it had been.

They Live On

York Minister is a glorious example of medieval craftsmanship and mankind’s efforts to glorify the religious experience through great feats of art and engineering. It is also one of the most remarkable repositories of stained glass windows which tell stories of the past and provide a look into the humorous nature of humans. Located in the city of York north of London it is a grand architectural marvel that is alive with the tales of the people who built it. In its pillars, massive windows and fanned ceilings are quirky little jewels of commentary about the way things once were. It has withstood wars, fires and the erosion of time, but still stands as a voice of determination to overcome life’s setbacks and vagaries.

Our tour of York Minster was hosted by a lovely woman who had once been a teacher but is now retired and spending her time as a volunteer in the church where she worships. She was as interesting a character as the building itself with her distinctive northern England accent and her teacher like attention to interesting details. She delighted us with insights into what York Minster meant to the people who built it and the parishioners who worship there today.

York Minster is even more massive than Westminster Abbey. Over time one section after another was added to the original plan creating a space filled with chapels and archways beyond the main worship area. The medieval workers left their own quirky messages to the future in the shape of monkeys, political jokes, dragons and other features that speak of a different time.

The church began as a Catholic edifice that included statues and homages to the Virgin Mary that were later destroyed by protestants who believed such icons to be sacrilegious. Only one small image of Mary remains, somehow left unnoticed by those intent on removing any signs of such reverence. It has the typical structure of such churches with a high altar separated from the area for worshipers by the choir section that was being renovated at the time of our visit. Much of the stained glass has been taken apart, cleaned and reinforced with modern methods that alleviate the dark black lead that distracts from the lightness of the colored glass. The cost of such projects runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars and the upkeep of the grand building is a constant effort to insure that the ravages of time do not cause the building to deteriorate.

York Minster has had a number of devastating fires and the caretakers of the building have a keen understanding of how to rebuild after such disasters. At the present time they are offering their expertise on such matters to those charged with repairing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Our guide assured us that it will indeed be possible to rebuild the damaged areas of Notre Dame, but she is convinced that it will take far longer than the four years that has been set as a goal for the project. She noted that the process of renovating an historical treasure must by its very nature be painstakingly careful and slow to insure that everything is done properly.

York Minster has only one saint that pilgrims of old came to see. His is an interesting story born from a need to attract visitors and with them monetary offerings to take care of the expense of keeping up the grand structure. Way back in time there was a bridge over a nearby river that collapsed sending a crowd of people in the water. When it was discovered that none of the victims of the disaster died the incident was deemed a miracle and the thinking was that a local cleric was surely the reason for this wonderful outcome and so he was declared a saint. Thus York Minster had its own patron saint and the pilgrims began to come. Other than that the crypt in the basement is the eternal resting place of the remains of mostly local dignitaries and heroes who were not familiar to me.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the tour of York Minster came when my husband Mike revealed that he had recorded the voice of our guide because she sounded so much like his Granny. I had never met the woman who held such a special place in his heart. She had died while he was still in high school. Nonetheless I had heard so much about her bubbly personality and her kindness to everyone who was acquainted with her. I had learned of her journey to Texas from Newcastle England when she was only eight years old. I knew that she had been proud of her English roots and had never again seen her homeland. She enjoyed afternoon tea and prepared roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. She was a devout Episcopalian who wore lovely dresses, stockings, hats and gloves for her weekly shopping trips to downtown Houston. Mike adored her as did all of her many friends and family members. Her legacy lived long after she had died at a rather young age. What I had never realized is that she had retained her English accent even after years of living in Texas. It was a special treat to now have a better idea of how she sounded when she spoke and to truly understand how important her English roots had been.

For Mike the trip to England was a kind of pilgrimage in its own right. He felt his Granny’s spirit everywhere that we traveled and he liked to think that she was smiling down on him as he thought, “Granny here I am at last!” Now I too have a better idea of who this remarkable woman had been and of the history of people from my own background as well. I sensed their struggles and their determination throughout the passage of time and into the present. I know that their sacrifices and hard work have led to my own good fortune, and I somehow hear the voices of all of the people who came before me. I have a better feel for the hopes and dreams that are so present in the things that they built and the customs that they developed. Now I believe that they live on and always will.