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 White Rose of York

The Shambles

York is about a four hour drive north of London by car or two hours by train. It has a history as long and important as London, and was home to three kings. The House of York was a branch of the Plantagenets, represented by a white rose. The dynasty was troubled by war and ended with the death of Richard III and the rise of the Tudors. It was once a bustling city of great power lined with shops and industry. The Romans had a settlement there, and much of the wall that they built still stands. It is a unique place well worth the effort in getting there.

We set out for York on a Tuesday morning and arrived by early afternoon. Brother Pat was so adept at driving on the highways by then that we were rather carefree on the journey, spending most of our time enjoying the the landscape which became more and more magnificent the farther north we traveled.

We had rented a flat for the night in York that housed all six of us. It boasted a full kitchen, three large bedrooms, two baths and a living area all for less than two hundred pounds a day. It was clean and modern and within walking distance of all of the major attractions. We all agreed that we had done well in finding it even though we were generally unfamiliar with the area, relying only on photos to give us an idea of what we were getting.

Since we had tickets to visit York Minster, a magnificent medieval church, the following day we headed to the old town area known as the Shambles. Some say that it’s ancient cobbled streets lined with quaint shops were the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories. The hooks where butchers once hung their meat still hand over the walkways, and the tiny stores are filled with all sorts of interesting delights.

At the edge of the old town area was an open market place where vendors sold baked goods, antiques, jewelry, crafts, and even fresh meat. I came upon some Willow Ware dishes that included teacups, plates, a pitcher and a bowl. They were exactly like the traditional ones that I collect save for a different hue of blue. I was quite taken by them and knew that I had to purchase them when the seller offered the entire set to me for only twenty two pounds. It was a real bargain.

As she bubble wrapped each dish for me we spoke of York and the things to do there. Then she mentioned that if we had time we should definitely take a short side trip to a place called Robin Hood’s Bay that was just east of the area on the North Sea. She explained that she always took visitors there because it is a unique and beautiful place. By the time I was ready to leave with my purchases she had convinced me that we needed to find a way to include the town as one of our destinations.

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Christmas stores, sampling fudge, sipping on tea, eating ice cream, and laughing in magic shops. I purchased several art prints of both York Minster and the Shambles to go with the pictures from other cities that I have gathered over the years. I felt as though I really was in another world in another place and time until we eventually found our way back onto modern streets.

We decided to cook some spaghetti for dinner, so we purchased some fresh ground beef, known as crumbly beef in England, from the open market meat vendor, some fresh loaves of bread from a little bakery, and the rest of our food from a tiny grocery store. We walked back to our flat enjoying the beautiful weather and the flowers that seemed to be blooming everywhere.

It was a very pleasant stroll even with our heavy parcels. By then we had grown accustomed to walking  several miles each day, and the views in York were particularly enchanting. I saw trees, bushes and flowers unlike any that I have ever known and we all stopped often to snap images of the loveliness that was so bountiful.

We spent the evening enjoying a great meal made by my brother Pat. His skills in firefighting and driving are only outdone by his abilities as a chef. We ate his home cooked meal with gusto and then we played games and laughed and joked until late into the night. It is amazing how relaxed we had become and how much we had adapted to a slower way of life. It felt as though we had landed in a happy little bubble where there were no problems, and no bad feelings. Everything and everyone seemed as quaint as the programs on PBS that feature little villages where folks are friendly and life unfolds at a slower pace.

Of course we understood that real England is no doubt different from vacation England. We had set aside all of our worries and cares for a time, but indeed they must exist for those who live there. Still, it was nice to be free from any sort of concerns and to just live fully and happily in the  moment. Best of all was the opportunity to spend so much time with my brothers and sister-in-laws. There is something quite magical about sharing a trip with people that I love. The memories will now and forever bring a smile to my face.

We retired that evening feeling quite content but also excited about visiting the magnificent church that so dominates York. We were also more than curious about what we might find if we actually decided to travel to Robin Hood’s Bay.

The Rack

The Rack

Driving a car in England is no small feat for a Yank, and doing so in London requires a leap of faith. Aside from the obvious problem of driving on the opposite side of the car and a different side of the street, there is the crush of traffic on streets so narrow that it is a wonder that anyone ever makes it out alive from a simple excursion. Nonetheless we were intent on seeing some of the surrounding countryside and towns, so we rented a car and gave the task of navigating it to my brother, Pat, whose resume as a chauffeur is rather impressive. As a college student he had worked for the United States Postal Service delivering mail in one of those paneled trucks with the steering wheel on what is usually the passenger side of the car. He’d also driven a fourteen wheeler for a department store, and both an ambulance and a fire truck for the City of Houston. His credentials certainly seemed to indicate that he was up to the task of taking us out for a little spin.

Aside from the obvious problems associated with driving was the realization that parking is almost nonexistent in London. We wanted to secure a car for a week and travel back and forth to various destinations from our home base at the Holiday Inn in Bloomsbury. Try as we may we had still not found a reliable solution for our parking dilemma after a week of inquiry and we worried that finding a place to store it each evening would be almost impossible. Thanks to the quick thinking and negotiation skills of sister-in-law Becky we were able to set that worry aside.

  On the very evening before we were scheduled to secure the car Becky and brother Mike were locked out of their room, forcing them to inquire at the front desk of the hotel as to why this was so. They learned that the manager wanted them change to a different location, an up grade in fact, so that a handicapped individual would be in an adjoining room to his traveling party. They begged Becky and Mike for understanding and even insured them that the process of moving would be taken care of by members of the staff. Becky saw an opening for a special request and boldly mentioned our concern with having a place to park the car that we were going to rent for a week. She noted that there appeared to be a few empty parking spots right in front of the hotel and suggested that they would be ideal. A few words with the manager made everyone happy, as he gladly announced that he would be overjoyed to provide us with the needed parking slot. Our most worrisome problem was instantly solved!

The next morning we all walked to the Hertz rental location taking a long and circuitous route around the neighborhood before finally finding a small office on a hidden street. Since Pat was going to be the driver he had to secure the actual rental agreement which required documents that he had not brought, so there was another brief delay as he walked back to the hotel. Not long after noon we were excitedly piling into a Citroen that was supposedly designed for as many as seven people. We immediately realized that seats other than those in the very front were meant for only the smallest of children. To say that we were cramped is an understatement and the seats were not only tiny but also as hard as rocks. It didn’t take us long to refer to the vehicle as “the Rack,” as in an instrument of torture. Nonetheless we were quite excited about seeing more sights in the country so we squeezed ourselves inside and carried on.

As if driving in the country was not going to be difficult enough, the Citroen came with a manual transmission that required shifting gears with the left hand while steering with the right around corners. The second gear had an irritating habit of getting stuck in the worst of situations. It took Pat a bit longer to adapt than he had thought, but his wife Allison was an ever alert navigator by his side who kept him appraised of directions and alerted him whenever he was about to take off a mirror on a parked car. She came up with a way of telling him how to make his turns that eventually worked out well, “Make a wide right” or “This is a tight left.”

The first trip was to Brighton just to the south of London. It became more of a driving lesson for Pat than anything else and we only had a few close scrapes, but at first there was a lot of screaming and backseat driving as we all adapted to the strangeness of being in a car where everything was backwards. Not even Alice’s adventures in Wonderland were quite as ridiculously scary as our first hours in the tiny car.

By the time we reached Brighton we were famished, a bit shaky, and our limbs ached from the cramped conditions. We were more than ready to find a pub where we might enjoy a good Sunday roast and Google led us to the perfect spot. It was located on a neighborhood street and was packed with revelers giving us a sign that the food would be quite good. Happily we were not in the least disappointed.

We sat at an outdoor table where other diners came with their pets, sweet dogs that entertained us as we waited for our dinner. The meal was perhaps the best of our entire trip and husband Mike was particularly excited by the quality and taste of the Yorkshire pudding which reminded him of his own grandmother’s cooking. We splurged by ordering a sticky toffee dessert that was scrumptious and left full, satisfied and relaxed.

The beach at Brighton looked out on the English Channel. It’s rocky surface was not what we had expected and the piers and hotels were not as elegant as they appeared in movies set in the early twentieth century when women wore long white dresses and carried parasols to shade them from the sun. The famous gazebo and pier that is often associated with Brighton was a burnt out shell ravaged by fire and never rebuilt. The skeleton of its ruins sat forlornly in the water. Still it was a lovely place that looked out onto a route to the continent and to a storied history.

We walked on the rocky surface among hordes of sea birds and I even found one pebble shaped like a heart that I stuffed into my pocket as a remembrance of that day. It was nearing nightfall and we still had the drive back to London so we said our adieus and folded ourselves back inside the confines of “The Rack.”

For the most part our return journey was smooth, if uncomfortable, and Pat was quickly becoming a seasoned driver. He took our kibitzing in stride and we joked and laughed about the drawbacks of the car with a bit of lewd language. With grateful hearts we were soon safely parked in front of our hotel and congratulating Pat for getting us back “home” all in one piece. He and “the Rack” had served us well.

All the World’s a Stage

The Globe

I was one of those young college students who struggled to decide what path to follow in preparing for a career. I began with an unspecified arts and sciences major and changed directions multiple times. I even dropped out for a time because I was so confused about what I really wanted to do with my life. In the end I graduated with many more hours than usual, ultimately majoring in English and Education with a heavy dose of mathematics courses for good measure. By that time I saw myself as a purveyor of literature, and I dreamed of inspiring students to love Shakespeare as much as I do. I carried visions of my favorite high school teacher, Father Shane, in my head and hoped that I might inspire a new generation of young people to appreciate the beauty of the the written word as much as he had impacted me.

To my surprise my first job was as a mathematics teacher, something I viewed as a temporary status wrought by a dwindling market for newly graduated educators. I assumed that within in year or so the economy would right itself and I would soon enough be dramatically quoting lines from Othello and demonstrating the art of writing. Somehow I instead became branded as someone capable of instructing students in the algorithms and formulas of algebra, geometry, probability and statistics. It became an unbreakable trend, and soon enough my preferred mode of work. Still, there hovered in the back of my mind an undying love for literature, grammar, linguistics and composition. The artistic side of my nature needed to be unleashed, but would have to learn how to express itself in unique lessons for teaching proportion and the wonders of circles.

Once I retired from my career I returned to my roots, writing almost daily, reading and rereading some of my favorite authors, and immersing myself in the beauty of language. I even enjoyed tutoring a student or two in the ways of interpreting literature and then writing about metaphors and other tools of language. If found great joy and relaxation in having the time to devote myself to explorations of the ideas that I have always so loved.

Still there remained a longing to visit the land where so many of my favorite authors had once lived and to experience the history and culture that had so molded them. The number one entry on my bucket list was to travel to London and its countryside, and I was determined to one day make it happen. It was with great expectations that I recently crossed “the pond” and had the opportunity to walk in the shadow of some of the greatest authors of all time, not the least of which is my favorite, William Shakespeare.

The original Globe Theater where Shakespeare’s plays were performed was destroyed long ago, but a replica now stands along the Thames River offering seasonal productions for those desiring to get a feel for how the Elizabethan world might have been. It is an outdoor venue with a large open area for the “groundlings” who must stand during the presentation with three levels of seating on the same type of narrow wooden seating that the more prosperous patrons of old might have enjoyed. The only nod to comfort in the arena are the small cushions that may be procured for an extra fee to soften the harshness of sitting on a hard surface for three hours.

My traveling companions and I went to see The Merry Wives of Windsor, a comedy that might not have been my first choice but was nonetheless the offering for the season. It was a greatly modernized version of the rollicking farce featuring the crowd pleasing character, Falstaff. The members of the company played well to the audience just as the actors of old most surely had done. Their light hearted banter kept all of us laughing and enjoying the ridiculousness of the story.

When intermission came I learned that the members of my family had little idea what was happening. They had not taken entire courses on the works of Shakespeare as I had. Only my sister-in-law Becky was somewhat attuned because I had gifted her with a translated version of the play since she was worried that her English might not be up to speed enough to understand the nuances of a Shakespearean production. I hastily describe the premise of the play and each character’s role in the tale. After that there were more laughs and enjoyment coming from my family, and I felt a small sense of satisfaction in being a purveyor of understanding for them.

I was literally floating on air as we emerged from the Globe Theater at the end of a riotously fun evening. The night sky was clear and illuminated by a million points of light from the city of London. I walked across the Millennium Bridge in high spirits as I marveled at my good fortune, and considered that the course of my life had gone full circle, returning me to the passion of my youth. I thought of Father Shane and gave him a silent nod of gratitude for instilling me with a love of all things literary. I felt quite complete as I considered how well the course of my life had gone. There was something very Shakespearean about the way that I was feeling and the contentment that filled my heart.

As if to remind me that life is filled with comedies and well as tragedies, in the midst of my elation my brother Michael ran into a low barricade, did a complete somersault, and banged his head on the pavement in view of St. Paul’s Cathedral. His glasses were broken, his body was bruised, and we worried that his injuries were severe. With the usual aplomb he brushed away our fears, but the bubble of perfection in which I had been floating returned to reality. It felt as though Shakespeare himself was reminding me of the vagaries of life that are the stuff of both tragedy and comedy.

I shall never forget my evening at the Globe Theater. I have seen better plays and more superior acting at the Alley Theater in Houston, but those entertainments did not feel as sacred as my pilgrimage to the place where the undyingly prescient words of the Bard still deliver their universal messages. More than ever I knew that “all the world’s a stage,” and I have been a player in its never ending plot.