Dulles was its usual madhouse – we flew out of Kennedy in New York last time and the security lines seem much shorter but that may have been because we took the red-eye and not a morning flight. It was strange to lose an entire day over the Atlantic; they fed us hot croissants and fruit soon after we boarded, and then lunch/dinner two hours out of London, when it was already getting dark outside. I had hoped to see the Irish coast, which was overcast the last time we flew over it, but this time it was entirely dark by the time we got there. We did get to see a spectacular sunset hitting the clouds from above.
The kids watched The Incredibles and whatever was on United’s Disney channel; apaulled and I watched The Village, which neither of us had ever seen, and out of sheer boredom I watched most of The Princess Diaries 2, which was actually quite entertaining in a total guilty-pleasure way (Julie Andrews singing, one Prince Charming and one Mr. Not-So-Charming, plus a feminist campaign to stop the princess from having to marry to ascend the throne). We missed the ending because they collected the headsets so I suppose the hype in London over Charles and Camilla’s impending nuptials will have to stand in for my royal wedding.
Our cab driver gave us the scenic route into town, past Harrods, around Picadilly Circus and through the theatre district. We were staying at the Royal National Hotel in Russell Square, which is enormous and had about fifteen busloads of foreign tourists pull up right before we did. So it took almost an hour to check in, after which we were completely exhausted despite having lost several hours of our day, so we slept. Only drawback: no internet, either in the rooms or in the hotel’s public areas.
We got up pretty early Thursday for the hotel’s massive continental breakfast machine; they move several hundred people through with countless eggs, bowls of cereal, ham, sausage, toast, etc. Son #1 ate enough food for three people and spent the rest of the day complaining about his stomach. We went first to Westminster Abbey via the waterside, where we walked up to Cleopatra’s Needle and down across the river from the London Eye and the aquarium before turning inland at Big Ben. I was pleased to see war protests in full swing across from the Houses of Parliament. Last time we were in England, the abbey was closed for Easter services on the days we were in London, so this time we made sure to go on Maundy Thursday when we’d checked to make sure it would be open. I have always wanted to see the tomb of Elizabeth I –- the image of her face is the only one made from an impression, her death-mask –- and really there is a discovery every two steps in there, from Aphra Behn on a side corridor to the statue of Shakespeare in the poet’s corner.
From there we went to lunch; we’d planned to eat at the Cheshire Cheese, a pub dating back to 1667 where we ate last time with my friend Vera and which was a favorite of Dickens and Boswell, but it was overcrowded and understaffed, so we just grabbed sandwiches and went to the Temple Church, which was also closed the last time we were in London. The stained glass is spectacular, but son #2’s favorite thing was the giant Ten Commandments at the front of the church in which it spelled out that thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s ass. Here, as at Westminster, I was in the church when the dean/abbot/vicar (I have absolutely no idea of the correct titles for these people) took a moment for prayer in honor of Holy Thursday and for peace. Having already seen the two churches, we headed back via St. Paul’s, which we did not go inside this trip but walked around. We stopped for a bathroom break in a McDonald’s because it was the closest restroom we could find when son #1 demanded one and discovered that the British not only have chicken curry McChicken sandwiches, but Cadbury Egg McFlurrys. If the US is going to have McDonalds, we should get these too!
After a brief stop in an internet café so I could send an “I’m alive” message to our relatives, we had a relatively quick dinner in the hotel from the same sandwich shop where we grabbed food the night before so that we could go to the British Museum, which is open late on Thursdays. We saw the Parthenon exhibit, which we had missed last time looking at the British and northern European rooms, and we saw the parts of the Egyptian and Assyrian exhibits still open so late. (And of course the Rosetta Stone.) I am ambivalent on the issue of who should have the Greek relics, since the British Museum did acquire them legitimately whether or not the late Ottomans had any business letting them go, and since the British Museum has preserved them and kept them on display free to the public. I am certainly grateful that they were in London rather than at the Acropolis Museum.
When we came back Vera stopped by to make plans for the next day because apparently the hotel had not been relaying her messages. She had promised us a tour of the Greenwich museums, and we had promised son #2 that, like last time, we would take a boat in at least one direction. Because there were so many tourists in town for Easter weekend, we decided that we should take the boat back from Greenwich to Westminster and take the bus there on Friday, which also made the kids very happy as they had wanted a double-decker bus ride.
When we arrived in Greenwich via the bus, we walked through the touristy part of the city to the hill in the park where Queen Elizabeth's Oak and the ruins of a Roman temple are located; the last time we were in Greenwich two years ago they climbed the trees for so long that the Maritime Museum had closed by the time we got there. This time we walked down to the water to eat lunch in a restaurant called Trafalgar (which seemed entirely appropriate for eating in Greenwich, where we figured we should have fish and chips), took the tour of the Cutty Sark which fortunately was open despite the fact that it is undergoing extensive repairs, and went to the Royal Naval College and Maritime Museum for extremely rushed views of the chapel and exhibits -- the Nelson anniversary display goes up in July but there was still plenty of memorabilia on display, swords and silver and the like.
We took a cruise back down the Thames, with both Vera and the boat's guide pointing out sites of interest including centuries-old inns, the Gherkin, the Tower of London, the various bridges and Big Ben, which we learned from the guide is really the name of the bell in the clock tower and not the clock itself. From Westminster we took the Tube back to the hotel for a quick dinner, then rushed back to the Tube to get to Her Majesty's Theatre for The Phantom of the Opera. The theater is stunning; the production looks great; the Phantom was good, though not as good as Michael Crawford or Colm Wilkinson, but that may be because he was saddled by a Christine who overacted extremely to compensate for her limited singing skills. This did not bother the kids, however, who despite having seen the movie twice were riveted, particularly when the Phantom showed up in the angel on the roof which doesn't happen in the film. Despite a crowded late night Tube ride back, we got none of the earlier complaints of sore feet.
Saturday after a ridiculous wait for our rental car and a nearly two-hour delay, we set off from London. Our first stop was the Rollright Stones in Great Tew, a circle of stones, megalith and burial chamber from the Bronze Age. The stone circle is considerably smaller than those at Stonehenge and Avebury but because the stones are small and more porous, one can walk right up and see the flowers and fungi growing on them. (Unfortunately they are also easier to vandalize; someone had recently splattered yellow paint around much of the circle.) The visitor's center has divining rods for loan and people were dowsing in the center of the circle, a form of divination about which I know nothing. Across the road is the larger King Stone, fenced in to avoid similar vandalism problems, and a bit further on are the tombs called the Whispering Knights.
We stopped for lunch at one of the many inns we passed in the various towns we drove through; this one was called the Red Lion and I'm not even certain whether it was in Great Tew, Chipping Norton, Longcompton or Lesser Rollright (do town names anywhere in the world get better than this?) where we had sandwiches with excellent chips and vinegar. Then we drove to Birmingham, where the original plan was to go to the reservoir to see the two towers that might have inspired Tolkien on The Two Towers, but after getting lost twice and with the sky clouding up, we gave up and went to the art museum, where there are several rooms of Pre-Raphaelite paintings among a number of other collections including an exhibit on the art of historic Palestine -- Jewish, Christian and Moslem. I had been told that Birmingham was a very industrial city and was surprised at how pretty I found the parts of it we saw; there's a giant ferris wheel, not on the scale of the London Eye but still impressive, that dominates the skyline, and many beautiful old buildings. I thought it was prettier than Bath, which we saw two years ago and which seemed rather drab to me outside of the baths themselves.
During our three hour drive north past Sheffield and through Richmond to get groceries, the sky clouded over and we saw the first real rain I have ever experienced in England despite rumors of bad weather on a regular basis. We had forgotten to pack our CDs, and the only one we had with us was a freebie from that morning's Daily Express with one-hit wonders -- such disparate tunes as "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes" and "99 Red Balloons." The various BBC stations we picked up were covering the death of a former government official (I think a Prime Minister; I am ashamed to admit that I was not paying attention) so we listened to it over and over and now I will associate all those songs with grazing sheep and the bunnies by the side of the road on the way into Yorkshire.
We stopped for groceries, as we are staying in a cottage in Barningham -- two bedrooms, a living room, an upstairs den, a kitchen -- altogether an entirely civilized arrangement since there are plenty of places the kids could go hide from us and vice versa. The cottage is quite isolated, down a gravel path from a farm, with two fireplaces, and is well-stocked with books, videotapes, games, puzzles, and that all-important convenience while traveling, a washer and dryer...a very nice blend of cozy and modern. In addition to an already-well-stocked kitchen, the proprietors left us fresh eggs, milk and wine. I had my first internet connection in days and sent quick notes to all the people with whom I needed to check in, and we ate non-restaurant food for the first time since arriving in England!
Temple Church, London, just before Holy Thursday prayers. Happy Easter!