We flew out of JFK because it was so much cheaper than taking off from any of the DC-area airports, so we had to drive for nearly five hours, then sit around in Kennedy for another three hours before boarding the plane. We had a very easy flight, taking off just before sunset and landing just after sunrise, a little less than six hours in the air. The good and bad news was that we were on a very new plane with little screens built into the backs of the seats and eight movie channels running simultaneously; as a result the kids were extremely quiet and cooperative but did not sleep at all. We didn’t get dinner until nearly 10 EST and then we got breakfast barely three hours later, as the sun came up over Ireland. I read ‘The Da Vinci Code’ most of the way (and was totally engrossed, especially at the end when the protagonists were chasing the Holy Grail in the Jerusalem Temple in London). Adam watched Disney cartoons. Daniel watched ‘The Scorpion King.
We landed at about 6:30 a.m. London time and had to wait about 20 minutes to get through customs, during which time both kids pretty much collapsed on the floor. Adam dragged himself through the airport and fell asleep in the van on the way to the rental car. Both kids slept the whole way to Windsor Castle, during the course of which we got lost several times and ended up parking at the bottom of Windsor on the Thames. The weather was magnificent, sunny and warm but not hot.
The Queen was in residence at Windsor so the changing of the guard was quite spectacular, with a band that apparently played for longer than they do when the Queen is not there. The castle itself was spectacular too though Adam slept on Paul’s shoulder the whole way through the town of Windsor and most of the tour of the castle grounds, which probably would have interested Daniel with all the talk of William the Conqueror and Henry VIII had he been more awake. We rushed through the doll’s house but spent a lot of time in the rooms with armor and Adam was particularly impressed with the paintings on the ceilings.
We had lunch at a little soup and sandwich place in Windsor and walked along the Thames a little before driving to the apartment where we’re staying in Catford. (I am NEVER driving in England; I get carsick even sitting on the left as a passenger.) The apartment backs up to a courtyard with a little aviary, plus there is a big yellow cat in residence, so we felt right at home. We wandered into Catford to buy food and then Paul took the boys swimming in the indoor pool while I called my friend whom we’re meeting on Monday. For dinner we had chicken tikka masala picked up at the supermarket. We all went to bed very early.
Sunday we got up late because Paul was under the silly impression that, having gone to bed at 9 the night before, he would instinctively wake up by 7 London time. By the time any of us actually woke up it was closer to 8:45 and we were already running late. We raced out to Bath (after stopping to buy a Sunday Times, which failed to make me appreciate the football playoffs any more than I did before). Though the town is mostly dirty beige buildings and looked rather drab under overcast skies, though it was clearly thriving; the approach to the baths is through the center of a big shopping arcade with a Marks and Spencer and a discount bookstore.
The Roman ruins were fascinating, to be seeing something so old, and the tour was superbly designed with audio that could be activated at numerous points along the way. One starts at the upper level, looking down into the main bath, then one moves through various rooms of architectural bits and mosaic murals to the level of the hot spring, which runs off via a waterfall at one end. It was very crowded and we were pretty rushed -- the original plan was to get to Glastonbury and Stonehenge the same day, since they're both roughly in the same direction -- so I couldn't really take it all in, and between taking photos and video and trying to explain various things to the kids, I didn’t feel terribly connected to any of it.
We ate lunch in the car on the way to Glastonbury, which Paul was muttering about perhaps having to skip so that we could get to Stonehenge before the official tours stopped at 6, but I convinced him that we probably didn’t need the official tour so we kept on. Glastonbury Tor is visible for several miles out of town, and the moment I saw the hill with the tower on the top, I knew there was no way I wasn’t climbing it. Moreover, the moment we entered the town proper and I saw the abbey and the numerous stores devoted to Pagan and Celtic pilgrims, I knew that I was not leaving there to rush to Stonehenge unless I was dragged out.
We toured the abbey, which is an enormous ruin covering several acres. There’s a museum first with legends (St. Patrick was there, King Arthur had been buried there –- the legend that Mary Magdalene was brought there by Joseph of Arimathea was not included but I had read it several days earlier) and some of the smaller bits of sculpture and stone that had fallen when the roof of one of the main chapels collapsed. The kids did rubbings of knights while I took photos of the alleged grave site of Guinivere and what had been the crypt of the main chapel. Then we walked through the rest of the abbey, including a nearly-intact chapel and a storehouse, plus the wooden outlines of buildings that were no longer there. Considering all the positive press Henry VIII got at Windsor Castle, it was interesting to get a reminder of how horribly unconverted Catholics were treated during the English Reformation; the last abbott at Glastonbury was beheaded and quartered.
It drizzled the entire time we were on the grounds though the sky was pretty bright and eerie over the Tor. I don’t know how to explain my reaction to the place except on a purely spiritual level; I had Marion Zimmer Bradley and ‘Holy Blood, Holy Grail’ on the brain and was feeling really deeply connected to the land. When we left the abbey I insisted that we were going to try to climb the Tor; it’s a twenty-minute walk from the abbey just to the base of the path and I wasn’t at all sure they wouldn’t be too tired to climb, but I refused to leave without trying and Paul agreed that we could probably go to Stonehenge from Oxford later in the week. So we walked to the base of the Tor, and Adam immediately said that he wanted to climb the mountain. Which we did. And naturally, despite some initial complaining, the kids got up with less trouble than Paul or I did.
The path has a lot of steps which we ended up abandoning to walk in the softer grass. On the walk up I had met two women, and American and a Brit, who had met online and were traveling together who took a picture of all of us at the summit. It’s very windy and cold at the top; the wind blows straight through the tower, which is open at the bottom on two sides. It was overcast but the visibility was pretty good; one side looks down on Glastonbury and a hillside of sheep above the Sacred Well, while the rest looks over fields that stretch for miles (and at this time of year there’s a lot in bloom). I was absolutely thrilled to be up there, on Palm Sunday when surely other pilgrims have made the trip. When we came down we ate Italian food at a little restaurant in town and I bought a set of rune stones –- I had to get something spiritual and tactile from Glastonbury.
It was a long ride back, nearly three hours, enough time to listen to 80-minute CDs of Loreena McKennitt and October Project plus some Indigo Girls. I went to be in a very feminist-spiritual mood. Heard that Sheffield United lost and briefly felt sorry for Sean Bean, then realized that I basically hadn't thought of LOTR all day despite being in England. Maybe at Oxford.
Monday we got up early so we could take the train in to meet my friend Veronica at the Globe Theatre, passing Drake’s Golden Hind on the way. We took the tour, which includes some wonderful audio-visual segments –- bits of old performances on video and audio recordings of famous actors doing great speeches, so the kids got to hear Alec Guinness and Ian Holm doing King Lear and Richard III respectively; there’s also a costume display, some traditional props and a bit on Elizabethan life before entering the Globe itself. I was a little startled by how garish the colors seemed, especially the fake-marble pillars and the green windows, something that’s not often illustrated in books on Shakespeare where the colors tend to be muted, I guess to make things seem aged. The acoustics inside are phenomenal; we could hear every word of everyone else’s tour as well as our own. We weren’t allowed onstage (only student groups are), but we got to sit in the balcony and to stand just below the stage to get a sense of what it was like for the penny customers.
From the Globe, Veronica led us across the Thames on the Millennium Bridge, past St. Paul’s and through London back alleys to Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a restaurant that has been in continuous operation since it was rebuilt after the fire in 1667, where we had traditional English food –- bangers and mash, fish and chips, pork loin. We walked from there to the Temple Church, built by the Knights Templar, but it was closed due to rehearsals for Easter so we were only able to see the outside. Then we wandered through the law college to catch a double-decker bus (the kids’ choice) to the British Museum, where we saw the Egyptian and Celtic displays and had tea (Veronica’s choice). It was pretty amazing to see the Rosetta Stone in person, though the displays on early Celtic Britain were a bit disappointing; the probable human sacrifice found in a peat bog was particularly powerful in souring admiration for Druid relics. At any rate I didn’t have anywhere near the same emotional reaction as I did to being at Glastonbury or inside the recreated Globe.
The kids were pretty fried after going through the antiquities so we didn’t try to see any more of the museum but headed back to the main streets (I did stick my head in Forbidden Planet on the way). We took another double-decker bus ride and were going to go see the platforms in King’s Cross Station because of its connection to both Thomas the Tank Engine and Harry Potter, but there had been a bomb threat and the station was being evacuated, so instead we walked down to the next station and took the tube to London Bridge, where we caught the train back to Catford. We had a little shopping to do for stuf for Passover so we stopped in the food store on the way back to go to the pool.
Please don't be insulted if I don't answer your mail -- it's incredibly expensive to call out from the hotel. Tomorrow with any luck I will get to meet the legendary viva_gloria in the flesh; we will try not to get into too much trouble. Hope everyone is well and happy!