Up at 6:30, having shared half a whole grain bun and the horrid instant coffee everyone seems to drink here (I mean really? Instant? Pah!), we greeted a Premier tour guide outside the door, much to his surprise as he was five minutes early and often has to chase people down. We rode his bus to Victoria Station, where we had to get out and find our tour bus. A long line had already formed for ours, and I was feeling sorry for myself as I had read Trip Advisor complaints of being at the end of the line and getting crappy seats, when a short man in a seersucker jacket said to a handful of us, “Tour eight? Follow me,” and he led us to a second bus. Little did I know that we had won the lottery of tour guides, Paul Metcalfe.
|Paul Metcalfe, our tour guide|
Now Paul Beauvais and I are not great tour participants to begin with. We tend to do our own little side trips, and when we are on a brief tour, we feel pinched and rushed and stuck with unpleasant people and corny tour guides and when we are going through, say, The House on the Seven Gables, we behave badly, snickering with our own little puns and side jokes about Red A’s and ministerial veils. (“I gather you have read Hawthorne,” our Hawthorne guide snarled on a one-hour trip through the house.) Still, I wanted a day when we could do something outside London we had not yet done without juggling the Tube or the train or a car, or all the other vehicles that tax our brains the day after jet lag, or actually jet leap. Several tour with several companies included Stonehenge, which I was medium-interested in, combined with (in varying combinations) Windsor Castle, Bath (with and without seeing the baths), Laycock (something to do with Shakespeare and a glass of champagne), or one called “England in a Day,” a sort of horrifying idea, that. So I chose one that gave us the most freedom: an hour or so in Stonehenge, set loose with audio, and then three hours free in Bath. We could have had a tour of Bath and of the Roman baths there, but we were looking for other things. Three hours to walk on our own would be great. My intrepid second cousin Julie, who lives in Germany, did this tour with two young sons and recommended it
So we boarded the bus up front and met our bus driver, Lester, and Paul Metcalfe, our guide (referred to here as Paul M. and our Paul as Paul.) introduced himself with a patter I found charming, fast, quick, and fairly original (though it may not seem so to him). “So sorry we had to get you up at stupid o’clock,” he said, “And on the solstice, I am doing the sunrise tour and have to get up at even stupider o’clock, 3 a.m., be at Stonehenge by 6 a.m.” He promised to be quiet once we were on the road, but would point out sights for the first part of the trip. And he did: Buckingham Palace, various businesses and governmental buildings, and a pub called “The Three Great Kings” with its sign bearing caricatures of Chas I, Henry V, and, between them, Elvis. He pointed out Harry Potter settings, which he said he could field questions on, but he would refuse to talk about Harry Stiles (but not before ranting a bit good-naturedly about how he didn’t like Stiles.)
Out in the suburbs, he pointed out Chiswick with its Edwardian housing. In Shrewtown, he pointed out the smallest and oldest jail I have ever seen (& you know I have seen a lot), a concrete space the size of a phone booth. He pointed out a very large pig farm and said his parents got him a book on pigs for Christmas so he’d know all about them. He poked fun of his parents, saying that they thought he gave pig tours, but I suspect the truth may be more that he does study up on these things, seems to take the job seriously and his parents were supporting him. Many of the details he shared were not so shop-worn as the tales one hears in, say, the Tower of London, but about things he has dug up in a book (real or imaginary) titled, What Is It. Perhaps it is the lack of history, but U.S. tour guides don’t seem so professionalized in the U.S. as they are here. Ours tend to be kids, given a script they know by rote, or re-enactors, who do know specifics, but only at one place. All the tour guides we saw that day (from 5-6 different companies) were all grown men in suitcoats or jackets. Not a single woman in sight in the job, which is a shame. Paul M takes the job seriously, with a great deal of humor, though not the old corny stuff…though there were his sheep jokes on the ride home through through the Cotswolds:
1) What do you call a sheep with its legs cut off? (A cloud.)
2) How do you tell a male sheep from a female one? (You look for its “Bah code.”)
|On the way on the path|
|Out in the grass|
We saved time to visit the gift shop, where we did not buy t-shirts that say, “Stonehenge Rocks” nor mugs nor bags bearing the Stonehenge official logo, just four postcards and stamps. We shared a cup of slightly better coffee and a raisin scone and climbed back on board.
I wish I could say more of Stonehenge, but it was sort of like being in Paris my first time, effing amazing to be there, but sort of boggling too, can’t make any original observation, just the photo of us together, saying here we are, together as the stones.
Most of our fellow passengers were bearable, some even nice, like the couple behind us from near Seattle with their two teenage daughters ahead of us. And a young couple from Houston who thought it was terribly funny that people kept saying it was the warmest day of the year (75 degrees or so) where they had left 90 plus degree weather. One 75-year old couple fro L.A. (who kept saying they were 75) held hands the old way out and fought the whole way back. When Paul G. tried to tell them to take the Tube to their tour the next day, she said, “We really are more taxi people than Tube people,” and I empathized because we have taken many more taxis this trip than ever because of Paul B.’s sprained ankle and two weeks’ luggage.
So anyhow, we got back on the buses and rode out to Bath, where I thought often of Mary Diaz, our former student who so loved Jane Austen. The approach is “quite lawv-lee” as they say here, as Bath is surrounded by seven hills and tons of limestone “And 90 percent of the buildings are honey-colored stone.” The bus set us down just a block from the Information Center, where Paul M. gave us an overview the option to go with him or mosey on our own, and Paul and I set off looking for Queen’s Square, where the Jane Austen Centre was, but unmarked, would be an apartment where Shelley lived.
We walked to the Assembly Rooms, hoping to have tea where Jane Austen did, but the “tea room” was a snack bar, so we found some locally made gifts in the gift shop and a postcard for Mary and headed to find Shelley’s apartment—which we did, we think. Unmarked, and numbers do change, but I think we were spot on. We went to the Sally Lunn shop for lunch, but we ended up getting Sally Lunn buns and tea and a very refreshing Elderflower drink at the Sally Lunn Shop. I was told it was sort of a brioche, and is was, a very large one, and then read that Sally was a Huegenott in 1680. I had one with lemon curd and clotted cream, Paul B had clotted cream and jam. In a bakery, I bought a “bath bun,” and I have to say the Sally Lunn bun (ahem) was much better.
We decided not to see The Baths. This may sound terrible, but after living in Segovia, I am sort of done with Roman architecture in general. So sorry! Paul B. and I separated to shop instead. I found a postcard of the “Pigs of Bath” for Paul G. I got fudge made with clotted cream in a box that said, “Thanks for taking care of my dog” for Judy in a wonderful wonderful penny candy shop and thought of Matt Lichter at the Tobacco Shop across the way. The Houston couple says smoking is illegal in any public place in Houston now, even the streets, so maybe Matt has quit with the cigars. I don’t think so, think I saw a mention of them on FB. Matt, keep the smoke out of Amanda’s lungs! I found two very cheap jokey things for Paul.
BACK TO BLOOMSBURY
We boarded the bus and rode back, with some of Paul’s patter, like pointing out when we were in the Cotswolds and telling his sheep jokes.
The bus crawled back to London in a snarl and stop of traffic, and finally set us down at a Tube stop where we finally got an Oyster card and took the tube back to the Tavistock Hotel. Along the way, we saw another blue plaque marking the home of a famous person. Paul liked this one:
|Cotswolds, meaning |
|A Secret Agent lived here|
We weren’t there long, got an address and set out for Ciao Bella, an Italian restaurant that the man in the pub told us about the night before. Let me begin by summarizing my review: some of the best Italian food I have ever had in the very loudest space I have ever sat in:
We got a table smack tight in a line of tables, on my right a pair of young women, on our left, a middle-aged couple so happy I thought they weren’t married (after the couples I had been seeing the past two days). I ordered tuna, sliced thin and fanned out on a bed of rocket (argula, to us Gringos(, Paul ordered pasta with an Arribata sauce so spicey hot I couldn’t even taste it & he sooo loved it.. We were both very happy with that. Finally, I turned to the couple on my left and said, “Is it always this noisy?” He laughed and said, “No, it’s usually louder!” Then we talked quite a while to them. They are foodies who had drive three hours to eat there and they occasionally fly to Italy just to eat. She had been to NYC twice and loved it. They have two teenage daughters, “Twins who share the same DNA but are so different. One is working as a waitress on Lesbos, the other has applied to get a job as an elf in Lapland during the holidays.” The husband seemed more of the outdoors type and when I told him my sister had lived and taught in Antwick, he said he had bought his fly fishing rod there.
I also got up and spoke to a table of six women, three young ones on my left, three older ones on y right, who were passing around two fans and waving them. I told them I had been working on a poem about the painting, “Woman with a Fan” and was curious about their using them. I learned the three young women (from the U.K., Indian, and Greece) were best friends who had brought their mothers to meet for the first time. Both the Greek and the Indian woman had memories of their mothers carrying fans everywhere, and they were all sharing stories about those memories. They said they would send me a photo of them, but so far, they haven’t.
Fed and full, our ears literally ringing still with the din and with a train to catch by 10 at Paddington, we walked back to the hotel and went to bed right after that very filling supper.