Crossing the pond
CN&R writer recounts a journey to the British Isles
Travel broadens the mind, or expands the soul, or something along those lines. Often when riding my bike from my home to Chico’s downtown area I find myself in perfect accord with this sentiment. Whirring along the quietly shaded streets, occasionally chiming my bike bell at a strolling acquaintance or lounging cat, is an exercise in mobile meditation, a sensible yet sensual method of engaging the physical world on its own terms.
So you can imagine the state of mind invoked by the idea of climbing into an airliner and jetting halfway around the world to absorb the vistas of distant countrysides and walking the streets of ancient cities. Suppressing my reservations regarding the ecological correctness of jetting to foreign lands, I proceeded to engage in preflight anxiety, imagining in torturous detail the sensation of being ripped to bloody shreds while gazing into the eyes of my beloved as our plane disintegrated at high altitude, morbidly contemplating what it must feel like to cling frigidly to a seat cushion in the Arctic Ocean while waiting for the fishes to nibble away one’s frostbitten toes.
As usual, reality proved superior to imagination. After boarding the plane on a lovely San Francisco afternoon, we vaulted into the sky with the greatest of ease and were soon roaring toward jolly old England, birthplace of many of my literary heroes: Wms. Blake and Shakespeare, Michael Moorcock, H.G. Wells, J.R.R. Tolkien, and—favored over all others—the divine P.G. Wodehouse, creator of Wooster and Jeeves and of Blandings Castle itself along with its chief inhabitant, that wooly-minded peer, Lord Emsworth.
The sky stretched out like a porcelain dance floor, and we slid across it like a glass bird. Bolstered by the ministrations of our cabin crew, landing and claiming our luggage at Heathrow was the work of mere moments, and the myth of irrationally invasive and intimidating customs agents passed us by as we breezed through, smiling at the festering anthill of Heathrow and heading for the railway exchange to York.
The train was a great relief after the crowded plane; virtually no one rides first class, so we had a car to ourselves complete with endless offers of tea, coffee or biscuits and the opportunity to order sandwiches, drinks and assorted snacks to sustain ourselves on the journey.
The city of York is a near-perfect location for a first-time traveler to set up a base of operations and get the feel of the land. My dear wife had booked our accommodations, and the Riverwalk B&B proved to be as idyllic as one could hope for, within easy walking distance of the town’s many sights, including England’s largest Gothic cathedral, York Minster (built in 1220?1470 A.D.) and, in a park on a hill behind our B&B, the ruins of a medieval cathedral rising like the ornate bones of a fallen giant out of the well-tended grass.
With its proliferation of ancient and ornate buildings, narrow cobbled streets and tiny shops and pubs, York is a quintessential English sightseer’s city, jumbled with more fascinating sights than can possibly be taken in by a couple of jet-lagged tourists over the course of two nights and one day. But we did our best, snapping pictures all around.
We knew York was just our starting point toward grander vistas and so boarded the train to Edinburgh with great fondness and no regret. We were heading to the heart of the land of Rob Roy, William Wallace and Robbie Burns; the land that produced the immortal Scotty, who coaxed the Starship Enterprise through many an intergalactic adventure. The land, no less, of the Loch Ness Monster.
We rumbled across the countryside, where the farm meadows—dotted plentifully with sheep and cattle—belied recent dreadful tales of the ravages of foot-and-mouth disease. More ominous were the frequent nuclear power plants that dot the landscape of northeastern England. But the beauty of the trip could not prepare us for the majesty that is Edinburgh with its high castle overlooking the city from a granite mountain.
Old Edinburgh is a city of immaculately worked stone spreading out from its oldest building, St. Margaret’s Chapel (built in 1130 A.D.), at the top of the present castle. From the crenellated castle walls one can look out over the entire city and the surrounding country, and it all looks fine.
Exploring the city on foot is both challenging and rewarding. Much of the old city is served by narrow cobbled streets that branch off the Royal Mile; and the streets are joined by tiny “closes,” or covered alleys between the massive buildings. The city feels like one huge building with infinitely branching hallways leading to hidden courts and secret gardens. My favorite was an ancient, tree-shrouded graveyard at the base of a path leading up to the castle. On the fine spring day we were there, a breeze swirled white blossom petals gently around the old mossy tombs, giving us the impression that we were enjoying the scene at the bottom of a snow globe.
Later, a hearty steak pie for me and some exquisite fish and chips for my beloved, washed down with brown ale and a wee nip of fine Scotch spirits, made complete a day that we shall both remember as one of the most pleasant of our lives.
The following morning we joined a bus tour of the fabled Highlands and lochs of Scotland. We were lucky to have as guide Fred Stuart, a driver of consummate skill and raconteur of considerable good humor. Fred made the trip worthwhile, never ceasing to point out interesting historical or geological sites. We even caught a glimpse of the castle from which the hapless cow was catapulted in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. Now that’s history!
The focal point of this pilgrimage was Loch Ness, a gorgeous, deep and ancient lake surrounded by forested mountains and inhabited by the best known of all modern mythological beings, the Loch Ness Monster. We didn’t catch a glimpse of the creature ourselves but were regaled with tales of its sighting by our scar-faced boat captain, who spoke with great enthusiasm and authority in a voice reminiscent of both Long John Silver and Groundskeeper Willie. When he described tearing off his shirt and leaping into the black waters of the loch to wrestle what turned out to be a 30-foot eel, we knew we were on the right boat.
We departed Edinburgh early the next morning on a train back to London, and before we knew it we were decanting from the train at King’s Cross Station with our luggage in tow and a few tube stops between us and our next B&B at North Harrow, in a working class residential neighborhood where the legendary Keith Moon, drummer of The Who, spent his callow youth.
Our stays in York and Edinburgh were in luxuriant, Victorian houses where few sounds other than birdsong ever penetrated the en suite ambiance and the hosts served up sumptuous breakfasts in elegant dining rooms. The house on Harrow hill was a bit different. We were greeted at the door by a gregarious little mutt named Scruffy who, along with his housemistress, showed us up the toy-strewn stairs to a bedroom with no lock on the door. Our window had a nice view of a child- and dog-infested back garden and the train tracks, which were noisily occupied about every five minutes by commuter trains.
We tubed into London to see the sights, but our hearts weren’t in it. Even the Blake exhibition at the Tate Gallery seemed lackluster. The greatest art I experienced in London was performed by a man in African dress playing a celestial harp made out of intricately carved gourds and wood and strung with the most resonant strings ever heard, reverberating and chiming endlessly through the tiled Underground tunnels like music piped down from heaven. The man’s singing wove through the notes of his harp like dark river water caressing a stand of swaying rushes that effortlessly absorbed and complemented the river’s flow.
I am utterly convinced that the tube system is the most fascinating aspect of modern London.
We couldn’t leave England without taking a trip into the land of Wodehouse—a mythical land of Tudor inns, tiny village pubs and lofty country houses. We succeeded in this mission by paying a visit to some family friends in Canterbury, who graciously drove us out of the tourist hubbub that Canterbury has become to the Market Blandings-like village of Chilim and gave us lunch at the fine little pub there. A hobbit would have felt at home there even if Bertie Wooster wouldn’t. Topping it all off I found a 1930s edition of one of Wodehouse’s finest Blandings Castle novels at a bookshop on our return to Canterbury.
I journeyed to England to discover the real country and joyfully left having found the land of my dreams.