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A Short Trip Through Great Britain

  • Submitted by: Matt Donath
  • Website: None Available
  • Submission Date: 04th Feb 2005

Our tradition of non-routine departures continues when we arrive at Chicago Ohare to discover our flight has been cancelled. Fortunately, we are able to catch another flight to Minneapolis in time for our connecting flight. Actually, well in time since that flight is delayed. I would curse Northwest Airlines now but I'll save that for the return flight.

We fly into Gatwick, which is a first for me. The train connection is as easy as at Heathrow and we soon come into London Bridge station. We walk around, stretching our legs, when Sybil spots a small surgical museum and gets very interested. I do not share her interest. We go in. After all, this trip is, in part, a celebration of Sybil's completion of chemotherapy and radiation. It's also her first time in England while I have been her a few times before. Thus, she's calling most of the shots for this trip. Unfortunately, this surgical museum turns out to be not worth the price of admission.

Next we walk by St Paul's and then over to the Museum of London. This place is quite large and well worth lingering over, but we're too tired from the flight over to properly appreciate it. You'd best allocate several hours for a visit.

OK, now that we're too tired for anything else in London, we want to get out of town and find a bed. Where is Sybil's first destination in Britain? Ipswich! Although I do not learn the reason for her choice until later, I like her non-conventional itinerary.

We stay at The Clifton (recommended). The guy who owns the place seems a bit gruff at first but he's actually quite nice.

The next day we head to Christchurch Mansion, where a Tudor house is situated in gardens now used as a public park. The house is partially furnished in period, with other rooms containing an eclectic changing art collection.

All this is well enough, but it is not until I discover Sybil taking notes in one small room that I learn the real reason for our beeline to Ipswich. Sybil studied the poetry of John Donne in college and she is interested in certain places that are related to particular poems of his. One of these poems is an elegy: "Wherein, by the untimely death of Mistress Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and decay of the whole world is represented." The panels of one room in Christchurch Mansion used to hang in Hawstead Place, where they served to decorate a small meditation chamber for the Drury's and work as an influence for Donne's poem.

Even aside from their history, the panels are fascinating. A griffin carries off an elephant contains the caption: "One has no time for petty things." A skull with branches growing through eye sockets: "You will die in the way you live." Lots more, and all eerily moving.

Ipswich itself is fun to wander about in the older section, once you get away from the nasty traffic. We spend the day walking about before catching a train to Bury St. Edmunds.

I should mention at this point that, after much debate and research, we decided to purchase a BritRail Pass. I've usually found rail passes to be a bad value and a bad excuse for "too much moving about" (remembering my RTW Journal quote). However, this being Sybil's first trip to England, she wants to see many places, and these places are not particularly close to each other. Transportation, like just about everything else in England, is very expensive. So, the BritRail Pass is a better buy than most other rail passes. Since this is a short trip, convenience in not having to buy each individual ticket also becomes a big factor.

Bury St. Edmunds is justifiably famous for its charming Abby ruins. Aside from the ruins, the grounds contain gardens, a cathedral, a cemetery, and a Norman tower. We also enjoy strolling about the town.

Early the next morning, we hit the footpaths and head for the countryside. Our goal is once again related to that same John Donne Poem. A church near the tiny village of Hawstead, a few kilometers south of BSE, contains the effigy for Elizabeth Drury. Sybil actually hunted down the church wardens and phoned them from Chicago to make sure someone will be around to let us in the church. Turns out we're arriving on a Sunday so they invite us to join their sermon before showing us around.

Great, but first we have to find our way there. We get lost in a heath before finding a footpath that seems to lead in the right direction. This eventually ends in a farmer's field, so we trudge over it to a road. We very much enjoy our hiking through the countryside and despite our lack of either map or direction, arrive at the church in time for the service.

The Drury's, and other wealthy families of the past, donated money for this church. Consequently, it is far grander than one would expect for a congregation of about a dozen. Everyone is very pleasant to us and we learn a great deal about the history of the church. They even give us the run of the place after the service, leaving us the key to lock up when we're done with our examination and photos.

We take a different, but equally enjoyable route back to BSE. On several local recommendations we make dinner reservations at the Maison Bleue. They are so busy we can't get in until 9:30. We hang out in pubs until we're starving. The food is very good, but not fabulous. In true French fashion they offer a fly-covered cheese plate for dessert. We pass.

We're off to Cambridge the next day for a short visit with Sybil's friend Paul. He works at the university, so he is able to get us a room in one of the colleges. This is definitely the best accommodation option. In fact, this is probably the only time during our stay where I felt we got a decent value for our money. The ancient tub in the shared bathroom is one of the trip highlights for Sybil.

We treat Paul (and ourselves) to another fancy meal at the Three Horse Shoes. If you are willing to pay the price, it is possible to get very good meals in England.

Our two days here are pleasantly spent exploring the town and campus. Paul helps us get into places like the marvelous King's College Chapel without paying, but we rarely need his assistance for most other places. We follow local recommendations to the vegetarian Rainbow Café -- not recommended.

We train to Chesterfield the following evening. Here we have a bit of trouble finding a place to sleep and wind up at a B&B we don't like -- the Anis Loiuse Guest House. It has all kinds of great write-ups but we didn't enjoy it at all

Chesterfield is another place I wouldn't think of for a first trip to England, but Sybil's research showed that there's quite a lot to do in the area. We visit Bolsover Castle, but find the ruins under too much construction to recommend. Much better is our trip to Hardwick Hall, which is very well preserved and contains a wealth of interesting artifacts.

Getting to Hardwick was half the fun. We take a local bus and try to hike out from the bus stop. Of course we get lost and wind up at a gate near a cottage. A friendly old man comes out of a cottage with his cat to get his mail. He tells us this road was the old entrance to the hall. It's closed to non-local traffic but we can walk on it.

We still arrive early and have time to for an audio guided visit through the ruined new hall and then have a leisurely stroll through the gardens. After a surprisingly good meal in the Old Hall's dining area, we're inside the main attraction, viewing tapestries and armor. Sybil spends a great deal of time chatting with the informative docents. I often prefer to lose myself in imaginings of how life was like in these privileged rooms so long ago.

York is our next stop on this whirlwind swing. This time we are fortunate in finding very friendly lodgings at The Romley House. Carol Harding doubles as tourist information center as well as hostess. We spend a rainy day viewing the excellent York Castle Museum and the fabulous York Minster. The gothic cathedral is sensational -- well worth a long visit.

The rain lets up the next day, so we walk along the walls of the old city and explore the side streets. After lunch, Sybil is up for something spontaneous. For some reason she wants to run up to Bridlington -- as far as I can tell, mainly just to see the sea. I'm very much against the idea at first but relent in the end. Train rides to unexpected places are difficult to resist.

Bridlington turns out to be a rather pathetic place in the off season. The goofy seaside amusement houses are either closed or nearly deserted and mournful elderly people peer out from the many long-term lodging houses. We talk a long, chilly walk along the beach and Sybil chats with a lonely Coast Guard woman who can't understand why we would want to come to this place. I can't either, but I don't regret it now.

Next day we're off to Edinburgh on a very crowded train. We learn that there is a huge rugby tournament in progress. Scotland is about to play a big game against New Zealand. I think the English team is playing there as well. This turns out to cause huge problems for us, as we can't find any suitable lodging in Edinburgh. I should have taken it as an omen when after detraining and trying to get our bearings a peculiar local girl walks by and snatches a newspaper from my hand. We spend half the day looking for lodging. I'm ready to take one of the very few available places, but Sybil vetoes the place because of the smell and the smutty magazines.

Thank goodness we have our travel passes. We hop on the next train out of town and quickly decide on Stirling for a destination. Turns out to be a good choice, even though we initially have some problems finding a room here as well. After knocking on too many doors we're surprised to be greeted by an American man and even more surprised to find he has a room. His name is Bob Wischmann and his place is the Marchview (recommended, but we have to go to great lengths to block out a street light).

Next morning we visit the famous Stirling Castle, with its marvelous views. The historical information given here makes up for a dearth of artifacts and makes for a good overall visit.

Next we visit a nearby cemetery and a historic house before wandering down the hill towards the station. We've wisely made reservations at Six Mary's Place in Raeburn Place, Edinburgh. I can recommend this place as well as a vegetarian place called Evergreen that seemed among the best of the many B&B's we couldn't get into the day before.

We have much better luck in Edinburgh this time round. Our first visit was probably the low point of the trip but this time we're quite happy wandering around this beautiful city. We just enjoy walking the streets, admiring the buildings and views, while popping into churches, shops, and restaurants to avoid spotty periods of rain. The National Museum is certainly worth a visit. We skip the Castle this time though, as we've just been to Stirling.

Sybil surprises me by leading us to a Hogshead pub that's having a bit of a beer festival. They also do a pretty good vegetable Thai curry. Scotland's rugby team is getting thrashed on the telly, but unlike most of the people watching, we have a good time.

Six Mary's Place isn't far from the Botanical Gardens, so we visit the next morning. This is an unexpected treat. I'd heard good things about the place, but as we've seen so many wonderful botanic gardens on other trips recently, I hadn't expected this one to hold it's own with them. It does though, mainly because of their marvelous greenhouses.

I'd been planning on renewing our wedding vows at Kew Gardens, but we're having such a pleasant visit that we decide to do it here. It's also raining a bit, just like on our wedding, so it seems fitting. So, we read our vows in a private area of the rock garden. We'll save the Kew ceremony for another visit, when the roses are in bloom.

One of the few places to avoid is the John Knox House. Sybil knows something of his history and some more can be learned here, but there is nothing of interest in the house to see. A disappointing tourist trap.

After spending another enjoyable day poking around town, we have some time to kill at night before catching our midnight reserved night train sleeper to London. We wind up at an tiny Egyptian place, eating some good food before catching a showing of "Run Lola Run" at a multiplex that is showing the Scotch premier of "Blair Witch Project" on every other screen.

Once on the train after a delayed start, our sleeper rooms are extremely tiny, but ultimately quite serviceable. As our last night train trip included some horrible Indian train rides, we have far fewer complaints than the neighbors.

In London we need to transfer at Paddington. They are still recovering from a dreadful train crash there, so the station is a bit of a chaotic mess. Our train is late and hard to find, but we manage. We're off to Penzance, a long way from Edinburgh, but we're enjoying the views.

Penzance is a pleasant little town, full of gardens, beach walks, and interesting side streets. We stay at the Woodstock House (recommended). After getting many recommendations for the Turk's Head, we dine there. The atmosphere is wonderful, but the food is only OK.

The next day we take a short but scenic train ride to St. Ives. St. Ives is also a nice little town, with better views than Penzance but much more touristy. I'm happy we're not staying there. Walking through town is OK, but we have more fun heading north on the Coastal Path outside of town.

We have such a pleasant walk on the Coastal Path that we decide to do another stretch of it the next day. After asking for advice, we catch a local bus and ask to get off at "Lamorna Curve". This lets us off seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but we know the coast is off to the left somewhere…. We wander through a beautifully wooded path, thick with moss and overgrowth. Eventually we come out at a small bay, greeted with a spectacular view in the morning light.

As nice as the walk was the day before, this portion of the Coastal Path is far better, with more varied terrain and fantastic views. We have a magical time climbing up rocks, picking blackberries, and peering at tide pools -- definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me. The Old Coastguard near Mousehole (recommended) provides a much-needed lunch break. The hiking between Mousehole and Penzance is not as spectacular as the earlier hiking, so we take the road for a good bit.

Next morning we train back to London. We stay at the Jenkin's Hotel (Russell Square, recommended) in Bloomsbury. We have time for a quick run through the British Museum. I haven't been here since they moved the library out. A lot of inside construction is in progress.

The next day is full of touring. First, Sybil wants to pick up a gift at Harrod's. I don't think I could recommend buying much here, but the place is definitely worth a look. Don't miss the food displays downstairs. See this right when they open for best effect.

We walk around and wind up at Leicester Square. We decide to spring for theatre tickets and pick up some for Les Miserables. Then we head down to Trafalgar Square. After visiting the National Gallery, Sybil wants to see a lecture at the Portrait Gallery. This is a lecture on Edward VI that she planned on seeing before we left on our trip! She got the time wrong but we make the lecture.

Time is short and I want to show Sybil so much of one of my favorite cities. We manage to walk through St. James Park to take a look at Buckingham Palace and then back towards the river and Big Ben, Westminster, and the Houses of Parliament before rain sends us inside.

The King's Theatre is cramped, with tiny seats and bad views. Still, Les Miserables is a quite a good show, so we're happy.

We attend service at St. Paul's the next morning. Seems very long to this HEN believer, but I'm happy we went. After the service, we persuade a friendly guard to let us into a closed off part of the church to see the effigy of John Donne. We've completed our Donne pilgrimage!

The rest of the day is pleasantly spent tramping about, wandering through Covent Garden, Soho, Mayfair, and along the river. Walking about London is the best part about the place.

Our return flight is delayed for many hours. This leaves me with a string of six Northwest flights in a row that were delayed. How's that for on-time performance? I used to like that airline too.

I'll try to scan some photos in and put them up at the websites below.




http://www.geocities.com/mdonath or http://mdonath.tripod.com