London Trip 4

We got back to Knoxville late Wednesday night, and for some reason I’m still feeling jet-lagged and out of sorts. Maybe it’s just the depression that sets in each time I return to the routine and responsibilities of “real life” after a great vacation. I came home with a couple hundred pictures and hope to get them sorted, cropped, labeled, and uploaded into Flickr by the end of the week. Until then, here’s a recap of our last five days.

Friday, the 21st

The pace of the week had started catching up with us by Friday, so after a late breakfast, we went back to our room, watched a little TV, washed some clothes, and napped.  We ran down the street for lunch and browsed the stores around Charing Cross and Oxford, but it was an otherwise uneventful afternoon.

Around 4, we took the Tube to Clapham, a neighborhood a couple miles south of central London, where we met up with one of Joanna’s old friends. Andre’s parents lived next door to Joanna’s when she was in high school, and the two families have kept in touch over the years. We spent a really nice evening with him, his wife, and his brother. Andre and Katrina live in one of the tens of thousands of Victorian row houses that line the streets of London. Amazing ingenuity and foresight those Victorians had. High ceilings, beautiful moldings, solid construction — those houses still have a couple more centuries in them, I’d imagine.

After a full week in London, we both really enjoyed the company as well. It was nice to spend an evening with friends, sharing a bottle of wine over a home-cooked meal.

Saturday, the 22nd

On Saturday morning we headed to Charing Cross Station, where we caught a train to Rye. Andre’s mother lives in The Ancient Town of Winchelsea in East Sussex, 50 miles south of London, and she’d graciously invited us to spend a day with her there. Before heading to her home, Francoise showed us around Rye. We visited the Lamb House, where Henry James lived, and we walked through its gardens. We ate lunch at the Mermaid Inn, which was rebuilt more than 70 years before Columbus sailed the ocean blue. We went shopping (Joanna picked up some Victorian jewelry; I resisted the urge to spend way too much for a 1st edition of A Streetcar Named Desire). And I climbed the narrow steps to the top of the Rye Parish Church.

Winchelsea is a short drive from Rye, close enough and small enough that I could see it all from the top of the Parish Bell Tower. Francoise’s home was originally built in the 17th century as the servant’s quarters for the adjoining mansion. After remodeling the place, she’s decided to put “Little Mariteau” up for sale. It’s a beautiful, storybook-like place with views of rolling sheep lands out the back and St. Thomas’s Church in front. It took us fifteen minutes to walk the whole of Winchelsea, not counting a long stop at the church. She then drove us down to the coast for a quick look at the sea and the rocky shoreline. Even on an impossibly sunny day in late-April the wind was biting.

We spent the night with Francoise, who fixed us an amazing dinner and opened a bottle of wine and a flask of limoncello she’d brought home with her from a recent trip to Italy. Really a wonderful evening.

Sunday, the 23rd

We were back in London by 11:30 Sunday morning. You know how they say you can set your watch by the British trains? Yeah, that’s true. They mean that. I’m obsessive about being early everywhere I go, so I was feeling anxious when Francoise dropped us off just five minutes before our scheduled departure. It took us two minutes to get from her car to the platform; we waited one minute for the train to arrive; two minutes later we were on our way. Unbelievable.

We had to be back by noon in order to check out from our hotel. As an anniversary present, my parents gave us three nights in their timeshare company’s London flat, which is located in Maida Vale. Rather than fight with our bags on the Tube, we took a cab over there, winding our way through the traffic caused by the running of the London marathon. Our driver was relieved to learn that we aren’t fond of Bush. (Bush’s name came up in the first five minutes of every single conversation I had with a Brit, followed soon after by a discussion of America’s absurd healthcare system.) He told us about a group of American businessmen whom he’d accidentally offended a few weeks earlier. He’d been touring them all over the city, and after his harmless Bush joke they’d spoken to him only once, to make a lame crack about America’s victory in the Revolutionary War. “Yeah, but only because we felt sorry for you,” he laughed back. “Why else, do you suppose, we would wear bright red coats and march in a straight line?” He must have told us ten jokes in as many minutes.

After checking in, we walked down to a local grocery store, bought some food, and for the first time in more than a week made our own lunch. Amazing what a luxury that becomes. We killed most of the rest of the day relaxing. Have I mentioned yet that we were in England during the World Snooker Championship? Have I mentioned that the BBC covered it nightly and that I watched a lot of snooker? Because it’s all true. I watched a LOT of snooker.

The only other noteworthy event on Sunday was a return trip to Covent Garden for another meal at Cafe Pasta. Again, the food wasn’t exceptional but the experience was pretty great. We were seated a few inches away from a man in his late-50s who spent the entire evening trying — and failing — to seduce his 30-something dining companion. It was like a free trip to the theatre.

Monday, the 24th

Maida Vale is northwest of central London, so we spent most of Monday exploring the area. First we headed up to the cemetery at Kensal Green, where Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope, and William Makepeace Thackery are buried. Honestly, we didn’t see any of their graves, or the graves of any notable personalities for that matter. It was worth the trip, though. Joanna wanted to visit Antiquarius, so next we set off for King’s Road. We walked several blocks through Chelsea, grabbed some lunch at Pizza Express, and quickly realized that the trip was taking its toll on us both. We were getting tired — tired of walking, tired of the crowds, and tired of that nagging feeling that any moment not spent doing something significant was a moment wasted. We vowed to return to the flat earlier than usual that night.

On the way back, though, we stopped off in Notting Hill. I wanted to check out the book and music stores there. We strolled up Portobello Road, which was a ghost town that afternoon, came back through Notting Hill, then walked east toward Kensington Gardens. The walk was largely an excuse to avoid the Tube during rush hour, but it ended up being a really nice experience. We didn’t go into Kensington Palace but we did enjoy the gardens. We found a park bench and rested our legs while bicyclists and joggers rushed by. We were back at the the flat by 7:30. I mentioned the snooker, right?

Tuesday, the 25th

Francoise’s daughter, Michelle, was in Spain over the weekend, so we got together with her on Tuesday. She met us at Oxford Circus, two blocks from where she works, and took us to Ping Pong for lunch. Fantastic dim sum. (In fact, we had our two best meals during our last full day in London.)

After lunch, Joanna and I checked off the last two museums from our list. We walked down Charing Cross Road to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery. When I asked Joanna what I could expect to see at the National Gallery, she said, “All of the famous paintings.” I wasn’t sure what she meant until I got there, looked at the museum guide, and realized, “Oh, this is where they keep all of the famous paintings.” Shuffling through those galleries was another overwhelming experience. There’s just too much to take in. We only spent an hour in the Portrait Gallery, which wasn’t nearly enough time. Stuart Pearson Wright’s paintings were some of my favorites.

So, for our last night in London, we went out for a special meal. Can you guess?

Two blocks from our flat in Maida Vale we found The Clifton, where I ordered fish and chips and a pint of Guinness, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t the best meal I ate all week. A 10-inch-long cod fillet fried crisp in a light and sweet batter, the other half of the plate piled high with fries, and all of it washed down with the creamiest, richest stout a man can pour. Perfect.