Wednesday, October 31, 2012


“It is to you upon the languid river that I return again and again….”

Shakespeare didn’t actually say that, but I’m sure that’s the way he felt about his hometown of Stratford-upon-Avon.  Born in 1564 to a prosperous glove merchant in a middle class home, he attended school just a block away, and grew up to marry Anne Hathaway who only lived a mile down the road. Over the years he divided his time between London and Stratford, buying a grand house called New Place and retiring there. He died in 1616 and was buried at the church where he had been baptized and married. He could have been buried in the prestigious Westminster Abbey beside the other notables of England, but he declined preferring to be buried in the town and church he clearly loved.

I could see why he loved it. It is a serene village located in the heart of England. The Avon River tranquilly flows through town overhung with weeping branches which trail in the ripples of its water like fingers and swans graciously allow canal boats to share the river.  It is an idyllic place away from frenetic London life.

Me in front of Shakespeare's birthplace
 taken by two very disappointed tourists.
After our driver Davie parked our enormous bus, Anita passed out maps and told us we had about an hour on our own before we were to meet her at the Edward Moon for lunch. That didn’t give us much time so everyone scattered in different directions, maps in hand. A few of us headed over to what looked like the main street where I saw a small crowd of people huddled around a sign on a very old building. I craned my neck over their shoulders and read, “Birthplace of Shakespeare”. I stepped back a few paces to take pictures of his childhood home when a couple approached me and asked me to take their picture with it in the background. I said “Of course, certainly.” and babbled something like “If you don’t like it, I can take another.” With charmed expressions on their faces, the husband asked me where I was from. I brightened and said, “San Diego!” and with that their faces fell and they walked away without saying another word. I wondered briefly what that was all about when it occurred to me that they must have thought I was English! I knew I had been picking up Anita’s lilting accent but I didn’t realize to what extent!  I couldn’t help it. I flashed a beaming smile in their direction and said, “Cheerio!”

I thoroughly enjoyed wandering the rough stone streets of Stratford seeing the town through Shakespeare’s eyes. I ended up a few blocks down the river at Holy Trinity Church where at the age of 52 he was buried. The sign placed at the head of his grave reads: 

"Good frend for Jesus sake Forbeare,
To digg the dust encloased heare.
Bleste be ye man (that) spares thes stones
And Curst be he (that) moves my bones.”

Translation:“Don’t go digging me up and moving me to Westminster Abbey, damn it.”


Avon River with Holy Trinity Church in the background

The Bard's grammar school next to the Almshouse

Fresh bacon anyone?

Shakespeare's home, one of the nicest in town, was torn down by the fellow who bought it because he hated the tourists that came gawking.  It is now a community archaeological site.

Have we found it yet?

Gardens are planted on the site of W. Shakespeare's home.

The only two things I knew about Oxford was that it was a college town and that it was the inspiration for many of the scenes in the Harry Potter movies. I had hoped we could have seen some of the places made famous in the movies like the dining hall located in Christ Church College, but while we didn’t see that one we did see one very similar just smaller. Besides, I found out later, even Harry Potter didn’t actually use their dining facilities because of the difficulty in filming at the same time 300 students were being served three meals a day. The producers ended up having to build a set of the Hogwarts’ dining room in an airplane hangar.

The day we were there it was like a beautiful San Diego day, warm and mild with the sky a lovely blue lifting our spirits. Even the college buildings themselves elevated our mood being built with that same sun drenched stone I’d seen at Bath which made the town feel welcoming. There were only a few students around, but I could feel their youth and vitality in the numerous bicycles parked in racks, the sports team banners in the college’s courtyards and the numerous bookstores where I found them, jersey clad and texting.

Anita took us on a guided tour and gave us some background on the town as we walked the cobbled streets. “Oxford is the oldest University in the western world having been established in 1169 and is actually comprised of 35 colleges. Each has its own sports team, library, dining hall and cultural organizations. Over its 843 years it has graduated 25 Prime Ministers, 47 Nobel Peace Prize winners, 20 Archbishops, 12 saints and 1 Mayor of London. Prior to the establishment of the colleges, Oxford was a small Saxon village. The residents over the years have not always welcomed the students and they’ve occasionally thrown pitch forks and rotten fruit at one another, however they seem to be getting along swimmingly now.”

She then took us on a tour of Lincoln College, one of the smaller colleges but no less prestigious. All of the colleges we found out are built around a “Quad” or quadrangle landscaped with grass and flowers, making it a visual treat to look out upon when dining or studying. The largest colleges like Christ Church have entire parkland attached to them as well as an immense quad, but Lincoln is small and intimate. Sitting in Lincoln’s dining room, I could still get the feeling of Hogwarts’ Hall even if it was on a small scale.
Lincoln College Quad or Courtyard looking toward the dining hall.

Looking out from the dining hall toward the Quad.

Dining room

It is after all a college town.

Radcliff Camera (Italian for "room")
Oxford's version of Venice's Bridge of Sighs
Bodleian Library, the oldest library in Europe

Trinity College, one of Oxford's 35 colleges.
Next time: Wales

Monday, October 22, 2012


Leaving London:

While driving through London on our way to Stonehenge, I'm impressed by the profusion of flowers and not a dead bloom among them. Why can't I grow flowers like that?  Half of mine die and I struggle to coax the other half to just hang in there. Maybe it's because Londoners have little land. If they're lucky they may have a small garden; some have balconies which they fill with pots and pots of showy begonias and prolific geraniums. Window boxes are everywhere to add a bit of color and nature to soften a largely brick and stone city.


Roped off and inaccessible, Stonehenge looks small and unimpressive. After years of waiting to see this mysterious monument, I was extremely disappointed to find that I couldn’t get any closer than a few hundred feet to it. I didn't feel any connection to it at all; it might as well have been just a pile of stones as far as I was concerned. Of course, I could understand the necessity of protecting them, but this was ridiculous.  I almost needed binoculars! 

(Fast forward to 2014. I got to see it again and this time was a great improvement! The keepers of Stonehenge must have heard this complaint loud and clear because we were able to get much closer, about 15 feet from the western side of the monolith. I was thrilled!  The stones weren’t close enough to touch, however, they were close enough for me to get an idea of their sheer size and mass. This time I felt what the builders intended: that this is a place of great importance, a place that commands respect and reverence. I was very, very pleased to have had a second chance to experience Stonehenge!!)

[See the blog entitled: DEVON, CORNWALL AND THE COTSWOLDS, OH MY!--August, 2014]
 This is as close as we could get in 2012

This is how close you can get now!

 The Standing Stones of Scotland

Truthfully, I had a better experience in Scotland in 2009. Every day on the road out of Kenmore where our timeshare was located near Loch Tay, my friends Kay, Tom and I drove by a sleepy farm with what looked like a mini Stonehenge in it. I thought it had to be some sort of tourist attraction because I couldn't believe anything of real importance would just be lying around unheralded in some one's cow pasture. We found out later to our amazement that it was a genuine prehistoric stone circle called the Standing Stones of Croft Moraig. We also learned that there are dozens of stone circles like it in Scotland but the standing stones in our humble field were the most spectacular in the area! 

The Standing Stones of Croft Moraig, Scotland
We made sure to stop the next time and climb over the farmer's fence to get a closer look. Knowing that this ancient monument had been important to many long ago souls, we touched the stones' worn pitted surfaces to see if they would speak to us but, alas, if they had anything to say, they kept it to themselves.  Oh well, it was still fun to wander through them and wonder about its mysteries.


Bath is gorgeous. The entire town is built of the same palomino colored limestone I saw in St. Peter's Chapel in the Tower of London giving all the buildings a look of soft inward warmth.The city of Bath was designed in the Greco-Roman style of the Georgian era with its signature stone provided from a local quarry, and its purpose was always to be the finest of resorts.

Bath stone

Flowers are everywhere splashing vibrant yellows, reds and greens against the honey hues of the limestone.

The Romans discovered the hot mineral springs soon after conquering Britain around 43AD. Big on bathing, it didn't take them long to build a large sophisticated communal bath complex complete with hot, warm and cold plunges and a few temples to the gods thrown in. They called their little community Aquae Sulis and enjoyed it for another 400 years. After Rome's downfall, however, the baths were abandoned and allowed to silt up. It wasn't until around 1687 when Queen Mary experienced a healing of sorts in the mineral waters that the town began to be revitalized into a spa resort. The old bath site was rediscovered in 1880 buried under 18 feet of dirt. It has been carefully excavated with some parts of it rebuilt and is now a wonderfully preserved example of a classic Roman bath.  

The pool is lined with lead and it's not safe to touch the water. However, I tasted the water direct from the mineral springs and I liked it.  I didn't find it any different from my water at home.

Pillars like these supported the floors under which water from the hot springs would flow providing warm radiant heat.

Model of the bath complex as it looked in its peak. The large communal pool was once enclosed.

Pretend Roman craftsmen at work.
We are given only three hours in this lovely city, most of which was spent wandering the Roman baths which is its main attraction.The scale of the bath's restoration is impressive and the accompanying museum and displays are well worth the time spent. However, it isn't the only item of interest in the town. For example, the famous Georgian style Townhouses built in a crescent shape reflecting the style of Roman architecture have been written about by the likes of Jane Austen and seen in numerous movies.We stopped to see them on our way out of town having just enough time to take a few pictures.  

The Royal Crescent, famous townhouses of Bath.

The Townhouses with a view of the servants entrance below.
I did have time after touring the Baths to sit and relish a divine lunch of a melt-in-your-mouth hot pasty (a Cornish miner's meat sandwich made with pie crust) while sharing a table with three lively Australian ladies. I then wandered past Bath Abbey and discovered a peaceful garden on the banks of the Avon River called Parade Gardens. The gardens like the town were lavishly embellished with brilliant blooms.

 King Edmund, the first King of England crowned here at Bath Abbey. It was the last great medieval church in England.

Parade Gardens

A view from Parade Gardens to Bath Abbey.

A view of  the Avon River from Parade Gardens.

Back on the bus, we sped past the most beautiful scenery I'd ever seen: emerald green rolling hills laced with stack stone fences corralling thousands of peacefully grazing cows and sheep. I wanted so much to get out and and walk for miles and take pictures of every sweet sheep face in England. However, our driver is intent on getting us to Cheltenham in time for dinner so all I can do is sit back and enjoy the views. We pass several country roads with names like "Birdlip", which gives all a laugh. Our tour group is already beginning to bond; it's going to be a very nice trip.

Dinner at the Cheltenham Park Hotel was excellent--savory tomato basil soup, tender grilled pork served with a large cube of gratin potatoes, a side of assorted veggies finished with a creamy lemon tart to sell your soul for.

Excuse me Larry, the sheep are better looking on your side of the bus.
Next time: Stratford-upon-Avon and Oxford

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


The history of the Tower of London is high drama on an operatic scale replete with executions, treason, treachery and murder. There have even been apparitions of mournful ladies floating about holding their royal severed heads....

I'd planned to see the Tower on Saturday and had been warned that it was going to be mobbed with tourists. Agnes (our tour guide) had already shown me where to catch the bus so I set out early to beat the crowds loaded down with maps, water, snacks and expectations. London was also in the midst of an unseasonable heatwave, but I still looked forward to spending the day at this iconic symbol of England's power.

My guidebook told me that the Tower of London is not just a tower but a massive castle and it wasn't kidding. As soon as I saw it, I literally stopped and stared at the enormous brute force of it. It covers several acres with formidable walls punctuated every few feet by impenetrable looking towers.  Surrounding it is a river sized grassy area that had once been the moat.The very size of the Tower is enough to dissuade any potential invader, which is probably what William the Conqueror had in mind when he had it built in 1066. Situated on the north bank of the Thames, the Tower is strategically placed and it's easy to see that whoever possessed this immense fortress in medieval times would possess England.

The Tower of London
The former moat is now a pleasant lawn displaying weapons of siege.

I arrived just in time to join a gathering crowd for a guided tour by one of the famous Yeoman Warders or Beefeaters as they are also known.

 "Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen. Welcome to her Majesty's Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London. My name is Yeoman Warder Bates and for the next hour or so I'm going to be your guide around the fortress. I'm going to point out some famous buildings and structures and you're going to look at them and I'll talk about their history. Got that?

"I see, Madam, that you are looking at my uniform. It was given me by King Henry VII.  Well, not him personally but it is essentially the same as when he formed the Yeoman Warders to guard the Tower in 1485. These blue and red uniforms are our "undress" uniforms.  The fancy red and gold ones are only worn on state occasions, and yes, they are uncomfortable. And, we are called Beefeaters because we are fed very well. We must be strong to guard the Tower, you see.

"Now, I'm sure you want to know how I got this cushy job. I had to be in the Queen's employ in the Armed Forces of the Commonwealth for at least 22 years. It is required to have a Good Conduct Medal and we must like people. Well, tolerate them anyway." I'm sure they also were chosen because they were outgoing, charismatic and very funny.

So off we went our stalwart Beefeater and his gaggle of tourists, to learn about the Tower of London.  As we walked, he explained that since its building the Tower has served as a royal palace, fortress, prison, royal mint, armory, treasury and home to the Crown Jewels. We stopped at Traitor's Gate, a water entrance from the Thames where prisoners (Anne Boleyn for one, Yeoman Warder Bates assured us) were brought by boat into the castle. The walls of the Tower had once fronted the Thames which had also supplied the water for the moat.

Traitor's Gate through which prisoners were brought by boat from the Thames.

From there we walked to the center of the fortress to the White Tower, a magnificent building literally "towering" over all the rest. Named for its original white washed exterior it was built in 1078 by William the Conqueror as a royal residence and stronghold and gives the entire castle its name. It now houses an impressive display of suits of armor one of which is Henry VIII's with its equally impressive cod piece (a protective covering for the family jewels). Upstairs are exhibits of armory of all sorts, plus a fine example of the latest in medieval toilets called garderobes. Built into the walls they consist of a bench covering an opening that emptied right into the moat. When the tides failed to flush the moat out, I'm sure you wouldn't want to be downwind of it.

 Henry VIII's huge armor and vanity displayed.

 The largest and smallest armor on display.

 One of the garderobes or toilets that emptied into the moat below.

 St. John's Chapel built with lovely buff colored limestone.

Window in St. John's Chapel

Our Yeoman then guided us to Tower Green (a spot of lawn beside the White Tower) and to a memorial where our guide tells us, only "friends of the King" were executed. Actually only seven people, mostly women, were executed there because their deaths were too politically charged for public viewing. Among those whose heads rolled on these grounds were Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard, second and fifth wives to Henry VIII. The only male who lost his head upon the Green was the Earl of Essex, Queen Elizabeth's "favorite" who betrayed her. Anne Boleyn is buried just a few feet from her beheading in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. She and the others executed there were gruesomely buried in the Chapel without their heads. It was eerie and sad standing on the same spot where these people lost their lives in such a horrific way knowing they had been utterly abandoned.

 The Tower Green, and former Queen's Palace, now housing the Yeoman Warders and families.

 Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula where Anne Boleyn and the Earl of Essex
are buried.  It is right across from the execution site.

The most infamous murders within the Tower walls were of the two little Princes in what is now known as the Bloody Tower in 1483.  Two boys, 12 year old Edward and 9 year old Richard were the sons of Edward IV and heirs to the throne. Shortly after their father died, their uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester declared them illegitimate and confined them to the Tower. Richard then became the heir and was proclaimed King Richard III. Soon after that, the boys conveniently disappeared. Bones thought to belong to the boys were discovered in 1674 when a building within the Tower was demolished. Richard died in battle a year after becoming King. Was this a fitting end to a brutal man or was he wrongly accused of their murders? It is still a mystery.

Our tour being over, I was on my own to explore and headed straight for the Jewel House where the Crown Jewels are kept. It was beginning to get really hot and I appreciated the cool dark rooms where the jewels were displayed. I marveled at these priceless symbols of the Monarchy, crowns and scepters encrusted with priceless gems of astonishing size. The Imperial State Crown holds one of the largest diamonds ever found and the Royal Scepter has one the size of a golf ball.

 The medieval Royal Apartments situated above Traitor's Gate.

 The Royal Apartment's Tudor style walls.

 The King's Chamber

The King's Chapel

After a delicious focaccia bread sandwich at the Tower Restaurant, I climbed one of the staircases to the top of the defensive wall where it was a little cooler in the shade of the sheltering trees. It's possible to walk the entire circumference of the castle passing through the guard towers, but I just went a short way pausing often to enjoy the great view of the Tower Bridge. Also from this vantage point I could see the Raven's Keep where, our Yeoman explained, at least 6 ravens are cared for at all times. Legend has it Charles II believed that if the ravens ever left the Tower, the fortress and the kingdom would fall, so there is actually a Ravenmaster who feeds them raw meat to ensure their loyalty. By then it was around 3pm, and I was hot and tired and ready to go back to my hotel. It was a wonderful day and one more item was checked off my bucket list.

 View of the White Tower on the left, Raven's Keep on the right, the
surrounding castle walls and Tower Bridge with the Olympic Rings still displayed.

 View from the castle walls.

 On the wall going from tower to tower.

 View from one of the towers.

 Raven's Keep where the ravens are cared for.

 A raven in front of one of the Yeoman Warder's homes.

 Tower Bridge as seen from the Tower of London. The Summer Olympics had just finished.

Double click on any picture for full screen image.
Next time: Stonehenge and Bath