I love the UK. My husband is British, and I've lived and traveled there frequently. The country is hilarious, one Monty Python moment after another; I don't think I ever stop laughing (or at least smiling through my tears) for a single second. And that's even while things happen to me, bad things: e.g., I continually burn myself in the extremely-difficult-to-use showers. Or I get stuck in the extremely-narrow-bathtubs or fall over the extremely-high-bathtub-walls. I never can find the light switches. I have never understood why the plug for the hair dryer is on the other side of the room from the mirror. It takes me an hour to figure out how to use any appliance at all because I always forget to turn on the wall switches. I complain nonstop about the lack of dryers, abundance of warm beer, convoluted instructions on how to do anything or get anywhere, and why are the coins so heavy? And I ALWAYS hit my head on everything, from getting into the tiny cars (three times in succession on one awful day) to being squashed by the train doors in the London underground. And yet, I cannot stay away. Already I'm thinking of all the things I intend to do "next time."
But none of that was on my mind when we jumped on our plane from Albuquerque, unexpectedly arriving at the start of a three-day bank holiday (the downside of minimal planning). Given that England was having the hottest weather on record at the time, it seemed the entire population chose the same road we did to get out of London for the coast.
Our first destination, however, wasn't the beach, but Yeovil and the Somerset village of Kingsbury Episcopi to visit my husband's brother and his wife. What should have taken two hours took four and a half. But we did see Stonehenge . . . !
And eventually some beautiful Somerset architecture:
This 1000-year-old Saxon church is literally in my in-law's backyard. The last time I was there we walked around in freezing July weather battling wind and rain and warmed up back inside the house with nettle soup. This year we had a wine and pizza picnic where everyone kept saying: "It's so hot!!!" and we worried about sunburn.
A few days later we headed for Cornwall, stopping in Torquay followed by Plymouth for African curry, and then driving to, well, I actually have no idea where except the roads were too narrow for two cars and they all looked like the picture above.
We just kept driving and driving and driving--over 1000 miles by the time we were finished, stopping at strange places such as a vintage fairground museum, an ancient hotel hosting a model train show . . . Some days were definitely pure Twilight Zone, one of the reasons I love being England. You just never know what you'll find next.
After Cornwall, we were off to the Beaulieu motor museum, one of my husband's favorite museums, and one I enjoy too with its palace gardens, ruined abbey, and of course all the car-related activity.
Next stop was one of the few things we had pre-booked the day before we left: five nights staying in a cottage on a now-disused watercress farm. Naturally we were the most lost ever getting there, finally arriving in the middle of the night down so many dark, dinky lanes I still don't know how we managed it. The farm itself had a coded gate we had to figure out in the dark, and when we drove to our cottage down a dirt path we couldn't find the cottages (because it was so dark) and when we did find them, we couldn't see where our particular cottage was. To find it we had to keep opening other people's doors, stumbling up and down staircases, ending up in the laundry room, all the while asking "Where's the lights?" At last we found what had to be our cottage, discovering the welcome sign behind the closed curtains which is where you always put welcome signs on dark nights, I guess. Must be a British custom I never learned about.
The reason we were at the farm was to spend time with a good friend who lives in Faversham, Kent.
While we were there, we still couldn't stop driving, so we also drove to Whitstable:
As well as a day trip to Dover:
We did start walking along that little path up there along the cliff top, but after a few yards I froze in sheer terror and couldn't go any further. The wind was blowing very hard and I just kept imagining a giant gust hurling me to the sea, so we had to take the "wimpy trail" situated further up the hill which was still scary but I did feel a whole lot safer.
We then walked to the top of Dover Castle for more seaside views and more vertigo.
After our visit to Kent we then went back to London for several days, turning in our car and using trains for transport. Our first compulsory stop after the British Museum and Fortnum and Mason's was to check on the Marylebone flat where we lived for two amazing years several decades ago. At the time I was an executive secretary in Europe's largest advertising agency situated in St. James's Square, writing my first stories at my desk during off-hours. The entire area has changed dramatically since the days I used to go to the health food store on Baker Street to play with the ginger cat, but it was still wonderful to see the same front door!
After all that nostalgia, it was time to visit the top of the Shard and something new:
We were there for hours, drinking wine and just soaking in the views before going downstairs for a Chinese lunch on the 33rd floor. Which leads me to one of my favorite topics: food! British food has truly gone global, with some of the best choices you'll find anywhere in the world, especially if you're a vegetarian or need to be gluten-free. That said, it did appear that some of my old favorites have, at least commercially, disappeared. No rum babas! No sherry trifle! No Chorley cakes! Not even a fresh cucumber sandwich to get me through the afternoon. I was eventually forced to realize that all these staples, just like the ginger cat, will have to reside in my memories for now. My biggest wake-up call was when I saw people eating outside atop Covent Garden Market and said to my husband, "Oh, let's go up there. They'll have sandwiches, betcha." When we got upstairs we learned it was a Brazilian sushi restaurant without a single sandwich to be had. Despite my initial disappointment, the food was excellent, and I will never forget eating vegetarian sushi overlooking Covent Garden, but I mean, really. I wanted my cucumber sandwich.
However, all ended well on our final day with a visit to our favorite London restaurant, The Belvedere in Holland Park. The building and interior is still as lovely as ever, the food is delicious, and the entire experience of eating there is magical. I will be back, rum baba or no. Can't wait!