Playing Hooky

“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you miss it.” — Ferris Bueller, from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.

Today is our last day in Lomdon, so we had decisions to make. Should we go to the British Museum to see Egyptian antiquities? The Tate Modern for the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit? The British Library to view the Gutenberg Bible? Nah. Our brains are full. Instead, we followed the advice of one of our favorite Chicagoans, Ferris, and stopped and looked around.

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With a bit of online searching and thumbing through a guide book, we discovered a walkable neighborhood we hadn’t seen.  Just  a few blocks from the Camden Town tube station is the Camden Locks market. Yup, another market, a funky one inside old brick industrial buildings. Just a quick look-around, then we back down the street to search for the Locks themselves  and the canal called Little Venice. At our landmark, a sleazy bar called The Purate’s Castle, we headed down some steps to walk the canalside lined with narrow houseboats moored at the water’s edge. Some of the boats were spiffed up with fresh coats of paint and geraniums decorating their rooftops; others begged for a bit of TLC.

A water taxi drifted by, heading toward Camden Town. Then, we ascended the steps near the Regent’s Park Zoo, in an upmarket neighborhood called Primrose Hill. More pretty houses to see; more blue historical markers (“William Butler Yeats lived here”) to spot.


The centerpiece of the area is the Primrose Hill Park with  gentle slopes to a summit that shows off a dazzling panorama of the city. A few minutes to take inventory of the sights — the Shard, the London Eye, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and all of their neighboring landmarks– and we headed back down. A pub called the New Inn popped up right about lunchtime, so we had to go in.

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After lunch, we hunted for another passageway down to the  Regent’s Canal. There,  through an iron gate and down some steps, more  vessels with names like Jemima Puddle Duck and The Scarlet Pimpernel were lined up, cheek-to-jowl. The towpath was canopied in greenery and in some spots, boaters had crafted little gardens along the walls.  What a find! Surely no hop-on-hop-off buses stop here.

Now we’re back in our flat, open suitcases lined up on the floor, ready to be filled. London, I’m so glad we finally got to meet you. You’ve been brilliant!





A Train Trip to Windsor

“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” — Asian Proverb

I think Mike and I are  just about ready to take our exams in British history. We’ve learned quite a bit over the past few weeks,  and  today, our knowledge was deepened by a visit to Winsdor Castle, a one-hour train ride from Waterloo Station.

Would  the Queen’s flag would be flying, indicating that she was at home? Maybe we’d have a sighting. But, no such luck. And she wasn’t at Buckingham, either. Just where was Elizabeth II — off galavanting  around the Empire or at one of her other castles, I guess.

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Windsor is the oldest occupied castle in the world, and Queen Elizabeth considers it her home away from home. And why wouldn’t she? While Buckingham Palace is dripping in elegance, Windsor, away from the frenetic pace of Lomdon, sprawls over acres and acres with high walls, a moat, gardens, a golf course, and the St. George Chapel, where Henry VIII (his head sewn back onto his torso), Princess Margaret, King George VI, and other crowned heads are buried. Our tour of the staterooms led us through bed chambers and drawing rooms of long-ago royalty, and the dining room that seats 160 when the Order of the Garter is feted at its annual ceremonial banquet.

Outside near the garden, we chatted with a guide named Gordon, a retired British Airlines exec who  now works at Windsor. He pointed out the back roads where the young princes learned to drive and told us about the Queen’s annual tradition of handing out the Christmas gifts to staff, greeting each individual in her employ. His respect and admiration was evident as he spoke of his nervousness at being in her presence.

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Before we left, we took the obligatory photos next to one of the guards. Imagine  what this long suffering  young man must be thinking as we dorky tourists pop in and out for our goofy pics.

Windsor was fantastic, but I only have one complaint. When our tour guide showed us around, her words were sometimes drowned out by roar of jetliners overhead. Turns out, Windsor is right on the flight path to Heathrow. Huh. Why would William the Conqueror build his beautiful home so close to the airport?




Punting on the Cam

“No one should escape our universities without knowing how little one knows.” — J. Robert Oppenheimer, graduate of Christ’s College, Cambridge

What do Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Emma Thompson, and Prince Charles all have in common? They’re graduates of Cambridge University. This morning we headed north to see this historic college town. Macomb or DeKalb, the home of my two alma maters, it’s not.

Cambridge has been a center for intellectual thought since its founding in 1280 and its  31 colleges have been around for centuries. Clare College opened in 1326; King’s College in 1441; Trinity, founded by Henry VIII, in 1546. Each of Cambridge’s colleges has an impressive list of alums, including the co-discoverers of DNA, the author of Winnie the Pooh, and the namesake of Harvard University. I could keep name-dropping; I won’t.

We could have spent the day in stuffy chapels or scholarly libraries, but instead we did what Cambridge residents have done for ages. We punted the Cam.

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A punt is a flat-bottomed river boat that floats down a section of the River Cam called the Backs.  We wisely decided not to navigate the waters ourselves, poling a vessel downstream on our own and risking falling into the drink. Instead, we climbed aboard a boat — Scudamore’s — punting since 1908–  commandeered by a young man who put his muscle into the maneuvering of the punt while providing commentary along the way.


We glided past the beautiful Clare College, under the Cambridge version of the Bridge of Sighs, past the Wren Library, the King’s College Chapel. The sun made an appearance while we floated along, and ducks and swans paddled along beside us. Our punter explained which buildings were part of what college, shared some local knowledge about Stephen Hawkings and a few other Cambridge grads, and  told us the story of the mathematical bridge and other sights along the riverbank.

Walking the streets of Cambridge was nice, but I’m so glad we decided to punt.






Portobello Road

“I’m just a girl, standing in front of a boy, asking him to love her.” — Anna Scott, played by Julia Roberts, in the film Notting Hill.

I’ve always been a sucker for the sweet rom-com Notting Hill, starring Hugh Grant as the travel bookshop owner Will Thacker who falls in love with the actress Anna Stone, played by Julia Roberts. One of my favorite scenes shows the despondent Will winding his way through the Portobello Market while the seasons change around him, Bill Withers singing “Ain’t No Sunshine”  to add pathos.

The Portobello Market in Notting Hill is probably London’s best street market. It stretches for at least a mile and I was excited to see it all, even though the Travel Bookshop is nowhere to be found. Mike followed along, occasionally pointing out the market’s 150 year anniversary banners hanging at one- block intervals overhead. “That looks like the end,” he said a time or two. But it wasn’t. The market kept going, block after block.

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What’s to buy there? Well, a lot of junk,  but a lot of cool stuff, too. Even though I wasn’t in the market for most of it, I loved the hodge-podge: vintage mink stoles, old silver tea sets, leather goods, scarves of all colors, felt hats, jewelry, Scottish wool, trendy little dresses (new), English porcelain, used books, maps, London tee-shirts. Behind the booths set up in the street are antique shops and quirky boutiques in buildings awash in pastels.

There’s plenty to eat, too. Venders sell fresh produce to take home and there’s an array of ethnic foods for on-the-street dining — paella, German sausage, falafel, spring rolls, churros. We started the morning with jam-filled donuts and had a late-morning snack of street fries, doused with  spicy, cheddary sauce. (Yeah, I know, terrible food choices, but both worth every heart-stopping bite.)

The street was jammed with visitors doing more gawking than buying, it seemed. We mostly gawked, as well, but I did find one thing  I decided I needed:  a bright green leather purse that will always remind me of our visit to Notting Hill.



A Walk through Chelsea

“Living in London is like being on a luxury cruise liner.” —- Ma Jian

Thursday was a unseasonably warm and sunny day, so we took advantage of the “cracking” (a word the BBC meteorologist uses) weather and headed off toward Chelsea,  not far from our apartment.

Away from the constant traffic and touristy stuff, we moseyed down quiet streets ogling the graceful architecture of old London. Chelsea is one of the swankiest of London’s Burroughs, so there was plenty to see.


Some streets are lined with dignified multi-story apartment buildings; others are rimmed with pristine white town homes. Pillars often edge each home’s black-and-white tiled steps leading to grand doors painted shiny black. The more haughty manses were impossible to see, hidden behind thick stone walls and iron gates. Once  in a while we’d find a mews tucked behind a grand building. A mews was once a row of stables with carriage homes above, but now these long-ago “garages” are charming little homes along cobblestones alleyways.

Each street we headed down was its own perfect picture of  London’s long tradition of elegance and grace. Our most eye-popping discovery was The Boltons. Like a pair of parentheses, these two small streets of magnificent single family homes circle St. Mary’s Church. Just who lives here, we wondered. Wouldn’t they love to have a couple of friendly Americans like us pop in for a look around?


I made sure to check out the  blue signs, tacked to some buildings, that proclaim when a notable once  lived inside. We spotted several of  the who’s -that? variety along with Bram Stoker of “Dracula” fame, the author P. D. Wodehouse, and even Jane Austen.

On our map, there were lots of tiny parks we’d hoped to visit — Evelyn Gardens, Elm Park Gardens, Paulton’s Square. Yes, there are parks — private ones. Each is surrounded by an imposing wrought iron fence and has a locked gate to keep the likes of us out. Membership (no doubt pricy) to the private park association is required in order to rest on a bench or wander in to admire the flowers. Although charming, some of these little parks seemed a bit snooty. Rules are posted, and at one park, the owners’ dogs must be “approved” before they can gain access. Ovington Square keeps dogs out altogether, no matter what its credentials, along with unaccompanied children under fourteen.

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Well, we could take a hint. We’d have to go elsewhere to sit on a park bench.

We hoofed it to the Sloane Square tube station and rode to the Embankment, where we found a public park to walk through. After lunch, killing time before our matinee of “The Woman in Black”, we walked some more, this time to Lincoln’s Inn Fields, another public park, strewn with Londoners lolling all over the lawn, soaking up the last day of the hot spell. It was nice place for riff-raff like us to cool our heels for a bit.


On With the Show!

“Another day, another destiny.” Les Miserables

London is famous for its theater… or should I say theatre? So, we’ve been taking advantage.

We bought tickets for Sunny Afternoon before we left home, just to make sure we wouldn’t miss out. The show, the winner of four Olivier awards, including Best New Musical, is based on the music of the Kinks…. kind of a British Jersey Boys.  The lads who formed the band were a scruffy lot who made an impact on the music scene of the 60’s and the show was laced with all of their hits: “You Really Got Me”, “All Day and All of the Night”, ” Plastic Man”. Our seats in the Harold Pinter Theater  edged the runway to the stage, and we had to keep our feet tucked in so we wouldn’t trip any of the performers as they bounded up on stage. We were surrounded by high school kids on a field trip, and what fun it was to dance and sing along side of them in the raucous finale numbers like “Lola”. You know the words, “L-O-L-A!”

A few days later, we tried our luck at the Leicester Square TKTS booth, queuing up at ten am for same-day bargains. Score! The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, row 12 center in the beautiful Guilgud Theater for a fraction of the price of a downtown Chicago show,  and no annoying Ticketmaster convenience fees. Curious, the winner of five Tonys, recreates the story of a teenage boy with autism who faces a dilemma. I loved the book and the play’s creative staging and lighting adds emotion and energy to the story. Thumbs up!


Back to Leicester Square yesterday, this time for Les Miz. Success! Last night in the dress circle of the Queen’s Theater, we saw a beautiful production with all its exhilarating pageantry and haunting, poignant, and rousing music woven through each scene. Bravo! All day the refrains of  “On My Own” and “Do You Hear The People Sing” have been running through my head.

We’ve got one more show lined up… so far. Tomorrow we’re seeing a matinee of The Woman in Black. It’s a ghost story that’s been playing on London’s West End for over 25 years. Reviews to follow.


The Cotswolds Countryside

“There isn’t a landscape in the world that is more artfully worked, more lovely to behold, more comfortable to be in, than the countryside in Great Britain.”  — Bill Bryson

Can I write a post about our day in the Cotswolds without using the words cute, quaint, or charming? I’ll give it a try.

The Cotswolds are an expanse of English countryside where verdant rolling hills of farmland and meadows are dotted with tiny villages unchanged by time. It’s one of the prettiest places on earth.

The first stop on our Mad Max minibus tour was at own called Castle Combe, population 47. Castle Combe has one street. Its cottages,  built in the 15th century of honey-colored Cotswold limestone, hug the roadside. We ambled along the row of little homes with lace-curtained windows and meandering roses clinging to their walls. Had we just stepped into the pages of a Tasha Tudor storybook?

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How had this village remained so untouched by time? Like all Cotwolds villages, its cottage industry for centuries was wool. Then cotton and the Industrial Revolution came along, and the villages’ economy declined.. The sturdy buildings remained, however, and today are cherished for their simple beauty.

The next town we visited was Bibury. Our guide Tim sent us along a path edging a stream to the Arlington Rows, a cluster of wee homes surrounded by trees. What if we could duck through their child-sized doors and take a peek inside? I imagined a cozy parlor, perhaps a pair of pleasantly worn wing chairs, a table between them to set one’s tea cup, an Agatha Christie mystery waiting to be read. Maybe a tabby cat — and I don’t even like cats — curled up on the worn woolen rug.

Across the road from the Arlington Rows was a cluster of homes with genteel flower gardens beyond their stone walls, and the Swan Inn. Had Mother Goose come walking down the lane, I would not have been surprised.

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.On to our next stop, Tim drove us through the Cohne Valley. On narrow roads wide enough for one vehicle at a time, we rode under canopies of trees. The hills were criss-crossed by dry (no mortar) stone walls, some constructed centuries ago to pen in wayward sheep. We saw black-faced sheep grazing in meadows, and once or twice a  pheasant fluttered into view along the road side.

Three more villages — Stow-in-the-Wold, Upper Slaughter, and Tetbury– filled us with fairy tale images to store away,  If you come to England, go to the Cotswolds.