English Lessons: David

Posted on November 12, 2011

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English Lessons: Pictures

English Lessons: Video

The time we spent planning our days in Paris pales in comparison to the research Sam put into creating his list of “must-sees” for England. When he finished with his hours of searching the web, favorite books, genealogy sources, and probably his own memory, we got a impressive list of places he wanted to visit. A few weeks earlier as we were booking hotels, we realized we didn’t recognize most of the landmarks, which wasn’t too surprising. Sam’s taste in history leans towards the obscure. The bottom line for this section of the trip was that we were definitely going off the beaten path.

The most “beaten” path we would encounter left early that morning from the Gare du Nord and passed under the English Channel, and arrived in London. It was a short walk to the station from our Paris apartment and I was glad we left with plenty of time to get there. The station was in a state of confusion, with people and bags all over the place. It was amazing to find people even worse at managing their luggage than us. After finding the right line to wait in, we squeaked past an equivalent of a TSA agent who was clearly on a power trip. On the train we went from warm in France, to cool and rainy after emerging from the chunnel. Next to us sat a family switching between French to English- I heard the mother offer the child a cookie calling it a “biscuit” and I smiled because we were about to encounter many more examples of English English (as opposed to American English).

About 100 meters from the station, we found our hotel to be somewhat ghetto, but seemingly clean and tolerably friendly. After some confusion, we discovered that we had made the reservation for wrong date- we were a day early. This led to mild panic as the possibility of having whole trip off by a day occurred to me. Luckily they had an open set of rooms, so we booked them and stashed our bags.

Back out into the rain with our hotel furnished map, we charted our walking tour based on what I knew to be the highlights of London from a previous trip. We had the rest of the afternoon (we gained an hour) and that night for one of the greatest cities in the world.

Luckily, the rain ceased, and we began our tour with a stop at a strip mall for a SIM and electrical adapter. Once that excitement was taken care of, I randomly noticed a “Dickens House” on the map. Sam is obsessed with Charles Dickens, so we took a tour and chatted up the volunteers. We made it to the British Museum (where it was made clear that even though technically it was free, you were a bad person if you didn’t leave a five pound donation). We continued to fly by the sights: Piccadilly Circus, Green Park, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, The London Eye, Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square, until we had to stop to eat. We ended up choosing Indian food, and proceeded up a staircase into a very loud and boisterous dining room. The service was indifferent, but the food was decent and we enjoyed curried meats as we shouted across the table to be heard. My guess is that the Brits would feel right at home in the noisy restaurants of Dallas where the volume level of the typical conversation is usually somewhere between shouting and so loud your ears bleed. The sun had set completely while we were eating, and we opted for a night walk along the Thames to the Tower of London. Walking the river’s entire downtown length wasn’t the original plan, but we changed our minds when we saw the price of a one-way tube ticket.

I was quite glad we ended up walking, as the city along the water was beautiful at night. We passed historical buildings, countless monuments, and some nicely lit waterworks at a random museum. We were mostly alone on the nice wide waterfront pedestrian path. The air was cool and fragrant with the smell of the river, and even though it was getting late in the evening, workers toiled on the water under electric lights repairing a massive bridge.  At the Millennium Bridge, we climbed up the staircase to street level to take a quick look at St Paul’s Cathedral. With the twinkling lights on the water and the famous Tower Bridge on the horizon, we ambled up to the home of the early kings, the Tower of London. We read some of the informative plaques about the many owners and many uses the place had throughout the years. I tried to imagine the grassy moat filled with lions and other imported beasts, but was having a tough time on the cool, damp British evening. All of us seemed to be yawning frequently, so we paid the money for the Tube and cruised back home.

Our luck with the rain came to a stop the next morning. It was raining in earnest when we began the walk to Euston station to pick up our next car. Over a greasy breakfast at a pub along the way, I nervously reviewed the day’s plan- retrieve the rental from the train station, and drive into the Southeast of England. On paper, a pretty simple task, in reality, not quite so straight forward. I had driven in big Euro-cities before, but London was definitely one of the biggest. Coupled with this being my first time to drive on the left (AKA “wrong” side of the road) and our GPS being unproven and we had a recipe for excitement.  I hoped the white coffee I was drinking would help sharpen my reflexes and thinking under pressure.

We settled our bill with the grumpy bartender (I don’t think he felt like cooking that early) and walked out past the mostly empty tables. The few other customers were supporters from the football match last night, proudly sporting their team jerseys and amazingly already a few pints in at nine in the morning.

Thanks to the typical lack of signs, we conducted a goose chase that led us into the bowels of Euston Station. With some help from a parking attendant who showed us on CCTV monitors exactly where to go, we finally got to the cave-like rental office. Amid the diesel fumes, a friendly Europcar agent had us sign approximately sixty lengthy forms, one of which was the explanatory and waiver for the London Congestion Zone Surcharge. This thing is a racket. If you drive into the Zone, you must contact a website or telephone number to make a payment of twenty-five pounds with in 24 hours. If you fail to proactively pay up, they will send you the bill, and an additional fine of eighty pounds, to which Europcar will add a 150-pound administrative fee. Doing the conversion to dollars that is… more money than the whole nine-day rental cost us.

The good news was that they gave us a size upgrade and an automatic transmission so Jenny could take her turn driving. The bad news was that upon emerging into the dark rainy morning, we were disoriented and had only the vaguest idea of which way to go. We took our best guess based on our half-remembered instructions given to us in the rental cave (go left, then another slight left followed by a half-turn merge onto the kind of big road…). Jenny was probably as stressed as I was, grappling with the new useful-as-a-paperweight GPS, which refused to find satellites. As she fiddled with the electronics, she called out best guesses on where to go based on our free paper map, all the while looking for the dreaded congestion zone.

Driving on the left was weird for sure, but a little easier than I thought since there were people ahead of me that I could follow. The logic of being on the left was the mentally taxing part, but orientation in the lane was proving the most challenging. The famous double-decker buses in the opposing lane came mere inches from our rental, and on the other side I had no clue how close I was to the curb. I kept drifting right to compensate for this feeling, but that only pushed us closer to smashing into oncoming traffic. When we got the size upgrade, I was thinking that this would be a good thing. Now, I was wishing for a micro-sized economy instead of the boat-like Vauxhall with which we were currently menacing the streets of London.

After a few close calls with stationary objects, not so stationary buses, and almost crossing the dreaded congestion zone line, we emerged out of the chaos onto the suburban roads east of London. It was actually not as bad as it could have been- we mostly stayed on the same road while in London, and the GPS started working before we had to make any major decisions. I wasn’t getting warm and fuzzy feelings about our rental. It’s large size, inefficient squatty form and sluggish handling made me pine for the nimble Peugey. The only good thing so far was the hearse-like trunk, which required zero thinking to fit all of our luggage. I suppose in an emergency we could have slept in there. We proposed a few names for this new car, but none of them seemed to stick- the Big Blue Butt was the closest we got. The good news was that once our GPS was online, we were quite pleased with his personality. The map program we purchased for the iPhone was for the United Kingdom, and accordingly the voice giving us directions was a confident, male voice with a British accent. He was immediately dubbed “Sir Tellingsworth” and remained a dear friend and trusted advisor until the end of our driving escapades.

The rest of trip was guided by the specific places Sam had wanted to see- we may have been the only people to travel in such a random route. We started in the district of Kent, specifically in Rochester. The purpose of going here was to see Gad’s Hill, the manor where Dickens retired. It was a few miles out of town on private property, and Jenny and I stayed in the car while Sam crossed the highway to sneak a peek. Now home to a grade school, Jenn and I weren’t terribly interested to see what in our minds was just a typical building, but for Sam’s sentimental personality, seeing this place where his favorite author had passed his final years provided a thrill. It seemed like to him, knowing that he was standing in the place where something had happened was just as important as what was actually there now.

Luckily for Jenn and I, the town of Rochester stood on its own merits. Dickens had based many of his famous manors and shops on the real-life buildings in Rochester. We did a walking tour of these Dickensian places, and also stopped by the local fortress on the river, a tidy old cathedral, and a real-deal candy store. We built brain cells at the local museum, then killed them off at the pub that night. A hearty dinner rounded out the day.

The quest for random monuments continued in a field somewhere north of Kent, way out in the countryside. The field’s owner arrived at our meeting point on his tractor and unlocked the gate for us. He was a friendly, talkative guy who looked not like a farmer but more of a boat club member. His family had owned the land for years, and it was vexing him. He didn’t want to maintain the remains of the castle so he tried to give it to the State. The government wanted him to pay them two hundred and fifty thousand pounds to take it, so he passed. The current plan was to keep gypsies off it, and to have his son keep it mowed to accommodate history buffs that made their way out into his neck of the boonies. A strange problem to have, but he didn’t seem overly worried about it. I think mostly he knew that he had a special piece of history, and felt the responsibility to keep it available and in good shape so that it didn’t fade into oblivion.

We stood inside the overgrown earthen walls where a large castle used to be, and a cool wind blew and sun and clouds took turns holding sway. Alternately baking and being chilled, I enjoyed Sam enjoying himself, and was happy to breathe in the aromas of the countryside.

On our way to our two-night stay in Cambridge, we stopped in Lavenham- a beautiful medieval town featuring old wood and plaster walled houses. The first part of the stay there was challenging to enjoy. The rain fell hard, and eventually turned into hail. As we hid under a thick mulberry tree watching the ice bounce off the pavement we came up with the idea of waiting our the storm with a warm cup of  tea. This tided us over until the sun reappeared (along with a rainbow) and we walked the streets, eventually winding up in a very picturesque churchyard. The late afternoon light illuminated the gravestones and the green grass surrounding the church. The iPhone camera was constantly firing away.

That night we stayed in a Holiday Inn. Not exactly an authentic slice of English life, but the only thing that was affordable and with open rooms on a bank holiday weekend. The next morning, we made a trip back to Hedingham castle (which we had attempted to tour the day before, but was closed due to a wedding). The holiday weekend was the perfect time for a party, and the castle grounds were hosting a renaissance festival. The differences between this festival and the ones I had been to before were: 1.) There was actually a castle from the dark ages on the grounds, and 2.) The English accents the dressed-up nerds were using were actually genuine.

We got our fill and headed back. The campus of Cambridge was astonishingly beautiful, with lush green cricket fields, historic buildings and willow-lined canals. We wondered if many of the tourists were parents of students getting ready to start school in a few days. I was impressed with the way the prestigious university played host to a highly oiled tourist machine. It seemed to work well; people went about the business of academia as curious tourists poked around taking pictures and boat owners hawked their “punting” tours.

Small roads through beautiful countryside and tidy villages connected the places we went in this part of England. The sun was usually not far away even though rain was always on the ground. Sir Tellingsworth was doing a good job, even though he would occasionally fall off the dash onto the floor during a turn. The combination of factors made driving pleasant for the most part. Even other drivers seemed to be pretty mellow- not tailgating but patiently waiting for us to pull over to let them by.

Our final day of touring led us to Sherwood Forest and the Major Oak. As we learned in the visitor center, Sherwood forest was once a vast place with enormous trees and legendary heroes. Robin Hood, the Green Man and multiple spirits were said to reside here, but over the years most of the forest was cut down for industrial use. The main attraction was a walk through the mostly leveled forest to see a large oak that had been spared. The tree, called the Major Oak, reminded me of an old man on life support that the family just would not allow to go. A large perimeter had been fenced off, and the limbs of the trees were supported with metal struts to keep it from falling apart.

No one was quite sure why it had been spared. Most likely it would have been a below average source of timber, so the lumberjacks didn’t bother. This would also explain why most of the other surviving old oaks were so stunted and sick looking. I couldn’t help but think that this was a prime example of man destroying nature over the years, and then deciding maybe this was a bad idea. The problem is that there are no take backs- it took a few decades for man to destroy the forest, and it would take centuries to return it to what it once was.

We finished up Sam’s visit that afternoon at the village of Scrooby, which fittingly took the “Most Random Place Visited” award. Off of a minor national road through the tiny village, we parked the car in an empty pub parking lot. Sam went in to see if we could park there and use the bathroom if we promised to return later for a couple of pints. He got an affirmative and tips on how to see the village attraction- the “home” of William Brewster, one of the founders of the Mayflower expedition to the new world. We walked into the deserted town, stopping at a church and reading headstones (finding a Brewster), and to the road leading to the house. A “no trespassing/violators will be prosecuted” sign re-routed us to another vantage point a couple of hundred yards away and through some trees. Sure enough, we could see a house off in the distance. I soon found out that the house was not actually William Brewster’s, but that one of the walls of a shed was used to be part of his house. While Sam walked down the railroad tracks to get a better view of the wall, Jenny and I amused ourselves with looking at the shaggy ponies in the field separating us from the historic wall.

As we enjoyed our pints in the comfy bar, I reflected on our trip through England with Sam. We may not have hit many major tourist attractions, but we still had a great time. This was truly an example of the journey being of primary import over the destination. I had a feel for what the English countryside was all about, and enjoyed being away from practically any other tourist for a few of our days. Seeing Sam in action, grooving on fields, walls, stones in the ground also opened my eyes to yet another way of enjoying travel. There is a whole spectrum of enjoyment possibilities- some people want to see the major check-box attractions like the Mona Lisa, some people are perfectly happy (or even tremendously excited) to see a wall in Scrooby. I was glad we did both, and I was glad we got to spend time with Sam doing it.

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