Saturday, December 1, 2012

England in November

While Rick went off to a Thanksgiving family reunion in Oregon, I took the Eurostar to England to visit James and Adric. In the off-season the tickets are quite inexpensive and the trip is fast and easy. From Emily's place it is only a few metro stops to the terminal to catch the train. Two hours later you've traveled back an hour in time and emerge from under the channel in another country.

I arrived in London early in the morning. The whole day stretched out in front of me. The terminal conveniently has a baggage storage area, which was amazingly crowded. By the time I had stowed away my luggage, James was there. He had left Birmingham about the same time I left Paris and we met at the station. We had big plans in the afternoon to go see a West-End show together. My friend Amy, who visited a few weeks ago strongly recommended seeing Mathilda, a musical created from the Roald Dahl story. I had forgotten that this was actually the first book James ever read to himself and Dahl was undoubtedly his favorite author when he was a child.

If you don't know the story, I won't spoil it for you but suffice it to say, this was one of the great theater events of our lives. We just loved it. The children are so talented and the adult actors are funny. It was a joy to watch the story unfold and at the curtain-call I found tears rolling down my cheeks for no reason I could explain to myself. You can read a review here. The show is running in NYC as well, so if the opportunity arises to go to either capital, I highly recommend it to you.

After the matinee, we collected my bags at the station, and caught a train to Birmingham, where James and Adric live, right on the central canal. Rick and I visited together last November and I wrote about that and more of Birmingham then.

On one sunny afternoon James and I took a walk down the canal to see the Ikon art gallery and the opening of a photography exhibition.

This building, originally a brick warehouse of some kind from the industrial past of the city, has been beautifully transformed into an elegant gallery space. I particularly like that clean modern architecture when it compliments the rather ornate old building styles of former centuries.

There was one day when Adric was at work and James at the University when I had a day to myself. I did a lot of drawing and painting at the dining room table. And I did a kind of study of the canal. I loved to watch the patterns as they formed and transformed in the ever-moving water. The rain and light played upon the surface.

Birmingham, especially along the canal, has many brick buildings. The reflections in the water are bright.

The system of canals in England was, of course, created as a way to haul goods to market during the industrial revolution. The system was left derelict for many years after its industrial utility passed, until recently, when all across the country they have been renewed and refreshed. You can take a barge trip, walk or bike ride all the way to London from Birmingham just following the canal trails.

We went on several outings together while I was in town. Our first was to Oxford. There's something inherently grand in this old college town, being as it is the oldest university in the English speaking world, having been founded in something like the year 1090. A whole lot of history has had lots of time to be made. In more recent days, the dining hall at Christ Church, Oxford University's original college, was the setting for the Hogwarts Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies. Stands to reason.

For some reason which was never explained to me, there is a miniature reproduction of Venice's Bridge of Sighs that spans a roadway and connects two academic buildings. It seems a bit goofy, but it's quite attractive and I imagine useful as well.

One thing one notices in Oxford are all the bicycles. I found their congregation points to be irresistible photography subjects. 

The sign reads "bicycles left here will be removed." Good luck with that.

There are lots of pretty chapels and like all the other buildings on campus, they are surrounded by bikes.

Mostly the town seems to be encompassed by the campus, as there are thirty eight separate colleges. The city itself seems given over to the university and to its population of bikes.

The fall was in its last moments of glory, and the grounds and gardens were mutely colored. Leaves covered the ground.

On another adventurous day we went to the town of Bristol, at the confluence of the Rivers Avon and Frome. This is a port city where much of the commerce between England and Ireland was centered, as well as the slave trade.

These days its the home city of the mysterious graffiti artist and film maker, Banksy, who never allows his identity to be known or his face to be photographed. An entire street in town is devoted to spray paint art by a generation of Bristol artists. 

Much of the wall art, which apparently changes frequently, makes a nice back drop for portraiture. I captured James and Adric,

and they captured me.

Bristol is a good old town, with lots of passageways and attractive old buildings.

Many of the most famous British explorers, like Francis Drake and John Hawkins, considered themselves to be pirates, as so they were. The port of Bristol celebrates this legacy and offers tours of a pirate vessel in the harbor. There is a lovely pirate statue gazing out over the water.

The Bristol Industrial Museum on the harbor is new and both James and I were anxious to visit it, as we had heard good things about it. We were able to see only parts, however, as on the very day we were there, the queen happened to be visiting as well, and several of the floors were closed for her tour.

Her car was parked out front, but we didn't wait in the crowd to catch a glance or wave to her. Instead we pushed on towards Bath.

The Roman baths in what was called Aquae Sulis in Latin, now Bath, were established 20 years after the Romans conquered England in 40AD or so. Here they found hot springs, the only ones existing in the country. The spot had been sacred to the Celts, who worshiped their goddess Sulis, thus the Roman name (Waters of Sulis). A very important temple was built to the equivalent Roman goddess, Minerva (in Greek, Athena) and healing baths were established. Today, Bath is a rather small but very beautiful town where the well preserved Roman baths are only one of the town's charms.

Because of its unusual hot spring Bath has always been a spa town, and even centuries after the Romans left people came here to take the cure. The Roman ruins themselves were buried and forgotten until the late 19th century. The site was sensitively excavated and reconstructed. In the process many important Roman artifacts were discovered. A museum at the site is full of these treasures.

The Hippocamp mosaic shows Neptune's mount, half horse, half sea creature.

Before entering the most sacred heart of the temple, the golden head of Minerva looks down upon you and pierces you wih her all-knowing glance. It's easy to imagine the impact she would have had upon a visitor to her temple.

There are numerous beautifully carved stones which have survived very well these 2000 years.

We arrived at the sacred spring, just as the sun was setting. It was very atmospheric as the oil lamps were lit.

The stones have been lying in their places a very long time indeed. We followed in the path of the millions of visitors who have circumambulated this beautiful spot before us.

We walked to the River Avon to get a glimpse of the lovely Pulteney Bridge, one of only four bridges in the world that has shops spanning the entire river on both sides.

As we walked back to collect our car, we passed many shops, cafes and bakeries. There is something so charming at catching a glance into the warm inviting interior. Bath seems like a perfect spot for an extended visit.

Next week I'll bring you along to Ireland for that part of my adventure. This seems enough of a travelog for the moment! In the meanwhile I leave you with my favorite quote for the week, this from Voltaire (1694-1778):

Let us read and let us dance, two amusements that will never do to the world any harm.


  1. Oh, what a lovely meander! I'm a bit of canal buff, too and for some actual on the water pictures, have a wander through Mig's blog.(I have her book .)
    And I have a post about gardens at my place.
    Mathilda was very new when I was in London and I couldn't get tickets for a matinee when I was in town.It sounds wonderful.Well, it's Dahl, isn't it!

  2. What a lovely post Nancy. You are visiting some of my favourite places and I can feel the wanderlust pulling at my heart and feet again...
    What did you think of Birmingham? When we visited in 2008 the canal seemed to be full of floating rubbish, and we thought the town so ugly we vowed never to return! Seems a bit harsh of us - perhaps you need some locals to help you tease out its charms? xx

  3. I am sure I visited Bath when I went to GB in High School, but have zero memory of it. Love the Graffiti!

  4. wonderful post about many places I already visited but which gives me feel to go again !
    always amazed by Roman history in England : how they could cope (or not) with such different people and climate
    Colors are necessary in England so the walls are brightly welcomed ...
    This "escapade" looks so nice and full of discovery, then Voltaire's sentence is well done, More and more I make my idea that only arts could save the world