Monday, July 22.
I caught the City Link back to London in plenty of time to pick up our van and drive us to Canterbury and Dover. It was a much larger van than I had expected to drive. I was hoping for a nine or ten-passenger vehicle; this was a 15-passenger van. I had never driven something so large except the time my brother and I had taken turns driving a U-Haul moving van from California to Oregon, and I hadn’t driven in the cities. This was also a stick shift, but the clutch was easy and it was fortunate that I was ambidextrous and could switch sides and manipulate the gears without trouble.
I drove to Canterbury and Sari navigated. She was a good navigator, getting me out of London easily, and patient while I got used to driving on the left side of the road and in a right-hand drive, stick-shift, big vehicle. My group was generally helpful with my driving—I really needed them at first to learn where the sides and back of the van were! I was sure I scared them to death a couple times at least. I drove over several curbs until I learned how long the van was, especially in making left turns which were next to the curbs.
Cherry regaled everybody along the road with stories about her grandma Daisy, so we had Canterbury Tales to distract everybody. I was concentrating on driving too hard to listen much, but at least it helped me to relax that everybody else was being entertained well. I heard just enough to be able to tell that the stories were in turns cheery and poignant, bawdy, wise, and very, very funny.
At Canterbury my group split up and I ended up going around with Cherry and Kiersten, telling them whatever bits I’d gleaned about the site and its literary significance. Those two were fun. Cherry was an extremely witty woman. We took pictures in the cloisters, watched a film about the Cathedral, and felt goose bumps on our arms when Pachelbel’s Canon in D filled the background.
I lunched with Sari in that same deli across from the West Gate that we ate at three years before. Sari was strapped for cash after shopping, so the deal was that I had to pay her £5 for every chocolate I ate—a similar deal to the one my sister and I made with each other when we were trying to lose weight one year. I regulated my sweets, and Sari had cash again.
We drove on to Dover in wind and rain. At Dover Dora and I explored a little ways into the castle, then Dora left me and Kiersten joined me to explore the battlements. Then we and Margery went to the dungeons and were properly horrified by the descriptions of boiling oil and other grim deaths dealt there. A guard dropped a lighted oil match down the well—it fell, it seemed, for a full minute before we could not see it anymore. We could not hear a penny dropped down that well hit the bottom, if it did.
In getting out of Dover, I accidentally turned the wrong way up a one-way street, very narrow, and I had to back the van down to the cross street again, relying very heavily on my back-seat passengers to help me stay straight, and to tell me if there was cross traffic. What a terrible few minutes! I had tensely been afraid of a crash and was relieved when we were safely back on our way.
We drove on to Hastings and had fish and chips while sitting in our steamy van with the storm outside. Those were some of the best fish and chips ever. We decided all together that because of the weather we would not go on to Brighton and turned back to London instead. As we drove back, we came out of the storm and the weather in London was perfectly charming that evening.
We got stuck in the elevator between floors at the parking garage where we were renting a place for our van. I had to shake Kiersten who was becoming dramatically hysterical while Judith behind her really was in trouble, with a pasty white face and blue lips. I realized we had to take action immediately and get Judith out of there. It was an open lift, so I directed tall Reba to stretch up and grab the floor above, and with several of us helping, we pulled the car and us to the point that we could all climb out. I reported the trouble and they fixed the lift.
Tuesday, July 23.
What a very good day it was. We sang as we drove along, learning “The Ash Grove” to sing for Richard Wordsworth and the Conference, among other things. We visited Jane Austen’s home at Chawton in Hampshire, all of us being Jane Austen fans except Kiersten, and she had started reading Pride and Prejudice. I learned that the group had told her that they would each buy her a book if she finished reading this one during the trip. I said I would, too. She did finish, and she became as confirmed a Janeite as any of the rest of us already were.
|In Jane Austen's house at Chawton|
We lingered long and finally left for Winchester, where we again lingered around Jane Austen’s grave in the floor of the cathedral on the south aisle. The inscription is flowery and almost not-Austen, but perhaps at the end of her life she had stopped being caustically satiric and had concentrated on how much she loved her family and friends taking care of her. Perhaps the end of life served to focus on the things of eternity.
At Winchester everybody scattered to find lunch. Our burgers were so slow in coming that Sari and I cooked up a plot while waiting. We decided she would run back to the car park and spin a tale of me having met up with the two young men of the passport-ring-spy story, and then I would appear a minute later with the same tale. The group just laughed at us. They had figured me out. We were so ridiculous that it went a little way toward redeeming my reputation.
There was a little matter of How to Back Up a Large Van in a Small Car Park. I think there was a scrape to the van roof and along the side of a building, but none of us could find a trace of damage when we got out and looked. The myriad of guardian angels accompanying us must have erased it.
|Salisbury Cathedral nave|
We drove on to Salisbury. Judith and I sat in the choir of the cathedral for Evensong. What a beautiful, peaceful building; what a spirit was there vibrating along the sunbeams and echoing in the boys’ choir notes, thrilling my soul. I didn’t want to leave there.
Late as it was when we got back to London, several of my group went to the Hard Rock Café, having to take a taxi back because it was 3 am and the buses and trains had stopped running. I heard about it the next morning; I didn’t hear a thing when they came in.
Wednesday, July 24.
Because she was so very tired from the Hard Rock Café excursion, Sari became nervous about my driving. We were going to Tintern Abbey in Wales, a long distance for a day’s drive, and I finally felt comfortable enough with the van that I drove fast to make the best time we could. Sari told me to slow down several times, and I realized why she was likely nervous and sympathized and apologized for making her stay awake to navigate. After that she was fine.
|Tintern Abbey ruins|
Next, Sari and I got the bright idea to pose as statues on pedestals—the broken columns. She and I achieved a matching symmetry with our arms stretched out towards each other as we balanced on one foot in Winged Mercury poses. More of our group gathered until all eight of us were present, and Kiersten, our cheerleader and gymnastics expert, got us all placed and posed. She nabbed a lucky passing tourist to take our picture, but I fell off just as he snapped the first one, so we all had to pose again. We were lovely goddesses, he assured us.
We crossed the River Wye, as Sari and I had done three years before, to see the Abbey from that vantage. Several ran way down the path to get more and more views of the Abbey at different angles. Cherry and Judith refused to ride in the van when I drove it across the bridge over the river, sure we’d break through and plunge in. They joined us on the other side, carefully.
As we got back in the van, Kiersten was sharing the new vocabulary she had learned that day: aphrodisiac and nymphomaniac. There was no need to guess who had been teaching her those words. Some men were just passing as she told us the words; they gave us all very funny looks. Nobody could stop laughing after that.
After lunch we drove to Glastonbury, passing by Wells Cathedral on the way. At Glastonbury Abbey the graves supposedly of King Arthur and Queen Guinevere were in the ruins. Also, the thorn tree planted by Joseph of Arimathea on his first Christian mission was still there, or its descendant. The Abbey was perfectly lovely, all golden in the afternoon sun, as romantic as a ruin should be, with the feeling of chivalry and knights and so on lingering in the very air.
We ate dinner in Bath at an excellent little restaurant, just after sunset.
I was very tired driving back to London and found that staying alert became a real chore. I let Sari sleep as I didn’t need navigation to get back.
Thursday, July 25.
First thing after breakfast we trouped over to the London Centre to use their piano to practice “The Ash Grove.” Judith, our musical director and pianist extraordinaire, taught me a soprano descant, and she and Sari created the alto part. We dubbed our group the “We Are Seven,” figuring that since the little girl in the Wordsworth poem of that name couldn’t count, we didn’t have to either—and Dora pointed out that as she couldn’t sing and had to mouth the words, technically the title fit anyway.
This was our free day, so I saw everybody off to their chosen destinations and got on the phone to arrange transportation to York and from there to Grasmere. Everybody was by then either resigned or accepting of the idea that I wouldn’t be driving us all north. I ordered bus tickets to York and planned to get the tickets to Grasmere when we were in York.
Then I slept awhile, talked to the desk clerk, and finally went to the Tower of London. I investigated closely the Roman Wall, the statue of Emperor Trajan, and walked around the Tower. On one path a cat sprang out of the bushes to my side and grabbed a mouse almost on my foot. Suddenly there was blood all over the path and the woman behind me screamed. I jumped and shook but didn’t make a sound and walked swiftly on to leave the disturbing image behind me.
I stood on the dock at Traitor’s Gate staring out at Tower Bridge and felt drawn to walk to it and go up on the upper level. A lovely young man was so sorry I couldn’t go up. I walked to the Monument and then to St. Paul’s for a little while.
Back at the hotel I lay across Judith’s bed talking to her and Margery and Kiersten about their day and mine. We had all had a thoroughly satisfactory time.
Friday July 26.
York was drizzly and dreary, but the University, as difficult as it was to get there with All That Luggage (my group had gone shopping a lot) was lovely, warm, and roomy as I remembered it. Sari was tired and didn’t want to go out anywhere, but everybody gathered in Sari’s room and I sat up on her desk with my feet in her chair reading aloud from Let’s Go all about what to see and where to eat in York. Enthusiasm grew, so out we went, through the Shambles shops where Judith and I bought out Culpeper’s Herb Shop (I got a hive of eight flavors of honey for Edith and George, and a bottle of lavender water for my sister). Then we walked over to the Minster, walked all around and through it and sat listening to the gorgeous echoing organ music.
To find something to eat we walked and walked in search of something inexpensive, but finally I convinced them that if we could just stop walking I’d be happy to treat them to a nice meal. We went to Galtres Hotel Restaurant where Sari and I split a half duckling in a delicious wine sauce. The vegetables were so good that Dora and Margery and Sari ate all that our other group members weren’t eating. People who don’t like vegetables! I’ll never understand that.
We decided, with great difficulty, to forego the Brontë parsonage and museum. I explained about the exchange rate rising so swiftly that last two weeks and how much we had lost and that it really would be more prudent not to spend the money for the Haworth trip; besides, the time it would take would be extremely tight as we had to reach Grasmere before evening. Additionally, everyone wanted another morning in York, which would be impossible if we went to Haworth.
To be continued: Click here for Part 3.