We rented a car for last week's jaunt to the West Country and driving was almost second nature. I credit the two months I've spent riding a bike on the "wrong" side of the road. It makes roundabouts and slip roads a piece of cake. And My Lovely Wife is a wonderful navigatrix. She always knew where we were, even when we were lost.
But being able to drive on the left is not the same as being able to painlessly get to our desired destinations. I probably wasted $50 in gas from overshooting our turnoff and having to drive for miles on narrow, twisty, hedgerow-crowded lanes before finding a place where I could turn around. Still, I never panicked, even when I encountered another car coming in the opposite direction on a road barely big enough for one vehicle, let alone two. (I was quite proud that when I returned the rental car this morning there was a bit of Cornwall hedge stuck in the passenger-side rear-view mirror. I wouldn't have been surprised to find a hedgehog in the wheel well.)
Where did we go? Well our first stop was a little town called Bradford on Avon and we stopped there for one reason only: I wanted to ask how many tourists show up hoping to see William Shakespeare's birthplace.
"About two or three a year," said the head of the tourist information office.
"Or they ask what's on at the theater," said a volunteer in the office, Joan Reeve. Joan told me they're happy to pass on directions to Stratford-upon-Avon, which is about 100 miles away and on a totally different River Avon. ("Avon" is a Saxon word that means "river." There are three River Avons--or "River Rivers"--in England.)
My curiousity sated, we drove on to a little village called Dinder, where we stayed two nights in a bed-and-breakfast called Middle Farm:
It was lovely, run by a retired school teacher and his artist wife. The house was filled with art. I was struck by this photo over the toilet:
It's of an Aboriginal Madonna and child from a cathedral in Darwin, Australia. The Christ child kept reminding me of someone. Take another look:
Tell me he doesn't look like Richard Nixon.
We took a day trip to Bath, where we toured the Roman spa and swam in waters fed from the very springs the ancients did. It was a place called the Thermae Bath Spa, open for just a year. There are four levels to the spa, several scented steam rooms (not as gross as that sounds), massage and mud-wrapping rooms, and two pools, including a rooftop pool that's open to the elements. It was wonderful. You emerge from the elevator shivering in your bathing suit then plunge into the steamy pool and float blissfully, your skin pruning up. All around you are various Georgian buildings, church spires and the like--what my youngest daughter called "random historical crap." She meant that in a good way.
We had lunch in the posh Pump Room restaurant where a uniformed waiter stood behind a sign that read: "Why not try the famous spa water? 50p a glass."
Why not? Allow My Lovely Wife to answer that:
Frankly, the spa waters are better for swimming in than drinking.
The next day we hiked Glastonbury Tor (see Friday's post) and headed further west, to Tintagel, King Arthur country. Ruth and I had been there before, on our honeymoon 20 years ago. It's a striking, windswept place, craggy cliffs that reach out the sea. Was King Arthur born there? Probably not, but it's fun to think so. And the town of Tintagel has certainly capitalized on its association with the King of the Britons. Every other souvenir and tea shop is "King Arthur This" or "Merlin That." Twenty years ago I took a photo of a trash can full of plastic "Excaliburs" for sale outside a tacky shop. I think the swords were selling for 60 pence. It didn't take me long to find the shop again:
The price of everything has gone up.
The price of blackmail, for example. Imagine my surprise at yesterday's Sunday Times story on a member of the royal family targeted in a 50,000-pound sex and drugs blackmail plot. Unseemly. (But not unprecedented. Here's a history of royal blackmail.)
The papers today assure us that it is not a "senior royal" who is involved. They don't explain what that means. Does it mean it's not an elderly royal? Or not one of the ones we all would recognize--even Americans? Is there a list somewhere of who's senior and who's junior? Is there a lesser crested royal?
I can't wait to learn the juicy details. And I won't feel guilty. In his book "What the Media Are Doing to Our Politics," British journalist and gadfly John Lloyd has this to say about coverage of the royal family:
“Their private life has to be an issue issue of public concern because one of the fruits of royalty’s loins will become the British head of state. And thus the royal loins are a legitimate area of interest.”A slab of royal loin will be served soon, I'm sure.