Monday, February 9, 2009

I Regret Not Doing Today the Things I'll Do Tomorrow, But I Don't Regret The Things I've Done Today

When most people think of England, they conjure images of the English countryside, castles, cathedrals and other ancient stone buildings. My time living there was comprised only fractionally of those things, with a short trip to Stratford-Upon-Avon to study Shakespeare and a day trip to Oxford. So when I came back this year for a visit, I thought I would be a little adventurous and get out of the black-sooted London to breathe in some fresh air elsewhere in England.

My first trip to Leeds Castle in Kent was a smashing success, despite the fact that I departed too late to catch the all-in ticket with the shuttle bus. Still, I managed to split a cab with some Japanese tourists and pay the same amount as the shuttle, and arrive as the afternoon sky cast shadows beneath all the exotic birds in the castle's bountiful duckery. As soon as I got there I was greeted by two peacocks, a male and a female, poking around the gravel in front of the ticket office. I don't think I'd ever actually seen a peacock before. As I proceeded through the duckery to get to the castle, I got pretty close to all these magical birds who'd been imported from far away places and somehow acclimated to the brisk waters of the man-made moat that surrounded the castle.

Leeds Castle was never really used for warfare - it was more of a decorative castle - but Henry VIII did stop there once on his way to France, which is probably why it's worth visiting for history buffs. As for me, I didn't really care about its origins, enjoying more the access to nature and the creepy cellar. In the back, there's an aviary that houses screeching parrots and macaws and Golden conures which were the brightest yellow I'd ever seen. Farther back, there's a maze which looked innocent enough in daylight, but as soon as I poked my head in to check it out and decided to turn around and catch the last shuttle back to the train station, I was lost in the maze. There was a grotto in the center which was your goal to reach, but I could neither find the grotto nor find the entrance I came in, nor any other way out, for a good twenty minutes. I swore I'd only taken about twenty paces into the maze, but I guess that's the point.

I was lost for so long that I had to run back down the hill, through the duckery, to try to catch the last shuttle back. Luckily, the shuttle had car trouble and was running late itself, so I managed to catch it without having to call a cab.

A good day overall, though I didn't get to see any of the water voles (like Ratty in The Wind in the Willows) that the nature markers touted as local inhabitants.

Sunday we took the train to see Windsor Castle, one of the Queen's official residences, but the real highlight was seeing yet another part of the winding Thames River, which splits Windsor from its sister city Eton (home of the Eton mess). We were greeted by a throng of honking swans, which are much meaner animals than you'd think (as any Colgate student or alum has learned). The sun was so far angled in the sky, just about to set, that it only hit the beak of one swan whose neck extended out to us as we walked by, with either a greeting or a reprimand. It's so hard to tell in England.

I was originally supposed to leave the following morning, but I was having such a good time and felt so inspired that I changed my return ticket to give myself a couple extra days for exploring. After deliberating a Eurostar trip to Paris and then nixing it for not having enough time (and the catacombes being closed on Mondays), I settled on Stonehenge. It's one of those tourist sites that normally attracts me, so much so that I can't understand why I never visited it when I lived in London. I think I was intimidated by the regional rail system, or so focused on my own poverty that I dismissed any trip beyond really cheap bus fare (as evidenced by our overnight bus trip to Edinburgh, which I'll never do again). But the more I thought about it, and read about the nearby ghost town of Old Sarum, I became fascinated by it and really excited to go.

Then the snowstorm hit.

Last Monday, the entire London transportation system was shut down. Double decker buses. Tube. Rail. Heathrow. We saw a cab or two on our way back from warming up in Gossip, a vegetarian cafe in Broadway Market that wasn't packed with snowball-wielding revellers. But basically, I was trapped in London. On a boat.

The day after the snowstorm, I assumed everything would be back to normal. After all, Monday night I managed to drag my rolling luggage trolley through the snow from Victoria Park to Chiswick on the tube. Sure, it had taken me two hours, but I got there. And it wasn't snowing in London at all, and it was warm enough to start melting most of the accumulation (much to the dismay, I'm sure, of the snowballers who were pelting strangers like me from their flat windows). So I checked the train to Salisbury, which was running, and I was off to seek mysterious stone formations and perform a pagan dance.

About an hour outside of London, I had a sinking feeling. I woke up on the train to a white-washed English countryside, snow sweeping down from the sky and blanketing the rolling hills below. The onslaught continued until we arrived in Salisbury, the nearest town to Stonehenge. No shuttle bus. No taxis. No one was even sure that Stonehenge would be open, the weather was so bad. But how do you call Stonehenge to check??

I'd come this far, so I busied myself in Salisbury. Remembering that the outdoor market runs on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and noting that it was Tuesday, I headed for the town center, only to be greeted by a single stand of pastries and a battery vendor shutting his stand down. I walked in circles drying to follow the street signs to the cathedral, and felt as lost as in that Leeds Castle maze, only I was in the wide open, looking apparently for the tallest steeple in England and somehow still not seeing it in the skyline.

When I finally found Salisbury Cathedral, nestled in snow, I thought at least my trip would be worthwhile. I'd arrived just in time for their daily tower tour, which wouldn't be as cool as an ancient abandoned settlement would would still be right up my alley.

The tower tour guide didn't make it into work that day. Because of the weather.

Was I the only person in England who had no problem braving a little snow?!

Yes, the cathedral is cool. Yes, it houses the world's oldest clock and one of the few remaining copies of the Magna Carta. Yes, I enjoyed the smell of incense as I approached the decrepit-looking statue outside. But I was wet and cold - again - and Salisbury itself is just any old small town with Boots and Domino's and Pizza Hut with a few crumbly structures peppered in. The day just felt like a bust.

I found out later that Paris had pretty much shut down too, so I'm glad I'd decided not to go on my own. Still, I was glad I got to stay the extra two days, not only to avoid the hassle of cancelled flights at Heathrow but also to spend some quality time with Bill and his family in their lovely home in Chiswick, a place I will definitely return to not only for Bill's cooking but also to visit the Fuller's brewery.

I guess I could have gone to Canterbury or Dover or even Bath. I might do those next time. I could've even stayed in London and visited the Hindu temple (which is on my list for next time) or my old stomping grounds in Kilburn Park. But I'm glad I at least tried to get to Stonehenge, even though the odds were against me.

Like most trips, this one felt like good research for the next one. It's very rare that I can visit a place and feel satisfied that I've seen it all. Except for maybe Budapest...

For more photos of Leeds and Windsor Castles, click here