Although the Tiny Goddess and I had spent some time in the UK before (especially her), we resolved to see many new things on this trip. And with three full weeks – one in London, two driving around -- we had the time.
Here are the best of the new things:
THE VICTORIA & ALBERT MUSEUM
I've been in London a few times before, but somehow I'd never been to the V&A, the world's largest museum devoted to decorative art and design. (The TG had been there a long time ago, in her college days.) This time, we spent an entire day there, and it was as exhilarating experience as I've had in a museum in a long time. I had done my research about things to see that aligned with our interests (the William Morris material, the Raphael cartoons, etc.), which we then supplemented with the museum's "20 Greatest Treasures" list. We didn't hit them all, but we caught The Great Bed of Ware, The Ardabil Carpet, and Tipu's Tiger. We criss-crossed the V&A several times, trying to "see everything," or as much as we could of its seven miles of galleries.
We especially enjoyed the exhibits on theatrical costumes, jewelry, ceramics, Asian art, John Constable, and medieval art. We did moderate business at the gift shop – writing down the names of books we wanted to buy later, instead of buying them then and having to schlep them around with us for the entire trip. And we had tea in the magnificent dining room, designed by the great William Morris.
We got to the V&A early; it was only two stops on the underground from Victoria, our home station. By the time we left, it was swarming with people. We were there in mid- September; I can't imagine what it was like during the summer at the height of the tourist season. (You can say that for every place we went.)
SIR JOHN SOANE'S MUSEUM
This one-of-a-kind marvel is many people's "favorite museum in the world," and it's easy to see why. There is simply nothing like it: the great British architect (designer of the Bank of England) and major art collector left his home to the nation in 1837 with the stipulation that nothing be changed ... ever. And nothing has. So this simple-looking townhouse on the north side of Lincoln Inn's Field is not just a museum, it's a journey into the past. Fortunately, Soane was an ingenious master of design and structure as well as a fanatical collector, so the place is just filled with wonders: unusual-shaped rooms, interesting illusions achieved with mirrors, and marvelous, miscellaneous things wherever you look. His use of a light atrium to illuminate the whole multi-story structure, straight down to the basement crypt, is brilliant. Every wall is covered with art; in the picture gallery, panels unfold to reveal even more art. Every room had a desk and a light source so that Soane could create in any room at any time. The visual delights -- including a Monk's Parlor filled with grotesques, a Shakespeare gallery, and a deep, basement crypt filled with antiquities – never end. This surprising place was one of my favorite things on the entire trip.
This was the strictest museum: no photography, and all things were checked or put into plastic bags because so much is exposed. Everything is just as Soane left it. Next trip, we want to do the night time, candle-lit tour.
We spent another whole day at the Royal Botanical Gardens in Kew, the oldest and most complete public gardens in the world. We didn't see the whole 300 acres by any means, but we tried. I remember the Palm House was so hot that it fogged up the lens on my camera. I carried a Canon EOS Rebel camera around the whole vacation. It was "heavy" compared to a phone, but it was worth it.
We live near two world-class gardens – the Huntington Library and Descanso Gardens – which we frequent, so we're pretty spoiled about gardens, but the Kew was an absolute knockout. Everywhere you looked was something beautiful. Everything was well done, from the Princess of Wales Conservatory to the plant borders along the broad avenues. I kept thinking how great it must be during all the seasons of the year. One day was not enough; repeat visits are required at a place like this.
We went to Notting Hill twice: once to the Portabello Road Market and once to a friend's lovely house. What a charming neighborhood! There has been a market on Portabello Road since 1837, and even though I generally don't like shopping (except for books and, in the old days, "records"), this was a lot of fun. More than 200 antique dealers are crowded into a few blocks with a whole lot of people. We got a couple of things – mementos of the trip that are enhanced because they're "from Portabello Road." From now on, every time I see them around the house, I'll be reminded of that fine day in London.
"Notting Hill" -- "I'm just a girl, standing in front of a boy...."
One of the main goals of this trip was to see some of the English countryside, and our first stop after London was a country manor house hotel in the Dartmoor National Park, England's second largest national park. I've been in some beautiful places – I live in a beautiful place in southern California where the San Gabriel Mountains turn pink every evening at sunset – but this place in Devonshire was, along with Big Sur and Bellagio on Lake Como, as beautiful as any place I've ever been.
Just like the drive down Pacific Coast Highway, everywhere you looked was a "photo op." During the entire trip, I took 346 photographs with my Canon, and the TG took 208 with her iphone. You couldn't stop taking pictures.
In Devonshire, it was all green, storybook hills, lush forests, rippling streams, and mile after mile of postcard-beautiful landscape. Sheep dotted the perfect meadows. The skies were all by Constable and Turner. I'd go back there in a heartbeat. I'd go back to all the places we visited, but this place had an otherworldly blissfulness that still calls to me in a unique way. I could live here.
We had a great time at Warwick Castle, England's finest medieval castle. Set on a cliff above the River Avon on "the most noble site in England" according to Sir Walter Scott, the castle is a huge tourist site now. It was first built in 1088, and now it's owned by Madame Tussaud's, so it's kind of cheesy, but totally fun in a low-brow, urDisney way. There are sixty acres of beautiful grounds landscaped by "Capability" Brown in the 18th century, many fine vistas from the high towers, a wonderful collection of medieval armor and weaponry, and a variety shows and tours. We did the "Castle Dungeon" tour. Lots of laughs even as it showed us, once again, the human race's very dark side.
Another "new" area we definitely wanted to see was the fabled Lake District in northwest England. Not only is it an area of great natural beauty, it has a strong literary and Romantic heritage, starting with William Wordsworth who described it as "the loveliest spot that man has ever known." We went to Dove Cottage, one of the many Wordsworth sites in the area, and had a private tour – we were the only ones there – from a nice young literature major from University of Swansea. Wordsworth is credited with introducing walking as a leisure activity, and is thought to have walked more than 175,000 miles in his lifetime.
The TG and I walked to the top of Orrest Head for a beyond-gorgeous view over Lake Windermere, the largest of the lakes. The pictures I got didn't do justice to the grandeur of the vistas, miles and miles in all directions. It reminded me of all the great hikes in the Berkshires and upstate New York we did when we lived back east.
Even in late September, there were lots and lots of tourists in Windermere and Grassmere, spilling off the sidewalks. I can't imagine what summer must be like, but I can see why people come here. It's ridiculously beautiful in a wild, western-Ireland way.
We ended our vacation with three days in Edinburgh, a city that I've always wanted to see. (The TG had been here a long time ago.) I knew I would love this city, and I was right. It reminded me of my beloved Dublin. It's easy to see why the entire city – at least, the Old Town and New Town at the city center – is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got a private, half-day tour of the city, and the lovely bright guide (a native to Switzerland) walked our feet off for five hours, but we saw a lot. Lots of private gardens and "closes." We criss-crossed the charming city three times, ending up at the end of the Royal Mile at Edinburgh Castle. It was a great day, but I got back to our hotel on rubber legs.
I want to go back to Edinburgh during August when the Fringe Festival happens. I can't imagine how much fun – and how crazy – that would be.
The nicest surprise in Edinburgh? The wonderfully various National Museum of Scotland.
OTHER NEW THINGS
The Wallace Colllection in London, the "Frick" of London ... the Jephson Gardens in Leamington in Warwickshire, another lovely public park ... the inside of Buckingham Palace. A very nice place to live. We also saw the Palace of Holyrood in Edinburgh where the Queen and Prince Philip also live every year for one week. Another nice place.
There were a lot more new things, and even with three weeks, not enough time.
(To be continued....)
One last thing: I couldn't let the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan pass unnoticed. As the TG can testify, I've been saying for years that Dylan was going to get the Prize, and I'm happy to see that he was recognized. (I feel sorry for Philip Roth; he might have to join that long, distinguished list of Writers Who Should Have Won the Nobel Prize, like Tolstoy, Joyce, Proust, Woolf, Nabokov, Updike, Borges, Rilke, etc. It's not so bad; those writers' legacies are intact without the Nobel.)
I grew up on Dylan, and his influence on me, my generation, and the world of music in general cannot be overestimated. He redefined what it meant to be a singer, brought new levels of poetry and seriousness to popular music, and created or popularized several genres. In my novel WHAT IT WAS LIKE, set in the late 60s, my narrator mentions Dylan by name four times, not counting, "So I put on Blonde On Blonde as I had a million times before." It is impossible to write the story of our generation without including Dylan. He's part of our collective DNA.
I admit that I stopped tracking his career closely after, say, "Blood On The Tracks." I wish that he had stopped smoking cigarettes because his voice – always an iffy thing: sometimes spectacularly effective, sometimes plain bad – became a big problem for me. His records became unpleasant to listen to, even if he kept on writing great songs: "Dignity," "Early Roman Kings," "Make You Feel My Love," "Mississippi," etc. When I collected bootlegs avidly, I acquired very few Dylan boots: except for those from the early days, they were almost unlistenable, and people who deny it are listening with their hearts, not their ears.
Did Dylan "deserve" the Nobel Prize for Literature? Absolutely. Literature consists of words, and Dylan's words had deep worldwide – and deep personal – importance for millions and millions and millions of people. If that doesn't deserve a prize, what does?