"See better, Lear," is Kent's charge to the great king in the first scene of Shakespeare's masterpiece. With three full weeks in the UK, the TG and I had a chance to "see better" some of our favorite places from past visits.
Is the Cotswolds the most beautiful place I've ever been? Yosemite has more grandeur. Big Sur and the coast of Croatia are more dramatic. The hills of Tuscany and the Italian lakes are certainly gorgeous. But the Cotswolds might be the most beautiful place I've ever been.
Basically, everywhere you look in this area of south central England is a postcard or a photo op. It's all Constable skies and Gainsborough landscapes. The Cotswolds combines rural perfection – rolling hills and hedge-trimmed meadows, historic towns and stately homes, medieval church towers and rippling streams – with a unique architectural purity and unity because most of the buildings are made of a beautiful honey-colored limestone called Cotswold stone. The colors of the buildings seem to change in the light, through shades of yellow and gold and amber. The villages, one after the other, have an enchanted, storybook look to them. The Cotswolds, which measures about twenty-five miles across and ninety miles long, is designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) by the UK government. That's putting it mildly.
(There is some dispute about the origin of the name "Cotswolds." Some people believe it means "sheep enclosure in rolling hillsides" incorporating the term 'wold' which meant 'hills.' But other experts believe it comes from a twelfth century word 'codesuualt,' which is 'Cod's-wold' where Cod is the name for some person or god or goddess.)
The TG and I spent two glorious days in the northern Cotswolds: one day walking around, one day driving around. We had been in the area before, on a trip in the early 90s, when we had been in Chipping Camden (home of the Arts and Crafts movement), Broadway (famous hangout of John Singer Sargent and his circle), and a few other beautiful places, but it wasn't enough. We wanted to see more, see better.
This time, we spent one especially glorious afternoon walking from our hotel in Lower Slaughter to Upper Slaughter and back again. To quote Insight Guide's book on the Cotswolds which places the Slaughters in their Top Ten, "These two idyllic Cotswold villages are almost too beautiful to be true, pure architectural and rural bliss." We've been on some beautiful walks and hikes: in the Berkshires in the fall, Pfeiffer Beach and the mountains above Big Sur, in the Plitvice Lakes in Croatia, and a few other places. But this was something really special.
Was two days in the Cotswolds enough? Not nearly. I would love to see these beautiful hills and villages in all four seasons. It must be magnificent here, with a light frosting of snow in the winter, or in full autumn when the leaves turn colors. Or in the spring: I wonder what flowers grow here.
I could live here ... except that I'd miss my family in the USA, which would make it impossible. But living in the Cotswolds is a good dream.
Check out these amazing images of the Cotswolds
When we were in London, we couldn't miss the British Museum, the world's oldest museum. I hadn't seen it since the massive redo of its Great Court; the dome is now wider than St. Peter's in Rome. Of course, you can't see all of its 2.5 miles of galleries in one day, but we made a good try.
It's impossible to pick out favorites, but it was a deep pleasure to be back among certain familiar things like the "Parthenon Sculptures" (formerly the Elgin Marbles) ... all those mummies and sarcophagi ... Wedgewood's Portland Vase ... the giant Easter Island heads ... the Rosetta Stone ... the Greek red-figure and white-figure vases ... and newer wonders like John Constable's amazing oil sketches ... too many to list.
We are audio-guide junkies. They enhance the museum-going experience. "Knowledge is good."
We'd been in Bath before, but only for a day. We'd seen the famous Roman baths before so this time we wanted to concentrate on the Jane Austen stuff. We went to the Jane Austen Centre, which is fun and informative. We learned a lot, like the fact that all of her novels were published anonymously in her lifetime, and it was her brother who had them republished with her name after her death. Or that Jane turned against the city of Bath when one of her aunts was imprisoned – and subsequently aquitted – for stealing a pair of gloves.
We got a tour of Bath from a guide who walked out feet off, showing us everything, with a special Jane Austen emphasis. He had been a city surveyor and knew the city inside out. We went to the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms where Bath society gathered. We stood where Anne Elliott and Captain Wentworth affirmed their love in PERSUASION, one of the two Austen novels set in Bath. The other is NORTHANGER ABBEY.
The entire city of Bath is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because it is all beautiful. We criss-crossed the city a couple of times. We stayed on the magnificent Royal Crescent, Sir John Wood's masterpiece of Georgian architecture, which was named Britain's second "Most Picturesque Street." (The winner was The Shambles in York.)
Our guide told us that some people live in Bath and commute to London. (It's an hour and twenty-minute train, each way.) I know people who do longer commutes. I guess it's worth it, to live in Bath.
UNESCO's City of Bath site
We couldn't resist going to the National Gallery in London. I know some of these paintings well from an old CD-ROM (remember CD-ROMs?) that the National Gallery put out with Microsoft in the early 90s. This is simply one of the great picture galleries in the world.
Not only does it have some of my favorite paintings -- like the "Rockeby Venus," Velasquez' only nude – it has quite a few important paintings that appeared on a deck of cards of Important Works of Art that my son, the Sculptor/Art/Art History teacher developed for one of his classes. Major landmarks like van Eyck's "Arnolfini Marriage," Constable's "The Hay Wain," Bellini's "Doge," and quite a few others are on these walls, one after another after another.
No sculpture, just paintings. But what a collection! Amazing Titians. It was exhausting, the avalanche of genius. Good audio guides.
The National Gallery's excellent site – see everything
THE WEST END
We saw four shows during our week in London: two plays, one opera, one musical. All the theatres were old and magnificent.
I love being a theatre – before, during, and after a show. Before – for the anticipation of possibly seeing something great, something unforgettable. During – for the pleasure of sharing the same room with the best actors and singers in the world, creating Art right in front of my eyes, with the possibility of error: so different from seeing a movie when the actors are miles away. After – for the thrill and sense of satisfaction that comes from seeing something you'll never forget for the rest of your life. (Unfortunately, some bad plays fall into this same category.)
We went to three theatres in the West End:
The Savoy Theatre (where we saw the fabulous Sheridan Smith in "Funny Girl") – Built in 1881 by Richard D'Oyly Carte, this is the historic home theatre of the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company that premiered the eight last Gilbert and Sullivan operettas (including "The Mikado," "The Gondoliers," "Yeomen of the Guard," "Ruddigore," "Patience" and others). Hence the name, Savoy, because fans of Gilbert and Sullivan were called "Savoyards." When the theatre opened, it was absolute state-of-the-art and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electricity. It seats 1,150 on three levels. The famous hotel next door was actually spun off from the immense success of the theatre.
Wyndam's Theatre (where we saw Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart in Pinter's NO MAN'S LAND) -- Built in 1889, this theatre has only 759 seats. It was where the original production with John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson, directed by Peter Hall, premiered in 1975.
The Garrick Theatre (where we saw Kenneth Branagh in THE ENTERTAINER) – Built in 1899, this one is even cozier, with only 656 seats. There was a nice outdoor terrace for looking down on the crowds on Charing Cross Road.
No need for "miking" in these last two theatres; just the natural sound of actors' voices. ("Funny Girl," however, was miked.)
And one theatre in Covent Garden:
The Royal Opera House (where we saw Sonya Yoncheva and Joseph Calleja in NORMA)– There has been a theatre on this site since 1732. After a few fires, the main auditorium's present restoration dates from 1858. There has been extensive construction all around the main auditorium in an entire complex – food court, etc. – since the 1990s. It has only 2,256 seats (compared to the Metropolitan Opera's 3,800 and my home Dorothy Chandler Pavillion's 3,156) and is in a traditional horseshoe shape. The sound and our sightlines were superb, and I was very happy to check this theatre off my Bucket List. (Next? La Scala. Never? Bayreuth.)
Pet Shop Boys – "West End Girls" – one of the greatest songs about London
RIDING THE LONDON UNDERGROUND
We took the tube all over. Our canny travel agent put us in a great hotel that was a five-minute walk (three minutes if you got the light) to Victoria Station. From there, we could get on three different lines -- the District, the Circle, and the Victoria – so it was very easy for us to get around almost anywhere. The color-coded system is simple to navigate, the cars are big and clean, the Oyster smartcard is easy to use, and the stations are accessible and tourist-friendly. We never took a double-decker bus, but we brought a toy one back for Calder.
WALKING AROUND LONDON
Of course, one of the best things to do in a great city is walking around. We didn't do as much as we usually do: we were pretty targeted to what we wanted to see, and saved our heavy walking for museums and gardens. We did do some wandering in Notting Hill and Kew (to and from the Gardens) and Belgravia where our hotel was. We walked a little around Bloomsbury and Knightsbridge. We walked through Trafalgar Square.
We wanted to but couldn't fit in a boat trip on the Thames, maybe to Windsor Castle ... book shopping on Charing Cross Road ... the Courtauld Institute ... window-shopping on Bond Street ... walking through Picadilly Circus ... Hampstead Heath ... walking along Cheyne Walk ... and countless other things.
There's too much to see. One week in London isn't enough.
Ralph McTell – "Streets of London" – another great song about London – the original 1972 single
And then the real fun began....
DODGERS POST-SCRIPT -- The Dodgers were beaten by a better team. They did well to get as far as they did. It's a shame that they collapsed so ignominiously.