John and I scrambled onto the platform at Paddington Station hand in hand with our usual reply, “Minding the gap.”
It was our third day in London and our group of eight knew the drill by heart. “There’s a lot to see in a little bit of time, so keep it moving,” said the human dynamo who was our guide and friend. He darted in and out amongst tourists and early morning commuters. Three days of focusing on the two green stripes on the back of his jacket, and panicking when they disappeared. I had begun seeing green stripes in my sleep. We called his attention to other groups following guides who brandished tall, colorful umbrellas — looking like a cross between Mary Poppins and the Pied Piper. Our leader assured us he would not be doing that.
“There he is!” someone would cry out excitedly, after we had paused to take photographs of a flower bed, or a red phone booth, or a statue. “In the next block!” We were off and running. Ever so often our ‘bouncing ball’ would turn around and quickly count heads with his finger, like a kindergarten teacher on a field trip to the zoo: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7. Or see a sign for ‘Millie’s Cookies’ and come to a screeching halt.
Somehow we survived the intersections — though my sister and I had a close call when we looked left instead of right. We scrambled back to the curb as a red double-decker bus bore down on us. “These London drivers don’t cut tourists any slack!” said one of our friends. In a town where cyclists have been referred to as ‘organ donors,’ we were cautious.
Thanks to our leader, who has studied and lived in the densely populated, cosmopolitan city (where it’s always rush hour,) we did see a lot in a short time. He mentored us every step of the way.
“Travel light,” he advised early on. “Just one carry-on luggage apiece — plus a hand-bag is all you’ll need; otherwise we’ll lose precious time at baggage claim.” He recommended packing old, worn clothes and discarding them.”
He was speaking my husband’s language. Getting by on less was a way of life for John. Two weeks before the trip, when I was still complaining about ‘one small suitcase for eleven days,’ he smiled smugly and lifted the lid of his carry-on. “Everything’s here,” he said, “with room to spare.”
They were in deplorable condition, but at least they’d be thrown away, which is more than I had accomplished. Hopefully, security wouldn’t open the suitcase.
On day five, we climbed aboard a Globus bus with thirty other travelers for a six day tour of England, as well as a bit of Scotland and Wales.
John and I took out our camera and viewed the digital images from our whirlwind days in London. To the history teacher in our family, London had been a historical exposition; he had even gone out on his own one day, traveling the Tube and staying at each exhibit as long as it took to read every word. The highlights for me were Evensong at Westminster Abbey and the pealing bells of St. Paul’s.
Whereas London was comprised largely of foreigners, we were able to mix with the locals in the villages. As our Globus guide told us, “England is what you see when you leave London.” Quaint villages are from the pages of Austen and Bronte, and Public TV. It was like coming home. Pubs in the Cotswolds had especially inviting names: The Horse and Hound, The Snooty Fox, The Horse and Ale…
In the lush countryside, the Blackthorn and Hawthorn hedges, dating back as early as the 1700s, were just coming into leaf. Fields were vibrant with prickly yellow gorse, silver heather, and rape weed. Just as I had imagined them, the Yorkshire Dales, with picturesque stone walls, were host to huge flocks of wooly creatures. At one point, I’m pretty sure I saw James Herriot and Zeigfried in their wellies walking amongst the lambing ewes.
The only drama came in Edinburgh Castle’s Throne Room. When I thought no one was looking, I quickly leaned across a thick, braided rope and caressed the velvety seat that was last sat upon by King George VI. I couldn’t help myself. I panicked when I heard a voice saying, “I saw that.” The elderly American smiled and promised me that what happens in Edinburgh stays in Edinburgh.
English cuisine is not known for being wildly adventurous. That said, we pretty much ate our way through England, rarely passing a tea room without sampling the scones or a bowl of freshly made vegetable/lentil soup. And who could pass up fish and chips at the Sherlock Holmes Pub, or the melt-in-your-mouth cucumber sandwiches at Betty’s? Historically, there are very few documented cases of malnutrition on bus tours. We even tried haggis in Scotland — once.
When showers pelted the bus windows, we were informed that there’s no such thing as bad weather — only inadequate clothing. It has been said that, unlike some vacation destinations where you can sit and get a tan — in England, you can sit and rust.
As promised, my husband’s frayed, holey underwear is now scattered across Great Britain. He has decided we’re going to Ireland and rent a car next year. An 80-year-old man and his 75-year-old wife who have been known to get lost when they drive out of their community are going to a strange country — to drive a strange car — on a different side of the street. What could possibly go wrong?