Monday, July 30, 2007

Sissinghurst and Brighton

To commenter Curtis Faville, who felt that, in our place, he would have slid over to Sissinghurst from Great Dixter: Curtis, you read our minds. I'm just trying to keep this account in relatively readable chunks.

The day after Great Dixter, to Sissinghurst we did indeed go, where we bought a National Trust membership (paid off on the trip, in entrance fees we didn't have to pay, and it's tax deductible!) and let ourselves in past the gate. Since Sissinghurst has no special historical significance (it has a nice brick tower which I did not climb), this was more Jim's specialty than mine, but as I've said before, I'm perfectly happy to wander around gardens, hunting things that will look nice through a 300mm lens. I found several choice items; I also found an interesting thing that didn't photograph very well. They have honeybees living in the brick wall of one of the estate buildings; the library I believe. I saw the hole where they were going in and out. I didn't see anything inside the room, like a hatch, where they might get at the hive for honey, so I have to assume this is an informal arrangement on the part of the bees. I wonder how it will affect the structure.

It's not news to anyone that Sissinghurst is gorgeous, what a beautiful space just to be: meadows to wander, a moat (well, two sides of a square moat) full of ducks, ducklings, and fish; statuary, really beautiful plantings; there's a photo gallery on the Sissinghurst site linked above. We had a lovely few hours there, and then we got sidetracked. In Lamberhurst, where we were staying, there was a brown sign (meaning cultural landmark) saying "Owl House Gardens", and we found a local brochure which said the house had belonged to an "owler" - that's a wool smuggler, or was when it was illegal to take wool into or out of England without paying tax (1327 to 1824 according to Wikipedia). We set out to find Owl House Gardens, and after about 2 hours we had an intimate and detailed knowledge of all the little squiggly gray roads round and about Lamberhurst, and we still hadn't found the place. We gave up and went to visit Bayham Abbey, a beautiful abbey ruin nearby, where we were the only people in the place except for an anxious caretaker who asked us to write English Heritage and ask them not to close the place. It was amazingly peaceful, and as we were leaving (around 5 PM when they closed) the rabbits came out and sat around eating grass, very tame. Jim said that looking at the ruins at Bayham gave him a clear idea of the economic problems of the Middle Ages. (Note on Owl House Gardens: the Internet indicates that it closed in 2006, but no one has taken down the traffic signs...)

Dinner that night was in Tunbridge Wells, and was the best single meal we had on the trip. It also had the best, without exception, ice cream I have ever eaten: honeycomb ice cream, only (as far as I can tell) found in the U.K., but I had it in 2-3 other places and none of them came near this stuff. I'll probably have to spend some time in purgatory just for eating it.

The next day we went to Brighton, a day trip. Brighton built up in the late 18th and early 19th century, so it doesn't have the medieval depth of Sandwich or Rye; but it has the Royal Pavilion, and that's worth a look to any reader of those Regency romances. In fact, it's worth a look even if you don't read them, just as an incredible example of excess. This was the summer residence of the man who eventually became King George IV, but who is known to thousands of Regency readers as the Prince Regent, or sometimes just "Prinney". (The Royal Pavilion publicity does not use that term.) He was the oldest son of King George III, and spent decades waiting for his father to die of the disease that made him "mad King George". The place began as a farmhouse, and the Prince Regent, over a couple of decades and using huge amounts of borrowed money, turned it into something that really has to be seen to be believed. The onion domes on the roof are only part of it. You can get some idea from the photos on the link. This was where the Prince Regent entertained his friends in really royal style.

I was surprised to see the kitchen: for his day this was probably the most technically advanced kitchen in England; it had a huge closed stove (the Jenn-Air or Wolf of its day) at a time when many people were still cooking on the hearth, it had a warming table heated by a pipe from the closed stove, it had ventilating windows in the ceiling, and it had an automated spit-turner that could drive 5 spits at a time. All of these features were groundbreaking. I associated Prince George with fashionable frivolity rather than technical advances, but I was obviously wrong; although given that he was massively overweight, I suppose it's inevitable that the technical advances he did make had to do with food.

I was amused by the docent's comment that the Prince's architect developed a new, improved method for roofing the place, which leaked from day one. Shades of Frank Lloyd Wright, all of whose roofs seem to leak. Apparently the Royal Pavilion has to undergo continual maintenance just to keep it intact and standing; one end of it was enclosed in scaffolding. Actually, many of the large buildings we saw, including all the cathedrals except Chester, had one end enclosed in scaffolding. I suppose that's just the price of using buildings that are hundreds of years old, even if they are stone. Back to the Royal Pavilion, though: the amazing story is the Music Room (see the link for a picture). The Music Room has a domed ceiling covered with thousands of tiny gilt scales. In 1975 a fire damaged the room severely, requiring painstaking hand reconstruction of everything including all those tiny gilt scales; and in 1987 when they were almost done, the hurricane of that year dropped a stone ball from one of the minarets through the roof and into the new carpet, and they had to start over again. It looked gorgeous when we saw it. The acoustics must be amazing; it's too bad they can't just have a string quartet playing in there all the time to demonstrate it.

The other thing one must see in Brighton is Brighton pier. This is the biggest carnival-cum-fun-house you've ever seen. It's big, it's gaudy, it's got cotton candy and fortune tellers and people selling jewelry engraved with your name, and every carny game you can imagine, plus a set of rides all the way out at the end of the pier. The wind the day we were there was fit to blow your hair off; I folded up my hat and stuck it in a pocket; I noticed the pier rides did NOT include a Ferris wheel, although they did have a handsome carousel. This was one of the days we had where it didn't rain, and it was a bright, sunny, windy day, a beautiful day to visit a beach town. We had dinner in Brighton, and I keep forgetting this in my rants about the food, because it was in a "restaurant", and it wasn't pub food, and it was really quite good. So I guess we had 3 really good meals.

The day after Brighton we were due to drive to Torquay for our next stop; but we ran into a minor impediment. The minor impediment was the Tour de France: the starting stage (I believe) was scheduled to go from London to Canterbury by way of Tunbridge Wells on Sunday July 8, the very day we wanted to drive to Torquay, and all the roads in that area were to be CLOSED. Our initial plan was to take the A21 north to the M25 and then west to the M4; but as we drove around Lamberhurst the 2 days before, we kept seeing signs marking the route, and the route went right across that path. After a little planning, and consulting our trusty 1996 AA road atlas (hey, how often do they move roads?), we identified a set of A and B roads that would take us around Tunbridge (and around the Tour route) to the south and onto the motorway, so we set out Sunday morning, and thank God we were going west. These were 2 lane roads (one in each direction), and the lane going toward Tunbridge was solid cars all the way, complicated by what looked like every cycling club in East Sussex, all heading for the Tour route. And there are no bicycle lanes there, and no shoulders (verges, they call them); cyclists in the road means that the cars behind them either swing out to pass (not a good option), or wait until they leave the road. It looked like being a VERY slow day. We didn't think we'd have any problems, but we got stuck behind a guy in a camper van, who we think may have been from the continent; he was driving as if the speed limit signs were in kilometers instead of miles, and unfortunately he was going all the way to the same A motorway we were. Oh, well; it wasn't as bad as the traffic the other way.

Food and Lodging

They say nobody ever went to England for the food; they're right. The trouble with England isn't pub food - some pub food is quite good. The trouble is that, with very few exceptions, even places that call themselves "restaurants" serve pub food; and the pubs do it better. Also, places that call themselves "restaurants" tend to open for dinner quite late - sometimes as late as 7 or 7:30 PM. So if you want to eat at 6:00, your only option is the local pub. (Or, of course, the MacDonald's, the Burger King, or the Subway; but I don't eat at any of those in the U.S. and I'm certainly not going to do so in the U.K.)

So what is pub food? Well, it's fish and chips; or steak and kidney pie and chips; or steak and ale pie and chips; or mixed grill and chips; or ... you get the idea. (For those who don't know, "chips" are what Americans call "French fries." American "chips" are called "crisps.") I found the best option was often the fish and chips; sure, the fish is batter fried, but you can peel the breading off, and underneath, you have a nicely cooked, usually non-greasy, fillet of haddock or plaice. But apart from potatoes (fried, or mashed - that's what the "mash" is in "bangers and mash" - or boiled), the only veggies you'll see are peas (whole or "mushy", which means overcooked and partly mashed) and carrots, and an occasional cauliflower.

The English diet runs to MEAT. Lots of meat. Take that common offering, the mixed grill. (Please.) To quote from The food lover's companion:

A dish of grilled or broiled meats, which can include lamb chops, beefsteak, liver, kidneys, bacon and sausages and is usually accompanied by grilled or broiled mushrooms, tomatoes and potatoes.
If you ever wondered where the American midwestern "meat and potatoes" diet came from, now you know. The "full English breakfast", which you order by that name, includes fried sausages, fried gammon (aka ham), fried bacon (aka Canadian bacon, which is ham), fried eggs, fried bread (I am not making this up) and fried tomatoes. (Actually the eggs can be scrambled or poached.) All this comes with about 6 pieces of dry toast in a rack (which virtually ensures they are too cold to melt the butter before you get them). In English B&Bs, it's sometimes hard to get a non-fried breakfast, as the selection of dry cereals is loaded toward what children like. I ate a lot of scrambled eggs and toast. "Fruit" tended to be canned grapefruit segments, not my favorite. The one thing you can get lots of is TEA!! I rarely had to ask for a refill on tea. Jim, on the other hand, says the coffee was awful.

England really does have only one sauce; you'll find it in little packets at fast food restaurants, along with the ketchup and mayonnaise, labeled "Brown Sauce."

A good non-fried option for lunch is packaged sandwiches, made in reasonable serving sizes, the way my mother used to make them. (In fact, I noticed that English serving sizes generally were smaller than American serving sizes. One scoop ice cream cones, for instance, have one scoop of ice cream. What a concept.) That's the plus side. The negative side (for sandwiches) is that it really helps if you like tuna salad sandwiches (I don't) because that's at least half the ones on offer. You can get ham and cheese sandwiches (with butter!), but since they have no vegetable content at all (no lettuce, tomato, etc.), they're pretty dry. I usually settled for egg and cress sandwiches; this isn't egg salad, it's a boiled egg or two, sliced into pieces and put in the sandwich. And it's buttered too.

We ate in two non-ethnic restaurants that gave us really good, foodie-class meals, including good food presentation: Wood's, on the Pantiles in Tunbridge Wells, and Shakespeare, in the Castle Hotel in Conwy (Wales). For the rest, the best we could do was to hope that the pub had a decent cook (and maybe some banoffee pie, an English delicacy I became addicted to in 1996: bananas and toffee on a custard base with a graham cracker crust). Oddly, some of our best meals were in the restaurants associated with National Trust properties: the restaurant at Castle Powis in Wales had a custard to die for.

The other oddity of English dining I must mention is the water. American restaurants, as you know, assume that you will have at least one glass of iced tap water, and the good ones have someone circulating with a pitcher for refills. This does not happen in England. Ever. If you want water, you have to ask for it, in addition to whatever else you might want to drink (and pay for it; and you never ever get tap), and choose whether you want still or sparkling bottled water. We usually went for sparkling. I noticed that the water tended to be local - in Kent you got Kentish water, in Devon you got Devon water, except for York where you got Scottish water. I don't recall ever seeing anyone walking down the street swigging from a water bottle, as one does in America, either; the English just must not have this fixation with staying hydrated.

As for lodging: well, we learned on this trip that "bed and breakfast" in England and Wales is an entirely different animal than "bed and breakfast" in California. One should not assume luxury. (A friend with some travel experience tells me that anybody with a spare room can call themselves a "bed and breakfast".) I also learned that it's a bad sign when the travel agency gives you a list of the places you'll stay and a package price rather than an itemization of nightly charges. So what did we get? (In an attempt to avoid lawsuits, I will omit specific names and places.) In U.S. B&B's you'll sometimes get really good cooking for breakfast: frittatas, omelettes, fancy muffins. In the U.K. you get either the Full English Breakfast, or some subset of it (poached/scrambled eggs, with/without toast), or dry cereal and orange juice. That's it. I never saw oatmeal offered, or any kind of bread except thin toast.

When we arrived at our first B&B, the landlady scolded us for arriving before 5 PM. When we showed her our voucher, which said anytime after 3 PM, she said, "Where's your book?", and then scolded us because our travel agent hadn't given us the book (which, when she got us a copy, did say "after 5 PM"; it was one of those advertising guides to inns). She then complained that we'd booked through an agency which had skimmed off too much of the price (by this time I was wondering why she'd accepted the booking, and rather wishing she hadn't), and finally showed us to our room, which was up a staircase that was just barely large enough to take my large suitcase. (Her husband, who cooked the breakfast, was much nicer.) The room had 2 twin beds and a shower; the shower just barely worked. In fact, in all but one or two of the B&Bs, the water pressure in the shower was so low you could barely get the soap off. In a summer where they had water coming in the basement (metaphorically speaking) from flooding, this seemed odd, but I suppose it's a different water system. The sign asked us to conserve water "as the house is on a meter"; since I've had water meters on my house since I think 1976 this didn't impress me much. The bathroom had been converted from a closet, not by a professional (I recognized the signs; my dad did something very similar, only without a shower). The room had a laminated set of Rules for residents, very nanny like and nagging: no doing laundry in the room; no plugging in ANY electrical devices; turn down the TV after 9 PM; no eating in the room; residents only in the room (i.e. no girlfriends). I picked up a business card and found that the place advertises a specialty in Funeral Teas and Small Family Gatherings. It had a (covered) swimming pool about 8 feet long in the back yard. Breakfast actually fairly good, very light scrambled eggs. The decorating scheme was based on the theory that a wall or shelf with only one thing on it is wasted and barren space, and having things together that match is unnecessary effort.

Our second B&B was a small pub in a small town. This was the first of 2 lodgings we had that had changed hands between the time we booked the room and the time we arrived. The new owners had been there about 6 weeks; and it was clear from my pre-trip conversation with the travel agent that they had no clue about the change. The travel agent also told us the place was closed between 3 and 6 PM, which was simply not true. (It's a pub, for God's sake.) Our room was huge, with an equally huge bathroom, and very sparsely furnished; it was also directly over the bar, which was interesting on the Friday night when they had karaoke night. Fortunately they stopped shortly after 11 PM. Jim put in earplugs and went to sleep; I went down to the bar for awhile and sang Elton John's "Daniel" to the karaoke machine, to the admiration of all the locals who didn't expect the lady tourist to join in. Breakfasts here were OK but the dinner menu looked iffy, so the first night we scouted around and found a really good pub called the Elephant's Head, well out in the country; and the next night we ate in the nearby town.

Our third B&B, on the outskirts of Torquay, was very nice, with one exception. To make changing the bed easier, all but about 2 of these places had a duvet, covered with sheeting, instead of a top sheet and blankets. In the cold winter I'm sure that's very comfortable; but this was summer, and the weather was warm and muggy, and the option was either sleep with no covers at all (which I simply can't do), or sleep under the damned duvet. There was occasionally a spare blanket, but there was no sheet to go under it. This place had The Duvet, but was otherwise very good, with a lovely garden, a charming hostess (with whom I negotiated to do 3 loads of laundry, yay!), and interesting other guests to chat with at breakfast. The shower was OK but very very small (another characteristic).

The next place was the nicest we'd seen yet; nice decorating scheme, chairs to sit in and read, a bed with
a top sheet and blankets, whee! Too bad we only stayed one night. I didn't use the shower; Jim did and said it was competent. This B&B had the weirdest toilet I ever listened to; it was a "shredding toilet", whatever that is, and it made grinding noises at unpredictable intervals, even in the middle of the night when you hadn't used it.

Our next stop still leaves me boggling. This was in Wales, and the building was stone, with 2 foot thick walls, and right on the A5 road through town; it had been the police station and courthouse in the 1880s. The landlord and his wife were absolutely charming, a very old couple (all they would admit to was "over 70", but he was a WWII veteran!) doing this as a retirement job, taking only as many people as they feel like doing for. A single traveler willing to put up with a bathroom down the hall could rent one of the old jail cells, nicely done up with a single bed, chest of drawers, mirror and sink. They left the original cell doors but have sealed the Judas windows. We had a room (not a cell) with bathroom "en suite", tub and shower combination; reasonable water pressure. (If I seem to be harping on the showers, let me just suggest that you try one with water pressure so low that if you turn the hand shower upside down, it won't squirt upward. In some of these places I could have done better with a hip bath and a maid with a bucket.) The room was short of space but had a chest of drawers; and the walls were so thick that storing stuff on the window seat was quite feasible. This was one of the few that didn't have The Duvet, they had a sheet and blankets. Of course, the bed sagged in the middle but we were so happy to have sheets that we forgave them. They never did give us a key to our room, they said we didn't need to lock up; and in fact, nothing happened.

Our second to last, and a 3 night stay, was another establishment that had recently (3 weeks previously) changed hands. It had a spectacular location with a view of the (still functional) city walls, as long as you didn't mind a very steep 50-75 foot climb up from the sidewalk to the front door. There was a parking area above the house, at the top of an unpaved driveway with at least a 15% grade; God help you in wet weather. Fortunately while we were there it didn't rain. They initially put us on the top floor (5 more flights of stairs, the last damned steep; I'm sure we were in the old servants' quarters), and regretfully informed us that since the shower in our unit didn't work, we'd have to use the shower in the hall bathroom, 3 flights down. ("No one else is using it.") The room had a bed, 2 nightstands with 1 drawer apiece, a heater (top floor on a warm day, hardly needed), a large armoire with 4 hangers and no shelves, and a table. No chairs. No chest of drawers. And no fully working bathroom, although we had asked for and (we thought) paid for one. I was hot and sweaty from touring gardens so I went down to use the shower; at this point I found that the hall bathroom had a clear glass window above the tub, facing onto the path up to the parking area at the top of the hill, which was covered only by a 3/4 length lace curtain. Also, no working fan, and no shower curtain - there was a frosted glass panel 1/4 the length of the tub. Since it was daylight and I wasn't backlighted, I went ahead with my shower, to discover that the water pressure here was very high indeed, but only for the cold water - also the ubiquitous hand spray shower had been pointed toward the room, with the result that I covered the tile floor in cold water and had to throw one of the towels onto it. The hot water pressure was very low indeed and it took me almost 5 minutes to produce a water flow which was neither scalding nor icy. By the time I finished my shower I was approaching hysteria and was quite ready to march down the streets of the town looking for somewhere else, anywhere else, with a "Vacancies" sign out; Jim went to talk to the landlord and got us moved down 3 flights of stairs to a different room with twin beds and a working shower; one of the best showers we had, in fact, since it had a "geyser" that controlled the water flow, so we didn't have to worry about the different pressures between hot and cold. Still no chest of drawers but at least we now had a desk with 3 usable drawers and a chair.

If I seem to nag on about chests of drawers: I've never mastered "traveling light", and this was a 3 week trip; in this room and a couple of others, there literally was not room for us to put the suitcases on the floor and still move around. Chests of drawers allow me to unpack, get the big suitcase out of the way, and get the clean clothes out where I can find them.

The landlord, who really was a very nice man and I wish him well, then revealed that the person who had sold him the B&B had, upon leaving, stripped the place of everything he'd agreed
in the sales contract to leave behind, and further had failed to pass on to them the reservations that had been made directly with him by phone or email; so for 3 weeks they'd been madly buying furniture and curtains, ordering equipment, etc. while dealing with customers they didn't know they had (and taking care of their 3 year old daughter). It occurs to me that something like this might explain the discount-outlet furniture in the earlier pub that had also changed hands; but they'd had 6 weeks to recover.

Our last B&B, another 3 night stay, was uneventful and well furnished, and we were (thank God!) on the ground floor. These people had obviously been in the business for awhile and knew what they were doing. It had The Duvet, but it also had a top sheet (so did the B&B From Hell, to give the devil his due), which was much more workable.

Our last night in England was in a hotel near Heathrow (details of that in my post, ... Leavin' on a jet plane ...) which was a perfectly capable hotel notable only for the two facts that it had no airport shuttle, and it didn't start serving breakfast until 7:30 AM (which meant that we couldn't eat breakfast there at all).

On to Kent

My husband Jim and I have different but compatible reasons for going to Britain: history (me, and to some extent him) and gardens (mostly him; he analyzes gardens, I just enjoy them). Our next stop on the tour was Kent (with some side excursions into East Sussex), which has plenty of both. I've been reading novels set in Britain for years now (okay, Regency romances; so I like trash novels! But not only romances...), and I wanted to see some of the places I've read about: Kent turns up a lot in these novels because that's where Dover is, and in the 19th century if you wanted to go to France, you pretty much had to go through Dover. For that matter, unless you fly, you still do, since the Chunnel comes out near Dover. We noticed signs in German and French, in the Dover area, reminding drivers to stay to the left!

On the way down into Kent we stopped at Leeds Castle, recommended to me by a British friend as "the most beautiful castle in Europe." This may be a slight overstatement, but it's certainly stunning; it was originally fully moated, in fact it's in the middle of a lake. They've added a causeway for the tourists (foot traffic only), but the original barbican is still there, with portcullis; it also contained a mill, and gave the castle the ability to flood the valley if necessary to repel invaders. Today of course, the moat is all just serene water; the last owner before the non-profit foundation that currently runs it was very fond of birds, so it has a "duckery", and a large collection of ducks and swans (including black). Some of the black swans had cygnets, but I couldn't get a decent photo of them. The castle itself dates to 1166 and was one of the initial fortifications built by William the Conqueror's men; in 1278 it "passed into royal hands" and became part of the Queen's dower rights; it was home to six medieval queens. Unlike the properties run by the National Trust, Leeds allows photography as long as you don't use flash (and not in the chapel); so I have some photos. Oh, yes: in classic English fashion, "Leeds Castle" is nowhere near Leeds. Don't ask me.

Some of my (four!) readers have asked about photos. Yes, I have photos, I shot 16 rolls; I can organize and post the photos, or I can write these posts; over the next few weeks I'll be doing both. I will probably post most of the photos on my personal web site rather than Blogger because there are so many of them.

After Leeds Castle we ran on down to Densole, a village outside of Folkestone, where we stayed for 2 nights to visit the Canterbury area. We began the first morning at Richborough, a Roman ruin (Rutupiae) near the Isle of Thanet (which isn't an island any more, but it was when the Romans got here). This entire area, now several miles inland, was coast when the Romans arrived in 43 AD, and for several centuries after that; after the 3rd century AD it was called the "Saxon shore" and was fortified against that wave of invasions from the continent. This area of England, being the closest point to the continent, has always been the first target of anybody who thinks they might like to invade. Visiting a Roman ruin on a Wednesday morning is delightful, with any luck you'll be the only people in the place, and you can wander around and imagine things. We were fortunate at Richborough that the weather was clear and windy, although the ground (as everywhere we went) was very soggy. The view from the ruin unfortunately included the cooling towers of the local nuclear power plant, sigh.

After exploring the ruin, we decided to skip the Roman amphitheater and go straight to Canterbury, driving through Sandwich on the way because it was supposed to have a beautiful medieval downtown. It did have, but I didn't get any photos because we didn't stop. Nobody with any sense actually tries to drive into a city like Canterbury; you stay somewhere reasonably close, drive as far as the ring road, and pick up the park-and-ride bus, which dumps you in front of the Boot's. Much simpler; as far as we could tell, most of the cities with a medieval center have this (not sure about London, but of course it has the Underground and the trains).

On this trip we saw three major cathedrals, Canterbury, Chester, and York Minster, and it's amazing how different they are. I'll get to the others later, but my single word for Canterbury Cathedral is: overwhelming. It's just huge. My first sight of it was down a narrow medieval street, lined to the sidewalk with 4-5 story buildings and cobbled; at the end of this dark little street, the cathedral gate kind of explodes at you, at least half again as high as any of the buildings, and reaching for the sky with its spires and carvings. Also, instead of the dark flint that is the common building material, it's made of a golden stone similar to that you find used for building in the Cotswolds, so it appears much lighter. Even when you get inside the cathedral close, the building itself goes on and on.

You can't be unaware of history in this place: founded around 600 AD by St. Augustine; the site of the murder of Archbishop Thomas à Becket in 1190, whose shrine was a destination for pilgrims for centuries (as in the Canterbury Tales); converted from a Catholic monastery to a cathedral in the new church by Henry VIII. Henry, by the way, destroyed the elaborate shrine to Becket when he dissolved the monastery and converted the abbey church into a cathedral for his new church: he didn't want to encourage people to follow Becket's example of disagreeing with kings named Henry! The cathedral now has a modern memorial in the side chapel where Becket was actually murdered, which is very moving.

They say Americans are impressed by old things just because they're old, and maybe we are; but it's just awesome to walk around in this place and think of the generations who have worshiped there, and the history that has happened. I don't personally belong to an organized church, but I've studied the middle ages all my life, and you have to respect the role the church played in people's lives, and to a certain extent still does. I'm told that Church of England attendance is down, but I've never gone into a parish church (much less a cathedral) that wasn't immaculately maintained. And Canterbury Cathedral is still a working church; they stop tourists a couple of times a day while someone leads a prayer over the PA system. My husband and I are music lovers and we have some of the recordings of Alfred Deller, the great counter-tenor from the 1950's and 60's; we were charmed to find, in a little corner of the cathedral, a plaque in Deller's memory; he sang in the Canterbury Cathedral choir and was "discovered" there.

Our other destination in Canterbury was the Abbey of St. Augustine; the original abbey founded by St. Augustine is, of course, Canterbury Cathedral, this was a second foundation outside the city walls, originally dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul, which was part of his campaign to convert the heathens of the Island. We were somewhat delayed in getting there by a roaring downpour - we ducked under a shop awning to wait it out, which took about 15 minutes. But by the time we were out touring the abbey ruins, the sun was out and it was very hot. This was pretty much the weather pattern for our entire trip. After the abbey we had dinner in a pub, and went back to the B&B.

The next day we spent touring the Cinque Ports area - we went to Dover to see the White Cliffs. Yes, they really are white; yes, they really are made of chalk, you can pick up a rock and scribble on your hand. They're actually quite startling, being a good 200-300 feet high; they must be visible for miles from the sea. There was a dim blur on the horizon which Jim claimed was France but I'm not sure I believe it; still the English Channel is only 20 miles wide there. Didn't go into Dover, but got a good look at the harbor from the cliffs, a serious working port with container cranes. We went on to have lunch in Rye, a town that has appeared in one of my favorite novels (Georgette Heyer's The Unknown Ajax). I was charmed to find that Ms. Heyer didn't invent the Mermaid Inn, which is still there on a steep cobbled street (God help the carriage horses that had to get to that!). The parish church in Rye is 904 years old, and not much changed over the centuries, it's still very Norman in style. I got an outside look at the Ypres Tower, (also mentioned by Ms. Heyer), but we didn't have time to tour it, as we had to move on to Great Dixter and then our next B&B.

Great Dixter was my husband's choice: this was the family home and garden of Christopher Lloyd, a world-renowned gardener and garden writer; we have all his books (I think we bought the last one in the bookshop there). Jim of course was mainly interested in the gardens, which he described as "fearless" (he's talking about Lloyd's mixtures of color and texture in his plantings). I was interested in the house, which is a very well preserved 15th century hall with a thatched roof, still in use by the Lloyd family, I think, although Mr. Lloyd himself died in January 2006. I found the house tour very interesting and the gardens delightful, although I don't have the same point of view Jim has. It was overcast and dark when we began the tour; Jim said attendance was light, but I thought there were quite a few people, considering the weather. By the time we finished (kicked out at closing) it was raining, so we moved along to our next B&B, a small pub located in Lamberhurst, a village near Royal Tunbridge Wells.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Health Care

David Lazarus of the San Francisco Chronicle used this quote in today's column:
"Why have all other countries figured out a way to do this?" Grumbach asked. "Why are we the only ones that are so uncivilized?"
"Grumbach" is Dr. Kevin Grumbach, head of UCSF's Department of Family and Community Medicine; and he was discussing, as was Lazarus, the fact that the U.S. spends twice the amount on health care that other industrialized democracies spend (the ones which guarantee health care, like Canada and Britain), yet we don't live as long as their citizens, and more of our babies die. (That's English for "life expectancy in the United States was lower than in each of these other countries and infant mortality was higher.")

I'm afraid I know the answer to that question, and it isn't pretty; it reflects some of the nastier side of the American public. Why do we spend so much and get so little?

Well, for one thing, we're cheap bastards. We don't want to pay for the common good. We have one of the lowest tax burdens in the industrialized world, and we're terrified that we might have to pay more of "our" money to "the government" for a program that would provide benefits to someone else. This is the state of mind that objects to paying into Social Security because the objector could do better investing the money himself, and to supporting the public schools because the objector has no kids.

We seem to have forgotten that we are the government: of the people, by the people, for the people. Health care isn't the only example of this: the state of California hasn't spent a nickel more on infrastructure maintenance than it absolutely had to for 40 years, because it would have had to raise taxes. But health care is the one that's affecting the most people.

Numero Two-o (as dear Molly used to say): We blame the victim. If you don't have health care it's your own fault. Going way back to the Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed that personal prosperity was a sign of God's grace, there's a sneaky feeling, not often voiced out loud, that if you aren't personally prosperous enough to afford health care, then God must be punishing you in some way; you must be less deserving than others, because if you were truly deserving, God would have given you health care (or whatever other benefit you need but don't have). This is another variant of the (also usually unstated) American belief that if you are poor, it's because you're lazy and shiftless. In fact, most of the poor in this country are working 2 and even 3 jobs just to pay the rent and (we hope) put food on the table.

Third, we were hypnotized years ago by the American Medical Association's shrieks about "socialized medicine," back when "socialist" was just a sidestep away from "Communist." Perish the thought that you shouldn't be able to pick your own doctor. The issue here isn't who picks your doctor; it's who pays your doctor, and how much, and for what. The stupidest thing we ever did was to allow health insurance companies, and health providers, to be for-profit; because when you get a bottom line in there, someone will make the unilateral decision that Treatment X is Too Expensive, and then someone else will die to increase the quarterly numbers.

Fourth, we don't believe the government could do it efficiently.
This isn't a completely off-the-wall concern. MediCare is run by the government and provides health care to everyone over 65. MediCare isn't, God knows, perfect; consider the MediCare drug program, for government-run insanity squared. But if your alternative to government-paid-for health care was no health care at all, and for over 40 million Americans that's exactly the case, what would you choose??

The generally quoted administrative overhead number for Medicare is 3%; for private health insurance, 15% - plus or minus 10%. I'm not kidding. Google "medicare overhead" and you'll see a wide range of overhead numbers quoted both for MediCare (anywhere between 1% and 4%) and for private insurance: as low as 8%, as high as 30%. (And that's just in the blog titles!) I think the truth is, nobody really knows. This is a very murky and complex area.

OK, maybe I'm being a typical American and blaming the victim. We don't have universal health care because we're nasty people. It isn't that simple. But one thing is clear: what we have now isn't working, and we need to fix it, and we may need more than one try to get the solution right. Another thing that seems clear to me: the existing health insurance industry has a huge vested interest in keeping things as they are now, and is spending money like a drunken sailor, on advertising and government lobbying, to make sure they stay that way.

Can we please stop arguing about socialized medicine and do something useful? People are dying here.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Driving on the Left

I didn't do any driving in England; my husband and I agreed that it would be better if one of us did all the driving, so we'd only have one learning curve. Besides, he did it last time too. The two hardest things about driving on the left turn out to be lane position, and right turns. Right turns is a fairly obvious issue, since in the U.S. it's a no-brainer and the left turn is across traffic; fortunately he only turned right into the near lane once, and nobody was coming. Lane position was more subtle; if you aren't used to being in the left lane, you also aren't sure where in the left lane you should be; and you really aren't used to having traffic come at you on the right, so you edge left. We clipped a lot of left-hand curbs the first week or so. The other big issue is pedestrian: which way do you look for oncoming traffic when you cross the street?

Driving in England is complicated by the fact that most of the roads were there centuries before the cars were. They're narrow; they wind; and all too many of them are lined right up to the road verge by 6 foot stone walls, especially in rural areas. (Shoulder? What shoulder?) In some rural areas they're lined right up to the road verge by 6 foot hedgerows which are growing out of 6 foot stone walls; a quick glance to the side just shows leaves, but it's not the whole story. This combined with the American or Continental driver's tendency to hug the left curb makes riding in the (left side) passenger seat pretty nerve-wracking. He says I was very restrained. Of course, in other rural areas there are no walls at all; that's when you get sheep on the road. We saw a sign on Dartmoor warning, "Sheep lying on road," and it was quite right. The other side effect of the walls and hedgerows is that, unless you're driving through something like a national park, you get no view of the countryside from the road. All you see is hedgerow (or wall).

In towns, the streets are not really wide enough for two lanes of traffic plus two sets of parked cars; in fact, they're not really wide enough for two lanes of traffic plus one set of parked cars, and some of them just aren't wide enough, period. We live in a neighborhood somewhat like that, which has given rise to a maneuver we call the "Rockridge do-si-do", where oncoming traffic slows and moves aside into open curb spaces to allow each other to pass. They do this in England, too - but they don't slow. They do it at 35 miles an hour. It still amazes me that the only real accident we had happened at 2 miles per hour (trying to get out from a tight space behind a truck on one of those narrow streets, he misjudged the left distance and forcibly removed the passenger mirror.)

As far as I can tell, there is no custom in England that says you should park facing in the direction of the traffic on the side of the street you're on. People park any old way, sometimes on the sidewalk. If there is a sidewalk.

As cars have gotten wider, so have roads. In some rural areas you find yourself driving past a house (usually a stone house) less than a foot away, because the road has been widened right up to the wall; some of the houses had doors and windows filled in because you can't use them with A road traffic sailing by at 50 MPH, 6 inches away.

We rented a C-class Mercedes because it's a car he knows. In the U.S., this is a smallish sedan. In the U.K., it's one of the biggest cars on the road; but it gets 35 MPG or better. Which is good, because petrol cost 99p (about $2) per liter or about $8 per gallon. If you don't like our gas prices, try $90 a tankful; we have some of the cheapest gas in the world. And don't let Ford Motor Company con you that they can't make small, fuel efficient cars. The roads were crawling with little Fords, they're very popular in the U.K., and since the U.K. is part of the EU, they have to meet European mileage standards. Ford just wants to keep selling F-150s to dumb Americans.

Trust Us

Just so you know that my vacation isn't the only thing on my mind:

Did anyone else read or see the "Meet the Press" interview with Mike McConnell, the National Intelligence Director?
(And there's an oxymoron for you.) Mr. McConnell wants to reassure the American public that the CIA doesn't torture people. Mind you, he won't tell anyone what the CIA actually does when it interrogates people; but it's not torture! Honest, it isn't. He even goes so far as to say that he "wouldn't want a U.S. citizen to go through the process." (We only do that sort of thing to them.) But "there would be no permanent damage to that citizen."

This is so bizarre, and so characteristic of this administration, that I hardly know where to start boggling. First of all, why should we believe the man? This administration has told so many lies about what it does and wants to do, that the only time you can believe what they say is when they say that they aren't accountable to the electorate. The attorney general is on record that torture is acceptable to him.

Second, if the process is unsuitable for U.S. citizens, doesn't that give them some pause that it might not be a good thing to do to others? This nation was founded on the principle that the laws apply in the same way to everyone; some people seem to be losing sight of that principle.

Our president makes a big deal about being a born-again Christian when he vetoes funding for stem cell research; but when it comes to torture, he seems to have forgotten that "Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." (Matthew 25:40)

Visiting London

We started our vacation with 3 nights in London, arriving on Saturday morning; the first day and night spent, of course, arriving, and then recovering from the jet lag and the fact that neither of us sleeps well on planes. By the time we got to bed I think we'd been more or less up for 27 hours. This is harder to do than it was 10 years ago.

We stayed in a hotel in Kensington, on Prince of Wales Terrace, a couple of blocks from Hyde Park; we walked over to the park the day we got in, to keep from collapsing and going to bed before it was even dark (which happens much later in London than in Oakland). I can't find Prince of Wales Terrace on Google maps but there are a lot of little streets that aren't labeled. It had rained but stopped; we took pictures of the swans on the Round Pond, and of Kensington Palace and its gardens. The hotel was small and the shower was even smaller, and gave us our first taste of a British paradox: in a country where it rains enough that it's green all summer, the showers generally have very low water pressure. We only found a couple of exceptions. Showers are also (probably because they've all been put in as an afterthought) microscopic; you barely have room to turn around. For that matter, we barely had room to turn around in the hotel room; luggage for a 3 week stay took up enough room that we had to jigsaw everything around to get at our clothes, which were in the suitcases; there was no chest of drawers and no hangers to speak of. And my colleague Penny was right: the English don't seem to use face cloths. With one exception, the only towels we got anywhere were bath and hand.

Kensington is a very urban neighborhood and reminded me again (this was our second trip) that in England, especially in English towns, there are no "front yards". Everything in London is built right out to the sidewalk line, and up at least 4-5 stories, and usually down to a basement too; if there are yards at all, they're in back. There were also (at least in this neighborhood) very few if any street trees. You want trees, go over to the park.

We didn't have a car in London (not being insane), so going anywhere meant walking around to the Kensington High Street station and taking the Tube, about half a mile each way. In fact, walking (and climbing stairs!) was the keynote of this vacation; I thought my feet were going to fall off! I will say that the Tube went everywhere we wanted to go and was reasonably easy to use. Britain in general is not "accessible"; I saw plenty of people in wheelchairs in gardens, but they generally had someone along to help horse the chair up the inevitable stairs.

Sunday was our first functional day, and we spent it touring museums: the Science Museum, and a quick look at the Victoria and Albert. The attraction in the Science Museum was the Babbage Difference Engine, the first attempt at a mechanical computer. The museum has several of Babbage's trial versions, but what they really have is the version they built themselves, from Babbage's design, to see whether it would work. (It does.) The full thing is huge, over twice the height of a man and broader than it is high. It's beautiful, done in machined brass (very Victorian). They also have a huge collection of various mechanical calculating aids, from abaci to a vacuum-tube computer the size of a room, to an old PDP-8 (I worked with people who programmed that thing), plus a large collection of mechanical adding machines. Absolutely fascinating. We also glanced at the section on time measurement, and had lunch in the cafeteria.

We had very little time at the V and A, because we had dinner reservations and theater tickets (more on that later); so we ducked in and I picked a section at random from the directory. Next to the "Medieval" section (always a favorite), they had something called the "Cast Courts", and I erroneously assumed this was some medieval related thing that I hadn't heard of. Was I ever wrong. The cast courts are a Victorian phenom, and they cracked me up: the "casts" are plaster cast reproductions of pretty much any monument, statue, bas-relief, fountain, or tomb that took someone's fancy, all painted to match the original stone or whatever. I mean anything: they had a plaster cast of Trajan's Column from Rome (in 2 parts, to fit it under the roof); an Italian shrine like a weird pagoda, taller than the Trajan pieces; the entire Porticó de Gloria from Santiago de Compostela in Spain (it took up the whole end of the hall; the doors in it, however, were plaster casts of doors from 2 other places). The hall is huge, at least 4 stories high, and it was full of these casts, in no special order, except that the end near the door had a collection of tombs of some medieval English kings and queens (Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard I and Berengaria, etc.), all together. They had the stone of Offa. They had everything, all jammed together in one room (actually there are two but the other one was closed) where you could come and presumably be edified by looking at all the great art. It was the most cluttered, confusing, hilarious thing you could imagine and so Victorian it practically had side whiskers.

Our evening tickets were a treat: opening night seats at Love's Labour's Lost, in the Globe Theatre in Southwark, with advance dinner reservations at the restaurant in the Globe - all very early (dinner at 5) because the play was not cut and ran 3 hours. The theater is modern but built to match extant drawings of the original: we had seats on the top gallery (Elizabethans must have had very short legs, there was no leg room), under the thatched roof. Fortunately for the players it didn't rain that night. I had a ball watching the play and just being there. The acoustics of the place are amazing, we really heard very well although some of the accents were difficult.

Our second day in London we spent taking a boat down the Thames to Greenwich, where we saw the old Royal Naval College buildings, the National Maritime Museum (very briefly), and the Royal Observatory. It rained on us going but cleared up in the afternoon, sunny and windy. Greenwich is a gorgeous town, elegant curving streets lined with Georgian buildings. We saw the Painted Hall (pure 17th century baroque imagery, plump nudes in classical draperies, winged allegorical figures, Gods and nymphs), and right next to it the Chapel (which looks like it was decorated by Josiah Wedgwood, all precise abstract patterns on pastel blue and green and pink backgrounds). Moving between the two is quite startling. The Painted Hall was originally meant to be the dining hall for the Naval College, but by the time it was done they decided it was too elegant to eat in and started using it as a tourist attraction. They have mirrored tables set around so you can see the ceiling without breaking your neck.

The Observatory stands on top of a steep little hill (thank you, Greenwich, for the motor trolley up the hill!) with a fabulous view of the Thames and Canary Wharf (and a somewhat regrettable view of the Millenium Dome; my, that thing is ugly). They have painted a Line on the ground (with an elegant silver sculpture) to mark the Prime Meridian - Latitude Zero - which is really the arbitrary line established by astronomer Flamsteed in the 17th century for taking star sightings. (The web site says it was established by George Airy in the 19th century, but I'm pretty sure I recall that Airy put his transit circle on Flamsteed's line.) The popular sport there is to have one's picture taken standing on the Prime Meridian; I settled for taking a picture of the sculpture.

The other thing the Observatory has is all four versions of the famous Harrison marine chronometer - you can see how the design evolved from H1 to the final H4 that effectively solved the "Longitude problem". For those interested in mechanical engineering, this is a must-see.

Greenwich was the end of our London stay; next, on to Kent.


British Airways has found all four suitcases! Yay! Of course, they haven't delivered them yet, but at least they know where they are...

Sunday, July 22, 2007

... Leavin' on a Jet Plane...

This is the saga of our attempt to return from our summer vacation in England and Wales. I wouldn't normally start a vacation story with the end, but this is the worst airline mess I've ever personally suffered through; and it was complicated by the way the travel agent set up our lodgings.

Friday morning we started from York, in northern England, and hit the M1 for London. All was smooth until after we stopped for lunch in Leicester; it started to rain then, and rained continually for about 70 miles, until we reached Luton, just north of the M25 (London ring road). This was world-class rain, too - so bad the M1 traffic slowed under 30 MPH (think of I-80) because the windshield wipers couldn't keep up. The water couldn't drain off the roads fast enough. The only other place I've seen it rain that hard was in the Arizona desert. It had quit by the time we got to the M25, but that was no help: it took us an hour and a half to go about 25 miles to our exit. We now knew why our first London cabbie had called it "the biggest car park in the universe". We inched our way down to exit J13 for Staines, where we had a hotel reservation; this is 2 exits past the M4 junction, which is (among other things) how you get to Heathrow.

By the time we got off the motorway, checked into the hotel, luggage unloaded, it was 5 PM; and we still had to return the rental car to Heathrow. We now know that you can get to Heathrow from Staines without going on the motorway; but we didn't know that then, so back we went into the meat grinder. It took us another hour and a half to get to the car rental return (the directional signs at Heathrow conform to the general English road sign assumption that if you don't know how to get somewhere, you probably shouldn't be going there; but I assumed the car rental firm wanted their Mercedes back). By this time my husband had been driving in appalling traffic for something like 7 hours since lunch, and was fraying badly. It took us almost an hour to return the car, since we had managed to remove the passenger side mirror early in the trip and they had to do a detailed damage report (the extra insurance fees just paid for themselves). The car rental shuttle got us to the terminal around 7:30 PM, when we found that the line of people waiting for taxis was longer than the line of taxis.

We gave up and went into the terminal to eat dinner. If the taxi situation was still bad after dinner, at least we'd be fed and somewhat relaxed. After dinner the line was still long, but at least now there were taxis stacked up; at which point we discovered how badly our travel agent had placed us. Heathrow taxi service only does metered delivery into central London. Staines, where we were staying, is an outer suburb and there is no standard taxi service there from the airport (because they couldn't count on a return fare); it's a "fixed fee" of £55! (At the current Exchange rate of $2.05, that's almost $113 to go about 6 miles!) And in cash, which fortunately we had.
We managed to negotiate it down to £50, including tip. We probably could have gotten a cab, or a shuttle, to one of the hotels in the airport, which was where we had wanted to stay; but the agent hadn't booked us into any of them.

During the cab ride, we learned from the cabbie that Heathrow had also had torrential rains the day before: the runways were flooded, multiple afternoon flights were cancelled, and in fact the single tunnel that allows ground transport access to the terminals was also flooded. (Can you spell crummy access engineering??) In addition to the Heathrow problems, the M4 itself was down to 1 westbound lane about 15 miles west of the airport, due to landslides from still more rain. All this may explain why the traffic at the M25-M4 junction was so ghastly around 4 PM, added to the fact that it was Friday at 4 PM. (Mem. to self: next time, fly on Wednesday.) We got back to the hotel around 9 PM, and spent the rest of the evening packing everything into 4 suitcases and 2 backpacks, since travelers leaving Heathrow can carry on one and only one bag (and this DOES include women's purses).

Next morning we had a 10:50 AM international flight, so we got to the airport at 7:30 AM (taxi fare in that direction?
£16), to find a howling crowd on the access road in front of the terminal. A British Air person asked us for our flight and directed us to a queue that was about a block long; before it was over it was almost 3 times that. We stood in that queue, refused entrance to the terminal, for an hour and a half, while BritAir let in people with earlier flights (including, I think, everybody whose flight the day before was cancelled; other people who got into the airport without standing in this line included everyone who took the train, which goes directly into the terminal. Only people who came by road were blocked this way.). The howling crowd included abnormally large numbers of children and adolescents, accompanied and not, because 7/21 is the first day of the British school summer holidays. (Mem. to self: travel earlier or later next time...)

At 9:00 AM they finally allowed in the people on flights after 10:30 - they had a big flight out at 10:30 - so we went into the terminal and found another howling crowd, all trying to check in at once, in at least 14 languages. The self-service check-in kiosks hadn't worked for us the night before, and they still didn't work. The BA rep suggested we were late checking in for our flight and I snarled at her. We stood in line for another hour and a half (my husband had been freaking out spectacularly ever since we got in the terminal, but by this time even I was beginning to wonder if we were going to get on a plan that day at all), in front of a plaintive German woman, on her first solo flight, whose plane was leaving at 10:45. We finally (in the nick of time) discovered that they had an emergency check-in station for people whose flights were leaving Real Soon Now, so we first shoved the German woman to it, and then we used it.

It was now 10:35; our flight was scheduled for 10:50; we had boarding passes and had checked our bags, but we hadn't cleared security. We got through security in the fastest time I've ever seen by telling the few people in line that our plane was leaving in 10 minutes (they let us cut in; actually, due to the massive backups at check in, security had almost no line at all; I've never had a faster pat-down); then we ran for gate 52. It wasn't the farthest possible gate, but by God it wasn't much short of it. And as we panted up to the gate, desperately waving our passports and boarding passes, the attendant said, "Oh, you're fine; take a seat. I haven't called the flight yet."

After that, everything else was anticlimactic. We even sat together, and my husband had the window seat he likes. The plane actually boarded around 11:30, and lifted off at 11:50. British Air serves you the least amount of liquid they possibly can, as infrequently as they can; the air conditioning didn't work (my husband was carrying an altimeter that also shows temperature; it was 78 degrees Fahrenheit at our seats); you couldn't get a cup of water from the dispensers because the water pressure was so high it splashed out of the paper cups; and one of the lavatories smelled of stale piss and had a nameless liquid sloshing around the base of the unit. I was not impressed with the service; but nothing else actually went wrong until we landed at SFO and discovered - wait for it - that our luggage had not made it onto the plane. None of it.

We have a tracking number; British Airways insists they have our luggage; they just don't know
exactly where it is. It might be still at Heathrow, waiting for a flight; it may be somewhere at SFO; the U.S. Customs may be going through it. I wish them joy of my dirty underwear; at the moment, those bags contain almost all the underwear I own. I've talked to BA twice, and it's clear that they are completely overwhelmed and may not get this sorted out until mid-week; and that even our bags do arrive today, it may still take hours for someone to get around to updating the file that tells BA knows where they are. But at least we're home.