Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Dispatches from Jolly Olde England


The headline of this piece reflects a wish of mine since I was 26 and traveled alone to Greece and Spain. The lonely hours strolling down cobblestone streets and the experience of looking at the Prado's Goya painting of the firing squad in Madrid were stimuli for writing. Perhaps I could not nudge a friend with excitement during Irene Pappa's performance of "Medea" in its original venue, but I could share these experiences through writing. Since then I have traveled extensively, both alone and with friends, but still feel the compulsion to chronicle my observations. In short, I am a frustrated travel writer.

Today I walked through the nearby woods surrounding Duddington, a small village of about 100 residents adjacent to Lincolnshire County, England. I was impressed with the sheer beauty of the old stone houses, the fields filled with dots of sheep, and the existence just a few yards away from our front door of the church graveyard and its stones so old many of the inscriptions have worn away with age. It is sunny and cold, and the late afternoon light shining through the many varieties of trees heightens a treasured time of day.

My image of an English country village is outdated; I assumed there would be a small series of shops, a pub, perhaps a local restaurant. This particular village has none of those amenities, but is not very far from larger villages that do at least have a pub. Nor is there a thriving transportation link: The bus to and from London stops only once a day. Thus, the automobile is a necessity in such a place, whereas in larger towns one doesn't want to be hampered with a vehicle. Most of the villagers, of course, know each other. If there were a post office such as Ketchum's, we would be similarly confronted by many people we know: One doesn't dare leave the cottage with a bad hair day here, either.

This lovely village is in contrast to the excitement of London, where my last evening there was spent at a bizarre and utterly entertaining revue performed by an Australian trio called the Kransky Sisters. They appeared at the Barbican, the huge city of London complex of flats that also houses the London Symphony Orchestra, the Guildhall school for actors and musicians, the London School for Girls, the City of London Museum, vestiges of old buildings ravaged during the Blitz, three movie theaters and restaurants and pubs, among many other amenities. One can literally tumble out of the flat to partake in any ongoing musical, cultural and theatrical event. It seemed appropriate there to have the chance to try seeing a wildly strange yet wonderful group like the Kransky Sisters, who play on pots, an ancient and dilapidated piano board, keep the beat with a toilet bowl brush or the one sister's tuba, and tell tall tales of traveling in their Morris around the world. The Barbican is a short walk to St. Paul's, the Smithfield Markets, the Tate Modern and its neighbors on the Thames like The National Theater.

So here I am, besotted with the delights available if one wears good walking shoes in London and waterproof hiking shoes in the country. I will be here for another couple of months and hope to share the feelings of the traditional holidays here.

Back in the country, a visit to Burghley House near Stamford was a reminder of the existence in older times of huge country estates, this one built to honor Queen Elizabeth and filled with hundreds of works of art brought back from Grand Tours. Of all the ornate and hugely valuable features, I most liked the kitchen, oddly, with copper trays that must have required two or more men to carry. The crewel work on the massive bed in the "yellow and black" room also impressed. The total effect was daunting and somehow sad: It's like trying to see the individual paintings at the Uffizi in Florence amidst the plethora of art. All that luxury in one place! I prefer the rolling fields and ponds nearby.

Yesterday in Stamford, its winding streets and buildings dating back centuries, the owner of a small patisserie said she was regretfully putting out her Christmas stuff this weekend, compelled by the pressures of the other town tradespeople. Maybe I'll get just as sick of the too-early holiday push here as I do in the United States. After all, as I write this, it isn't even Halloween yet!

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