Monday, August 18, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Twenty

Wednesday, 5 April, 1989
Holford to Taunton to Salisbury to London
Day Twenty

This morning at breakfast there was smoked haddock, the first time I’ve had any on this trip. It was a nice change from bacon.

The weather didn’t look too cheerful as I headed down the little road to Crowcombe and thence to Taunton. Still, we put the Beethoven sonata tape in the player and make the best of it.

In case you’re wondering, I was not going there again because Somerset's county town is such a tourist magnet. I had absolutely no cash in my purse and had to hit the NatWest to cash some Traveller’s Cheques. And I wanted to buy some Somerset cider.

Worse finding a place to park today than Sunday, not surprisingly. Finally got a slot in a half-hour zone a couple-three blocks from downtown. Hustled and managed to accomplish both goals in the nick of time. Last thing I want is a ticket.

The cider’s in a plastic jug. No temptation to take it home to America that way, though I really would’ve preferred the stoneware container.

It was after noon when I'd completed my errands and left there, so I had to skip going back to Bristol to try to see the Clifton Suspension Bridge by day. Would’ve been no improvement over last night, anyway-- cloudy again. Instead I went south on the A358 to pick up the A303 east at Ilminster, to make it as expeditiously as possible to Salisbury.

Of course I managed to get lost on the way, or I thought I was, which comes to the same thing. Backtracked thinking I’d missed the turn for the A36, wasting all sorts of time and petrol in the process, only to discover I’d been ok all along. It’s a good thing this car comes with unlimited mileage.

When I got to Salisbury I drove around till I found a place I could park for a couple hours free on Mill Road by the Queen Elizabeth Gardens. That gave me a better view of the cathedral than a close-in position would’ve, though it isn’t the angle so often painted by Constable, I think.

I walked along the water there as close as I could come, but they haven’t thought to provide a bridge whereby you can reach the cathedral from that angle. So I had to walk all the way around to the High Street after all.

First thing apparent on this fine foggy day is that the West Front is being restored. More scaffolding (do I hear a March somewhere?). You can’t have everything, though.

The interior was different from what I expected and a little disappointing as well. It seems odd to say so, but all my reading and photograph-taking had led me to believe it would be a lot more-- well, cleaner. And instead I found it neither austere, nor rich, but merely cluttered-- and mostly with tourists. A great many French ones, many of them there in student groups. But that seems to be the case in most English cathedrals I’m visiting this trip.

The dark gray Purbeck shafts of the nave and triforium are very smooth and nice, but damn, don’t they subdivide the vertical space! One horizontal band on top of the other.

The really odd thing is the Trinity Chapel, at the east end. The Purbeck shafts there are unbelievably tall and slender. They look hardly able to take the weight of the vaults, light-looking as those are.

Got a good look at the inverted arch in the eastern transept, to figure out to where the mouldings go . . . Actually, they just die into an unengaged column on each side. Not the most polished or professional solution one could imagine. I wonder at what stage those were put in.

They’re installing a new organ in the northwest transept. The case wasn’t entirely built and I could admire the big diapason ranks.

The Trinity chapel is dedicated to Prisoners of Conscience. I can’t help thinking, it’s not enough to be sincere; you can be sincerely wrong. But still, Amnesty International is right-- you can’t go jailing people just because they’re Communists or whatever. That seemed to be the case of the South American student who is their prisoner of the month.

Yes, the title does sound rather hokey, doesn’t it? At least, some of the French students really thought so. Gave them a good laugh. And me a blow to my romantic conception that all European students are such socially-aware people.

It’s not only the west front that’s being renovated, it’s the tower and roof as well. You can’t go anywhere in that church without encountering a display illustrating the need for urgent repairs. But it is imperative something be done, so I threw in a pound in addition to my admission ‘donation.’

They have one fund-raising idea which wasn’t exactly the most atmosphere-preserving activity but still is an interesting concept. They’re releading the roof and to raise money they’ve divided several sheets of the lead into boxes maybe 1-1/8" high x 4" long. For £2 you can use an electric engraving tool and inscribe your name, origin, the date, and anything else you like, within good taste and reason, and it’ll go up on the roof.

I decided what the heck, why not. But of course I have to be Creative. So towards the upper middle of sheet #39 (you can ask them when on a roof tour and they’ll show it to you), I have

Blogwen X--
Kansas City, USA
5 April, 1989
Gloria in Excelsis Deo

All done in a very shaky version of my Celtic lettering-- shaky due to not having eaten since breakfast (it was after 4:00 by now) and just plain nerves. Still, it was enough to excite the natives. And who knows what it’ll inspire.

I actually wasn’t feeling very Gloria in Excelsis but the attribution is appropriate, regardless of how I feel. And besides, it’s a good motto for a roof.

Obligatory visit to the cathedral shop for a postcard or two, then I strolled around the cloister. Peeked into the chapterhouse but didn’t go in-- couldn’t afford the time and didn’t care to pay the extra money.

Out the west door to admire as much of the facade as was visible behind the scaffolding. It started to rain so I skipped making a full circuit of the building.

Left the cathedral grounds and walked up the High Street in search of a phonecard box. Found one, and tried calling Royal Festival Hall about where to park for the concert this evening. But got no answer. They must close at 4:30.

Tried to locate a bakery or whatever in the immediate vicinity so I could buy something to pretend to be dinner, but with no success. So tonight we’ll live on Berlioz. No problem.

Got petrol at an off-brand station just out of town. I asked and they didn’t take traveller’s cheques, not even in pounds sterling. Very strange. Visa was all right, luckily.

Got on the A338 north (at about 5:00) to pick up the A303 past Andover and then to get the M3 near Popham. The motorway goes past Basingstoke. My dialects book says that down here it’d be taboo to say, "Basingstoke is a fine and purdy town." But I had no opportunity to take an exit and find out why that’s not the sort of thing one should say. I had other things on my mind. Making it to London in time, for one thing. And the weather, for another.

Jolly entertaining stuff, that was. It started snowing before I left Wiltshire and in Hampshire it was coming down pretty hard-- and sticking. Not on the road, though. Little chance of that with the volume of traffic. The highway code says you’re not supposed to put on your fog lamps unless there’s actually a fog. I don’t care, I turned them on anyway. Everybody, and that obviously includes me, was trucking along at 80 mph just as if nothing was unusual about the conditions and I did not want to be rearended by some half-blinded speed merchant.

Passing trucks was the most fun. You go sightless with the spray. I suppose the greatest potential hazard is coming up on people ahead who’re going more slowly than you’d thought. It was all very entertaining.

Still, I made good time and was in Richmond, around fourteen miles from the center of London, at 6:30. The rain and snow had stopped by now but I was in city traffic, of course. But inbound was moving decently, at least. Should’ve been no problem to make it to the RFH in time and with time to spare for dinner, maybe, too.

Should’ve been. But I hadn’t planned on my old nemesis, the badly-labelled road, catching up with me again. I was trying to get on the eastbound South Circular Road and thence onto the A23 into Lambeth. A very simple route. I saw a sign saying "South Circular Road, righthand lane." So I got over, and damned if there weren’t two right-turn-only lanes, with three possible turnoffs between them, all with local street names and none owning up to be the South Circular.
I gambled and yes, folks, I chose the wrong one.

Having subsequently consulted the map, I can tell that instead of turning hard right onto Clifford Avenue and thence onto West Upper Richmond Road (aka the S.C.R.), I stayed on Lower Richmond Road (a soft right), drove east along the Thames for awhile, got onto Church Road, and then in an attempt to get back to where I’d been and start over, turned left onto Castlenau. Which took me over the Hammersmith Bridge. A very prettily-painted Victorian iron affair, but where the heck was Hammersmith? I’d never heard of that part of London before.

Traffic was pretty heavy, so I had no option but to keep going till I reached a street whose name was familiar. Best course, I decided, was to follow the signs pointing towards the City center. I could find my way from there.

Everyone else had the same idea, it seemed. By the time I made it onto Cromwell Road it was nearly 7:00 and there definitely was time to check the map. Then more inching along, and here I was on Brompton Road, opposite Harrod’s. Well, nice not to be lost anymore, but gracious, is London traffic always this heavy this time of evening?

I learned later there’d been a Tube strike today and so the number of cars on the street was greatly augmented. Then, too, with the snowy weather things were moving behindish, anyway. Just as well I didn’t know this when I was in the middle of it. I might have lost my nerve.

As it was I figured it was just normal London traffic and here I was in the middle of it. I might as well let the adrenalin pump away and bang along with everyone else. The experience could only be described as surreal. I got to Hyde Park Corner and it seemed like six lanes of cheerfully mindless chaos.

Did I say ‘lanes"? I was being funny. Everyone was going vaguely clockwise but that seemed to be the only coherent principle in effect. It was like being in a Mixmaster-- cars, lorries, big red busses, all scrambling in and out and miraculously, all avoiding collision. I’m usually Miss Cautious but I was weaving and darting with the rest of them. You don’t think about the implications, you just go.

But due to some scaffolding covering the street sign (affixed to the side of a building), I missed getting off onto Grosvenor Place. Back the rest of the way around, then somehow I ended up on the South Carriage Drive in Hyde Park. Off that onto Knightsbridge, then back to the Mixmaster again.

Well. Once I found Grosvenor Place I was fine for locating Westminster Bridge. And for getting to the carpark (turned out it was listed and located on the concert series brochure, which I had with me) for the Royal Festival Hall.

But by now it was 7:25. I was rather the worse for wear, and took up a further five minutes or more doing a crooked job of parking (more scrapes on the car, no doubt), changing into more presentable shoes (I was wearing a skirt already), and getting my ticket from the carpark attendant. I still had to find the Hall entrance (a real puzzle), locate the box office, and pick up my concert ticket there.

There they told me that as it was 7:35 the concert had started but that upstairs I could probably slip inside the door for the first bit.

Not really. The orchestra was just finishing "God Save the Queen" but the legalistic usher still wouldn’t let me in. Should have. There was applause going.

So I had to stay outside in the foyer for the entire first part of my Romeo and Juliet. Missed the soprano and tenor solos and all the rest of it. Berlioz Society friends Phyllis Johnson* and Renate Klein* told me at intermission that they hadn’t done a good job at all and I hadn’t missed anything by just barely getting it over the PA system. But I would’ve preferred finding that out for myself.

Got my seat for the Fete onward. It was the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by David Atherton. I am unable to give a proper review of the performance, especially because from the way Phyllis* and Renate* were going on afterwards, it was a complete flop. "Wipe this out of your mind. It wasn’t Berlioz!"

All I can say for sure is that yes, the strings sounded awfully metallic (it’s a rather dry hall, which may have something to do with it). And the baritone (Friar Lawrence), David Wilson-Johnson, had no voice to speak of, and was shouting his way through the part quite tunelessly. It made my throat hurt to hear him straining at it.

I was reminded, however, of what a jolly good operatic-type piece that formal reconciliation chorus is. It quite carries one along.

The more familiar bits probably made me feel grace towards the orchestra just because they’re by Berlioz and because they were being played at all. The others can afford to be critical-- they’ve gotten used to hearing these pieces played. But I suppose the Scene d’Amour did lack something. It wasn’t quite the rush it should’ve been. The oboe soloist was good, though.

Turned out the Queen Mother was there, in the Royal Box. She bowed to the audience at the concert’s end. It hadn’t occurred to me to even be curious about who was over there-- I was there for Hector and him alone.

There are some pretty silly things about that building but the boxes are some of the silliest. They look like little Formica-clad cabinet drawers grown gigantic and pulled out from their case. The Royal Box is basically flush but is fronted with this ridiculous vinyl-looking protective padding stuff with zigzags worked into it. Simply awful.

I was staying at Phyllis Johnson’s*, so I drove both of us over to Welbeck Street (She paid the £1.50 parking). She’s not such a hot direction-giver and we ended up on Victoria Street and who knows where when I meant to have us on Whitehall. She kept telling me to follow this or that taxi, but how could I tell if it would be heading where I wanted to go?

We did eventually make it to her neighborhood and drove around some more trying to find a meter at which to park (if you’re not at a meter you get ticketed). Thankfully, it’s free till 8:00 in the morning.

Phyllis* very kindly fed me a late supper of scrambled eggs and toast. We sat in the living room till well after midnight while she told me stories of sitting in on Colin Davis rehearsals in the '60s. Phyllis* is an American but she’s been in London since 1963 or so, ever since she got stranded here on her way to take some job in the Near East and the job was cancelled due to political unrest.

She’s got shelves full of scores. I looked at some before turning in, since they’re in the little spare room where I was sleeping on a foldaway bed.


whiskers09092006 said...

Well, that sounds thrilling!

Hope you don't mind, I'm traveling vicariously through you, as I will probably never be able to afford to go, (not a defeatist attitude, just common sense...)

Whiskers, (PS check out my new blog...)

St. Blogwen said...

Of course I don't mind! Glad to have you along!

I'm glad I did my UK trips when I did, the costs have gone up so much.

But I imagine the Bed & Breakfast method in the countryside is still a lot cheaper than staying in hotels in towns. And me, I make a practice of staying with friends when I visit London, unless I positively can't help it. One great benefit of having gone to school over there!

I'll drop in on your new blog!

Sandy said...

I love to read about all the places you've been and all the little bed & breakfast places!

whiskers09092006 said...

So sorry I didn't respond to your earlier comment on my new blog, but I haven't figured out how to respond specifically to a comment. To answer your question, I did for this upcoming issue, an article on a small used bookstore that I worked at for the summer, another on the campus theme which is "revolutions in thought" and the third on the "One book, One campus" initiative, and the book is The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin. I sort of got over my worry about asking people questions in my frustration that no one ever seemed to be in their office. *sigh*