Departing Luxembourg improved my mood immediately. After the abject disaster of the past 9 months, getting on with it was a relief. Strangely, the skies over London agreed with me. My flight actually landed at the scheduled time and I crossed the UK border smoothly. I also didn’t manage to get lost once travelling to Bayswater. My hotel in London was adequate, if Spartan. I stayed at the Latvian Guesthouse on Queensborough Terrace. The room was tiny but clean and the service was competent, if inconsistently polite. The younger Latvian staff were courteous and helpful almost to a fault. The manager, in her fifties, betrayed a Soviet upbringing in her demeanour. Their breakfast was also adequate. A kindly older Latvian woman prepared full English breakfasts at no additional cost.
Not desiring overly strenuous exercise, I limited by first day’s excursions to the V&A, Royal Albert Hall, the Prince Albert Memorial and Hyde Park. That really was quite enough for the day and I returned in good time to sit an exam in Indian history. The V&A was well worth the visit. I spent a good four hours wondering its halls admiring their Asian collections and being surprisingly pleased with their British. In place, they allow visitors to try own re-created historical clothing to get a sense of what it was like to live with those fashions. The Inverness Cape was pleasantly comfortable. The corset and crinoline were not nearly as much, although I did strangely manage to work out how to put on a corset AND crinoline. Frankly, the Inverness Cape suited me better. Later, I had to explain to an oik how to put on a Mantua gown. He didn’t seem to understand that one steps into it before pulling it up. Yes, I read the instructions, no, I am not a part-time drag queen; or even a full-time drag queen, for that matter.
Walking the streets of Kensington was a pleasant experience. The red-brick buildings are stately and never look dated. One supposes that that sort of money can buy anything. Hyde Park was also well worth the visit. The Prince Albert Memorial was surprisingly large and almost too ornate, but it was built by Victorians and serves its purpose very well.
The following day I left early to visit the Tower of London. Following Janus’s advice, I took a Beefeater’s tour. The guide, Dickie Dover, had a brilliant wit and an impeccable sense of the place’s history. Sadly, he did not follow through on his warning that one could be executed for using mobile phones in the Chapel Royal, a beautiful building with a tragic history. It was also unfortunate that he did not make good on his warning as the old execution site is directly in front of the chapel. After a quick walk past the Crown Jewels, I went to White Tower. I enjoyed the Norman toilet the most. The exhibit on numismatics was interesting, although the building was a bit too crowded for my comfort. I was also somewhat displeased by the fact that there was seemingly more Hunnish or Froggish being spoken than English. Due to the need to be at Westminster before 1:00 PM, I had to forego the Mediaeval Apartments. My twisted mind led me to visiting the torture chambers first. The queue took 15 minutes and I was disappointed. They only had a few very basic torture implements. Then again, the English have never quite mastered that save for Reality TV and the majority of the UK’s recent Eurovision entries.
I made it to Westminster in good time to start a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament. Generally I avoid guided tours, but paying a few extra quid allows one to visit rooms otherwise not open to the general public – such as the Queen’s Robing Room. Parliament was the highlight of my visit to London. There is an overwhelming sense of the weight of history there. Walking in the steps of Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II and Kings Edward VII, George V and George VI (I choose to disregard the Hitler fan-boy, Edward VIII) is powerful. To stand where Disraeli, Gladstone and Churchill once stood is moving. There is a certain beautiful eccentricity to it all. It may be somewhat obscure and tradition-bound, but that gives it character. Parliamentary antics are still more interesting than the blandness of the German Parliament. Leaving through Westminster Hall was similarly a moving experience. Winston Churchill laid in state here, William Wallace was condemned to death where I stood.
Noting the time, I decided to pawn the souls of my cousins’ unborn children to pay the entrance fee for Westminster Abbey. Even at £20, it was still worth it for the experience. The chapels are pretty and I was not offended to visit the resting sites of great English kings. The quirky irony of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots being buried relatively near each other was also worth at least that much. During my visit, the choir practised singing and the organist plied his trade. The combination of the music and the right light pouring through the stained-glass windows was unforgettable. Upon leaving I made sure to visit the Coronation Throne. Sadly, one must go to Scotland to see the Stone of Scone, otherwise known as the Stone of Destiny. At first I thought that the Stone of Scone referred to a poorly-executed baked good. I may have to drag poor John Mackie there with me in June.
The next morning I left London for Christchurch. Or, technically Highcliffe-on-Sea. It was surprisingly difficult to find rooms to book in Dorset this weekend. Supposedly there is a major bicycling event. I made a point to journey to Christchurch proper. The priory is a masterpiece. While it lacks the grandeur of Westminster Abbey, it also lacks the £20 entrance fee and is in its own way just as nice, if more sedate. The ruins of the Norman house were also interesting. There is surprisingly little still standing from that time and this is one of the few remaining examples of civil architecture. The chimney is one of the 3 still standing in England. The castle is similarly interesting and the view from it is pretty.
Yesterday, I subjected poor Araminta to one of my interminable visits yet again. Fortunately for her, for me, for Dorset, sans corset and crinoline. We visited Corfe Castle. Beautiful in its ruined state, one suspects that its magic comes from its poor state of repair. Sadly, this cannot be said for German railways. The views from the castle are unmistakably English – rolling green hills and sheep. Yes, sheep everywhere – including on steep hills. After visiting the castle and taking an afternoon coffee in Wareham, I returned to Christchurch. Today I decided to visit Dorchester. It is, as I’ve said before, my favourite English town and a place I’d be quite happy living in. After walking the river and high street, I took an afternoon Dorset cream tea. Everything was fresh and well-prepared from local ingredients. The clotted cream was wonderful. After walking about a bit more and making my perquisite stop at Waitrose’s to buy tea, I had a late lunch at a delightfully dreadful café. Near the high street, the Gorge Café embodies everything that is wrong with dining. The interior is naff to the nth degree. It looks remarkably like a poor 1970s English imitation of a poorly-conceived American Diner circa 1960. The service was mediocre at best and the food so brilliantly uninspiring that I am tempted to return at every visit to relive the sheer horror of it all. My earlier tea was everything that lunch wasn’t – well-prepared by competent staff in a cosy, tasteful heritage building.
As for my quarters in Christchurch, they are adequate. My room is small, but comfortable. The owners are pleasant enough, if jaded. I am a 15-minutes’-walk from the English Channel and will go there now to watch part of my final sunset in England before going to the Chinese take-away. Tomorrow I will leave the civilisation of the West Country and travel to the exotic world of Wales.