Thursday, November 19, 2009

UK7: Cambridge via London

We wake up, eat breakfast, drop off keys and pick up the receipt from the landlady, and check for coach tickets. I poke my head in the door one last time at 9.25: “Guys, this is it. We have to leave,” and head down the sidewalk, dragging my luggage. Tom and Ned run after me on the street to catch up. We swing through the roundabout to St. Clemins Road. The stop is a block further than I remember, but we have time. It’s a minute or so before the coach is to leave town, 10 minutes away.

Except, there it comes toward our bus stop. We were within a minute of missing our ride. I breathe a prayer of thanks to God. And feel my body relax as we travel toward London. By the time we get to the last Oxford stop, every seat is filled and people are being turned away to wait for the next bus. A magpie flits into the hedge by the road, its white wing patches flashing, long black tail steering.

A young man at National Express helps me order three L5 Fun Fair tickets for Heathrow and a super-saver return fare for Cambridge on his counter computer. When all is done, he prints out our info. We have saved over $100, thanks to the helpful clerk and Waldemar, who found the special internet fare yesterday.

We check our carry-on bags, gulp a sandwich and steak pies in the coach station, and head outdoors to find a meeting place for supper. Then Tom hoists his backpack, goes to see Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, sit in the House of Lords, and take in the sights. Ned straps his heavy laptop over his shoulders and rides the Tube (underground train) to a magical ride on the London Eye, see the Palace, walk through Westminster Abbey… and they arrive within minutes to eat supper together. It’s fish and chips for two of us, and ribs “I’m dying for meat!” for Tom.

Meanwhile, I’ve walked down the Mall in front of Buckingham Palace, where the flag is flying to show Her Majesty in residence. In the morning, she delivered the Queen's Speech to begin the final session of Parliament before the British elections in six months.

The ING, a modern art gallery on one end of the Mall, is showing some artists whose names I know. I spend a half hour grazing through the offerings. In a side room, I almost laugh aloud. One sculptor has a few funny 4”-6” pieces: a Fimo clay man holding a tiny baby, both sitting in a little black pram. A “survival kit” consisting of a box painted in army olive green… in which lies a baby’s soother painted in matching camouflage.

Not much further, through a few lanes and across busy roads, lies Trafalgar Square, currently filled with huge tree roots, 10’ and more high and long. The display aims to highlight the effects of climate change in tropical forests. A woman has had helpers chainsaw down enormous trees and shipped them from the horn of Africa. They lie on their sides on white wooden boxes, labeled by species. I wonder how chopping down the trees and paying to ship them (not to mention the carbon emissions from moving the enormous cargo), makes environmental sense. But people are stroking the trees, talking to them, nodding knowingly. They will move to the Copenhagan Climate Change summit in a few months. I’ve just read headlines in the British press that as solar flares subside, there is a chance for the return of a partial ice age. A world gone mad.

On the other side of the Square is the National Gallery. Admission is free, but I drop in L2, a small token of my appreciation as I stroll through rooms filled with art from 1500s to present in the Sainsbury wing. Art students hunch over pads of paper and sketch the paintings.

There is just enough time to run into a church called St. Martin in the Fields on the edge of the Square. A few trips ago, my youngest brother took me to a Mozart chamber orchestra concert at St. Martins. Fabulous music, ambiance of chandeliers turned down low, the whisper of pages turning and artists working together… that was a special night. Many chamber music recordings are made at St. Martins because the acoustics and equipment are just right.

I was ten pounds lighter after six months at Cambridge, and now I remember why. As I walk a few miles back to the Coach Station, my aching calves and thighs remind me that we don’t move much in Seattle. W and I walked 10-40 miles a week in Cambridge, and cycled for hours. I feel stiff as we get up from dinner to go back to the bus station. Ned’s shoulders are sore from carrying his laptop all afternoon.

The bus driver is an amusing chap. He flirts with the women and waits 20 minutes at an unscheduled bus stop for an African students who wants to go to Cambridge. (On his mobile: ‘Love, where are you? I can’t wait all night. I’m on the opposite side of the road from the Shakespeare pub where we had those drinks. Yeah, let me know where you are, so I can help you get here. We’re waiting. No, I don’t have 2 minutes, hurry up love…” finally she comes running up the sidewalk, envelops him in a big hug, and climbs aboard. “I’ll make it up to all you,” promises the driver). As he shoots his bus through traffic, he shouts at cyclists, pedestrians, and other drivers while pointing out landmarks and history – I’m sitting in the front seat across from him. “About a thousand years ago, Queen Mildred I think it was, crossed the river around Bow. She fell off her horse or somehow slipped while walking across the river. She ordered the men to build a bridge, which they shaped like a bow with the curve at the top. At least that’s the story.”

He tells the story of a gypsy shepherd boy from the 1600s who hanged himself because he thought the sheep had run away while he slept. “The grave is still tended. In the 1800s, someone put a proper grave marker, and recently people have been taking good care of it. There are fresh flowers every week.” He Googles anything he wonders about and passes on the stories. “I don’t know if they’re true, but they are interes--. Hey, you run in front of my bus like that and you’ll be in hospital!” he shouts mid-sentence.

We get to the Cambrige coach stop at Parkside after two and a half hours. Night has fallen. It is 9pm. We are exhausted and unsure if we can walk another mile or two across a park and through the dark streets, looking for out B&B with luggage in tow. A taxi takes us to Lantern House, where a warm welcome, clean white bedding, and a BATH in my room welcome us.

The guys are sharing a twin room upstairs with an ensuite bath. My bathroom is a tiny elbow cut into the corner of my small room. To use the toilet, (as it’s called here,) I have the choice of sitting sideways or leaving the door open. There’s a bathtub but no shower. At Oxford, every time the toilet was flushed, it groaned loudly for five minutes. The tiny quirks of plumbing and room layout remind us that we are in a different country.

I pour a few kettles of boiling water around the tub to make sure it’s clean. Then I pour myself a cup of peppermint tea. When I pull my socks off to get ready for bed, one of my toes is bloody. Huh, didn’t even feel that!

I don't have the password for the internet here. I’ll have to post this in the morning. Breakfast is between 7.20 and 9am, says the manager. The wind howls between the fence and the window as I turn out the light after 11pm.

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