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Havin' a pint at the Bird & Baby
A driving day. We packed up all our stuff, loaded it into the van, bid farewell to our hosts, and departed Dinorwic above Llanberis. Putting Snowdon to our backs, we drove to Bangor and picked up the A55 across the top of Wales. Through Conwy. South of Holywell. Swinging around to the south of Chester (where we crossed the England/Wales border), then taking the A54 east through Winsford and Middlewich to the M6, where we turned south. The weather had turned beautiful, and the open rolling hills of Eastern Wales then Staffordshire were a nice change from the close horizon of the mountains. We made good time, though once again experienced the phenomenon of "Imperial Miles," which are like "Imperial Gallons" in that you think that you know how big they are, when in truth they're really much larger . . . say by a factor of three.
The M6 is one of the 'motorways' of Britain, what we'd call an 'Interstate.' At least four lanes, often more, divided highway, limited access, high speed, filled with trucks going faster than you care to unless you're an 18 year old kid who thinks that he's going to live forever. We rolled with the traffic (a surprising amount for a Saturday), stopping north of Birmingham at a rest area. I swear, this was the kind of place which could have been found on any turnpike in the Midwest, though there was the addition of a motel there adjacent to the gas station/food court/travel shoppe. We pulled in. Went inside. Were a little bewildered by the 'casino' rec area just inside the door (oh yeah, I always head out to the Interstate when I feel like losing some money to a video poker machine), but then settled on some variety of pre-packaged food (sandwiches and chips, soda), paid the kid at the checkout counter, and sat down to eat in the somewhat shabby food court. It was no worse than many such places I've eaten while driving cross-country. But, like such places, we didn't linger.
South of Birmingham we took the M40, then after some while left it to go into Oxford. I'd never been to Oxford before. Didn't really have a great desire to spend any real time there (unless it was going to be a matter of days so that I could really get to experience the place), but wanted to find one particular pub. This was the "Eagle & Child," or as Tolkien and his buddies called it: "The Bird & Baby." This ancient pub was the meeting place for "The Inklings," and probably Tolkienís favorite haunt. It was somewhere in Oxford, probably not too far from the university community. That was about all I knew. I had forgotten to bring any additional information from home about it.
But trust to luck. We drove into Oxford, ignoring the signs telling us just exactly how bad an idea this was. No kidding, every couple of miles coming from the M40 were signs promoting a 'park & ride' system to control congestion. And the traffic was bad. It funneled us right downtown. Trying to avoid an accident in the mass confusion of cars and students, we had little time to look around. But suddenly, there it was. The Bird & Baby. We swung around the block and against all odds found a parking spot right there on the street. We parked. We got out of the van. We walked down the block, enjoying the Berkeley-esque feel of the place. We paused outside the Bird & Baby, got a photo. Then went inside and ordered drinks.
It was about exactly what you'd expect from a university pub with a lot of history. The front was cramped and crowded, even early on this Saturday afternoon, dark wooden beams and low ceiling supports undoubtably inspiration for Hobbit-holes. A friendly palette of smells; old ale, food frying somewhere in the back, smoke, young bodies. The decor was an eclectic mix of old photos and current flyers promoting this or that event, carved names and initials, ads for flat rental. We found a table in the back, in what was formerly a courtyard but had been converted to a bright and cheery sunroom, sat and soaked it all in as I soaked up my pint.
Then we moved on, only stopping for ice cream before getting back in the van and meandering our way out of Oxford. We got back on the M40 briefly, before going cross-country to the little hamlet of Twyford, near Reading, where we found our friends and spent an enjoyable evening chatting before crashing much too late.
A nice, relaxed morning with our friends and their two darling girls. Then pack it up, and drive into London.
Well, not exactly. Rather, we skirted London, keeping to the "M" highways as much as possible. Went directly to the Thrifty car place near the airport where we had gotten the van two weeks earlier. I had absolutely NO desire to drive the damn van around London, even with plenty of experience with the small mountain roads in Wales. Everything checked out OK, and they didn't see where I had carved my initials and a curse on the company in the roof liner. Made sure that they credited back Alix's card for the full value of the van, then took the Thrifty courtesy shuttle to Gatwick. There we repacked our bags, since we realized that we could put the two big 'uns in storage there at the airport and forget them, keeping only one small duffle and our handbags to live out of for the next couple of days.
That accomplished, we took the Gatwick shuttle into town, having a light lunch of leftover cheeses and whatnot en route. Alix had made B&B reservations just a couple of blocks away from Victoria Station, in an area of London known as Belgravia. Nice area, kinda upscale without being to the point of making me feel like I was going to be stopped and asked what the hell I was doing in there. We got off the shuttle, and hoofed it over to the B&B, dropped our bags, stretched out and relaxed, deciding on what to do with the remainder of the afternoon. Came to the conclusion that it was time for a London Walk: "Old Westminster."
So, back to Victoria Station, take the Tube the couple of stops to Westminster, meet up with the guide, walk the Walk. Quite enjoyable. I'd been around London enough to know the basics, but the depth of history always amazes, and our guide knew his stuff. It was a couple of hours well spent. We finished the Walk, then enjoyed some time poking around the area on our own, including a bit in the Jewel Tower. It was well into evening by the time we got back to Victoria Station, where we grabbed a bite to eat and a couple of beers, then walked back to the room after a stop for take-away dessert and the Sunday paper.
We were up early, had a hearty breakfast while chatting with our Welsh host. (You knew there had to be a Wales connection, right?) Then over to Victoria Station, the weather bright and quite pleasant, stopping at an Internet Cafe to check email and whatnot.
It was my plan and intent to spend most of the day (well, as much as it took) at the Tate Modern, the incredible converted power plant on the south bank of the Thames which now houses some of the best modern art in the world. Yeah, I know, but what can I say: I like modern art. Alix does too, but not as much as I do. We agreed that she'd cut out when she had reached her limit.
But we weren't there yet. Took the Tube to Blackfriars, then walked along the north bank of the Thames until we came to the Millennium Bridge. Look, I know that the thing bucked and shuffled when they first opened it, and thereby became the butt of a lot of jokes. But the supplemental engineering they did worked, and now you can cross it without a single sway. And it's a cool effect, to be honest, even with the supports rising like wings to the sides.
Crossing on the Millennium Bridge allows a perfect view of the Tate, which still very much looks on the outside like the power plant that it once was. Except for the 40-foot tall inflatable abstract sculptures, that is. I'm reasonably sure there was never anything like that there when it was just a power plant.
You should spend some time with the Tate Modern, when you get the chance. If in London, plan a day there. If not, check out their website next time your browser is idle: www.tate.org.uk/modern We went in, made a donation, I picked up the audio guide. Do this. It's worth the one-Pound fee, even if you just use it to get a simple overview of the collection. Alix hung in there for a fair bit, then moved on to explore other parts of London. I stayed, had lunch in the cafe, spent about 5 hours. Could have been more, but the Olafur Eliasson exhibit in the Turbine Room (the great, multi-story open sculpture hall) wasn't in yet, and the Sigmar Polke retrospective didn't open until the day after we left London. Ah well. I still filled my brain several times over with great art. The Best? Yeesh. My old favorites: the Lichtenstein sculpture. Everything by Rothko. Pollock's "Summertime." Two artist friends of mine turned me on to Giaccometti, and I fell for his figure sculptures. But also a surprise: "Five Angels for the Millennium," a multi-media piece on five screens in a large darkened room by Bill Viola. You can find out more about this at www.tate.org.uk/home/news/violaacquisition.htm, but suffice it to say that I willingly walked into a dark room filled with the mixed soundtracks of the pieces, overlayed with the chatter of dozens of schoolkids. Spent over a half hour in there. And I didn't regret it for a minute.
But of course, I enjoyed the entire collection on display, even if some of the work didn't work particularly well for me. Mind racing, I eventually wandered out of the Tate, down the way to the Blackfriars bridge, and back across the Thames, stopping at some random pub for a pint and contemplation. Then to Trafalgar Square. People-watching is a good way to allow modern art to settle into the system. Trafalgar Square is a good place to people-watch. Keeping with that theme, I decided to hoof it up to Piccadilly Circus, thence to Leicester Square, just soaking in one of the world's great cities. I don't like cities, but I can usually enjoy London for a few days, enjoy the push and pace of life there, play tourist, watch tourists, lap up the sights and sounds like a rich broth. I had a bagel & lox somewhere along the way. Smiled pleasantly but declined to stop and chat with the women standing outside the sex shops. Watched the Japanese students, clustered together, pointing and laughing at some theatre marquee. Made my way back down to the National Gallery, warm in the beautiful weather we had that day. The crowds were too thick in the National, so I didn't linger there long, caught the Tube back to Victoria Station.
Got back to the room, a little tired from walking so much, saw that Alix had been there already but was out again, sat down to browse through some of the books I had picked up at the Tate Modern.
She returned not long after, and following a bit of rest, we went in quest of dinner. Settled on The Shakespeare, a place across from Victoria Station where I'd had a decent fish & chips last time we were in London. A relaxed and enjoyable dinner as we told one another about our adventures that day. Then a last bit of shopping and walking through the area, before picking up some dessert and landing back in the room to a little telly and a little reading before crashing.
Took our time next morning, rising early and clearing out of the room after a full breakfast. Checked email again, then caught the shuttle to Gatwick. Reclaimed our bags, repacked everything, made ready for the much too long flight home. Survived that, finally arriving in St. Louis and going through Customs without any problem. But they have this weird set-up in St. Louis where you get your bags at the special secure area for arriving international travelers, go through Customs, then have to re-check your bags and go through Security again . . . even though you haven't been allowed anywhere since dis-embarkation. Then you're allowed into the general terminal again, where you can reclaim your bags a second time.
Except in the three-hundred yards or so between where I rechecked my bags and the claim area, they managed to lose my large duffle. So, we go through the hassle of filing a claim, meeting up with the MO-X shuttle, then the 90 minute ride home.
My bag did eventually find it's way home, and there was one of those "We had to open your bag as part of our random security examination process" tags inside it. Probably the gate latches I had in there had looked more than a little funny on the X-Ray or something, and the bag got shuffled off into the nether world of the TSA. That's fine. The stuff we had really smuggled in (some honey, daffodil bulbs from the National Botanic Garden of Wales) was in another of the bags, which I made sure would not attract too much attention when run through security.
all work © James T. Downey, 1993-2006
photos © Martha K. John, 1994-2006
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