originally published November 28, 2021
The summer before traveling to Oxford, I dreamed up a short wishlist for travel in the United Kingdom: 1) Yorkshire, the site of beloved stories from my childhood, and 2) Wales, the only British country still alien to me. With my lease winding to a close on the 30th of June and my plans for the oncoming autumn undecided, the months of July and August opened like a window of opportunity before me, if only I could find the key.
I have a dear friend (and former professor) to thank for almost everything that followed. With a few emails, Sam enlisted friends across the country to host me for weeks (or months, if requested). Buoyed with confidence born of traveling towards a friendly destination, I boarded the bus to London.
I had armed myself with a calendar of addresses, but there my research ended. Spontaneity commanded my hours – spontaneity and the clearly marked, highly detailed city maps stationed on every corner in major English cities. At every transit point, I met names resonant with literature and childhood. Recognizing that I might not again find myself a block away from Kensington Gardens or Baker Street anytime soon, I deviated from my path more than once to intercept these fairy tale apparitions.
En route to London, I stopped to scout the quintessential English landmarks: rose gardens! It cost me some sweat to haul my luggage four or five blocks to Regent’s Park, but Queen Mary’s Garden repaid me with a candy shop window’s worth of roses. Visiting in early July tests the edges of the season – many of the roses had blown their full bloom already – but I only marveled more that so much magnificence remained. The names bestowed on each variety captivated me: Ingrid Bergman for the deep crimson at the garden’s heart, Champagne Celebration for ruffled beds of white, Purple Rain and Just Joey for violet shading into blue.
In celebration of the liberation of London’s cultural scene, Anu treated me to a day at the museums. She steered us through the maze of train platforms with faultless efficiency, and I was game – we hit three in one morning! The Victoria & Albert boasted a gallery of classical statues, while lifesize volcano and earthquake exhibits at the science museum loomed large, but the natural history museum won my heart (somewhat to Anu’s and my mutual surprise). The taxidermy frankly fascinated me; I was very keen to find a moose after being regaled with stories of its mammoth size by a Montana native on the Canterbury reading party. In a room built like a safe, with hulking black walls and narrow doors, we admired a king’s ransom of jewels and gem stones. I lingered over its timeline of jewelry across the centuries, struck by the cast iron Germanic pieces and sighing over the exquisite art nouveau designs.
Saturday freed the entire family for an outing to Hever Castle, the childhood home of Anne Boleyn. We settled for tickets of the park without touring inside, but the grounds lacked nothing for entertainment. Curiosity drew us to the water maze. We couldn’t guess at first what made it a maze, but then an unwary step brought a jet of water squirting up to soak us. To solve it, we had to thread our way between the pressure plates and reach the folly (castle turret) at the centre. It amused Benjamin so much that we braved it again and again, eventually angling for the water jets rather than avoiding them. Once sopping wet, we retired to more peaceful pleasures at the Italian gardens. This lavish spectacle overlooks the water from a marble courtyard laced with climbing roses – including my favorite, the Nostalgia!
Anu graciously encouraged me to take full advantage of our proximity to London by skipping out for a day. On Sunday morning, I boarded the train with no more developed plan than to attend choral prayer at St Paul’s Cathedral, on what may have been the first of my genuine solo travel attempts. From Turkey to South America to South Africa, I’d always stuck with someone knowledgeable when venturing into an unknown city, so this day trip loomed large for me.
It turned out to be magical. Worship at St Paul’s blew me away, with its full complement of men’s and boy’s choirs. I spent half the service craning my neck at the ceiling mosaics, open-mouthed at the glittering rays emanating from Christ’s open tomb, and the silver stream flowing from his throne. Released into the open afternoon, I resorted again to that great blessing the UK bestows on its tourists: the street corner maps highlighting major landmarks. Soon I was wandering alongside the river Thames, drinking in sights of places I’d only read about. Landmarks paraded by like portraits in a gallery, beckoning me on: the London Bridge, the Tate Museum of Modern Art, the Tower of London…
Shakespeare’s Globe theatre crowned my afternoon. I was hovering on its doorstep, questing for a tour, inquiring as to whether I could sneak same-day access (social distancing restrictions constrained many venues to advance booking, but they would sometimes cave on request). Staff waved me along until I found myself in the box office… with 20 minutes to go before a play started! I bowed to the ticket (it was pricey, but what price memory?) and advanced wide-eyed into the reconstruction of the greatest playwright’s domain. Appropriately enough, the troupe performed Romeo and Juliet – the same play that I’d stumbled on in Dublin! The production left something to be desired (the actors interrupted every scene to pronounce public service health statistics like teen suicide rates, which warred with the text rather than illuminating it), but a seat in the Globe itself earned back every penny.
Keen to sight the infamous Tower of London, the backdrop for some of the English histories best known to me, like Anne Boleyn’s and Sir Thomas More’s, I wandered all the way up the river, passing over ghost tours and a reconstructed ship. A twisting blue bridge built exclusively as a tourist attraction briefly misdirected me, but I arrived in time to circle the walls. The sheer bulk and solidity of the Tower chiefly impressed me with the unlikelihood of escaping from it.
On the way back, musing on the ironies of spending the 4th of July in London, I bought strawberries, blueberries, and cream. While the kids were tucking into bed, I drizzled little dishes with honey and a pinch of salt to make Independence Day desserts. Anu and Herman humored me in celebrating this most American of holidays.
The next day, I boarded a train for the Isle of Wight. The conductor took me under his wing and arranged my travel practically to the abbey’s doorstep, gently informing me that I couldn’t expect to pay my way using the contactless card accepted in London. He sold me an itinerary that upped the ante on adventure: arrive not by ferry, but hovercraft!
Booking a room at a monastery had seeded my imagination with lonely vistas and echoing corridors, but instead the Isle of Wight proved itself the best single stop for tourists of all my destinations. Thatched roof towns and cute family excursions littered the map. Since an upcoming interview with The Critic had stymmied my plans for another week-long technology-free retreat a la the Canterbury reading party, I compromised by grounding my phone in my quarters when sightseeing. The spacious visitor accommodation eschewed wi-fi, so I acquainted myself with the bus map, asked real people for directions, and snapped pictures with my DSLR.
I wanted to visit everywhere but balanced that against returning on time to take meals in silence with the monks. As often as possible, I slipped into the pews of their stately but modest brick church to observe their chanted, Latin prayers. The schedule – beginning at 5am and closing at 9pm – convinced me that prayer is no accompaniment to the monk’s day but the crux of it, his labor in a genuine sense.
A lady at the monastery cafe directed me to Newport, where I purchased an all-you-can-ride pass for the week – what luxury of choice! I dropped by the castle, but found it overbooked so contented myself with a stroll around the walls. Another venturous excursion involved passing up a munchkin exhibit at a little town, where I opted instead to roam the public footpaths unguided – unnerving when deprived of GPS. I ended in the yard of a church, perched atop a hill. England rewards traveling on a budget with free entry to most churches, nearly always guaranteeing me some memorable sight.
As an invasion magnet, the Isle sports heavy fortifications – notably at its most famous landmark, the Needles. Centuries of erosion have whittled these sandy cliffs razor thin. Aboard an open-top bus, I skimmed through a sequence of nearby attractions including a monument to Lord Tennyson, who found the “downs” (England cultivates a menagerie of exotic landscape terminology; this one seems to mean “hills”) so inspiring that he erected his family home among them.
Stopping for lunch at a restaurant built face to face with the water, I feasted on a mountain of mussels and a thicket of thin-sliced potato fries – the gourmand’s “fish and chips”.
On the ride home, I was sniffling. That night a full-blown flu confined me to bed for three days, where I nursed myself with wads of tissues and the complete collection of Father Brown mysteries by G.K. Chesterton (though I sometimes doubted the wisdom of entertaining myself with murder mysteries while alone in a remote cottage on a rainy night).
I revived just in time for my stay at Quarr to end. Then it was back to Oxford by way of the capital, with an introduction at the Critic office in central London slotting in neatly. The modes of transport I used that day counted up to an even half dozen:
Playbills for Shakespeare performed in the castle courtyard had lured me back to campus for a night. My sister asked which play, and at first I could only answer in a muddle: “I don’t think it advertised the play’s name… just the date.”
True, in a way, since the play turned out to be Twelfth Night.
My friends and I picknicked on Broad Street before claiming our seats. The performance charmed me – Shakespeare’s comedies always fare best when introduced live, perhaps because watching the action in 3-D helps me keep track of the disguises, look-alikes, and hare-brained scenarios. The twins resembled each other convincingly in this case, the actors embraced the comic possibilities with gusto yet modesty, and the nothing more could be desired from the historic setting.
Afterwards, as we trekked south to our respective homes, two friends studying epistemology and metaphysics tackled some of my deep questions, puzzling through consciousness and Aquinas. Rather than dawdle on the sidewalk, Audrey tucked us all into her kitchen for jam on toast and ice cream – somehow the perfect combination for concluding a foray into late night philosophy.
The next day I bolted up Cornmarket after giving up too soon on the bus. I realized I’d have to learn to swallow these setbacks over the next month – or perish from the stress, as I sprinted up the street with awkward luggage dangling. I envisioned myself missing the only train of the day, inconveniencing my hosts, exiling myself in ignominy… but none of that came to pass.
Thank the Lord, I snagged my train and rode it all the way to my first new country since Mozambique in 2019: Wales.
The length of this post demanded an intermission: read part two!