Sunday, August 4: London to Kenilworth
1) Over breakfast at the hotel I suddenly noticed dozens, and then hundreds, of bicyclists zooming by. Turns out there was some Big Important Bike Thing in London that Sunday, and I was going to get to witness part of it. The full import of this didn’t hit me until I left the hotel to visit Sir John Soane’s Museum - and couldn’t cross the street to get to the tube. Oops!
1a) What to do? My timed entry at Sir John’s was 10:30 AM, and you know how much I hate to be late in the first place. So I just started walking up Cromwell Street, watching all the cyclists, hearing snatches of their conversations, and feeling my heart stop when pedestrians did rush across the street. I’ve seen those bicycle fail videos when a child or a dog runs into traffic and you get a 100-bike pileup. I’m not gonna be responsible for that! This became so absorbing that I barely realized I was passing Harrod’s when poof! There appeared Knightsbridge tube station and I was able to get on the train to Holborn.
2) I didn’t realize that Sir John’s was on the park known as Lincoln’s Inn Fields, and I kept trying to remember that naughty poem from History Laid Bare:
A lovely young heiress from Lincoln’s Inn Fields,
Brisk, beautiful, wealthy, and witty,
So blabbity blabbity blabbity blah
’Tis feared she’ll unpeople the city.
The sparks and the beaux all languish and die
Blah blabbity blabbity blabbity blah blah
But one little marksman with one little eye
Might wound her heart deeper than any.
2a) After all that bother, I still had time to walk about this beautiful little park, dotted here and there with men who appeared to be vagrants who’d slept there overnight. Indeed, one of them appeared to be getting some assistance leaving. Wide green lawns, not too many flowers, surrounded by some truly beautiful buildings.
3) I must say, Sir John Soane’s Museum is the very BEST museum experience I’ve ever had, and this solely because of the staff. Friendly (but not too friendly), understanding, firm, highly knowledgeable, and obviously devoted to this unique institution. I was especially impressed with the young lady in the Picture Room who interpreted both cycles of Hogarth paintings, the more famous “Rake’s Progress” (which is so very sad) and “The Election,” of which I hadn’t heard.
3a) If you go (I think you must!) don’t bring anything with you, and expect NOT to take any photographs and to be told to turn off your cell phone completely.
4) How did I even first hear this odd little place? Did someone tell me about it? Was it an obscure reference in The Swimming-pool Library? Regardless, I was overjoyed to have made the time to visit. Sir John was an architect who created a museum in the back of his home to train students of architecture. It’s stuffed with plaster casts and all sorts of fragments of the ancient world, stained glass, skylights, and pictures. There’s even an Egyptian sarcophagus! I found it helpful to be as thin as I was; the museum half of the house (at the back) is narrow in the extreme. In the residence, there’s at least room to stretch your arms, along with bold colors, creative arrangements, and (to my eye) a real sense of Regency elegance.
5) Suffering a bit from museum overload, I repaired to a nearby restaurant for a spritz and an early lunch. All Bar One was nearly empty, but they gave me a remarkably good club sandwich. And I could start reading the books I acquired in the museum shop.
6) I spent the afternoon writing in the hotel lobby, and took a taxi to Euston Station, where I stood about for half an hour reading a book from Sir John’s gift shop and waiting for my train platform to be announced. Just like home . . .
7) For this one-hour journey to Coventry I splurged and went first class. I was the only passenger in the car! Fabulous.
8) Paul and Christian were right at the door of my carriage to receive me and get me to the correct platform for the connecting train to Kenilworth. My first sight of them in the flesh in three years, since they came to visit me in Boston.
9) Kenilworth is a delightful small town, and after the clamminess of London we had cool weather for a long, looong walk of twists and turns to their little house. We spent the evening in over a light supper and inspirational rioja (Marques de Murrietta Reserva 2014) and didn’t get to bed until late.
Monday, August 5: Kenilworth, Day One - Warwick Castle
1) After breakfast of fruit, yogurt, and coffee, off to our first tourist destination, Warwick Castle. The trains were running at less than half speed due to a signalling problem, so we missed our connecting train. Solution: a bus! And it came within ten minutes of our arrival wherever it was we arrived (Leamington Spa?). And for the first time I got to ride on the top of an English double-decker bus!
2) We stopped for cake and coffee at a little Portuguese bakery, completely charming. And then the hike commenced to the castle.
3) Paul had given the castle guide to read at home. Of course I’d completely forgotten that this was the arena for Daisy, Countess of Warwick’s lavish house parties for Edward VII. One of the more recent Earls of Warwick sold castle to a Big Entertainment Concern decades ago, I was saddened to read, so the environment was perhaps just a whisper too much Renaissance fair; we didn’t go check out the jousting.
3a) The self-guided castle tour consisted of two parts: the Great Hall and a wing of old State apartments and formal rooms (including the bed in which Queen Anne died), and “Weekend House Party 1898,” a suite of late Victorian rooms populated with lifelike wax figures of the earl and Countess Daisy and their houseguests, including Edward, Prince of Wales, the widowed Lady Randolph Churchill (and her son Winson), and her future husband George Cornwallis-West, among others. It was interesting to contrast this experience with that of my 2013 tour of Castle Howard, where the Howard family still owns the place and has truly embraced the idea of running their Stately Home of England as a business.
4) Once sprung from the house, We hiked a bit through the grounds, which offered some commanding views, as well as peacocks in the garden. I noticed the peacocks mostly kept to themselves by remaining within low ornamental hedges and not strutting about where people could get near them.
5) Paul found a nearby hotel pub, painted a restful sage and nearly deserted, where we enjoyed a sandwich and a glass of wine and the satisfaction that almost no one else was there.
6) Our afternoon continued with more random walking, and then happening upon St. Mary’s Church, where the famous Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, is buried, along with his second wife Lettice Knollys, who was the mother of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex. Lovely church, including many memorials made of hand-knitted poppies. The church is also the home/official church of a particular regiment.
7) A bookstore in a nearby square also attracted attention, and i was overjoyed to find a paperback copy of James Pope-Hennessey’s official biography of Queen Mary! Having just read In Quest of Queen Mary, a book of his interview notes with Royal and other subjects for this biography, I was delighted to get to read what all the fuss was about.
8) We had a pint in a nearby pub, lots of exposed brick painted gold and velvet upholstery - garish even by my permissive standards, and Paul said it was something like a whore’s boudoir.