Three weeks of mostly in the English Countryside

For over two years we hadn’t been anywhere except Philadelphia. With great anticipation, we left for three weeks in England on the busiest travel day since covid: a combination of spring, pent up desire to travel, and the Boston Marathon. Would I have to sit next to a sweaty runner, on his way home? Surprisingly the airport was quiet, with hardly an attendant to help us check in. Yes, there were eight runners on the plane, given priority boarding, but they’d taken the time to shower. Heathrow was as busy as ever, but once again, there was hardly an attendant in sight, even at passport control. Automation! It’s another indication of how impersonal the world is becoming: everything done on devices.

For me the trip began long before I stepped on the airplane, carefully planning and coordinating all of the different people we wanted to see. As the plane left the ground I could let it go, no more planning. We stayed the first five days in the Bayswater neighborhood of London. Our airbnb was on a quiet side street, a three-minute walk from Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, the trees and grass dazzling in their springtime green vibrancy.

In nearby Queensway, Gerard was fascinated by the elegant six-story Victorian townhouses built around garden squares. Originally designed as single families, he wondered who could afford these in the 1860s? On the other hand, the Empire was at it absolute peak. London must have been awash with money. Gerard laughed at the term ‘Commonwealth’; it seemed like the wealth was funneled directly to London. So much for the peasants in the colonies! After WW2 the neighborhood went into decline, but now it’s definitely upscale again with lots of foreign ownership.

On Westbourne Grove, we managed to find Fresco’s again, an affordable Lebanese cafe with excellent moussaka and falafel. We ate there repeatedly, and the owners were amused that we knew the Egyptian singer, Oum Kalthoum. My longtime boarding school friend, Stephanie, lives just down the street, in a studio apartment with her artist husband. She’s been in the neighborhood almost since I left England fifty years ago. Even though I don’t see Stephanie very often, our relationship is more like sisters than friends.

In nearby Notting Hill, we met up with Marina whom we first met several years ago in Himachal Pradesh. She’d just returned from another winter in India on a business visa and was still trying to adjust. Loving India, she’s been returning there since her visit as a young woman. She found the impact of covid devastating on all those dependent on tourism. Together, we walked through Portobello Road Market. But it was disappointing. It was hardly recognizable from when I knew it back in the ‘60s; no longer any chance of finding unexpected treasures among junk.

Marion, my roommate from University days, came all the way from her home in Cumbria and joined us at the Tate Modern on the Embankment. Gerard went through a special exhibit of surrealist art, while I caught up with Marion sitting in front of a huge picture window looking out on the Thames. We didn’t stay long enough to do the museum justice. The following day Gerard and I went to the Tate Britain. We’d forgotten that that the Turner gallery is preceded by six large Rofko paintings, called the Seagram series. He donated them to the Tate in honor of Turner. Just before leaving Boston, we went to see the Turner show at the MFA, wetting our appetite for more.

My brother drove us to Winchester for a family reunion. Once again my cousin, Cherryl, hosted a lunch for the other cousins etc. We asked them how often they get together. Not since the last time you were here four years ago, they laughed!

We stayed the night with more University friends, Tim and Sally, who live virtually down the street from Cherryl. Now that their children have gone, they’re seriously considering downsizing. We were happy to have the chance to stay one more time in their spacious house with its sprawling grounds.

The train ride to our next stop in Devon was very nostalgic for me: how many times had I traveled this very route on my way to boarding school? We stayed with a couple we first met in Varanasi, who live on the edge of Dartmoor.

We’d imagined a rustic moorland location, but the village of Capstone was surprisingly civilized and we loved their terraced house with its luscious back garden that put ours to shame. Within a five minute walk, you’re on the moor! For three days we walked over the moor, up Sheeps Tor, down into the valley past the remains of an Iron age village, and a Norman church.

Their old hands at this and packed sandwiches and thermos of hot tea we drank in a spot sheltered from the wind. At the end of the first day, collapsing into a chair, Gerard asked, how far do you think I walked today? Expecting to hear eight miles or so, Sandhya looked at her phone and said, 3.8 miles! Gerard groaned and sank deeper into the chair, saying, that’s all?

Our last day in Devon we spent in my hometown, Totnes. So familiar but hard now to believe I grew up there. The centre of the old medieval town has not changed but everything – the steep fore street and clock tower…the house I grew up in… all seemed so diminutive. Reminding me how when I first arrived, the US struck me as so large and spacious.

The reunion with the two daughters of the family who fostered me after my mother died was sweetly nostalgic. Another friend from India, who lives in nearby Buckfastleigh, joined us for lunch. We first met Oliver, many years ago, on the muddy streets of Orchha, looking for a hotel in the rain.

Kate and Nigel were waiting for us as we got off the train in Bath. Kate is another friend who goes back to my boarding school days. She had a routine of walking her son’s dog and asked us to go along.

Spring was in full bloom, cowslips, primroses, bluebells…but particularly striking was a carpet of wild garlic that Gerard had never seen (or smelt) before, and I’d forgotten. It wasn’t just another walk but a trek through nature’s bounty of spring flowers.

Walking around Bath, I could tell Gerard was having difficulty with orientating himself given the city’s winding streets going up and down the hills. His usual excellent sense of direction was tested.

Taking a break over a sandwich at lunch, Gerard commented on an older woman’s long (to her waist) shiny gray hair that he found riveting. He insisted on saying something, but out of respect directed his complement to the woman’s husband. She lit up like a light bulb while her husband smiled. During our short talk, she asked if we liked Bob Dylan’s music or painting? Painting, Gerard quickly clarified. Oh, there’s a gallery just round the corner. We had to go. Interestingly, a friend had suggested we visit Dylan’s Tottenham Court Road gallery when in London; we hadn’t made it. But Dylan had caught up with us in Bath! We both liked his paintings but were amazed at the prices.

Our last couple of days in Bath were spent with a very old friend from Totnes, that I’d not seen since my early teens. The daughter of the owner of our local pub, she and I had bonded over the Beatles…and boys. Thanks to social media, we recently reconnected and she insisted we visit when in Bath. I must admit I was apprehensive, but I quickly understood why Toni and I had been such good friends. How easily we picked up where we left off! Childhood reminiscing over great meals cooked by her husband.

Back in London, we celebrated my sister-in-law’s 75th birthday with the extended family. Niece Maria and husband Ryan, hosted in their new home. It was a casual day, interacting with people who are family but I rarely see. Since our last visit, two new husbands and three baby girls have joined the family. When I left England back in 1973, my brother had just married; today a total of 12 (great nephew Patrick had returned to Cambridge University) gathered with us in Maria’s back garden over homemade pizza and birthday cake. I never would have expected Jeremy to have such a large family. Why? After spending his childhood taking or my father and me, I would have thought he’d had enough.

We’d managed to see a lot of friends, but not everyone. Sadly, two more friends from India were unable to join us. Jonny was suffering from long term covid, and Michael had recently broken his arm. And we didn’t manage to get to the Isle of Wight to see Gloria, an Afro American friend of Gerard’s from Boston, who followed him to England, then married a friend of mine at University and decided to settle in the country. A priority for next time.

Before leaving we spent a day and a night with my boarding school friend Torie and husband Julian who live near Heathrow.

Our good fortune they took us to the airport where we had our fit-to-fly tests several hours before boarding the plane home. Uploaded with a QR code on your phone…(providing you have one!) this is a specific test mandatory for entering the US.

We knew nothing about the test until United Airlines sent us a check-in email a few days before our flight. Not believing it was mandatory, I kept telling Gerard, forget it, we don’t need it, they’re not going to stop us! But Mr Cautious insisted. After a long afternoon of trying to figure out how to get the test (available we read by mail from the US, which now we were in England was no help at all) the doctor daughter of a friend saved the day, directing us to a site at Heathrow. We booked appointments for the day we flew and got the negative test results back in plenty of time before our flight. As we checked in, several people were bumped from their flight for not having the specific fit-to-fly test results. I turned to Gerard, I guess you were right after all!

As my brother would say, it was ‘quite a successful trip!’ Of course, I still had hearing problems, especially in crowded places, restaurants and with men. But with women I did ok. Our entire three weeks, the weather surprised us. Only one early morning drizzle…and plenty of soft English sunshine. Now back home, the three weeks are a blur, but with so many unforgettable memories. What made it special for me was reuniting with friends and family, and with my homeland. Gerard had a wonderful time but wouldn’t use the term ;exciting’ for England. Maybe we will find something exciting next winter – whether in Prague, India, Tunisia…or somewhere still to be considered.