Alas, I didn’t keep a journal of our extraordinary two-week travel adventure in England that we enjoyed between September 28th and October 12th in 1985. What I have are the photos I took and some keen memories.
Beginning as one thing in the southwestern-most corner of the island, it unexpectedly morphed into something else. In two weeks, we visited the towns of Penzance, Wells, Bath (twice), Oxford, and Stratford-upon-Avon. It was an historical and cultural adventure par excellence, and it had its share of natural beauty, as well.
The plan was for a simple trek along the country’s famous Coastal Path, starting in Cornwall and going as far north as possible in the time we had.
Prepared to hike, we left New York City with high hopes and full back packs, heading for London from where we would board a train for Penzance, Cornwall’s port town, and known to us only for its association with Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera.
In retrospect, our ill-fated trek began ominously, when, as we crossed London’s Hyde Park to reach Paddington Station, Kay was hit on the head by an errant soccer ball. Onward we went. We love trains so the five-hour ride to Penzance was a pleasure. As we crossed the wilds of Dartmoor, I thought of Sherlock Holmes standing on a tor in a scene from Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles.
Penzance, with is Victorian architecture and where we stayed overnight in a venerable pile known as the Queen’s Hotel, was a pleasure to stroll around. I remember lying in bed in our room, watching a snooker match on TV.
The following morning, we boarded a local bus for the curiously named town of Mousehole from where we started walking the path. We remember that the weather seemed unseasonably warm, and it wasn’t long before we needed to rest.
Kay was flagging, and our enterprise began to look doubtful. There was quite a bit of up-and-down terrain, and as the path continued along the rocky coast it led us close to the cliff edge with crashing waves below.
The last straw was a spot where a gap in the path meant that we had to toss our packs across and then swing ourselves over by grasping hand holds on the cliff face. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds, but it frightened Kay to the point where she’d had enough. Fortunately, near that point we found very comfortable accommodations in the RAC Hotel.
After a nap and an excellent dinner, things looked brighter.
Although further trekking for Kay was out of the question, I wanted to do one more day that would take me onto the Penwith peninsula and Land’s End. We took a bus to another, less comfortable country hotel where Kay spent the day reading in the hotel’s sitting room with what she complained were a couple of smelly old dogs.
The Sunnyside Hotel was ironically named because I had no sooner left to walk to Land’s End than it began to rain hard. I was wearing a hooded burgundy jacket that I thought was waterproof; however, at the end of the day when I removed it, its color had bled onto my sweater underneath.
In spite of the rain I enjoyed my walk. At one point I came upon a group of bird watchers huddled among the rocks, observing a flock of off-shore cormorants.
I don’t remember the sequence of the itinerary we made up as we went along, but after Penzance and the Coastal Path our next stop may have been the cathedral town of Wells. My clearest memory of that visit was the cathedral’s extraordinary close with its rows of medieval lodgings and their tall chimneys. Never saw anything like it before, or since.
After Wells we may have gone to the spa town of Bath, which was a revelation. Bath is where it is because of the steamy water that bubbles out of the ground at a constant temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit (49 degrees Centigrade). Artifacts recovered show that it had been frequented by ancient people as long ago as 8,000 BC. It was the Romans, though, that put it on the map, so to speak.
It was during the reign of Queen Anne at the beginning of the 18th century that Bath began to thrive as a retreat for the wealthy. Much of the look of the historic town is Georgian, especially the hillside crescents.
In the center, the Pump Room and the Assembly Rooms are memorable. I do remember a statue of Beau Nash who, as Master of Ceremonies during the reigns of Queen Anne and George I, set the tone and manners of Bath society. Jane Austen, who set parts of two of her novels in Bath, came late in its heyday and doesn’t reflect kindly on the superficiality she observed.
With so much interesting architecture and history, Kay and I loved our days in Bath. It has a surviving 18th-century theater where we attended a performance of The Scarlet Pimpernel and, later, returned for The Tempest.
Historic Oxford with its history and literary associations was another first for us and one we’re glad not to have missed. There, we stayed in a bed and breakfast and wandered up and down Main Street,
around the university colleges,
and into the iconic Radcliffe Camera that functions as the reading room of the Bodleian Library.
We ate lunch at the Eagle and Child, the pub where C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others, known as the Inklings famously met to discuss their fantasy writings.
While in Oxfordshire we made a side trip to Blenheim Palace, the monumental country house that is the principal residence of the Dukes of Marlborough and the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
Just by chance, we arrived at the end of a weekday afternoon and found we had the interior of the palace pretty much to ourselves. It was a lovely, relaxed visit.
We fondly remember our walk from our bed and breakfast in Stratford-upon-Avon across a lovely meadow to get to the center of town and the Royal Shakespeare Theatre.
There we attended memorable performances of Cymbeline and The Merry Wives of Windsor, done as a 1950s comedy where the wives resembled Lucy and Ethel.
Stratford town with its Elizabethan past has its share of thatch roofs and half-timbered buildings. We took in Shakespeare’s birthplace and Anne Hathaway’s cottage.
When I think of all we did in a mere two-week holiday that we invented on the spot, I’m amazed at the energy it must have taken. But we were younger then, once upon a time.