Friday, July 22, 2011

Hail Britannia

With months of extensive email correspondence our friend Scott and I nailed down a date and time to meet up in London for a drink and some dinner along with his sweety Laura. We would fly into Heathrow Airport early afternoon, take a train into the Green Park station which is near where they were staying, and meet at a certain pub about 6:PM. That seemed long enough for us to find a hotel by our usual method of random search considering we would be arriving into London about noon.

We exited the tube station at Green Park and discovered we were in the center of the Rodeo Drive of London making our search for a reasonably priced hotel near impossible. The temperature being on the warm side and the search with packs on backs not being very successful, we decided to have some lunch, and more importantly a cold beer. After our lunch, I left the bags with Sharon at the restaurant while I scouted the area for a hotel in our price range, hopefully without having to take a second mortgage out on the Phoenix house. 

The Bustamanta Mermaid at the Mermaid Hotel
Briskly walking the streets passing by the Bentley dealership and every posh designer label shop imaginable, I let my intuition take me into a pleasant little lane just south of Oxford Street. It was there I saw the small sign of the Mermaid Hotel hanging off the side of some tall lovely old buildings and directly below the sign a door leading upstairs above the restaurants below. Walking up the steep narrow stairway I came to the small office with a counter and stacks of luggage behind me. Then I heard a rapid succession of footsteps coming up the stairs. It was the desk clerk that quickly stepped into his post and asked how he could help me. I explained my need for a nice reasonably priced double room and he replied they only have one room for  one night though maybe other nights might be available if I check the desk the next morning. I asked the price and it was within budget plus it included breakfast. I secured the room, skipped down the stairs through the door out onto the quiet street with the room key in hand, went into another unmarked door off the street, up four flights of stairs, (half way up was a large Bustamante sculpture of a Mermaid behind glass) dropped off my daypack into the cute top level room and retreated back to the awaiting Sharon with the incredibly great news. I couldn't wait to show her the unmarked door from the street where our room was because it seemed so funny to find such a room in this area of the city that sported hotels way beyond our budget. 

Winding myself past the boutiques again realizing I had ventured quite away from the restaurant but it didn't matter much because we had a room where we earlier felt doomed. I found Sharon kicked back reading from her Kindle and I said " Pack up, we've got a room". I played up the situation walking back to the hotel and the long winding walk supported my gentle warnings. We finally arrived at the door and I exclaimed "this is it." We made our way upstairs past the large ceramic pastel colored Mermaid sculpture which Sharon immediately identified and thoroughly enjoyed, and after the four flights of stairs I opened the door to the room which was much larger and beautiful than she expected plus the room had a great view out into the cafe street scene below. 

Pubbing it up in London with friends Laura and Scott
Children violating the rules at the Lady Di Memorial
We got settled into our room and then readied ourselves to meet up with our friends from Arizona at the Aubry Pub near the American Embassy and only a few blocks from our room. We guessed at a turn onto Aubry Road, walked one block and I saw the profile of Laura in a long black coat on the corner among many others standing outside the pub. Being Friday afternoon, all the pubs are brimming with customers. Making sure it was Laura, we called out her name and she spun around with a wide grin on her face. It's always great to see a familiar face when traveling for so long. Soon Scott arrived and with the pub so full we decided to move down the road to another pub to begin our reunion. After a few pints of bitter we went to an Italian restaurant, met up with their very cute daughter Kayla and finished off the evening filling our bellies with pasta, great wine, and rousing conversation. Our friends were leaving the next day so we all said goodnight.

The following next few days Sharon and I toured the city by tourist bus (kind of silly but fun) and walked through the parks. One of our most favorite stops was at the Lady Diana memorial fountain in Hyde Park. It's a whimsical water feature that had a sign clearly stating No Wading or Swimming while hundreds of children (and their parents!) played gleefully running up through river like rushing waters behind the fence supporting the warning sign. I believe Lady Di wouldn't have it any other way. 

The elegant old Grand Hotel on the seafront in Brighton
The third day we packed up and took a train south to Brighton, a small seaside resort I first retreated to 29 years ago while avoiding the military draft for the ongoing conflict in Viet Nam. At the train station I inquired about a rental car and the information desk said it was just around the corner so we walked over to their office and reserved a car to be picked up in a couple days to tour the southwest area of England. While at the rental office we inquired about a bed and breakfast we could stay at and were pointed in the right direction towards the seafront. While living in Brighton, I remembered the Grand Hotel, a place known to comfort Oscar Wilde and his companion Bosie. At the time I couldn't have afforded to stay in such a beautiful place but I had dreamed some day I could so when we walked by this hotel we stopped in to inquire if they had rooms and at what cost. They did have a room left and the cost was surprisingly reasonable. So I was able to live out a dream in this fine historical inn on the seafront of Brighton.
It's delightfully silly how a stack of rocks attracts so many

Brighton was certainly fun and wonderful in a very British way but we needed to move on into the countryside because I wanted Sharon to experience a true bed and breakfast in a small village and also see Stonehenge. 

A beautiful day at the beach English style
We picked up our fine right-hand standard drive economy car and ventured along the southern coastline of Sussex towards the monoliths of Stonehenge. The day remained cloudy with light rain only allowing the sun to peak through a few seconds every hour while we threaded the narrow hedgerows connecting the country villages of southwest England. Unexpectedly we drove upon Stonehenge setting out in the middle of a lush green rounded off hill and pulled into the lightly attended parking area. From what I heard by others whom have visited this curiously placed stone formations before that there was developed around the site when in fact the stone circle was in a pleasant empty setting surrounded by rolling farmlands. I was delightfully surprised and photographed these world renown stone stacks feverishly. Finally the fun wore off and I jumped the low rope barrier and pushed over a fairly large stone. This brought about a choir of jeers from the other visitors. (not really..they loved it). The sun began to lower onto the foothills so it was the signal to now find a place to spend the night. I thought this time and place would be perfect to find a country pub that had accommodations for the evening. We drove north on a narrow farm road that bordered a military tank practice operations area for quite awhile until we saw a sign for pointing to a small village advertising a B&B. The winding road brought us to an old inn that had a note on the door to call this number for information. Sitting in the parking lot was a man that said just knock on the door loudly. We did and a rounded head of a man just out of the shower poked out of the window right above the door asking what we wanted. He stated his inn was full for the night but across the main road in other town there would be other B&B’s. So back in the car down the road to the main road turn across the main road onto another narrow hedgerow lined lane we drove until we came to the village of Market Lavington. Slowly navigating the main street of this town we spied a pub with an accommodations sign so we pulled over, parked, walked across the road, entered the pub and ordered a couple pints. After a couple long pulls off my glass while chatting it up with a couple of inquisitive locals, we inquired about a room for the night from the bartender and indeed they had and they also cooked up great English food from their restaurant in the next room. That night we were graciously served lovely traditional English dishes, went upstairs and slept wonderfully, got up early to photograph some of the town, had a full English breakfast and made our way back to Brighton after exploring more villages along the way.

My Brighton hideout in 1972
Returning to Brighton was much easier because I had more experience with the car and we took the motorway most of the route in lieu of the country roads. Arriving back to the seafront about six in the evening to find many of the B&B’s in town were full but our luck would bring us to the lovely little Modan B&B just down the street from the flat where I lived in 1972. The older couple were so typically proper British and thrilled we selected their place to stay. That evening after having great Indian food, we walked along the seafront out to the Brighton Pier to capture a bit of nostalgia dreaming how things were and how lucky I was today.

The next morning I pulled car up to the B&B, loaded the bags in the boot and drove to the rental car agency to drop off the car next to the rail station. We were a little concerned about making our flight to Ireland on time because threats of a labor work slow down were looming so we got to the rental office just before eight and the office didn’t open until nine. Fortunately a worker from the agency was sitting in his car in front of the office so we left the keys with him, grabbed our bags, hiked up to the train station, bought our tickets to Gatwick Airport, boarded the train as it pulled out five minutes later. The train pulled into the airport station. We walked into the airport (very convenient) and checked our luggage to Dublin at the Air Lingus counter. Within two hours we would be in the land of milk and Guinness.

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