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A Literary Tour of England

July 27, 2011

We’ve been on vacation in England, on a literary tour with a slightly disconcerting mix of fiction and reality which was heightened by meetings with real and imaginary friends. One of the highlights of the trip was meeting Jodie, from Bookgazing, which makes her a friend in real life (rather than an imaginary friend, someone I know only through the internets). Here is a photo of us in the Dirty Duck pub in Stratford.

We went to Oxford and had fish and chips in the Rabbit room of the Eagle and Child pub, where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and the other Inklings used to meet for lunch and discuss what they were writing. Here is a photo of Ron and Eleanor and Walker in front of the pub.

After lunch at the Eagle and Child (the “Bird and Baby”), we walked through Christ Church College and stood on the stairway to the Great Hall, where the first-years stand before being sorted in the Harry Potter movie. Then we took a turn around Addison’s Walk, where I touched a tree that had surely been there since the days of Addison himself.

In Stratford we saw Shakespeare’s birthplace and the church where his grave is, although it was closed, so we didn’t see the tombstone with the curse on it in person. We walked through Anne Hathaway’s cottage, which has several carved tester beds (so there’s no telling which one is the second best).

We did realize one of our life’s ambitions and take the Swallows and Amazons boat tour of Coniston Water, and we stayed two nights in Bowness on Windermere. Besides trivia questions (we got all but one), the boat tour included a look at the hidden harbor on “Wild Cat Island.” Since the geography of the fictional world of Swallows and Amazons includes landmarks from both Coniston Water and Windermere, there are few that can be definitively identified on either lake, but the two most agreed-upon are that Coniston Water’s Peele Island is “Wild Cat Island” and Bowness on Windermere is “Rio.”  We decided on our favorites from the series.  Everyone loves the first one, Swallows and Amazons, which is set in the lake district.  My other favorite is Missee Lee, with a Cambridge-educated female pirate.  Walker’s other favorite is Coot Club, set in the Norfolk Broads.  Eleanor and Ron also love We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea, another Norfolk Broads story.

We went to Grasmere to see Wordsworth’s Dove Cottage, and back down nearer to Coniston to see Beatrix Potter’s Hill Top farm, where the garden was full of little brown rabbits.

Then we drove to Haworth to see the Bronte parsonage and the moor. We all particularly wanted to see the moor, because it’s hard for an American to imagine what one is like, even after reading all the description in books by the Brontes and Thomas Hardy and Frances Hodgson Burnett and Arthur Conan Doyle. We had a running joke about quoting Iago (“I hate the Moor”) for most of the trip, but by the time we got up there, we quit saying it. I can’t come any closer to describing it than any of the English authors I mentioned, but I will say, for the American audience, that it’s the closest to “big sky country” that any part of England ever comes. It is splendid. You should go. And if you do go to the moor near Haworth, you may find, as we did, that you simply can’t resist trying to do Wuthering Heights in semaphore.

The Bronte parsonage was also well worth the tour, and I loved seeing the path from their front door through the graveyard. I stood a long time in the dining room, where they wrote their novels. The dining room window is immediately to the left of the front door.

After Haworth, Ron made a final heroic drive back to London (I didn’t do any of the driving, because I was really afraid that I was going to get turned around about which side of the road the car should be on, especially going in and out of the all-too-frequent roundabouts), and we turned in the rental car and set off to do the rest of our sightseeing via the underground, which was undergoing extensive renovation over the weekend, rendering much of our previous knowledge of how to get where fairly useless. The London Tube is quite obliging in terms of providing maps, though, so despite Walker’s lament that we didn’t have our own knee scar to go by (as does Dumbledore in the Harry Potter books), we found enough alternate routes to find our way to the reconstructed Globe Theater, where we saw Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus one night and Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well the next. We had front row seats for Doctor Faustus.

Jenny, of Jenny’s Books, had told me that it’s fun to be a groundling at the Globe, and we definitely saw why when they were told to catch tennis balls, sprayed with water, and when Gluttony threw a stalk of celery and Bruno’s tongue was torn out and thrown into the crowd. So the next night we tried it although I also had a seat, because my knee still gets sore after an active day of sightseeing. All that happened that night, however, were entrances and exits through the standing spectators. Still, it’s cheap to be a groundling, and the rest of them (including our friend Jeremiah) didn’t mind it, so it’s a good option for literary tourists with limited budgets.

We crossed the Thames to the Globe by way of the Millennium footbridge, which is the bridge destroyed by Death Eaters at the beginning of the sixth Harry Potter movie, so of course Eleanor and Walker had to pose like frightened muggles.

On our final morning in London, we showed up bright and early at 221B Baker Street to see another house where a literary figure had once lived…um, well, where a fictional character once lived…um…you know, Sherlock Holmes’ lodgings! Appearance and reality were really beginning to blur for us here. Eleanor bought a deerstalker hat in the gift shop, and Walker posed for a photograph with Dr. Watson.

We flew back to the US through Boston where a largely imaginary friend, someone I’d been acquainted with in high school but became better-acquainted with in recent years over the internets, brought her husband to the airport to meet us, and they bought us dinner and walked us to our gate; the connecting flight was delayed and we didn’t even mind too much, despite our exhaustion, because it was so much fun to see them.

Now we are home, where we can read more books and store up more book-associated places that we want, someday, to visit.

35 Comments leave one →
  1. July 27, 2011 9:11 am

    What a fun trip! We were in the UK in June and actually stayed on Baker St, but I didn’t get to do that much literary stuff since my non-literary husband was with me. I did get to meet up with another blogger, though!

    • July 27, 2011 9:22 am

      I’m so glad that the rest of my family is as literary as I am!!!

  2. July 27, 2011 9:16 am

    Sounds like such a great holiday! And it’s given me plenty of ideas for places I’d like to see before I leave.

    • July 27, 2011 9:26 am

      I’m glad to hear that–I’ll be glad to give you further details (like where we stayed and how much it cost) if you want them.
      One of my only regrets about the trip is not making time to meet you in person, but that regret was somewhat lessened by our encounters with the traffic around Birmingham. We didn’t go very near the city where you’re currently residing, and I think if we had tried, it would have meant at least half a day of sitting in traffic.
      We lucked out in going to the lake district before the English schoolchildren got out for their summer break, but we were on the motorways on the Friday when most of the schools let out.

  3. freshhell permalink
    July 27, 2011 9:46 am

    Sounds like a really fun trip!

    • July 27, 2011 10:11 am

      It was. But I left out the bickering that happens when four fairly introverted people share the same small space for ten days in succession.
      I’m kind of hoping Jodie will leave that out of her version of the visit, too. Cause my kids told her “mom is inept” stories.

  4. July 27, 2011 10:11 am

    Now I really do have to read Swallows and Amazons. Sounds like the trip was marvelous…and now i want to see the moor more than ever.

    • July 27, 2011 10:58 am

      You really do have to read Swallows and Amazons. And then you have to get your daughters to read it!
      A moor really is worth seeing.

  5. bookgazing permalink
    July 27, 2011 10:25 am

    Baker Street is my spiritual Holme Jeanne, why am I not allowed to live there? That place is so tiny, reminds me of the Jane Austen museum in Bath.

    I’ve been perusing your photos on Facebook and just wondering what you got poshed up for on some of them – was it the theatre performance?

    It was lovely meeting you and your family btw and thanks once agin for standing me dinner. Not imaginary any more (and thanks very much for not posting that ‘yargh I am being some kind of jumping cat’ accidental photo of us). Oh and I must know did you get pepermint humbugs and did anyoen try the blood pudding?

    • July 27, 2011 11:05 am

      221B Baker Street really is small, which is why we got there bright and early, before the lines got long.
      Before I had kids, I went to Bath and saw the Jane Austen sights, and the rest of my family isn’t that keen on Austen right now, so that’s why we didn’t include Bath this time.
      We got “poshed up” for tea at the Park Lane Hotel, where a friend (and my former student) met us. Turns out it wasn’t really jacket and tie required, but we weren’t sure. Walker has either shorts or a suit; nothing in between.
      We found some sweets shops with various sweets we’d read about; the closest we got to the peppermint humbugs was to see some “mint humbugs” and they looked pretty much like peppermint candy, so we didn’t have to eat any to satisfy our curiosity. We did try “treacle toffee” which is much harder than we had imagined.
      Ron got a blood pudding with his breakfast in Haworth. Walker and I just looked at it. Eleanor was brave enough to take a bite and reported that it tasted “like meat.”
      When we got home, we agreed that we’d seen enough baked beans to last us the rest of the summer. Possibly the rest of the year.

  6. July 27, 2011 10:33 am

    @ Bookgazing – I’m with you about the Austen Museum in Bath, though it does have a dangerous gift shop! 🙂

    • July 27, 2011 11:07 am

      The Sherlock Holmes museum has a pretty dangerous gift shop, too. Deerstalker hats are not cheap. She resisted buying a pipe.

  7. July 27, 2011 11:51 am

    Oh I’m so jealous! 😉 Glad you had such a wonderful time!

    • July 27, 2011 4:00 pm

      We really did. This was, among other things, our version of a “grand tour” for Eleanor.

  8. July 27, 2011 2:31 pm

    Thanks for the account and pictures. Must see a moor now . . .

    • July 27, 2011 4:01 pm

      I wonder if a Yorkshire moor doesn’t give me the picture of the Thomas Hardy kind. They sound pretty similar, and yet…?

      • July 27, 2011 4:13 pm

        The word “Yorkshire” now makes me think of Sean Bean since I have been reading and watching all of those Richard Sharpe books and videos.

        But my original encounter with Yorkshire moors was in The Secret Garden . . .

  9. July 27, 2011 3:59 pm

    You saw a show at the Globe, and ate at the Bird and the Baby and saw Shakespeare’s birth place and road the Tube! I’m so excited for you. You got to do some of my favorite things in England, I just love it! You are lucky to have a literary family, I don’t think I could drag mine to some of those things (but I still went). I love the pictures too, it looks like you guys had a blast!

    • July 27, 2011 4:05 pm

      I am lucky to have a literary family; Ron and I are both great readers, so we’ve raised the kids that way by both design and example. Walker had eight chess books and Swallows and Amazons in his book bag, while Eleanor had her new Kindle and Swallowdale (for takeoff and landing).

  10. July 27, 2011 4:44 pm

    How completely fantastic!! I keep hearing about all these HP sites that I absolutely must visit whenever I end up going to England, which probably won’t be any time soon. But still – I’m making mental notes. 😀 I love the picture on the bridge!!

    • July 28, 2011 9:59 am

      If you do go, I recommend the directions for a free Harry Potter walking tour you can find online and a book by J.P. Sperati entitled Harry Potter on Location.

  11. July 27, 2011 6:27 pm

    I used to live quite near 221B Baker Street and walked by it on the way to my orthodontist, but I never went inside. I am most jealous of the Swallows and Amazons tour. Sounds like a magnificent vacation all around.

    • July 28, 2011 10:01 am

      We were obviously the most fanatical Ransome fans on the tour…except for the boat driver, who had dressed as a pirate and said it’s his favorite tour of the week!

  12. July 27, 2011 7:00 pm

    It looks like you had a great time and saw so much! Haworth was a highlight of my trip last year as well. You’re absolutely right that the moors can’t be adequately described. You have to see them.

    • July 28, 2011 10:03 am

      Ron said he was pleasantly surprised at how much fun it was to visit Haworth. It’s possible that the winding, narrow cobblestone streets also can’t be adequately described.

  13. July 27, 2011 7:37 pm

    I burst out laughing when you mentioned Wuthering Heights in semaphore. I hadn’t thought about it, but that’s totally what I will do if I ever go there. I’m glad you enjoyed the Globe! Oh how I miss the Globe! I actually didn’t mean the groundling thing was fun because of audience participation stuff — although that’s always thrilling — I just think it’s fun because I like being that close in. I always get there early and get a spot right up against the stage. 🙂

    • July 28, 2011 10:04 am

      We do like being close to the stage; when we had seats, they were in the front row of the ground-level ones. There were really no bad sightlines in that theater, though.

  14. PAJ permalink
    July 28, 2011 8:15 am

    Welcome home! Sounds like you had a wonderful trip. Loved all the photos!

    • July 28, 2011 10:06 am

      We do have a couple of posing with sculpture shots to show you (your daughter can see them).

  15. July 28, 2011 8:47 am

    And I’m still really glad your flight was delayed at Logan. Loved meeting Ron and both of your kids who were absolutely the coolest. I still say you’ve hardly aged. You have a couple of smile lines and that’s it — and of course you’d get some smile lines, you smile all the time.

    • July 28, 2011 10:08 am

      shhh, don’t tip anyone off about my ring of power that bestows long life 🙂

  16. July 28, 2011 8:17 pm

    I’m just back from vacation too … but had a wildly different trip than you did!!! Sounds like you covered quite a lot of ground literally speaking. So glad you got to meet some imaginary friends too!

    • July 28, 2011 9:10 pm

      It’s always fun to meet imaginary friends and make them real.


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