An Early Spring in the UK

Spring Break for Cathy at SDSU.  Torrey at Middlesex University,  didn’t really have an official break, but had a week without going-to-class requirements, just projects to keep moving toward fruition in her Master’s studies in Digital Marketing.  Sufficient planetary alignment to jump across the pond for a rendezvous in England.  We arrived the day after the vernal equinox, equally early enough and late enough for England to show both climate and seasonal faces—the first hints of buds, in spite of residual snow on the ground from the previous week’s white blanketing.

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

Principal reasons for me to go were to see and visit with Torrey, who is living in London’s Islington borough at this point nearly half way through her studies, to recon her local digs and meet her university chums, with a side dish of all three of us exploring the southwest English peninsula of Devon and Cornwall.

The view from Torrey's flat

The view from Torrey’s flat

Her flat is in a secure apartment complex dedicated to foreign exchange students,  a studio apartment showing her inimitable style in personalizing her living space.  The neighborhood is oh so British, with tea rooms and pubs, and all the usual residential amenities.

Our first three days were dedicated to London cruising and jet-lag adjustment.  We renewed our skills negotiating both the Underground and London’s ubiquitous double-decker busses.  Torrey, the resourceful young adult, arranged for two sim cards for our mobile phones so that we could call and text in the UK, and turned us onto the Citymapper app for our phones that enables knowing and using every sort of public transport, including bus route numbers and tube maps with schedules to the nearest :01.  Essential stuff in a realm divorced from harnessing oneself to the automobile.

Torrey and three of her four favorite classmates joined us for dinner at the trendy COPPA Club just off central London’s bustling New Oxford Street, and a short walk from our Thistle Hotel near the Holborn Underground station, a stone’s throw from the British Museum.


We three and three classmates

From left to right, front row: Emilia and Alessandra—both from Norway—Judith, from Spain by way of England, and Torrey.  Back row, the geezer, himself, and ol’ What’s Her Name.  Unavailable this particular evening was Trang, from Viet Nam.  I’m conveying this to share just how diverse and cosmopolitan London and Torrey’s university are.  Of course some would say that this diversity is the seed bed of Brexit, but I’ll leave that for others to sort out.


Queen Anne at the entrance to St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s dome in the first image, above, is the iconic view I remembered from past visits to London, but lo and behold, there’s actually a front entrance to the cathedral, overseen by the statue of Queen Anne.  The church has been here, rebuilt several times, for over 1400 years.

We departed, southbound, walking across the Thames on the Millennium Footbridge, a steel suspension bridge dedicated by Queen Elizabeth on my birthday in 2000.  I failed to receive a special invitation to attend the ceremonies.  But the bridge is easy on the eye with great views from it, and of it.


London Bridge and Tower Bridge, seen from the Millennium Bridge


London Bridge, the Tower Bridge and the Shard


The graceful lines of Millennium Bridge directing the eye to St. Paul’s iconic dome

Exiting the bridge on the south bank places you in one of London’s many art districts—directly in front of the Tate Modern art gallery, and a very short stroll to Shakespeare’s Old Globe.  Continuing the stroll eastward, we soon came to our intended destination of Borough Market—a foodie’s nirvana, and sadly, the site of a terrorist attack last year, which had begun overhead on London Bridge.


Teeming with locals and tourists, Borough Market delights the eye in colors and shapes, the nose in fragrances of every imaginable food from a world of cultural appetites, and the palate as you sit in tables amongst the food stalls letting your dietary imagination run boundless.  Everything is freshly caught or picked and arrayed kaleidoscopically in sensory overload.  Cheese from England and Switzerland, fresh fruit from the countryside, or just flown in from distant climes, freshly grilled duck confit on a bed of greens, partaken with chilled Prosecco. Decadence, defined.

Following lunch at Borough Market we used the tube to get to the V & A, the Victoria and Albert Museum, south of Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens.  That would be Queen Victoria and Prince Consort Albert.  The Victoria whose name establishes Victorian England’s inclusive descriptor for place and time in the nineteenth century.  Like our Smithsonian, England’s major museums are free, although for certain exhibits there may be a fee.  Such was the case with a newly opened exhibit on Ocean Liners and their place in the 19th and early 20th centuries as both mode of intercontinental travel, and definers of chic elegance for those with means, not to mention proud examples of national technological and style prowess for sea-faring countries’ governments and businesses.


Cunard Lines advertisement

The exhibit showcases liner paraphernalia from the time when ocean crossing was the stuff of curving staircases to grand salons, intentionally designed to showcase the beautiful people in elegant attire descending to the evening’s revelry.  An exhibit of hull riveting, and over the top gowns, custom travel cases, engineering marvels like gyro stabilizers and hydrodynamic hulls, deck chairs, a bit of Titanic flotsam and so on.  A quite fascinating flashback to a time before torn jean short shorts became today’s de rigueur attire for a certain segment of cattle car airline travelers.  All of this, nourishing to me, whose dad had his own music combo performing on numerous ocean liners to alluring distant ports of call during the time between the world wars.  His still lovely accordion and its well-scuffed travel case plastered with destination travel stickers are prized mementos here at Chez Close.   Well, for heaven’s sake, as long as I’m walking down a stream-of-consciousness memory lane, you should know that the first airplane ride I had as a young whipper-snapper was in an old fabric-covered Piper taildragger owned and flown by the gent who had been my dad’s trumpeter in that world-hopping combo.  He flew down from Corona Del Mar, used an unpaved strip somewhere around the eastern edge of Mission Bay, and took me up for a local flight.  Art, airplanes?  The apple fallen not far from the tree.  I thank the V&A for this, shall we say, flight of fancy?

London, the melting pot, sadly has had more than its share of recent terrorist attacks.  The second evening of our visit was the one year remembrance of last March’s auto and stabbing attack on Westminster Bridge, commemorated by this lit attestation on Westminster’s government buildings.  Londoners, are decidedly shoulder to shoulder in their verrrry British undeterred stiff upper lip carrying-on.  These are the people who survived the Blitz, after all.


London United, Westminster Abbey, and Big Ben undergoing restoration.

Our plan was to explore another part of England not previously visited, and settled on the southwest peninsula of Devon and Cornwall, which we reached by train from Paddington Station, with a change at Exeter, and arrival at Barnstaple.


Reflecting on Devonshire

We picked up our rental stick shift Ford Focus there, and proceeded to our home away, a three bedroom residence in Ilfracombe, a small city on the northern Devon shoreline.  Ilfracombe, pronounced Ilfra-coom, where combe is a bay not coincident to an emptying river, is quaint and walkable small.  This northern shore of the southwest peninsula is approximately 25 miles south, across the Bridgewater Bay extension of the Atlantic, from the southern coast of Wales, which is visible across the water.  There are quaint shops, pubs, even a Michelin-starred restaurant.  We shopped for groceries and took breakfast in our place, but dined out for lunch and dinner.


Ilfracombe from our Air BnB living room


Window menu perusing in Central Ilfracombe

Each day we headed out with only vague ideas about what we wished to do, so long as it allowed absorbing the local vibe and getting some fresh air and exercise on the countless walking and hiking paths.  For pilots, aviating there is half the fun, but driving in Devon was stressful, punctuated by decidedly scary moments.   I was okay with the manual shift, but the typical roads were quite literally 1 car wide, with occasional bow-outs such as you can see on the left, below, to enable two vehicles to pass in opposite directions.  The problem is that hedgerows are universal, higher than the auto height, which with constantly twisting rural roads means that you don’t seen another vehicle coming until you are nose to nose.  The natural response for a gringo is to dodge right, which is precisely the wrong thing to do in England, then there’s the necessary instinctive downshifting, and my neural pathways and muscle memory were all for my right hand to shift, not the left.  To say that there was vehicular tension is a touch of understatement.  We survived and didn’t wreck the vehicle, but good fortune had much to do with that.


Hedgerow road view

Our destinations varied from tiny hamlets to just trailheads around Ilfracombe and Exmoor Forest, the trails through forests and up and down coastal headlands.


Water-powered funicular from Lynmouth, above, to Lynton , below:


Clouds and sun, dry, or intermittent rain showers, calm or windy, temperatures in the upper forties to low fifties…all in the same day.  There was snow on the north sides of the hedgerows, residual from the prior week.  In a word—”seasonal”—for late March.


Villages with hundreds, if not thousands of years of history.  A trailhead just past this bubbling brook.


Along the trail…


…and trailside views, Spring breaking through



Tidepools along a coastal pathway. The Welsh coast on the horizon.

Taking a moment to recharge while savoring the view


Trails that drop down to the sea, climb back up the hills above



Sylvan reflections

Buffeted by winds, cool temperatures perfect for hiking, and muscles mumbling “enough already,” the trails would return us to our starting point in or near small country villages.


“Downtown” Georgeham, trailhead of the Putsborough beach hike and home to the King’s Arms village pub.

Hike behind us, we routinely settled into a bit of mid-afternoon lunch R&R in a local public house, a pub not owned by a beverage company, and thus able to surf all varieties and labels of adult libations.  Many such establishments had been doing business as far back as the 1200s.  Each facility has its own vibe and eclectic decorations, a crackling fire, yummy hearty fare from the kitchen and pints of local draft craft beers, wines and spirits.  Indulge yourself, you just earned it.


Reflecting on the King’s Arms serving wench

On this particular day we had hiked somewhere between six and eight miles before repairing to the King’s Arms for lunch, “rehydration,” and revelry.  The friendly woman serving us mentioned a trail accessed from just out the door leading to Putsborough beach, a local favorite surfing beach.  Lest we settle into an afternoon food coma we departed for another hike of 4 miles or so, with the expansive sand beach our turn around point.  There was a young people’s surf school just about to paddle out into the ill-formed waves and 45F water temperature.  I didn’t notice anyone trunking it!  Looking at a map, it’s hard to imagine how that north shore of the Devon/Cornwall coast could have much in the way of waves, but it is an active surf locale, with surf shops, schools and clubs much as we see here in SoCal.  Who knew?

The neighborhood pub is a staple of English life.  Nowadays it is smoke-free, thank goodness, but it continues its long tradition as a central meeting place for locals and passersby.  I think Cathy has hit upon a viable explanation of pubs’ prominence—the homes often have modestly sized living rooms, such that having your mates over for a visit can be problematic.  So why not meet at the pub just a short walk away?  They are rendezvous sites and sights for the whole spectrum of the community—kids, parents, grandparents, singles, the well-heeled and the reprobates.  Think Cheers Bar with a touch of “wi-fi available” modernity’s nose under the tent flap of a centuries’ year old established-there history.

Speaking of which, after a strong wind-buffeted hike on another cliff trail above rock-crashing surf near Croyde to Baggy Point, as we ensconced ourselves with a ploughman’s lunch and a pint of Ureka IPA next to warm sun streaming in a window of The Thatch, Torrey received a text message school assignment on obscure patent issues.  Throughly Modern Milly, she completed her research and finished her assignment on her mobile phone while enjoying lunch and the vibe.  Multi-tasking, anyone?


Millie, hard at work.


Ilfracombe moon

On our last night in Devon, we walked into town, me tired enough to wonder why I wasn’t driving, but concluding the fresh air was much better than negotiating the left side of those twisty tiny streets.  On our walk back from a lovely small café the gauzy cloud cover overhead spread the curtains just enough for this Holy Week view of ancient stones and ancient moon.

The next day we drove to Barnstaple and caught the train back to London.  Dinner that evening at the Museum Pub around the corner from our hotel, and across the street from the British Museum.  Morning tube ride via the Picadilly line and two seats on a United 787 to home and Sawyer.  Yes, he was wiggly glad to see us, and thanks to Nitza for dog-sitting while we were away.

Cheers, T