September 15, 2010, Kew, Richmond, Surry, England: Touring: I’ve been here for two days and, it’s odd, but I hardly feel I’m in a foreign country. Of course, the busy people of London speak English. Thank God and the Queen for that! No, it’s just that everything feels familiar, as if I’d stepped though my telly into the world of a BBC, present day drama. Could be I watch far too many BBC present day dramas. Anyroad, I’m not getting that foreign feeling. In fact, I feel rather as if I’ve come home.
I delight in a few unique experiences, like going to Starbucks and discovering one puts milk in one’s coffee, never cream. I didn’t ask why. Or having to question the counter man at the train station about how much it costs to take the underground to Victoria Station. What an absolute delight it is to discover I’ve learned how to count out three pounds, Thirty-five.
The train is filled, and I do mean filled, with very nice faces, mostly partly hidden behind newspapers. I pick up a discarded newssheet and learn the Pope is visiting London, conveniently, at the same time we’re here. It seems one of the Pope’s entourage has made the unfortunate statement that England is very like a third world country. Why? Who knows, but it doesn’t sit well with the UK and the man has been dismissed by the Pope and sent home. I wonder if he, at least, got the chance to explore any of the first world quality shopping treasures to be found all over London, like Carnaby Street. Wonder if I shall get the chance.
I notice something else about London’s commuters. They’re all quite beautiful. Both genders are slender, well groomed, and fair of face. The guy in the tailored business suit sitting next to me, and the one across the aisle in nice jeans is enough to make me put down the paper and just enjoy the scenery for the duration of our trip from Kew to London. This observation is a response to an American comedian who recently said he thought Brits must be the ugliest of people. After all, look at who gets to play the main parts on BBC dramas? If that’s the best they could get, he says, can you imagine the ones who didn’t get hired by the casting director?
So, where are all those ugly people? Not only are my fellow underground passengers gorgeous, but the people who pass us on London’s streets could, most of them, beat half of Hollywood in any beauty contest. I can count on one hand—that’s right, just five fingers—the number of fat people I saw walking about London. And that’s not withstanding the fact the everyone seems to take breakfast at cafes like Pret-a-Manger, where one orders coffee either black (without milk) or white (with) along with Chocolat a Pain (pronounced Pan), a fabulously rich croissant with chocolate filling. In fact, I never get to have a chat with any fellow fat person until James and I join a throng of American tourists aboard the double-decker bus. That’s not really fair, of course, since not all tourists on the bus are American and there is a really pretty girl from Georgia, USA.
One of our tour stops is the Tower of London, where we meet Colin, the warder, who takes our tour-of-the-Tower-included-with-bus-ticket group about. The Tower has spent most of its long life—it’s been around since 1066—as a prison, only recently trapping tourists instead of royals. Most of us know that King Henry the VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn, was beheaded here, supposedly for various indiscretions with young men of the court.
I knew that Elizabeth I was imprisoned in the Tower while her sister “Bloody” Mary ruled England. Oh, and by the by, people here say bloody all the time, but that mild cuss word didn’t originate with that wicked queen. “Bloody” before a noun, or most nouns if you’re in a foul mood, is a mild British expletive, which probably derives from the phrase "by Our Lady", a sacrilegious invocation of the Virgin Mary. The abbreviated form "By'r Lady" is common in Shakespeare 's plays, and interestingly, Jonathan Swift, about 100 years later, writes both "it grows by'r Lady cold" and "it was bloody hot walking to-day" suggesting that a transition from one to the other could have been under way-per Wikapedia. I’d also heard about the two child princes who were sent to the tower by their uncle, later Richard the VII, and were never seen again.
Far more intriguing than the sinister was the chance to view the “crown” jewels.” They deserve every platitude you might throw at them, and more. Certain things did stand out from the glittering mass, namely the small diamond crown Queen Victoria had her jewelers make, since the other crowns were all so massive and heavy with gems. Just not comfortable at all and really hard on your hairstyle.
September 17, 2010, Kew Gardens: Not the best thing about Kew; I reserve that for the village and the pub, but right up there, is Kew Gardens. Established by Queen Victoria, the garden covers multiple acres with flowers, marvelous trees and numerous arboretum greenhouses. Many, but not all of these are tropic and one must be prepared to sweat a bit.
The garden is far too large to pop about in one day, so we settle on two or three of the arboretums and its newest attraction, the canopy walk. This is, in itself, quite a hike from the entry gate. We find, when we finally get there, that the lift is out of service and there are, at least, ten flights of stairs between the ground and the aerial pathway among the trees.
While making the climb, I discover that the British not only drive on the left, but they climb stairs the same way. As an American, I’m used to going upstairs on the right side, at least most of the time. I’m constantly shifted to the left by English people using my right side going up as their left side, coming down. England’s tradition of driving to the left is said to come from the fact the people rode horses on the left side of the road because they (the people) were mostly right-handed and riding to the left meant you could hold the reins in your left hand and greet someone with the right—or slash at them with your sword in your right hand. To keep things from getting confused on London Bridge, the government passed a you- must-ride-your-horse-on-the-left law in 1756. In America, ox carts and freight wagons had no seats; the ox driver sat on the back of or walk beside the left side ox and kept his team to the right side of the road in order to see oncoming traffic.
It’s worth it though, when we get to the top. There are no monkeys or tree snakes to entertain us in the nearby upper branches, but we have an unbeatable view of the gardens and the pleasure of ducking giggling children who streak by us, making the walkway into a raceway.
I have to say that the kids touring the garden are mostly well behaved and so cute, cute, cute in their school uniforms. I’d seen children in the village in similar school dress, all looking very trendy. In fact, the uniforms look so good, I can’t help but wonder why American students don’t absolutely clamor for school uniforms of their own.