A Hat, An Island, and a Wedding

There are some places where your first visit serves as an inoculation of sorts – once seen, you need never to return.  Wilmington, Delaware comes to mind. My first visit to London however, reported here in October of 2010, was not such a place. The city has lived on in my heart and head, and it was with great excitement that I made my way to Dulles for the red-eye to Heathrow at the end of April.

Early enough for a snack, but remembering how much they fed us on the plane the last time I took this flight, I was determined to eat light. Luckily, I found a small wine bar with delicious whites and a cheese plate. I met a lady from Cleveland (who has her own business making candy) who was taking her first trip to London, Paris and Frankfurt. Time passed quickly as we chatted about the best tourist sights – Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Notre Dame, the Marais – and before we knew it we were boarding the plane. Two lovely mini-bottles of red wine on the plane were sufficient to render me unconscious and I was able to sleep until nearly landing time.

AR, playing host once again, met me at Heathrow and took me home for a much needed cup of tea and a restorative hot shower. We had lunch in the sun at Bebo Cafe, a walk round the small town and a coffee at Starbucks before going home and loading up the car for our UK road trip. We made good time on the road and arrived at AR’s parent’s home in Wakefield just in time for pre-dinner drinks and conversation. AR’s mother and step-father, V and J respectively, were such fun and made me feel at ease instantly. We feasted on fish and chips from the local shop that evening and spent the evening in joking and reminiscing.

Saturday morning came early to this jet-lagged Yankee, but I pulled myself together and off we went to York. Leaving the car in a park-and-ride, we bussed into the city center – our first stop the Castle Museum with room after room memorializing “The Way It Was.” Kitchens, bathrooms, living rooms, cobblestone streets, and old shops. Amazing! We then walked along the medieval wall (dating back to 1240!) that stretches two miles around the city until we came to the queue for the YorkBoat, which took us up and down the River Ouse.

After a quick sandwich stop outside the York Minster (a step up from a cathedral), we explored the old town with its narrow, uneven streets and buildings that leaned – top-heavy – so far into the street we expected them to rest upon each other, like the apache dancers who dance forehead to forehead. It was here at The Hat Company that I found a small green hat with curlicues and delicate leaves. I bought it immediately. Never mind that I live in a city that doesn’t wear hats. And never mind that I don’t have anything to wear with it. I love this hat and am determined to step out in it before the summer is over.

Saturday evening found us at two places where V and J are ‘regulars’ – a small, second-story wine bar with its cool and minimalist decor and the Italian restaurant with its large open floor plan and spiral staircase to the upstairs loos. Everything was amazing – from the appetizers to the dessert. The night ended perfectly with a DVD of my favorite British comic Michael McIntyre.

Sunday was another gorgeous day and after a proper lie-in (British for ‘sleeping in’) AR and I visited Nostell Priory. It’s a gorgeous old house with beautiful grounds. We discovered it was Easter when we got there and found all the children of Wakefield in hot pursuit of Easter egg clues hidden throughout the gardens. We spent hours walking around and lying in the grass watching the activity, and then we went home and spent the rest of the afternoon lying in the sun in the backyard. Who knew you could get a suntan in England? A quiet evening was had by all, and we prepared for the continuation of our road trip in the morning.

I have to admit Scotland has never been on my list of vacation destinations, but I absolutely fell in love with the countryside and the small towns and the people. The drive up was pleasant – all the expected rolling green meadows with lambs and calves gorging themselves on the new green grass and reveling in the warmth. We stayed in Ayr – a fairly large city with shops and restaurants lining the main streets and long neighborhood roads meandering toward or away from the Firth of Clyde. We stayed on the top floor at the Savoy Park Hotel, a grand red-brick house with dark wood paneling, tartan carpeting, and tightly curving staircases. Our room had a view of the sea and a large bathroom with a window that looked out over the steep rooftops and a solitary seagull perched on an unused chimney.

We settled our bags and set out to explore, walking first in the direction of the sea. The long stretch of seashore was crowded on Easter Monday – the good people of the UK unwilling to let the cool sea breezes stop them from exposing their skin to the sun. They are a hardy lot; I was freezing! We walked the length, past sand castles and footballers and the guy who had been buried up to his neck in the sand and the carnival rides. We went up through the town and found a narrow side street with a cafe, where we sat in the fading sunlight, shared a sandwich, and sipped cappuccinos.

We had dinner at Carrick Lodge, a beautiful hotel with a great restaurant. Starting with Cullen Skink (a traditional Scottish soup made with smoked haddock and potatoes), I then ate my way through the sea bass and scallops and still found room for a vanilla sponge cake with raspberry sauce and sorbet. We also found a new favorite wine – Trivento Voignier – which sadly isn’t available in the States.

Tuesday we took the ferry over to the Isle of Arran. It’s not a big island, but beautiful and full of varied landscapes. We walked up to the Glenashdale Falls – a lovely short hike through forests and meadows. We had lunch at The Coffee Pot with the locals, overlooking the sea and worshipping the sun. Then we drove around the island, marveling at each new sight that presented itself around the bend. We explored Brodick Castle and were sufficiently impressed by the dark rooms, exotic gardens, and the Bavarian summer house. We ended the night back at the hotel with more fish and chips and re-runs of Friends.

Wednesday held one of the best treats of the visit – Calzean Castle, which we spent five hours exploring – built around 1569, perched on the edge of a cliff, and refurnished as the final project of architect Robert Adam. This is the most beautiful castle I’ve ever seen, light and spacious with refined lines. But the best part is the garden and surrounding grounds. We walked down to the sea and along the rocky shore, then up into dense forests along the path till we reached the Swan Pond, more like a lake than a pond. The heavy trees bending over the trail and shading the water gave the place a quiet, magical feel. As we reached the other side of the pond, everything opened up and there was a pavilion, benches by the water, and the best ice cream I’ve had in my life. Seriously. I would fly back to Scotland just for this ice cream, made fresh with sweet Arron cream.

We spent a quiet afternoon reading in the sun and then went to Highgrove House Hotel for dinner. My goal must have been to eat as much seafood on this trip as possible – I almost never eat seafood at home – and so I ordered tempura eel for a starter and then moved on to the seafood medley. I don’t even remember the fish that were on that plate because I was distracted by the giant crustacean perched atop the food, its beady black eyes staring at me, it’s body fully intact. AR laughed at the shocked expression on my face, but I was not to be done in by shellfish. I squared my shoulders, took hold of the thing and somehow managed to get about three bites of meat out of its tail. Success. We watched the sun set over the small Scottish village and ended the night with a quiet glass of wine back on the couches of the Savoy Park’s dining room.

Thursday was spent entirely in the car making our way home, where we ordered pizza and drank wine and outlined our Royal Wedding Plans. We woke up at an ungodly hour and took a taxi to the train station. We joined the throngs crowding into Hyde Park and watched everyone claim their patch of grass, unfurl their British flags, and uncork their champagne. We were in front of the large center screen and therefore had a fabulous view of absolutely every moment. I loved it all, and I most especially loved being in the middle of it with 150,000 people cheering and waving flags and celebrating. I nearly cried several times and cheered as loud as I could. And when it was all over, a band struck up and we danced for ages. What a party!

Saturday saw us back in London, exploring the neighborhoods along the Thames, taking our time with the day. We spent hours lost in conversation, holed up in Gordon’s Wine Bar – the oldest wine bar in London – a dark cellar with low stone ceilings, amazing wine and delicious cheese. I could have stayed forever.

It was one of the best vacations I’ve ever had, one I’ll be reliving again and again as I flip through my pictures. There’s always something new to explore in the UK and I can’t wait to go back.

//

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