April 18: We left for RDU Airport at 3 PM for a 6 PM flight. Better safe than sorry, and I was nervously reading various things to keep from thinking about what was ahead. (Basically, the nebulous discomfort. I’m not a good traveller.)
Just before leaving, Jo checked the weather channel. It said we could expect seven days of rain. John Lambshead e-mailed that we should have a fast flight because a gale had just blown in from the southwest. I sighed and said we were going anyway.
We got aboard a full USAir 737 with no real problems, though security was badly worried by what turned out to be my tube of toothpaste. Was it the first time somebody had brought toothpaste through their fluoroscopes? (I seem to be one of the people who invariably bothers airport security. I’ve for years stripped off all metal so that I don’t set off the magnetic detectors, but they always get concerned about some utterly innocent thing.)
The Airbus 330-300 at Philadelphia was jammed (overbooked) also–they were asking volunteers to go the next day. The RDU flight had been forced to circle Philadelphia a couple times so by the time we arrived at the international gate our row had been called. Airbus aisles are wider than those of a 737, and both going and coming Jo and I had seats in an outer (two-seat) row; which, as these things go, was better than it might’ve been.
We’d packed very lightly for the trip, limiting ourselves to carry-on only. Most international flights I’ve taken with checked luggage have had a problem–something doesn’t arrive with me (and a number of times nothing at all arrived). I took two extra pairs of slacks (one of them a lightweight nylon pair that rolls up very small), ten t-shirts, ten pairs of socks, a heavy long-sleeved silk shirt, a heavy wool sweater (handmade by an Icelandic housewife; a purchase on a previous trip); a nylon poncho (a Christmas gift from Tor) and a rain hat which I’d gotten for Belize. This was sufficient for our purposes (which didn’t include formal dining, though the silk shirt was adequately dressy.)
For personal items I’d gotten a moderate-sized belly pack, having learned not to trust cargo pockets alone in Belize. In it I carried documents, money, my digital camera and the book I brought for the trip–Gregory of Tours History of the Franks. I’d read it decades ago (actually, I read most of it in Latin, a Monumenta Germaniae Historica folio volume, as an undergraduate), but it’s the sort of work you can always find new material in. I took the old (mass market) Penguin edition, which fit neatly.
My camera was a Canon A70. I went digital (having resisted) because of the problems getting film through airports. I had a 256M card in it and carried a 128M card as backup. I wound up filling the first with 227 photos, and took five more with the smaller card. I’d bought a new set of NiMH batteries for the camera and charged them fully for the trip.
I considered but didn’t take a computer to download the photos into. It struck me as too much of a hassle for the number of pictures I would take. (Remember, I’m the guy who gets hassled over a toothpaste tube.)
I’m happy with the gear. I would do exactly the same thing again.
To my amazement I slept about four hours on the flight. I think it helped a great deal. I wasn’t as cripplingly stiff as I expected to be either.
April 19: We deplaned in Gatwick. Customs and immigration were no problem–in contrast to my past experiences with Canada and the US, for what it’s worth. We followed directions to the bustling baggage and waiting area, where I looked for John Lambshead. He’d told me he’d be wearing a red yachting jacket, which I visualized as something semi-formal along the lines of a blazer. There was a man in a red nylon windbreaker, who turned as I followed him wondering–and recognized me. British English is not the same.
Thence to the car which he’d rented to drive us around in. I’d given him carte blanche, but he wasn’t happy with the Nissan Primera he’d gotten. It appears to have the body of an Altima but a stiffer (and quite good) suspension and a smaller engine. John drives with skill and determination. The Nissan has a wide turning circle, gauges in the center of the dash instead of in front of the driver, and a peaky engine that frequently lugged when he tried to accelerate as he’d have done in his own Vauxhall (which apparently has a broader powerband).
He took us to the hotel he’d booked for us, the Maidstone Hilton. It’s a relatively new place, built about ten years ago when the Channel Tunnel was completed, but could’ve passed for much older (in a good way). The walls are brick, the roof tiled, and there was quite a pleasant central courtyard with awnings and external gas heaters.
Parenthetically, gasoline is much more expensive in England and cars tend to be lighter, more efficient, and have smaller engines than US models. (1.6-1.8 liter displacements are normal.) However natural gas from the North Sea fields is much cheaper than gasoline and is used widely in external heaters to heat open (unroofed) courtyards.
I also saw many more SUVs in Britain than I’d been led to expect. Pickup trucks are very rare (I only recall seeing one), but that appears to be a response to frequent rainfalls rather than a desire for efficiency.
After we’d checked in and showered, John picked us up for lunch at a pub–the White Rabbit (I honestly don’t know whether it was technically in Maidstone–as I think it may have been–or a closely neighboring community). It was converted from the officers’ billet of the 7th Dragoons when that regiment was eliminated. It was a friendly place with parking and good food. I had an open-faced sandwich of bacon, mushrooms and other good things under melted cheddar cheese. (Parenthetically, we ate well at every meal in England, and unfortunately I gained a few pounds.)
We then headed for Leeds Castle, where we met John’s wife Val and their younger (16-year-old) daughter Kirsten who’s studying for the exams which under the English system will decide her academic future. (She’s holding up well under what must be enormous stress.)
It’d been warm and sunny when we left the hotel. I’d worn my raincape on whim but hadn’t bothered with my hat. It clouded up and spattered most of the later afternoon; not serious, but the hat would’ve been a better idea.
Leeds is a picture-perfect castle in lovely grounds. There were peacocks in the trees and a (fenced and gated) duckery on the entrance path. It’s of Norman construction, entered through a fortified mill (of which only one wall remains, showing the arrow slits), to an outwork, then the mott and bailey. The entrance to the house proper is through the dog collar museum, showing four hundred years of dog collars. (The British reputation for eccentricity is earned.)
In the wine cellar John noted that the breweries have been suffering lately as the British are becoming a nation of wine drinkers. The interior is quite attractive and remains in active use as a conference center. It’s a secure location where (say) a G7 conference can be protected by a relatively small number of security people. That’s what it was built for nearly a thousand years ago, after all.
I noted with interest that the owners ca. 1800 were connected with the Fairfax and Culpepper families, nobles who left their mark in Northern Virginia and with whom George Washington was closely associated. The last private owner (it’s now in public hands), Lady Baillie, had a large portrait of the 19th century adventuress Lola Montez in her sitting room. No one was sure why.
We had tea and scones in the tea shop, and chatted very pleasantly among the five of us. The Lambsheads are bright, friendly people whom it’s a delight to be with.
Then to the aviary, which specializes in good-sized, colorful birds (and a kea, which isn’t very colorful but was neat to see in the flesh. Feather.) It’s quite noisy; John mentioned a colleague called him while he was standing there and wondered which country he was in (as it’s a cell phone, that wasn’t certain). There was also a maze, but we didn’t try it as John wasn’t sure of the time it would take.
We went back to the hotel. We didn’t bother with dinner. I found the business court, hoping there’d be a computer for guests so I could check webmail to see how things were at home. There wasn’t, but a very nice staff person let me use hers for the purpose. The English keyboard is subtly different from the US version, which made the task difficult–particularly, I suppose, for those trying to decipher my notes. All was well, or adequately well.
I tried to read a bit in the courtyard but the book kept dropping from my hand as I fell asleep. I crashed and slept like a log.
April 20: We got up and had breakfast in the hotel. I felt stiff but not as bad as I feared, and we seemed to have avoided jet lag.
John picked us up at 10 AM and took us into Maidstone (the county town) so I could cash traveller’s checks. I expected to use credit cards for most things, but I got $800 cash (413 pounds; the dollar is very weak) to pay John for the car and so both of us had money for taxis, post cards, etc.
We started out at John’s bank, Barclay’s, but the lady there sent us to a travel agency in a nearby shopping precinct. I’d gotten American Express checks. Barclay’s handled Visa checks and the other high street banks were Master Card, but to cash mine without a fee required going to the travel agents. (Not a problem, just a comment.)
We visited a Games Workshop store on the way to the car. This is the largest of the miniature wargames companies and is listed on the London Stock Exchange. They’re very heavily promoting Lord of the Rings material, which for a time had even outsold their own Warhammer games.
From Maidstone we headed north through the Green Belt over back roads. After WW II it became obvious that London would absorb the whole region if it were permitted to grow unchecked. With the support of all parties, a Green Belt in which no new houses could be built was set up around the city. There are working farms in the area, but they draw most of their income from tourism. Houses–or anything that could be rebuilt internally as a house–are very expensive. The area is green and lush and lovely, though of course the region beyond it is now a bedroom for London.
We saw a fox cross the road–probably no more unusual than seeing a deer where we live, but neat for visitors. There were–here and generally–vast fields of rape in golden flower; probably what the EU is paying for this year in the incredibly (and criminally) inept Common Agricultural Policy. (Still, it was nice to see why the golden-haired Rapunzel was named after the field of rape growing outside her mother’s window.)
On the way we got gas. The Primera requires high test (another penalty for a high performance engine), so it cost me just under $50 to fill the tank. The owner, by the way, pumped the gas–it wasn’t self service–in a coat and tie; he had an upper class accent.
Our first stop was Penshurst Place, originally owned by the Sidneys. Elizabethan history isn’t my period, but I’d heard of Sir Philip Sidney, the courtier-poet and one of the people who make aristocracy sound like a good idea. (Very shortly I’ll be discussing the Sackvilles, a useful antidote.)
Penshurst is much larger than Leeds Castle and has very extensive formal gardens. The sections are arrayed according to a variety of styles: early, Italian, French, and the later English style pioneered by Lancelot Brown, nicknamed Capability. Near the entrance is a blind garden–a garden of odors and for all I know textures–which won an award at the Chelsea Flower Show.
Entrance to the house itself was through the Banquet Hall, the original Great Hall. It’d been modified over the centuries by closing the vent in the center of the roof and adding fireplaces.
In the crypt below was a display of militaria from the later owners. These included Lord Gort, who took the BEF to France in 1940, then–after Dunkirk, which can’t be called a victory but was certainly a brilliantly managed defeat–commanded Malta against very serious German attempts to capture it. (One of the gardens is a Union Jack, but only the red [tulips] had come into bloom when we arrived.) The displays included Gort’s field tea service, including a cigarette lighter to start the gasoline stove to heat the tea kettle.
Looking down on the Hall (literally–through a squint, a hidden window) was the ladies’ salon. The variety of items on display in these two rooms included 15th century trestle tables, 16th century paintings, clocks (one dating back to 1520), armor (including leather helmets from Cromwell’s Ironsides), guns–mostly matchlocks but with a few firelocks (fusils) mixed in, and (which particularly struck me) a gaming table from 1740 with a petit-point top.
We left the house by the Lime Walk–that is, a corridor of linden trees–and went to the Toy Museum which turned out to be an unexpected lot of fun. There was a copy of the first ABC book (which was American, the guide pointed out), many varieties of coloring book (often martial, with bold Britons running Frenchmen through), paper theatres (one with the sets of Sleeping Beauty), dolls, toy soldiers, skittles, Noah’s Arks (some carved by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars).
There were also spellicans, the British equivalent of pick-up-sticks. They differ by having complex carvings on one end instead of being simple poles, and also in being made of ivory. (Which, I’ll admit, took me aback. Sometimes very simple objects have an impact that no number of words can match.)
Because it was late, we didn’t try to see Hever Castle but instead stopped at Sissinghurst, a 14th century manor with gardens laid out in the late 1920s by Vita Sackville-West. I correctly recalled her as being a member of the Bloomsbury Group; in fact she was Virginia Woolf’s lover. Her husband, Harold Nicolson, was an associate of Oswald Moseley but broke with the latter when he founded the British Union of Fascists in 1932. Nicolson later became a Labour MP (!) and a member of Churchill’s wartime cabinet.
I suspect it was in an attempt to claim proletarian sympathies that the gardens were opened to the public in 1938. The charge–a shilling–raised 25 pounds, which wasn’t money the couple would’ve bent to pick up off the floor.
The brochure quotes Sackville-West as follows: “These mild gentlemen and women who invade one’s garden after putting their silver token into the bowl … are some of the people I most gladly welcome and salute.” Either the folks editing the brochure were unaware of the snobbery (they note as well that Sackville-West referred to the visitors as “shillingses”) or they approved it.
While I obviously didn’t warm to the couple, the gardens they built were wonderful. A four-story structure–which I believe is a folly, built to look old, but may actually have been the gatehouse of a building demolished in the 18th century–has Sackville-West’s library and study, and from the parapet a view over a wide region.
Below, sheltered nooks allowed early rhododendrons–including a lovely violet one–to bloom, along with many other flowers. (I liked the wallflowers, here and elsewhere in England. I’d heard of them but hadn’t previously seen them in the… hmm; cytoplasm?) Bluebells were out this week, here very strikingly.
I was particularly taken by an Italianate feature: two yew hedges planted within 30″ of one another, forming a narrow aisle across a path. At the end of the aisle was a bust.
There are writers whose work I greatly respect despite my feeling that they’re reprehensible human beings. I guess I can apply the same standards to gardens and their designers.
We met Val and Kirsten at the White Rabbit for dinner and further pleasant conversation, thence to the hotel. While we could’ve seen most of the same things had we come to England on our own, we probably wouldn’t have–and it wouldn’t have been nearly as much fun.
April 21: We got up in a drizzle. I checked e-mail again and gave the office staff signed bookmarks, which thrilled them. People in general think writers are a bigger deal than I think writers are.
John took us through the towns of Medway and Rainham, pointing out the flower boxes at intersections. These are paid for by taxes. Americans wouldn’t consider it value for money; the British do. It isn’t a matter of who’s right: the cultures are different, in this and many other ways.
As an aside, John was an ideal guide: intelligent, knowledgeable, and enthusiastic. The trip was many times what it would’ve been without his hospitality.
We followed a section of the Pilgrims’ Way, leading to Canterbury. ‘The Bull’ is a common name for old pubs. It refers not to the animal but to the Papal Bull the innkeeper had purchased to permit him to traffic with pilgrims. The area is also where Tolkien came from, and the gnarled treeroots twisting out into sunken lanes certainly suggest a possible genesis for the ents.
We passed the 11th century church in Rainham, on Watling Street–the Roman road running through the region in a northwestern diagonal. These evidences of antiquity are omnipresent in Kent, a very different thing from what ‘old building’ meant when I was assistant town attorney in Chapel Hill. I don’t really have a frame of reference for it.
We then stopped in Gillingham, on the shore of the River Medway. What I’d thought were water towers were actually the gasometers which feed North Sea natural gas through the whole region. There’s a replica of a beacon identical to those used in series to warn of invasion from before the Armada till after Napoleon, and a view across the marshes to Sheerness. This is the region where Beowulf was composed and very probably set; on a gray morning, one can see why.
Thence to Cooling Castle and Cooling Church, way off the tourist routes. Both are made of Kentish rag, flint nodules chipped from the chalk matrix. The castle’s small and mostly ruined, but very picturesque. Wallflowers grew from it and the crows wheeled about. The parish church is nothing special–but it was the setting for the opening of Great Expectations: Pip meets Magwich for the first time in Cooling churchyard. As I learned shortly in Rochester, this is very generally Dickens country.
We then went via back roads to Upnor Castle on the Medway shore, past apple trees which are common in the region. For some reason, they’re invariably polled here. (I didn’t meet any orchardists to ask why.)
Upnor Castle lies just downriver from Chatham Dockyard. When the Dutch under de Ruyter attacked the British fleet laid up in the Medway in 1667, Upnor was the only place the British fought back.
Seeing the situation first hand suddenly brought the utter failure of the Stuarts home to me. Charles II, who was in French pay, went to war with the Dutch to aid France. This I knew. The Dutch attacked and burned or captured the British fleet at anchor; this too I knew.
What I hadn’t fully appreciated was that the British fleet wasn’t manned because Charles was spending his French bribes on whims rather than paying sailors, and that de Ruyter didn’t launch a hit and run attack but rather spent three days coming up river, systematically burning all military and naval installations without facing any resistance. Finally at Upnor Castle somebody shot back, and de Ruyter turned around–carrying with him the British flagship. The Dutch weren’t really driven away, they just decided not to press their luck.
Charles II is a very romantic figure, but he wasn’t just a bad king: he was in the literal sense a traitor to his country. A visit to Upnor Castle made me understand what forty years of study hadn’t taught me.
Then to Rochester, where wandering around the downtown we saw Dickens’ summer house (moved from neighboring Gad’s Hill) and many other buildings whose signs noted that Dickens used them in this or that book. (It’s a tourist town, of course.) The gatehouse in which Edwin Drood lived is among them.
Rochester Castle is the oldest stone castle in England. King John captured it by undermining, but the fallen tower was rebuilt on a sturdier foundation. The castle is ruined in the sense that all the floors and woodwork are gone, leaving only the walls and the passages built into them–but those remains are massive and awe-inspiring. The view of Rochester from the battlements is marvelous.
Here as with Cooling Castle I very much wished my son Jonathan could’ve been along (work and parenthood made that impossible). He particularly likes castles, and these were some honeys.
Rochester Cathedral is adjacent to the castle. It’s the oldest English Christian church (as opposed to Roman Christian church in what is now England). It’s impressive in itself, and had a particular fillip for me: there’s a plaque in the wall to Colonel Chard, who as Lieutenant Chard commanded the scratch force holding Rorke’s Drift against the Zulus after the disaster of Isandhlwana.
Late but enthusiastic, we then headed for Chatham Dockyard where we met Val and Kirsten. This is a huge area with many displays, in the open and in the covered docks. Perhaps most interesting to me was the sloop Gannet, built in 1878 and here restored. This is precisely the sort of vessel which made up the bulk of the North America/West Indies Squadron when Mrs. Brassey visited Bermuda in 1881. I’m using that situation (and those colonial policing vessels) as the matrix on which I’m writing The Way to Glory–the fourth RCN space opera, about 80% complete at the point we left for England.
I ran into something here that made me do another doubletake (this kept happening to me in England). There was a large picture of Chatham Dockyard in 1777-8, basically a landscape view. I examined it with mild interest. Suddenly I realized that I wasn’t looking at a photoprint as I’d thought, but rather the five-by-seven foot painting itself.
The last thing we viewed was the Commissioner’s Garden. It wasn’t in itself impressive, but I got a very powerful vision of a Commissioner pottering about in his garden. There was a very old (half-rotted) tree which (after studying the guidebook) turned out to be a 400-year old mulberry. Oliver Cromwell sat beneath it as he watched his troops capture Rochester.
Then to dinner in an upscale restaurant with the Lambsheads. On the way, John pointed out the monument to Gillingham sailor Will Adams, whom Clavell used as the hero of Shogun, and a palm tree growing beside a house. Palms don’t flourish in Kent (as they do in his home country, Cornwall), but they grow. It’s hard to believe that we’re in the same latitude as Labrador.
And to the hotel after another thoroughly delightful and informative day.
April 22: We headed for London, getting a taxi into the train station (Maidstone East) without difficulty. The train to Victoria was more or less on time.
The landscape along the route is a very prosperous one. The farms have horses, cows, and at least one herd of deer. Crops are largely hops, apples, and the omnipresent rape (which is processed into rapeseed oil, AKA canola oil, by the way).
I was struck by the fact that most buildings have chimney pots. There were a few in Dubuque when I was growing up, but I’ve rarely seen them since. (Incidentally, coal fires–and thus the need for chimneys–were replaced by electric grates in London in the late ’40s, so the chimney pots became a matter of historical record. Which was fortunate, of course, because they’re back in use now for gas fires.)
Roofs are generally tiled, and even those that’re shingled have tiles covering corner seams. Brick appears to be the most common building material, though I won’t claim to have made a scientific survey.
From Victoria we took a taxi to our hotel, the Holiday Inn Kensington. It’s located close to the Natural History Museum where John works and is reasonably located for many of the other places we hoped to visit. The room was comfortable, though it had twin beds rather than a queen sized as I’d have preferred.
The best feature of the hotel was the garden behind the building. There’s a single open space common to it, St Stephen’s (C of E) Church, and a third structure whose identity I couldn’t determine. There are several large sycamores, a number of fruit trees (in flower; this was a very good time for flowers, though John says May is even better), and extensive flower plantings. It was an excellent place for me to sit and relax, a thing I really need to do daily if I’m to keep it between the ditches.
After checking in we went just down the street to the Victoria and Albert Museum (of the decorative arts). I’d been there in 1977 but Jo thinks she was out shopping that day and I’d gone alone.
I couldn’t find the pair of six feet tall vases of blue john–fluorspar from Derbyshire, which the Romans called myrrhine and valued highly–I’d seen in 1977, but there were some blue john candlesticks with a legend explaining that the material had gone out of fashion till the mid 18th century. Then French craftsmen began importing it, and British craftsmen started using it again also. It’s a striking material, which I first learned of in an Arthur Conan Doyle story: The Terror of Blue John Gap. (Though the story has nothing to do with the mineral; a cave bear climbs out of a cavern and wreaks havoc until a local sportsman shoots it with his express rifle. Karl Wagner swore he hadn’t read Doyle’s story when he wrote Two Suns Setting.)
While decorative arts don’t have the same fascination for me that I find in, say, tanks, there were any number of striking items that I jotted down and may well use in my fiction. As a few examples: a silver tabletop engraved with Venus giving Aeneas his shield, trimmed with tortoiseshell; a cabinet set with thirty-odd painted glass plaques which reminded me of the decoration of a carousel; testimonial silver, sculptures two feet high of camel riders and elephants….
And so much more, of course.
It was late afternoon by now, so we went next door to the Museum of Natural History and Jo called John Lambshead from the information desk. He came down and gave us a behind-the-scenes tour.
The original building–John’s office is in the addition, the Darwin Centre–is in a way as striking as any of the exhibits. When we were there in 1977 it was black with a century of soot; it was cleaned in the ’80s and is stunningly beautiful, the stone richly decorated and picked out with layers of contrasting blue. I took many pictures of it this time, but the massive edifice should be seen to be fully appreciated.
The Darwin Centre contains the Spirit Room where… well, the NHM has a total of sixty to eighty million specimens total; the millions preserved in alcohol are kept here. It’s the largest such collection in the world.
Each department set out a number of jars in the corridor for easy view, while the enormous ranks of other specimens are visible through the glass walls. I noted that those responsible had obviously picked striking items: entomology had huge spiders and centipedes, for example. The fellow in charge of mammals had a sense of humor: if you read the card on one specimen, you learned it was a brown rat which had been found dead outside the old Spirit Room (in a rat-infested building which had been the cause of numerous complaints).
We viewed the working labs. The NHM does analysis for people who want not only the truth but the truth in an unimpeachable fashion. They’re expensive, but nobody argues with their findings. If you already know the answer (for example, your oil spill did no permanent damage to the environment), or you really want to know the answer whatever it is, they’re the choice.
I learned something about studying nematodes. I won’t go into detail, but they’re very small and you spike them with a titanium harpoon under strong magnification. John said on one project he looked at 10,400 of them, and a PhD student working there was already up to 12,000 while studying the effects of the 1st Gulf War on the Persian Gulf. (The museum is hoping for a repeat order, of course. The way our foreign policy decisions are trending, Gulf War aftermaths may turn into a cash cow for the foreseeable future.)
We then went down to the tank room where large specimens are kept and processed. (For example, stranded porpoises–which are generally killed by French fishing boats and wash ashore dead rather than being stranded.)
I was interested to learn that one of the main problems is the fumes from the goodness-knows-how-many gallons of denatured alcohol in which the specimens are preserved. Before a big tank is opened, the fumes are drawn off with an extractor; otherwise there’s a risk not only of fire but of the person involved being knocked unconscious. The large dissection table has not only a drain but a downdraft system.
John showed us how to use the Underground and pointed out what turned out to be a very good Italian restaurant, where we ate before walking back to the hotel. There we found a new problem–the lights wouldn’t go on. I started for the desk but met a maid on the way; she showed me the slot you put your room key in to arm the lights.
This is a perfectly good design–it means guests don’t waste electricity by leaving the lights on while they’re gone–but nothing in the room explained that nor had the staff mentioned it on check-in. As I get older, stupid failures to give necessary information strike me increasingly as grit in the bearings of existence. We were paying about $275/night for our room, so they might’ve been a little more forthcoming.
Still and all, another full and informative day.
April 23: Up and breakfasted in the hotel as usual, then got day-pass tickets to the Underground and went off to the John Soane House on Lincoln Inn Fields, which Jo had found while reading John Morton’s In Search of London. Soane was a neoclassical architect working in the sixty years around 1800. The house was his working base and his legacy in both figurative and literal senses: he left it to the nation on the proviso that it and the collection be kept as they were.
The result is unique and wonderful. Soane had two of the finest Hogarth sets of oils, The Rake’s Progress and the Election series (which Jo says Dickens mined directly for a segment of The Pickwick Papers). He also had some striking Canalettos and an unusual piece by Turner (who was a personal friend and fishing companion).
The house itself, though, is the greatest wonder. The best-known Soane work is the exterior of the Bank of England, but his real genius was in creating usable, externally lighted, spaces of very limited compass. This is something I’d never thought about because nowadays electric lighting makes it unnecessary. Soane’s house shows his principles at work. A domed lantern above the striking staircase (a flattened oval) lights the interior; there are windows onto the interior courtyard, and internal walls have glass panels and mirrors in corners to open up and expand rooms.
Soane’s library was extensive and a real, working collection rather than books-by-the-yard to create a glamour of learning. (Actually, I was struck by how similar the impression was to my own library–though the subjects differ.) Soane was self-taught (a brickmason’s son); almost everything I saw was in English or French, though the folio Pliny may well have been Latin.
In addition to the books were the rooms of specimens–statues, plaques, sections of moldings and columns, and other decorative features. This wasn’t (as I’d thought from the description) a collection for its own sake: Soane used the items as a library of design, putting his apprentices to drawing and measuring them as he had done himself in learning his trade.
His tour of Italy in 1778-80 had been greatly influential on him. A number of items reflected this directly, including a model of the Temple of Vesta (which he adapted to a corner of the Bank of England) and his own painting of men digging in a bath vault, both from Hadrian’s villa at Tivoli. I’d recently set the opening of Master of the Cauldron (the sixth Isles fantasy, due out in November) in that ruined vault; for that reason and others I found myself unexpectedly in harmony with Soane.
Among other items, an 1820 sculpture (I didn’t recognize and don’t recall the name of the artist) of Camadeva and his mistress riding on a crocodile caught my fancy. That may show up in my future writing; it was just too neat to pass by.
Because his collection of paintings and drawings was so extensive, Soane layered them on hinged panels. The piece that most impressed me was on one of the back panels: a painting (by an employee) of Soane’s greatest accomplishment, the Bank of England–as a ruin in a thousand years time.
Soane was a determined and often abrasive fellow who didn’t allow weakness in himself nor make allowance for it in others; but in my terms, he was a man. I have no greater praise to offer.
I bought quite a number of books, on Soane and the contents of the house. It’s the only place we visited where I felt a need to do that (though of course I did get many individual guidebooks).
When we’d dropped things off at the hotel, we headed for the Wallace Collection. I’d been remiss in my planning for this one. A friend had mentioned how much she’d enjoyed it. Jo checked Morton, who called it ‘a mini Louvre’ and described it as being on the edge of the streets and squares around Oxford Street. I misheard that as ‘on Oxford Square’, which I found in London A-Z, and we set out.
In fact it’s on Manchester Square some distance away, which we learned when a helpful lady on her way shopping saw us looking puzzled. It was just a frustration, not a big problem–as the lady said, “You’re obviously strong walkers.”
The trip was interesting in an odd way, though. On the Central Line of the Underground I was watching the map across the aisle when somebody behind me said, “Everybody in the car, show me a valid ticket for this train.” I didn’t think much about it, just dug the ticket out of my pocket and held it out–my concern was getting to the right stop, not whether I’d paid for the trip.
Then I looked at the fellow: craggy features, about 30, short hair, and wearing a polo shirt over jeans. He had no discernible body fat and the muscles of his bare arms had muscles of their own. He was holding a book bag by the strap: I suspect the only thing in it was a Browning Hi-Power, because that’s what the SAS carries. He sure as hell wasn’t a transport inspector, and if the Metropolitan Police have anybody that fit, they’re unique among the world’s police forces.
He got out at Notting Hill Gate. I don’t know what was going on, but something certainly was.
Parenthetically, British security struck me as professional and unobtrusive. What passed for security at US airports was neither of those things.
We eventually found the Wallace Collection. A large number of students were lunching on the lawn in front, but the building wasn’t unpleasantly crowded.
The huge Bouchers looking down on the entranceway create the initial impact. Their cotton-candy classicism does nothing for me. Still, there were paintings to virtually any taste, mine included. (A woman told me she’d come for the Lucien Freuds, but that exhibition had ended a few days earlier. I must have looked startled, because she then said, “Or aren’t you familiar with his work?” I assured her that I did know of Lucien Freud’s work, and I certainly hadn’t come to see more of it.)
Frans Hals’ Laughing Cavalier is in the Wallace. There are a number of Turners, though I believe most of them were in a room that was closed for lack of staff to watch it. I was interested to run across a couple David Roberts paintings. I’d never seen his work apart from his extensive series of paintings of sites in the Holy Land (which I’ve used for terrain settings in my fiction).
I found quite a number of paintings evocative and jotted down notes for possible story use. Two in particular struck me: Poussin’s Dance to the Music of Time, (an allegory which I completely–but usefully–misread, as I learned from the booklet I bought regarding it); and a Watteau titled A Fete in the Park in which a number of cavaliers and ladies walk and dally in an open woodland. Thus far any number of paintings in the building–but there was also a larger-than-life-sized nude female painted in silver-gray, watching unnoticed from the top of a ruined wall. Is she Love? Lust? A ghost from a former age? Darned if I know, but she stuck in my memory.
One final piece deserves comment: a miniature painting of Emma, Lady Hamilton, garbed as a Bacchante. From the picture she was a plump, pretty woman, but not to my mind a captivating beauty. Her husband, the Duke of Hamilton, bequeathed it to her lover Admiral Nelson in 1803.
The courtyard is under glass and serves an excellent tea with Devonshire clotted cream. This differs from butter by being thickened on low heat instead of being churned.
On our way back toward the hotel we stopped to view the dinosaurs and mammals in the NHM till closing time. Then for a salad (we ate well in England, but we didn’t get as much roughage as we would’ve at home) and pizza in the same restaurant as the night before, and to the hotel to write up more notes.
Saturday, April 24, the day of Salute and the venue at which the Hammer’s Slammers wargame rulebook would be launched, my reason for being in England. It turned out to be a darned good reason.
I was nervous, and initially there were frustrations: some of the Underground lines were closed for repairs so John Lambshead was late, and then we misconnected at the Underground station (Gloucester Road). There were two entrances, and we picked different ones to meet at.
We got to the Olympia 2 convention center at last, and then things got amazing. Ground Zero Games, the outfit which makes the Hammer’s Slammers figurines (OK, toy soldiers in 15 and 25-mm sizes) was set up beside the entrance. I walked in, met Jon Tuffley and his staff, and was completely bowled over when they handed me a professionally-painted 25-mm figurine of me in a Hammer’s Slammers uniform (with sub-machine gun). I couldn’t have been more surprised if the whole hall had started singing, “For he’s a jolly good fellow.”
John Treadaway, the book’s graphic designer, basically runs Salute. He’d set things up with the publisher, Pireme (Iain Dickie) facing the entrance; GZG kitty corner across the aisle; a display of professionally-painted vehicles and figurines to the left of Pireme with the artist, Kevin Dallimore, working on more; and to Kevin’s left, Old Crow (Jez) who casts the vehicles. I was given 15-mm vehicles, which I hadn’t seen before. (They were hot out of the molds.)
Furthermore, John T had come up with the notion–understand, I knew nothing about this–of giving everybody a 25-mm David Drake if they bought the rules book. Thus people went across the aisle from Pireme and saw the figurines for sale as they waited for their freebie.
I signed the bookmarks I’d brought; they proved an even better icebreaker here than they do in bookstore appearances. John L (who wrote the text and rules) enthusiastically discussed the playing system. We made a good sales team, and the professional models in front of us were stunning.
Iain had made up some starter packs: rules, four vehicles in 15-mm scale, and a quantity of Slammers and opposition figurines. The package cost 57 pounds, and he sold all fifteen that he’d brought. So did all the vehicles Old Crow had in stock and a sufficient number of figurines to make Jon Tuffley very happy. The launch was a triumphant success.
A word about the display models. Kevin is an amazingly skilled artist, but the Slammers vehicles in bare metal went beyond that. Jez dusted the inside of his molds with powdered aluminum, then cast the resin on top of it. Kevin buffed what was actually a metal finish before doing the detail painting (rust on the skirts, oil stains, dirt, etc). Even I could see the difference in comparison to vehicles which’d simply been (expertly) painted.
A number of people asked me if it was strange to see my mental images as physical reality. In fact it’s stranger than that, because I had only the sketchiest images before the start of this. I didn’t really look at the tanks and ACAVs I was riding in 1970: I was looking from them, watching for problems at the tree line. It wasn’t till John T started asking me questions that the visuals coalesced.
I met a lot of fans who knew me through their interest in wargaming, not SF. There were a few Americans also, mostly military personnel. They’re real people doing a real job; and the fact they’re my fans helps convince me of the thing that I never quite believe: I’m real too.
Jo went off with Val to Kensington Palace and Garden in the afternoon. John T took me around the whole show. It’s huge–three levels full of stands and people–but in the order of 5K people rather than the 50K I was afraid of. (It’s Olympia 2, not the combined complex.)
Salute is basically a trade show where wargamers come to buy and sell books and equipment, but there are club displays and also demonstration games put on by manufacturers. I won’t try to describe a fraction of the displays, but there was an amazingly detailed one of an action in the British breakout from Normandy in 1944; a multi-level game (run unusually by a group of women) involving flying pigs and armed sheep; a club from Dortmund, Germany, with a game based on the 1942 battle for Henderson Field on Guadalcanal; and the one that absolutely blew my mind: the 1644 Battle of Naseby in the English Civil War, done in 6-mm scale at one to one. That is, there were 3000 individually painted figures on a board about six feet by twenty.
I picked up a few books and took a few pictures–none that really do justice to the displays, I’d have to say. I had a remarkably good time and got many positive strokes. The team involved in the Hammer’s Slammers game couldn’t have been nicer or more pleasant to be around.
John and Val had to go back to Kirsten, so Jo and I found another good restaurant (also Italian, as it chanced) and had dinner. When we wandered out I found an internet cafe (for the first time in my life) and learned that all was still well. (We have pets and I worry about them.)
April 25: We had an adventure. When I was 14 or so I’d read of the concrete dinosaurs built by Waterhouse Hawkins in 1854 when the Crystal Palace was moved from Hyde Park to SE London (technically in Kent, as a matter of fact). They still exist, and I decided to go see them.
This doesn’t look difficult in London A-Z, but London is a huge city. More important, the SE is a poor area (Jo pointed out that you could judge the district’s economic status by the fact that closed shops were covered by locked steel shutters–unlike those of Kensington) and the Underground doesn’t run to it. John L got me a (surface) railway timetable, however.
The problem was that not only the Underground but the rail net was being worked on. We were put out at Balham to take a bus the rest of the way. We were completely befuddled, but so were the Londoners caught in the same bind. The transport officials in Balham gave short, non-communicative, answers.
But the bus came and very slowly trundled its way toward Crystal Palace. It was a lengthy journey, but not uninteresting. Eventually we were put out near the station where we’d have normally gotten off the train.
Which left the problem of how the hell to get into the grounds, to where my webmaster, Karen, had determined the dinosaur court to be. Crystal Palace has a huge soccer stadium, and the grounds are separated from the train station by chain-link fence. We walked, asked questions, walked more, and eventually got to where we wanted to be.
Which was well worth the considerable effort. There were more, and more varied, critters than I’d realized. Besides the dinosaurs they included Ice Age mammals looking much like modern restorations, and labyrinthodont amphibians restored as viciously toothed toads instead of salamanders as they’d be today. For that matter, I hadn’t realized there was a hyleosaur (a European dinosaur akin to the North American stegosaur) as well as the iguanodonts being threatened by a megalosaur. I wonder if the hyleosaur isn’t mentioned because the restoration is basically accurate, while Hawkins (and Richard Owen, his expert) got the other two dinosaurs wildly wrong.
I took many pictures and basically had a wonderful time. (I also got a picture of a moorhen nesting on a branch in one of the site’s water features.) We went through the restored maze (the only hornbeam maze in England!) and then took the bus slowly back to Balham and the train.
We wound up walking from Victoria because the crowded Underground made Jo too uncomfortable to ride. We got briefly off course but managed to find Cromwell Road eventually.
On the way to the hotel we stopped at the NHM and stayed till closing, going through among others the invertebrate and some of the mineral sections. Much of the museum has been modernized with interactive displays and lots of bill-board type information, teaching the visitor about (say) primates or evolution. The mineral sections are old-style, with ranks and ranks of specimens in glass cases.
I think the old way is better. The modernized sections do nothing that can’t be done better and more easily with books or on-line. Nothing but a museum case will show you the variation in a hundred specimens of aragonite. (But I’m personally conservative, which I’m sure biases my attitude.)
I finished the 256M card in my camera here and changed it for the 128M card I brought as a backup. The batteries (four AAs) held up fine.
We relaxed in the room, then went out to find another (as it chanced) Italian restaurant. We got there at 6:30, which appears to be early for England as we had the place to ourselves till we were almost ready to leave. One of the specials was squid, which of course I had; and quite good it was.
Despite the predictions, the weather in Kent was occasionally drizzly and that in London warm and sunny. We couldn’t have asked for better, though we’d have managed regardless.
April 26: We’d packed the night before, so it was just a matter of carrying our bags to the Glouchester Road Underground station to catch a cab (which was impossible in front of the hotel at 9:30 AM). We arrived at Victoria and got the Gatwick Express, expensive but very simple and therefore worth what it cost. There was no problem with British security, and the flight (though full) was on time and without incident. A Trans-Atlantic flight isn’t ever going to be my idea of a good time, but I read the illustrated biography of John Soane and have no complaints about anything till we arrived in Philadelphia. Then it got unpleasant.
Passengers are dumped off with minimal direction and proceed through lengthy corridors and slide belts. No one from US Airways or the airport itself was present to give guidance. We suddenly arrived at Security, though we hadn’t been out of security since arrival in Gatwick. I was instantly told to take off my shoes–which hadn’t been necessary in Britain–and was the subject of lengthy concern, this time over my antique shaving kit (from which I’d removed the razor blade). I guess it’s my karma; perhaps in a former life I was an unusually stupid and officious security person.
After another lengthy walk carrying our baggage, we got to the gate for the flight back to RDU. The flight left at 5:30 PM; it was 4:30 in Philadelphia, according to the way I’d reset my watch (back five hours from London). I handed the clerk our boarding cards, deeply thankful that we’d made it in time.
The clerk typed silently for a while, looking unhappy. He then tore up our boarding cards, telling us we’d missed the flight. We could get on the 7:20 PM flight.
I was flabbergasted and horrified. I protested that it was 4:30 and the flight shouldn’t have left for another hour. He then actually looked at our tickets for the first time and told us he’d thought we were on a different flight, that he’d reissue our boarding cards. I had a vision of Emily Littela reincarnated as a flaming queen, saying, “Never mind.”
He then took serious offense when I said, calmly but disgustedly, that his actions were in keeping with the callous disregard the rest of the US Air staff in Philadelphia was showing for its passengers. Without wishing ill to another human being, I hope he’s treated in the fashion he treated us after he gets off an 8-hour flight.
The flight to RDU was unexceptionable. We caught the shuttle to the lot where we’d left the car. Jo drove us home, which was sparklingly clean–our housesitter had outdone herself.
It was a wonderful trip, but it’s good to be back.