Exploring England

Story by Shelly Frome

   Nine years ago, my wife Susan and I didn’t know what crossing the pond meant, didn’t realize it stood for flying over the Atlantic to the U.K. We also didn’t realize that many Brits during that particular summer viewed us as a quaint species.

   For example, during one of our first encounters in London inside a black cab that reminded us of a bowler hat, the driver gave us his view of our fellow countrymen. Let me tell you something, said the curly-headed man with the fixed grin, first off, most of you lot, present company excluded, of course, want to know what the weathers going to be. Then you want to know what that statue is and what’s the story behind that monument and that park and so on. Now I don’t know the answers, now do I? But Im forced to come up with something. So I say, It’s going to be right fair with cloudy intervals with a chance for a spot of rain. Next I say, that’s a statue of Lord Nelson peeking out to make sure his ships are neat and tidy and all in a row. What? Those thingamabobs? They are in honor of young Elizabeth whilst frolicking about as a maiden. What’s that? Why is it called Regents Park? Well, because it’s where all the regents went larking about having picnics and such, now ain’t it?

   Another general take on Americans nine years ago was the notion that we’re all obsessed with personal feelings and assume everyone is dying to hear our heartaches and woes. Can’t stand most American films, said a caretaker tidying up our rented cottage on the Thames near Maidenhead. All these characters moaning about how nobody understands them, or wanting to know if somebody really loves them. Who bloody cares? Give me something like Braveheart where people are too busy lopping off each others arms and legs to have time for such nonsense. And, at a bookstore in the heart of Oxford: Come to browse, have you? Well up on the fourth floor back in the corner we have a few self-help books provided especially for you Americans.

   On the other hand, we were also treated as a bit fragile and in need of care. For instance, after simply inquiring about the location of the nearest convenience store in Swiss Cottage near Hampstead, a concerned middle-aged matron insisted that we not shop at a nearby rather cramped convenient establishment lest they rob us blind. Instead, we should trek to a Sainsburys, a much larger purveyor of groceries where we would find more reasonably priced goods and could slip away without being noticed as hapless urchins from the U.S. In this same vein, most clerks everywhere helped us count out our British currency. When we did come up with the exact amount all on our own, we were treated like shy schoolchildren in need of encouragement : That’s it, spot on, well done, perfectly lovely. Mind how you go.

   This time around however (this past July to be exact), while Susan was conducting interviews at the British Film Institute on the South Bank and I was gathering material for another novel, something apparently had changed. This time around there seemed to be nothing distinctive about being an American. In fact Americans were lost in the shuffle as streams of people from every known nationality milled about as if this was the last chance to see the U.K. before all flights were cancelled. As a result, London and even Bath appeared to be a whirling blur of desperately lost humanity.

   In a black cab attempting to get through the swarm during the changing of the guard (on the way to Covent Garden and lunch at Porters), pedestrians appeared to be on a suicide mission as they heedlessly lunged in front of vans, motor-scooters and mini Coopers. No standards, said our driver in a haughty cockney accent. No foundation at all. I tell you in the old days when things were done proper, tourists would go to a proper crossing, wait a respectful interval, and walk proper to their destination. Everythings become quite dotty.

   Adding to the dotty whirl, were now three times as many black cabs which had somehow turned all colors. Many were plastered with advertisements so that the only thing that distinguished them from the independent gypsy cabs (driven by immigrants who were even more lost than the tourists) was a tiny license plate obscurely tucked under the back bumper. Accommodations anywhere near central London were cramped and more expensive than ever, still with no air-conditioning. And requests for a fan were greeted with looks of astonishment as though you required a draft so that you could be sure to catch pneumonia.

   In neighborhoods like Victoria, American tourists were lining up outside ATM machines, overtaxing their debit cards after discovering that the rate of exchange was against them and the British pound was worth almost twice as much. A dinner at Shephards in the Westminster/Victoria area or any restaurant in Holland Park or just about any respectable restaurant anywhere for that matter, might very well cause you to find a Sainsburys the next day and stock up on biscuits and cheddar while you contemplated where it all went wrong.

   Even a getaway like Kensington Gardens, a supposedly bucolic broad expanse of open greenery west of Hyde Park, far from the maddening crowd, brought you up against more throngs of lost souls walking here and there for seemingly miles on end, going nowhere.

   Forget dinner. Just try to find the Orangery, somewhere north of Kensington Palace advertised as respite from the hustle and bustle and the most amazing place for afternoon tea, set in a quiet pavilion amid rows of potted orange trees. After many shrugs and exclamations in European, Scandinavian and various Asian tongues, we encountered a wiry little gentleman on a bicycle, dressed to the nines in a wool suit and tie on this particular sultry afternoon. Extremely well-mannered, he not only spoke English but treated us as if he were our British manservant. Appropriately, he came equipped with a pouch full of maps detailing every footpath in every section of London and did his level best to pinpoint the exact location of the mysterious tea room. Alas, after duly examining all his charts, he gently threw up his hands, offered Susan the use of his trusty bicycle to scout about on her own. Gentleman that he was, he would wait upon her return. We declined his generous offer for many reasons, not the least being that we might wind up on the M5 and he might never see his only means of transport again.

   On to Bath and a replica of the same throngs streaming through the ancient squares and plazas. It was here that we learned that one must plan in advance if one needs medical attention. At the tiniest hint of a cold, one calls for an appointment for the following fortnight in anticipation of eventually coming down with bronchitis. (In this instance, I had accidentally scraped my wrist on a staple and had no alternative but to seek help from a sophisticated lady pharmacist who, graciously taking pity on me, prescribed the proper over the counter medication.) What would happen to anyone who became seriously ill, didn’t speak English, and hadn’t planned on the event two weeks ahead of time is anyones guess.

   By this point, we had given up on the notion that being American was in any way meaningful or distinctive, accepted Heisenbergs uncertainty principle and, come what may, enjoyed the locals. As the exception to the rule, these eccentric individuals were not lost in the whirl, were as colorful as ever and an endless source of delight.

   As a case in point, while others were frantically cramming into a bus for a tour starting by the Terrace Walk adjacent to the River Avon and the Pulteney Bridge, a busty dowager with a sturdy walking stick plopped down next to me on a suddenly vacant bench. Without the slightest introduction or hesitation, she began her monologue. On holiday? Splendid weather, isn’t it? Tell me, love, do you live by Cincinnati? Or do you know of it? You see, his name was Roger. Writes every Christmas, oh yes. Must have been fifty years ago when I was only a slip of a girl. Yes, promise, that’s the truth of it. Wanted me to go with him to Cincinnati, he did. But now how could I simply go off like that? A slip of a girl like me? Then again, he did earn good wages he said. With the phone company mind. Bit of a puzzle though. All these years, writes me lovely long letters. With the phone company still, but never phones. What do you make of it?

   She required no answers, of course. Just a chance to share her dream in the land of what-might-have-been.

   Susan and I cheerfully continued on this selfsame come-what-may tack for a while longer but, admittedly, had prearranged for an alternate venture. The assumption was that being totally on our own, our luck might run out and, besides, we wanted to experience Cornwall and the moors of Devon. Not with the gaggle and throngs (not that we had any idea of the present nature of the gaggle and throngs). But we whimsically wished to experience portions of hidden England on our own terms at our own pace, driven hither and yon by a hoped-for kindred spirit who would humor us.

   To make the proverbial long story short, her name was Christy Gray. She hailed from a small town near Athens, Georgia, had fallen in love with the U.K. at the first sign of the Beetles, knew all the back roads and hidden dales like the back of her hand and, for a reasonable fee paid well in advance, would take care of all the accommodations, regale us with stories and all manner of arcane information about each stop and vista on our dream itinerary.

   For example, she said, lets pop in to Lydford Castle which dates back to pre-Saxon times. Its one of the most haunted ruins and dark places in the country. Right next to it is the Lydford church which is so-o-o peaceful. The pews are carved in the flora and fauna of Devon and dates back to 641 AD. Then we can have lunch at the Castle Inn, grab a settle by the Inglenook fire place and have us a Sunday roast of beef or lamb with Yorkshire pudding and all the fixings. After that we can head on down across the Tamar River and head for Fowey where Daphne du Maurier lived, take the ferry and check out the narrow streets that tumble down to the waterfront along the quay and have us a good ol time. I want y’all to see all these special things (pronounced thangs). Then after a good Cornish breakfast, lets up and out early and head on for the wilds and along the Botallack Tin Mines where the sea pounds the coasts, and then it’s the tall hedge rows and moors where they filmed The Hound of the Baskervilles and then slip-slidin our way to the open spots and the wild Dartmoor ponies.

   As I mentioned, it was an alternative, a dramatic contrast. Only two drawbacks for anyone interested. Safely ensconced and tooling around beyond the pale, you missed out on the sea of humanity and all manner of chance meetings. And oddly enough, to the amazement of friends and relatives back in Connecticut, you came home with a deep southern accent.

(Shelly Frome taught theater at UConn for many years, and now is a free lance writer living in Litchfield, with his wife, Susan)