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part one: london and gloucestershire trip report

2004-06-12 - 7:39 a.m.

Note: This page is part one of my trip to England. For my bird list and photos, click right here. For a short photo essay on the colorful London cabs, click right here.

All photos © 2004 by Elaine Radford.

palace guard at buckingham palace

May 27, 2004

We flew to London via Detroit. Our long layover at DTW gave us the opportunity to see three House Sparrows living in the trees at the Detroit airport -- three more than we would see in all of London.

red-breasted goose at st. james park

Since we spent the night on the plane, where it was impossible to sleep because 1) they forgot to turn off the lights in the cabin, or perhaps the lights were jammed so they wouldn't go off, despite customer complaints, and 2) they came by constantly with food and drink, we were a bit weary and glad to be greeted by lots of sunshine when we landed in London. We took a long walk around the parks of the Belgravia area, exploring most particularly Green Park and St. James Park, and passing Buckingham Palace and various monuments any number of times in our rambles.

mute swan

St. James, with its Birdcage Walk, once the site of a large royal collection of waterfowl and still well supplied with water birds from pelicans on down, presented quite a challenge to the lister, as I didn't want to accidentally list any birds that weren't truly wild. I felt safe enough listing if I saw birds fly a good distance across the sky -- Mallard and Canada Goose, for example -- or if the birds were clearly well established native breeders, such as the many Eurasian Coot families putting their nests any old place around the park. I wrestled a bit before adding Mandarin Duck. The complete family, with male, female, and newly hatched ducklings, was free-roaming and unbanded, but I didn't feel entirely comfortable listing them until I read that they'd been accepted as introduced breeding birds for over a century. A great many of England's birds are recent introductions, including such highly visible symbols of the English countryside as the Eurasian Collared Dove and the Ring-necked Pheasant. If you didn't list any of them, you'd end up with an awfully short list.

I felt a bit sad, remembering when I visited in 1982, that the abundance of the House Sparrow was such that one of the attractions was to stroll in the park and see one of the local eccentrics allow Sparrows to perch over his entire body. Now they are Red-Listed -- an endangered species -- for the area, and we didn't see so much as a feather.

D. had heard much about the famous Indian restaurants of London, and we picked one called the Buckingham Balti House, where we enjoyed two different kinds of well-spiced chicken.

houses of parliament from the thames

May 28, 2004

Today we took the "Big Bus" tour of London, which allowed you to hop on and off the sightseeing bus all day, and which also included a free boat ride on the Thames River. We pretty much saw it all -- the Tower, Trafalgar Square, Piccaddilly Circus, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminister Abbey, and the Marble Arch under plastic because it is being restored. We all know what London looks like, so I'll try not to inflict too many photos on my picture hosting, but I can't resist including a few, so if anyone is reading this on a dial-up modem, they are probably cursing and gnashing their teeth by now.

detail, westminster abbey, martin luther king, one of the modern martyrs

Our new bird of the day was the famous Magpie. There was a big sloppy nest complete with begging fledglings in a tree near the river, allowing us good looks at this classic species of English folklore.

tower, london

We walked all around the Tower but never got a hint of the famous Ravens. I read they are actually tame birds anyway, which seems like cheating to me -- no wonder England lost its empire with that much respect paid to the old superstitions. When I visited London in 1982, the crown jewels were being cleaned, so I briefly considered entering the Tower again, until we saw the long line. There were too many other sights to see to wait! Later our friends said they had gone in, and they rather bitterly reported being rushed by the jewels on a "conveyor belt," so I think we made the right decision.

bridge, london

I'm not sure when it happened, but London has thrown open its great museums to the public -- no lines, no ticket sales, just walk right in. Having made this discovery, we couldn't be torn away from the National Gallery. Indeed, we left once and then visited again, and still didn't get close to seeing everything.

We had to set priorities, so we concentrated on the Renaissance artists. The mystery of "The Ambassadors," 1583, by Hans Holbein the Younger, captured our attention with its photo-realistic detail broken by the distorted skull in the foreground of the painting. The meaning of the piece is said to be unknown. I have to confess that I suspect a little bit of show-boating -- I can paint everything exactly as it appears to the human eye but if I wanted to I could just as well paint things as they could never exist.

Here's a link to the National Gallery's page about the painting, but it doesn't even give a hint of true weirdness of this piece in person, where you can see every thread in the fabric.

pigeon's last supper

Outside the National Gallery, a street artist worked on a copy of The Last Supper, here being strolled upon by a disrespectful pigeon. The painting actually seemed done, except for the constant cleaning up of pigeon poop, but the artist managed to collect a few coins in his cap anyway.

May 29, 2004

What is a diary without some bitching and moaning? Today is the day we set out for our cottage in the country, only to discover that 1) it wasn't where we were told it was, 2) the bus no longer went all the way to where it wasn't, so we actually ended up stranded in a third location, and 3) when the taxicab driver finally figured out where to actually deliver us, we found ourselves way out in the way out without a telephone. So much for the plan to call up a taxi or a rental car to be delivered to our cottage as needed.

As for our friends, who claimed to be able to drive British style, I'm sorry to say that their confidence exceeded their abilities. We may as well skip ahead and confess that the car was totalled by Wednesday evening, fortunately without any injury to anyone. In theory it was possible to walk to and from the nearest village with actual stores and pubs in a mere 7 mile round-trip; in practice, the confusion of cryptically signed footpaths meant we could (and did) wander for hours without getting much of anywhere. Sigh. Long bitter sigh. And that's enough of the bitching.

On the positive side, after the bus dumped us bag and baggage at Cirencester at what clearly wasn't a bus station or transfer point, a taxicab driver kindly took the time out of his schedule to phone around until he found someone with the time to help us locate our cottage. The courtesy of the British people never fails to astound me. People in Louisiana are friendly and fast with a smile, but English people truly go out of their way to help strangers.

Anyway, our cottage turned out to be not 2 miles from Stow-on-the-Wold as advertised (I'm guessing it was more like 7 or 8 miles) but 3.5 miles from Moreton-in-Marsh. Had we known our actual destination, we could have taken the train and reached our destination at a fraction of the time and cost. I still have a print-out of the internet ad for the cottage, and there is no getting around the fact that it's a remarkable work of short fiction.

detail, door with roses, moreton-in-marsh

The sad thing is, there was really no reason to fib, for the place could have attracted visitors on its own merits. The stone buildings, including the old Norman church, were quite beautiful, and we were greeted by singing Blackbird and even a Skylark. As a bonus, we quickly discovered that the House Sparrow still thrived, at least for now, in the tiny village.

We all had dinner together at the Marshmallow House in Moreton, where most of us enjoyed the roast duck with cherry sauce and indulged in the Villa Rosci 2002 Merlot from Chile.

blackbird at green park

Note: You have just read part one of my England trip report. The rest of the story is coming soon. For my bird list and photos, click right here. For a short photo essay on the colorful London cabs, click right here.

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