In Which Our Heroine Goes for a Drive
Monday at noon we picked up our car--a nice blue Vauxhall which was billed as a compact car, but handled like a young tank (in justice, I'm used to driving a '97 Honda Civic, in comparison to which some bicycles handle like a young tank). Got directions out of the city and in the direction of London (that is, south) from the nice bellman at the Hilton; getting directions in a city you don't know, for driving on the left side of the road, from someone with a thick Scots accent, inspires a certain amount of terror. Despite this, we made it out of the city and onto the motorway. After about twenty minutes I found that my terror had dissipated and I was driving pretty easily. It was a sunny day, blue skies and a light wind. After about an hour we pulled off the motorway in search of lunch, which we found in a tiny little inn that looked like something out of Local Hero
, with a couple tables of locals eying the foreign girls with some amusement. They were particularly astonished by the fact that we were driving to London; driving round Scotland seemed to make sense to them, but why cross the border? After lunch we continued south, stopping in Gretna Green (yes, it's become a tourist trap, but it used to be a significant destination for eloping heiresses and thus is applicable to my work) and then veering south east, toward Newcastle Upon Tyne. Here and there in the distance we saw the odd castle--Ellen, whose prior visit to the UK had not included much travel through the countryside, was bemused by the casual appearence of castles, which does take one aback at first. And the moors were beautiful, green and gray, stretching on forever, treeless and rolling; made me think of Dickon Sowerby in The Secret Garden,
talking about how alive the moor is. Finally we decided to aim for Whitby. "It's where Dracula's ship landed," I said. "You don't think anyone there knows that, do you?" Ellen was dubious.
Whitby, a large, handsome town on the North Sea, is certainly aware of Dracula
; there were a couple of stores which were targeted at the Vampire trade, and a video about Bram Stoker's visit to Whitby at the Information Office. We arrived at the end of a four-day regatta; happily, while the town was very busy, there were still B&Bs with rooms. We got a tiny, pleasant room and set out to explore a little; the end of the regatta was being celebrated with fireworks after dark. In the meantime we made our way to the pier, where there was a carnival in full swing, thick crowds of determined merry-makers, many of them walking about eating fish and chips. No one,
however, was offering sit-down dining, no matter where we looked. At last we got fish and chips, ate them while leaning against a church, and repaired to a pub for a pint before going back to the room with fireworks exploding behind us. Next morning we went off to find an internet cafe, and wound up walking around Whitby a little more. The ruins of the abbey, high on a hill, loom over the harbor; a sailing ship, The Grand Turk,
is moored near the train station (there's a transportational metaphor there, I know it). The town is hilly, and every time we went up one more little street we'd find a couple of curious shops. My favorites were the sweet shop, the model train shop, the pork shop selling pork-and-stuffing sandwiches the scent of which had me swooning, and the antique shop where someone had made a very clever coffee table out of an old mother-of-pearl inlaid accordion. I'd like to go back to Whitby again some day and spend enough time to get to know it.
We set off again and wound up, about one o'clock, in York. I'd been there once before, traveling by train, which had put me near Mickelgate Bar (the Bars are the medieval gates in the wall). Coming in by car we wound up at Monk Bar and spent an hour or so wandering, got some lunch, made it to the National Railway Museum. York feels
medieval--it's not just the half-timbered buildings that slope toward each other, or the winding narrow streets or the wall that rings the oldest part of the city, or the the Minster, which shadows the city no matter where you are. Or it's all those things, and an indefinable sense of having settled in to watch the years and events pass through its streets. After a few hours we had to push off for Oxford--again feeling like we hadn't had quite enough time. This time we made most of that trip on the Motorway, covering a lot of ground fast. Got to Oxford about 7pm, with no clue where to stay, so (children of the internet age that we are) we parked, found an internet cafe, and found the nearest affordable hotel room...in Swinton, 30 miles away. By the time we reached Swinton (with the gas gauge nearing empty) it was close to 9pm. Our hotel room was neither so luxe as the Hilton, nor so charming as the one in Whitby. Still, the water was hot and the bar had food. Swinton may have charm and history, but where we were--The Thistle Hotel--there appeared to be neither. On the other hand, looking at the land and the town names as we drove, I felt like I was driving through a Dick Francis novel, which was rather cool.
Next morning, scanning anxiously for petrol, we drove back to Oxford to spend the day there. It kept threatening to rain, but we found a garage, a street market, and the approximate site of the inn where Miss Tolerance stays in Point of Honour
. I have to say that Ellen was very good humored about following me around as I checked in on sites from my work--a strange kind of pilgrimage, I suppose. As it is summer most of the colleges were closed, but we did get to see Carfax Tower and Christ Church, and to goggle at the gargoyles. About three, we got the car out and resumed our--by now rather frantic--search for petrol. Had to drive half way to Swinton, but finally refilled, and headed back east to London. It was by now a clear, sunny, beautiful day. I managed to keep my anxieties about driving in London under wraps, and we sped along the Motorway ("Castle!" said Ellen. I looked up to see a familiar bit of architecture. "Uh huh. Windsor Castle," I said. "It's just sitting
out here?") and into London. I had--belt and suspenders me--plotted a route into the city which we more or less followed, which more or less worked, although in the last half mile or so we got tangled up and had to keep working our way back toward Kemplay Road, which kept eluding us. Sometime around 6pm we found our bed and breakfast, arranged for parking for the night, and (as by this point, it was too late to return our chariot to the nice people at Alamo) and settled in for the last chunk of our holiday.
Which will be on the next rock.