15 December 2000, Friday
When I woke up, we were passing over Ireland. With a great tailwind, we’d made up lost time and arrived at London Heathrow at 10:30 a.m., right on schedule. Having prepared myself for rain—it had been a very rainy December, Anna had been telling me via e-mail; there was serious flooding in parts of the country—it was a gorgeous, sunny day, and the pilot gave us a fabulous view of London from the air, making a west-east-west pass over the city while he waited for a slot to land. The River Thames was a sparkling curlicue of ribbon through the center of the city.
The sight of it was magic. It was hard to believe after all our talk and planning and saving that we were actually here! When we passed through Customs and arrived, blinking and pinching ourselves, on the other side, our friend Anna was there with a grin and a hug.
After a thirty-minute ride to “the royal county of Berkshire” (that’s pronounced BARK-shur, by the way; the “royal” part has to do with the fact that the Queen makes her home in Windsor, which is located in Berkshire), we unloaded the luggage and had a quick cup of tea.
Anna made three pronouncements: 1) I should write everything down, so as not to forget the details of the trip (and she presented me with a journal to do so); 2) this would not be “an American vacation,” running from pillar to post trying to do and see hundreds of things in one day; instead, we’d explore leisurely; and 3) we had token gifts under the tree but our real gifts were special activities that she and her husband Eoin had planned. (Pronounce this Owen; Eoin is the Gaelic spelling of this name, a nod to Eoin’s birth in Northern Ireland and his Irish heritage.)
After this breather, we got back into the car for a drive ’round the close countryside. First stop, Eoin’s office. It was located in a business center (we Yanks would call it an office building) in Swallowfield. Called Wyvols Court, it’s actually an old country home that was converted to business use. I was constantly delighted by the way the English blend the old and the new, and this office building is a great example of that. (Eoin was out, so we had to postpone our meeting for later in the day, at which time he good-naturedly submitted to a very American hug from me, although it wasn’t really his style. Ha.)
Southern England had experienced a heavier-than-normal rainfall during the autumn of 2000, and the little neighboring towns we drove through were still showing the effects of flooding, particularly in locations along the Thames. At our next stop, Bisham Village (recorded in the Domesday Book, y’all!), we visited the parish church, Bisham All Saints, whose churchyard was still under some water.
The sun was beginning to set; many of my photos from this place are in shadows. But this one shows the twelfth-century tower (those brick quoins were added in the fifteenth century) juxtaposed with a wall of river rock, all ablaze with the late afternoon sun—I thought it was lovely.
From here we drove through Henley-on-Thames, the small town that is synonymous with the sport of rowing, and from there to Marlow. We parked and walked through a walled alley—at dusk! I confess I was nervous—into the center of town.
We walked along the canal to the lock; Anna told us that on warm summer evenings she and Eoin often came to watch amateur (and, often, inebriated) boatmen attempt to negotiate the lock. Ah, such sport!
We wandered on to a tea shop and had afternoon tea and scones. (Note to American readers: pronounce this with a short o—skahn. Honest.) It was here that I was first introduced to clotted cream. My friends, it is worth a trip to England for clotted cream. And the notion of hot drinks and baked goods of an afternoon is quite civilized. I could get used to this.