Just before arriving in London I was rattled to learn that my hotel reservation in the popular Bayswater area was cancelled due to a plumbing explosion. With only five days in England, I resented spending any of it finding a place to stay – especially when the result was a higher price for poor service. Enough about that mischance except to say that there usually is a bright side to every travel snafu. In this case it was finding myself located near King's Cross rail station and within walking distance of the magnificent British Library and one of Charles Dickens' London residences. That was good news for a bookworm like me.
I think half the fun of traveling is building "mind movies" in preparation for a trip. Reading up beforehand and having book companions during a journey enriches the experience immeasurably. For example, I had previously read London by Edward Rutherford. His absorbing fictional history of the city, going back to Celtic times, stuck in mind and his words came to life as I visited associated places.
Independent travel calls for lots of self-planning, so I made Rick Steves' book, Great Britain 2006, my best buddy on this trip. Not only would the book be my guide around London and a helpmate in planning day excursions, it would also be an agreeable pick-me-up reader to help fill any solitary moment along the way. With Steves' book in hand, I was ready to go – first stop, the Dickens' House Museum at 48 Doughty Street, just a 20-minute walk from my hotel.
Charles Dickens lived with his family in this block of modest terrace homes from 1837 to 1839, quite early in his career. Besides its collection of personal artifacts, the museum has a huge library of Dickens' works. I spent a pleasant couple of hours musing with Victorian England's most celebrated writer and social commentator. I left the museum with the images and words of Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, Nicholas Nickleby, and the like, echoing in mind and with time enough to stroll the Strand, Pall Mall, Fleet Street, and the Inns of Court – all haunts of the Boz's characters.
The next day I had a small dilemma deciding whether to venture solo to Bath or join one of the tours available everywhere for about US$100. It's time consuming sorting through schedules and fares. There's always the anxiety of making connections. I'd probably see more and maybe learn more on a tour. Do-it-yourself planning means there's no one to blame but yourself when blunders occur. Steves' book recommended going with a tour and dumping the group on arrival. Yes, a tour was tempting, but in the end I opted to do it on my own. And I'm glad I did – I found it empowering – even though I admit I made a poor choice in going the longer route via Victoria Station (2:15 hours £15) instead of Paddington Station (90 minutes £16.50). I wasted precious time to save just a little money.
Bath first became a cultural center because of a bubbling mineral spring that can be traced back to the Celts whose legends of leper cures rendered the place religiously significant. The Romans brought Bath lasting fame by building a grand bathing complex at the site. It still flows with natural hot water today. I could stroll the excellent museum that surrounds the spring, but if I wanted to take a bath I'd have to go to the modern Thermae Bath Spa (£12) nearby.
Anyway, I was more interested in Jane Austen. Having lived in Bath from 1801 to 1806, she saw the town in its heyday Georgian era. In those days the fashionable set came to Bath to take the waters, and they marked their stay with distinctive honey-colored limestone architecture.
I went along to the Jane Austen Centre at 25 Gray Street to pay my respects to the author of the first feminist novel. Among the tidbits of Austen's life and times, I learned that Bath had inspired the setting for two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey. I was inspired just being there sitting in her former drawing room, having tea and time to stop and think: Austen novels are read and enjoyed for their wit and insight into human nature as much or more today as when first published in the mid 1800s.
With a mental note to give my favorite, Pride and Prejudice, a fresh read at the first opportunity, I left Jane Austen in Bath and went to catch my train back to London.
On the way, I contemplated where to go on day three. In keeping with my literary theme, I thought about taking in the Sherlock Holmes Museum in Baker Street, but when I awoke next morning to grand weather, I decided a river outing was more appealing. The beauty of self-directed touring is being able to change your mind on a whim, so I hopped on the nearest tube (Northern Line) aimed for Waterloo Station on the south bank of the River Thames.
The newest hot attraction near here is the London Eye, a futuristic Ferris wheel that dominates the skyline. With one look at the long queue waiting to board, I changed course again. Waterloo Pier was handy, so I opted, instead, for an old-fashioned but relaxing boat ride, sans smog and traffic.
As the boat slipped under bridges recognizable from literature and history, many architectural gems came and went from view – St Paul's Cathedral, Big Ben, the Tower of London, and Shakespeare's Globe Theatre, which was rebuilt in the 1990s to Elizabethan specifications.
Following a Rick Steves tip, I disembarked and took the tube to the Black Friar Pub situated near the bridge and tube station of the same name. Formerly a Dominican monastery in medieval times, the Black Friar, in its modern life as a pub, is famous for its food, ale, and especially for its decor. Wonderful carvings, sculptures and mosaics of jolly monks decorate the place inside and out.
After that memorable respite from rambling, I was energized for an evening of theater. Billy Eliot – the Musical was playing nearby at the Victoria Palace, and I luckily managed to get a seat. That was the perfect finale to a full day of sightseeing.
It required an early rise to make the most of my day in Stratford-upon-Avon – the train takes 2.5 hours each way from Paddington Station (£45 round-trip).
My visit to Stratford was much enriched by having read Steven Greenblatt's Will in the World and Michael Wood's Shakespeare, which accompanied the 2004 PBS series In Search of Shakespeare.
Narrated city bus tours circulate this town bursting with must-sees, but I joined one of the free walking tours.
The docents are passionate and knowledgeable about this vibrant market town where England's revered Bard was born in 1564. With their help I imagined the countryside in Will's day, covered with forests that inspired his loveliest settings. I learned that the town's name is Celtic in origin. Straat-ford-upon-Avon: The street that leads to the bridge over the River.
These days, Henley Street is marked with a statue of the Jester whose voice reveals the most telling point of view in so many of Shakespeare's works.
Nature lovers will appreciate the gardens surrounding Shakespeare's birthplace and Anne Hathaway's cottage.
In Mary Arden, Shakespeare's dad married money. The birder in me was thrilled with the raptor aviary at her farm where the Heart of England Falconry regularly displays this ancient hunting sport.
Classic Stratford tours include Nash's House, Hall's Croft, and the Shakespeare Countryside Museum – an educational center and working farm. This can easily fill two days. Then there are the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Holy Trinity Church where Will was married and buried, shops to browse, nearby Warwick Castle, and not far away, Oxford.
Back in London with a more leisurely day planned before leaving for home, I strolled over to the British Library. Housing the nation's largest collection of books, this place spells "literature" in the largest sense. The reference library is heaven for serious researchers, but even mildly bookish types should take a browse through its Treasures exhibit, a dumfounding selection of priceless historical manuscripts such as Shakespeare's first Folio and the Gutenberg Bible. Most awesome, I thought, was Turning the Pages, which allows you to browse virtually through ancient documents like the Magna Carta.
The British Library also hosts numerous special lectures, and concerts, which need reservations, so another time I would be sure and check what's on in advance.
I could have used more than five days, but at least, with plenty of helpful words to go by, every minute was well spent.