Not an England Trip Report
By Evelyn C. Leeper
Copyright 2000 Evelyn C. Leeper

October 17/18, 2000: fly to London, arrive in Swindon
October 18-20, 2000: work
October 21, 2000: Ludlow (Ludlow Castle), Cirencester (Circencester Cathedral)
October 22, 2000: Oxford (Ashmolean Museum), Avebury (Long Barrow, standing stones)
October 23-27, 2000: work
October 28, 2000: London (bookshops, 84 Charing Cross Road, "Copenhagen")
October 29, 2000: London (British Museum, bookshops, 221B Baker Street, visit Lauren)
October 30, 2000: work from hotel
October 31-November 3, 2000: work
November 2, 2000: London Tun
November 4, 2000: Wooton Bassett, "Billy Elliott"
November 5, 2000: hotel
November 6-7, 2000: work
November 8, 2000: return to New Jersey

First of all, I want to state that we have now determined whether it is Mark's presence or mine that causes disasters, mostly in the form of bad weather, to break out when we go somewhere. It's mine.

When I arrived at work Tuesday (17 October), I had my (carryon) suitcase slung over one shoulder. After I got off the elevator, someone mentioned to Mark that I seemed to be carrying a big pack for work. When Mark said I was going on a three-week trip and that was my luggage, their opinion changed markedly.

Actually, my suitcase was a little overstuffed, since I was bringing a tweed jacket and a small duffel bag for souvenirs (okay, books) in addition to everything else. And I was stuck with a laptop as well.

I have in fact made several concessions in my luggage this trip. My concession to getting older and less flexible is that I packed a shoe horn. My concession to this being a business trip is that I packed a jacket and a second pair of shoes. My concession to this being a long trip was that I packed fewer books (only four, one of which will get abandoned), but packed an additional bag for what I'd buy. The one concession I wasn't willing to make was to check luggage, at least going out. (My co-worker expressed skepticism that I could make it through immigration and baggage claim in time to catch the first train. I resisted asking innocently, "What's baggage claim'?")

In an amazingly useless piece of bureaucracy, the FAA (or someone) requires all US citizens who are passengers on an international flight to fill in a card with their name. Stupid though this is, United Airlines goes them one better and has you fill this out on the back of the boarding pass--which already has your name printed on the front!

"Hindu Vegetarian." Those are the magic words that will get you a good airline meal--at least it worked for me this time. The meal was one of the three best airline meals I've had, the other two being a Japanese bento on a trans-Pacific flight and a breakfast on Air France that featured paté and champagne. It had vegetarian patties in a spicy sauce, chilled new potatoes with spicy mayonnaise, naan, chutney, and cashew halvah.

I arrived at Heathrow 7:45AM, cleared immigration by 8AM, cleared customs, got money, and caught a bus to the Reading train station at 8:50AM. This arrived at 9:40AM and I caught the 10:10AM train to Swindon. A taxi to Lucent got me there by 11AM.

Indian food is the cuisine to eat in Britain. One night I had Chicken Dansak and Peshwari Naan (made with coconut and almonds). In Ludlow I had Tan y Draig (Dragon's Breath), which was a chicken curry. Ludlow was quite a nice town, though with fewer bookshops than we had been led to believe. (There was a co-worker of mine here the first week I was here, and he had a car, so we did a bit of driving.) The castle was also nice, and we stumbled across an interesting old graveyard which was being let get overgrown to serve as a sort of nature preserve.

We saw a variety of interesting British sights, from a road sign showing three cars and saying "Queues likely," to a butcher shop with dead rabbits and pheasants hanging outside.

John had already visited Hay-on-Wye on my recommendation, so we didn't go back there. In Ludlow, Offa's Dyke was small, but had a good selection, and I also found a couple of books in Garrard's.

We came back by way of Cirencester. We had intended to stop on the way up, but missed the turn. This turned out to be fortunate, as we arrived in Cirencester as the sun was setting, and from that angle cast a beautiful golden glow on Cirencester Cathedral.

Sunday we went up to Oxford and visited the Ashmolean Museum, as well as the bookshops open on Sunday. These included Blackwell's, the big new (as opposed to secondhand) bookshop. (Though it does have some secondhand books as well.) I found a couple of books I was looking for, though not all. I need to be somewhat selective, even though I do plan on checking one bag on the way back. Oxford is quite a nice town, even without our being able to see inside any of the colleges. We did get to see the Martyr's Monument to Cranmer, Ridley, etc. It was put up at a spot different from where they were actually burned, though I've heard that there is a plaque in the ground there, and the college gates still show scorch marks.

We drove back and went to Avebury, known for its Long Barrow and standing stones. Most of the barrow was closed off a while ago, so you actually can walk only a short way in. You are not fenced off from the stones as you are in Stonehenge, but the stones are not as impressive here. (John got great amusement by "baa-ing" at the sheep wandering around and having them run away.)

The "Henge Shop" next to the stones was in some ways more interesting than the stones themselves. When we visited Stonehenge in 1979, the shops there tended towards history and archaeology books. Now this shop at least has mostly New Age books. Where shops used to sell pretty polished stones as pretty polished stones, now they all have some healing or other beneficial function.

I should say something about British plumbing. The British have held on to the separate taps for hot and cold water longer than anyone else. Someone once told Mark it was because they were safer--you might burn yourself with a single tap. This seemed an odd excuse, but I understand it now. It's because the cold water (or hot water) may shut off with no warning whatsoever. At least this is true in my hotel room.

The next weekend John had a flight out of Heathrow Saturday morning, so I rode there with him, then took the Underground to London. The Piccadilly Line goes direct from Heathrow for #3.50, but a day pass is only #4.70, so well worth it.

I tried getting tickets at the various ticket booths in Leicester Square. They were not selling tickets for Copenhagen, so I took the Underground one more stop to Covent Garden and walked to the theatre box office, where I had no problem getting a ticket. (They might have had them in the large "official" half-price ticket booth, but the line was much longer.) The only problem I did have was that when the train stopped at Covent Garden, people started climbing the stairs to avoid the line at the lifts. I did too, managing to miss the sign that said there were 193 steps, the equivalent of a fifteen-story building. Well, I got my exercise.

Back to Leicester Square and on to the main event of the daytime hours--the bookstores on Charing Cross Road. I will not give a blow-by-blow account, but I will say a few things.

The secondhand shops are mostly down at the lower end, towards Trafalgar Square. As you move north, it switches over to new book shops, with the occasional remainder shop. Several of the used book shops look fairly small, but turn out to have downstairs areas that twist and turn, extending at least under the sidewalks. I tried to avoid buying books I could get back home, but still managed to buy quite a few.

One interesting side street off Charing Cross Road is Cecil Court, a block long, and populated entirely by antiquarian book and print dealers. I didn't buy anything there, but browsing the windows was fun. I saw a great poster for Berlioz's Damnation of Faust, but the price was prohibitive. (The one store I might have been interested in had a sign in the door "Back in 10 Minutes," but they weren't.)

I paused briefly at the plaque at 84 Charing Cross Road, which is the former site of the Marks & Co. bookshop, made famous by Helene Hanff. It's no longer a bookshop, but (as the Beatles might have said), a "fooking wine bar." And Books, Etc., seems to have had at least their Charing Cross shop taken over by Borders.

Forbidden Planet now has a separate "Alternate History" section, populated almost entirely by Harry Turtledove. Most of the rest are military science fiction/fantasy, but not alternate history. For science fiction books, New Worlds on Charing Cross Road is better.

Even though it was a bit chilly outside, the tube stations are hot, meaning that if you are hopping around, you alternately sweat and freeze.

About 5PM it decided to rain, so I decided to have dinner. I took the tube over to where the theatre was and just picked a restaurant at random that had a reasonable menu and free tables. The Cafe Rouge was not great, but reasonable.

Copenhagen is about Werner Heisenberg's visit to Niels Bohr in occupied Denmark in 1941. The set is bare except for three chairs. Then three actors come out and talk about quantum physics and politics for two and a half hours. I loved it.

The lay-out was also odd in that the stalls (boxes) were at the back of the stage. At first I thought the set was like a lecture hall with seats there, but soon it was clear that the people there were part of the audience, a sort of strange theatre in the round.

I managed to miss one train at Paddington by fifteen minutes, and had to wait an hour for the next (and last). Combined with the slower speeds (because of the concern over the condition of the tracks), this got me back to Swindon after 1AM, and a long taxi queue combined with hardly any taxis got me back to the hotel just before 2AM. Thank goodness for that extra hour!

Having not learned my lesson Saturday, and tempted by initially good weather, I returned to London on Sunday. First, there was a long wait at the station in Swindon. Though trains normally run every half-hour or so, now it was closer to one an hour (or less).

I got to London and took the tube to Russell Square, changing at Kings Cross St. Pancras, which has both terrible signage and a broken escalator (the down escalator). I walked to the front of the British Museum, only to discover it was closed for renovation. So I walked around to the back of the British Museum and finally got in.

Since I had visited the Museum before, I was not trying to see everything, but being selective. One "revelation" that struck me this time for some reason was that every item has a story. (James Michener used this concept in The Source.)

Maybe it's because I've been reading an alternate history set in the Bronze Age, but when I looked at the Greek helmets, I could almost imagine a soldier looking back at me.

On one of the exhibits (a reconstructed temple) is the sign, "The original place of many of the sculptures on the building is open to question and the reconstruction shown here is disputed." Particularly that the reconstruction is here, rather than Turkey!

On the other hand, when the Turks had the Parthenon in 1687 they stored gunpowder in it which exploded and blew it up. Parts of it ended up here (no, not flung this far by the explosion!). They used to be called the Elgin Marbles, but are now called the Sculptures of the Parthenon to de-emphasize the fact that Elgin more or less looted them from Greece.

Because of the unwillingness of anyone to give up any sculptures or parts of sculptures that they have, one frequently sees signs on parts of statues saying that the head, or arm, or torso is in Greece, or Turkey, or Berlin. Some are even in other museums in Britain.

Though the sides are careful to tell you how the Turks destroyed the Parthenon (accidentally), they don't even hint at the fact that the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus was purposely destroyed by the Crusaders.

One thing I don't think I knew before was that sculptures often had bronze elements (bridles, ornaments, etc.) attached.

The Rosetta Stone is now inside a glass case. (This probably tells you how long ago I was last here.) Several galleries were closed, but I did get to see the Assyrian Galleries, particularly the carvings from the Temple of Nimrud, which are "way cool."

After a couple of hours here, I decided to visit the bookstores in the area and update my list. There had been far more churn here than on Charing Cross Road, and many scribbles later I had a whole set of changes. There is a branch of Unsworth's here (or maybe the Oxford one is a branch of this one) and it has a section titled "Latin Literary Criticism." You have to love a bookstore that has that.

I went to pay homage at 221B Baker Street. The Baker Street Station still has its Sherlock Holmes decoration, but has anyone considered the irony of putting a "No Smoking" sign on a wall covered with Sherlock-Holmes-with-pipe tiles?

221B Baker Street is, of course, the Abbey National Bank. Indeed, at the time of Holmes, this section was not even called Baker Street, so in a sense 221B Baker Street never existed. But maybe all the people who believed in it made it real enough to now have a bank there.

Anyway, the bank does try to maintain its prestigious address. Currently the corner has a display window with a statue of Holmes and a background panorama of his Baker Street as described by Doyle. Across the street is the Sherlock Holmes Memorabilia Company. Down the street a few doors is the Beatles Shop and Elvisly Yours. Baker Street today seems to be a center for personality cults.

Baker Street Station also has a memorial plaque for all the employees of the Metropolitan Line who gave their lives in the Great War. I hear there is also quite an impressive one in Harrod's for their employees.

The weather turned nasty--really nasty. It was raining and blowing a gale when I went to find my niece's flat. I thought I had found it on a map, but I had found Talbot Square rather than Talbot Road. I went back to the Tube station (Paddington) and got in an enormous taxi queue. Eventually, I got a taxi and got myself delivered to her flat, which turned out to be off the map of central London that I was using.

My niece Lauren lives in Notting Hill, which appears to be a very nice place when it's daylight, not raining, and not blowing gale-force winds. As it was, we arrived at the Thai restaurant drenched. Still, it was good to see her, and the soup helped take the chill off. (I passed up my usual Thai iced coffee--who needed to get colder?)

After dinner, it had somewhat eased up, and we walked to a bus stop for a bus that would take me to Paddington. There were three buses that would do, each running every fifteen minutes, yet we waited a half hour, while at least two of each route passed going in the opposite direction. Eventually I got to Paddington, and caught a train back to Swindon without much delay (maybe a half hour). I made sure to be off the train and running for the taxi queue in Swindon, so I didn't have to wait nearly as long.

Monday (30 October) I woke up to rain and gale-force winds (down from storm-force) and the BBC recommending that people avoid all unnecessary travel, as roads were under water, blocked by trees, and otherwise a right old mess. I decided to work from the hotel room until things got better. By noon, it was clear that "better" would be an even more relative term than usual, and I decided to stay there all day, and to skip the Reading Science Fiction Group meeting as well. I felt particularly bad about that, as they had moved to a different location just for me, but since the train service was quite limited (there had been no trains until mid-afternoon), it seemed wisest.

Tuesday I awoke to hear that a mail train had rear-ended a coal train on one of the few lines in southwest England not affected by flooding, thereby throwing everything into even further confusion. (There was already a collapsed ventilation shaft and a flooded tunnel which had closed two stretches, and of course the whole system was already running slow due to lower speeds and the checking of the rails after the Hungerford crash.)

The rain didn't affect Swindon, but Cricklade (just up the road) was under water, as was York and many other towns. This is being called the worst flood in fifty years, with some flooding the worst in four hundred years!

Tuesday I also got email from Margaret Austin and Martin Easterbrook, two-thirds of Swindon fandom, saying they just remembered I was coming to Swindon and when would I be here? I called Margaret right back and said I was here now, and we arranged to get together for the evening. (Julian, the other third, was sick, and in a bad mood because he had burnt his favorite saucepan.)

I can report that Margaret and Martin have a sufficiently fannish house--lots of books on every available wall, and lots of pictures of cats, even if currently no actual cat.

Martin also convinced me to go to the London Tun on Thursday, by telling me he would be there and was driving back afterwards. Being assured of a ride back not involving delayed trains and long taxi queues, I decided to brave the trains again. (The line between Swindon and London was relatively unaffected by the weather, but trains arriving from points west had all sorts of problems to deal with.)

The train into London was only about a half-hour late arriving at Swindon, but took about ninety minutes instead of an hour to Paddington. I had to stand for the first twenty minutes, but was able to get a jump seat at Didcot Parkway. Then I changed to the Underground, with was complicated by the fact that you couldn't get to the Bakerloo line from the main Underground entrance at Paddington, because the connecting pedestrian tunnel was flooded, so I had to go back upstairs and find the small side entrance. Luckily Waterloo Station was open--several stops were closed because of flooding.

Finding the Florence Nightingale Pub (where the London Tun is held) was not difficult. Everyone seemed to think Americans had terrible senses of direction and gave incredibly detailed instructions. Of course, if you could manage to navigate around the roundabout under construction and hence barricaded to form something like the maze at Hampton Court, you could probably find anything.

The London Tun was very noisy--and people said that there were fewer people than usual! Dave Langford was there, along with a couple of other Reading fans, so I didn't feel quite as bad about not getting there. My memory for names being what it is, I can't remember everyone's name, but I did get to meet several people that I knew only through rec.arts.sf.fandom or via email, and some I hadn't known at all.

We came back by way of Windsor, where Martin works and had left his car. Windsor is quite beautiful at night, particularly Windsor Castle, which is all lit up. And the streets all look quite charming when they're not filled with tourists.

By Friday, England decided that the train problems and the weather problems were not enough, and so everyone created a petrol shortage as well. About a month earlier, there had been a strike by petrol lorry drivers (I think) and there had been a petrol shortage. Now the drivers weren't threatening to strike again in two weeks, and so even though there was no shortage now, everyone ran out to fill their tanks, and created a shortage. Yet another reason I'm glad I didn't get a rental car.

Saturday (4 November) was sunny and mild, so I walked into Wooton Bassett, and--surprise!--bought some books (in the Oxfam Shop). I also bought a couple of CDs in the Collectors Corner shop, and talked to the owner for a while about science fiction and American politics.

However, in spite of the good weather, the fireworks and bonfire scheduled for Swindon were still canceled, because the park where they were to be held, including the parking area, was basically a quagmire. Margaret and Martin picked me up, though, and we went to see the movie Billy Elliott, which I described as October Sky with ballet. (Since October Sky doesn't seem to have played in England, this may not be helpful.) But it was not nearly as good as October Sky (which may have been helped by the fact that it was a true story, while Billy Elliott was not, and often seemed unrealistic).

Sunday was another gale-force storm, with more rain. I stayed in all day, finished my Chicon 2000 report, watched the various "extras" on the Being John Malkovich DVD I had brought with me to play on my laptop, washed my hair, and began packing all the books I bought.

What is the first thing a fan packs in her bag for a trip? Another bag.

I told another fan that I had bought only 29 books and 2 books on CD because I needed to hold back. When someone at work asked me if I had bought any books, and I said I had bought 29, she did not react as if that was great restraint on my part.

The last morning in the hotel, at 5AM, when we still didn't know who the next President was, I flipped on a light and flew a fuse. Luckily, not everything in the room was on the same circuit, so I still had some light.

When I woke up at 5AM GMT (10PM EST), no one had any idea who the next President would be. When I boarded the plane at 9:30 GMT (2:30AM EST), no one still had any idea who the next President would be; Florida had a 3000-vote difference. When the plane landed at 12N EST, no one still had any idea who the next President would be, and Florida now had a 91-vote difference! Since absentee ballots merely had to be postmarked by Election Day, they won't finish arriving for days, and there will definitely be a recount (Florida requires one in any election this close), so I figure we may know by Thanksgiving. (By the time you read this, all the sordid details of Florida voting will have been hashed and re-hashed.) (But not resolved. I've decided to send this out without waiting for the final returns.)

In a way this is good. In this age of instantaneous communication, exit polls, etc., it is worthwhile to be reminded occasionally that some things take time, and that not everything comes with instant gratification.

Books purchased in Ludlow:

Books purchased in London:

Books purchased in Swindon:

Evelyn C. Leeper (