I hurried on, puffing and sweating, toward Stonehenge.  I passed wooden signs pointing to places called Ratfyn, Larkhill, and Netheravon.  There was a sign pointing to Middle Wallop, which I now see is nowhere near Stonehenge, but just in case I wanted to walk five miles in the opposite direction, I would know which way to turn. Note to self: One would pass Palestine to get to Middle Wallop, and one could also visit Nether Wallop or Over Wallop while in the vicinity.

It ended up being a four-mile hike, in 90F+ heat.  I didn’t encounter any bulls; I also hadn’t brought a water bottle or a hat or applied sun screen.  But what were a few age spots compared with the opportunity to see Stonehenge?

Now—would they let me in?  I walked along a dusty gravel road lined with caravans and tents.  Were they Travellers, or hippies, or what?  Many had placards declaring, “Free the Henge!” or “Make the Henge Free for ALL!” and “English Heritage are Selling YOUR Heritage!”  The protesters, who appeared to be permanently camped there, sat in lawn chairs drinking beer, smoking weed, and barbequing who-knows-what.  They wore uniforms of tie-dyed shirts, dread locks, and lots of tattoos.  Some were friendly, some were menacing.

Gee, I thought, this wasn’t a very appealing entry to such a historic site.  Some people might find this scruffy protest charming, and if I hadn’t been tired and hot and thirsty and in a hurry I might have stopped and chatted with the ones who appeared nonthreatening. I gathered that they were protesting that English Heritage charges people admission to Stonehenge—£18.20 for adults.  I can understand how, if you are unemployed as all these people appeared to be, that would be a prohibitive amount.  However, given that the road was strewn with cigarette butts and empty beer cans, Stonehenge could look like Glastonbury post-concert in no time if they let everyone in for free.

I kept trekking and finally presented my printout to a guy wearing an English Heritage vest.  He did that British thing—the low sucking in of the breath and clenching of teeth.

“Oohh…I’m very sorry miss,” he began.

Damn!  I was afraid of this; he wasn’t going to let me in because I was 25 minutes late.

“This isn’t a real ticket, you see,” he said as he shook his head and looked at it as if he wished he could wave a magic wand and make it a real ticket, whatever that was.

“You’ve entered at the wrong end.  You’ll need to go to the visitors’ centre and exchange this voucher for your souvenir ticket, which is what we collect here.”

“Wha … where is the visitor center?” I asked with trepidation.

“About a mile down that road,” he waved in the opposite direction to where I had come from, “You can’t see it from here.”

“But I just walked four miles!” I groaned.  “This place isn’t set up for ramblers, is it?  It’s all car centric.”  I intentionally used the word rambler instead of walker, hoping he would feel that, despite my Mee’-neh-soda accent, I was sort of British, and he should let me in because this was my heritage.

He hesitated and then, after looking shiftily from side to side, said confidingly, “I’ll let you in, but you have to promise to go back to the visitors’ centre afterwards to exchange your ticket.”

“Oh I promise!” I lied.

“There’s a lovely café and gift shop there, too,” he added.  “And you can take a shuttle bus.”

He had me at café.

Stonehenge.  When I had asked Lynn and Richard and Possum at breakfast what they thought of it, Lynn had replied “It’s a bunch of big rocks in a field.”

And so it was.

Stonehenge was the latest in my grand tour of ancient sites, including Machu Picchu, the Basilica Cistern in Istanbul; Petra, in Jordan; Tikal, in Guatemala; Lalibela, in Ethiopia, and multiple other places in Israel/Palestine, Peru, Mexico, Malta, and El Salvador.  At least I was in, which is more than I can say for the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni in Malta, which was closed for renovation when I arrived.

Getting There

Sunday morning.  After breakfast at the hotel, I was off to Stonehenge.

“See you soon!” we all said as we hugged good-bye.  It was nice to be “over there” for an extended period of time.  Saying good-bye meant au revoir—until we meet again.  When I’m texting “good-bye!” to friends in Britain as I board a plane back to the States, I always wonder if I’ll ever come back to Britain again, if I’ll ever see them again.

Of course, it works the other way around, too. When I’m in Britain I miss my friends and family in the States, and when I’m here I miss my friends there.

My ticket for Stonehenge was for 15:00—3:00 pm.  The tickets actually said something like, “Please be on time or we cannot guarantee you admission.”

All I had to do to get there was take the tube from Barbican station to King’s Cross, then to Victoria, then find the Victoria Coach Station, then catch a coach at 11:00 for Amesbury, find the Econolodge and dump my bag, then figure out how to get to Stonehenge, which was some ways out of town.  How hard could it be?

As usual I had planned like I was on a military special operation.  I got to the coach station easily.  It’s on Buckingham Palace Road, which is a laugh because like all bus stations it’s seedy and run down and full of lurkers—but also nice middle aged couples probably going to visit their children at college.

My phone connected to the wifi in the station, albeit very slowly.  It wouldn’t connect at all during the three-hour coach ride, but it snapped up the wireless signal in the Econolodge.  All over Britain, I found that wireless would work on one bus but not the next, on the train one day but not the next, and so on.  Was it my phone?  Was it the wireless? I tried to be zen about it, whatever that means.  I was in the front row of the coach, where adverts prominently declared, “Free WIFI!”  “Now it’s so easy to stay connected!” “Download our free app!”  When I did finally connect at the Econolodge, there were a slew of emails from the coach company thanking me for my custom, urging me to sign up for special deals, asking me to complete a survey, and reminding me to download their f-cking app.

I pulled out my printed map and checked the route for the 10th time.

Gulp.  The bus stopped south of the motorway, but the Econolodge was on the north side.  How would I get across?  Was there a bridge, or would I have to climb over a fence and dart across six lanes of speeding traffic like a deer?

As we pulled into town, I was elated to see a pedestrian underpass.  I jumped off the bus and hurried toward it, forgetting to ask the driver where the return bus departed.  In minutes I was north of the motorway but there was no Econolodge.  I walked back under the motorway, accompanied by some scruffy henge groupies, then back north again.  Then it dawned on me that this was all set up for people in cars.

Think like a car, I said to myself, and after walking through the bushes along the motorway off ramp, I found the motel.

I asked for a walking map to Stonehenge at the front desk and the woman did that British thing where they pull back their lips, clench their teeth, and suck in their breath, while looking down and away from you.  This means, “Oooh, that’s a very bad idea but I’m not going to say so.”  She handed me a map and advised, “Watch out for the bulls.”

“It’s two miles,” she said.

Two miles? Easy peasy.  I walked briskly. The views were fantastic.  The fields appear dry, I think, partly because we were in a heat wave with 90F+ temperatures.

Two miles … three … I saw the henge in the distance.

“Wow!” I exclaimed aloud.  If I had known this was the best view I would get all day, I would have savored it, but it was already 3:15.

Lady Day

Lynn, Richard, Possum, and I made our way into the Wyndham, got some drinks, then headed into the auditorium.

The show was Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.  The premise is that Billie Holliday, the American jazz icon, is performing at a run-down bar in Philadelphia right before she dies, age 44, in 1959.  It’s a two-hour monologue and song book, accompanied by a man who plays the piano, tries to stop her from shooting up, then procures heroin for her.

I don’t go to a lot of live theatre.  It always feels to me like people are talking in a stilted way: “Look at me—I’m acting!”  I was leery about going to any American show in Britain.  On my first trip to England, my cohort of volunteers—who were from all over Europe and Asia—insisted on going to a west end musical involving a loud-mouthed Texan in a big hat.  There was also lots of waving and shooting of guns.  I squirmed through the whole thing.  The group members loved it and laughed all night about “typical Americans.”

Lady Day would be performed by Audra McDonald, with actual audience members on stage as though they were customers at the bar.  This was a bit strange, since McDonald and the musicians were dressed in period costumes, while the customers/audience members were dressed in contemporary clothes.

We were seated at a café table right below the stage.

I loved Billie Holliday as much as anyone; I had listened to her songs over and over, especially in my angst-ridden 30s, but would I be able to sit through two hours of angst?  And my chair was wobbly!

Then McDonald began her performance, and within moments all distractions melted away and I was riveted.  I knew Billie Holliday’s story—raped as a child, raised by a single mother, addicted to drugs and alcohol, did prison time, full of regret over not having children and a string of abusive relationships.

McDonald’s voice was well up to the task of Holliday’s songs; when the first strains of “Strange Fruit” began I teared up instantly.

Southern trees bear strange fruit

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees


Pastoral scene of the gallant south

The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth

Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh

Then the sudden smell of burning flesh


Here is fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop

So the show was about Holliday’s life, but also about racism in America, and the lot of being a famous woman performer, and love, and addiction. Believe it or not she was also very funny.  I wanted to run up onto the stage and hug McDonald/Holliday, tell her everything was going to be alright and that I would take her home and take care of her.

I didn’t find myself feeling defensive about the theme of racism.  In fact, just the opposite.  Racism is a reality in America and always has been.  It’s something we’ve had to struggle with, collectively.  We’ll probably never see the end of it.  I’d like to think that as older generations die off, younger ones will be less racist, but the crowds in Charlottesville at the white supremacist rally last year were mainly young men.

So why would I feel proud of my country?  Because at least half of us are fighting this shit. At least half of us are fighting back–marching, writing essays, lobbying our elected officials in opposition to racism and other “isms.”

The performance ended; we looked at each other and I spoke first, “I feel like a wrung out rag!”

“That was intense,” said Richard.

“I’m exhausted!” said Lynn,

Added Possum, “I never knew!”

We went back to the hotel, ordered some wine, and talked for hours about racism in our respective countries.

Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill was made into a TV show; if you want to watch it it’s here.

Have a box of Kleenex handy.

Taking Care

I missed a writing day because I invited a dozen friends over for a “Caring for the Caregivers” brunch. It’s not like I don’t have enough to do, what with work and blogging and care giving for my mother.  But for the past couple of years I’ve heard story after story from friends, relatives, and coworkers of how they are caring for their parents, partners, kids, or siblings.  Or all of those.

There’s the friend whose in-laws have been dying, in India, where if you don’t have someone at the patient’s bedside 24/7 to feed and bath and otherwise tend to them, they will be discharged.  So my friend and her husband and his sister and her husband are taking turns flying to India—to a city that is not easy to get to—and sitting vigil by the bedside as the father died, and now as the mother dies.  This is not cheap or easy.

There is the friend whose mother took her life savings—literally bags of cash—to a car dealership. Reports of an 80-year-old woman weaving down the street in a shiny new $90,000 Acura to the food shelf to get her commodities got back to my friend.  Her mother was diagnosed with dementia.  The car went back to the dealership and the mother entered a memory care unit, where she is happily making new friends.  But none of that happened easily, or overnight.

There was the friend whose mother collected things.  Anything.  Everything.  Beanie babies, empty coffee cans, popsicle sticks, travel sized toiletries, balls of yarn, cans of tuna, artificial Christmas trees, washcloths.  Her mother died, and I went with her out to the tiny farm town to clean out the house.  Actually, a dumpster had to be filled before any cleaning could take place.  When I took down the lace curtains in the bedroom, clouds of dust enveloped my head and the curtains practically disintegrated.  The most interesting thing we found was an old Playboy magazine under the shelf paper in her mother’s dresser drawer.

Please, don’t collect things.

Then there is my friend who had to cancel her trip to England.  She wound up having a 12-hour surgery to fuse her spine.  Her partner cared for her, and then she cared for him when he donated a kidney to save her cousin’s life. A kidney!  He and the cousin are both doing well.

It’s not that people are constantly complaining.  But the strain is evident in the stories, even when they’re told dispassionately.  So I felt a desire to gather people to share some stories and maybe some laughs.

It’s not exclusively women who are caregivers.  I am proud that my son has stepped up to care for his grandparents in a big way.  If I had included care giving men in my invitation, I would have had to rent a room in a restaurant to fit everyone.

I keep thinking back to a day, three years ago.  I took a day off of work and left the house at 8am.  I drove to a far southern suburb to a medical supply store and picked up a walker (Zimmer Frame) for my mother.  She had been in two car accidents which caused hairline fractures in her spine and hips.  I drove to her house, in a northern suburb, where I adjusted the walker for her, then did a few loads of wash. I then drove to St. Cloud, a city two hours away, and visited my son in prison.  After my one-hour visit, I drove back to an eastern suburb to my sister’s house.  She was on chemo and I think I folded kids’ socks for an hour and did some other chores.  Then I drove to my brother’s house in another suburb and watched his kids for a few hours.

I got home around 8pm. I was exhausted but the day had also made me realize what I was really made of.

Then I did some variation of this every week for the next two years.  Now everyone is doing well, and I just want to feed people who are in the same boat.

I’m also beginning to plan my next escape ….

Cabbing It to the Cabaret

Lynn had booked three rooms at a hotel near the Barbican, and after carrying a backpack around all day I was happy to check in and dump it.  The room was spacious and the décor reflected the area.  This was the bathroom floor:

This was the art above the bed:

Some people might be disconcerted to sleep beneath meat-hook themed art, but I took comfort in knowing I was not the only weirdo who meditated on meat hooks.

In keeping with modern design principles, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the bedside lights.  I called the front desk and—I could tell from her voice she had done this many times before—the front desk person walked me through how to grope my way around until I found the tiny, arty button that operated the bedside lights.  The room had a mini kitchen so you could cook for yourself and save money.  That wasn’t going to happen tonight.

Lynn and Richard and Possum and I met in the lobby and walked over to Charterhouse Square to have a pre-dinner drink at the Fox and Anchor, a pub and boutique hotel.  It was built in 1898 which makes it Victorian, but it looks very Gilded Age or Art Deco to me.  These photos don’t do justice to the detail.

We sat outside, soaking up the sun and some drinks, then hailed a black cab to a Thai restaurant.  There are cheaper ways to get around London, like mini cabs and public transport.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but I prefer black cabs, especially when someone else is paying for them.

Here’s what the black cab driver wannabe website says about becoming a black cab driver:

“The London taxi drivers are almost as famous as the black cabs in which they drive, this is mainly due to their in-depth knowledge of London and ability in taking their occupants to their desired destination amid the congestion and the chaos that you often find when travelling through London’s streets.

“Easy you might think with the world of sat navs? Think again. Hail down a black cab in London and you can be assured that the driver will know the shortest and quickest route to your destination without the aid of a satnav. It doesn’t matter if you give them a street name, a famous landmark, a hotel name or famous point of interest, they will know exactly where it is and they will get you to it in the shortest route possible.

“London taxi drivers go through stringent training to obtain their licence, they need to pass ‘The Knowledge’, a test which is amongst the hardest to pass in the world, it has been described as like having an atlas of London implanted into your brain.”

London has 60,000 streets within a six-mile radius, many are one way.

A friend of Sam’s and acquaintance of mine was so smitten with black cabs that when he returned to Australia after living in London for 10 years, he bought an old black cab and had it shipped home with him.  I think his plan was to run a cab service, but now he’s teaching in an aboriginal school so I’m not sure what become of the cab.

You may have read recently about Uber being banned from London due to data leaks and disputes over its employment practices.  I totally understand why Londoners would want to use Uber.  It’s fun to take a black cab, especially when you’re traveling as a group (this is not us):

It’s cool to take a black cab if you’re a tourist or on a special occasion.  But for getting around on a daily basis, only the uber wealthy could afford to use black cabs.

On a side note, I downloaded Uber just the other day but was unable to use it because it insisted I enter a UK phone number.  I guess my phone is confused and thinks I’m still in the UK.

After a great dinner we caught another black cab and snaked through the heaving streets of Saturday-night London. After dodging jay-walking revelers for 20 minutes, we reached our destination, Wyndhams Theatre, two miles from our hotel.

Greater and Lesser and Lost

Now that I know more about the Charterhouse, I wish I had had the time to tour it.  I realize only a tiny, tiny percent of British pensioners can live there, but what a great model that could possibly be replicated.

The two places on my To-See list today were Smithfield Market and St. Bartholomew the Great church.

Smithfield is the original meat market.  It’s a wholesale market which takes up several city blocks so even I couldn’t miss it.  I had had it up to my eyeballs with other shopping areas and markets that sold artisanal caramels and hand-knit tea towels and reproduction antiques. I wanted to go somewhere where I couldn’t buy anything.

Smithfield exceeded my expectations by being closed.  Of course, it was Saturday.  Few people set out to buy half a cow on a Saturday in London. So I walked around and through the parts that were open.  There wasn’t much to see; the site has been a stock yard and meat market for over 800 years and the buildings appeared to be Victorian but who knows.  Later, I learned that they do indeed sell meat retail, so if you are looking for a deal on offal or a lamb shank, check it out.

Now I had to find St. Bart’s, as it’s commonly called, which was one block away but which required me to take the following route: Poultry Avenue to West Smithfield, which turns into Long Lane.  Right on Cloth Street, then right on Middle Street which turns into Clothe Fair, and it should be right there.  Right. 

I passed Barley Mow Passage, Rising Sun Court, Kinghorn Street, and Bartholomew Passage.

Don’t turn, I said to myself each time, because I always have the urge to turn at the first place I see.  Maybe they were shortcuts.  And Rising Sun Passage sounded intriguing.

I steadfastly stuck to the route on the paper map I had printed out, and immediately became lost.  The neighborhood was deserted except for a few shady-looking guys unloading trucks, and I wasn’t going to ask them for directions.  I doubled back, retraced my steps, still couldn’t find anything indicated on the map, started to whimper and imagine myself murdered; some poor vendor would find me hanging from a meat hook when he opened his stall on Monday….

I decided to walk down Rising Sun Passage after all, and there was St. Bart’s.

Rising Sun was named for a pub, so that was a relief.  When in doubt, go into a pub and have a pint and a packet of crisps, and everything will be ok.

I knew that St. Bart’s was old.  In fact it’s the oldest church in London, which is saying something. It was founded in 1123 as an Augustinian monastery.  In case you’re wondering, there is also a St. Bartholomew the Less, also founded in 1123, and “It was called the Less to distinguish it from its larger neighbour.”  So there weren’t two St. Barts, one who was great and one not so great.  There are two churches named after the same guy.

I have been in many, many old churches but St. Bart’s struck me immediately as really ancient.  Which of course it is.  But after visiting a dozen old churches in a month, they all blurred together. St. Bart’s was different.

As usual my photos won’t do it justice, but maybe they’ll give you a feeling for the place.

In old sites where they built one thing on top of another, it’s good to look up, down, and around so you don’t miss anything.  There were crypts that told sad stories.

I liked the contrast and detail in the flooring and wondered what was below the grating.

I spent a half hour inside, then wandered back out into the passageway.

I was glad I had come on a Saturday.  The quiet seemed fitting and I felt at peace.  I had a pint and a packet of crisps in the Rising Sun, then walked back toward the hotel, where I ran into Lynn and Richard having a bite to eat at a sidewalk café.

“They’ll let anyone eat in this neighborhood!” I exclaimed as I joined them.

Assisted Living, UK Style

There was a festive atmosphere on the bus, with all the Pride celebrators.  As we snaked northward, they alighted and quiet descended.  I got off at the Barbican and it was utterly deserted.

The Barbican Centre is the largest performing arts center in Europe. It’s designed in the Brutalist style.  One of my favorite London buildings, Trelick Tower, is Brutalist. I think it’s creepy but in a cool way.

To me, the Barbican is just not that interesting.  However, it is home to lots of wonderful companies, like the London Symphony Orchestra and the Royal Shakespeare Company.

My plan was to wander around the Smithfield neighborhood adjacent to the Barbican, then meet Lynn, Richard, and Possum at the hotel.  I had packed a backpack as light as possible for my two nights away but it still felt like I was lugging around a bowling ball after a couple hours.  Much as I love to daydream about hiking the Appalachian Trail or the Superior Hiking Trail, I am realistic that they are not for me.

Smithfields is not a “Top 10” London sights in any guidebook, so I was caught off guard by all the fascinating history it contained.  I don’t usually like to cut and paste from websites, but I’m making an exception today.

I passed through Charterhouse Square and this art deco apartment building which has served as the fictional residence of Agatha Christie’s character Hercule Poirot.

Here’s the Wikipedia 101 on Charterhouse Square:

“In 1371 a Carthusian monastery was founded by Walter de Manny on what is now the north side of the square. It was established near a 1348 plague pit, which formed the largest mass grave in London during the Black Death, and tens of thousands of bodies were buried there. The name of the monastery, Charterhouse, was derived as an Anglicisation of La Grande Chartreuse, whose order founded the monastery.

“The Charterhouse was dissolved as a monastery in 1537, and in 1545 was purchased by Sir Edward (later Lord) North (c. 1496-1564) and transformed into a mansion house. Following North’s death, the property was bought by Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, who was imprisoned there in 1570 after scheming to marry Mary, Queen of Scots. Later, Thomas Sutton bought the Charterhouse, and on his death in 1611, endowed a hospital (almshouse) and school on the site, which opened in 1614, supporting 80 pensioners ….”

That’s just the first 240 years.

An almshouse is a residence for “poor, old, or distressed” people, and the Charterhouse still serves this purpose.  Here’s what their website says:

“The residents of the almshouse, both male and female, are known as ‘Brothers’. This is a purely traditional term for those living in this community and acknowledges the past when there was a monastery on the site.

“The Brothers were originally those who could supply ‘good testimonye and certificat of theire good behaviour and soundnes in religion’ those who had been servants to the King ‘either decrepit or old captaynes either at sea or land, maimed or disabled soldiers, merchants fallen on hard times, those ruined by shipwreck or other calamity’.

“The Brothers are selected from a wide variety of professions, which includes teachers, clergymen, writers and editors, musicians and artists. At entry they have to be over 60 years of age, in need of financial and social support and in good health. They must be able to live independently but have a desire to be part of a supportive community following a very simple set of rules. Their accommodation is entirely private. All the meals are taken together in the Great Hall and many Brothers participate in the many social events that take place. Many Brothers contribute to the life of the Charterhouse by giving their time as tour guides, arranging entertainment and visits, editing the Charterhouse Magazine (a twice yearly in-house publication), cataloguing the extensive artwork and volunteering to help with events. The Brothers meet as a group at least four times a year with the Master and other senior staff to discuss current topics.”

Now that’s my kind of assisted living!  And here’s the building:

Not too shabby, eh?  If only I were a UK resident, I would say I had found my retirement plan.