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We were booked into a hotel with some history. It had been a coaching inn back in the 17th Century. King Charles I checked in on July 2, 1644 and left without paying his bill. Charles was licking some serious battle scars from Oliver Cromwell, so he may not have been himself. I was feeling somewhat uncivil myself. The couple next door had been going at it for what seemed like hours and it was keeping us awake. We needed sleep.

I had signed us up for a four day walking holiday in the Cotswolds, Gloucestershire, reputed to be one of the prettier parts of England. Each day was going to be a twelve to thirteen miles and neither of us had done that much walking in a very long time. My last walk of any length was back in Hong Kong over twenty years ago. That was for charity and I knew it would be a long slog, but this was a holiday and I wanted to enjoy it.

When you hit your sixties, the body may rebel over the abuse it has suffered. Parts begin to hurt, and you don’t really know if you can walk fifty miles over hill and dale. So the racket from the room next door was a big deal. The outside walls were thick as cannons but the inside walls were too thin for comfort.

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When lovemaking lasts longer than you thought humanly possible, you may be torn between admiration and indignation. Your thoughts shift from from how does he do it? to please, God, make it stop. Was it a passionate, illicit affair? A historical porn film in the making? My wife and I both arrived at the same conclusion after hours of consideration.  Viagra. Had to be. Why hadn’t we packed ear plugs?

We had booked five nights of accommodation as well as the transport of our luggage from place to place. We were doing a diamond-shaped walk from Moreton-in-Marsh South to Bourton on the Water, West to Winchcombe, North to Broadway, then back to Moreton. To the very same hotel, in fact. We would not be able to pull a Charles I on the owners for the simple reason that our bill was already paid in full.

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The Cotswolds are characterized by villages full of honey-colored limestone cottages. Limestone is a soft, sedimentary rock derived from living organisms that thrived in the sea that used to cover much of Britain. Its varying degrees of hardness allow it to be used for everything from dry walls bordering rural fields to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

My main concern was the weather. UK weather is notoriously fickle, and some showers were predicted. As long as it didn’t pour for hours and hours, we could cope. The best thing about walking in England is the public right of way that allows mere mortals to cross private lands of all description. Your route may take you across woodlands, cultivated fields, farmyards, and the front yards of multi-million pound properties with Jags in the driveway.

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It is very civilized, astonishing for Americans accustomed to the sanctity of private property and NO TRESPASS signs backed by ferocious dogs and automatic weapons. Our “walking notes” came in the form of laminated pages combining sections of maps with long, involved and sometimes vague descriptions. “After a few paces” and “for some time” were less than helpful. I could easily imagine middle-aged German men tearing hair from their balding heads.

English narrative description is charming in a “hobbit” sort of way. Stop at the top of the field and consult the large, gray horse. He’ll indicate the way by shaking his forelock. The first day was the most difficult, of course. We gradually got better at deciphering the directions.

Even so, we made many unintended detours, even on the very last day of our walk.  Our inclinations were opposite, she to stop, peer around, attempting to match words to landscape, me to shoot ahead like a bloodhound, looking for signs of a trail.  This sometimes generated heated arguments, but all was forgiven by the end of the day.  A hot meal, a pint and a pillow can work wonders.

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Our encounters with innkeepers, pub owners and serving staff made me realize that the creation of Basil Fawlty was not so much an exaggeration as an archetype. There was a little bit of Basil in almost everyone who waited on us. The passive-aggressive behavior would come out in subtle ways, keeping me on my toes.

In London, many service-oriented businesses are run by foreigners, who may not be efficient but are usually hospitable. In the rural areas, the Brits themselves often own and run bed and breakfasts, hotels, restaurants and pubs, with typically “fawlty” results. The food is surprisingly good. If you like meat, potatoes and peas, the Cotswolds are heavenly.

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The Cotswold villages grew rich on the wool trade in the middle ages and they seem to have stuck with it. We wandered through the herds, inevitably setting off alarm bells in their brains. The locals we encountered out walking their dogs were always generous and kind, invariably correcting our mistaken sense of direction, taking the time to indicate the right route. Their dogs would wait impatiently, urging us to get a move on.

We were nomads, after all, just two-legged critters putting one boot after another. Looking for food and a good bed. Simple creatures, really. Just like sheep. A wold, by-the-way, describes a range of hills in open country overlying limestone or chalk. I took a fair number of photos. At this time of year the landscape offers little in the way of vivid colors or spectacle, but it is beautiful nonetheless. Click on any pic running alongside the post and you’ll end up at Flickr account.  Enjoy.

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My role as “Tour Dad” could have been tattooed on my forehead and no one would have blinked. We were in Trafalgar Square, swimming through a tidal wave of young people on their way to somewhere special for a spot of culture, a drink or a bite to eat. Nothing deters tourists to London these days, not the price of the pound nor the dismal weather.  School holidays seem to kick in at the same time, and it doesn’t take much to lure teens and twenties onto busses, trains or planes for a trip to the UK. Our daughter had a school break and she had come from Halifax, Nova Scotia on her first trip to Europe.

She hadn’t done due diligence on the tourist front, of course. Homework is homework and she gets enough of that in school. So I picked out a few of the sights I thought she should see– Buckingham Palace, the houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the National Gallery, and Kensington Palace, since we live so close. We had booked tickets to “Blue Dragon,” a new Robert Lepage production at the Barbican, but she asked about “The Lion King.” Unfortunately, the 2000 seat theatre was sold out. A few tickets were being shilled at twice the face value, but I couldn’t bring myself to make some tout rich.

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In Trafalgar Square, I told my daughter about my one claim to photographic fame.  I went to a demonstration against the Vietnam War when things were heating up for Laos and Cambodia. Clad in a dark blue cape with a red lining that I had picked up in a flea market, I posed near the fountain with my hippie length hair and a North Vietnamese flag in the lapel. It was enough to catch a French photojournalist’s eye.

A week after the demonstration I got a letter from a friend in Paris with a full-page photo that had been in Paris Match magazine. The fountain framed in the background had been tainted with red dye and it looked like blood. I was cannon fodder at the time and I was drafted before I left London, but that is another story.

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The Tower of London was a zoo, of course. We arrived early enough to see the Crown Jewels without a long line-up. The historical tour with a female, Scottish Yeoman Warder was both entertaining and gruesome. The Tower complex dates back 1078, when William the Conqueror had a small, timber castle constructed on a sacred pagan site.

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The numerous buildings on the site have seen service as a palace, a prison, a mint, an armoury, an observatory and a menagerie, not to mention a place of some awful executions. Most of those occurred at nearby Tower Hill. I will spare you the grisly details. Suffice it to say, that the Tower entered the vernacular as a place of dread. In “My Fair Lady,” Eliza is warned: If the Kind finds out that you are not a lady, the police will take you to the Tower of London, where your head will be cut off as a warning to other presumptuous flower girls.

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After about eleven in the morning, all the tourist destinations in London seem to turn into mob scenes. Westminster Abbey was overrun despite the fact that they charge admission. Fortunately, “The King’s Speech” allowed us so see what a visit could have been like if we had simply been born into the Royal Family and had the place to ourselves.

I loved the bit when Logue settles himself on the throne. It is under restoration at the moment, so if you are thinking about having a coronation, I’m afraid it will have to wait.  I am not alone in thinking that Timothy Spall was terribly miscast as Churchill, and the early political leanings of both Churchill and the Royals with regard to Germany were glossed over to the point of misleading moviegoers.  But in Hollywood, all’s well that ends in an Oscar.

My daughter took in the Science Museum and the nightlife of Covent Garden all by herself. We did a lot of walking, talking, tube travel and eating, leaving plenty for another visit.  Dr. Johnson said, “If you are tired of London, you are tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.” Disraeli said: “London is a roost for every bird.” Jane Austen disagreed: “Nobody is healthy in London, nobody can be.”

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The city of Johnson, Keats and Churchill is just fine for me despite the fact that we haven’t been invited to the wedding.  The sun is coming up earlier and staying around longer in the evening, even offering occasional flashes of brilliant sunshine.  Doing tourist duty in London is not exactly a hardship despite the crowds and cost.  Without visits from friends and family, I would spend too much of the day huddled over the laptop.

And even old curmudgeons can learn a thing or two from an immersion in British history.  The trick is to keep your head.

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March 2011
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