A Lark in London

Bleary eyed, we shuffle out the door at an obscenely early hour and down the street to the bus stop. It's a humble beginning to a day that would be anything but ordinary. Bolstered by bus station tea made tolerable by pairing with homemade muffins, Mary, Shaun and I board the express bus to London where we are later expelled into the bustling city.

First stop, Trafalgar Square. St. Martin-in-the-Fields has hosted free lunchtime concerts for 65 years, and we settle into our seats just moments before the program begins. The artists range from up and coming young musicians to renouned figures and choirs from around the world. Today's concert features a piano duo performing two 4-hands 1-piano pieces. It is a genre near to my heart, as the last time I touched a piano was to play such a piece with my son, Erik. The music resounds in the large space, rendered more impressive by its surroundings. The white interior of the soaring interior trimmed with fine gold lines and adorned with chandeliers lends its own art to the music. While the first piece by Liszt is complex and demanding, I find it lacking, knowing my piano teacher would demand it be more “musical.” In short, it sounds loud and bangy. But the second piece, “The Divine Poem” by Scriabin, is captivating. More modern and full of a range of emotions, it sings through the space surrounding us. Before I am ready, it is finished and so is the concert.

Across the street the National Portait Gallery. With only half an hour available, we leave it to Shaun – who paints himself – to select a collection to visit. Conveniently, the impressionists are immediately opposite the main door and we hurry into the hallowed rooms. I immediately feel humbled to see so many original masters assembled in this space. It takes only a few steps to move from one famous painting to another and I am amazed to be drinking in the rich colors and brush stokes of these fabled artists. I try not to rush from Cezanne to Monet to Renoir to Manet, and quickly find the short descriptions of the paintings to be concise, illuminating and worthwhile, enriching my visit which is only long enough to leave me eager to return.

Ruth and Molly

Through the maze of tube stations. Which brings us to a tea room and Ruth. My friendship with Mary blossomed into the second generation when we introduced our young daughters, Ruth and Karen, as pen pals across the ocean. They have since attended each others' weddings and remain fast friends, as we have. Now sitting across from me is a confident young attorney, having tea with us and sharing stories as if no time had passed since I last saw her.

Mary and Molly with St. Paul's Cathedral

The skies have brightened a bit, even revealing a few patches of blue. We take the opportunity to walk the streets of London and take in the city up close. Skirting St. Paul's Cathedral, it's towers rising above us, we come to the Millenium Bridge. It seems odd, a modern new structure added to the revered old buildings of London. And yet I find its sleek design appealing and enjoy its gleaming contrast as it takes me across the Thames River.

The bridge is not the only new addition. Everywhere I look, the London skyline is pierced by a modern structure. But what I love are the fanciful names attached to these buildings that describe their shape – the cheese grater, the shard and gherkin. There is a surprising sense of humor in it all.

Our finale is dinner. To simplify things, Mary had made reservations at Prezzo in the area near the bus station. Once seated, we know it's just a quick jaunt to the bus and can relax over our meal. The bottle of wine adds just the right touch to our entrées of pizza and pasta, and it is one of those meals where conversation and good times roll. The perfect ending to our day.

It was good, this day in London. Thanks to Mary and Shaun, I've had a Larkin London!

(For those who may not be in the know, it's Mary and Shaun Larkin)


Hanging with the Locals

I did the backpacking around Europe thing in college. You know the routine – hitting all the major cities, seeing the famous sights, sleeping on trains, rushing from country to country. My style of travel has matured with my age. Now my preferred mode is to plop down in one place, most likely in the unknown countryside, settle in for a spell and enjoy the local flavor. Even better, staying with friends provides the perfect opportunity to hunker down and appreciate simple pleasures and lesser known sights. So goes my week in England.

Peter, Jo and Molly enjoying their beer

Right off the bat, en route from the airport Jo and Peter took me to the National Brewery Museum. There we followed a lively tour guide through the extensive displays and grounds where we learned the origins of brewing beer. We also met the few remaining big draft horses that once pulled the beer wagons and saw other beer vehicles through the years – including one shaped like a beer bottle. The payoff for our attentiveness was the tasting room and outdoor patio, where we were able to sample the various brews. I'm normally not a beer drinker, but on a lovely sunny afternoon it quite hit the spot. My family is still in shock.

Museum of Childhood school room

The Museum of Childhood proved to be a fun excursion. Perhaps I should be embarrassed to say that I remember some of the toys we saw there. But the best part was the schoolroom. There I squeezed into a tiny desk and wrote on a chalk slate under the tutelage of a strict and imposing school marm.

There's nothing like a good Sunday picnic and walk in the park. Mary and Shaun took me to Calke Abbey where we joined friends for a perfect afternoon in the countryside. The grounds offered every view possible, from water to pastoral hillsides to colorful autumn leaves. And we even got in a stately mansion.

Views of Calke Abbey

Knowing how much I enjoy cycling, Mary had a bike ready and waiting for me. So off we went on two wheels. We navigated narrow lanes that offered no shoulders and hemmed us in with tall hedge rows. I made a mental note to re-evaluate England as a cycle touring destination. But once we reached Bradgate Park, we could ride side by side on the paths and enjoy the tranquility of this former deer park and its scenic ruins.

Cycling through Bradgate Park

The real payoff came when we reached the Jade Tea Rooms in Newton Linford. They have lovely cakes and coffee (yes, coffee not tea) which was the ideal excuse to linger. And their chalkboard said it all. It was a timely respite, as the treatening rain turned serious, pouring down outside as we talked and talked. By the time we re-emerged the rain had stopped. But luck wasn't entirely on our side, as I suffered a flat tire on the return trip and walked a good share of the way home with my limping bike. Far from tarnishing the experience, it achieved lasting status.

Mary and Molly enjoying coffee and cakes

This is the stuff memories are made of. It's the company I keep and the moments we share that I will remember most fondly. I've no need to be a tourist when instead I can hang with the locals.


A Saxy Reunion

They call themselves the Silver Sax. Starting out as a quartet ten years ago, they have blossomed into a robust band of eleven, over half of which are saxophones which range from soprano to baritone. Jo's husband Peter is one of the original members. It was he who explained to me the significance of the name, which refers to the members' hair color. By happenstance, they were to play a charity event while I was there. It was the perfect event for our mini-reunion.

Molly, Mary and Jo after 40 years

Molly, Mary and Jo 40 years later

Mary and Shaun arrived toting a bottle of bubbly to celebrate the occasion. Mary, Jo and I were reunited one more time, now 40 years since we all first met at Durham University. We covered as much ground as we could over drinks and dinner, dragging up old memories and recounting recent updates. But the main event was still to come.

Although we knew Peter played in a band, apart from Jo the rest of us had never heard him play. In his quiet way, Peter made light of his musical endeavors, but we all suspected he underplayed his and the group's prowess. We were eager to hear it for ourselves.

It was an eclectic old building that housed the bar where the event was hosted in the large back room. Arriving early in time for band set-up we carefully selected a table mid-way back, knowing the band would produce a full sound. Procuring our beverages from the bar at the back, we settled in to watch the room fill. All manner of dress and age were represented, although most like us sported the same hair color as the band.

Silver Sax band

With the first note we knew we were in for a good night. The first half was comprised of big band music, and their renditions of Count Basie and Glenn Miller were a solid credit to the original jazz and swing music. What they lacked in trumpets and trombones, they made up for in saxophones, and very effectively so. It was good foot tapping music, and each piece was better than the last. The music was interspersed with tidbits about the music and the band by their leader, who proved to be enlightening and articulate as well as a talented musician.

Peter playing with Silver Sax

After intermission, the second set changed gears entirely. Tackling the likes of the Beatles, Abba and the Beach Boys, the band rocked the house with their lively tunes. Foot tapping gave way to bodies jiving to the music. It couldn't be helped, it was that irresistible. Chicago followed and kept us so entertained that we begged for an encore when the time came. And the Silver Sax graciously (and readily) accommodated with a medley from Earth, Wind and Fire.

We all agreed that Peter had kept his musical skills and fellow musicians a good secret for far too long. But now that we knew better, we'd be back for more performances. To me sounds like a good excuse to return to England. I'm sure I could be talked into seeing my Durham friends again for another saxy reunion.

Jo, Peter, Molly, Mary and Shaun


A Grand Day Out

We couldn't have had a more perfect day. With an outing to Chatsworth House in the plans, we were elated by the clear blue sky, warm sunshine and nascent fall leaves. What better way to spend this gift than out in the countryside? Yes, my friends Jo and Peter made a very good choice for the day.

Our trip to Chatsworth took us through the beautiful countryside of Derbyshire and a fringe of the Peak District. There was a bit of mist still hovering in the valleys, but it didn't detract from the tidy villages we passed through and the green pastoral countryside. Every way I looked, the view was pure England.

Chatsworth House

We were visiting Chatsworth not to tour the lush country house but rather to enjoy the grounds. The park that surrounds the house is over 1,000 acres in size, much of it free to the public for walking. We headed for the central gardens immediately adjacent to the house. Immaculately kept with great variety in the plantings and themed gardens, it alone would easily have been a day's entertainment. But our visit also coincided with annual exhibition of contemporary sculpture. Over 30 modern sculptures were integrated into the landscape to add to our viewing pleasure.

Paths led throughout the gardens, and the sculptures gave us a ready itinerary for touring the area. With the sun shining down, it was idyllic weather for just strolling along. And as it was only my second day in England, it was the perfect activity for my sleep-confused system.

Some of our first sights were a bit unusual. We were there early enough that the sun reflected off dew-dipped cobwebs on some of the outdoor ornaments. Nature adding her own artistic touch.

Cobwebs at Chatsworth House
Touring Chatsworth gardens


I can't say we understood all the art. Some we dubbed “construction site” pieces. At others we could only shake our heads. Sometimes the meaning escaped us, but we enjoyed the interplay of the art with the surroundings and the artsy views they provided.

Le Dejeuner sur l'herbe at Chatsworth

One piece in particular sparked recognition on Jo's part. Based on Manet's “Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe“, she explained the painting behind the sculpture and the furor it incited in its day for its scandalous content. Soon she had an audience, as another couple lent an ear to gain from her expertise. She showed us the original when we returned home, but it's her interpretation that will stay with me.

There were plenty of garden elements to interest us as well as the sculptures. The 300 year old cascade of water driven by gravity, with each of its steps made of a different material to produce a different sound from the falling water. The maze of thick tall shrubbery. Peter and I never did find our way to the center. But at least we made it out the other side. The reflecting pool with views in many directions. And the myriad flowers still in bloom. All carefully tended and manicured.

Scenes of Chatsworth

Taking time out for an outdoor lunch in the center of the stables, we basked in the sun and marveled at our good fortune with the weather. It made for sublime walking, talking and viewing. Indeed, it was a grand day out.

(With apologies to Wallace and Gromit… My family and English friends will understand!)


Lifelong Friendship

There I was, all on my own at Durham University in northern England. The year was 1975 and I was studying abroad on a program through the Institute of European Studies. It was a thrill to call that beautiful old cathedral city home, walking among age-old buildings, the castle and along the banks of the River Wear as a matter of course.

I loved the opportunity to lose my American self among the British and to immerse myself in their culture. As one of only 40 Americans in a sea of 4,000 students it was easy to do. I joined student clubs that offered experiences that were uniquely British. Soon I found myself in a church belfry doing “change ringing” on huge bells high over my head. I scaled rock faces with the mountaineering club, and went “walking” in the Lake District. I even rowed in a four-with-cox shell.

But the greatest gift of that year was the people I met. Little did I know they would become lasting friendships.

Jo rescued me. I was in the dorm laundry room, totally befuddled by the English version of washers and spin dryers. She immediately sensed my predicament and in her lively manner set about instructing me on the operating procedures. Hailing from the far north, Jo had a Geordie accent which added a language barrier to the session as I could barely understand her. But we muddled through and I found that she was equally curious about me and my “terrible American accent.” In short, we hit it off.

Mary was a good Catholic girl. I met her at a Catholic Society event. She was quiet but friendly and but we were drawn to each other. Discovering that we were both the studious type and lived in the same dorm, we established a fast bond. It was Mary who became my confidant. We could talk for hours, time slipping by unnoticed and never running out of conversation.

That was all forty years ago, almost to the day. And despite the passage of time our friendships have endured. In spite of the long distances between us, we have continued to see each other periodically through the years. We have even traveled to share our children's weddings. And regardless of communication barriers, we have stayed in touch. Mary and I are still avid talkers, thanks to Skype and other advances in technology.

Molly, Mary and Jo in 2011

So it seems fitting that I am traveling on my own to England once again. This time for the sole purpose of visiting my friends. I know they have both been planning excursions, cooking up a storm, and scheming for the duration of my visit. And I can't wait to be back in Jolly Olde England, a place that won my heart that year I lived there (and the subsequent graduate year I finagled just to be able to return). But it's really all about the people. I can absorb my fill of ordered green countryside with its rambling stone walls and hedgerows, drink an abundance of properly brewed tea with milk and take in the ancient buildings while in their company.

I have no fear of running out of things to say. We have forty years of memories to draw upon, share and compare. Gaps to fill. Family and career moves to relate. I know it will be like we saw each other just yesterday. These are lifelong friends.