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Winchester and the Evolution of the English Gentleman

July 4, 2017

A Regency gentlemen’s suit, from the Victoria & Albert collection.

You just never know how a day will turn out.

There were multiple reasons for me to visit Winchester, England, and for me to be excited about it.  The first was that it was where Otis Skinner had taken Emily Kimbrough one day while they were staying in Southampton, waiting for Otis’ daughter Cornelia to recover from the measles.

The second reason was that it would give me the chance to revisit Winchester Cathedral (not to be confused with the similar sounding Westminster Abbey in London).  It had been more than a quarter century ago that I was here, working as general backstage crew on a production of a play written by Francis Warner, the Oxford University professor who ran my study abroad program.  His plays are really more like works of poetry, whose lyrical beauty I didn’t fully appreciate in my 20s, when I was here with that production of “Byzantium”, the story of the emperor Constantine.

But the main reason I was eager to visit Winchester was that, in remembrance of the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, there was a big exhibition happening at their Discovery Center, which included a couple of her handwritten letters, some rarely seen portraits of Austen, and a silk pelisse (a Regency-era overcoat sort of garment) believed to have been worn by her.  In anticipation of my visit, I had stayed up the night before to finish streaming the last episodes of the 1995 miniseries version of “Pride & Prejudice”.  In Winchester, I would be able to peek at Jane Austen’s personal things, then offer remembrance and a word of thanks at her grave in the Cathedral, all hot on the heels of my evening with her Mr. Darcy.

It was a lovely morning with Jane Austen at the Winchester Discovery Center.  I pored over every item in the exhibit, from the astonishingly small coin purse she had made for herself, to the movie posters from the myriad film productions of her works.  But what meant the most to me was reading her letters.  The writer of all those enchanting novels was herself fearless and unapologetic for who she was and what she was doing.  If Austen ever had self-doubt, she didn’t record it anywhere.  She is my hero.

After the exhibit, I headed to the Cathedral.  As I was walking through its gardens, a tall, nice-looking guy in his 30s came up and spoke to me.  I had noticed him earlier when we crossed paths on the High Street.  He introduced himself (let’s call him James), and asked if we could go somewhere for coffee.  It was flattering that this young man was interested in me, but I tend to shy away from situations in which I might get labeled a “cougar”.  So I declined, but thanked him for the sweet invitation.  He then asked if we could at least just sit in the garden and talk for a bit.  That I could do.

James and I found an unoccupied bench, where we sat and talked about his job, and about my book project, and I gave him my website info.  He was like so many of the young men I remember from my years living in England – just very polite and very charming.

That is something that young Englishmen have always had over young American men:  they really, really know how to romance women.  They go about it in such a gentlemanly way.  And yes, most of the time, it’s just a line.  But it’s a very good line.

We had been chatting for maybe ten minutes when he leaned in and kissed me.  It was sweet, and it was lovely.  Then he kept on kissing me.  Part of me thought that I probably shouldn’t let this continue.  But the other part of me could only think of how this would make a good story for the book.  It was utterly mercenary, yes, I know.

He was cute, he was charming and this was nice, so I let it go on for a bit.  But then when James suggested we go somewhere a little more private, I was done, and told him that I really needed to get in and tour that Cathedral.  He asked if he could see me again.  I told him that I was leaving for France in just a few days, and James said he would keep in touch with me, with the hope that we could meet up again before I returned to the States.  We said our goodbyes, and I walked away feeling more pleased than not about the encounter.

Back to Jane Austen.  Inside the magnificent, towering Gothic walls of Winchester Cathedral, I took my time visiting dear Jane’s grave marker.  For decades, I have laughed and cried and taken comfort in this remarkable writer’s words. I never tire of hearing her voice.  She is my role model as a writer and as a woman.  There at her grave, I thanked her for everything she has given me.  Which is a lot.

As I wandered in and out of the transepts and back down the nave, studying the Cathedral’s breathtaking architecture, I thought back with great fondness to the people and that play all those years ago.  I could picture it so clearly, and it was wonderful to bring those memories to life again.  But all too soon, it was time to get back to London.

After an obligatory stop at the Cathedral gift shop, I headed back to the train station, but not before picking up some scampi and chips, soaked in malt vinegar and wrapped in newsprint, from the local chippy.  It was the first one I’d come across since arriving in England.  In a land of smoothie bars, fast fusions, and generally healthy eats, this beautiful, traditional fish and chips shop may be one of the last remaining holdouts.  I salute them.

Back in London, I arrived at my flat in Chelsea to find that I had received a lovely email from young James, telling me how pleased he was to have met me.  Darling.

But then there was the postscript.  He explained that he had taken a naughty picture of himself to show me just exactly how excited he was about it, but that he was too much of a gentleman to send the photo without asking me first.

Excuse me?

Strangely, it wasn’t so much the thought of receiving my first unsolicited dick pic that bothered me as much as it was the “gentleman” reference.  Is this what distinguishes a gentleman these days, that he asks first before sending a nude selfie?!

With that, my Jane Austen day evaporated into mist.  And poor Mr. Darcy. The quintessential English gentleman had just been run through with a sword.

But I refuse to let them go without a fight.  So as a public service announcement, I am saying to all young men everywhere – well, men of all ages, for that matter – exactly what I told James in my very clearly-worded reply that day:

No, thank you.

Actually, forget the “thank you” part – it should just be, “no”.  NO.  Believe me.  I cannot emphasize strongly enough that no woman ever, ever, ever wants to receive a picture of your penis.  Not a single one of us.

If you choose to ignore my words, as James eventually did (a story for another time), you proceed at your own peril.

 

Top row:  Delighting in every detail of the Jane Austen exhibit; the lady herself, whom I hopefully didn’t cause to spin in her grave.

Bottom row: Awesome in the truest sense of the world, Winchester Cathedral; scampi and chips for the train ride home.

Places Things

The Eternal Embarrassment of Safety Pockets

July 1, 2017

The Victoria & Albert Museum.

An incident which I consider to be one of the funniest in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay involves an item known as a “safety-pocket”.  A forerunner to today’s money belts, this Victorian accessory served the same purpose for female travelers in the late 19th century, safeguarding their passports, money and important papers.

At the very beginning of the Our Hearts, Cornelia explains that her mother has coerced her into wearing one for her journey abroad, describing it as, “a large chamois purse that dangled at the knees in the manner of a sporran and was attached… to an adjustable belt around the waist.  It was worn, supposedly inconspicuously, under skirt and slip…”

But Cornelia’s slinky, skin-tight 1920s wardrobe is no match for this bulky object, which not only protrudes from the outline of her dresses, but also tends to swing out of control at the slightest movement.  Her only consolation comes when she discovers that Emily has been forced by her mother to wear a safety-pocket as well.  There is a darling illustration in Our Hearts Were Young and Gay of the girls showing each other those dreadful appendages that have been fastened onto them by their mothers.

Not surprisingly, it doesn’t take long for these items to become a terrible embarrassment to the girls.  It happens when they try to make the best of the fact that their ship is stuck on a sandbar and listing to one side.  They attempt to dance on a slippery, tilted floor with some nice young men whom they had met earlier in the day.  Cornelia explains:

“Gradually I became aware that something soft and strange was bumping against my knees… [My partner] began glancing downward uneasily and I realized that something was, in all probability, hitting him too.  Then, with a wave of horror, it dawned upon me what was happening.  That mortifying safety-pocket of mine had got swaying and was rhythmically and indiscriminately thudding first against my limbs then against those of the mystified young man.”

At that same moment, Cornelia sees Emily, her face beet red, walk off the dance floor with her partner.  Clearly the same thing has just happened to her.  That pretty much spells the end of the safety-pockets.

On my first sojourn abroad, my mother sent me off with a 20th century version of the safety-pocket, which was a pouch suspended by a cord worn around my neck, that hung down to my waist.  So instead of flapping beneath my skirt (as if I was wearing skirts as I backpacked through Europe!), my pouch bounced beneath my shirts and tended to give me the appearance of being roughly five months pregnant.  The next time I traveled, I went with the much-derided fanny pack, which strangely enough has suddenly made a (presumably short-lived) comeback in the fashion world.

I decided early on in this project that I wanted to make the safety-pocket one of the subjects for a blog post.  Riveting, I know.  Hey, they can’t all be tabloid-salacious.  But don’t worry, there’s one of those coming.

Safety pockets.  Try as I might, I hadn’t been able to locate a photo of anything that resembled the illustration in Our Hearts.  But in my research, I had come across references to early women’s pockets in some books and articles from the Victoria & Albert Museum’s Textiles and Fashion Collection, which sounded similar to Cornelia’s description of their safety-pockets.  And yes, there are whole books written about the evolution of pockets.  Makes my post seem electrifying in comparison, doesn’t it?

Armed with these bits of information, I headed over to the sublime V&A Museum.  It was buzzing with large crowds who were there to take in the Pink Floyd exhibition and/or view a collection of over one hundred garments from designer Balenciaga – just two of many focus-pulling attractions the V&A had on offer.  My plan was to knock out the safety-pocket question first, then spend some time looking at the pretty fashions before having tea in the Gamble Room.  It was going to be the most lovely, girly, prissy day.

I went to the general information desk to ask one of the nice ladies behind the counter where I should inquire about an item in the textile and fashion archives.  She asked for specifics, and I explained that I was doing research on a safety-pocket, and stated ever-so-helpfully, “It’s sort of a 19th century version of a fanny pack.”  The woman blinked a bit at what I said and then hastily pointed me in the direction of the textiles hall, saying, “they might be able to help you better”, while another woman passing nearby with a group of school kids in tow looked at me somewhat disapprovingly.

There wasn’t any sort of research desk in the textiles and fashion area, so I stepped up to the reception counter where a couple of staff members were collecting tickets from a steady stream of visitors to the Balenciaga collection.  The young woman noticed me and moved over to help.  Once again, I explained what I was looking for, again making the fanny pack reference.  She hesitated, then got the young man’s attention and she took tickets while he helped me.  For the third time I went through my spiel, at which the young man drew in his breath before breaking into a wry smile.  In a flash, it hit me why everyone seemed so perplexed and a bit put off about helping me, and I was mortified.

Had it really been so long since I lived here that I could have forgotten about the word fanny?  How that gentle American word for backside, as innocuous as “tushy” or “derriere”, to the English, is a vulgar slang term for lady parts.  Though not as bad as the c-word, it’s still quite crass, pretty much on par with the kitty-cat word.

I had just been a potty-mouth in the Victoria & Albert Museum.

I had basically been telling everyone I encountered that I was looking for a “pussy pack”.  On realizing this, I apologized profusely to the two people at the counter and then explained again, using the proper English term “bum bag”.  At this, they suggested I speak with one of the curators, who didn’t seem to be anywhere in sight, and then gave me the names of a couple of books they had on display which might contain what I was looking for.

I checked out the two books, but couldn’t find any photos which resembled the illustration in “Our Hearts Were Young and Gay”.  Still stinging a bit from embarrassment, I decided not to seek out a curator, and gave up the search.  I even skipped on tea in the Gamble Room.  I wasn’t feeling very prissy anymore.

Cornelia and Emily had been humiliated by safety-pockets, so in keeping in sync with their journey, I suppose it’s only fitting that I should be humiliated by them as well.  There seems to be no end to the trouble those silly things can cause.

Top Row:  Cornelia and Emily expose their shameful secret in an illustration by Alajalov; my vintage, sweat-stained travel pouches.

Bottom Row:  The closest thing I ever found to a photo of a safety-pocket; the Gamble Room at the Victoria & Albert Museum, where I didn’t have tea.

People Places Things

The Day Saw Advances, None Miraculous: Spelunking in the National Archives

June 30, 2017

I’ll get right to it.  I am almost OCD in my drive to explain every pop culture reference (of which there are hundreds) and solve every puzzle within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  During my time in England, this zeal led me to making an appointment at the British National Archives at Kew, where I hoped to cross off a number of items from my laundry list of questions.

Kew is best-known for having some of the finest gardens in all of the UK… but there’s no time to discuss that here.

After arriving at the Archives on the day of my appointment, and following the check-in protocol (which involved stashing everything but my phone, notepad and a pencil in a locker, then placing those remaining items in a see-through bag and passing through a check point where it was all inspected by a guard), I found the research cubby assigned to me, which was supposed to contain all of the materials I had requested.

The only item in the cubby was a book written in the early 1900s about the mail route that ran through southern England.  I had hoped that it might be a starting point for enlightening me on who was at the reins the day the Skinners and Emily rode on top of an old mail coach to Hampton Court.  All that I had to go on was that the man looked like Rudyard Kipling, and was a member of the British peerage.  But the book offered no information about the Royal Mail route to Hampton Court, or the four-in-hand club members who drove the coaches.  It was a bust.  Not a promising start to the day.

The other items I had requested, a staff member informed me, would have to be viewed inside a special room with stricter access.  Wow, classified info!  It would take twenty minutes or so for someone to bring the materials to the room.

I used that time to access a record that I had learned of in earlier research, which would verify the exact dates of Cornelia’s and Emily’s journey.  It was a crisp photo image of a page from an immigration log book, with a header showing that the “Empress of France” had docked in Southampton on June 21, 1922.  Below this header, the list of the ship’s passengers included the names Emily Kimbrough, Cornelia Otis Skinner and Paul Dudley White.

It was a victory tinged with defeat.  I was thrilled to have proof that I had worked out the correct year of the girls’ journey, but this information simultaneously deepened another mystery for me.

It had started with that photo in Margaret Sanger’s papers of the girls with The Great Educationalist in the garden of H.G. Wells’ house.  As far as I could tell, Cornelia and Emily went the rest of their lives never knowing the identity of that man.  I wanted to crack this case, and had enlisted the help of the H.G. Wells Society in my investigation.

I sent them all of the information I had, along with a copy of the Sanger photo.  Within a week, they had gotten back to me with a name:  F.W. Sanderson.  He had been a longtime headmaster at the Oundle School in Northamptonshire, and Mr. Wells had thought so highly of the man that he had written a book about him, The Story of a Great Schoolmaster.  A schoolmaster was certainly an educationalist, and a portrait of Sanderson which I located seemed to resemble the small, blurry image of the man in the photograph.  Jackpot!  It simply had to be him.

There was just one problem.  F. W. Sanderson died six days before Cornelia and Emily arrived in England.  Yeah, I know, I wish I was kidding.  Six days!

It seems that on the evening of June 15th, 1922, F.W. Sanderson had just delivered an address to the National Union of Scientific Workers at University College, London.  Suddenly, right there at the podium, he dropped dead of a heart attack just as – does this surprise you? – H.G. Wells, who was moderating the event, asked him his first question.

Just for good measure, while I had access to the periodical records, I pulled up Sanderson’s obituary, and then some:  all of the London newspapers had carried the story of his shocking, unexpected death.

For weeks I had clung to a crazy, desperate hope that one of those two dates had been recorded wrong, but there was no mistake, and no question about it now.  F. W. Sanderson couldn’t have been the man Cornelia and Emily met.

Unfortunately, he had been the one and only name proposed by the experts who know H.G. Wells the best.  There were no other viable candidates.  If H.G. Wells scholars couldn’t sort out this mystery, then there was no chance I would.

For a good while, I was disheartened by the fact that I would never know the identity of The Great Educationalist.  Truth be told, I’m still a bit bummed about it.  But then again, Cornelia and Emily never knew the answer, so it’s only right that I shouldn’t either.  It’s in keeping with the symmetry between their journey and mine.

After the partial win with the immigration record, I was ready to enter the inner sanctum of the special reading room, and hopefully locate the source of a seemingly unlikely story.

A staff member let me into the small, locked room where a few others were inspecting photos, ancient-looking papers, and other bits of history.  I sat down to a set of large log books labeled “Secret” and “Most Secret”, which contained the correspondence of a man named Hugh Trevor-Roper to his superiors in the British intelligence office during World War II.

This was follow-up research to the visit I had made a few weeks earlier to Bletchley Park, where Hugh Trevor-Roper had been stationed for part of the war.  I had been searching there for the origin of an odd reference I had come across on Wikipedia, claiming that Mr. Trevor-Roper had discovered that Our Hearts Were Young and Gay was used by the Nazis as a codebook for their Enigma machine.

Say what?

In the Spring, I had contacted the editor of the digest cited as the source of the reference, and he had referred me to a college history professor who was the author of the article itself.  I got in touch with the professor, who couldn’t recall, let alone physically locate in his records, the origin of this information.  All we could conclude was that the story had to be true, only because it was a very precise statement, about a specific person and a specific book (which the professor had never heard of).  It was highly implausible that the professor could have invented the story himself, given that it included the title of a book he didn’t know existed.

This proved nothing, though.  And I wanted to be certain of the truth.  The answer, the proof, had to be somewhere in Hugh Trevor-Roper’s papers.   So I scoured the top secret logbooks, but came up empty-handed.  How could that professor have stumbled upon a discovery which I, who had spent months actively looking for that same information, couldn’t locate?  It was wildly frustrating.

But I came away from those logbooks feeling more unsettled by something that I hadn’t known to prepare myself for:  my first experience reading about World War II in the present tense.

It caught me completely off guard.  I felt like I’d been sucker-punched as I read Hugh’s missives about upcoming Nazi military campaigns which, he noted, were being financed with assets stolen from the Jewish community, while they themselves were presently being rounded up and sent to work camps.  Presently?  Work camps?  A passing reference to an unspeakable horror.  And it was happening right there, in that moment as those words were being typed onto the page.

There were notes on spy operations involving Agents ZigZag and Snow, two names I knew from the history books.  But here in these pages, those men were alive, moving in and out of intelligence reports which were tracking their current movements.

Page after page, there were details of events that I had only ever studied in the past tense, with the reassuring knowledge that the Allies had triumphed in the end.  But within these logbooks, those uncertain, frightening days in 1943 were happening in the here and now.  Once again, I found that the edges of time and space were blurring, but this time it was not a welcome experience.

It had been a roller coaster of a day, my first foray into serious research.  I was wrung out by the time I left Kew, thankful to have the strain on my brain over and done with.  It was time to get back to the spirit of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, to the lighthearted pleasure of traveling and seeing the sights with the girls.  Which I would definitely do.  There was just one more thing I needed to check first…

In my next post, I make an ass of myself in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

 

(Fans of the TV series “Deadwood” might recognize the title of this post as a line spoken by the infamous Al Swearingen, owner of The Gem Saloon.)

Top Row:  My work table in the National Archives; illustration of a mail coach, the only useful bit I found in the entire book.

Bottom Row:  Passenger list from “The Empress of France”; a book of reports written by Hugh Trevor-Roper.

People Places

Best Not To Leave It So Long

June 28, 2017

Punts and punters on the River Cam.

“We would come back again, but it would never be the same… There would never again be a ‘first time’”. – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

Those were the words I inscribed into the front flyleaf of the journal I was to keep of my own ‘first time’ abroad.  Those words and that book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, had whetted my appetite to travel, and when I was given the opportunity to spend a college semester abroad, I brought my copy of Hearts along with me to Europe.

I was a year younger than Cornelia and Emily when I spent the summer and fall semester of my senior year studying in England, first in Cambridge and then later in Oxford.  So it seemed fitting that I should pay a visit to my old stomping grounds in Cambridge, where my whole “first time” had begun.

It had been at least a quarter of a century since I had last been in Cambridge, so I took my time on the walk from the train station to the center of town to really take in where I was, and hopefully connect to this place which held so many joyful memories for me.

As I got close to the city centre, I unexpectedly came upon a massive 21st century shopping mall called the Grand Arcade.  There was no telling what it had swallowed up when that behemoth had been wedged into the cozy streets of Cambridge.  Yes, yes, time marches on and you can’t stop progress and all that, but this was not a welcome discovery for me, nor a happy beginning to my stroll down memory lane.

I walked from there over to the entrance to King’s College, one of the Cambridge University’s finest colleges.  It had been here that I had stood almost 30 years ago, frozen in wonder as a young man with dark hair and glasses came through the college’s gate in his motorized chair, followed by a small entourage.  It was the summer of 1988, when ‘A Brief History of Time’ was taking the scientific world and the bestseller lists by storm.  And there I was, face to face with its author, Stephen Hawking.  He and his posse were past me within an instant, and I could only stand and stare after them, marveling in disbelief that I had just crossed paths with the most brilliant mind on the entire planet.

But had it been right here?  Or had this happened at the other entrance to the college, the one facing Queen’s Road?  It had been such a profound moment, a treasured memory, and yet it had slipped a little from my grasp.  How could I have let my recall become fuzzy like that?

From there I wove through a small, winding street to the tucked-away entrance to Clare College, where my study abroad program had been held.  I passed through the main quad, where we had come for classes and meals in the buttery (the college cafeteria), to the Clare College bridge, arguably the prettiest bridge along the Backs (the name given to the area along the River Cam where a number of colleges back up to the water).  The view from the bridge is the stuff of picture postcards – the exquisite gardens, punters on the river, the sublime King’s College Chapel overlooking a meadow filled with lazy, grazing cows.

For a while I watched the punts pass beneath the bridge, going up and down the river.  Some of my happiest memories of Cambridge were of punting alongside the colleges with my fellow Stephens women, and I delighted in watching nervous, intrepid souls attempt to steer their little boats.  But not all of the punts were small.  Outnumbering the traditional punts were supersized versions of the boats that seated four across.  They were filled with as many tourists as could cram in, and these “puntoons” took up most of the space on the crowded waterway.

Disheartened by this sight, I directed my attention to seeing if I could still locate a secret I knew about the bridge.  It was as I remembered.  That buoyed my faltering spirits.  And then I took a moment to stand in the spot where I had been kissed by a cricket player named Andrew on one of those lovely summer evenings in 1988.  Speaking as a rabid anglophile, I feel compelled to say that it is very satisfying to have been kissed by a cricket player on the Clare College bridge.

I continued on across the Queen’s Road and walked down the drive to Thirkell Court, the residence hall where our group of nine Stephens women had stayed that summer.

Things had changed there, too.

The Henry Moore sculpture that had resided in the courtyard was nowhere to be seen.  Inside, the hallways which were once lit only by the natural light coming through the windows and a smattering of single bulbs, now appeared to be perpetually under interrogation, almost glowing from the white glare of oversized fluorescents in the ceiling.  Upstairs, the bathroom’s subway tiles and swimming pool-sized cast iron tub had been replaced by a pair of shower units with an unfortunate tile design that never had been nor ever will be fashionable.

They were insignificant changes, really, but they all made me feel disconnected and a bit sad, and I was ready to get out of there.  Adding insult to injury, I couldn’t find the building’s “secret passageway” – i.e. the after-hours way to get in and out once the gates to the courtyard were locked for the night.  Frustrated by this, I left through the front door and headed back across the Queen’s Road to the footpath that ran along the Backs.

I made my way along the path, pausing at Trinity College and Newton’s Mathematical Bridge.  Spanning the River Cam, this 18th century wooden structure had been designed by Sir Isaac Newton, and was constructed without using nails or bolts.  Somewhere along the line, one of our professors had explained to us, a group of scholars had disassembled the bridge in order to understand Newton’s design, and then found that they could not put it back together, and had to resort to using nails and bolts to reassemble it.  What an idiotic thing for them to have done.  Such a waste and a shame.

Except none of it is true.  And here’s the kicker:  I didn’t know that the Newton story was an urban legend until just now, this very moment, writing this post, when I was double-checking the college on Wikipedia. At least this one illusion hadn’t been shattered for me right there in Cambridge that day.

I crossed to the other side of the Silver Street bridge, passing a large group of tourists waiting in line for their turn on the river.  I went down the ancient set of steps from the bridge to the landing where a number of proper punts floated idly next to the crowded boarding area for the puntoons.

It was here at this landing by The Anchor pub that we had docked that day almost thirty years, on our first outing in a punt.  Having been given a 90-second tutorial in how to move and steer the boat by one of our professors, a few of us had taken on the challenge and quickly succeeded in learning at least the rudimentary points of punting.  Figuring that the occasion called for some celebratory wine, Sally, Deborah and I waited in the boat while Jennifer and Stephanie went to The Anchor to score a couple of bottles.  Ten minutes later they returned with not only the wine, but some cute English boys as well, who joined us in the punt.  Our one-hour excursion turned into five hours on the river, filled with flirting, riotous laughter, and a few of us ending up with dates for that evening.  Tourists take note:  That is how you go punting.

After grabbing a few photos of the boats, I went back up and over the bridge to The Anchor itself where, mercifully, I found that the place had hardly changed at all.

This stop was to be the big finish to my day, where I would raise a glass to times past, and to all of those with whom I had shared my youthful adventures.  And what better way to toast on a warm, sunny day, than with the quintessential English summer drink, Pimms and lemonade?  I had been introduced to that marvelous concoction right here in this very establishment, by that cricket player from the Clare College bridge.

I took my drink out to the platform area overlooking the river and silently toasted to old friends and glorious memories, then took a sip of my Pimms.  After the discouraging morning I had just experienced, it was only fitting, really, that the drink tasted watered down and flavorless, and not as I had remembered it.  Appropriately symbolic of the day I was having.

It had been a rougher landing than I had expected, here in Cambridge.  Clearly, the long stretch of time between my visits had caused small, gradual changes to appear large and drastic.  Or maybe my memories had gone awry.  I left The Anchor feeling as flat as my drink had been.  It was time to return to London.

Back on the train, I reflected on the day, trying to work out if I had gotten any of… well, whatever it was I had come for.  Why had it been easier to connect to Cornelia’s and Emily’s past than to my own?  And then in a moment of clarity, I remembered the postscript I had written for my first journey abroad.

In 1988, on the back flyleaf of that journal of mine, I had inscribed, “I would come back again, but it would never be the same.  There would never again be a first time”.  Those prophetic words had come back around to me today, and were ringing in my ears.  There was no surprise nor sting in them, but nevertheless I had been blindsided.  I had gone to Cambridge anticipating a day of happy nostalgia, only to find myself standing precisely in the moment where that postscript of mine had become completely and utterly true.

Below: The Clare College Bridge and Gardens; Punting beneath Trinity College’s Mathematical Bridge.

People Places

The Tudors and the Troops

June 25, 2017

Hever Castle on a sublime summer day.

It would seem like from my latest posts that I must’ve lost interest in following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, but that is hardly the case.  Every day I read a bit of the book, and write about the girls, and continue my research on them and their travels.  And any time I am in the West End, especially when I’m going to the theatre, I think of them and imagine them strolling through these same streets (sometimes in those crazy white rabbit fur capes).

Because of the mishap with the Montcalm, and the eight days waiting in Canada for another ship, compounded with Cornelia being bedridden in Southampton with the measles for ten days, the girls were severely delayed in getting to London, so their time in the city was cut rather short.  Whereas I’m spending nearly five weeks here, the girls barely got more than two.  So aside from a few passing references to places they visited, and their stories from Hampton Court and Easton Glebe (more on that in a later post), there is very little for me to search out in London.  Which I don’t mind, as it gives me some free time to have a few new experiences of my own, while also allowing me to revisit parts of my own past travels.

Something I was keen to do, which I had never done before, was tour Hever Castle, the onetime home of Anne Boleyn, Anne of Cleves and, a few centuries later, William Astor.  I have a fascination with Tudor history, and since my early days have always been staunchly in the Boleyn camp, so I was eager for the chance to finally visit their home.

My neighbor and new friend Sabrina and I went out to Hever Castle on June 25th (the wedding anniversary of my parents, John and Janet Crow, by the way).  We were pleased to learn that the castle would be hosting special activities and attractions that day, as part of Armed Services weekend.  All the better, we thought.  I was especially pleased, since Our Hearts Were Young and Gay has its own tie-in to World War II (once again, more on that in a later post).

The train ride through the countryside of Kent couldn’t have been prettier or more pleasant.  At one of those picturesque little stations decked out with hanging baskets, we changed from the big Southeastern Railway train to a smaller, regional train which took us to Hever Station.

It was then just a brief walk through some fields and country lanes, and up past an ancient half-timbered pub and the village church and graveyard, to reach Hever Castle.  Immediately we were struck with the beauty and the layout of the grounds.  Whereas some of the great estates have elaborate, ostentatious grounds, Hever Castle and its surroundings were beautiful in an understated, natural way.

The grounds were buzzing with all sorts of interesting sights. In the center of everything was a World War II spitfire, being watched over by gentlemen dressed as members of the Home Guard.  Further on, in front of the castle was parked a vintage double-decker bus, which had been turned into an interactive experience called “London During the Blitz”.  There were activities for kids, such as the sobering craft project of making their own gas masks.  And I was proud to see some tents and a trio of left-hand drive jeeps representing the American troops who had flooded into England once the US had entered the war.

But first we wanted to step a little further back into history and tour the castle.  Sabrina and I viewed a lot of the rooms together, but soon got separated as we went at our own paces.  I was glad she had been spared my lengthy conversation with one of the docents about Henry VIII, the Boleyns, and who murdered the Princes in the Tower.

After being on Henry’s turf at Hampton Court, it felt good to be here in Boleyn territory, where the king had been just the lovesick suitor of Anne.  Of course, later he would have her beheaded, seizing Hever Castle from her family and then giving it to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, who of all of Henry’s wives, on balance, probably fared the best of the lot.

Sabrina and I met up at the gift shop and cafe, and after a tasty bite of lunch, we headed over to the gardens and a series of tents.  The largest tent was serving as the grand stand for a trio of female singers in period dress, who were performing big band hits of the war years.

Next to the tents, a pick-up game which appeared to be half-cricket and half-baseball, was being played by people dressed in G.I. uniforms – soldiers and sailors both – as well as a few women who were sporting “A League of Their Own” baseball uniforms.  There were also a few “civilians”, also in period dress, who had joined the game, while a large group of men and women, 1940s from head to toe, merrily cheered them on.

There was something about that game, everyone laughing and delighting in the spectacle – the mood was ebullient and infectious, and Sabrina and I were swept up in the joy and spirit of it all.  The uniforms, the clothes, even the hairstyles, with “Chattanooga Choo Choo” being sung in the background – it all looked and felt so authentic, that this easily could have been the summer of 1942, with everyone taking a brief respite from the worry of the war for a bit of happiness and fun.  Once again I found the edges of time and space blurring, and it was quite a wondrous sensation.

After enjoying the game for a while, we checked out the tents and were particularly struck by the one selling handmade reproductions of 1940s hats.  Oh, there were some heavenly creations!  It made me want to come back next year in vintage apparel.  And to think, not so long ago, I had been haughty about re-enactors.  Now I very much wanted to be part of that homefront ballgame crowd, and slip into their 1940s world for just a moment or two.

Our last stop, albeit an extensive one, was touring the flower gardens and enormous man-made lake.  All of this had been installed by William Astor when he purchased Hever Castle in 1903.  On the lake, folks were out boating, while a mother swan sat at the water’s edge with her offspring – though larger than babies, they still had all of that sweet, soft-looking grey fluff and were quite adorable.

Museum legs had begun to set in a bit for both of us, so we made our way back to the train station, then on to London and the 21st century.  Along the way, we looked through our photos, and talked about the centuries of history we had just taken in, all in a matter of a few short hours.  Sabrina and I agreed that the ballgame had been the best part of an all-around terrific day.  And I had no doubt that Hever Castle day would end up being one of my favorite days of the entire trip.

Top Row:  The charm of a village train station; Hever Castle, the London Blitz double-decker bus, and a glimpse of William Astor’s Tudor Village; Henry VIII, that jerk, slept here.

Middle Row:  … And the crowd is ecstatic; Winston Churchill embraces his American side and bats baseball-style; safe at third, to everyone’s delight.

Bottom Row:  A treasure trove of hats; Sabrina photographing roses; a swan and her little ones head to the water.

People Places

On the Town with Otis Skinner

June 23, 2017

Although most of the journey this summer is about following Cornelia’s and Emily’s story, I decided to spend one day searching out the London of Otis Skinner, Cornelia’s father.

Born in 1858, that dashing gentleman in the photo above became one of the finest and most popular actors on the stage for more than a quarter century.

In his early days, Otis was a matinee idol (he had a sort of Clooney-thing going, I think).  But it was his talent and range that made Skinner stand out as an actor.  He toured with theatre luminaries Augustin Daly, Helene Modjeska and Edwin Booth (yes, brother of John Wilkes Booth, but also considered by some to be America’s greatest actor).  By the mid-1890s, Otis had become a full-fledged star, and in 1895 he married his co-star, Maud Adams.  In 1899, their only child, Cornelia was born.

In Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, Otis and Maud make a brief appearance at the beginning of the book, when they are seeing Cornelia onto the train to Montreal.  They next appear at the dock in Southampton, eager to greet Cornelia and Emily.  Cornelia explains, “They had no idea of cramping Emily’s and my style, but they thought it just as well to be in the same hemisphere as we.  They would be in England when we were and we might look them up if that wasn’t too much of a strain on our independence.”

As it turned out, the girls ended up spending quite a bit of time with Cornelia’s parents, even moving from their student lodgings in Tavistock Square to the Skinners’ swanky Hotel Victoria.  Emily and Cornelia recount going to dinners and plays with Otis and Maud, and also write, “Father took us on a few tours about town, showing us places he’d known and loved when he’d played there thirty years before with the Daly Company.”

I decided that I would like a day of my own with Otis Skinner, touring about town.  I started in the West End.  I had already happened upon and snooped around the Hotel Victoria (now the Grand Hotel, at 8, Northumberland Ave), and now I gave it a smile and a nod as I walked up from the Embankment Pier to Leicester Square.  My first stop was 3, Cranbourn St, once the site of Daly’s Theatre.  Sadly, the beautiful Victorian building is gone, torn down in 1937 by Warner Bros, who put in a movie theatre with a sculpted marble Art Deco façade which is supposed to be nice, but seems a bit dreary to me (and I love Art Deco architecture).  Interestingly enough, the place (now known as the “Vue Theatre”) was undergoing renovations when I was there, but I’m sorry to report that nothing was done to improve the façade.  Still, it was nice to see where Daly’s had stood, and I could picture a young, carefree, Clooney-esque Otis Skinner being met by adoring females as he left the theatre and stepped into Leicester Square.

Our next stop was the Trocadero restaurant in Shaftesbury Ave.  It took me a while to work out that the Trocadero tourist monstrosity in Coventry St was not what I was looking for, which was an overwhelming relief.  I had already had to accept that Marks and Co Booksellers of 84, Charing Cross Road was now McDonald’s.  I just couldn’t bear the thought that the unbelievably posh Trocadero restaurant had become one of London’s largest, most garish souvenir shops.

The restaurant on Shaftesbury Ave was opened in 1896, having taken over the space formerly occupied by the notorious Argyle Subscription Rooms, a “performance hall” where rich men picked up prostitutes.  Hmmm… of course, young Otis certainly wouldn’t have ventured into such a place when he was with the Daly Company.  But I wondered if he had reflected on the place’s lurid past while he was standing at the restaurant’s entrance in 1922, waiting for Cornelia and Emily to arrive.

This is one of my favorite passages in the book, involving the purchase by the girls of matching, enormous rabbit fur capes, and them deciding to debut them at dinner with Cornelia’s parents at the very fashionable Trocadero (those Argyle Rooms had come up in the world).  The girls pull up in a taxi, buried under their mountains of fur, and see Otis collapsed against the building in tears (tears of laughter, it turns out).

So I was delighted to find that the marble columns at the restaurant entrance were still there, although the grand palace of a restaurant that had been there is virtually gone.  It’s now a cinema and coffee house with a cloistered walkway that was somehow carved out from the building.  But no matter.  I could still picture the girls arriving at this spot, and I could see Otis leaning against the column, supporting himself through his fit of hysterical laughter.  It was a joy to almost be there with them for that wonderfully funny moment.

There was one more place I wanted to see, but I hadn’t had exact information to go on, like I had for the first two locations.  All I had was this passage from the book:

“[Otis] was especially fond of an old cemetery for actors.  It was in a shoddy out-of-the-way district and the ground was unhallowed.  Even in death, members of the profession were ostracized, because until well after the Restoration they were legally considered “Rogues and Vagabonds”, not fit to lie with gentle folk.  That pleased him highly.  It was evident that he felt it a sorry day when players turned respectable.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

After a lengthy tour around the internet, involving some creative search terms, I managed to narrow it down to one really strong contender: Bunhill Fields in Islington.  It was a burial ground from the 1660s to the 1850s, and was where many “Nonconformists” were buried.  There are artists, writers, and poets there, including William Blake and Daniel Defoe, and the ground was never consecrated by the church.  It was definitely worth checking out, even if I was wrong.

The district wasn’t shoddy, but it was somewhat out of the way, which matched the girls’ description.  I spent an hour or so walking along the cobblestone paths, doing my best to make out names on headstones worn down by centuries of rain and wind.  There were quite a few visitors to the cemetery that day – or should I say park, as it is now managed as a public garden?  One person told me about how a large part of the cemetery had been hit in World War II, and another mentioned that many of the dead were under the cobblestones we were walking on.  And another visitor and I pondered whether the unmarked mounds surrounded by low fences were the mass graves of those who died in the 1665 plague.

Even if I was in the wrong cemetery, I was still in a terribly interesting place.  But I was pretty certain I’d gotten it right.

All in all, my day with Otis Skinner had been a lovely one, though I felt that I never really got that close to his world.  I could only just barely touch it at best.  Which is a shame, because I would like to have known Otis Skinner better.  It’s the Clooney thing, I suspect.

Below:  A young George Clooney and a young Otis Skinner; the Daly Theatre; the Vue Theatre; waiting at the columns of the Trocadero; Bunhill Fields cemetery; screen credit for Otis Skinner from the movie “Kismet”, proclaiming him “America’s foremost romantic actor”.

Places Things

A Day at the Races

June 22, 2017

While the majority of this summer’s journey is all about me following in the footsteps of Our Hearts Were Young and Gay – going where Cornelia and Emily went, doing the same things they did whenever possible – there have also been times where I ventured off and did things that the girls didn’t.

Royal Ascot was one of those occasions.

Full disclosure:  I have absolutely no interest in horse racing, but I am a big fan of the movie My Fair Lady and, in particular, the scene where Audrey Hepburn attends the Ascot opening day in that liquid silver gown with the enormous, simply delectable confection of a hat.

This summer was my first opportunity to attend Ascot, or, more accurately, it was when I discovered that there was no mystery or magic or secret handshake, to going to the races.  One simply got online and ordered tickets.  Even for the oh-so-exclusive Royal Enclosure, yes, there were tickets available inside that inner sanctum.  As lovely as that would have been for my first time going to the race, to be in the Eliza Doolittle Royal Enclosure, I was pretty certain that I hadn’t brought anything elegant enough to wear for that level of formality.  So I purchased a ticket in the Queen Anne enclosure, which appeared to be geared toward a younger, more lively crowd.  And as long as I wasn’t going to be in the Royal Enclosure anyway, I opted to attend on Ladies Day instead of Opening Day because it also sounded more fun.

When it came to the check-out webpage, the first drop down menu item was “Title”, which offered not just the standard choices of “Mr, Mrs, Ms and Miss”, but everything from “Admiral” to “Dowager Duchess” to “The Marquess of”.  For a wild moment, I considered listing myself as “Viscountess”, but then got panicked that there might be “poser police” who would bust me for falsely claiming to be a member of the peerage.

Once the ticket was booked, all I needed was a really good hat.  Ladies always wear hats to Ascot.  Audrey Hepburn had worn a hat.  A really good hat.

I spent the better part of a day in the stores on Oxford St, and finally settled on a quite pleasing fascinator in electric orange – less Eliza Doolittle and more Aunt Eller in Oklahoma, which was where I had first heard of a fascinator.  Of course, everyone knows – right? – that a fascinator is basically a headband adorned with frills, feathers and frippery, formed into a wonderfully sculptural bit of nonsense.  Well, I was simply over the moon about mine, especially when the saleslady wrapped it up in its own hatbox.

Ever since my arrival in London two weeks earlier, I had been seeing numerous women walking along the streets carrying hatboxes, and now it was intensely satisfying to be joining their ranks.  I felt transported to a different time, when ladies routinely wore hats and gloves and pretty dresses – so glamorous.  I suspect it was like how Cornelia and Emily felt when they purchased their white rabbit fur coats, and carried home their enormous boxes from the store.

On the day of the race, I took the train from Waterloo station, which was a treat in itself.  Everyone was dressed for Ascot, and the champagne and various beverages were flowing.  There was laughter and high spirits even with a standing room only crowd in the train car.  In no time we arrived at Ascot, and I found my way to the Queen Anne enclosure in the center of the racetrack oval.  There was music and food and cocktails.  And milling around amongst the crowd was like being in the middle of an enormous, incredible fashion show.  It was all quite splendid.

I managed to maneuver into a spot on the front line in time to see the royals arrive in a procession of carriages.  It had taken me almost 30 years to see a royal in person, and now within the span of five days, I had seen a whole pack of them – twice!

I mingled and chatted with a number of fellow attendees, sampled the dainty sandwiches and pastries, had a couple of glasses of champagne, and never again made it close to the track to see the races.  Occasionally there would be the low rumble of horses’ hooves, and some cheers, and I might glance at a TV monitor to see the finish.  But that was pretty much the extent of my experience with the races themselves.  As I mentioned earlier, horse racing really isn’t my thing.

By mid-afternoon, I was ready to head back to London.  I left before the races were done and the after-parties began, but I needed to get out of my shoes.

I had seen the fashions.  I had worn my fascinator.  That is what Ascot had been about for me – the pomp and pageantry of it all.  And I had not been disappointed.  My day had been perfect and complete.

There is a wee bit more to the story of my day at the races, involving the train ride back to London with a Bafta Award-winning actor dressed as a woman, who led me to consider, for the first time ever, the notion of dating a transvestite.  But I think I’ll save that bit for the book.

Top Row:  So pretty, so prissy, my fascinator in its hatbox; Audrey at Ascot; a lively morning commute on the train.

Bottom Row:  The only horses I saw on race day were the Queen’s; a proper dandy, surrounded by hats; end of the day selfie, and I just want to be out of my shoes.

People Places

The Queen and The Tower

June 17, 2017

Though the date on this post may not reflect it, it’s actually been a few months since I last added an entry to this blog.  This is mainly due to the fact that I am not a fast writer, and I was finding that I was spending beautiful summer days in London cooped up in my flat, trying to keep up with social media and my website.  It seemed crazy to be focused on telling the story instead of living it.  So I set aside a lot of my efforts, put my shoes on and went out to enjoy whatever adventures this experience would bring me.

I did keep an online journal just for myself, so everything would be there when I went to write the book later.  Going on for a page or two each night or morning seemed to take far less time than writing a few carefully worded paragraphs for the blog.  It’s the old idea of, “Sorry I wrote such a long letter.  I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

For the next two months, I lived the experience and hung onto every moment of it as best I could.  It all went by so terribly fast.  Now it’s autumn, the summer’s journey is a couple of months in the rearview mirror, and it’s time for me to finally write all of those overdue blog posts.

It might have been easier to start up again before now, if the next entry was one that I was looking forward to posting.  But I’ve known for a while what needs to be said at this point in the journey.  I just hope I can get the words out right.

My first couple of weeks in London were such a happy time for me personally.  I was really doing it, really having this adventure I’d dreamed of.  I was just at the start of it all, with so much of Cornelia’s and Emily’s story still ahead of me, to unearth and recreate.  I was seeing friends from the States who were in the UK at the same time.  I was seeing old friends from my two years living abroad.  I was making new friends in Chelsea.  And I was meeting a distant cousin with whom I had become friends, thanks to Ancestry.com.

But life has a way of interrupting.

On June 4, 2017, our fifth day aboard the QM2, sailing for England, we learned of the attack at London Bridge and the Borough Market in which 8 people were killed.  This was only two weeks after the Manchester bombing where 22 people were killed.  The date was May 22nd, when I had been in Canada, traveling from Quebec City to Les Eboulements, following in Cornelia’s and Emily’s footsteps.

A week after I arrived in London, the news was filled with images of a horrific fire in the Grenfell Tower apartment building, which killed at least 68 people (the final death toll isn’t expected to be known until 2018).  It was a senseless, needless tragedy – too many heartbreaking stories to recount.

And then there was all of that noise coming from the other side of the pond.  The incessant anger raging throughout the States.  Every day was a new affront, a new argument, a new division in our magnificent, imperfect, beautiful nation.  I became so thankful for those two summer months abroad, to be away from the fight, where the cacophony was somewhat muted by the BBC filter.

All of this was as much a part of my summer as going to tea, and the theatre, and almost getting lost in the maze at Hampton Court.

Cornelia’s and Emily’s summer abroad took place in 1922, a relatively joyful, exciting time.  But when they sat down to write their story, the year was 1942.  America had just entered World War II, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  The U.S. and its allies were facing some of the darkest days of the war.  Cornelia and Emily were penning their happy memories of London at a time when the city was just trying to put itself together after surviving the Blitz.  They wrote of their idyllic weeks in the little Normandy town of St. Valery-en-Caux, knowing that the wonderful people of the town who had welcomed them into the community in 1922, were now living under Nazi rule.  They wrote of visiting the Arc de Triomphe at twilight, not long after the world had been subjected to crushing images of German troops and their leader, Adolf Hitler, marching past it, down the Champs-Elysees and into Paris.

Yet within Our Hearts Were Young and Gay, there is not one mention of the times they were living through.  Not one whiff of anything unpleasant.  Not the slightest hint of comparison between 1922 and 1942.  Whatever heartache the current situation in Europe must’ve caused Cornelia and Emily – and for these two women, who traveled to Europe often during their lifetimes, it had to have been quite a lot – they focused solely on the story of their funny, lighthearted journey.

Perhaps it was for the sake of escapism – giving people an amusing story to take them away from their cares for a moment or two.  But I believe Cornelia and Emily, those two savvy women, understood what the true purpose of the book could be:  to remind all of those fighting for the Allied cause of just what they were fighting for.  The world they shared in their story was worth fighting for, worth saving.  More on just how much this little book did for the war effort will follow in a later post.

I thought of their choice often as I was writing in my journal, feeling torn about how much I would speak of not-so-pleasant current events occurring during my time in Europe.  Though it remains to be seen what I will say in the book, I intend to speak of the troubling headlines only here in this one blog post.  You see, I love that little book, Our Hearts Were Young and Gay. Love it so much that I desperately want to produce a story as joyful as the one Cornelia and Emily gave us.  If they can create such a delightful tale in the midst of World War II, then I owe it to them to keep my focus on the good and positive in just the same way.

This post is dreadfully long now, but I felt this needed to be addressed and explained.

This post was supposed to be about attending the Queen’s Birthday parade with my English cousin Sean, and seeing members of the Royal Family for the first time.  It was a beautiful day, with huge crowds, all cheerful and cheering, not letting an attack on their city just two weeks earlier stop them enjoying the celebration.

Unblinking and unafraid.  These are the people who survived the Blitz.  And decades of IRA bombings.  They keep calm and carry on, and never let a random act of evil break their stride.  They are my heroes.

Top, left to right:  Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip travel along The Mall in an open carriage during her birthday celebration; the burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower, where it is a miracle anyone survived.

People Places Things

Tips for visiting Hampton Court Palace

June 15, 2017

Just fifteen or so miles outside of London in the village of Molesey is Hampton Court Palace, once owned by Cardinal Wolsey before being taken over by Henry VIII.  This is where legend has it that Katherine Howard, under arrest for adultery, escaped her guards and ran through the long gallery in an attempt to reach her husband, the King, and beg his forgiveness (her efforts failed, and she was soon beheaded).

Cornelia and Emily, along with Otis and Maud Skinner, visited Hampton Court in 1922, and I made my second visit there last week.  Culled from their experiences and mine, here are some tips on planning the perfect trip to the Palace, from those of us who didn’t get it quite right.

Thanks to Maud Skinner’s savvy perusing of Muirhead’s Guide Book (the Frommer’s of its day), she and the rest of her foursome traveled from London to Hampton Court by coach – as in stage coach (or more correctly, mail coach), not coach as in the Anglican word for “bus”.

“One rode on the swaying top of a tally-ho behind four spanking greys, while Lord Somebody drove.  This opportunity for displaying four-in-hand skill was, we learned, a pastime of the peerage and a few horsey American millionaires who, in the interests of tradition, kept up the old mail-coach service between London and Hampton Court.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner and Emily Kimbrough

What sounded like a charming mode of transport to the Palace proved to be rather more harrowing than what the group had bargained for.  Add to which the fact that, sitting atop the coach (and not inside it), they got rained on along the way.  But in the end, Emily, Cornelia, Maud and Otis made it in good time to Hampton Court.

Mercifully, this tourist experience is no longer offered, not that I would have felt conflicted about whether or not to travel in this fashion myself.  I had already gotten it wrong by taking the riverboat to Hampton Court when I visited the Palace for the first time back in the early 1990s.

Oh, yes, it does sound picturesque, traveling by boat, and it is, for a while.  But this ferry down the river inexplicably takes anywhere from three to four hours, something I didn’t know when I hopped onto the boat that day, expecting it to whisk me down the Thames in short order to Hampton Court, where I could spend the day.

Instead, I got there with 50 minutes left until closing.  I raced through the Palace, practically matching the speed of poor Katherine Howard in the gallery.  I didn’t get to explore the grounds, let alone the maze, which I had been hoping to do, in homage to Cornelia and Emily.  Even as early as the 1990s, I wanted to walk in their footsteps.

Travel tip:  Central London to Hampton Court Palace by car, 40 minutes.  Train, 45 minutes.  Bus, one hour.  Any of them will do.  Just no boat.  Or horse drawn mail coaches.

Cornelia and Emily don’t go into too much detail about their tour through Hampton Court Palace, but they are effusive in the impression it made on them, from the magnificent public rooms to the kitchens with “the forests of chimney pots”, which are all still there, possibly in the same sort of display that the girls would have seen them in.

I was thrilled to have more than 50 minutes this time to tour the Palace, and I poked my head into every nook and cranny that wasn’t marked “Private” or “Staff Only”.  I took pictures of tapestries, and architectural details, and stone passages where lords and ladies, as well as pages and chambermaids, would have walked.  A photo that quickly became my favorite is a selfie I took in one of the hallways, which appears to have a couple of green orbs floating in it, right around my neck.  Skeptics, call them dust or whatever you like.  I know they are spirits of those from a different time who are showing themselves in my photo, even making an effort to coordinate with my blouse.  You can tell by looking.

Although I’m sure Hampton Court was a lovely place to visit in the girls’ day, I have to think they would have enjoyed it far more today.  Audio tours, good food to be had at the restaurants, and multiple, excellent gift shops.  The kitchen gift shop was my favorite, and it took a tremendous amount of restraint for me to not purchase the enchanting set of measuring spoons they had for sale.

All of the Palace and its grounds is a treat, from the perfectly manicured formal gardens to the extensive lush and luscious flower beds, to the indoor tennis court, which is still used today by those belonging to what I’m sure must be a pretty exclusive club.  I explored every bit of it and, just like Cornelia and Emily, managed to do it without coming down with what they call “museum legs”.  Throughout the day, I thought of them (and Maud and Otis too), knowing their eyes had fallen on all of these same, remarkable things.

“And then we came to the maze, or labyrinth.  It was my idea to go into it.” – Cornelia Otis Skinner

This time it was my idea to go into it, and I whispered to Cornelia and Emily that they were coming with me, and that everything would be all right.  I would get us out.

You see, Cornelia and Emily went into that famous hedge maze which had been at Hampton Court for hundreds of years… and quickly proceeded to get lost.  There was no one else in there that day to help them out.  There were only Maud and Otis, waiting for them on a bench outside of the maze, who could hear the girls, but not tell them how to get out.  Emily and Cornelia were lost in the maze for 45 minutes (during which there was a torrential rainstorm), before a member of staff climbed onto a platform and shouted instructions to lead them out.

I certainly didn’t want a repeat of the girls’ misfortune, which was entirely possible because the weather on the day of my visit matched theirs: sunshine with periods of fast moving rain showers.  As a precaution, I had the good sense to take a picture of an aerial view of the maze, that happened to be on the sign outside the entry (by the way, I had to pay to enter the maze – I don’t recall the girls mentioning that they were charged for this pleasure).

Yes, very smart of me to take a picture.  What would have been even smarter was if I had checked to make sure the picture had actually taken and was in my phone (turns out it hadn’t, which I discovered only after I was well into the bowels of the maze).  My healthy faith in my navigational ability and my memory had already been wiped out in just a few short turns along the hedges, and I quickly began to fear that I was about to recreate Cornelia’s and Emily’s experience.

Travel tip:  Don’t go into the maze without taking a picture of the aerial photo of it first.

Then in one lucky turn, I found myself at the exit, which was only steps from the center of the maze.  With extreme satisfaction in having reached both, I put on an air of nonchalance as I breezed out of the labyrinth, in case anyone happened to be nearby to witness my escape.

Right near the exit, tucked away in a small dead end of hedges, was a set of steps with a small platform on it, where staff members could stand and call out instructions to lost tourists, just as someone had done for Cornelia and Emily.  And just outside the exit was a long hedge with an inset carved into it, which held a lone bench, probably in precisely the same spot where Otis and Maud had sat waiting for the girls.

In 1922, after the girls had emerged from the labyrinth, they and Cornelia’s parents left Hampton Court Palace.  Cornelia describes, “Drenched and soaked, we scuttled across to a quaint-looking inn which hung precariously over the green bank of the Thames.”  I took my exit from the maze as my cue to leave the Palace as well, even though I had escaped the rain.

It was pretty easy to sort out which might be the inn Cornelia describes, as there is only one that fits the bill.  Directly across the street from Hampton Court Palace is The Mitre Hotel, which has the same name and roughly the same appearance as it did in 1922, with the restaurant being located at the far end of the building, more adjacent to the hotel than part of it.  When I arrived, I found a sign stating that the restaurant (now called the “Riverside Brasserie”) was closed, but that the bar downstairs was open.  So I ventured down the stairs to a nice, airy space with a large patio right on the river (where I took the opportunity, after hours of walking, to stick my feet in the cold water).

Travel tip:  After a full day at the Palace, stop in for a drink (or more) at the Riverside Brasserie just across the street.  A great place to refresh one’s sore tootsies.

Though I was disappointed that I wasn’t where my 1922 traveling companions had gone for tea, I decided to stay for a bit and have a drink.  Which led to a conversation with a couple of members of the staff (it was the middle of a rather slow afternoon at the bar).  I asked them if there was a fireplace in the restaurant upstairs.  I didn’t know if they looked surprised because I knew this, or just because I was asking such a weird question, but the manager said, yes, there was.  I explained the reason for my question, and she offered to take me upstairs to see the restaurant.  Once I had finished my drink (and soaking my feet), I took her up on the offer.

Things were almost identical to how Cornelia and Emily had described them.  The configuration of the entrance had been changed, but other than that, it could have been 1922 in that room.  “Tables were set, but there was nobody to wait on them.  A fire was laid in a vast fireplace but it wasn’t going”.  Exactly.  A match I would call perfect.  An ideal ending for a day of successes in matching up my world to Cornelia’s and Emily’s.

Postscript to the day:  On the train back to London, I met a very interesting woman named Ysanne, who gave me a copy of her book called, “The Time Catcher”.  Though her book is about “how to time your actions to turn challenges into opportunities”, the title seemed to fit in well with my own journey.

Below:  Ghostly lords and ladies made of Tyvek populate a royal cards room; me in the hall with a couple of orb friends; emergency stairs hidden within the maze; the Riverside Brasserie dining room, probably much as it would have looked to Cornelia, Emily, Otis and Maud; a view from the bridge of the Riverside Brasserie (formerly the Mitre Bar) today; the Mitre Inn and Bar, circa 1920s.

  

Places Things

Declassified: A day at Bletchley Park

June 14, 2017

Last week, I hopped on a train and traveled about an hour northwest of London to Bletchley Park.  Pretty much everyone knows from history class, or the films “Enigma” and “The Imitation Game”, that this is the legendary site where men and women worked tirelessly during World War II to crack the codes and decipher the messages being sent from Axis intelligence.  It is estimated that their success in breaking the enemies’ codes shortened the war by two to four years, and that without Bletchley Park’s intelligence work, the outcome of the war would have been uncertain.  That is how important the efforts of these mathematicians, linguists, chess champions and crosswords experts were, and why their work was a closely-guarded secret even up until the mid-1970s.

It was sunny and warm, utterly perfect, on the day I visited Bletchley Park.  My tour began in a modern building which houses some cool interactive exhibits, such as trying your hand at finding and deciphering radio transmissions.  Visitors are surrounded by photos, films and recordings which place them squarely into the dark, early days of the war, before they venture out to explore the buildings, huts and grounds of Bletchley Park.

(And though it is meant to be the last stop on the way out, well, it couldn’t be helped – I got sucked in.  Bletchley Park has a divine gift shop.  There are candies and cookies in replicas of wartime tins, books, posters, postcards, numerous accessories and apparel, and – my favorite – Bletchley editions of puzzle books like crosswords and Sudoku.)

Before heading out to the grounds, I stopped and picked up a headset along with a nifty audio tour Gameboy-looking device.  Let me just say, audio tours are getting very sophisticated, and fun.  This one gives visitors options at every location, from offering a brief history of a particular spot, to hearing voices of those who worked there, to solving a puzzle or two.  Even with my chronic condition known by Cornelia and Emily as “museum legs”, I was able to take in and enjoy a great deal of the place before I got tired of my headset, went and bought an ice cream, and sat down on a bench by the lake to eat it.

(It should also be mentioned that Bletchley Park houses two cafes, each serving really tasty lunchtime fare made from locally sourced ingredients.  I recommend the one in Hut 4, which was formerly the Naval Intelligence Codebreaking hut.  Bletchley also has afternoon tea in the mansion on the weekends.  Way nice.)

What has any of this got to do with Emily, Cornelia and Our Hearts Were Young and Gay?  After all, the girls traveled to Europe in 1922, long before the hint of war.  Even in 1942, when they wrote the book, Cornelia and Emily certainly wouldn’t have had the slightest notion of the existence of Bletchley Park.

Well, there is in fact a specific and rather astonishing reason for my visit to this historic site, which has to do with Our Hearts Were Young and Gay.  This Spring, while I was doing research, I came across a very surprising claim about the book, and I wanted to find out if the report was true.  It involved –

[NOTE:  The rest of this post has been deemed classified – by me – for the present moment, with hopes that the full story of the strange report I discovered this Spring can be brought to light in the near future.]

Below:  The blissful setting of Bletchley Park must’ve helped with the poor, frayed nerves of those working there; the “maudlin and monstrous pile” of the mansion house; proud swan parents and their fuzzy babies; the Enigma.