Oddities, Characters and Random Reflections
Ducking into a pub called The Malt Shovel on a rainy Edinburgh evening, we had one of the best experiences of our trip.
A man who looked like a cross between George Bernard Shaw and Freud directed us away from the only empty table and made room for us at his, saying the other space would soon be in use–and it was, for the band.
Thus began an evening of stories, magic and jazz. Our new friend was Jackie Docherty, a native Scot who lives and works in London and was house-sitting for his sister. An encyclopedia of jazz, Jackie regaled us with stories of the musical greats he has known, gave us a clipping that verified his stories, plied us with magic tricks and told us about the band that played that evening as we had drinks and dinner. His parting gift was a couple of jazz CDs.
This was one of dozens of encounters that make travel interesting. From our first pub outside Victoria Station (an almost unintelligible–to us–Scotsman named Bill) to the bus ride to Heathrow at the end, we had countless conversations with strangers on buses and trains, in cafes and pubs all over England and Scotland.
More characters (an incomplete list): Margaret, elegant and well-coiffed, was on her way to visit her daughter and family, who farmed on the Black Isle. Margaret lived in Reading and worked part-time for Gillette. If it weren’t for her recommendation, we would have missed Culloden Battlefield.
Joyce and Stan, from Glasgow, at the next table at lunch in the National Gallery of Scotland. Joyce was returning from a visit to a Swedish island. They urged us to visit Glasgow, and it is one of my regrets that we didn’t.
Chris, an engineer from Annapolis, Maryland, who approached me at the Penrith train station asking about the bus to Keswick. We kept running into him throughout our Lake District visit. He was traveling solo, with a backpack and no reservations. When, at the bus stop leaving Keswick, we realized we still had our B&B key, Chris kindly offered to return it for us. I gave up on reminding him it’s “Kezzick,” not “KezWick.”
In our B&B in Keswick, Cumbria House, the hosts, Patrick and Mavis, were quiet and even a bit shy, but very nice, and their breakfast was possibly the best we had. One morning we chatted with a couple we called “Mr. Bean and Jeanie.” Another guest put HP sauce on her entire breakfast.
On the bus to Windermere, Ambleside and Bowness, we talked to a guy from Liverpool who was a builder. His main business is repurposing old barns into homes. I was curious about the beautiful green slate that is everywhere in the district–signs, buildings, walls. It is built by hand, without mortar, and I was stunned when he told me a good slate builder could finish a house in six days. I was thinking more like six months, for a crew.
At our B&B in Bath, we were greeted by a striking, tall Jamaican woman named Jay. She and her partner, the former Bath mayor Jeff Manning, run Beech Cottage. Jeff is a font of information as well as stories. We learned Nicolas Cage has a home in Bath, also where to find authentic Nepalese food.
At the Forester and the Flower, the pub around the corner, we met the in-house character, Pete. He looked like a street person but Jeff later told us he did the daily Times crossword. Pete informed us that “Union Jack” is incorrect unless you’re talking about a ship’s flag. Otherwise it’s the Union flag. A couple came into the pub and we invited them to join us. Gary and Val were returning home from the south coast and stopped in Bath overnight. After they sat down, Val said, “I remember you from the bus.” The driver had been extremely unhelpful about finding the address of the B&B, and all the ladies on the bus put their heads together and got us off at the correct stop. I love ladies on the bus.
Also in Bath, we had a knowledgeable guide, John, for a free walking tour. I learned that the creamy buff-colored “Bath stone,” which was used for building almost everything in the city, was blackened until Britain stopped using coal and the stone was cleaned.
More bus encounters: in Cambridge, a man boarded just ahead of us and I plopped down behind him. Gary moved back, and I realized why. In addition to being decked head-to-toe in animal print, he reeked of cologne. On the same bus, we were trying to figure out a better way to get to the train station because we thought the taxi driver cheated us, and a woman in front of us, obviously eavesdropping, turned around and told us there was an easy walking route, about a mile and a half, with a covered pedestrian bridge over the tracks. That’s why I like English bus ladies.
After seeing Spamalot on our last night in London, we rode the crowded Tube back to Kings Cross. A woman with a little girl overheard us talking about the show, which they had also just seen, and we learned they were celebrating the girl’s birthday. They were parked at the Colchester station, then would drive home to Mersea Island if the tide hadn’t covered the crossing. Some ordinary people live interesting lives.
Our final bus encounters took us from Victoria bus station to Heathrow. The driver, Mike, was a kind, polite gentleman, and if someone else was less than polite they were gently corrected. For most of the drive we chatted with a guy from Oregon, now living in England. His name was Rollin, he was trained in classical Indian singing and was part of a business called Abundant Sun, which promotes business success through ethical means. He and Mike provided a sweet ending as we departed the bus at the airport, and Mike gave us perfect directions to our gate.
I had hoped to wrap up the UK journal with one post, but the characters took more than 1,000 words, so next will be oddities and reflections.