Tuesday, August 23, 2011
Surveying High Holborn from her living room window, Barbara wondered if I had brought the Bombay monsoon along with me to the UK. It was coming down in sheets when we awoke, as, umbrellas held high, commuters poured out of the Tube tunnels of Chancery Lane station. After a quick bowl of Jordan's cereal and coffee, I braved the downpour to dash into Barclays to change dollars into pound sterling and buy myself a new Lebara SIM card for my UK mobile phone. But not before I was bear-hugged by both the janitor, Martha, and the concierge Arben of my building--the latter looked like he'd seen a ghost and was convinced I had sneaked back into my flat in the middle of the night. Believe me, I wish I had!
A Drizzly Drive Westwards:
Having connected to the internet, checked my email and Twitterfeeds, we set out in the rented car that Tim drove expertly out of London and on to the M4 headed towards Bristol. Carol Kirkwood on the BBC Weather had forecast clearing skies as we drove westward and she was on the money. By the time we reached a rest stop at Membury (about 1.oo pm), I was starving and treated myself to what I thought was a little snack (Waitrose smoked salmon sandwich, toasted hazelnut yogurt--my favorite kind, not available in the US--a packet of potato chips in sea salt and malt vinegar flavor that was vaguely reminiscent of a plateful of fish and chips and a pack of dark chocolate ginger biscuits, all from Waitrose. Tim and Barbara thought would see me through my entire stay in the UK!
England gives me an appetite and I was still peckish enough to eat a starter of toasted multi-grain bread and smoked mackerel pate when we reached the River Station Cafe on the River Avon in Bristol, an hour later, having made superb time to our destination. This was the planned rendez-vous for a bunch of "Tweeps" that I've met over the last couple of years on Twitter! Little did I think that one day I'd be sitting in Bristol and getting acquainted with them over drinks. Elizabeth, our hostess and chief organizer of the "Tweet-Up", joined us first. Hugs and kisses followed all around each time one more Tweep joined in. By 3. 30, we were all well and truly acquainted and a jolly group we made too as we set out on a Harborside walk of the city.
A Walk Along the Avon's Banks:
Bristol is criss-crossed by a network of waterways--canals and a river, the Avon--and a number of bridges, cute and impressive such as the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge that I was keen to span. But that would require a bit of driving to and from the city--for the moment, we crossed foot bridges besides waterfront accommodation that took us in a large and very neat loop around the city. For the most part, our saunter was quiet. We headed towards the S.S. Great Britain which Isambad Brunel had sailed--a rather spectacular vessel with newly-refurbished prow and figurehead. Not too far away was the Matthew, a much smaller vessel that explorer John Cabot had sailed around Nova Scotia. I recalled that one of the world's most picturesque drives is called Cabot's Trail (Llew and I almost drove it when planning a holiday in Eastern Canada not too long ago). Elizabeth confirmed it was the same Cabot.
On we went, along the river banks to take in the twee one, two and three bedroom boutique apartments that have mushroomed in recent years to provide accommodation to the city's yuppies, many of whom are apparently fine gardeners. Tiny balconies spilled over with bright container gardens. Swans dodged every manner of watercraft that plied the river. The city, easily the most colorful I have seen in the UK, presented itself in varied hues--building fronts were painted in ice-cream pastels rather like the rows of houses that comprise every Irish village.
Bristol is built on a series of hills. It has its own rather distinctive character, but being so closely situated to Bath, is also reminiscent of the Nashes' Georgian city. Certainly the wide open square that sports an equestrian statue of King William III of Orange also bears the same name--Queen Square--as the striking one in Bath where Jane Austen's family had once rented a house. Seeing Bristol on foot with as expert a guide as Elizabeth was really fortunate and I was grateful for the introduction. As we trotted along, companionable chatter flowed as Tweeps--strangers only an hour previously--got to know each other better. It was difficult to shake off our Twitter names and I had to work hard not to address someone as doclorraine (she had driven in from Southampton) and mikejulietbravo (who had made his way from South Wales' Gower Peninsula via Hereford) even as they occasionally addressed me as southportgal! As always happens, we discovered that it is only six degrees that separate it, no matter which curve of the globe we call Home.
Spanning the Clifton Suspension Bridge:
Back at our starting point near the River Station Cafe, we piled back into our cars and followed Elizabeth's to the Clifton Suspension Bridge, built by Isambad Brunel in the great age of engineering, the late Victorian. We parked our car just before we reached it and walked across the narrow Avon George at a height guaranteed to give my Dad vertigo. Striding over it, I was reminded faintly of two bridges: the Brooklyn Bridge in New York and the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Panoramic views of the city of Bristol meant frequent camera stops, but span it we did--twice, on both sides. The experience was thrilling and contributed to the huge appetite we'd worked up on our three-mile walk.
In An 18th Century Hilltop Home:
Mindful of the fact that I have been sagely instructed by Chriselle "not to overdo the walking", I was concerned about my protesting feet as we got back into the car to drive to Elizabeth's hill-top perch on Kingsdown Way on very narrow cobbled Somerset Street that overlooks the city as if from the vantage point of an eagle's nest. She and husband Andrew (who opened the front door to us) own the house that dates back to the mid-1700s ("Not quite Christopher Wren", as Barbara put it--"but close enough" as I added!). Inside, the kind of architectural details that make me drool over period houses (marble fireplaces, hollowed out stairwells and striking wooden banisters) kept me enthralled as we received the sobering news about the earthquake in Virginia. It seems I have stayed away from American accents too long as I was convinced the reporter on CNN said that Obama was on "the Gulf coast" when the earthquake occurred, although every other listener in the room knew he had said "golf course"!
A Feast Fit for Caliphs:
Nibbles and drinks consumed, we trooped a table to the basement kitchen where Elizabeth and Andrew had laid out many bottles of wine and a Moroccan feast fit for the Caliphs--Lamb Tagine with Couscous fragrant with North African spices like cinnamon and cumin and the sweetness of stewed apricots and prunes. It was simply delicious. Dessert was am embarrassment of riches as we tucked into French Apple Tart and Pear and Lemon Roulade with its crispy edged folds of fluffy meringue. Cheese, what was termed an "ostentatious" box of Godiva chocolates (courtesy of Tim and Barbara) and coffee followed before Mike decided to call it a day and broke up a memorable dinner party. Jetlag had long caught up with me and it was with difficulty that I kept myself from nodding off all over my pudding. But then the feeling passed away and I felt revived on a sugar high.
It was time for Elizabeth to show us to our rooms, each one more charming than the next, as we climbed the tiers of one of the UK's typical "terraced" houses--each room sits on a different floor. Mine was perched at the very top and offered a stunning view of the city and, closer to home, tantalizing glimpses of Elizabeth's tiered garden stretching down to a red-tiled shed. I cannot wait to explore it tomorrow.
Who'd have believed that only a year ago, I had not known Elizabeth?...and yet over a year filled with so few ups and so many downs, she had stood by me in prayer across the Atlantic to cement a cyber friendship that has flourished over only two meetings. I am so grateful to Barbara who, sharing a room next-door with husband Tim, had brought us together in the nicest possible way.
Tomorrow, when jetlag wakes me up at the crack of dawn, I shall take some fabulous pictures of Bristol and frequently recall my brief encounter with an ancient sea-faring city that strikes a very chic contemporary avatar.