There is a certain bench, under a certain weeping willow tree, beside the lake in the Rose Garden of the Regent’s Park in London, which is my favourite spot on earth. There, where the green leaves are reflected in the rippling water and the waterfowl feed in the shelter of the overhanging boughs, is my "other Eden, demi-paradise". This is the first place I head for, every time I find myself in London, for this is the one place where I can truly detach myself from all the troubles of the world and find the perfect peace I am looking for when I go on holiday.
Yes, I’ve just got back from my annual "jaunt" to England. Ten days in London, the city of my birth, avoiding (except for one day’s necessary shopping) the madding crowd that throngs Oxford Street and positively enjoying the rain which makes England a green and pleasant land. Back home in Jerusalem, on the edge of the Judaean Desert, I can tell you – the British don’t realise how lucky they are. In June, when I was planning my trip, my brother (who lives in the wilds of Surrey) informed me that the British Meteorological Office was predicting a scorching summer. However, by the time I got there, the "summer" had apparently been and gone. Almost every day there were forecasts of rain, with sunny spells – or sunshine with scattered showers. Weather forecasting in the UK seems to be rather a hit-and-miss affair. When rain was predicted for the morning it fell in the afternoon – and vice versa. As the forecaster put it: "If you can avoid the rain, you’ll probably be able to catch some sunshine." In previous visits over the last decade, I had marvelled how the accuracy of the weather forecasts had seemed to improve – as had the weather – but of late, it seems that so far from being able to give an accurate long-range forecast, the Met Office is incapable of giving even an accurate 24 hour forecast. However, I learned (or rather, re-learned) to enjoy the uncertainty and to carry an umbrella at all times. The only trouble is, those little telescopic umbrellas turn inside-out at the first gust of wind. Frankly, they are often more trouble than they are worth. However, let us not complain. They do say, don’t they, that rainwater is good for the skin and that the famous "English Rose" complexion is due, in no small part, to the abundance of rainfall in that Blessed Isle, do they not? (But that was before the advent of acid rain and all the other ills of a heavily industrialised society, surely?)
The 18th Maccabiah Games having just ended, my fellow passengers on the flight out included many of the departing sportsmen and women, and especially the British Maccabi team, a number of whom were wearing their medals (in particular, the gold medallist football team). They were met at Heathrow by jubilant families and supporters and also the Press. (Oh! And there was I thinking that the photographers were waiting for me !)
Out of the ten days I spent in England, one day was devoted to a trip to Box Hill ( a famous beauty spot in the county of Surrey, well-known to readers of Jane Austen) with its magnificent views. I arose early, breakfasted betimes and after a mad dash across London, arrived at Victoria Station only to find a queue about a mile long at the ticket office. I was sure I was going to miss the 10:31 train, but made it with just one minute to spare. My brother bombarded me with text messages, as we had planned that he would come straight from home and board the train at Sutton, further along the line, after receiving confirmation that I was on board. Unfortunately, every time I tried to reply, I got a brief message to the effect that the message was undeliverable and would remain in my Outbox till it was possible to send it. By the time we reached Sutton, I was on tenterhooks as I could see no sign of David on the platform and wasn’t sure if he had received my message. But a few minutes later, he turned up beside my seat and all was well. Almost. The weather was very capricious, so, instead of starting our climb, we sought refuge in the Vineyard. A vineyard? In England? Well, yes – and not just any vineyard. Denbies claims to be England’s largest vineyard. (So that means there are others, right?)
Besides the vineyards, there is a restaurant (two, in fact – a classy one where advance reservations are necessary, and a more "populist" one for the plebs) and a shop selling all kinds of beautiful things, from jewellery to household goods, from books to ceramics, and from toys to paintings. In the restaurant, there are facilities for heating baby food and we were amused by a sign which seemed to notify the public that the restaurant would accept civil liability for everything.
Yes, it’s all in the spelling. Someone ought to point out to them the difference between "accept" and "except". (That’s the lawyer in me speaking .)
After lunch – and despite the threatening storm clouds – we resumed our climb. Every ten yards or so, we stopped for a rest – and to wonder if we shouldn’t turn back – but we pushed on regardless, telling ourselves each time: "Just ten or fifteen yards more…"
In the end, it was worth it. The view was magnificent – and it did not rain!
The following day, we planned to visit the Regent’s Park Zoo. While waiting for my brother on a bench near the bandstand (the bandstand where an IRA bomb wreaked such carnage back in 1982), I got into conversation with a charming old gentleman who told me that there would be a jazz concert later in the day. He also reminded me of the existence of "the Secret Garden" in the Inner Circle – the garden of St. John’s Lodge. I remember a secret garden along the Inner Circle from my childhood and have been searching for it ever since, but I am still not sure that this was it. At any rate, we decided to skip the Zoo, have a late lunch in the Rose Garden Cafe and then search for the Secret Garden. I can’t remember if it rained or not. I think it did. It was certainly very windy. But that didn’t matter. We were so caught up in our childhood memories.
That wasn’t the only day we spent in Regent’s Park. Two days later, we made another attempt to visit the Zoo but the queues were so long (this being the school holidays) that we gave up the attempt and instead, wandered all over the Park, visiting its lesser-known corners rather than our childhood haunts.
Another day was reserved for Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. That day, it really did pour, but we were safely esconced in window seats in the restaurant at the foot of the Serpentine, gazing out as sheets of rain almost hid the lake from view. Later in the day, we headed for the specially erected tent in Kensington Gardens and a performance of "Peter Pan", which we thoroughly enjoyed, even though, coming at the last minute, as we did, the only seats available were front-row seats with what the ticket-vendor described as a "severely restricted view". It wasn’t all that bad a view, as it happened. If we had been children – or dwarves – the high stage would have made it very difficult for us, in our stage-side seats, to see much of the action, but as it turned out, for adults of normal height, this wasn’t such a problem. And at least the tickets were (relatively) cheap.
After the show, we visited the Serpentine Gallery. I was rather hesitant, as the gallery specialises in contemporary art (and my regular readers know my opinions on contemporary art ) but David was interested so I let myself be persuaded and, in fact, rather enjoyed this particular exhibition – of Jeff Koons’ Popeye Series.
I was actually rather surprised by how much my brother enjoyed it. I have never known David to be an art fancier or to enjoy exhibitions!
This well-nigh perfect day ended with supper at the Lido Restaurant, as the sun slowly sank in the west (the clouds having mostly dissipated), wondering aloud, not for the first time, how much smaller the Lido seemed to be, compared with our childhood memories of one of London’s earliest outdoor swimming pools.
Most of the London parks hold memories for us, and I couldn’t let a trip to London pass without taking in St. James’ Park. When we were children and my father used to work nearby, in Lower Regent Street, my mother used to bring us up to town to meet him and go for a picnic lunch in St. James’ Park. In those days, there used to be performances of military bands in the Park even on weekdays. The lake in St. James’ Park has a magnificent waterfowl collection and from the bridge there, you can see the London Eye.
We had planned to end the day with a trip to the theatre, but the weather was so good, it was hard to tear ourselves away from the park. However, I did manage, within the space of a week and a half, to cram in four visits to the theatre for which London is justly famous. All of the plays I saw were adapted from books – three of them from children’s books. The fourth – "Oliver", based on the novel by Charles Dickens – was the only musical I saw this time. The two I have not yet mentioned both dealt, in one way or another, with war. "Carrie’s War", based on the novel by Nina Bawden, told the story, in flashback, of a young girl evacuated with her brother to Wales, to avoid the World War Two bombing of London. This was the play where I most felt the magic of actually being in the theatre. David said he enjoyed this most of all the plays we saw. The fourth play (which was actually the first I went to, alone, because David wasn’t interested) was, in my opinion, the best – "War Horse", adapted from the children’s novel by Michael Morpurgo. This is the story of Joey, a colt raised by farm lad Albert Narracott to pull a plough, then sold by Albert’s father to the army where he becomes a cavalry horse in World War One, serving first with the British Army and, after being captured, with his rider, also on the German side. The horses are portrayed by life-sized puppets, which are absolutely believable and the play is further enhanced by Adrian Sutton’s music. The songs are by John Tams who wrote the songs for the BBC television series "Sharpe". I bought the disc with the soundtrack. Quite by chance, I went to see the show the day after the death was announced of the last surviving WW1 veteran and that evening, as the cast took their bows, they spoke in tribute to him and dedicated the last song to his memory and to the memory of his comrades. If I had to choose one play out of all those I saw, this would be it. If you live in London, or are planning a trip to the Metropolis, run – don’t walk – to see "War Horse". And be sure to take with you a box of Kleenex.
As is my almost invariable custom, I also managed to take in a couple of art exhibitions. I love Pre-Raphaelite art and the Royal Academy had a lovely exhibition of paintings by J.W. Waterhouse. Information about this exhibition was published in the London Planner but it was actually brought to my attention by the huge advertising posters on the Underground. When I go to London, many of the things I find to do are things I hadn’t planned before my trip, but read about on the Tube. (For my transatlantic readers – that’s the Subway.) I also dropped in on an exhibition of Landscape Painting – From Corot to Monet – at the National Gallery.
As I already mentioned, one day of shopping could not be avoided – but even that was made amusing by the window display in Selfridges – a view of the future. This was no doubt inspired by the fact that Selfridges is this year celebrating the centenary of its establishment. How will shop windows look a hundred years hence? Here is an example of the display. The rest can be seen in my photo album London Summer 2009, which I will be posting some time in the next few days.
My flight back was due to take off at 10:30 p.m. so I decided to spend my last day in London with my brother again in our favourite park – the Regent’s Park. Fortunately, the weather favoured us. I went wild with my camera again. In general, I think I managed to get some really good shots this trip. I finally managed to do what I’ve been trying to do for years, even before acquiring a digital camera, namely, to capture stills shots of birds in flight.
This was the most successful, in my humble opinion. The rest can be seen in my London Summer 2009 photo album, to be uploaded shortly, as promised above.
On this last day, most of our time was spent in Queen Mary’s Garden – the Rose Garden. June is, of course, the best month for visiting the Rose Garden but even at the beginning of August, there were many varieties still in full bloom and the air was heady with the scent of the Queen of Flowers.
One of the loveliest spots in this loveliest of all spots is the island in the middle of the Rose Garden lake, accessible by a wooden bridge.
As a child, I always thought of it as a magic island. Criss-crossed with little paths, winding back and forth among beds of alpine plants, it was a perfect miniature kingdom for an enchanted princess. On a hot summer’s afternoon, the air hummed with the sound of bees and every now and then, a large "plop" could be heard as a duck dived into the water. And ever-present would be the rushing sound of a waterfall. Now I could hardly bear to tear myself away as the sun sank low in the sky and it was time to return to my hotel and collect my luggage.
Then came the ever-painful parting from my brother – whom I hope to see at the end of September, when he comes to Israel for Succot – and the short train ride, via the exceedingly comfortable Heathrow Express, to the airport. A long wait in the check-in queue for the security checks, a very quick dash through the Duty Free to buy chocolates (because they announced the "Last Call" for my flight a full hour before it was due to take off, for no reason at all that I could see!!!) and then we were in the air and homeward bound.
One thing I would have changed. In future, I shall try to plan my holidays in such a way as to land at Ben Gurion Airport on a Thursday, thus leaving the whole weekend to "recover". It’s good to be home – but very far from restful.