England: Days 12 (Leeds Castle) & 13 (Trafalgar Square)

On Day 12, [Mom McMains->], the kids, and I all boarded a train for Leeds Castle, a site that bills itself as “The Loveliest Castle in the World.” The train ride was pleasant — the kids kept occupied with card games, especilaly enjoying Muggins, a card game Mom taught them which was a staple of my youth, while I watched the passing countryside out the train windows. I can think of no way to travel that I prefer over the train — it’s much more comfortable than the sardine cans in the sky, affords the chance to get up and have a walk around whenever you like, and the scenery tends to be unmatched. It seems a wretched shame to me that trains are so underutilized in the States, though in a place as spread out as Texas is, I can certainly see how it would be difficult to make it a viable enterprise financially.

After an hour or so of travel, we alighted at Bearsted and talked with the helpful stationmaster, who put us on a bus for the castle. We enjoyed a quick lunch on the grounds and then boarded a tram that took us down to the castle proper, which may indeed live up to its hyperbolic advertisements. The castle itself is built on two islands in a lake; the walls plunge directly into the water in a number of places, and the grounds are just about as pictureque as can be. We were, however, a bit disappointed both that parts of the castle had been modernized to allow it to better serve as a conference center, and that the tour didn’t provide an opportunity to climb into the turrets and enjoy the view from the top of the structure.

That disappointment was allayed, however, by the great variety of other attractions on the grounds. There was a super falconry show, a gorgeous lake with Canada Geese and black swans imported from Australia, and an extensive aviary with the largest collection of cockatoos I’ve ever seen, one of which apparently had a taste for little girl and gave Maggie a pretty good nip. The kids’ favorite was an enormous, sadistic, beautifully constructed hedge maze. It was so tricky that it took us over 10 minutes to make it to the mound in the center from which successful navigators could watch the hapless wanderers’ progress and, if they’re feeling generous, offer help. (I saw Mom come back out the entrance 3 times after she ventured in, looking increasingly bemused each time.) From the center of the maze, one can exit beneath the maze via a ominous grotto, lavishly decorated with sculptures made of seashells and a waterfall.

As we travelled home, we noticed that there was a huge police presence. In the wake of the two previous bombings, both of which had occurred on Thursdays, the police were evidently taking no chances with this Thursday — they had cancelled officers’ vacations and called up the largest simultaneously active force of police in England since World War 2. We were further surprised when we got off the tube at our now-familiar Archway stop, and run into [Lana->] and [Meara->], who we weren’t expecting to see until a day or two later. Apparently I’d gotten the dates bollixed up, and they’d been waiting for us for a couple hours already. (This, by the way, is an excellent way to ensure a warm greeting.) Kathy returned from Paris later that evening, bearing gifts, photos, and tales of fun in France. She received a warm greeting without having to use the expedient of locking everyone outside the house.

Day 13: With our full numbers reassembled, we made a leisurely start to the day, not getting out of the house until arounch lunchtime. Since we enjoyed it a great deal, and several of the travel groups hadn’t been the first time, we decided to make our way back to Covent Garden Market, where the kids rode a beautiful carousel and we enjoyed a number of street performers’ acts.

I must have a willing, fairly non-homicidal face, as the buskers kept calling on me when they needed volunteers. The first was a juggler, whose skills for berating the crowd for not being supportive enough quite eclipsed his accomplishment as a juggler. Two other men and I helped hold his giant unicycle while he climbed on top of us to reach the seat. The worst part, however, was that due to our failure to communicate among ourselves, we ended up giving him far too much money for his tepid efforts. Argh. At another location, a freakishly animated fellow decided to reenact a Village People performance using volunteers from the audience — an effort that resulted in me wearing a cowboy hat and doing vigorous pelvic thrusts in front of a few hundred Londoners. So much for English reserve. (My dad and I found ourselves later wondering why this fellow got the tips when we volunteers had done all his work for him.)

We enjoyed a number of other excellent acts, but eventually left the Market (a bit reluctantly) to head over to Trafalgar Square. There was a jazz band performing on the stage there, but we had attention for little beyond clambering all over the giant lions, ogling Big Ben down one of the streets that radiate from the square, and admiring the fountains. The square is quite a place, and I can see why it is a gathering place for Londoners when things are afoot in the city. Leaving the square behind, we caught the number 15 bus and watched the streets pass from the upper deck, enjoying the chance to rest our feet (and eyes, in some cases) as we wended through Picadilly Circus and down Regent Street. I was excited to spot Hamley’s, a gigantic toy store I’d wanted to visit, and the Apple Store. (Despite having been a long-time fan of the Macintosh, I’d never yet managed to make my way to an Apple Store.) By the time we passed the Tower of London, it was becoming apparent that everyone was tired, so we hastile leaped off the bus and headed back to the house for dinner and bed.