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Sunday, July 5, 2015

New York, Bury St. Edmunds, London, Prague

     In early June, Roger and I headed for Europe, and as these things happen, Roger's 98-year-old father died while we were abroad. Eight days into our expected 12-day trip, we flew home from Prague rather than returning to England as we had planned. The trip--and hence this blog entry--are marked by absences, including the planned excursion to Bath and Chawton we didn't take, the hoped-for day at Monks House, Virginia Woolf's country home, that never materialized--and my father-in-law's death, representing perhaps the biggest absence of all. Because life doesn't rhyme, we were simultaneously saddened by the death and yet enjoyed our vacation.

Me at one of the many outdoor spaces with views of Manhattan at the new Whitney. I already posted this photo to Facebook, but it was available, so I used it again. The Hudson is in the background. 

In England, we stayed at first with our friends Jane and Clyde, who moved last winter to Great Barton, a village outside of Bury St. Edmunds. We had coffee, scones and clotted cream at a little shop in Bury with the very British name Really Rather Good, then looked at the ruins of St. Edmunds Abbey.

Ruins of St. Edmunds Abbey, a wealthy Benedictine Abbey,  Rioters who resented the Benedictine's power destroyed it during the Middle Ages. It was rebuilt, but finally came to an end as part of Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, a timely topic for those of us who have been following Hilary Mantel's novels on Thomas Cromwell. 

A Street in Bury St. Edmunds near where we ate at Really Rather Good. The man with the book and the white hair blowing in the breeze is Clyde.

We also saw the rebuilt St. Edmunds abbey church.

And learned about St. Edmund, who the heathen Danes shot full of arrows and killed for refusing to renounce Christianity.

Whimsical modern painting of the death of St. Edmund.

The next day, Jane and Clyde took us to the little byways near their home, including quintessentially English churches off tiny country roads and a manor house where Jane almost rented an apartment for her family.

I can see the temptation to want to rent an apartment here.
Jane and Clyde by a disused church near Great Barton.

We attended the historic Quaker meeting in Bury, where congregants offered many messages about death.  Clyde also shared a recent near death experience, one actually very comforting as in it he met with his father before "returning" to life. All of this foreshadowed what was coming.

In London, we stayed at the George B&B (HT: Diana Birchall) in Cartwright Crescent in Bloomsbury. We often ate locally at the many little restaurants near the B&B: Indian, Italian, a British fish house.

In London, reports from home became more dire. While we cancelled plans, we still managed to see some sights.

Roger, looking harried, on the phone with his brother in the States as we ate a late lunch overlooking the Thames near St. Paul's. 

Me by the delphiniums in St. James Garden near Buckingham Palace.
In our B&B neighborhood, we visited the British Museum, as well as the Dickens museum, actually a townhouse he lived in for two years early in his married life, and much improved since I last toured it in 1979. We also stopped at the new British Library and saw MS pages from Jane
Austen's Persuasion. 

I was much taken by a whimsical metal sofa at the British library, formed as an open book.
Roger on the book sofa. He loved being in the new British library.

I don't want to make this a travelogue, but we were able to see, among other sites, the Tates Modern and British, as well as St. Paul's, and took an excursion to Forest Hills in south London to see Bonhoeffer's parish church and parsonage house.  

Rare books imprisoned at the British Library. I know books need to be kept safe, but it seems a sad metaphor about our times: too often safety conflates with sharp restrictions.

What most impressed me after a long hiatus from visiting the city (our most recent vacations to that part of the world have taken us to northern England and Ireland) was how it is prospering. I have never seen it so bursting with vitality and people. When we got to Prague, it seemed like a sleepy small town in comparison, so I looked up population stats. Prague has more than a million people, but London has 8.6 million, finally matching its 1939 high water mark. This seems significant to me, as if the city has finally bounced back from World War II and has again truly become an international center.

Although we received word of Roger's father's death while in London, we flew to Prague as scheduled, awaiting word on the funeral. When we heard the service was Saturday, we spent our first afternoon in Prague rearranging all our travel plans.

Candle we lit  in St. Paul's in memory of Roger's father.

We enjoyed our B&B, and I was most taken with our host's story that he and his wife alternate running it with his brother and his brother's wife: each couple is on for two weeks and off for two weeks. With this schedule, they all do well financially and have the leisure time for frequent travel: to the US, Indonesia, Africa, around Europe, etc. I suspect this kind of life -autonomous, prosperous, self directed--is what the ruling class fears. It's encouraging to witness an alternative to long hours, little time off, people living in fear and uncertainty.

Our Prague B&B: Ikea furniture

Prague was a lovely city, though, as is usually the case, not entirely what I expected, more folkish than sleek. Roger and I spent an evening and a full, full day, dawn to almost midnight, sightseeing and cramming in what gift buying we were able to do.

View of Prague from the old section

Prague had a bustling tourist scene at St. Wencelas Square and much graffiti everywhere.

We returned home via Stockholm, which I discovered is due north of Prague. We reached our motel in York, Pa.  by 3 a.m. and made it to the funeral on time, where we simultaneously mourned a death and remembered a long life well lived.


  1. A lovely blog. What more can be wanted but pictures? You look happy. What more can one want than rent an apartment in a castle? You do know that Landmark Trust offers just that sort of thing. There are wonderful travel writings on Prague: Patricia Hampl's A Romantic Education which I picked up in a used bookstore when before the Net I used to haunt such places. Perhaps some moments of the trip were deepened by the on-going death: I read while you were gone a poem about the comfort of ghosts, something Hilary Mantel's Thomas Cromwell is into. After all a lot of the places we go to see are sites of ghostly memories.

  2. Thanks Ellen. Many pix refused to download for some reason, but enough came through to make a blog post. :)