Tour de Torontonians

It has been quite the week. For some reason, all kinds of people I know decided to converge on London within a few days of each other, making this the most social stretch of time I’ve had all summer. In fact, when I looked back to Monday’s Science Tea, I couldn’t believe it took place this week.

Science Tea? Did I really write those two words together? Indeed! The lovely Ampersand Hotel, right near the bus stop for my Battersea buses in South Kensington, offers a science version of its afternoon tea, designed to entertain the youngsters who visit the nearby Science Museum with their parents. A client of mine, Nicolle, and her family, are science lovers, so I knew this was the perfect way for us to meet. It was a delightful afternoon of great company and fun food: Petri dishes full of jelly, dinosaur-shaped cookies, cheesecake Saturn with white-chocolate rings and dry ice to add some clouds to the sunny atmosphere. What fun!

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Saturns, spacemen and spaceships ensure our tea is out of this world!

On Tuesday, Jemma, Virginia and Sandy arrived from Portugal for a week and settled into a hotel nearby in Battersea. We’ve been to the Tate Modern and a pub dating from 1549 together, and various permutations and combinations of us have met for lunch and dinner.

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Foodie friends

We made a stop at Harrod’s, with its luxurious, deluxe offerings and its shrine to the late Princess Diana and Dodi Al-Fayed. We toured Buckingham Palace and its ornate interiors in the pouring rain and saw some of the gifts the monarchs received from other countries, including Vancouver 2010 Olympic mittens from Canada!

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Royal Carriage

We even helped Sandy locate the hostel where she stayed when she toured Europe at age 21. The fun continues Monday with a visit to the London Eye and a farewell dinner before we go in various directions.

Friday saw me boarding a train for Birmingham for the day to attend the Festival of Quilts, Europe’s largest quilt show. I met my new friend from Surrey, Christina, there for an afternoon of ooh-ing and aah-ing over amazing quilts by incredibly talented people.

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One of the prize-winning quilts at the Festival of Quilts

I took an hour-long workshop to practise paper piecing and I – of course – purchased some fabric. With so many vendors around, how could I fail to support the British economy?

Today, another client, Barb, and a friend met me for an excursion to the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, aka Kew Gardens. (It is one of only five Royal Botanical Gardens worldwide, including the one in Hamilton.) We saw a wonderful variety of exhibits: water lilies, orchids, the kitchen garden, cacti, temperate plants and a treetop walk above the fray.

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Colour everywhere!

There was also a sculpture with sound and light that simulated a beehive, an amazing piece of creativity; and a peacock that roams free in the flower gardens. Everywhere we turned there was fascinating plants, lovely vistas and peaceful places to relax.

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Kew Gardens delights visitors.

After all of this fun, I may actually have to sit down and do some work tomorrow. It will undoubtedly be a shock to my system, but I need to clear my calendar before a quilting pal from Waterford, Christine, and her husband blow into town on Tuesday. Never a dull moment, eh?

Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ with the Romans

Today, it was back to being a tourist, rather than a theatre buff, as I took a day tour to Hadrian’s Wall and the Borders.

Of course, it’s hard to beat the Great Wall of China, but the Romans were amazing! Their empire stretched so far and they were so technologically savvy for the time, it’s impressive to walk in their footsteps.

Hadrian’s Wall, named for the emperor under whose reign it was constructed, ran the breadth of northern England, for 73 miles (80 Roman miles; 117.5 kilometres) about an hour south of the Scottish border.

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Hadrian’s Wall crosses hill and dale through the British countryside

It marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire when construction of this stone line of demarcation started in 122 A.D., although later the Romans gained a toehold in Scotland and built a new barrier north of Edinburgh. (The Antonine Wall, as it was called, was built largely of turf. Given that the Romans didn’t control that northern frontier for more than a couple of decades, it’s probably lucky that less work went into it.)

The wall today only exists in sections, since the locals often used its stones for construction of other buildings in the centuries after the Romans left. In places, grass grows atop the wall, as well as wildflowers; in other spots, it’s simply stone.

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Grass grows atop some sections of Hadrian’s Wall

It was built by British regiments of the Roman Legion and allowed the Romans to keep the Picts and other northern tribes out of England. A series of forts built every 13 miles south of the wall housed troops to defend the frontier and made it possible or them to  attend to administrative tasks pertinent to ruling Britannia.

Not only did I get to see the wall, touch the wall and stand on the wall, I was able to visit one of these forts and to enjoy the wonderful rural scenery of the Borderlands on either side of the England-Scotland border.

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A piper marks the border between England and Scotland

It’s green – no surprise, since half of our explorations were done in the rain – and it’s home to more sheep than I’ve ever seen in my life! An added bonus: the heather was in bloom! We could see purplish patches all over the hillsides.

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Heather in bloom near Hadrian’s Wall

Between my visit to Bath and Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve had a bit of a crash course in the Roman Empire, something I don’t think was given much weight during my school years in the “anything goes” years when they did away with mandatory courses about Western Civilization. The more I learn, I find, the more interesting a period of history becomes. Rah, rah Rome!

The tour experience was also great fun. I opted for a van tour with only 16 people and the driver-guide. The latter turned out to be a very sweet, down-to-earth Edinburgh native who loves his city and gave us a real flavour of life there. There was also a family of Canadians from Barrie, north of Toronto, who were lovely, and a friendly Aussie woman. The Canadian kids, 12-year-old twins, were always the first up the hills and through the mud, but I managed to do my bit. (Note to self: staying fit is important for travel.)

It was a wonderful way to end my Edinburgh escape, although I am sad, too. So much more to do and see here. However, London is calling …

All Roads Lead to Rome

When anyone uses the well-known aphorism about roads and Rome, I never think of it in connection with Britain, but I should know better by now. The Romans were here in Londinium, as they called it, and, apparently, they also established a stronghold at Bath.

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The stones beneath the floor of the bath, used to heat the water.

My long-time friend, Ute, and I joined a local meet-up group on Saturday for a day trip to this lovely city, site not only of Roman baths, but of Georgian architecture that earns it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our coach set off early from the centre of London, and by mid-morning, we had crossed serene rural landscape that became hillier the further west we drove and reached Bath, a city of 90,000 just east of coastal Bristol. As our city tour guide noted, Bath is a layer cake: the unearthed Roman ruins, followed by Medieval development, topped by Georgian architecture. Georgian refers to the period that King Georges I through IV ruled England, roughly 1714 to 1830.

We stopped first at the Roman bath, the ruins of which weren’t uncovered until workmen digging in the late 19th century came across some interesting rubble. Even then, it took the city engineer 20 years to obtain permission for a full dig of what is today an amazing Roman temple site. In fact, the ruins were buried so deep in the South Gloucestershire mud that even a garden dug on top of them by Medieval monks didn’t reach the remains.

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Roman bath in — where else? — Bath

Just as interesting is the fact that the spring that fed that ancient mineral bath was celebrated in Georgian times for its curative properties and Bath was a fashionable spa during the 18th century, even though no one knew about the Roman precedent.

Alas, the modern plumbing wasn’t working right on Saturday, so we didn’t get a chance to sample the cleansed mineral waters, but I did dip my fingers into the algae-filled pool to feel the warmth. The spring still feeds spas in the area, and we could see people on balconies in their bathrobes, lounging. Not a bad way to wind down from the week’s stresses.

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The Pump Room, where the fashionable came to drink mineral water in the 1800s.

After absorbing the facts about Roman temples and about bathhouse culture at the time, we had a look at the city’s renowned Georgian architecture, based on classical styles and hewn from golden-toned local stone. For fans of Jane Austen and the Regency period, this is heaven. Austen herself lived in Bath for five years and based two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey here. Janeites among the tour group were pointing out streets that figured in those two books, and we saw one of the houses where she lived during those years, although it’s not the building that now houses the Jane Austen Museum – it’s now home to a law firm instead.

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One of the homes where Jane Austen resided during her time in Bath.

So, we wandered the Royal Crescent and the Circus; saw the Pulteney Bridge, based on Italy’s Ponte Vecchio; and dropped in at the Assembly Rooms, where the town’s emcee, Beau Nash, held sway. Mr. Nash was responsible for making introductions for newcomers to town – if only it were so easy today!

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The Royal Crescent, a popular spot.

Bath offers a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of London and a trip back in time. It’s certainly an escape I’m ready to make again.