I stepped off the train late on a Friday night to two smiling faces waving at me from across the platform. This has to be one of the greatest feelings in life, to be met by familiar faces in a foreign land, and it immediately put a huge smile on my face too. I was in the picturesque town of Guildford, just outside of London, by way of yet another impossibly cheap, direct flight from both Geneva and Berlin to the London Gatwick Airport. Here we were able to catch a 40 minute direct train which dropped us off steps away from Beth and Rafi‘s house. While Chris and Rafi had come to pick me up, Beth was at home putting the finishing touches on dinner, everyone having graciously waited to eat until I arrived. As soon as I stepped in the door I inhaled the wonderful aroma of fresh challah and other goodies heating in the oven. Shabbat dinner, always a feast to look forward to, was the perfect way to start the weekend, savoring a delicious home cooked meal, sipping wine, catching up on the events of the past six months, and figuring out what the weekend’s adventures might include.
We decided that on Saturday we would explore Guildford and on Sunday we’d hit the streets of London. Without any real basis, I had expected Guildford to look and feel sort of like a typical US-style suburb, in other words, not very interesting. But as we headed out on Saturday morning into the typical grey London weather, I was immediately taken by what turned out to be a quintessential storybook town, with a nice sized main shopping area, surrounded by gorgeous stone streets and houses, little bridges arching over streams, and classic british pubs beckoning you to come and sit for a while around every corner. As an added bonus, it’s also the home of Lewis Carol, one of my all-time favorite authors, so the town is full of rabbits and Alices and tributes to his famous tales.
Our first destination was the stunning ancient castle remains of what used to be one of the most splendid quarters in England. It is thought to have been built shortly after the 1066 invasion of England by William the Conqueror. Now it’s a beautiful little park and nice spot for a walk or a picnic.
From there, we walked up to the down. We had a fun time saying that. The down is at the top of a big hill in town, and is a wide open space of peaceful rollings hills, doubling as an expansive dog park, looking out over fields and farmland. After crossing the field we followed a path that took us through some lovely woods until we again reached a road and decided to turn around. By the time we made it back to the open grass, the wind had picked up and we could actually lean into it and be held up by its force.
We made up a new path home, winding through neighborhood streets until we reached Beth at the Library, a welcoming spot with an amazing collection of books – Almost all in English! It’s been a long time since we’ve been surrounded by English speakers or English writing, something I don’t notice on a daily basis, but as I looked around I slowly realized what a liberating feeling it was to be able to read and understand everything without trying. It felt like my first time at a library! Afterwards, we wandered through the farmers market, eyeing the baked goods but holding out for leftover challah and pungent sharp cheddar at home.
After relaxing and munching for a couple hours, it was time for another trip highlight – dinner at an authentic British Pub for a classic plate of fish and chips and a good pint of ale. Lucky for us, there were plenty of choices within walking distance, and we ended up at a recommended spot. This was one of those places you walk past and gaze longingly into the lit windows, enviously taking in the crowd inside sitting by the fireplace and laughing at the wooden tables, eating and drinking and being merry. But tonight those people were us. We drank our beers and were served platters of what appeared to be an entire fish, crispy chips (fries), and smashed peas. By the time we had eaten as much as we could, we almost had to roll home. However, this did not stop most of us from enjoying a pint of Ben and Jerry’s afterwards.
The next day, we got up early and caught the 45 minute direct train into London. It’s always fascinating to compare the image of a place you’ve heard about all your life, especially one as famous and well-known to most travelers as London, to the real thing. But even with the bar set extremely high, London does not disappoint. The classic sights and irresistible charm of the city was obvious immediately upon exiting the train station. There was the London Eye, Big Ben, Parliament, the red double decker busses, the Thames…all these things I’ve heard about over the past 30 years, glistening in the sun and just as magnificent as I have imagined them to be.
We wound our way through the city, past palaces, abbeys, cathedrals and statues, with the goal of ending up at the British Museum, full of so many treasures it would be impossible to see them all in one day. It is truly unbelievable how many famous artifacts are housed under one roof, along with some of Chris’s family history – Sutton Hoo? The rosetta stone, ancient hieroglyphics, pieces of one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, mummies…one has to wonder a little bit why all of these pieces of history are here, and not in their home countries? But lucky for us, I suppose.
A few hours later, thoroughly museumed out, we grabbed lunch at a mediocre nearby cafe and decided to do some more exploring around the city before heading home. We found our way to Covent Garden Market, and discovered some of the most incredible chocolate gelato we had ever had and some not as incredible street performers. From there, we headed back towards the train station, stopping for a farewell to London cider at the appropriately named Hole in the Wall pub. A wonderful weekend, although a weekend doesn’t come close to doing justice to London, so it won’t be long before we’re back again to absorb another piece of what this incredible city has to offer.
Beneath a crescent moon I stood
Upon a meadow damp with dew
Beside the fluttering tree branched wood –
The roots run deep at Sutton Hoo.
I saw, or so it seemed to me
A solemn march of ancient ones
Across a field of time gone by
A sleeping king, a monarch gone
An oaken ship, a chanting throng
With steady pace they made their way
In twilight sorrow and dismay
A song to those who passed before
A song for those who’ve passed the door
A song for those who leave behind
A journey and a path to find
For in their gift of life they send
Our searching souls into this land
For none are born save those who seek
The darkness of this human sleep
In pain and grief we stand and stare
And learn our joy in deep despair
And do our will and raise our clan
To swell the dawning light of man
Beneath this spangled ocean sky
Tonight – we honour those who die
The vision fades, the seen unseen
The door is closed, the air is keen
But dimly through the fading trance
The tear-stained branches swing and dance –
The ghostly line is hid from view
But roots run deep at Sutton Hoo.