On a beautiful May afternoon, my parents took the three of us to San Francisco International Airport to fly nonstop to London (a big deal in 1968) on a Pan-American clipper. My mother and father were terrified, although they tried not to show it, because we were taking their grandchild over the north pole to another continent. We dressed appropriately for our transcontinental flight, Sherrill in a handsome but comfortable suit and I in a tweed sport coat and knit tie with gray slacks. Three year-old Simone, wearing a pinafore (copied by Sherrill from illustrations in English children's books) over her dress, sat between us. The plane was two rows of three seats, one aisle down the center.
We had plenty of room to stretch out—and this was coach class. If there was a first class, it was only a few rows in front. Nobody was closed off from anybody else. Good meals and all beverages were, of course, included. The Pan Am stewardesses were smart, efficient, and friendly. We even were given Pan Am clipper stationery. Simone got her first pair of wings and wore them proudly on her pinny.
London in 1968 still was not fully recovered from the War, although it was a generation back. Many buildings still showed war damage and soot and from time to time we came across a block with a house or building missing, like a smile with one tooth knocked out, maybe a few loose bricks to suggest what had been there. The hotel we stayed in, an ornate turn-of-the-century red brick pile near Buckingham Palace, needed major spiffing up. A week or two into our trip we began to wonder if the British liked old paint and threadbare upholstery, as well as breakfasts of cooked tomatoes, fat-oozing bacon and sausages, and fried bread, but they just didn't have the money to clean and repair and replace. After several days sightseeing and a couple of plays (taking turns staying at the hotel with Simone), we picked up the rental car Sherrill was going to drive for three weeks.
The first car they put her in was small and cheap, as we'd asked, but had a stick shift. After three minutes, it was obvious that it wouldn't do, especially with right-hand driving on the left side of the road. Even in the lot, she nearly drove into two other cars. Finally, they located an Austin mini with an automatic shift and we were off to Rochester and Canterbury near the Channel coast.
"Ancient" began to have a new meaning for us as we explored two of the oldest cities on the island, both going back to before the Romans. Climbing the tower in Rochester castle, we got a view of not only the 11th century cathedral but also of how near the coast of France is. In Canterbury, we saw from empty lots still around the cathedral how furiously the Nazis had tried to destroy this symbol of Britain.
We used Arthur Frommer's England on $5 and $10 a Day, but occasionally indulged in his "splurges." Our biggest splurge was the Gravetye Manor, an Elizabethan country house thirty miles south of London—famous for its gardens--but even this elegant hotel needed new plumbing, upholstery, and fresh paint. Our bedroom was huge, but the furniture showed wear. Our bathroom, at least the size of the bedroom, was across the hall, with a tub a sumo wrestler could have used, but no ladder to get in or out. We also discovered that deadly piece of plumbing the British use to heat towels.
"They should put warning signs on it!" Sherrill moaned, showing her bright red palm.
At the end of dinner, the waiter asked if we wanted coffee and port. Trying to be sophisticated, we agreed. He hovered nearby so long that we assumed we'd given the wrong answer.
Finally, he spoke: "The lounge is down the hall," he said.
"Thank you," I replied.
"We'll bring it to you there, sir. Madam."
Obviously, this trip was going to be one long learning experience.
We'd read Vita Sackville-West's account of growing up in the largest house in England, but couldn't really picture it until we walked through some of the 365 rooms of the ancient maze known as Knole House.
"This place," Sherrill said as we hiked down a hall lined with enough suits of armor to outfit an army, "would give a normal kid nightmares."
"Maybe that says something about Vita."
From the ridiculous to the sublime? The same day, we continued on to picture perfect Bodiam Castle, small as castles go, standing pristine inside its moat. After crossing the draw bridge and exploring the castle, we stopped at the tea shop back across the moat. The teenage girl who served us was astonished that we came from California. She'd never been to London, she said, just 50 miles away.
"Do you want to go to London?" Sherrill asked her.
The girl shrugged. "Maybe."
Traveling with a three year-old required some accommodation, now and then. Simone had the idea that the Banbury Cross of the old nursery rhyme was a carnival and wanted to go there.
Ride a cock horse to Banbury Cross,
To see a fine lady upon a white horse;
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.
When we chanced on a traveling carnival in a small town, it became "Banbury Cross." She rode a carousel, went with me in the bump cars ("Daddy is a bad driver," she confided to Sherrill afterward, "he kept crashing into other cars."), played several games, and quite enjoyed her "Banbury Cross."
When we came to the town of Gloucester, parts of it were remarkably like the illustrations in Simone's favorite Beatrix Potter book, The Tailor of Gloucester. She recognized the medieval gate at the end of one street and the shop she was sure belonged to the tailor, himself. We stopped at a small, old-fashioned tea shop for a snack (cookies and milk for Simone, tea for Sherrill and me). When Simone wasn't looking, Sherrill turned over an empty teacup in a saucer.
"It's upside down!" Simone declared, when she noticed the flowery, gilt-edged cup.
"Like in the book," Sherrill commented, matter-of-factly.
Simone's hand hesitated over the tea cup, then lifted it, revealing a small, handmade mouse sitting on the saucer.
"A mouse!" she squealed!
"Like in the book."
Somewhere Sherrill had bought this miniature cotton-stuffed mouse dressed in a blue suit. Simone carried the little mouse with her through the rest of the trip—usually in her pinafore pocket.
To be continued....
These trips we took early in our marriage were possible because of the sales of my first book, THE NIGHT ACTION. Nobody could have predicted then that now, fifty years later, it would be available in an entirely new kind of of format—as an e-book from Automat Press.