21 Jul London, Part III: Nobody warned me about the doors!

Wednesday, Jill and I took an excursion to Kelmscott Manor. That’s where William Morris–inventor of the Arts and Crafts movement–lived for a time with his gorgeous wife, Jane, and her sister, May, and painter Dante Gabriel Rosetti, who had an affair with Jane. She was Rosetti’s ideal model and appears in his most famous and sensual paintings. The Manor was built in 1570 by a prosperous sheep farmer. It’s not dark and low-ceilinged, as you might imagine. It’s actually quite bright and cheery inside, thanks to large windows on three sides of nearly every room. It sits only about an hour’s drive from London. But it took Jill and me seven hours to get there. That’s 1 X 7. Let me explain.

You can’t reach Kelmscott by public transportation. But you can get close. You have to take two trains and then a bus, which will drop you off three miles from the house. Then you’re supposed to call a taxi. All told, it should take about three hours. Jill and I started out at nine in the morning and were nearly out the door when she discovered that her Travel Card was missing. For half an hour we turned the apartment upside down. No luck. Never mind, I said, we’ll buy a new one. They’re not cheap–about $15 a day–but, hell, it’s only money.

We took the tube to Paddington Station but the lost-card delay made us too late for our express train. Which meant we had to wait an hour for the next. We were going to Swindon, west in Cotswolds country. The train express is great. We had a table between us. Jill read. I checked my email on my smart phone. The English countryside, looking as bright and bucolic as a Constable painting, passed under cotton-ball clouds and painter’s perfect blue. An hour and a half later, we were in Swindon, making great time. As the train stopped, we gathered our things. I saw someone leave the train through the rear door of our car. We walked to the nearer door. We were surprised–no, stunned–to discover there was no handle on the door. The green light above the door indicated that it was unlocked. But there was absolutely no way to open the door, except to break the glass and pull the emergency latch, which I wasn’t quite ready to do.

I pawed at the door, tried to pry it open, nearly ripping the nails from my fingers. Now I was panicked because this was an express train, which means they stop short and move fast. The door’s window was closed. But I could see the platform just one foot away. "Instructions!" I gasped to Jill. "There have to be instructions!" The door must be defective, I concluded. We bolted down the car for the other door. But it was the same: no handle. No way out. It was classic nightmare. There’s the platform, here’s your stop, but you can’t get out. Because the door has no handle.

Then, at last, we saw the instructions, in modest print to one side of the door, above some other information. To open the door on the express train, you have to pull down the window, reach outside, then yank on the door handle from the outside. I repeat: you have to reach OUTSIDE of the train and, like James Bond pulling a fast escape, grab the door handle and free yourself. There is no door handle on the INSIDE of an express train. Paranoia, anyone?

I opened the window, reached out, grabbed the handle, tried to push the door open. It wouldn’t budge. I saw a platform agent running toward me, shouting, "Hey!". Oh, thank god, some help! I thought. Did the door slide open? Was I turning the handle the right way? At last the agent was at our door. She was a small woman with the flushed face of an over-exerted twelve-year-old. "No, no, no!" she scolded. "You can’t get out. It’s too late."

"But this is our stop!" I protested through the open window.

"You’ve got to go to the next stop," she commanded. "It’s too late."

"The next stop?" I echoed, nearly woozy from surprise and dismay.

"The next stop!"

Then the train was off, the station agent waving her paddle in an official "You’re Off!" manner and looking relieved that I didn’t try to squeeze myself through the window.

I turned to Jill. She blinked at me and seemed unable to speak. I asked, "What’s the next stop?"

As if on cue, the conductor announced over the PA that the next stop would be Bristol–about 50 miles away, on the western shore of England. A few days previous we had been at Ramsgate, clear to the eastern shore. So we were getting a tour of southern England. What was wrong with that? The delay would add at least another hour to the trip, if we were lucky enough to catch a quick train back to Swindon.

When Jill and I took our seats again, I pulled out the passenger safety brochure. Not one word about the trick doors. Not one frigging word. I felt duped. I mean, when you get to a closed door, your first thought isn’t, Oh, well, I’ll just open the window and reach OUTSIDE and yank at the handle because that’s what makes the most sense in a situation like this!

By the time we arrived at Bristol, I still had not quite shaken off the nightmarish energy coursing through my veins. An hour and a half later, we arrived–again–at Swindon. And you’d better believe Jill and I were at the doors, arms cocked and ready for the tricky maneuver, which, actually we didn’t have to perform because this time, there were many people on the platform and somebody outside opened the door for us. And we bolted. We had only to catch a bus to a village called Lechlade. It would take 30 minutes. Supposedly.

After waiting fifteen minutes without luck at the station’s bus stop–which was where our instructions said we should be–one of the helpful locals told us that, actually, we had to be at the bus station, just a short walk away. Excellent. We exclaimed our thanks, then took off. Upon arriving at the station, I couldn’t get inside. Doors again. Did they slide? Really, there were no handles on them. Somebody butted one open and I followed. The lady at the ticket counter told us the bus we wanted was in bay 3. Right now. We rushed out but found it gone. Guess where it would stop before heading out? The train station.

Yes, while we had been walking to the bus station, the bus was making its way to the train station. Which meant that now we had an hour’s wait for the next bus. We could only be fatalistic at that point. Jill and I dubbed this our "adventure." Could we get to Kelmscott? And, if so, could we get there before it closed at 4:30? It was now 1:00 and we wouldn’t get the bus until 2:00. We still had to find a taxi in Lechlade.

For much of the next hour, we guarded Bay Three. But at the appointed hour, the bus wasn’t there. Lots of buses pulled into Bay Three, disgorged their passengers, but then pulled out, "Out of Service" illuminated in their marquees. I nudged Jill, pointed to Bay Two, where a tiny, somewhat decrepit bus sat. I said, "What if THIS is our bus?" Jill shook her head. "They said Bay THREE." Our bus–64 to Lechlade—was already five minutes overdue and a line of passengers was cued at Bay Two. Bay Three remained empty. I stepped over to Bay Two. It was Coach 64 to Lechlade.

Five minutes later, we were barreling through the single-lane country roads, hill and dale, gorgeous golden fields blurred in the window, green streaming hedgerows, those cotton ball clouds, trees swaying in the wind. It was the Cotswolds: stone cottages with thatched roofs. And sheep. And ancient quaintness that money can’t buy. Lechlade on the Thames is as quaint as they come. I asked the bus driver what time the return bus runs from Lechlade to Swindon. He said, "Every hour." Wary now and mistrustful of any information, I asked: "On the hour?" "Oh," he said, "it might be five till or five after or fifteen past or ten till." Okay, I nodded. Won’t get fooled again.

When he let us out in the incredibly quaint Lechlade, I pulled out my cell phone and called the cab company. There’s only one. And it was now 3:00 PM. The dispatcher said, most politely, that he wouldn’t be able to get us a cab until 4:00 or 4:30. I closed the phone and announced, "I guess we walk from here." We stepped into the nearest pub and asked for directions. The owner, Nick, said he could arrange a ride to Kelmscott for ten pounds. That’s about twenty bucks for a three-mile trip. It was a sunny day and supposedly a normal human being could make the walk in an hour. So we decided to walk, but took Nick’s cell number just in case we got stranded.

"Just follow the Thames path," Nick called as we left, "you want to go downstream."

He might as well have said, "Follow the yellow brick road." We found the Thames River path easily enough, but no one could tell us which way was downstream. One local said "I’ve never heard of Kelmscott Manor!" The river at this point is narrow–no wider than a modest highway–and coffee-au-lait brown. Where did all the swans come from? Picture book pretty swans were doing their swan thing every step of the way. Pasture extends from the river bank, the air rich with the loamy scent of fresh cow shit. Many houseboats–converted barges–were tied to the bank. The consensus of those we asked was that we were walking in the right direction.

With cows lowing and swans swanning and the stone spire of Lechlade church looming over the village trees behind us, and clouds skating quickly overhead, the sun swelling its chest for a good afternoon burn (nearly 80–a Brit heat wave), we set off into the grassy glade. We were surprised to find locks in the river. But that’s how they keep the river deep. Dam the water so it can’t drain too quickly. That necessitates locks to raise the boats into each dammed portion.

The big surprise was the World War II bunkers placed at the river’s bend every quarter mile. You’ll recall that England was bombed and besieged for much of World War II and the prospect of a Nazi invasion was very real. That’s why Churchill said, "We shall go on to the end. . . .we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender." Early British history is all about invaders tramping through England. But after they defeated the Normans in 1266, the Brits allowed no other intruders to take a single step onto their homeland. Hence, the bunkers way up on the Thames.

Jill and I were running out of time and wandered off the Thames path twice, only to be redirected by locals. We saw lots of cows and at least one manor house we wanted to take home with us. Dusty and sweaty, we came upon Kelmscott Manor at 4:00 PM sharp. We agreed that it was worth the trouble. Jill bought some pot holders and a pricey needlepoint pattern at the gift shop. I bought lots of cold drinks at the café. Then we started asking around for a ride back to Lechlade. Fiona, one of the volunteers at the house, offered to take us. We offered to pay for gas but, of course, she wouldn’t hear of it.

Fiona is a sixtyish woman with short-cropped silver hair, a wiry build, and a dry sense of humor. Of the bunkers, she said, "If the Germans had got this far, people hereabouts would’ve done no more than offered them tea." She said visitors to the Manor sometimes asked the silliest questions, "Like how many doves are in the dovecote? How would I know? They are doves. They come and go! I said, We’ve got one dove, only one, and we watch him very carefully." Fiona visited the U.S. last year. "You lose all sense of scale in America. We went to Wyoming. It’s as big as all of Wales." She said she went many other places, most of whose names she can’t remember. But she had a good time.

Fiona dropped us at the Swindon hospital bus stop, saving us an hour’s commute. We wanted to take Fiona home with us too. Fiona and the manor house and Fiona’s chocolate lab, Kelly. When we stepped off the train at the London station, we realized we had left two things behind: my change purse in the Kelmscott café and Jill’s souvenirs on the bus. We gave up on the change purse but pursued the souvenirs the next morning on the phone and located them at the bus station’s lost and found. We arranged for Elaine at the bus depot to mail them to us. And then, that same morning, Jill found her lost Travel Card in the one pocket of the one shirt she overlooked in our frantic search the day before.