On the Bus and in the Car: Day 4
The coach from Marylebone High Street to Oxford costs £13. I know this, because my friend the novelist Stephen Benatar refused to let me ride the train from London to Oxford, as, he claimed, it would cost too much. Stephen had decided that I should take the coach at 2:30, to be in plenty of time to be in Oxford at 4:30. Thus shortly after lunch on the Friday of my UK week, we took the bus from the end of Stephen’s road, in order to get to the coach stop.
The coach stop had been moved.
I’m not sure when the last time Stephen had caught this particular coach. He pointed out the service I was to catch as one coach pulled away at the light–don’t worry, it runs every 15 minutes. When we found Stop P, around the corner and past the library, the first fifteen minutes had passed. Another fifteen passed. And another. I began to worry about Roger, my ride at the other end, expecting me at 4:30. What if no more buses to Oxford came ever? How would I let him know?
The coach that finally came was an anticlimax. I said goodbye to Stephen on the curb, hefted the world’s smallest blue suitcase onto the bus, paid up my £13, and found a seat. As the coach pulled out into traffic, the last thing I saw was Stephen’s hand, high up in the air, waving.
It rained on the way to Oxford, but the sun came back out once we’d pulled into the city. I knew I was to find the stop for the 500 bus to the Water Eaton Park & Ride, which was on Magdelen Street in front of the Randolph Hotel. Oddly, after two school trips through Oxford and after reading all of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse books, I knew where that bus stop was–but I had next to no idea where the London/Oxford coach would stop in relation to that. So when the driver announced a High Street stop, I jumped off there and started walking, hauling that little blue suitcase. Surprisingly, in the right direction! I have to say I was relieved to see Carfax Tower, where I turned and traversed the pedestrian Cornmarket until it turned into the street I wanted, with the bus stop I wanted; eventually that bus came, and I rode it to the end of the line, Water Eaton, where Roger, whom I’d never met, was parked (and was wondering what took so long). Then it was into his car and out onto the A44 to Bromyard, where Julia Hawkes-Moore, the novelist/architect/gourmet cook, awaited us.
Again, I’d never been to this part of the country–the only bit of the Cotswolds I’d ever seen were the edges: Bath, Stratford. Roger and I headed up into the late afternoon sunset, and everything was green and gold. We passed Blenheim Palace, where signs advertised Saturday’s Battle Proms. We drove through the beautiful Chipping Norton, by the Bliss Mill, which is now used for luxury housing. When I saw a sign on the road for Broadway, I asked Roger if it was, in fact, the most beautiful village in England; so he drove through it so I could judge for myself. In the early evening light, the Cotswold stone glowed, and I thought maybe it was the most beautiful. Though the most interesting was by far Bourton-on-the-Hill, a tiny village clinging to a fairly steep grade: as Roger said, to the east, flat area, to the north, flat area, but they just had to build it here. Why? I guess so people like us would have to downshift and drive incredibly slowly through it, scratching our heads.
Roger had received strict instructions from Julia that we were not to arrive until after 7:15, as she had to listen to The Archers. (Julia told us later that there had been a fire in that episode, but that no one was killed.) So just before we reached Bromyard, he turned the car down a rutted dirt track leading to Bringsty Common and the Live and Let Live Pub. The only thatched pub in all of Herefordshire, this place had been extensively refurbished over the past several years, and in the rear work still appeared to be going on. We ducked in through the low doorway–duck or grouse, it read on the lintel–and I sat while Roger ordered a couple of half-pints of perry, the Hereford cider made from pears. He warned me that it was deceptively strong; but the taste was lovely, tart and sweet and crisp all at once, with that afterbite of fermentation that let you know this was no mere fruit juice. While we drank, he told me stories of how, in the past, if you could build what passed for a house (four walls, a roof, a door) on the common in 24 hours, you were entitled to the land you built on.
Then it was seven o’clock. We drove into Bromyard, into Julia’s drive, and there she was, waiting for us, having had her uninterrupted dose of The Archers.
On the way to Marylebone High Street, Stephen showed me the crosswalk at Abbey Road studios (we were on the bus, so I admired it as a flash.) Then he showed me the building in which he was born, which sports two plaques, neither of them dedicated to him. He instructed me to take a picture, and to remember the address, as I was to head the drive to get his blue plaque up there–he even showed me where on the wall he wanted it, just above H. G. Wells. (It was while Stephen was living in this building that Nanny Rex came to take care of him and his brother: she had come straight from her previous charges, the Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Windsor. Six degrees of separation, anyone?)
Julia had warned me in advance that Roger did not like to be distracted by conversation while he drove, but he did play great music. The CD he had in for our drive to Herefordshire was Life in a Beautiful Light by Amy Macdonald, a Scottish singer/musician of whom, I’m ashamed to say, I’d never heard (I do live in a wasteland of commercial radio, it’s true). The CD was fantastic, and the trip long enough to hear it played through twice. By that time I was addicted. I downloaded it from iTunes as soon as I got home, and recommended it immediately to my oldest daughter, as Macdonald has a distinctive voice I knew Molly would find attractive–reminiscent of Dolores O’Riordan of the Cranberries, but with a slightly deeper timbre. My favorite? “Fourth of July.” It’s the kind of song you want to play loud while driving down the road with the windows open. Title track: