On Saturday, April 30, I flew to Boston and on to London, bound for meetings with my new colleagues at Intelligent Avionics. May 1 marks the start of summer air fares, so I headed over a bit early to save $600. The Boston-London plane was a 757, and it was packed and cramped for a long trip. But it took just a bit over six hours to cross the ocean, so no need to complain. Managed a couple of little naps, and arrived Heathrow 7:45 on May Day. The queue for UK immigration was huge, and after waiting 40 minutes, I politely explained to a marshal that I had a bus at 9:00. He kindly moved me to the front, so kind. It pays to be assertive, but even more so to be civil and effusive with thanks. Got some cash, bought breakfast from a Marks & Spencer ministore, and high-tailed it to the Heathrow Central Bus Station. Made it with six minutes to spare. Headed west on the M4 motorway, past Windsor Castle, to Reading. Traffic was light, and I was at the train station and onto the train west to Worcester by 10:10. And with a large cup of coffee! Ate my breakfast and enjoyed the ride west and north, past bright yellow fields of canola, past draft horses munching hay, under arched viaducts of brick and the local Cotswold limestone, across the River Avon, and into Worcester on time, just past noon. Along the way, I cued Elgar and some other British composers, and listened to “Jerusalem,” the lovely song that is a sort of alternate national anthem, a poem by Blake set to music in 1916: “I will not cease from Mental Fight / Nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand / Till we have built Jerusalem / In England’s green & pleasant Land.”
Hopped in a cab and rode a few miles north to Sixways Stadium, for my first-ever Rugby Union match, a do-or-die semifinal between the Worcester Warriors and the Bedford Blues. My friend-since-1981 John Crabtree (mentioned many times previously on these pages) once again invited me to a signal English event. He sits on the board of the Warriors, a professional team in the second tier of Rugby Union, called Championship. The stadium was brand new. I collected my ticket and headed up to the Duckworth Suite, named for the club owner, and in no time was watching the action (was only about 10 minutes late). Hugs for John, wife Diana, and son James.
I had done some homework in the days prior to the match, online, including some helpful videos on the BBC Sport website, and felt about 20% familiar with the rules of the game. The fans were passionate – it was, after all, a semi-final – and in no time I was completely into it all, a Warriors partisan.
The Blues took an early lead. The Warriors scored before the end of the first half, but lost momentum, and with five minutes to play the Warriors were down by 6 and it looked like the home team would lose. Director Crabtree looked deeply concerned, Diana gripped her head.
Then, miraculously, the Warriors scored a try (like a U.S. touchdown, sort of, and worth 5 points), then 2 for the conversion, and they led 23-22. The Blues launched one more drive, and nearly scored, but the match ended happily. Pandemonium in the stands, and in the Duckworth Suite, beer and wine flowing, grown men hugging. It was enormously exciting. The Brits asked what I thought, and I told them it was quite a game! Here are a few scenes from the match:
I yakked with son Robbie. Took a shower, fixed a flat tire on Robbie’s new bike. A nice Sunday afternoon with a familiar family.
At five the Crabtrees and I drove southwest to Great Malvern, a former spa town just below the Malvern Hills. The views from the hills west to Herefordshire and east to Worcestershire were splendid. We stopped to photograph a field of bluebells on the western slope, spectacular.
The numerous “posh” private (to Brits, public) schools in the district prompted John to recall. He waxed enthusiastic about a nearby Quaker prep school, The Downs, which he attended from age 8 to 12. “I loved it there,” he said, and contrasted his experience with the quite famous boarding school he attended as a teenager, where the vibe was decidedly negative. Those memories remained strong, and I can see how they affected his life, in many ways. Dinner was at Anupam, an Indian restaurant in Great Malvern; among other stunts, I entertained the kids by eating whole green chilies. It was still light when I was fast asleep.
I slept hard until about 2:15, then flopped a bit until 4:45, when it got light. Read The New York Times on my iPhone (what an invention), sewed a button on the wallet pocket of my khaki trousers, and fell back asleep. The Crabtree kids get up early, and Jessica was already in the kitchen at seven.
We yakked a bit (she’s a real sweetie), ate a couple bowls of cereal, and John drove me to the station in Worcester. Hopped on a local train north to Birmingham, then west about 30 miles to Telford.
I was bound for the village of Ironbridge, a few miles south of Telford. This was a journey I have wanted to make for nearly 40 years – ever since reading the “Heroic Materialism” chapter in Sir Kenneth Clark’s book Civilisation. Clark was an eminent art historian, and the book was companion to a BBC series of the same name. Back in the 1970s, there was no such thing as BBC America on your cable TV system, and to see the series I took the bus downtown to the Minneapolis Public Library on Sunday afternoons. Some things stick with you, in this case images of the first metal bridge in the world (hence the village name) and a dramatic painting “Coalbrookdale at Night” (1801, by the French artist De Loutherburg).
Ironbridge and the nearby Coalbrookdale iron works were one of several birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution. First step in that valley was in 1709, when Quaker inventor and entrepreneur Abraham Darby figured out how to combine iron, coke, limestone, and energy to make steel. In essence, Darby removed the need for ironworking to be near forests (wood was needed for charcoal), as well as water. Everything he needed was readily at hand in the Severn River Valley: iron ore, limestone, coal (coke), and water power.
Many of us take this stuff for granted, but seeing where it began was way cool. First stop was the famous Ironbridge, which Darby’s grandson and investors built in 1779 to demonstrate the creative uses of structural iron. In the bridge was not only a great industrial breakthrough, but a transport advance, too, one that delighted the Transport Geek. It was a splendid sunny morning, and I ambled across the bridge, then below it to snap some pictures. It was a little hard to depend on public transport, but I had done some research online, and found a shuttle bus that ran up and down the valley. After Ironbridge, I headed upstream to Coalbrookdale, to the Museum of Iron and a look at some of the well-preserved remains of the mill. Fascinating stuff. And I need to return with more time. Here is a quick look:
Hopped a bus back to Telford, and toward the end of the ride had a nice chat with the driver. He asked where I was from, which launched him on a nice recall of his trip “to the real U.S.,” a one-way car journey from New Orleans to Nashville, via Baton Route, Natchez, Memphis, and points between. I saluted his sense of adventure. “It was unforgettable,” he said. I smiled broadly. Hopped on a train back to Birmingham, and a connecting service to Milton Keynes. It was a Monday “bank holiday,” and many trains were not running. I somehow found the slowest one, and because of track renovation I had to take a bus from Northampton to Milton Keynes. Average speed from Birmingham was well under 30 mph, which made me a bit late for a wonderful evening at the home of my new boss, Martin Cunnison.
I had met his wife Tara in Hamburg, but not his three-year-old twin daughters Beatrice and Henrietta, nor the Bernese Mountain Dogs Matilda and Phoebe, nor the three guinea pigs, nor the two fluffy laying hens. The backyard was nearly a zoo, and it was loads of fun. I took an immediate shine to the twins, and vice-versa. High points were a bedtime story for the girls and a spectacular roast-lamb dinner that Martin prepared. It was a big time, but a long day.
I had to sleep in Tuesday morning – until 7:45. Up slowly, paddling around the hotel, then walked across the road to meet Martin and Murray Skelton, our Scottish tech wizard, who had flown down early that morning from Edinburgh. We repaired to a McDonalds so Murr could get some breakfast, then worked in Martin’s offices. At 1:30 we headed to lunch at The Swan Inn, a 13th century pub (thatched roof and all the old stuff) in the middle of Milton Keynes, a 20th century new town. It was another sunny and relatively warm day, and we had our bangers (sausages) and mash outdoors. Worked until 6:30. Murray and I grabbed a pint and dinner across from the hotel, and was asleep before ten.
Murray and I hopped in a cab at seven on Wednesday morning, met Martin at the Milton Keynes railway station, and rode into London. Hopped the Tube across town to South Kensington and our fancy digs at a small hotel called the Pelham, literally across the street from the Tube. Very handy.
Our “AURA Summit” began later that morning, a productive day of debate and discussion about how to move from prototype to actual product. After a long day we walked a few blocks north and west (the neighborhood around the Victoria & Albert Museum and Imperial College is very familiar) to dinner at The Gore, a sister hotel to the Pelham.
A nice meal, and my first glass of Lebanese wine. I marveled at its place of origin, the Bekaa Valley. The name registered immediately in this geographer’s brain – the Bekaa was the site of some nasty battles during the protracted civil war in Lebanon in the late 1970s and early ‘80s.
Was up early Thursday morning. I needed a stretch, so ambled down to the hotel’s tiny gym, in the basement, and rode the exercise bike for nine miles. It was tonic. The meeting started a bit late, and the day was less productive – we got sidetracked a bunch. High point was an end-of-day presentation from an industrial-design firm called Factorydesign (their ability to turn imagination into aesthetic and effective design reminded me of a point John Crabtree made a few days earlier: the UK ranks first in the world, well ahead of the U.S., in creative industries’ value-added per capita).
The team headed in different directions that evening. I jumped on a conference call for an hour, then hopped on the Tube, riding two stops west to Earls Court Road and Masala Zone, a small chain of Indian restaurants that I’ve been visiting on recent trips. First, though, time for a pint. Spotted the Blackbird Inn a few hundred feet south of the Tube station, and ambled in for a pint of London Pride. And my daily prayers – I didn’t think God would mind if I put down my tipple and gave thanks for my many blessings and asked for His intercession. Refreshed and renewed, I tucked into a large plate of spicy food, hopped the Tube back to South Kensington, and clocked out.
I was up and on the exercise bike again Friday morning, packed up my suitcase (with the bears), and headed downstairs to breakfast. Had a nice chat with Tara and Martin. David appeared, and we three boys headed east on the Tube to a meeting with a creative agency that just did the user interface (screen navigation) for BA’s newest IFE system (unhappily from one of the old big companies). We left the meeting at 11:15. I peeled off to buy a jar of Colman’s English Mustard (cheaper and a sharper flavor than what they export to the U.S.), grabbed my suitcase, and took the Tube to Heathrow. Was home by 8:15 p.m., but to an empty house – Linda was with the grandchildren and our long-time cleaner and dogsitter Consuelo would deliver MacKenzie the next day. It was too quiet, but it was nice to be home.