Saturday, March 15: Well, today was really the day we had been working toward since Oct 25, 2013, when I bought the air tickets to London in order to play Gregory Rose’s Avebury Stone Circles in London and at the source of its inspiration, the Avebury Stone Circles National Trust site in the village of Avebury, Wiltshire, UK. So we were psyched! Marge and Grace met all my deadlines for eating breakfast and leaving the hotel in order to accommodate changes in the normal train schedules due to “engineering” [English expression for maintenance/repair’] of the train lines. In order to get to Avebury, Greg had offered to drive all five of us — Suré, Marge, Grace, me and him — on the 2 hr+ journey to Wiltshire from his home in the Limehouse area of SE London. Anticipating the agreed upon 9:00 am departure from Greg’s house, the three of us found ourselves standing at Greg’s door at 8:25 — and with no one home! At the same moment we were knocking on his door, however, Greg pulled up in his car directly in front of us! He had just dropped Helen off at her Saturday teaching position, which was necessary since she was still not able to drive safely with her broken thumb. That left us approx. 1/2 hr before departure, so they all headed upstairs for tea – and I attacked the piano downstairs! Soon Suré joined us and she and I tried out a few spots. Before long it was time to go, and we set off on the long trip to Avebury.
Along the way we passed the London Eye (ferris wheel), Parliament Square, Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament, the Tate Britain, etc., all the while noticing occasional streets marked ‘C’ for congestion. We learned from Greg that, if you travel on certain main, centrally-located thoroughfares in the city from Mon- Fri without a special permit, you were subject to a £5,000 fine (!). The threat of that fine seems to work pretty well, Greg said, and thus helps keep the streets less clogged. We stopped only once for gas ‘n goodies (coffee/rolls/donuts), and otherwise pressed forward, arriving at the charming little village of Avebury ca. 11:30 am. We made a bee line for St James’ Church, the site of the 1:00 pm concert. Turns out, St James, a Norman-era structure with its original Saxon baptismal font, was COLD! And I don’t mean cool, as in pleasant, Texas-style-air-conditioning cold, I mean heavy-coat-gloves-and-a-hat, almost-can-see-your-breath cold! We were a little shocked at first, wondering if we’d need to be wearing our coats during the performance, but it quickly dawned on us that, with a church of this era, location and material (stone), with its high central ceiling, OF COURSE it would be cold! There were three small electric heaters around the interior walls, one near the piano, but even at full blast they were hopelessly inadequate to make any perceptible difference in the short time before the concert. At the last moment Suré and I both decided not to wear coats, gloves or anything else extra and just do it! And because we wanted to be cognizant of our audience, who must’ve been even colder just sitting there for 45 minutes, we started the program exactly at the scheduled time — 1:00 pm. I think we also took the fastest tempos and shortest pauses between songs we’d ever done! And you know (for us, at least), the cold wasn’t that bad. At least I didn’t seem to notice it. My fingers weren’t freezing up, or trembling with cold, or anything else. It was actually a pretty good effort, I think (Suré thinks it was the best we’d ever done — [I don’t: reference the 2nd song of the Barber, e.g.!!]). Anyway, at the end, the small audience of (Marge estimated) 15 was inordinately vociferous and complimentary for its size. Both for our and the audience’s sake we declined any thought of an encore, unlike at St Mary-le-Bow. We were just as anxious as the audience was to enjoy the hot tea and crumpets (they call them “biscuits”) which sat in plain sight next to the audience and which church members had prepared as a reception for us afterwards!
Anyway, the concert was all a thrilling experience for us, and again, one we had worked toward long and hard. One final reward was then to step outside into a beautiful, sunny and much warmer outside and catch a private National Trust guide’s tour of the actual Avebury stone site! The guide was really excellent, very knowledgeable, patient, and well-spoken. We hung on her every word. Following her through the site, we eventually walked maybe 1.5 miles, pacing over the site. There is, of course, a lot to say about the historic site at Avebury, so I won’t attempt a summary here. Suffice it to say one can find out a great deal more by clicking here and on other internet sites.
The surprise of the afternoon, however, was that after all the walking and seeing and learning about Avebury, one couple among our group of seven, friends of Greg and Suré, had been carrying a plastic bag with something in it during the whole tour. At the very end, after we had said goodbye to the guide, but were still standing around next to one of the large erect stones, this couple magically pulls out a bottle of Prosecco champagne and seven plastic cups! As the English would say, what a lovely way to end our tour of Avebury. We all toasted the day and drank champagne on a truly special and meaningful occasion!
By now it was time to head for the nearby town of Swindon (“don’t get swindled in Swindon,” I kept saying to myself!) and the high-speed National Rail station there. The reason was that we were due to be back in central London by 7:30 for a performance of Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre on Haymarket. So we said our goodbyes to Suré and others, and Greg whisked us off for the 20-minute ride to the station in Swindon. We caught the 4:11 train to Paddington Station and, after a very relaxing and comfortable hour’s ride, were there by 5:20 or so…PLENTY of time to ride the tube over to Piccadilly Circus and the short walk down Haymarket to the theatre. Of course by now we were all famished (as we mostly were throughout the trip!), so an Italian specialty restaurant 1 block N of Her Majesty’s Theatre seemed esp. appealing, and in we went.
Though I had seen the film version of Phantom many times, I had never seen it in a live production. I’m happy to say that I can’t imagine a better performance of that show than the one we saw. I had a seat separate from Grace and Marge, who were also very well situated in stall seats (the equivalent of our ‘orchestra’ or floor section). Mine was seat D13 – more or less dead center, 50-yard-line, four rows from the orchestra pit. I could just about have leaned over and shaken the orchestra conductor’s hand, and of course I could see everything perfectly on stage. As luck would have it, this location also put me dead-center below the show’s famous chandelier, which is raised from the stage in the opening scene. I knew this same chandelier would be coming down sometime toward the end, so I kept eyeing it every once in a while, making sure it wasn’t moving or lowering without my awareness! Eventually it did come down, in the last act, hurling straight toward me, but at the last minute was swept forward onto the stage! A thriller! And the production as a whole was just spectacular – the acting, singing, glorious/fabulous costumes, the sets, the quick changes of scenery and lighting — all were so professionally done, it was really breathtaking. And Andrew Lloyd Weber’s music isn’t too shabby, either. Marge said that almost every number was one you could find yourself humming after the show was over. I highly recommend Phantom to anyone planning to visit London. Something not-to-be-missed!
After that experience and this very special day with its great kicker for an ending, we didn’t think there was anything left for us. But actually, there was: as we walked back up Haymarket to Piccadilly Circus, we ran across a fantastic store called Cool Britannia! And it really was cool! A store devoted entirely to British souvenirs of every stripe and category, most plastered all over with Union Jack’s. There was even a real Cooper Mini auto painted totally with the Union Jack flag! What fun! We ended up spending maybe 45 minutes in Cool Britannia, and bought almost $200 worth of “stuff”! We knew we had one more day left tomorrow, and though it would be a completely free day, we were already feeling the end of the trip coming, and hence the need for souvenirs and gifts for others. So this was pretty much the perfect end to a glorious day!