After a week in France, we headed over to England on July 4th (the date didn't escape me). My client had a truly poignant request and reason to visit England. His uncle was a bombardier on a B-17 in WWII... and he died in England, when three planes, all massing in the sky for a huge bombing raid on Germany, were disabled by an electric storm, sending all three to the ground. Men got out of one of the planes in time. The plane of my client's uncle wasn't so lucky.
We arrived into London and headed straight over to collect our rental car (you "hire" a car in England, by the way...) I had put together a great little itinerary for this week, including a jaunt into Wales. But first things first: in order to keep the cost down for my client, I had booked a car with manual transmission.
What a riot! We walked out to the car, and I still walked over to the passenger side... for in England, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car. We got an upgrade to a spunky little four-door French sports car, but when I got into my seat it hit me... gearshift on the left, mirror on the left. Thankfully, the pedals remain in the same order in England - as well as the shift progression, 1st to the upper far left, and 5th in the upper far right.
Getting over some initial jitters (yes, I most certainly had them), and laughing with my clients, I slowly made my way out of the lot. The first bit of driving was intense to say the least. Before the trip had started, I had sorted it all out in my head... "Keep the centerline on your right shoulder."
Great cardinal rule... it worked like a charm, roundabouts and all.
We checked into our hotel in nearby Maidenhead - AWAY from London's busy city center and close to Wargrave - the town where the uncle's plane had crashed. The hotel was a trip... the Thames Riviera. It smacked of Fawlty Towers in style and feel, but the staff was helpful and fun.
Sure, it was stately, but it was hot as blazes. The hotel desk clerk had a lovely black blazer and shirt with a tie, but she was dripping wet - and her tattoo was showing... ah, England.
While my clients were happy to relax at the hotel, I actually set out on the road to hone my driving skills for the days ahead. One of my best mates from elementary school days in Belgium lived not far away, so we coordinated the directions, and I set out to go pay him a visit... and that was worth the entire trip! Kind of surreal to see someone you hadn't seen since the eighth grade - and feel like not a day had passed.
The traffic heading to Julian's house was still a bit congested, but by the time I left, it was smooth sailing. I turned up the radio, gripped the wheel confidently, and let her loose. It was bliss... Slowly, but surely, my brain was coming around to this way of driving. I was hooked.
I got back to my Fawlty Towers to find that they had left me a fan to fight the heat (no A/C in many places in Europe still... but it's changing), and an interesting night of sleep out of a horror movie set-up, which only made me laugh...
Let's just say that tiny flies that flocked to the light around the hotel patio lights just below my room had found a space in my bathroom window, where the frame wouldn't seal, and they had invaded my bathroom in the hundreds.
Being a Louisiana boy, I simply turned off the light in the bathroom and closed the door, murdering six of the little buggers as they dive-bombed my face while I read a history book before knocking off for the night...
The Real Bombers...
We had a bit of free time before our scheduled afternoon meeting with a wonderful English local in Wargrave. Jim Waldron was just a boy when that B-17 fell out of the sky and crashed in three sections. He had raced to the scene and ended up becoming a town historian - pushing for the creation of a memorial to the bomber crew. We were excited to meet him.
We were close to some extremely famous places: Windsor Castle and the town of Eton - home to one of the top boys prep schools on the planet. Already, my inner Monty Python and love for the incredible scholarship and culture of England was abuzz. We headed over to check out a museum, but it was closed. Not surprised. It was much off the beaten path, down a little farm lane. And with Judy, one of my clients, challenging me on the driving, I took her up on it. I hopped out of the car and let her take the wheel... Off they went!
Safely reunited, we drove over to the base of Windsor Castle and took a lovely little boat cruise on the Thames to get a proper history and feel for the area. It was everything we imagined and hoped for. Just perfect.
We saw all kinds of interesting little spots, including a post on a sharp bend in the river, meant to tie large towed barges down on a pivot point - instead of dragging the poor horses, who pulled them, into the water! There was even a famous bench where the Eton boys used to skinny dip - dating back over 100 years.
Back we came towards Windsor, with the footbridge heading over into Eton awaiting us.
Eton was all we expected it to be. A charming high street with its various shops, restaurants, and pubs made for the perfect English introduction to our time here. Eton College is the alma mater to 19 British prime ministers, as well as famous Brits including Prince Harry and William, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Aldous Huxley, Ian Fleming, John Maynard Keynes, and for the TV bound American, Hugh Laurie, Bear Grylls, and Eddie Redmayne.
You can imagine that the caliber of guests who come to see their sons and school events would expect a proper high street... and we enjoyed a very calm Sunday noontime stroll, frequenting its lovely shops.
Eager for a meal, we found the flagship restaurant of Gilbey's Gin, which we happily chose for our Sunday meal.
A martini was the appropriate start for the meal, but we enjoyed a lively waiter and a superb coursing of food, including a black-currant sorbet to polish it all off.
After stopping to purchase some delicious chocolates for our host, we heading to the car and made the drive to see the man who had my client's uncle memorialized.
Wargrave was every bit as charming... something I came to realize with every town we encountered on our trip here. I felt completely at home in the land of my mother tongue. Sure enough, we found our way to Jim's home, and he was ready for it. After the introductions and small talk, Jim set about re-telling the story of the plane crash.
With a veteran pilot, this was the first bombing mission for the rest of the crew... it would be the last for all except for one.
The relative we came to remember and honor - back row, second from the right.
The uncle had been a hero after all. With the plane violently stricken by lightning and tearing apart, he had gone into the bomb bay and pulled the pins as rapidly as possible, disarming them, after he had safely jettisoned three armed bombs into the river below.
The plane tore in half - in mid-air, and the tail section crashed, killing the men in the mid-section and tail, and the main section exploding further away. The plane happened to split open in the very spot where the radioman was located, and he was able to parachute down, while his buddies were killed. He left Jim his headphones from that flight...
What an experience to hold history in your hands...
Jim had even gone one step further. He had arranged for a retired teacher - who is now the local historian - to take us down to the memorial, perched at the edge of a golf course, with a view down upon the river valley where the plane crashed in its two separate locations.
We proceeded to drive down into town, where he took us up to his office and showed us some other interesting memorabilia of Wargrave, before leading us on a lovely stroll past gardens and cottages that dated back before the birth of America.
It was a moving and inspiring day for us all. And I had to get as close to the actual crash site as possible, just to let the story truly sink in all the way.
If there was any doubt, I was in love with England. I knew this trip was going to be magical... and we had only completed our first day on the Queen's soil.