Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Verneuil sur Avre, day one

We drove from Saint Quentin down to our next destination, a tiny village in Normandy near (ish) to D-Day stuff and Mont San Michel (actually turns out we are not really near to either, but geography be gone). Rural France is strange. Firstly, there are many, many signs that indicate leaping deer. On a yellow diamond sign there is a picture of a leaping deer and then the number of kilometres we might expect this phenomenon to occur (14 kilometres and so on). But in all the kilometres we have done, and all the signs we have seen, we are yet to see any deer like, leaping or otherwise. Sad. Indeed, everything is so incredibly groomed and furrowed as far as the eye can see, it would be hard for anything to leap about in rural France without a permit and perhaps a day pass. I think Australians see landscapes as often 'empty' - the proverbial wilderness. Here there is no wilderness. There is only industry and organisation. Everything here feels known.

The second thing about the French countryside in November is that we drove passed many, many field that were plowed and then piled up beside the field was a huge mound of what looked like potatoes or turnips. We wondered if it was either the food that had just been plowed, or what is about to be put into the ground. But this was repeated multiple times as we drove west through the landscape. Zelda began chanting 'potatoes' when she saw a pile (and this was intersperced with 'cow' when she saw a cow and so on).

And lastly, in my vast experience of rural France, there are few people here. In England, the little villages were heaving with people walking about. Here, it is empty of people. You might (though not on a Sunday or Monday when - we discovered - EVERYTHING is shut) see an older person stumbling down the road with a walking stick on their way to the shop. but that is it. It is a landscape utterly without people.

We sped around the outskirts of Paris and then out into Normandy. Verneuil sur Avre is not far from Paris - about an hour - and we chugged into the village at about two. And there, sitting behind a large wall, was the sweetest cottage and it is all ours for one week. We were very hospitably greeted by the owner who showed us the layout, left us chocolate and butter, and then departed. We walked around the village, bought pastries from a charming girl who had no English to our no French but we managed to buy most of what she was selling. I cooked my first dinner in a French kitchen and I couldn't have been more delighted. I channeled Elizabeth David and MFK Fisher and wished I had bought them along with me (you can only carry so many books, particularly ones you have read before). Everything was perfect ('You cook better in France,' said Paris. God love him.) I'm wondering how we can ever leave.

We were all woken periodically by the bells that ring from the Gothic cathedral outside our window. It was a pleasure. I have tried to take multiple pictures of what we see outside our windows but somehow the camera can't capture it. You have to take my word for it.

I have attached photos of the children on the River Cam in Cambridge, the family walking through WWI trenches in Beautmont Hamel and me cooking my first French dinner.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The Western Front

And so to the Somme. Those of you who might know me quite well, know that I'm a bit of a World War I junkie (is that possible?) and have been a little obssessed with the Western Front for some years now. So it was a bit of an emotional morning getting ready to visit the sites I have read about and thought about and written about.

We woke in the Etap Hotel in San Quentin (the Etap hotels are a chain, and they are a bit like IKEA as a hotel, there is very little space, beds that sit on top of one another and a shower that is a glass cubicle in the corner that has a shower head that changes colours as the water pours out - you shower in a rich rainbow of reds, purples, blues and greens). We woke late, a problem of the time change between England and the mainland of Europe. But by ten we were kind of on our way and heading for Villers Bretonneux. This is a small town in north east France, quite close to the Somme, where Australian soldiers, in April 1918, fought the Germans out of the town and then held the line. It was a kind of important moment in the war, and the Germans failed to make any more gains from this point onwards. The people of Villers Bretonneux were so grateful to the Australians who fought for their town that they have maintained a relationship with Australia ever since. Driving into the town was a little odd. I had read about this town for years, and have written about it in fictional terms, but it is really bizarre driving into a town that is in a completely foreign landscape but that celebrates images and symbols that are utter familar. The town flies two flags, the French and the Australian. The main street is called Rue de Melbourne, and there is another street that runs off this called Rue de Victoria. There is a museum which has a motto on the side 'Never Forget the Australians' (this was closed for renovations when we were there). Next door to the museum is a school called the Victoria School which was built from funds raised by Victorian school children after the war. There are Australian flags all over the walls and the ceilings, drawings of kangaroos and wattle. I understand, though we didn't see or hear it because it was a Sunday when we visited, that the children sing Waltzing Matilda every morning. There is an ANZAC cafe, a Victoria cafe, a Koala Club and a childcare centre called 'Les Masupials'. These people remain the custodians of a story and a history that we have either semi abandoned, or don't care about. The plague that tells the story of the Australians and Villers Bretonneux says that this is one of the most important moments in Australian history but you would never know that in Australia. Outside the town is a huge memorial to the Australians who fell here, beautifully built and maintained. Flowers on some of the graves. Dignified and sombre. When it was opened and dedicated as a site, the entire French cabinet came, as did the President of France and King George. We sent the deputy Prime Minister.

It is a strange thing. We celebrate Gallipoli (probably rightly) in deep and important ways. Every Australian school child knows about Gallipoli. But we don't know about Australians on the Western Front and their successes. We are woefully ignorant of not only the sacrifices but also the amazing bravery and the reputation Australian soldiers have in this part of the world. And it is not only in Villers Bretonneux. We drove down the road to Pozieres and here again, a great memorial to the bravery and fighting of the Australian soldiers. And in the main street, a cafe called Le Tommy which is a private museum to the Australians here. The manager and owner collects and displays all kinds of information and artifacts from World War I, and the Australian experience in particular. He sells book marks with information about Monash, and photocopied sheets about Australian individuals who fought. He also accepts Australian dollars for the food he sells. But why him? Why not us in Australia? Why aren't we fascinated and - dare I say it - proud of these efforts.

The Canadians are. Just to show some kind of contrast. The Canadian government bought a section of the Somme battlefield in 1919, the sector where Canadian soldiers fell most thickly. This section has been kept as is for over ninety years. They have preserved the trenches as they were so you can walk around and see the Allied trenches and their relationship to the German trenches; what each side could see of the other. What it might have looked like for the Germans when all those men poured out of their trenches on July 1 1916. And visa versa. The Canadians have a little museum and information booth. It is staffed by young Canadians who apparently apply for the roles and know everything about the action and can walk you around the site.

It rained when we were there. It was fitting. It was a moving experience, seeing the depth and width of the trenches, seeing the proximity of the trenches, knowing that the site is filled with bodies from all nationalties.

The Somme area doesn't look like a rich region. The towns are a little down at heel and, partly because it was a Sunday, quiet. But I wonder if this is not about money or resources but about the great weight of a huge grief that these people choose to hold. They maintain the graves, and they sing the songs, and they tell the stories. It must be emotionally exhausting.

Having said that, I still can't work out why we don't tell these stories ourselves. It seems very wrong.

Paris became increasingly irritated that he hadn't learned the stories at school, that he didn't know that the Australians had been successful heroes on the Western Front. Zelda and Niccolo followed us around faithfully but were not entralled. Those Niccolo did do most of the footage. He decided, as he was filming us walking around the Villers Bretonneux memorial, that he wanted to be a film maker. 'What are your impressions?' he kept asking as we walked around. I wanted to be quiet. But there was not choice.

It was an amazing day. I went to sleep in the car on the way back to San Quentin. Could barely make it out to have some dinner and walk back to the hotel.

If you are ever near the north east of France, I recommend seeing some of this, particularly the Canadian memorial at Beaumont Hamel (which is the preserved trenches describe above).

This is our last moment with the Western Front. We are now, as Myles said, moving off to World War II. A cook's tour then.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

France day one

And so to France. We woke at the Woolpack Inn and were immediately excited about the crossing the Channel. However, there was some stress because we were struggling to get accommodation in Northern France. In the end, we decided to wing it and see what presented. We drove to Dover (possibly the ugliest English town we saw) and fought trucks and all kinds of traffic on the main drag. We returned our car and walked to the ferry terminal. And then, of course, the ho ha of tickets and customs and security. And then we were onboard. (In the meantime, I had found a hotel in Saint Quentin for us, so that was one piece of the puzzle solved.)

The ferry was huge - like the Love Boat - and we had to walk up ramp after ramp just to get to the passenger level. With our luggage. Fun. On board, the passengers immediately lined up (like sheep really) for the buffet. It was - in terms of a buffet - very like IKEA according to Paris. You have to wonder ...

We went to the front of the boat to watch the water. I also was feeling a little queasy and I thought seeing the sea might help me.

I thought about ancient water and wondered if it was possible. So many crossings; was the water the same, could it be the same. Or is water always refreshing and returning and changing into its various forms? Ancient channel anyway, where William came through, and Henry sent troop across, and the soldiers in World War I crossed. Grey waves - some quite big - and France a ghost on the horizon. And then suddenly, not a ghost, but land and bones and hills. One and a half hours was enough to be inside the boat with no fresh air. Paris was beginning panic mode, when the doors finally opened.

And then we walked. We failed to have euros on us and couldn't find anyone in the terminal to change money and no banks. But we figured that we couldn't be too far from Calais. Really? We were wrong. We walked for about an hour, and then finally came to the outskirts of the town. We milled for a bit and a young man from a bar came out to help us. When we somehow communicated to him from where we had walked, he made all kinds of horrified noises and sent us to a bank and to the station. From there, we had adventures finding a taxi (and the seconds were ticking away for us to pick up our car ...). At last, a taxi driver turned up, jammed the five of us and our crazy luggage into his car and drove us licketty split to the rent a car place. With not a minute to spare.

Myles drove to Saint Quentin. God love the Samantha the GPS. She guided us into the town and to our hotel. We walked around for a bit, had some dinner, danced to the church bells (they play a tune unlike the rather dour donging of the English church bells) and made it back.

Tomorrow; the Western Front.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Cambridge, day two

Woke up in Cambridge to a spectacularly beautiful day, all blue sky and sunshine. I was so beguilded by it, I went out to the town without the puffy jacket. I would have occasion to regret that optomistic decision.
We walked from the lovely B and B (and a huge breakfast where Niccolo outdid himself on the eating) and into the town. Too quaint and picture perfect for words. Lots of young men in colour coded scarfs rushed to classes, with floppy fringes and serious looks. Lots of bikes with large wicker baskets attached. And us, the tourist brigade. We were at a bit of a loss early on - the colleges appeared to be closed and Niccolo and I were suffering from the cold (he also eshewed his jacket for the sunshine). And then we were approached by some young men who offered us a turn in a punt and a tour of the back of the colleges on the River Cam. They also promised us rugs. I couldn't pay fast enough.
Into the punt we went and Niccolo and I went under rugs quick smart. We had a young man punt us about and tell us about the college and the snotty rivalry and much besides. The best story involved Prince Charles who went to Trinity Collge and was assigned a body guard. As the guard was with PC for the whole degree, he learnt a bit and asked, at the end of the whole thing, if he too could take the exams. It was agreed he could and, while Charles received a 2.2, the body guard got a 2.1. The palace was annoyed; the body guard was sacked. Charles was sent to sit the exams again to raise his marks. History did not report on whether he was successful. Even Niccolo laughed at that.
It's good to see that England can mess up her history with the best of them. Against all these gorgeous colleges from centuries past, were two modern colleges from the 60s which were so ugly that it was hard to explain how a permit was ever granted. Not quite brutalism, but pretty damn close. I think they might have now been classifed (why?) so there is no removing them. Perhaps some ivy might do the trick.
I can see the appeal of a university town. It is a whole space dedicated to learning; the cafes were filled with nerds working on computers and writing down secret formulas on the back of napkins. Earnest - that is what they all were. Literally patched elbows. And not much of a hint of irony.
We left Cambridge for Canterbury and our last stop in England before making our way to France. We arrived late and grumpy. We had booked a place called the Woolpack Inn. We were, frankly, expecting not very much. But it turned out to be a bit of a find. An old pub (circa 1490) with old rooms out the back. We were across the courtyard from the pub in room 15 and it was warm and clean and we seriously considered not leaving. But leave we must, to inflict more churches on the children. This time, however, we were stymied. The cathedral was closed due to graduations (yes, I know, it didn't make much sense to me either). But the church forecourt and all around was fat with graduates and bright faces and photographers trailing like good cheer. We ate japanese (what were we thinking??). It wasn't good. It was called Wagamama and I think it is a franchise. The bowls of ramen were huge, never a good sign in my opinion of good food. In this case, it was completely correct.
Paris had to get back to the hotel. He was so tired he was having trouble actually finishing his food. I was quite worried.
We put the kids into bed (well, into the bed in front of the TV) and Myles and I went back to the pub to have one last experience of the English pub experience. Open fire, beer in pints and terrible music on the sound system are the hall marks of the English pub and this one did not disappoint. We found two comfy chairs beside the fire and we settled in with our beer and a long chat. Two hours of a long chat. The joy of this holiday is often about the time we have to talk and laugh. So wonderful.
Back to our rooms and a long sleep before the trek to France.
Farewell England. We loved you very much.

Cherry Tree Cottage, day five; Cambridge

Our last day at Cherry Tree Cottage. While we were happy here, it wasn't the pain we felt leaving Sydling St Nicholas. We were ready to go. But before we drove away from Yorkshire, it was one more sip and sup in York; a town we have loved. The Saint Nicholas Fayre had begun - lots of stalls with the stall holders dressed up in Victorian costumes. It was busy and I lost Niccolo on more than one occasion. What we did get together on was a crazy beautiful cupcake stall where we bought enormous and gorgeous cupcakes. Then around the town again, through the Shambles and out to our car.
Off we went to Cambridge. It was a long drive, only broken really by the discovery of BBC 4 and radio theatre. We listened to The King of Sootland, and even the kids were into it.

Arrived at our B and B (Worth House, fabulous), and ate and went to sleep. Long drives can do that to you.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Cherry Tree Cottage, day four

We were off to Whitby. This is east of us, on the coast. Whitby is a kind of double edged town; half boys' own adventure through Captain James Cook, and half dark crazy through Bram Stoker and Dracula. Whitby seems to have not anxiety about Cook, he has a large statue looking out to sea, and there is a museum; the harbour is called Endeavour. I think Australians are more leary about Cook and what he represents. Whitby feels nothing. They sent him away as a favourite son and he did not disappoint. He brought them home a new nation. And a dumping ground. Bram Stoker doesn't have a statue. He lurks, instead, in the Royal Hotel, a small brass plaque that tells us it was here that he wrote Dracula. He did this while staying in the hotel, looking out at both the wide sea that launched Cook, and the dark cliff top with St Mary's , the ruin of the Abbey and an extensive graveyard.
Stoker is preoccupied with the darkness arriving. Dracula comes into England via Whitby on the ship Demeter. He was in disguise. No one knew until his ugliness was released into the community. Look out! Things are lurking. Cook went out on the Endeavour to sow the good seeds of European (or indeed British) civilisation, christainity and enterprise. It was all white sails of enlightenment. But we know that Cook was at least equally as dark as Dracula. What he bought was more than one version of evil too. And Dracula was knowing in his evil. Cook was ignorant. I wonder if it ever occured to him. Even as the spear pierced him in Hawaii at the end of his life.
Enough of that.
Whitby, to the puffy jacket family of 2011, is a cold, cold place. Thank god for puffy jackets, the wind does not penetrate even a little. Paris was not of the puffy jacket on this day. He was not cold - so he said. The wind off the water said something else to me.
We parked and wandered off to the old town and the 199 steps of St Marys and the Abbey. The old town is all cobbled streets and crooked buildings and tea rooms and so on. There were lots of dogs and pigeons and cats. The cats watched the pigeons. The dogs watched the cats. The kids watched the dogs. This is what we call a ecosystem.
Up the 199 steps to the churches. Both were closed (only weekends in winter my friends) but we could walk around them. The graveyard was creepily anonymous. All the stones had somehow had their names sheared off by the salty wind and were left stippled and blank. Only some clues remained - here a 'Mary Swales' and there a 'Also three children who died in infancy'. And all the way around, the wind howled and hit out and we shrank inside our coats.
There is a third entity that haunts Whitby. This is Cholmley - an architect that build most of the most landmarky buildings - the light house on the pier and the mansion that sits beside the ruin of the Abbey. We couldn't get in there either. Some people on horses rode around us (actually, one was on a horse and the other was in a pony trap). It was too cold. We returned to the old town and the protection of the tiny streets.
Zelda found her perfect shop; a kind of gothic temple to clothing and accessories. We all wandered the shop for some time - and everyone found something to admire. Zelda even found a dress that she might have been prepared to wear. It was all very exciting. The name of the shop was Venus Trading if anyone is interested ...
We ate at the Whitby Tea Rooms. Very geentel. But not very warm. The fabled warmth of English and European houses does not extend to the stern and grim north of England. They are of sterner stuff than we.
This is also the home of fudge and 'rock' - a kind of lollipop substance. We fudged it up at Justins - all kinds of flavours. We liked Dracula's Dream which was chcoolate with a raspberry middle.
A walk to the harbour. Up to the Royal Hotel. Passed a seagull that was flamigo dancing (really ... stomping around on one spot. We watched for some time. Either flamigo dancing or had just buried some treasure and was stamping the burial site).
After the concerns we experienced in Haworth with clamping tires and whatnot, we were quick to return to the car. I wanted to head off to Scarborough. So we did. I thought we would visit Anne Bronte.
Scarborough, when we arrived, was in the last moments of daylight. It is an old fashioned bathing town, with lots of rides and slot machines and gambling. It also has the most incredible hotels on the foreshore (which we didn't quite see in detail) and gardens that range up the side of the hill. It was 'bracing' and I can see why there was a tradition of taking the air here. There was lots of air to take. I took a lot.
We didn't see Anne. Don't know where she is. I'm sad about that.
And then back to Cherry Tree for our final night. We were all pretty shagged. I'm reading my eyes out on Bronte back list. Paris has begun Jane Eyre. He is doing it for school, but got quite engaged with the story at Haworth.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Cherry Tree Cottage, day three

Deep fog wasn’t going to put us off (although it does make you think twice) to going to Haworth and seeing the Brontes. It was a decent drive – south from here and through a national park and lots of farm land. Narrow roads which are alright to drive during daylight but are a challenge at dark. But as the daylight is limited here, Myles grits his teeth and places his feet gingerly on the pedals, and away we go.
We are not, by the way, in the moors proper. They are further north. The Brontes (and us) are in the dales which are not the wild, wild moors but wild smaller versions. Still, large for us. Farmland stretches all the way from Leyburn to Haworth (sheep land by the looks of things), but only to the certain height. The paddocks are walled rather than fenced; walled by stone walls that have been painstakingly put together from stone in the field and look cold and very forbidding. The sheep don’t go near them. Then, at some apparently agreed to height, the sheep fields stop, and the wild (is) moors begin. Amazing colours (Zelda couldn’t decide if they were red or green and I could see what she meant), lots of great rocks that loom out of the landscape. And all the while, we are going at breakneck speed around all these tiny corners on our way to the Brontes.
I had no anxiety about what to wear to visit them. I did about Austen, but she is more a polite acquaintance. Someone I don’t know so well, and need to think about the impression I might make. The Brontes are a different matter. They are much more like family for me. I imagined, for many years, as being them (I was Anne being the youngest and the name most like mine, while I imagined my siblings in the creative space of the others). I thought about roaming large spaces as they did, and working away on a manuscript in hot, close rooms as they did. I was part of the unbound romance of writing before everything. They weren’t going to care what I wore to see them. We were cousins already and grubby or informal clothes were not going to change that.
It did make me think about creativity though, and even more so when we got to the parsonage. These women were dedicated to a life that was all about managing a small house, looking after one another, with some journeys into being governesses and teachers. But always returning to Haworth and the parsonage, and themselves. There is something about a life that is static (or static for the most part), where the tasks beyond writing are known and possibly meditative, and the company is practically yourself. Where there is a routine that is fixed and known to all members of the household, where the expectations are that the routine is obeyed, and part of that routine is time for creativity. I would imagine that this would either provide the perfect (or close to perfect) space to create, to allow the imagination to fly, or it would be too small, not enough experience: ‘what would I write about because what do I know?’ Clearly, this second option didn’t occur to the Brontes. They were peeling potatoes and cleaning in the morning, and writing up a storm in the afternoon. But together. According to the museum, the front room was where they all worked. There is a little table there with four chairs. They would sit – that is Emily, Charlotte and Anne – and work on their novels. And then they would take a turn around the room, talking about their work and getting the opinions of one another. I can see it. Writing quietly, possibly not even particularly passionately. The scratching of pens on paper, some pauses while searching for a word. Perhaps not Emily here. I was reading Wuthering Heights again after we visited and it flows with such rhythm that I can’t imagine that her pen ever actually left the paper for a minute. Then, after a couple of hours perhaps, they would rise and stretch and begin to walk around the table; a kind of tiny whirlpool and talk about what they have done and what they will do next.
It seems to me that knowing what each day will look like would make the creative experience easier. You are not rushing to catch up, or to learn something new, or being ambushed by stuff you didn’t expect. They were not ‘busy’ in the ways that we are (or like to think we are). And limited expectations. Could I live like this? Who knows? It’s probably not practicable anyway … anymore. But would it offer space in which to write in a sustained manner. Probably.
The Brontes were very little people. About Zelda’s height according to the clothes that are on display in the museum. The parsonage is very little too, but clearly was the right height for them. Their clothes looked like they were not warm enough for the climate. And, shocking for me, the shoes were terrifying. There were indoor shoes, like dainty cloth socks with leather inserts, and then there were outdoors shoes that were wood clogs. These wooden shoes must have been terrible to wear, clunky and probably slippery. How on earth did they walk for hours every day in these shoes? Were their other boots that they could wear?
The place made me sad (most of these museums make me sad). It was sort of right up in your face a bit. In the front room, where the women worked, there was a couch on which Emily died. Really. And then upstairs, there was the room in which Charlotte died. Right here. Practically with a white outline of a body (not really, but it was sort of like that). Anne died in Scarborough. She left the house to try to get well. She lasted four days. She is buried there. She is the only Bronte not under the floor of the church that fronts the parsonage. She must be lonely. I wonder if there has ever been a move to get her back. Apparently, she was buried there because Charlotte wanted to spare her father another dead child.
We left the parsonage to eat at the local pub (the Kings Arms; we didn’t eat in the pub where Patrick Bronte drank – the Black Bull – not sure why). The Kings Arms hosts ‘Haworth’s got talent!’. Hmmm. There were a few locals in the pub, one with a couple of dogs. He was feeding his dogs chips. They were loving them. We had the usual – burgers and so on.
Then Myles went to feed the meter. We waited for him in the main street, stamping our feet with the cold and excited about walking off into the moors to follow in the footsteps in the Brontes.
The car had been clamped. Myles lost his mind. We wasted an hour or so paying the bloke 90 pounds and going to the police station to ascertain if the whole thing was legal and so on. I thought for a moment that we wouldn’t make it into the moor, but I figured: here we are. Let’s do it. So we moved the car to another car park and off we went.
We walked about 5 miles all up. The kids loved it (they were spoiling my mood a little with Paris doing his usual snare drum work, and Zelda recounting TV shows with him and laughing). But the place was working its magic. When we got to the waterfall, where the Brontes apparently stopped on their daily walk to rest and find inspiration, we were all a little awed. Not sure why. We found the stone chair where apparently Emily would sit. We walked a little way up to Top Withens, where Emily found inspiration for Wuthering Heights. But the sun was beginning to set. And I didn’t want to get caught in the dark in the moors. This despite knowing that Cathy and Heathcliff had no probably running over the moors in barefeet to look at the lights at Thrushcross Grange. I read that again when we got home and discovered that they ran across the moor that night five weeks out from Christmas (so about the time we are visiting). Don’t know how on earth they could have run about in the dark on the moor without shoes. Dark and cold. Cold and dark.
On the tiny journey up to Top Withens, Niccolo was trudging behind us. We arrived at a stone wall and stopped to look back, to ascertain the light and to watch Niccolo join us. As he wandered towards us, a sheep (with some dangerous looking horns) made a solemn but apparently determined beeline for Niccolo. Myles and Paris saw the same thing – sheep kills small child. They both tumbled down the hill to save the small child. The sheep changed its mind and trotted off up the hill. It was a close thing.
When we got back to the car, Niccolo was as wet as could be. We had to strip him and wrap him up in a shawl to get him warm. Then the long drive back to Cherry Tree Cottage. We all fell asleep early. Like the dead.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Cherry Tree Cottage; day two

Cherry Tree Cottage, while sounding like an Enid Blyton novel (The Children of Cherry Tree Farm, The Farm at Willow Bend … that kind of thing) is in Yorkshire, in the brutal and unforgiving north. Well, we are just outside Yorkshire – in another shire, not sure which one – in a village just outside Leyburn. These tiny villages are humming, people really live in the countryside in England, in ways that I don’t think we do in Australia. Thriving local businesses, bakers and fruit sellers and gift shops and cafes and hardware shops and so on. All with Christmas lights that cheer you through at the dark hour of 4.30pm when you are returning from some kind of adventure.
The north is much more stern than the south. No more amusing and plump thatched roofed cottages all clumped together merrily. These are straight stone houses with slate roofs that frown over the mist. You can see why Austen could write amusing little stories of marriage and mischance, with jokes aplenty in the south, while the Brontes wrote gothic love stories with pain and death and destruction at the core in the north. But how to explain the didactic Hardy with his lessons to be learned in the south. I guess he just didn’t have much of a sense of humour. He is certainly not gothic in the sense that the Brontes are. And Whitby, not far from here, is the inspiration for Dracula so gothic is certainly in the air. As Edinburgh was the model for Stevenson for Jekyll and Hyde (do I remember that correctly?). The north is certainly a place where the imaginings for the dark side of the human experience can fly. The fog and mist that all by reflect light, the cold, the stone houses. Murderous thoughts everywhere. We are all a bit spooked.
We woke late on this day and all stayed in bed (the cold was the inspiration here). I read for ages, and others did too. We didn’t get out of the house until 10am. The house itself (the rather misnamed Cherry Tree Cottage) is quite big. Window seats in the front room to gaze at the gloom, three big bedrooms upstairs. There was some discussion about who was to sleep where. No one was keen to sleep alone. It is that kind of place. We went into York for another look. There was bad blood between Myles and me over a car park. Strange perhaps, but true. It’s the little things. We initially wandered about getting our bearings, and then managed to stumble upon the information hut. From there, we went over to the walls that surround York and walked along them. Some of them are 2000 years old. Those Scots must have been formidable for there to be walls for so many years. At one point in the walls, there is a gate with a door. Apparently, in centuries past, the Scots had to use a large knocker to knock on the gate and ask permission to enter. (‘No, I don’t think so …’) In one of the towers there is a little museum to Richard III. A strange man is single handedly trying to resurrect his reputation. There was a whiteboard at the door with a poll on who killed the Princes in the Tower. Many think it was Richard, but equally many considered George W Bush and Simon Cowell. We walked around a bought playing cards with the kings and queens of England on them. Plus some other stuff. Then we got lost. Not in the museum, but in York. Not that it is particularly big, but we were not paying attention. When we found our way back into town, we were hungry. (Not that old chestnut …) So we made our way to a pub called the Red Lion. It was hard to find the door. Inside it was warm with an open fire and dark with low ceilings and thick wood beams. We ate some of the best food we have yet had and played 500 with the kings and queens of England. Charles II is the 7 of spades which I thought was a little disrespectful, but anyway …
After our repast (yes, very Tudor England), we went to the York Castle Museum (the ‘best day out in York’). It was a kind of musty, experiential museum which we really liked. Old exhibits of ‘a Victorian parlour’ and so on. How people washed in Victorian England (not very well). Kitchens through the ages. A typical Victorian street. Wedding dresses through the ages. And then a whole section on the English Civil War (we lost Paris at the point. He spent ages in the Civil War bit). Through to the fashions area (swimsuits through the ages, some were great). And then the prison and the dungeons. Niccolo opened an alarmed door and was spooked for the rest of the trip. Zelda thought the fashions in the sixties were idiotic (yes, there was, perhaps oddly, a sixties part of this museum). The dungeons were peopled by virtual prisoners who told you their sad stories. Some yelled at you (Niccolo was getting more spooked by the minute) and others just were there to chat. By the time we left, we were quite museumed out.
We then walked up to the castle. It was getting dark by this stage (about 4pm). It was locked, so we couldn’t get in to walk around and see what was inside (it was pretty small too, so perhaps not so much to see). But there was some madman who was running up the castle steps repeatedly (no mean feat, the whole thing was tall and very steep). He annoyed me when he began to run the steps holding his bicycle on his shoulder. Unnecessarily show off.
Another wander about the town. It is beguiling as a place. There was a busker who was signing very Bing Crosby versions of Christmas carols. It was weird. And then back to our palace of cherry trees in the middle of nowhere. Still quite spooked by the place. Not quite as foggy this night, not quite so dark side of the moon.
We watched local TV. There is a great game show, the name of which none of us caught. It pits university nerds against one another and asks questions that are not only obscure but mad. For example, there was a question in which a word was given. The order of the vowels in this word had to be remembered and then you were given definitions of other words and you had to find a word in which the vowel order was the same as the original word. (No kidding). Or there were pictures of graves and you had to give the name of the person buried and the city in which they were buried. Or there were complicated mathematical equations that you had to work out in your head. And the bloke who was the quizmaster kept saying helpful things like ‘Come on, hurry up,’ with ‘you dolt’ as the subtext. Zelda’s favourite question was something like ‘What European country shares its name with a large, yellow turnip?’ The answer was Sweden. Happy days. Manchester University beat Oxford – Christ Church. I think those Oxford scholars might now have lost their places under the arches.
Off to bed at eight. Seriously, the darkness confuses me here.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sydling St Nicholas, day six, Cherry Tree Cottage, day one

This was a huge day of driving, from south to north. And not much fun.
We were sad to say goodbye to Sydling St Nicholas - we missed it as soon as we left.
And then it was long, long hours in the car as we drove and drove and drove up motorway after motorway to find our way into the stern and tough north.
It was foggy like underwater; could hardly see beyond the immediate range of the car, so I can't tell you much about what the landscape was like. We listened to very bad radio (Paris had an i-pod and headphones so he was spared somewhat). But we set our sites on Nottingham for lunch and were excited about it. But it was not quite like that. Nottingham is the most depressed city I have ever seen. Every street was thick with 'To Let' signs and the streets were filthy and there was nothing open. Where the hell is Robin Hood? They need him back desperately. We did drive past Nottingham Castle but didn't stop. Cold and horrid. Can't think of anything worse.
So off to York. We loved York. It was cold (though we have been told since that this was the mildest autumn/winter they have ever had). We puffy jacketed our way around the town and found our way into the Three Tons to eat. Great sausages and mash. And warm all round. Then another turn around the town with these tiny laneways unchanged from 1400, and markets and lots of Christmas lights and frosty air. And, inexplicably, a foot spa place called 'Appy Feet' that was hosting a children's party (lots of kids with their hooves in water. Weird). Then, through the dark and misty landscape to our place that is in Leyburn (someway outside of York). It was creepy and a little frightening driving to our place. But Cherry Tree Cottage is delightful. All warm (I love the way the English heat their houses) and quite big with huge beds and lovely all over. Off to do some northernish things tomorrow.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Sydling St Nicholas, day five

It was time to abandon monument and speak to the English countryside. But the timing wasn't great because we all felt inexplicably exhausted (lead in the legs so to speak). But we are nothing if not dogged. In addition, we had lost the map that the nice lady from Axminster had given us. We drove back to Axminster to find that the information booth was closed. Myles decided that he could remember both what the nice lady said, and what the map promised. And this meant Seaton.
Seaton, to my inexpert eye, is the retirement capital of the South West of England. The South West is aged generally, but this went beyond all imaginings. And there were retirement villages all over the shop. (As well as a house owned by Lady Ashbury - I think - on the cliff top. It was pink and she was some kind of arts patron. Robert Browning and the pre-Raphaelists all stayed there. So Seaton was once a hub ...)
You walk from Seaton to Beer. Beer here is a seaside village rather than a drink. Though I would have been grateful for the drink. The weather was icy and the hills steep. We were passed on more than one occasion by elderly types with ski poles who were making good time over the cliffs. Clearly you go to Seaton to live forever. I was wearing new boots (what was I thinking?) It wasn't pretty.
After a two mile slog, and curing the English countryside a blue streak, we arrived in Beer. Beer is quite charming, as everything here is. It is a little fishing village with lots of boats drawn up on the beach, and seagulls circling eagerly, and signs like 'Mackerel fishing; one hour' and 'Charlie's Park - for all the fishermen who have fished here' (this is where we ate our lunch. We felt at one with the fishermen ...).
The English are strict with their times and no lunch is served anywhere in the place until the clock strikes twelve. But we were hungry Australians who had just climbed clifftops and were not in the mood to wait. Happily, there was a bakery. I ate a flapjack. I'm still not sure exactly what it was.
Then the fish and chip shop opened and in we went. We could have ordered deep fried black pudding, or mushy peas, but we went with what we knew. Cod and chips.
I was all for catching the local bus back to Seaton. The tiniest bus with a chipper driver and lots of barking mad locals having animated conversations about who can say. But no. We must climb the mountain once more. And so we did. Though this time, we we reach the Seaton side, we decided to walk along the beach. Hmmm. Can you feel this going wrong?
The beach is (perhaps ... of course?) pebbles. And masses of stinking seaweed. And angry grey waves and not too much margin for error. I waited for the waves to receed and then a took a run to the next rock. With the sinister chat of a thousand pebbles rolling back into the sea, and the kids cheering me on, I ran awkwardly in my clown boots along the shifting stones only to be beaten by a large wave. Everyone else had made it safely onto the rocks. And to give them credit; they didn't laugh at me. Well, not out loud anyway.
We continued to stagger along the shore until we came to the boardwalk. But this time, my pants were freezing against my legs and I couldn't get to the car quick enough. But there was a toilet break of course and a few other things that needed to be done first.
The English countryside (by the sea); we salute you.
We returned to our lovely village. I took photos in the late sunshine (the boys were sword fighting in the back yard in tee shirts. Seriously). And then, a final florish. We went to our local pub (it feels like ours now. Is that wrong?) and had a final few pints and chatted to the publican. The pub was booked out for dinner so we sat at the bar. (I love that this out, out, out of the way village and pub is as popular as anything. Apparently, it is the best pub in South West England. And we can walk to it. Smug.) Sadly, there were no dogs this time. I drank a pint of stout and then one of local beer. It made me merry. We said goodbye with some regret to the publican who has been a chum. He enquired about our jet lag and the kids. He told us to come back soon. We agreed.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Sydling St Nicholas, day four

What do you wear to visit Miss Austen? This question weighed a little heavy on me today as we prepared to journey to Bath. I have limited access to Regency garb, but I did manage to wear hose (I think she would have approved, but perhaps would not have wanted to speak of it), boots, a long black skirt, an empire line wrap dress and (sadly today) the puffy jacket. She wouldn't have liked that I suspect. I did want to wear a hat, but nothing looked right. Surprisingly mild today, although overcast.
No one else was bothered by what to wear. Myles has a bad cold.
Samantha took us into to Bath by her usual winding and back laned route. We, the passengers, like this. Myles, the driver, not so much. Lots of little villages once more, lots of cows munching at the greenest of grass, sheep. Lovely laneways that are arched with trees - this is more dramatic at light when we drive through these circles of foliage with only the gloomy light of the car to guide us. We also discovered, on our way out of Sydling St Nicholas, that there is a large man cut into the side of a hill quite near us - etched with white (tiles?). Paris though he was wearing a cowboy hat. We will investiage further tomorrow.
Bath is utterly wonderful - this is where I want to live (how many times will I say this on this trip?). We were here about 12 years ago, but somehow I have no real memory of how amazing it is. We wandered the streets in the city in a kind of daze, all drawn to the yellow stone of the buildings and the repeated patterns and the uniformity. Which, though overwhelming, somehow does not annoy.
I marched the family off to the Jane Austen Centre. This was gold.
We were first greeted by a young woman all dressed Regency like. She sold us tickets and told us to go upstairs because we would be met by a guide who would take us around and tell us stories. We did as we were told. The same young woman then greeted us as our guide (as if she had never seen us before). She then told us about Jane Austen. Quite interesting about the family and how many brothers she had (never knew that, only knew about the sister). Where they lived, what they did and so on. Apparently, 'Bath's most famous resident' hated Bath. She wanted to live in the countryside. She didn't like shopping at the local market. She thought that residents of Bath were superfical. And she never lived in the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street (where we were currently transfixed), but she did live, once, for six months, up the road in number 25. We were shown an example of her manuscript (tiny pages, it's a wonder that they were ever kept in order). Then, off to the museum itself. Tiny, like everything else. There was a portrait that was labelled 'Probably Jane Austen'. You'd hope.
Paris got involved in working out how to use your fan to communicate wordlessly with others. Zelda stood appalled in front of the outfits she would have been made to wear had she been born in 1775. (And she, standing horrified in her black jeans and black boots and black jacket ...). We looked at tea cups and packets of cards, and dresses and measured ourselves against these tiny people (have I mentioned how small everything is, and how gigantic we are?). We were given Bath Biscuits for our health (by the same young woman who sold tickets and was our guide. This time she did recognise us). We watched little vignettes on a video loop (Niccolo became excited later when he recognised some of the places from the video that we were walking through). Then out into the gift shop. Who was there to take our purchases? Yes, same Regency lass. We didn't make it to the tea rooms, but I'm sure she was there too. Paris bought some things for keepsakes (I'm not making this up). Niccolo bought a quill and ink set. He is all ready to write some letters. Zelda bought nothing - she was after a black parasol. There was no trade in such an object. I bought a book. No surprises there.
We were then free to make our way around Bath. We walked to the Circus and then to Royal Crescent. Again, amazed by the place. Myles talked a doorman into letting us wander around the hotel that is in Royal Crescent. There was a private garden at the back (with a little cafe). We thought about what it might take for us to live there. Myles asked how much per night. The doorman gave him a look - if you have to ask ...
We frolicked on the green expanse in front of the houses. I had a race with Paris. I lost.
The children were now getting hungry. So we walked further, and were utterly charmed by everything. But we couldn't agree on what to eat. Or rather where. But we did end up in a lively pub - the Lamb and Lion. There served very English food by a barman with a very black eye. It must get interesting at the Lamb and Lion late at night. There was a dart competition on the TV. I can't tell you how mesmerising a dart competition is. We were literally cheering the darters (?) on. There was a dizzy group of women with very done hair beside us giving some cheap champagne a belting. Some barely vertical elderly folk on the other side with pints of beer they could only just lift. I was thinking of settling in for the afternoon. But we had only one day in Bath and we needed to be out in it.
We had, earlier, passed a fancy cake shop and as it was Treat Friday, we returned for dessert. I didn't partake. I felt giddy just being inside the shop. But the children - what can I say?
We then spent quite a long time in the Abbey ('What is it about abbeys?' asked Paris.) Zelda became decidedly bolshie about doing the kid's quiz. Niccolo wigged out about the quiz early on. I had to read every last dedication on the walls; surprising number of people lived or were born in Jamaica. Tragic families with many children who didn't make it out of childhood. And equal or more number who made it into ripe and old age. Spectacular ceilings and windows.
We finished in Bath with fat pigeons (not to eat, but to laugh at), the Christmas lights, a whip around Marks and Spencers in search of a hair brush for Paris (again, no word of a lie) and more wandering on dark streets.
This is my town, I feel it in my bones.
We did not make it to the baths - Roman or othewise. The otherwise baths did not admit anyone under the age of 12. The Roman baths had very good public toilets but we did not venture further. It eludes me now why. Perhaps next time. When we come in September for the Jane Austen festival (in the town she hated. I love that).

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Sydling St Nicholas, day three

We started late today (hooray!!) under blue skies. The blue here is really blue, and the sun burns. Sunglasses are powerless. It's funny because in those English novels I go on about, they speak about the continent being very light. 'Very light, isn't it?' says Fanny to Polly in Love in a Cold Climate. But England, when she puts on her dress, is the lightest I've ever seen. Because the weather was good, we thought we'd do outside stuff, so Stonehenge and Glastonbury. I couldn't find Stonehenge on the map (I did find Woodhenge, who knew?) and it wasn't in our GPS either, so it was off to Google (what did we do before Google?). And then we set off. The GPS took us through the tiniest and most winding villages in the world which was great because if I had been in charge (rather than Samantha, who is our electronic guide) we would have gone freeways and motorways and seen nothing. Lots of narrow streets and tiny houses (with enormous manor houses looming on the hill in the background. No fool the Lord. He was right away from the traffic ...). Myles lost him mind driving. Lorries (I've adopted that term, I like it more than truck) don't stop or slow even in the narrowest of situations. (And why not me behind the wheel I feel you asking? Cost too much for two drivers ...). And then, as we were gliding along a motor way - Samantha finally gave in and put us on a wider road - Stonehenge. Sitting between two busy roads. A little disconcerting, I have to say. My heart sort of dropped. From the hyper-reality of the villages yesterday to the somehow hypo-reality of this. We continued to sail past. We had to go into town for a snack. For those of you not quite familiar with Myles and the children, snacking is something that must be done on the hour. Feeding this family has created a kind of panic in me. I watch Paris in a bakery and I fear for the lives of the people serving on the other side. So into Amesbury (I think, I'm doing this from memory). There was a rather nice bakery. There was not much left when we left. And then back in the car for Stonehenge. I was hoping to get mystic. It kind of worked. A little.
We took the audio tour. Niccolo was so into it he did it twice (and then jogged around Stonehenge for a final florish). It was pretty interesting (but there was a whole lot of 'But what is it for?' at the end of each bit of information). And up close, it did become mystic. You could kind of block out the traffic and engage with the stones. And it is much bigger when you are out of your car and on your feet. In the car, it kind of looked little. There are sheep that guard it. With their smell. We loved the sheep. I took photos of the sheep. Actually, they don't care about Stonehenge. They were much more interesting in solving the mystery of the shed in their paddock. Several of them were head butting it. I think it might have had food. But I don't know. What was it for? There was a Druid (at least I think she was a Druid) wandering about with us with a kooky walking stick and a long cloak. There was also a few vans off in the distance soaking up the atmosphere ('Vanhenge', said Paris. 'What about Sheephenge?' I said. 'Too unstable', he noted with some authority).
I thought about Hardy (of course). I had always wondered about the stones and Tess. And here was something. The stones in Stonehenge are warm. That's why they chose them (quoting the audio tour now). We were there on a sunny but freezing day. And when you touched the stones (there are some to touch outside the barrier - the stunt stones - they were warm, you could cosy up to them.
The gift shop (that Hardy never wrote about) was full of Stonehenge the tea towel, and Stonehenge the chocolate, and Stonehenge the shot glass, and Stonehenge the jumper. Niccolo bought Stonehenge the necklace (and lost it later in the day).
We then ummm and ahhed about what to do next. And decided on Glastonbury. We arrived at about 1pm but it felt like about 4pm. The sun does something weird here and is hurrying to set at around lunchtime. It is very disconcerting. We walked around the Abbey (the kids played tiggy) and looked for badgers and ducks, and stood reverently at the tomb of King Arthur (well, I did. I had a thing for Arthurian tales when younger. I managed to pass on a lot of my reading tastes to Paris and Zelda, but not that one. They had no idea who he was). Niccolo did a brass rubbing of a knight.
Then to the Tor.
The Tor is a rather large and very steep hill with the remains of a church on top and the myth that under the church is the gateway to fairyland. It is also supposed to be the Isle of Avalon, where King Arthur was taken by the Lady of the Lake after he was wounded in his last battle. And up we walked. It was about a mile from the town to the bottom of the Tor (through pretty steep paddocks and old, old orchards). Then up the Tor. It was steep as steep, I did have some concerns that the kids, who were galloping about like puppies (do puppies gallop?) might fall and break their crowns. Niccolo did become a little worried about this himself and had to hold my hand for the last part of the walk. At the top is was windy and cold and amazing. You really felt like you could see the world. Paris and Zelda went and sat at the edge of the Tor and then Paris rolled down the steepest part of the hill. It hurt apparently. On the other hill, someone had mown a heart into the grass. Niccolo was impressed. The sheep (that guard the Tor) didn't want to be patted (but I guess we are their natural pretators). We made it down in one piece. It was getting dark (at about 4pm).
Glastonbury is the kookiest town we have yet seen. Every shop is dedicated to the gentle art of mysticism - alchemy, apothocary, natural healing, tarot readings, thick knit cardigans (yes, a kind of mysticism) and organic food up the wazoo. I loved it, right at home. The kids were hungry and wanted pizza. Not quite the right town for this.
Myles, by this stage, was getting a head cold and was not in the mood to be charmed by olde worlde shoppe and nutty clothing. So we ended up in the very hard headed supermarket and bought supermarkety stuff. And went back to Sydling St Nicholas with the voice of Samantha gently talking us through the pitch blackness.
I'm having trouble loading up photos to this blog. There are none today, but I'll try again later.

Sydling St Nicholas, day two

We woke to an impossibly quaint village with literally a babbling brook and thatched roofs. Men in stout boots walking their hounds. Signs like 'Ducks. Dogs on a lead'. Love it. Though it does seems almost dream like, or not quite real anyway. The problem might just be that as a kid who grew up in Australia reading Enid Blyton, and then the Brontes and Austen and so on, seeing all this is like discovering that Harry Potter isn't fiction. That Austen and Blyton and so on are somehow real. I keep saying this stuff and Myles is accusing me of finding fault with everything. It's not that so much, as being suddenly undone by the reality of my imaginings. I am loving it, though. It is so unbelievably beautiful.
We went for a walk early in the morning - still not quite on UK time. Angry geese in the house opposite ours. Good guard dogs I have to say. We made our way up to the top of the hill; the manor house and the church. Both sit on a hill called Heartbreak Hill. Not sure why. They need a plaque. Zelda thought it might be that people climb the hill to break up. It is as plausible as anything else. The church was completely charming but dark feeling. The surrounding graveyard is full of stones that can't be read because of the moss and lichen. Very Emily Dickinson. Isn't there a poem about the names being erased by the moss? I Died for Beauty?? Anyway, starting to believe that perhaps you need to be in England to understand English literature. The church bells rang while we were wandering around. Even Paris was a bit spooked.
Down the hill and through the village. The best playground ever (according to the kids). Then the babbling brook and the stout shoed men, and cottages called 'Ham Cottage' and 'Ham Farm'. ('Dangerous to be a pig' said Myles.) We are staying in Grace Cottage, so no animals were harmed in its making we suspect.
I can't quite convey the spectacular quaintness of the place. Photos perhaps ...
We left Sydling St Nicholas to look around. We went first to Bridport for the market day. Such a lovely town full to pussy's bow with the elderly and the old at heart buying bargains and chatting about the weather. The local notice board groaned with notes about 'Hounds in Hand' and 'Scone Morning' and requests for musicians to join the local bands. I wanted to buy a tonne of stuff from the vintage market (knives mostly, who knew?). We didn't. There isn't much room in our luggage for anything else. The kids ate everything they could get their hands on. They think the English countryside is bang up for food. We saw the largest dog any of us have ever seen. Zelda ran down the road, scattering the elderly this way and that, to pursue it.
We went then to Axminister. This was really just to eat at the River Cottage Canteen. It was actually pretty good. Great hot chocolate anyway, and warm inside as toast which was a bonus as they outside was getting pretty fresh. Thank god for the puffy jackets.
Niccolo was losing it at this point and only treats was keeping him on his feet. He is getting a bit sick. I found medicine that was a sweet as chocolate so two birds with one stone.
We then went to Lyme Regis. This village is on a steep hill (I wasn't at all expecting that) with the tiniest houses and shops possible. It wouldn't have surprised me had fully clothed woodland animals stepped out from the front doors; that is how small everything is. We feel like giants (perhaps we are). Zelda and I were pretty fixed on finding a fossil on the beach. We failed. But it was a mesmerising pasttime and we all sat for ages on the stones, shifting through them looking in vain for a curled imprint on a stone. We didn't make it out onto the breakwater to see the steps that Louisa fell down. It was pretty cold by then. And then back into our funny little village and the warmest house in the world. The heating comes on automatically (and always) and it is tropical. It is very civilised.
I went to sleep at six. I heard in the morning that the others stayed up and watched american sitcoms, and laughed like drains.Cross cultural fun.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

London, day three: Sydling St Nicholas, day 1

It was the morning to go to the East End of London to visit the Jack the Ripper sites. A bit morbid and grusome for me, but the others were into it, and Paris had done an assignment on it at school so was all for it. Another early beginning; bit sick of kids up at three and watching repeats of Friends, but what are you going to do?
I love the stiff upper lip of the English. At the tube station, there was a beautifully written sign that read: 'Please note the next Chelsea FC game is on November 20. The station will be rather busy between 1400 and 1600 on that day.' NOT 'Beware of scads of thugs charging the stairs and head butting the walls. It won't be pretty at this station on November 20. Particularly if Chelsea FC loses. Cheers.'
Off we went to the East End. I have my bearings a little more now and I figure that we are staying in the equivilent of Camberwell. Terribly genteel and full of spas for toes and fingers and expensive supermarkets. The East End is a bit different. We got lost immediately and walked around a housing estate for a while. This is Dickensian London circa 2011. And all the buildings were optomistically named 'Collingwood House' and so on. It would have been more appropriate for the buildings to have been called 'Nickleby House' or 'Copperfield House' or even 'Bleak House'. Still, better food this end of town, with a street market and great vegetables for sale. People were great - we were idiots of course and had no idea where we were. Paris couldn't find any of the landmarks he needed for the Jack the Ripper thing. Oh well. I was happy not to see it. The tradition of valuing individuals only after their murder (enshrined in shows like CSI where anyone marginalised is ignored until dead and then thousands of dollars are spent on them determining their death. It depresses me hugely) is nothing I want to do.
We went to Paddington to get our car and then off we sailed into the West of England. Not surprisingly, we got lost, but my God, how beautiful is the countryside of England. And how barking are the names? (There is a 'Barking' in London. Sadly, we didn't get there. Next time.) Piddlehinton was my personal favourite but I'm pretty sure that that will be eclipsed. Well, here's hoping anyway.
We made it to Dorchester. Loved it immediately. Local supermarket is peppered with my kind of people - the bloke at the register who SANG to us (not really singing, but he kind of had a sing songy quality to his voice - 'here are your bags' with a kind of melody), the old lady in front of us who bought sponge cake and the biggest bottle of whiskey you could ever hope to see. Booze is cheap here (everything seems cheap, perhaps I'm losing my mind), two bottles of vodka for 5 pounds. I can see a drinking problem coming on.
Then we drove to Sydling St Nicholas. We booked this house on a whim and I was thinking it was just going to be a house next door to a pub and not much else. However, Sydling St Nicholas is a tiny but densely packed town of ancient little houses, the biggest geese you have ever seen, and a pub that was so ace, we thought about moving in. Great beer (somehow everyone whinges about English beer but this was really good), a super menu and a clientele that brought in dogs (completely unremarked upon by all but us - we were beside ourselves. Niccolo went face first into the table before his dinner arrived. The rest of us laughed our arses off and got good tips from the people who worked in the pub (called, by the way, the Greyhouse Inn). We went back to our little cottage with excellent heating and fell into dark, dark sleeps.
This might be my Dibley.
No photos today. We think we need to have the camera fixed. The photos are blurry.

Monday, November 14, 2011

London, day two

It was a false dawn in terms of weather. Today was London in the mist and rain. It was kinda good; it could have been way too Disney had it all been sunny and golden. Monday in London is full of tiny children in very formal looking school uniforms trotting about on their way to school. Somehow we don't see this in Melbourne. I guess everyone drives their kids to school (we do, anyway). But it was rather charming. We have sort of busted through the jet lag (well, some of us. Myles is still struggling). And this meant that unlike on the first day, we left the house at about 9am which was much more civilised. Encountered lots of school children on our way to the tube. Had coffee from a tiny little cafe run by a couple of Brazilian blokes (coffee still terrible ... is that just how it is to be?). And then we were off to the Tower of London.
It was quite right for everything to be grey and dark and foggy at the Tower of London. It does all look very surreal, like it was all built yesterday for the tourists, but as we went through, that feeling waned and what was left was something like awe and sadness. We were taken through by a yeoman warder (beefeaters). Thsi one was a woman. She was pretty great. And we went through all the areas of the Tower and all the death and despair and torture. She did try her best to tell us stories of hope and happiness but she struggled. Kinda of amazed that people still live in the Tower and more amazed to find out that the Tower is still a royal palace (though not a residence for the royal family). You can see why that abandoned it.
What was really great was the place was filled to the gills with school children. We have travelled half way around the world to see this history and these kids have caught the train for a day trip. They wen't bovvered, I have to tell you. It was all boring, and where are the sarnies, and can't we climb on the fence, and where has Rodney gone? Love that. History nerds such as we are, are starved for this kind of stuff. But we are a bit try hard because of it. History just is part of this life.
So we wandered around; saw the crown jewels. Quite like them, I have to say; each of the monarchs seem to get their own personal crowns though they have to wear the coronation crown on the day of the ... well ... coronation. Me, I'd go for a bit of a spiky crown with lots of emeralds. There was a bit too much red velvet for me. But listen to me. Not quite up to scratch ... Niccolo liked the ceremonial sword (bought one in plastic in the gift shop), Zelda quite liked the weapons of intimate destruction - axes and so on. Paris liked the Bloody Tower where the Princes in the Tower were murdered. Myles liked sitting in the Chapel Royal where all those who had been beheaded by the state were buried (most of them have been dug up and moved, but Anne Boylen, Lady Jane Grey and Catherine Howard are still there). History, he said, under your feet. And me, well, everything. I liked that when you walked around the touched the walls, someone else had done so 900 years ago. Did my head in a bit. Oh, and the best bit. The ravens. Apparently, when the ravens leave the Tower of London, terrible misfortune will befall the royal family and England generally. They have cages for them (six must be in the cages at all times), and some flying around. I just love that the power structures are subject to some black birds.
So we left, but only after hours and hours, and the 62 gun salute at the gate for Prince Charles birthday. Can I tell you that 62 cannon rounds kind of liquified the brain. I had to leave after a while. And frankly, Charles wasn't there at all. There was a man in a bowler hat and a trench coat (I was wearing my trench coat so I felt rather at home) who over saw the whole thing. Rather charmingly.
We found a pub. Up to this point, the food in London has been almost edible (something I don't remember from other trips). But the pub food at the Anchor Tap in Southwark returned me to the place I remember in food and England. Lovely over boiled everything. Vegetables that could have been sucked through teeth. Gravy that was liquid, brown salt. Myles was brave enough to order risotto. I don't know what he was thinking. I couldn't have been happier.
Then we walked down to the Globe. By this time it was getting dark (about 3.30pm) and it was all feeling rather creepy. But the Globe was great. At least for me. Not so much for the rest - Niccolo was close to falling over with exhaustion and the other were a bit bored. But it was amazing. And built by an American (of course). Then over the bridge to St Paul's and onto the tube and home. Niccolo was as pale as a ghost by this time and fell asleep on the couch as soon as we got home. The rest of us were not far away.
Are we nanas?

Sunday, November 13, 2011

London, day one

It was, without much blushing, a golden day. Like those amazing days in Melbourne in autumn. A blue sky and a sun that you could feel in your eyes even when your head was turned away.
We woke at 1am and sat around watching TV and eating. Nicci did gymnastics across the tiny lounge room. Zelda and Paris decided to watch a marathon of unsolved mysteries. Myles and I did daze work.
As soon as there was any sign of life in the sky, we left the house and walked down to the local tube station. We are in Fulham (which really still means nothing to me) but it is really nice. Somehow I have always managed to stay somewhere in London that is crowded and busy and annoying, but this is a tiny suburb with shops everywhere and people who leave their houses at 7am in the morning (with us) with their soccer gear on ready for an early morning game.
Fulham Broadway is the local station. Some bloke helped us with tickets ('Don't pay for kids ten and under; the young lady is under ten, isn't she?' and then a wink.). And then we walked along the Chelsea Embankment and into London. I was hoping to see something that might resemble Linda's house in The Pusuit of Love at the great bend in the river, but it was all apartments. The parks were full of leaves and we had leaf fights and ran though them. Nicci collected them.
When we got to the city, we discovered it was rememberance sunday. There were military parades (the soldiers wear boots that look surprising like clown shoes. Clearly no plans for fighting ...). And then to Buckingham Palace. Thousands standing around. And a strange assortment of things going into the palace. First, a posse of horses and riders followed by what looked like the Starship Enterprise on wheels. Then a Rolls Royce ('The Queen!' Myles cried.). Then another Rolls Royce. ('The Queen!' Myles cried. 'What? The other Queen?' I said.). Then another Rolls Royce. ('The Queen?' Myles said. 'Stunt Queen,' said Paris.) Mini vans, police, more mini vans. ('The Queen,' said Nicci. 'In a mini van?' I asked. 'Yes,' he said sternly.) I suggested we leave. 'I saw someone wave,' said Myles a little sulkily.
So we decided to do a monopoly tour of London. I was desperate for Old Kent Road (only my siblings would understand), but we settled for Pall Mall. Off we went for Trafalgar Square; lions and toilets. Nicci conquered the lions. The rest of us; the toilets.
And then to Covent Garden and opera singers, ice cream and the beginnings of very sore feet. Paris was desperate to buy a tee shirt with 'We offer you this fish in exchange for your silence'. Who can blame him?
Here are some happy snaps:

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The journey from Melbourne to London

The longest flight of all: Australia to Europe.

We boarded all a-flutter and excited. But within moments, there was a great crash and burn. Niccolo was horrified to discover that the entertainment system was off-line and he wouldn't have access to television, films or games. I worked out that I was so tired, I could sleep upright with lights on and everyone around me eating forkfuls of gunk from tinfoil trays. Paris claimed to not so much sleep as to become unconscious. Zelda and I had a snuggle for a bit because the woman behind Zelda wouldn't let her recline her seat.

The issue of reclining seats - how much and who - is the scene of much bad blood in the air.

It was interesting to be on a plane where there were no electronic options. The whole plane slept with real determination. On the second leg (Doha to London), the electronic were working, and suddenly we all became slack jawed, TV heads. I watched Midnight in Paris (loved it), Something Borrowed (WTF) and some other crap. But it wasn't nearly as restful as the first flight. It could be my imagination of course. My notion of 'idyllic' behaviour. TV and electonic cheapens silence or mass sleeping for me. Idiotic.

So tired now that I keep typing three lines of 'd' (it must be my heaviest finger that sits on it) before I wake up and erase them. I'll tell more tomorrow.