Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rolling back the years at Ightham Mote

It's distressing that after just two days of work it's already sunk in that this is reality and my trip to England is becoming fuzzy around the edges. I haven't even resorted to my old trick of driving on the left hand side yet and yelling and gesticulating at drivers who are heading straight toward me; you see I would have said towards just a couple of weeks ago.

So it's probably important to write some of this down before it become a dust covered dream.

On my second day in England I headed to Ightham Mote with los parentes. This is a large 14th century National Trust property in Kent set in pleasant grounds as National Trust properties tend to be.

It wasn't far from los parentes' home. My dad has an aversion to driving far these days. When I mentioned a desire to visit Dover, which is about an hour away, he came over all alarmed as if I'd  suggested the third moon of Jupiter - go to the kebab shop and turn left mate by the big orbiting

On the way to Ightham Mote my mother was up to her old tricks of convicing my dad he had gone past the entrance even though it was obvious to me she was referring to someone's driveway and I had spied a brown sign pointing down the main road anyway.

I kept quiet and viewed the psychological battle unfold as her persistence started to sew deep doubts into his mind. Fortunately the real entrance suddenly appeared in the hedgerow before we did an embarrassing u-turn and headed for the driveway of 202 Long Lane.

Ightham Mote is a beautiful property. The only thing that's older around these parts are the volunteer National Trust guides who stare icily at visitors to these places. Inevitably dressed in tweeds they are usually former Army colonels or other well to do types from the shires who view the great unwashed with disdain.

It makes one tempted to American it up. "Gee dude this place is old. Is it more than 100 years?"

But while my friends in England told me I had gained some American inflections (they mistakenly believed I was hamming it up), I still can't do American very convincingly.

The guides and volunteers are usually so old they appear to personally know most of the family members with their stiff powdered wigs in the dark 17th century portraits that adorn the walls.

Ightham Mote boasts an interesting history including a tower bedroom where Henry James stayed.

After one of the guides had fixed his falcon eye on us and berated us for visiting the last room first, all the while tottering on his cane, we headed into the gardens to check out azaleas and the like. I don't really do flowers but they can make for good pictures.

It was enjoyable enough but I can't be bothered to recount all of the details so here's the National Trust blurb and some of the photos I took.

Lose yourself in this romantic moated manor house, described by David Starkey as 'one of the most beautiful and interesting of English country houses'. Built nearly 700 years ago, this house has seen many changes and been owned by medieval knights, courtiers to Henry VIII and high-society Victorians. Highlights include the picturesque courtyard, Great Hall, crypt, Tudor painted ceiling, Grade I listed dog kennel and the private apartments of Charles Henry Robinson, who gave Ightham Mote to the National Trust in 1985. The building is surrounded by peaceful gardens with an orchard, water features, lakes and woodland walks. Note: very steep slope from reception (lower drop-off point available).

The slope really wasn't the north face of the Eiger but it's probably tough for some of those 420-year-old guides.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

My dad has lost the remote control

My dad has been fretting about the loss of the remote control. Jackson hadn't been here for two hours before both remotes vanished. One was found in the play slot of the video recorder a few days later but the other is still missing in inaction.

This means my dad can only watch one channel - BBC 1. And while he's interested in the news, there are some very substandard dramas on the Beeb these days.

Meanwhile America is facing a catastrophic hurricane that could claim hundreds of lives.

I feel somewhat detached here. Our flight back was cancelled and we have another weekend in Britain. I felt some jubilation about the fact I won't be working 24 hour shifts, wading through flood waters but there's a small nugget of guilt in there somewhere. And I feel bad about my recent MIL jibe now they are about to welcome a monster storm which will come ashore in about a couple of hours.

It's a sunny day here and we'll be taking a walk over the white cliffs of Dover. But I feel more acutely than ever today the transience and fleetingness of life. Yesterday I was in London and I was amazed at how quickly my memory had undone the streets; how I took wrong turnings and forgot which Tube stations to use for which attractions. London had rushed on, leaving me in its slipstream so many years ago.

Yet suddenly I would chance on a bar or a restaurant that held so many dissipated memories that would suddenly come rushing back to me.

I don't think I'm returning to Dover because the white cliffs endure, because they'll always be there as a bright beacon in times of uncertainty rather than somewhere over the rainbow. But here they still are, permanent and reassuring under drifting white clouds as bodies decompose in a Libyan hospital ward and a monster hurricane heads to the United States.

I hope my dad finds the remote control soon.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ten things I miss about Virginia

I so can't wait to fly back to Virginia on Saturday. This evening I tried to make a mental list of what I've missed and came up with......

1 - Bland imitation fish and chips.
2 - Curries without any bite.
3 - concrete strip malls that stretch to the horizon and some.
4 - mowing the lawn in a soggy sweat fest
5 - those constructive visits by the MIL when I am helpfully made aware of my numerous flaws.
6 - hurricanes that threaten to turn the city into a bad day in Tripoli
7 - inexplicable sports played by men wearing motorcycle helmets
8 - some more MIL crap that I am too flawed to articulate right now
9 - stretch pants and their wearers in Wal-Mart
10 - One day of vacation to use any time I want to between now and 2045.

But at least it's cheaper to park and the parking spaces are a lot bigger.

At some point I'll post some photographs of England and reply to comments I've been too ignorant and distracted to over the last week. But I'm far too depressed to right now.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

On the North Downs Way

Limited time and internet access has restricted my blogging activities of late. It can be hard to summon up the enthusiasm to blog when the prospect of a day in Oxford beckons or we end up looking after my sister's kids as well as the two we struggle to look after on a daily basis, a recipe for double trouble.

It's a far cry from the day I first arrived in England almost two weeks ago. It was good to see my parents but after the initial quickfire 40 minute update on all the people I don't know who have died, contracted serious illnesses or lost a leg or two, I found the conversation drying up. This was all rather disconcerting as I hadn't seen my parents for more than a year, although regular conversations on Skype made it possible to get these death and doom bulletins on a more regular basis.

Fortunately I was saved by the bell, or more specifically my brother, who came round to visit within an hour of my arrival.

His partner was due to give birth in days so he was grateful for any pretext to escape from the raging hormones that had been dogging his every movement for the last few months. My arrival was apparently a better excuse than the call he has taken from the local council to inspect all of the manhole covers within a 10-mile radius.

Desperate times require desperate measures and outwardly these were desperate times. Rioting had broken out in London for the second night and the headlines made it seem as if the nation was on fire. Some people from overseas were reacting as if this was Libya or Syria and armed insurrection was underway.

The reality was rather different. London has seen graver threats such as the bombs of the IRA and the nights of 1941 when the skies were full of German bombers. Just 60 years after the death of Christ Boudicca's savages burned and sacked Roman London leaving bodies strewn across the flatlands by the Thames.

In 1351 Wat Tyler led a band of angry peasants from the plague ravaged countryside of Kent and Essex to the heart of London, almost overthrowing the unpopular King Richard II in the process.

London has seen much worse than the bands of rioters who went out in search of some free flatscreen TVs.

On the Sunday of my arrival I left jetlag behind to walk up on the ridge of the North Downs, along an ancient path that pilgrims once used to reach Canterbury cathedral in the days that Chaucer wrote of such journeys.

These are gentle hills where horses roam in paddocks, a world away from the simmering suburbs of London. Little has changed in this landscape of quiet villages for years, although a few pubs have closed. Contented folks who made money in London now meander around in their BMWs. The hills remain almost empty and they look away from the M25 to the garden of England with its oast houses and vineyards, the same place that simmered with abject poverty, disease and resentment back in 1351.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Having a revolting time in London

Just my luck. I haven't been to London since 2007 and my first visit coincides with what's likely to be Day 4 of the riots.

Admittedly these riots appear to be in the areas that no self respecting visitor would visit. The sort of places I was forced to inhabit when I lived here.

So maybe a repeat of the long night of pub crawls when I got on a tube train, fell asleep and ended up in the backside of Dagenham, which in itself is a large backside, shouldn't be repeated.

The last train had vanished and every time I picked up the receiver to call a taxi, I found myself to be incapable of speech.

What followed was a long and half remembered trek winding between the tower blocks of Barking and Dagenham, that it seemed I survived against all odds.

So it's time to do quaint and touristy London; in fact the very aspect of London that Americans tick off their checklists, although I will draw the line at taking photos of a ceremony in which one man with an over sized woolly hat replaces another man with an over sized woolly hat that's known as the changing of the guards.

As for the riots, maybe the Olympic people have a lot to answer for when they chose The Clash's London Calling as a theme tune. Did anybody actually bother to read the lyrics?

London calling to the faraway towns
Now that war is declared-and battle come down
London calling to the underworld
Come out of the cupboard, all you boys and girls
London calling, now don't look at us
All that phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust
London calling, see we ain't got no swing
'Cept for the ring of that truncheon thing

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Back to Britain - Part 8: Barnstaple

Of all the bars in every part of the world that one that holds the most strange as well as the best memories for me is the Corner House in Barnstaple, Devon.

This is probably because the Corner House isn’t the sort of place you would go into because it looks quaint. It’s the sort of place you go to if you are a local and your liver has been picked accordingly.

You wouldn’t visit the corner house by choice; nor would you live in North Devon by choice. It happened one day when my editor called me in after I had been working at head office for about two months.

“We want to send you to a district office.”

“Oh Good – as long as it’s not North Devon,” I joked referring to the Siberia posting.

“It’s North Devon.”


So I drove north for hours on muddy roads, past cows and rural nothingness; past strange smells and winding roads and decaying barns and trees bent out of shape. But mainly rolling emptiness. Obscure rolling emptiness.

As a destination Barnstaple tends to make you wonder why people live here. It’s surrounded by beautiful rolling hills but it’s dowdy and contains some pockets of urban deprivation. You work in the timber yard or the timber yard and you drink to dull your surroundings.

My colleague Mike – not his real name – was known as the Rock of North Devon because he’d been here for so long, a droopy jawed thick set individual with a beard and an oversized coat Mike was definitely old before his age. And disaffected as well as good company on a good day. He lived in a small village that was as poisonous as it was pretty. His plans to open his home to people with mental disabilities caused much trouble in paradise.

Some days Mike would come into the office with his head in his hands. “Ugh Cedric got out last night and walked round the village.”

“Well that’s not so bad.”

“He was walking round the church yard with no pants or underpants.

“uh oh.”

The solution was the Corner House, although I never spent as long as Mike down there at lunchtimes due to the fact I would end up too squiffy to work.

At first I was impervious to its charms. To say the formidable lanlady Roxine had not exactly caught on to the customer service malarkey, is something of an understatement.

“Go on – order one of her eye lid and ringpiece sandwiches,” Mike would goad me and then chuckle to himself as I made the mistake or ordering what was nominally a ham sandwich past 2 pm.

“Don’t you realize it’s one minute past two,” Roxine would scream, fixing her big old bad eye on me.

Even when the order was timely the service was nothing short of frightening.”

“This yours,” she’d scream, as the plate containing this inedible piece of meat raced down the bar past my head. People wonder why I persevered. Perhaps because the alternative was rubbery cheese or the pickled eggs in a bag of crisps that Mike swore by.

I don’t think Roxine ever accepted me as a local, with my metrosexual reporter’s mac. Or maybe she had already seen a long line of reporters come and go.

The locals were people like Buddy who sat hunched over his pint, flicking dandruff off his coke bottle specs and on the bar, rarely imparting his wisdom. But when he did it was well worth it.

“Your buddy’s your buddy’s your buddy,” he’d declare, before lapsing again into silence for about six days.

There was another taciturn character called Gordon who only became animated when talking about the virtues of “maggot galloping.” An explanation really was not called for.

We didn't interact much with these characters but we spoke at length with Tony, an accountant in his 70s who was such an avid Bristol Rovers fan, he'd told his wife to hop on a bus when she was about to give birth to their first born because Bristol Rovers were playing in an important cup game.

Buck, an elderly and somewhat repulsive gentleman who was a local councillor, was positively verbose. He’d talk about the good old days before political parties and his bizarre life ambition to hang strings of condoms from a local viaduct.

When Buck went quiet I’d start to get nervous. When a smile split his features it was time to head for the hills. Buck was renowned for his nose curling flatulence. As people moved away in droves he’d slam the bar triumphantly and count.

“That were a five along,” he’s declare if his fart displaced five people from their seats at the bar.

By 2.30 pm Mike would look positively crestfallen when we’d have to walk back to the office. But sometimes he’d import a few cans of wine and sit at his desk until at 4.30 p.m. – right on cue- there’d be a heavy sigh like a locomotive sloughing out of the sidings and he’d declare: “I can’t go on.”

He introduced plenty more junior reporters to the Corner House but I was glad to hear recently he had won the lottery and doesn’t need to go on being the rock.

Buck is sadly no longer after letting off a 17 along one night in his sleep and setting off an explosion; I imagine Tony's long gone too and his ashes have been spread on the pitch at Bristol Rivers.  Who knows about Buddy. He’s probably still there at the Corner House bar 15 years on, chewing on eyelid sandwiches and declaring: “Your buddy’s, your buddy, your buddy.”

Lost by the Sea

 A tiny tragedy in an ocean of sadness makes barely a ripple. Still, I was taken aback to receive an email from a former wife (the one I nev...