THE GATEWAY TO ENGLAND

We’ve been in Kent for the past week in our caravan at Hythe. We enjoyed it although the weather was mixed – but as ever, on the bad days we weren’t having picnics so it was all fun. For Autumn, it was quite mild.

The site was very busy, but there was plenty of space allocated to each ’emplacement’, so you did not get irritated by your neighbour’s preoccupation with celebrities, or the fact that her husband spoke to the dog more than he did to her. (Given the drivel she would spout, the dog probably made more sense.)

We went in to Hythe, which was fascinating in that it was so old fashioned. It had draper’s shops with stuff in drawers served to you by women dressed entirely in black, and your purchases wrapped up in parcels tied with string.

While Kent was not unfriendly, I think it would be fair to say that it is reserved in the case of strangers and one can understand why. It is very flat (though it has some low hills) and perhaps because of that, the sea is not often a dominant presence, even though it surrounds the county on 3 sides. It has fertile soil, lighter than the heavy clay of Sussex, and is well wooded, and has many orchards; also there are fields of cabbages, potatoes, maize, and hops. The houses were mostly of brick; some were very old.

There appeared to be two main bodies of native peoples. There are some, descended one supposes from the Viking Normans, where the men are very tall, with thin faces, and fairish hair and while not perhaps handsome, are personable; and the woman of that type is beautiful. We had lunch in a small inn we chanced upon at St Mary’s in the Marsh, where we visited the local church which was surprisingly large for such a small village. In the church the vicar was attempting to reassure a young woman that the flower arrangements for her wedding that weekend would be fine. The bride, even in her jeans, was lovely, long blonde haired, very pale skinned, with an unblemished oval face, fine arching eyebrows, a long nose, blue eyes and a mouth that could have been painted by Dante Gabriel Rossetti. I wondered if Joan, the fair maid of Kent, had looked like this. In the pub a local family of several generations was celebrating someone’s birthday, and the young women, while not as beautiful as the bride, were after the same fashion. Another type of face, seen mostly in men, was square and flat and dark.

Not by any stretch of the imagination could you describe Dover as an attractive town; but it is interesting. You become aware as you look at it that invaders have marched through it many times. There is a lovely bronze age boat in a museum which is well worth a visit. It is a large vessel – about the size of a Maori war canoe, made of oak, using the entire length of a trunk, split and tied together with yew withies. The joints of these were packed with moss and beeswax. There was no evidence of sails – no cavity to lodge the end of the mast in – and the part where the rudder had been (if there was one) was missing. But I thought it was moving, seeing how man has been resourceful and ingenious using what items were available to him throughout history. It was thought the boat had been used for trading with Europe, because of its size.

We also saw the remains of a Roman fort at Richborough, which was huge, and we supposed had been used as an administrative and store centre at the entry point of Britain.

Folkstone was not an attractive town but it had a grand hotel, lovely promenade on the upper levels of the cliff with beautiful gardens and views out to sea. The other areas of the town were rather shabby and there was no evidence of any ferries being active. Broadstairs was also an upmarket coastal town. We visited Tenterden, whch has nice buildings and shops.

We revisited Margate and Ramsgate. These towns which are very run down have beautiful Georgian architecture, and will be lovely after a period of gentrification which is already beginning to take shape. In Margate we went to the Turner, which is an attractive modern building – nice cafe and museum shop. But what a shame about the art (exhibition). Now everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but there were paintings of African atrocities which could have been executed in blood. I hurried past. There were ‘sculptures’ where I thought the artist – one Phyllida Barlow – was mocking us. One of her works for example was a large heap of broken pallets heaped on the and floor under a rusty length of pipe dangling overhead. It was untitled. We could have proposed a title: Useless junk sneers at our gullibility. This exhibition is described as ‘Bringing togther works by British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, British-Kenyan painter Michael Armitage, and J M W Turner. There were two representations by Turner, both the size of a postcard, and they looked to me to be the piece of paper on which one blots one’s brush. One felt they were rather taking liberties with the great man’s name.) Then on to Ramsgate (the Sands Hotel where we had a delicious lunch on a terrace looking out to sea. ) John had biscuits and cheese at the end of the meal. When we rose to go, a seagull who had been standing motionless on a lamppost for most of our meal, suddenly dive-bombed our table and made off with some cheese biscuits. I could feel the feathers of his wings against my hair.

We made an unsuccessful attempt on Canterbury (which we have visited before). We turned in to the old city where Disabled parking was promised but found it completely chaotic within, so crowded with pedestrians that we had difficulty proceeding through the streets. We decided to give Canterbury a miss (if only we could escape it! ) I have sometimes wondered why Canterbury is the first diocese of the Church of England, but being in Kent I realised it was because it was the nearest to Rome.

We visited Dover Castle (built by Henry II) which is very large and was used in various wars including of course the second World War. In Kent there are also several castles built in the time of Henry VIII who fortunately of course had plenty of money from plundering the wealth of the church. We visited Deal, and Walmer. They were a kind of rose shape and their guns could cover 360 degrees. Walmer was furnished, quite skilfully for the rounded ‘petals’ of the building were not standard in size, and the garden was lovely; full of roses, dahlias, and fruit and berry trees. The Queen Mother had been Warden of the Cinque ports and she had stayed here, but the principle Warden (and who died here) had been the Duke of Wellington.

Well, there’s an account of our Autumn holiday in the caravan in East Kent. The weather was mixed but we still enjoyed it. The food on the holiday was uniformly good. The houses were not particularly beautiful. I was not greatly impressed with the shopping although we ‘looked at’ one or two. But it has gentle village architecture…. lovely old farmhouses that look as though the farmer in residence could trace his ancestry back to the stone age, gardens, interesting and lovely houses, harbours ranging from the ‘smart’ to one where locals sat on the seawall, pint of (locally brewed and quite delicious our visitor got hopelessly lost and was as panic stricken as the boy being asked to skipper the bronze age boat across the Channel.

I almost forgot. Rory and Sarah and their children came down to Kent on our penultimate day and we went together on the little train to Dungeness. The train trundles along the bottom of people’s gardens; the countryside is whisking your face. Some gardens are delightfully planned and present  an elegant orderliness; others are just mess and disorder. You see into the charming domesticity of English villages. All in all, for a peaceful restful holiday, pleasant local villages, nice meals, it was all quite charming.

 

While peace lasts, Kent is a good place to visit.

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NO MEAN CITY

I have written about the flora and fauna of our recent holiday. Let me now turn to the people – do they come under ‘fauna’, I wonder?

We were travelling with Joanna, Lawrence and our grandchildren, and therefore we were obliged to go within the school holidays. It was a great pleasure being there with them. Lawrence and John golfed; Joanna and I chatted, had coffee, shared cooking; Alexandra read, undisturbed; and the younger girls ate their meals with us and then cleared off the entire day to play with a gang of other children on the beach. I had gone with English and craft projects for the girls; John had planned waterborne activities. None of this was required: they had far more exciting companions than elderly grandparents! So it was definitely well worth the price we paid which was that we were away during the ‘Glasgow Fair’ – traditionally a time when the great industrial companies had their annual holidays, and which still seems to be when Glaswegians take their holidays although those industries are no longer present. My idea of a busy site is that I can see, about 12 stations away, another family in both directions so you will appreciate that to have the site absolutely full, with people being turned away and the resultant press of people at the local sights or sports points is not my ideal situation.

I should make haste to point out that the collective crowd did not produce the type of person who was ahead of us in the queue for a boat on the Norfolk Broads on the latter part of our holiday on our way home. This lady, who sounded as if she came from some part of the Midlands was a kindly soul, a nice person I’m sure; she fell into conversation with a little boy beside her and his mother. She had a grating accent and no volume control. She noticed that the boy was blonde haired but brown eyed; his mother remarked that his father was dark haired, and this brought forth a torrent of conversation about the likelihood of having brown eyes and blonde hair, and whether the blonde hair would survive into adulthood. The lady considered the fairness or otherwise of herself and her brother; her four children; her ten grandchildren; her brother’s children. She could (and did) detail the exact colour of each person’s eyes and hair, (Now Robin has blue eyes, but paler than Tracy’s…) at what age the blondeness had ceased; what degree of darkness their hair now boasted. I was just coming to screaming point – who cared what colour any of their hair was? – when the boat fortunately began loading and she drifted out of earshot. I was reminded of an excruciating evening I had passed some years ago when a woman monopolised the conversation to tell each new arrival of a minor road accident which had happened to her grown up son, in which she began with what she had given him for breakfast, and traced his journey village by village to the actual incident, how long it had taken the police to arrive; no detail too small, while I reflected that this could easily have been summed up in ‘Bobby had a driving accident but he’s OK’.

Your Glaswegian is not garrulous like this.

Glasgow has a reputation (not entirely undeserved) for drunken violence and it is certainly a city where you have to have your wits about you at certain times. As a theatre audience for example it has a fearsome reputation and takes no prisoners.

But on the other hand, if you pass muster with them and they accept you, there is no finer body of people. The men may have scars on their faces from fights they have fought in their youth, but they are gentlemen in the best sense of the word; and the women, though they can be fierce celtic viragos sometimes are also bighearted and generous.

So here we are on this site, full to the gunnels. Clearly they did accept us, for it was like belonging to a large family group. Arriving families would check in as it were with their neighbours, and exchange brief information about who they were, where they came from, how long they were staying, (no intrusive questions asked) and then go off about their own business. When it came to putting up awnings in the ever present wind, help would materialise as if by magic and set about the anchoring of the flapping sides unasked. Services we ourselves rendered to others included charging phones for people with tents and no electricity; the usual help with awnings; we lent our whirligig to a lady with too much washing, putting it up for her in their area; they returned it to our section and put it up; we saved our old 1pound coins and exchanged them with people who needed them to use washing machines; we kept an eye on other people’s children on the shore line as well as our own. When we left we had bought a new larger kettle, and we donated our old one to the communal kitchen so that people camping could have tea two at a time. We also donated our magazines and books. Everyone else was doing much the same.

It made you tolerant of the occasional late night party (nothing exceptional, just people drinking and laughing together) – it was still quite light at 11 pm and dawn was at 3 am!) and you felt protected and comfortable in this body of people.

I myself am not a daughter of the city of Glasgow and have never been mistaken for one. But I would regard it as an honour to be so counted.

As the verse says, Wha’s like us? (However, the answer is, Gey few, and they’re a’ deid.)

FLORA

Flora

Last week I wrote about the pleasure I had obtained from the birds on our holiday in the North West Highlands of Scotland; but I also enjoyed the wild flowers. Their profusion took me back to the flower filled meadows of my childhood which I had all but forgotten.

On the mainland of Scotland you do not get the yellow ‘machair’ of the Western Isles – a mass of flowers, predominantly yellow that covers the short grass, but there is still a wide variety. Right by the shore there were patches of bog cotton with its wispy white heads. There was plenty of clover – the shorter, fragrant white that makes good honey, and the taller vibrant red. Everything seemed to be out at once. There was that heady scented, creamy flower, Meadowsweet which makes a good country wine, and which we called Queen of the Meadow, as well as the taller patches of the pink Rosebay Willowherb, which we used to call Wildfire. There were the less noticeable Shepherd’s Purse which I have not seen for many years, and the brown headed flower we used to call Soldier’s sticks, and you could play a game with them where you knocked the head off the other person’s flower. There was the golden yellow tansy with its rich spicy smell and which when you squeezed the flower head gave a satisfying pop.

When we drove down the Ardnamurchan peninsula I spotted a ‘stand’ of the dainty harebell, the Scots ‘bluebell’, which is of a delicate but very intense blue; and there were pink foxgloves on a bank literally thousands strong, so much so that you doubted your own eyes. There was also blue speedwell, and I discovered a patch of wild violets growing in a ditch.   And there were the lovely white water lilies  on the still ponds.   As the song says,

Like the  white lily floating on the peat hag’s dark waters,                                                        Is the face of my Mairi, my Mairi, my beloved…

There were ‘forbidden’ flowers too – the statuesque Giant Hogsweed which tends to grow near streams, and standing about 6 feet tall with its huge flat white flower as big as a dinner plate, is a magnificent sight, but now tends to be obliterated when seen as it is poisonous (we called it, incorrectly, ‘hemlock’).

I thought of my childhood, where I observed all these things and took them quite for granted – thought everybody’s world was filled with wild flowers and birdsong, and how we assume these delights will last forever and be enjoyed by future generations: whereas this is by no means certain.

Let us stay where the wild things are.

Photographs are courtesy of John M Armstrong and were taken on the Ardnamurchan Peninsula.

FAUNA

We were in a lovely campsite earlier this month, on the West Highland mainland, north of Ardnamurchan and beside a sandy beach with a huge tidal rise and fall, and with a golf course in our view (very heaven you will understand,)

There was time to sit and watch the sun cross the sky (when it deigned to put in an appearance at all) and to watch the bay emptying and huge, malevolant rocks emerge and then see it fill up again and appear deceptively benign. The water was very clear.

The bird life was enjoyable to watch. Our bay had a resident heron,who flew in about 7 – 9 am from some wooded site inland, (rather as if he were a commuter coming in to work) and fished on some of the rocky islands. He was about 6 ft tall, very elegant in his grey and white, with black floating plumes crowning his head. We knew there were fish because we would see him stab his long beak into the water, and then swallow.

We saw the common gull quite a lot.

There were birds, handsome in grey and black, which I took at first for jackdaws, but they were larger and more powerful, and I think they were carrion crows. There were curlew with their quivering, haunting call, and our girls came across a nest on the ground, from which chicks ‘with very long beaks’ ran away.

At Glefinnan there were gangs of robin, which is rather unusual.

We heard larks. We saw pied wagtails with their flicking tails. There were flocks of oyster catchers who would pass overhead at night calling out loudly – they are very noisy birds!

One day in late afternoon I looked up and saw that a little flock of unfamiliar birds was present in our bay. They were black; there were three family groups – two of four, parents and two juveniles, and one of parents with one juvenile. To my surprise they dived; and all together, so that for a moment the space was empty and I thought I’d imagined the whole proceedings. But then they gradually surfaced one by one, only to dive again en masse after a few minutes. A diving bird is normally built like a submarine, very narrow and low slung to the water, whereas they were chunkier and had quite round heads. Looking them up, I came to the conclusion they were Common Scoters, a bird I had never seen before. They fished for about half an hour, and then they swam out of the bay; I never saw them in flight. I watched over the next few days, but they never returned.

It’s a great pleasure to sit in some remote and lovely place and just watch the light move across the landscape; see the grasses toss in the wind, and be pleasantly surprised when, as you sit there, some unexpected creature suddenly hoves into view, quietly going about its own business.

The photographs, the first being the view of the bay, and the second the monument at Glenfinnan, are courtesy of J M Armstrong.

MISSING!

 

Joanna and Lawrence & Erin and Dana, with Emma Robins.

We had Elisabeth, Robert and William this weekend, and it was very enjoyable, except that William bawled for an hour and a half on being put to bed (most unlike him). Nothing we tried consoled him, until Elisabeth figured out she was playing him ‘the wrong sort of lullaby’. By the miracles of modern technology which is as impenetrable to me as the periodic table (of which I know Nothing) she managed to obtain the ‘right’ lullabies, and glorious silence promptly descended.

I was reminded of an incident with our own children. We took Joanna to Paris when she was less than six months old. As I recall it was a special offer; we went from Scotland on the train. At that time we were not so well travelled so this was a big adventure. It was wintertime, I think November.

At first all was well. She slept in our arms on the train. We negotiated Paris and the Metro with her pushchair. Our hotel had a cot for her. But once in our hotel, we ran into problems. She would not go to sleep and cried and cried. We gave her drinks, changed nappies, sang to her, walked up and down with her, put her in her pram and wheeled her back and forth. Nothing made any difference. We could not understand it – she had never behaved like this before.

The French are not in the least sympathetic to other people’s difficulties if it affects their own comfort, Our neighbours banged on the wall; the management rang us and said, did we know our child was crying (John’s reply was unrepeatable); another guest arrived at our door convinced that the child was abandoned and surprised (but not appeased) to see that I was walking the floor with the baby in my arms. When we went down to breakfast I heard the phrase : ‘le mauvais bebe’ but we assumed our fiercest Make-my-day expression and no-one challenged us directly. We were to return the following day.

It was only when we returned to our own house and the baby’s own bed that I realised what the problem was. Joanna had two white blankets which I had crocheted. I used to place her in her cot and then lay the blankets down on her, saying as I did so, that’s One, and that’s Two. She had become attached to the blanket, which she referred to (when she could talk) as her One-y. We had not realised that her One-y was necessary for her to fall asleep.

We made sure both of our subsequent children were presented ceremoniously with their own One-y and it was never left behind.

The first photograph shows Joanna at ELISABETH’S wedding; she has no need for one-ys these days but has to provide them for others; the second shows William in his crib but it wasn’t from there he took HIS one-y. Both photos courtesy of John Armstrong.

I’m off on my travels for a week or two.

Au revoir to France

My name is William. I live in our house in London with my mother and father. My mother is the most beautiful mother in the whole world. She has blonde hair and when I snuggle up with her and twist my fingers in her hair, I know I’m a happy boy. My father is fun and I want to be as big as him and do all the things that he can do. He plays football with me, and takes me swimming and carries me up high on his shoulders. He also mostly drives our car. I watch him. I wonder how big I will have to grow before they let me do it. Our dog is Milo. He is just a dog. Daddy whistles and he comes. Sometimes when I whistle he does not come. Then he is a Very Bad Dog.

One day my Mummy was putting our clothes in a suitcase. She puts in so many of her clothes that Daddy cannot shut the case and gets annoyed. I am anxious that Fox goes in, but Mummy does not forget him. I do not know why we take all those clothes. It is warm and we don’t need any.

Daddy comes home from work and they put me in the car in my seat, surrounded by stuff and off we go. Nobody has told me where we are going.

We drive for ages and ages and eventually Mummy says its Plymouth. We line up with thé cars with dogs in them, and then we drive on to a very big ship. We have a very tiny room with 4 bunk beds in it to sleep in. It is called a cabin. Then we go wandering off through the ship – there are lots of these little rooms, and the floor moves up and down on the water. Then we meet Grandpa and Granma. I am very surprised to see them. Granma is in her wheelchair. She looks very tired. I wonder if my other grandparents are on this ship too, but if they are, we never fnd them.

We are to sleep on the bunks. (It is like sleeping on a shelf in a cupboard). Mummy tucks me in with Fox, and then she climbs into the bunk above me. We sleep. The bed rises and falls and rolls.

When we waken it is morning. Mummy dresses me before breakfast, even though I know I should get my breakfast in my pyjamas. I try to tell her this but she doesn’t listen, just gives me a roll. Then we go in the car and we drive off the ship. We have to queue for a man to look at us to see if we are who we say we are. How does he know, I wonder. But apparently we pass the test. Then we drive off the ship and drive into Roscoff. We are in France!

The four of them think Roscoff is a very nice town. It has very old buildings with statues carved in holes in the wall. There are nice shops and flowers beside the street. Grandpa has gone marching ahead and shouts to us to come. It is a hotel and thank goodness, they serve breakfast. I eat bread and jam, croissants and milk with a tiny bit of hot coffee in it. I am very hungry and it is all very good. Eventually we stream off in the hot hot car. Daddy is driving but he is on the wrong side of the road. I am very worried abut this, until I see that everyone else is doing the same so I relax and stop thinking about it.

We go to a French supermarket and they buy stuff. There seems to be a lot of bottles.

We find our house that we are going to stay in. I walk round it by myself. There is one big room with a cooking place, sofas and a TV, and a table where we eat beside the big doors that are windows. The dishes are kept in a wardrobe! Then there is a room with the washing machine in it and buckets and mops and all sorts of interesting things but they won’t let me go in it; and a bedroom and bathroom for Granma and Grandpa that the wheelchair can go in; and a toilet besde the stairs for everybody. Upstairs – I can climb them myself – are a bedroom for Mummy and Daddy and one for me. There is another bathroom but no bath so I get my bath in a thing like a little boat.

We stay here for a week and I do not want to leave it and neither does Milo. We visit small towns with churches with very ornate towers (called steeples.) We go to different beaches. They all have white sand, the cold, blue water that moves and tries to catch you, and nobody else on them but us. Grandpa has bought a little tent that I can sleep in. There are stones, and shells, and I make things with my bucket and spade. Milo digs holes – I don’t know why, he never finds anything in them, and I lie down in the hole. We have picnics. There is always sand on the food.

Most days we go out for lunch. I love when this happens. There is a special menu for me and Mummy discusses what I would like. But the things the adults are having are always more interesting. Granma will always give me some of hers. I eat lots of pancakes, and lots of icecreams. They are really good.

One day we go out and we find a field covered in stones that stand up, in rows. The adults are very interested in this, but I can’t see the point in these rows – they don’t go anywhere. In the garden of our cottage there are huge boulders as big as our shed, and they think these have once been part of a stone circle. I don’t think they’ve thought this through – these boulders are so huge, nobody could move them, and what would be the point?

I love it here. There are new things to see, every day. There are wonderful things to eat. Daddy doesn’t have to go to work, and there is always someone to play with me. Milo and I are sorry when it is time to go home.

Mummy says to say Au revoir to France. It means we will see it again.

A LITTLE IRISH TIN

We went to Nymans on Saturday – Robert with Milo, Elisabeth, William and me.

Robert and Milo went off to do the woodland walk, and Elisabeth and I explored the garden. The davidias were out, as well as many azaleas. They have unusual magnolias. The wisteria flowers were dangling off their support. The herbaceous border was bright with tree peonies and ceanothis, but the late summer border which in only a few months will be a riot of colour, was lifeless and empty.

We sat in one of the outside booths and had tea. We three adults had cake with our drinks. William elected to share my cake (this may well be because he calculates that he will be given a greater percentage of my cake. He is not stupid.) Then Elisabeth wants to show Robert something she’s noticed on her way round, so they leave me for ten minutes or so in charge of William.

I still have a small piece of cake left but I need to make it last. Looking for something to interest him, I inspect my handbag. He does not care for my purse. He thoroughly despises my handkerchief. He does not care for my little red quilted bag which contains my Disabled Toilet key, and a lipstick and a tiny Japanese mirror, though he does look at himself in the mirror. Then he spots in the murky depths of the bag a small enamelled tn.

It’s blue and gold with a celtic design on it, and John bought it for me at some place in Ireland where there were stone cells for monks, beside the sea. The tin is circular and has a lid which shuts with a click and to open it you press a tiny stopper and the lid pops open. I use it to carry my day’s supply of pills. But this tin is just empty in my bag so I let William play with it, I make the remaining piece of cake into large crumbs and put some in the tin and shut it. William then tries really hard to open it. He understands the mechanism completely but his fingers lack the strength and dexterity to effect the opening. I help him. He removes the crumbs and eats them. I fill it up with more crumbs and we repeat this process several times. Eventually we finish the crumbs. William explores my lap and finds a currant which he carefully places in the tin. I close the tin. I open the tin. He eats the currant. His parents return.

The little tin has kept us wholly occupied!