Most of us collect remembrances from our travels. A sniff of sachet brings back summer, soft skies and heathery lavender fields. A pearly conch is the week it rained on the Cape. The pile of Ordnance Survey maps are to gaze at on winter nights recalling walks taken and those awaiting possibility.
We stash ticket stubs and brochures and postcards we will never mail in little paper bags that rustle up entire trips long gone. I have a small mesh bag full of what even I can now see are slightly revolting bird feathers that appeared one by one on every path I took in an Irish autumn. Baskets and bottles hold pebbles and sea shells from distant coasts.
Mostly what we cram into our overful bags is stuff for friends back home like beer mats and pencils, book marks and tea in a hopeless effort to share a trip uniquely ours.
The corners of the suitcase are for us. I have taken to collecting tops of egg cartons.
Here’s what I brought home as souvenirs from our recent two weeks in the UK:
1 black fleece jacket purchased due to cold (too big—gave to son)
5 David Hockney Royal Academy Exhibit postcards and 1 poster (rolled and squashed).
My own box of tea (Yorkshire Gold Rwandan)
3 boxes Boots dental sticks
1 bag Cadbury Milk Minis (3 eaten on plane)
2 Hello magazines (1 read on plane)
1 Small Horse (large pony)
Like the space-challenged tourists we saw haggling for suitcases at I Love London, we had to buy a small zippered duffel in Edinburgh to accommodate our woeful ways. The pony of course didn't fit so he’ll have to take a later flight.
Acquiring a hairy pony is not quite the same as collecting shells but like all good souvenirs its the serendipity that makes it a story. This pony with his strong sure legs, dapper feet and glossy coat is a Dales whose origins are so ancient they go back to the Galloways of Roman invaders who worked the Yorkshire mines. Endangered now, Dales make coveted riding and driving ponies with great stamina and sensible minds. Their long manes and tails curl elegantly towards feathery fetlocks.
Plus this one has a moustache.
Tea shared, hands shaken, the pony has headed south to Devon for a few weeks course in How To Carry A Human. Once he has his diploma I will return for my own training in How To Ride This Horse. We will then set sail to Amsterdam where we will insert our hairy, short selves into a crate between svelte Olympic equine jet-setters and cross his Atlantic for mine.
Here's what my husband Tom brought home from our trip:
Delightful as it is, we are headed for Cirencester only because it is on the way and probably has a mobile phone shop which can repair mine. Negotiating the traffic-calming roundabouts that ring this market town set in the epicenter of the Gloucestershire Cotswolds takes the kind of two-person concentration which while it does let us notice the Waitrose on the Sheep Street Roundabout, does not let us pre-plan our parking intentions. A series of narrow one-way streets signed to Town Center take us circuitously around a warren of lanes which eventually dump us in yes, the Town Center.
Cars driven by people who know where they are going chivvy us to right and left as we try to determine our next steps. We are clearly in the Market Place which offers a long skinny packed-to-the gills car park as an island in the middle of the square. With impatient cars behind us, and one suddenly exiting from a parking space before us, I swing our car in to the narrow space and stop. Hurrah. We sit quietly for a moment with that exhalation of relief you get when you are driving a rental car in riotous traffic and you have once again managed not to mangle it. The square is teeming. Did I mention that Cirencester is a shopper’s paradise, it is Saturday and Christmas is just a month away?
Now to get a Pay and Display ticket, stick it on the driver’s dashboard and sprint. The ticket machine seems to be attracting a crowd. A large man with an Irish twang tells me that he can’t get it to accept his coins. Two other attemptees blur my view of anything but the coin slot itself and being an American who knows a thing or two about ramming a coin down the throat of a parking meter, I slide my own pound coin in and watch it get solidly wedged. The Irish dude tries to pry it out but it’s a goner. The rest of the crowd starts a car park chant, “Grace Day! Grace Day!” which is apparently the British version of “Broken Meter—Free Parking” and skip off to shop.
Tom and I consult. Not comfortable with being touristy scofflaws if there is a solution, I go in search of another meter, which I find after a good hike to the far end of the market square. As I have already put a pound coin (currently at the exchange rate of $1.59) in the broken meter, I put one more in this meter, extract the ticket, bring it back to the car where I write a note to the effect that I have now paid two pounds for two hours parking with one pound successfully applied to one hour and one awaiting extraction from the broken meter and stick the note on the dashboard along with the parking receipt so that the parking enforcement officer can clearly see the thoughtful and beyond -the- call -of -duty effort we have made to pay and comply.
We get a map and some pens at the Tourist Information Center (TIC) tucked into the new Corinium Museum and make our way around the streets with stops for mobile phone repair, a saddle pad for my horse Archie and some books. I lived near here for a while many, many years ago and cannot quite get a grip on how things have changed. This place used to bustle on Market Wednesdays right where we have parked our car, but shut up tight as a drum once the market half day came to an end. The tea shops, stationer, hardware and fruit and veg I remember are all there in ghostly shape but their prosaic selves have morphed into boutiques or crafts or mobile phone shops.
On our way back to the Market Place we come across the Metro Tesco grocery store (and its car park) which we suddenly remember shopping at in a similar drive-by episode a number of years ago on our way to Dorset. We find the phone box we spent several hours in trying to line up a B and B in Lyme Regis on a bank holiday (successfully, after an arsenal of sixpences thrown with abandon at British Telecom) and reminisce. Looking at the time, we decide to skip the appeal of the Waitrose and shop at the Tesco, emerging with laden bags and a wish that we had seen this car park first.
Tom carries the groceries and I drape shopping bags over my shoulders while we walk, talk and I fish around for the car keys in my purse. Our car is sandwiched tightly in between two others in their narrow slots staged in a row, hugging the long square.
The yellow plastic packet glued to the windshield yields, when unstuck, a Penalty Notice. We have parked 22 minutes longer than the hour on our metered ticket. My note to the Parking Enforcement Officer explaining the situation lies visible on the dashboard read or unread. Tom sighs and piles our bags in the car. I wait until we are both seated to read the fine amount. £25. Twenty-five pounds!
A day or two later I ask some friends from Cheltenham what the odds are of beating a ticket in Cirencester. They laugh. I google Wikipedia on UK parking appeals which basically says forget it. It is Thanksgiving at home.
When we are back in London a couple of days later, I read the ticket closely. We can appeal by registering on the Council website. £25 is equivalent to about $40. $40 is a night at the pub. I want to appeal. I find the site, and after some hunting locate the Traffic Violations Appeal link. I press it. It is broken. I find the name of the person on the Council website who looks most likely to be in charge of traffic violations and write an e-mail:
I would like to appeal this ticket please. As tourists we arrived in the Market Place not aware that there was longer term parking nearby. On going to put money in the meter another gentleman (also a visitor I believe) was struggling with making the machine work. I put my pound coin in and it was irretrievably wedged making it impossibly to get a parking slip. I struggled with it. He struggled with it. Others arrived and said, 'Grace Day" which I assumed meant if the meter wasn't working there was no way to pay for parking. I did finally notice that there was another meter on the other side of the square (no one else seemed to be using it), made my way over, put another pound coin in and placed that slip in my car window with a note visible in the windscreen that I had "lost" a pound in the broken meter.
Returning to the car with what I assumed was well over half an hour to spare given the two pound coins I had spent on parking, I was surprised to find we had received a (very substantial) fine. I am not a scofflaw, I did try very hard to pay the appropriate amount, spent a considerable amount of time trying to make that happen and would appreciate very much if you could allow that the situation and confusion (and poor signage) attributed to my (as a visitor to the UK) not knowing/understanding what to do in the situation of a broken meter and lost money.
It's been years since I spent time in Cirencester and much has changed. I do recall, at age 18, receiving a traffic fine (from an officer on a bicycle) for riding my bicycle the wrong way on a small roundabout. It was 25 pence. I paid it on site and learned the error of my ways.
Thank you for your consideration. I did try to respond via your website Parking Fines url but the link is broken. Were you able to extricate my wedged pound?
Surprisingly, I receive an e-mail response the next morning. The Cirencester Council signature demands that I…should not use, disclose, distribute copy or print the e-mail or any information attached to or contained in it. The Council does not guarantee the accuracy or reliability of information in the message. The views expressed herein are not necessarily those of the Council, which of course raises the question about what information is accurate, and whose views they really are but I will distribute, copy and print as I believe in full disclosure and I am currently residing across a very large ocean’s reach from the wrath of Cirencester Council.
Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the above Penalty Charge Notice (PCN), which I received on the 24th November 2011. Under the Traffic Management Act 2004 (as amended), your letter has been treated as informal representations against this Penalty Charge Notice and careful consideration has been given to your representations, including all the circumstances relating to the issue of this Charge.
Your vehicle was parked in a short stay car park as indicated by the signage in the area. Although you state you had entered £1 into one machine which became wedged and then proceed to purchase another ticket from the other machine this does not mean you can leave your vehicle for 2hrs as you are only entitled to leave your vehicle for up to 1 hour in this car park. There are a number of car parks within Cirencester whereby you can park for up to 10 hours. It is the driver’s responsibility to make sure their vehicle adheres to the parking regulations that apply and that they are fully aware of the regulations before leaving their vehicle. Your reasons for not complying with the regulations in force are insufficient to merit the cancellation of this Charge. We are satisfied that this Charge was served correctly and your representations are rejected for the reasons outlined above.
You may now pay the discounted amount of £25.00 within 14 days from the date of this letter, after which the PCN reverts to the full charge of £50.00. If payment is not received, a Notice to Owner will be sent to the registered owner of the vehicle. This will advise of the process and grounds on which formal representations can be made. The Council is obliged to consider representations to the Notice to Owner, even if your informal representations have been rejected. You should be aware that the discounted amount will not be applicable once a Notice to Owner has been served.
If the formal representations to the Notice to Owner are rejected, the registered owner of the vehicle has the right to appeal to an independent Parking Adjudicator. This cannot be done until after formal representations have been made to the Council following the issue of the Notice to Owner and subsequently rejected.
Yours sincerely, Mrs. M Parking Services
I think about this for a minute. Apparently I have unwittingly had my day in court and despite it being me who has to pay the ticket; only the Owner of the Car (the rental agency) will be allowed to make ‘formal representations’. Plus in making a further appeal not only will I accrue the charges the rental agency is sure to extend, I would, if my appeal loses, have to pay the double fine. Ouch. I find myself humming a few bars from Arlo Guthrie’s Alice’s Restaurant and imagine Officer Obie at the other end of the e-mail. I call up the Google Earth map of Market Place and look at the car park, the meters and the distance between them. Perhaps I will take a pro-active leaf from Officer Obie’s book and provide the circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one.
25.11.11 Dear Mrs. M,
Thank you for your swift reply. I might mention that given I only tried to purchase one hour I had no idea the lot was limited to that. Had I tried to put in two coins in a machine that functioned perhaps I would have been more knowledgeable about limits. There was quite a crowd at the kiosk so that made it difficult to read any terms. I thought that I was parking in a two-hour lot.
I would appreciate your reconsidering my appeal. I did not in any way try to abuse the privileges of parking in the market lot. I did my very best to be responsible, thoughtful and to operate within the parameters of the law. That the kiosk was broken and I lost a pound and then spent a considerable amount of time trying to understand what was expected was of course my fault.
I would ask you to please reconsider. A fine of 25 pounds is considerable. In my town the same transgression would cost you, as a visitor, a third of that and had you been as confused as I was as a visitor, we would have forgiven you that one -time overstay and welcomed you back.
I wonder too about my lost pound?
A few days pass while we allow London’s public transport and our own two feet to get us where we want to be. I have not heard from Mrs. M. We are leaving the UK in a few days and our two -week window to pay the ‘discounted’ fine at £25 is narrowing.
28.11.11 Dear Mrs. M,
As I am sure you had a busy Friday and having not heard back from you re my recent query, I am writing again. I would prefer to write by letter but suspect that you would not receive it for several days so hope that e-mail is considered as legitimate a form of appeal as a written letter as the Cirencester website encourages me to e-mail.
I reiterate that given the circumstances of the broken kiosk, the absence of notice regarding what to do as well as poor signage regarding parking hour limitation given that kiosk one retained my pound coin without ticket, I should not be held liable for a very understandable offense. I would reiterate that the crowd around the kiosk obscured any notice about parking limits. I made the effort to pay for one hour (kiosk two) and left a note in my windscreen regarding my lost pound, which I hoped would cover the additional hour but did not have the opportunity to put two pounds in a kiosk which, by not accepting it, would have informed me that it was a one-hour lot.
I would respectfully ask this fine to be dismissed due to poor signage, information and good intention. As I am leaving the UK for home tomorrow could you please let me know what further steps I need to take to have my appeal re-considered and to expand the 14 day £25 rate to cover that appeal and the time international mail might require.
I wonder too if the fine shouldn't actually be £24 given my lost pound which was irretrievably wedged in the broken meter?
Thank you for your assistance, MR
Surprisingly, I hear back within 24 hours. Mrs. M has perhaps grown impatient with me so I am now communicating with Mr. B who replies:
29.11.11 Location: MARKET PLACE (Cirencester)
Thank you for your recent email regarding the above Penalty Charge Notice (PCN).
The Council has already considered your informal representations and they have been rejected. Under current legislation, the Council is not obliged to consider any further representations until the registered owner of the vehicle has been served with a Notice to Owner.
The Tariff on the Pay and Display Machine clearly states that Maximum stay 1 hour No return within 1 Hour. The ticket you purchased expired at 14:27 and under the terms of the tariff you are required to leave the Car Park and unable to return until after 15:27.
As explained in our previous letter, the Notice to Owner will advise of the process and grounds on which formal representations can be made. You may wish to resubmit your correspondence with your formal representation to the Notice to Owner if you wish. The Council is obliged to consider representations to the Notice to Owner even if your informal representations have been rejected.
If the formal representations to the Notice to Owner are rejected, the registered owner of the vehicle has the right to appeal to an independent Parking Adjudicator. This cannot be done until after formal representations have been made to the Council following the issue of the Notice to Owner and subsequently rejected.
Mr. B Parking Services
Mr. B sounds cross. I look closely at a Pay and Display meter in London on a tramp around Hyde Park. The fine print is, like ours at home, very fine. If it weren’t for the large sign above it which clearly states how much and how long, I would not be able to read the meter without a fairly strong magnifying glass or an 8 year old with 20/20 vision. Mr. B is not buying my point. If I put in two pounds for two hours in one meter, the idiot-proof meter would have spit out one of them and given me a ticket for just one hour. I would likely have thought about this for a bit before understanding glimmered. One pound=one- hour lot. I feel Mr. B’s annoyance radiating across the watery miles now dividing us from Cirencester Parking Services as we leave the UK but not the parking dilemma.
The yellow plastic envelope with its expensive contents travels home with my passport. In three days the £25 ticket will morph into £50. Insisting that the writing is on the wall (or in this case on the ticket) my spouse has created an internationally stamped envelope stuffed with £25 in cash, which he is anxious to mail to Parking Services without further ado. I grudgingly agree with him but ask him to just wait a little bit longer. I send Mr. B one last gasp, a sort of closing argument.
29.11.11 Dear Mr. B,
I realize that you are complying with process but as I am not the Owner of the Car and it was a hire car, I am not in a position to be able to formally object to the £25 fee I was billed at Market Parking Cirencester. I attest that the indicators about both the broken meter and the hour limit at Market Parking in Cirencester are not displayed in any visible effort to ensure that the many visitors to your lovely town are clearly advised as to time limit in the Market Place car park nor does your response address the issue of the broken meter and my wedged pound coin.
While I do realize that "Under current legislation, the Council is not obliged to consider any further representations until the registered owner of the vehicle has been served with a Notice to Owner" I wonder if, under those circumstances you might re-consider the £25 fine. As you must know, my hire company will charge me considerable fees in addition if I seek to formally appeal what I feel to be a ticket issued under poor circumstances. I am sure the Council does not want to take advantage of a situation which does not allow me to formally appeal.
A: The signage for Market Parking does not clearly inform motorists that it is a one-hour lot as they are approaching the parking, nor does it clearly direct them to longer parking. The confusion of entry to the Market, especially in traffic does not lend itself to both driving carefully and trying to pick out parking options.
B: The meter we used was broken with very poor signage about directions or otherwise (lost 1 pound)
C: Many others were confused as well, their crush around the meter contributing to anyone's ability to more closely read what must have been very fine print on the meter in terms of time limit.
D. In all good intention I thought I had paid for two hours, I wrote a note to accompany my one-hour ticket and placed it in my windscreen attesting to the pound I had wedged in the broken meter. If I had not lost a pound in the broken meter, I would likely have discovered on trying to spend two pounds for two hours at the far- side working meter, that it was a one-hour lot. I do not recall ANY other indicator of that which caught my attention. I disagree that the tariff is clearly stated on the meter.
E. I returned well within the time I thought I had paid for, saw the ticket, read it, but still did not see any easily visible sign indicating that Market is a 1- hour lot.
F. I did not have a guided source of information about appealing the fine, having to resort to an inquiry e-mail, which was apparently considered to be my informal appeal, without my having any knowledge about that appeal process. The Council website link was, like the meter, broken.
G. I do not reside in the UK and have had to since return home making it very difficult and likely expensive to properly protest this fine. Thank you for your ongoing patience and thoughtful response.
H. Shoudn't the fine actually be £24 as I have not been credited for the wedged pound?
Most Sincerely, MR
The next day ticks on. It is 6 p.m. our time and 23:00 GMT when everyone at Cirencester Parking Services is likely sound asleep or watching Kristina Cooper present the government news on BBC Parliament. I check my e-mail.
30.11.11 Location: MARKET PLACE (Cirencester)
Thank you for your email regarding the above Penalty Charge Notice, which I received on 30th November 2011. I have reviewed this case and I am satisfied that it was issued correctly as the area in which you had parked has a maximum stay of 1 hour. This is indicated clearly on the pay and display machines.
As a gesture of goodwill as it appears that you are visitor to this county I have cancelled the above PCN.
Miss W Parking Services
My first thought is of course curiosity about what my confidantes Mrs. M and Mr. B make of this as now an authoritative Miss W has joined our conversation. Did Mr. B object? Did Mrs. M smile? Are we all d'accord now? My second thought is whoopee. I careen into the living room, humming, "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant" to tell my patient spouse that we have been granted a pardon.
He has that look on his face which can only mean one thing.
He has already mailed the fine.
30.11.11 Dear Miss W,
Thank you for your e-mail response and kind effort towards goodwill. Sadly, the fee was mailed (in cash) just prior to your generous response.
Should you receive the payment and find that indeed you do want to honor closing the PCN then I would be very happy to send a stamped return envelope to have the fine I mailed returned to me or to a friend in the UK.
Thank you for your patience. I am in the future, sincerely committed to more carefully reading the parking hour limitations on British Pay and Display meters no matter how fine the print.
No word from Miss W. Yet. She may be otherwise occupied as apparently the Council has riled even the locals recently by raising car park charges.
If you're reading this and you happen to be traveling in Cirencester, would you mind stopping by the Market Place and seeing if my pound is still stuck?
News as of 9-1-14: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-25671980
Parking fines in England could be reduced, the government says, amid claims some councils are using them as a "cash cow". In a report published last autumn, the Transport Committee said: "A common-sense approach to parking enforcement should minimise the issuing of penalty charge notices to motorists who make honest mistakes."
The fog, sitting heavily on Haytor Down has, if anything, intensified. Not only can't I see my hand in front of my face-- I can't see the tor in front of my horse.
A tor is a gigantic pile of compellingly mysterious rocks which are not uncommon throughout the British Isles but are most notably part of the terrain in Devon's Dartmoor, a bleakly gorgeous national park pocked with bogs, rocks and tors high above the far off sea.
Zana suggested we box two ponies to Dartmoor to explore possible trails for her trekking program at West Steart Farm. A good trekking route is circular, not too strenuous and the route is clear. Although the weather was iffy in Stoodleigh, an hour's drive should find us above the fog according to the British weather channel Metcheck which tends to be conservative in its forecast. So we drove.
Two motorways, several roundabouts and one hour later we seemed to have the fog glued to us as we rose higher and higher above the Exe River valley far away and far below. By the time we reached the Haytor car park the fog was so dense that the only users of this perpetually popular spot were ourselves, the two horses, one dog and the Molly Macs Ice Creams Van. We thought for about one minute whether this was a good idea or a dumb idea, unboxed the ponies, saddled up, whistled along the sheepdog Alfie and headed out to find the trail to Hound Tor via Becka Brook.
I actually like fog. Well, maybe I don't like it when I'm driving but it's soft and friendly and okay when you're walking or riding a nice solid Dales pony. Even so, there are pony-eating bogs on Dartmoor, many tales of those who never return and some more about huge dogs and monster cats who stalk the misty moors and I am as susceptible as the next person to imagining what I cannot see.
Treat the Moor as the unspoilt wilderness it is. Wear proper clothing and footwear. Take waterproofs, a map and a compass. Tell someone you can trust your route, and expected return time before you set out. Check the weather forecast. Close gates behind you.
The nice man in the Molly Macs Ice Creams Van waved at us as we rode off so I suppose he is our "last-seen" contact. We are both wearing our new wind and wave-proof Devon Riding Holidays jackets and as our feet are clad in jodphur boots, our heads encased in approved safety helmets and we both sport high visibility safety vests, we are properly clothed. Zana has her requisite emergency medical kit around her waist and I have the emergency chocolate bar tucked into a zipper bag along with my mobile, camera and bandana around mine. The ponies wear head collars under their bridles. Leadropes attached to our saddle dees are tidily secured in their pony club knots.
Zana is an enthusiast in the art of Le Trec, a French- originated equine sport which involves reading maps (orienteering), having a fit horse at all gaits and negotiating obstacles which might be found in normal (and sticky) situations when riding cross country. This is the kind of thing you want the person who is leading you through dense fog on an open moor to be good at. She wears her OS map (Explorer OL28) in a waterproof see-through case around her neck along with a small plastic combo magnifying glass and compass and consults it closely before we trot along the road for a very short time before we cross and head up the moor on what we hope will be just a three hour tour.
Crossing the narrow B3387 may be the most dangerous part of our ride, as motorists, who are implored by the National Park authorities to "Take Moor Care" have great difficulty noticing the backside of a horse, which sadly causes Dartmoor pony fatalities far too often. Even now we see small groups of ponies grabbing mouthfuls of grass by the verge of the road, easy prey for mindless motorists.
The pleasant part of riding in the fog is just that. You get to ride in a fog. Your world shrinks to one of mist, muffled sound and nebulous shape. Objects appear in muted clarity only when they are directly near you. We ride by two tors knowing them only by the vague cloudy shape they present in the fog, although on a clear day we would be able to see their enormous rocky pile from miles away. The dim light helps me to focus on small details I might not normally notice: the peculiar shape of certain rocks, the variety of muds and slick grass. My pony Trooper is particularly focused on the grass which he samples every time Zana stops with her pony Donna to check the map. This happens often enough to keep both ponies happy. I start thinking about the emergency chocolate bar about 38 minutes into the ride.
Our route is designed to take us to the old quarry tramway circling the quarry pit past Smallacombe Rocks and down through the woods to Becka Brook. While we can make out Smallacombe Rocks when we are right on it, we cannot see the wood enclosing the brook, nor can we find the tramway bridle path leading towards it. We are aiming for the path which leads us past the Medieval village of Hundatora (long abandoned due apparently to climate change and Black Death) to the inviting jumps course the South Devon Moorland Hunt have put up around Hound Tor. We won't, on a day like this of of course be jumping any of the fences, but we would like to sort of sidle up to a few.
Tom and I have walked this path a couple of times in other years on clear sunny days where the landmarks shout the direction to take. Being able to see Hound Tor off in the distance, or head for the woods shrouding Becka Brook, the walk is a pleasurable snap in clear weather when even Tom can't get us lost. We once had a lovely picnic in a glade near the brook and waded its chilly waters.
Trooper is getting impatient with the frequent stops. By our second circuit past Smallacombe Rocks we start to realize that we won't be finding our way today. We finally decide to bag the ride when we find ourselves peering through the murkiness to determine if we are retracing our steps by examining the hoof prints going in the opposite direction. Are those our ponies' prints or those of some other unseen horse and rider? The hoof prints outline have melded with the muddy moor. Unsure, we give the ponies their heads. Clever Dales ponies will nearly always find the most direct route back and ours determinedly aim us towards the distant horse box.
Once we are back in our zone and find ourselves easily on the map, Zana as she always does, finds us a gallop. This one is straight up the long rise to Haytor itself with the two fastest ponies in the herd. The sound of hooves muffles in the fog and we have the odd sensation of galloping through clouds. It is not until we have nearly crashed into it that we find ourselves at the Tor, its giant boulders stretching ghostly above and before us.
Catching our breath and laughing at the pure fun of being wild, we pick our way back down the long grassy slope to the car park. The Merry Mac Ice Creams van sits stolidly unseen in fog in the empty car park and after we put the ponies away with a grooming, tail and leg wraps and bulging hay nets, we wander over hoping he has warm drinks as well as cold ices.
Finishing our hot chocolates and cheese sandwiches in the cab with Alfie gulping down our crusts, we happily head back down the narrow lanes to the motorway towards Stoodleigh, Zana expertly guiding the horse box through fog-mad traffic. I fish out the emergency chocolate bar. When we arrive at the farm, the sun is shining.
Many of us are well familiar with wandering blearily into Heathrow after having been awake for the past million hours. While Big Ben is donging half past 7 am London time, our eastern US alarms aren't due to go off for another five hours. We are awake during our prime REM time and, stupid as it is and sounds-- we're about to (legally and on the 'wrong side ' of the road) drive a car.
I like to think I am getting better at it as I get older. No longer do I drive into oncoming traffic endangering everyone in visible sight as I head out of Glasgow Airport, nor does Tom book the Irish rental car for 10 am when it is 5:30 we arrive in Dublin. We both know that while we can manage a couple of hours drive-time, we'll need a serious break before our brains fade.
That we are bound to come to words before we are actually on an M Road, is a dead cert. But--we have a plan. I am now the doyen of car hire and I book with the same companies each time because A: I have priorities and B: I am cheap. Free extra driver*, free mileage, fast pass and a quick shuttle --all aces. Currently a fan of National (EuropeCar) because they have all of the above plus a free-for-all choose your own car plan, it usually goes like this:
1. Deplane and spend either a short or long time being admitted to the UK. Pass go and trundle downstairs to find bag* and shuffle it through Customs on the hairpin bend that leads to Arrivals.
2. Enter Arrivals and do some necessary and immediate humdrum tasks which include pushing the luggage trolley through legions of travelers with thousands of bags and millions of small screaming children who have been met by all of their friends and relations and are headed for the car park whose elevators are annoyingly causing a heavy back up right in front of door. Exit the terminal to shuttle bus*.
3. As Bus has just left, wait. Discover that luggage trolley has no brake and spend the wait time keeping it captive as it tries to escape down the peculiar incline just next to the bus stop. Watch everyone else hauling bags, kids and jittery trolleys.
4. Load bags into bus and hold breath as bus negotiates Terminal gauntlet allowing riders to be spit out onto the Perimeter Road with huge jets hovering just overhead. Get out. Fast. Be First One in to Car Hire Agency as partner deals with luggage. Produce drivers' licenses, reservation and Big Smile.
5. Wave loaded -policy -car- rental Amex card* at agent and Decline Additional Insurance, crossing fingers that it actually works should you actually hit something. Get the nice guy with the laid- back attitude even though you are American, who won't remind you more than thrice that you really should take the super deluxe no worries insurance• coverage for an additional million pounds a day.
6. Grab the paperwork and dash into parking lot to Choose Car.
Although I love this part because it's FUN to choose your own car, this is where we sadly lose key time and mutual empathy. Tom always lets me decide as I also insist on driving. It's not that Tom is not a fabulous and trustworthy individual, it's just this little here-and-gone thing he has for taking his eyes off the road. So we wander what's on offer (usually strange cars no one anywhere else will ever drive) and choose one. We load our gear in and I sit in the driver's seat adjusting mirrors and wrestling with the handbrake• and stuff until I see a Better Car and we unload the gear and reload it and drive around the parking lot for a while until we remember to go that way to get to the exit booth with the green light and we Get the green light and Pass Go to the Real World, or at least back to the Perimeter Road*.
Leaving the Car Hire is so much easier than it used to be-- if you do it right. Years ago, a real test of jet lag was enduring passenger map- reading aloud at high volume,("Left! Right! Stay Straight!") through five or six poorly-signed, seriously many-laned roundabouts that trickily dumped you right back where you started. Now you can drive fairly effortlessly (except for that faux turn into airport employee parking) on to the M4, M25 or headed towards your ultimate M, A or B.
Bingo, you're there, and it's just steering, getting your M-legs and beginning to play the lanes (left slow, middle travel, right pass). Relaxing to BBC morning news enjoy the scenery which actually has fields and cows, vistas and Sights to See placed strategically by the motorway for your driving pleasure.
Car Hire Sanity Savers
Heathrow Car Hire: Heathrow terminals have been playing hop scotch as each is upgraded but car hire still requires a bus ride. Enjoy it! Look for the Concorde!
Gatwick Car Hire :"As part of Gatwick’s £1 billion investment programme we’re transforming North Terminal. Our new multi storey car park 6 opened on Wednesday 20 April 2011, ahead of schedule. Car rental desks will be open on level 1 of the terminal (The Avenue). Take the lifts adjacent to International Arrivals and you will clearly see all car rental desks located on level 1. Car rental staff will then direct you to the cars. The new location has direct access to the terminal, contemporary surroundings and all cars are parked undercover."
Heathrow Arriving Flights are posted on baggage hall monitors but grab a trolley first. Many travelers do not know that many airlines allow an extra bag "free" for sports equipment. Your sport might require a diving suit or motorbike gear, check to see if it gets a free ride.
Free Extra Driver:NEVER pay for this, I mean that's just really dumb if you think about it -only one person can drive a car at a time, so why pay for two? Many "business" elite programs which offer perks like free driver are available free through AARP or AAA. Additionally free drivers are often available as a freemium if you Google car rental promos but make sure yours applies to UK rentals as well.
•Some credit card companiesoffer a for-a-fee per use additional coverage for complete coverage when hiring abroad--except in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand and a few other countries where they'd lose their shirts. Check to see if your card offers primary car rental coverage as secondary means colliso
n charges go to your own insurance company.
Getting to Know Your Car: As everything is on the opposite side of the car, don't get crazy over not being able to find the handbrake. Stick your head out the window and ask for help.
Leaving the Car Hire Lot: It is OKAY to drive around the car hire lot while you learn how the car works and practice right side steering on the left side of the road. This may well avoid wrong way and the all-t00-frequent post-car-hire exit booth sound of passenger screaming at driver, "You Idiot!" Ouch.
Somewhere in the great wood lies a castle. Long ago and beyond memory it may have been a remarkable place. Motte and bailey structure, it lies buried under soft leaf mold leaving only a suggestion of shape. The surrounding forest harbors nuance and guards against discovery. I'm sitting under a tree caught somewhere between now and then, with no idea in which direction lies out.
It was Tom's idea to take a woodland walk after we had taken a moorland walk and I was post my best adventure mode. The wind had blown in our faces from all directions up on the moor and after a a couple of hours of wiping hair out of my mouth, my arms and eyes got weary despite the bracing air and the tantalizing views.
Descending into the woodland dells that make a vague sort of tree line below Dartmoor, we park in an empty National Trust forest lot and go for a walk without a map. Again.
A word about trees. Living in New England as we do, we have a lot of them but as our family farms fail we lose the balance of meadow/tree, meadow/tree of the past 350 years and totter between forest, housing estates and strip mall. Left to themselves, the forests have reclaimed the hard-won clearings made by those yankee farmers and there are some who say that a squirrel can still run branch -to-branch from Maine to Tennessee.
In the UK trees have never really made it back since the great forests were channeled into grazing and villages and cities and colonial fleets and the M-1.
A recent move by the Tories to "privatize" (as in sell off) great tracts of British forest met with resounding opposition by walkers and birders and riders and hunters and resulted in Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman having to drop her bid and issue a public apology.
So a walk in the woods is a fortunate treat and would have been to us as well if we had not been clueless about where the castle path was and had that tiff over which way and gone our separate ways and, unfortunately, lost each other.
I like a nice soft wood. Who doesn't? When Tom heads his way and I head mine neither of us thinks we can get too far out of earshot to holler, "Okay I give up," only Tom does. I lose him within five leaf-stomping minutes. After another five of not hearing his stomps in a crackly wood, I start calling; gently at first and then with all the great lung capacity I inherited as the descendent of opera singers and hotdog salesmen. I hear nothing-- and Tom has the car keys.
After another half hour of slogging through the leaf mold of yesteryear and finding neither Hembury Castle nor my spouse I start that whole Blair Witch Project reel in my head and have trouble shaking it out. These woods are eery. A big black bird which may be a raven plunges through the trees and startles me into a full stop as I watch it caw its way to the sky. There are legends about these woods which if true, mean there are legions of Roman and Danish soldiers buried deeply beneath the soft ground I am treading. Legends lead to ghosts and I am prey to suggestion.
I stop and call again. Where earlier I simply called a gentle enquiry, "Tom? Tom?" now my word choice is less lady-like. I am counting on there being only me, the birds, the squirrels ("skweeralll in Brit-speak) and hopefully Tom, as my voice bellows across the wood and its silent, hidden past.
"What?" Tom neatly pops up just behind me and gets the galvanized jump from me that he had hoped for. I expand on his query ("What?") with some additions to what that make the skweerallls run for cover and we debate who heard whom for a bit before agreeing to strike off for the castle path which we find and follow and walk around a hump in the ground which must be IT and head back to the car park.
Oddly, later as we talk the walk over a pint at the Rock Inn snug in Haytor Vale, Tom insists that he never heard me call until he was right next to me. I am convinced that even the long-dead could hear me and we bat that around for a while until we run out of steam and realize that one of us could not hear the other and wonder why. We also find it compellingly curious that the well-marked path to the Castle was clearly apparent once we had re-discovered each other but seemingly invisible on our first sortie. If we had wandered off the map and into long-ago--how would we know? I for one cross Hembury Wood off my list of must-returns. Tom says he had a delightful walk and will come again next chance.
Living in western Massachusetts we are savvy on blizzards, nor-easters and summer thunder. This is the way it is and has always been. We bundle up and deal. Yesterday changed all that as we received a line of summer weather that resulted in three tornado touch-downs better suited to the wide plains of nowhere and things blew apart.
Up here, just west of the mighty Connecticut River, we had hail and winds and thunder and lightening and suffered the great loss of trees. Losing trees is to me visceral as I think I may once have been one. Just south of here people lost homes, jobs and lives. The sky went green and the winds swirled and the horses in the barn tried their best to kick their way out past the deafening hail and wind and noise. Sirens roared and television news focused on loss and anguish and damage and terror.
I thought about Australia. When people talk about environmental challenges in Oz they tend to mention all the wildlife (scorpions, snakes, jellyfish and sharks) that can kill you but they don't usually mention storms unless they involve water or fire. The first day we were there we met a brown recluse spider who took ownership of our Byron Bay veranda, dangling down every evening on its silvery, poisonous thread. We avoided running our small car over a huge snake sunning in the road by driving up the verge.
A week later we were acclimatized-- swimming behind shark fences, avoiding bluebottles, wearing sun hats with huge brims and slapping flat white sun block over exposed skin. Arriving on yet another sunny day in Teagardens, a watery town north of Sydney, we checked into the town's hotel/motel which offered backpacker rooms set around a tropical courtyard, each room demarcated by pairs of hiking boots placed in the sun to de-odorize. Wandering down to the Myall River to find dinner we settled
on Mumm's and a table in the tent where we could see the water and enjoy the cool evening. The restaurant was pleasantly full and we ordered fish, wine and greens.
The wind picked up when the wine arrived. By the time dinner came the wind had risen and we heard thunder from across the river. When we could see the lightening I was gauging the conductivity relevance of metal table to metal chairs to metal tent poles. This lightening was not what we generally know (or knew until yesterday) in western Massachusetts. It appeared as a gilded serrated column of spectacular orange and gold, often two or three or twelve driven deeply and directly from sky to water, sky to ground in a vertical and deadly ear-splitting thrust. Tom happily tucked into his tilapia but I had just finished a book where the key character dumbly dies from being electrocuted by trying to fish a spoon out from under the fridge. When the tent lights went out with the next fiery explosion there was a brief silence amongst the diners until one Ozzie voice called out to unseen waitstaff in the darkness, "Oy mate, bring us another bottle of the shiraz?" and the sounds of pleasant conversation and clinked glass resumed, audible briefly between thunderclaps.
It took only one more huge and dramatic flash for me to grab Tom, leave our meal and rush to pay our check in the generator-fueled main restaurant. We foolishly ran handheld together down the center of the deserted street in an Armegeddon downpour chased by bolts of serious electricity. By the time we reached the motel we were drenched and exhilarated in the way that happens only when you have dually toyed with death and reaped the highs of powerful negative ions. We dried as best we could with the motel's ancient towels and stayed awake until the wee hours watching night to day as each bolt lit our view of Oceana, listening to the world at its end.
The planet is at a strange place right now, weather-wise. If the choices are between American panic and Ozzie calm, I'd say open your cellar door to the neighbors, don't toy with disaster by video-iphoning that tornado and have another glass of the red.
Signing away your week's holiday on an unknown, unseen, not-sure village/cottage and in this case--pub, is both intriguing and unnerving. We knew we wanted to be in Dartmoor but we weren't sure where.
Rule of Thumb: when in doubt book through the National Trust Holiday Cottages. While not cheap (a caravan is cheap and while a week with the National Trust is increasingly Not Cheap they are dropping their rates--next year), reliability, location/location, ambiance, hot water and bath tub, fireplace/stove, and double bed with duvet. Some people (according to the guest book I always read in the first ten minutes of our tenancy while drinking my "welcome" cup of tea, eating my "welcome" biscuit and watching Tom bring our stuff in) get excited about the welcome tea tray, while others declare a life-long love with the cottage, the area, and the woman who prepared the tea tray. You can count on the Trust.
So here we were, week- long tenants of Trinity Cottage smack dab in the middle of the village square, thirty footsteps to the Drewe Arms pub and high above the glory of Dartmoor. We parked the car in the square right outside our cottage which was one of a long row of medieval cottages called Glebe on this side of the square. We unpacked suitcases from home filled with items necessary to a week away and some hot sauce, items from the Sainsbury's back in Dartmouth: wine, beer, real butter, real bread, eggs, bacon, garlic cloves, yogurts, cheese, toilet paper, paper towels, cling wrap, some nice Spanish salami, five candles and Hello magazine, and went to the pub.
The thatched pub was originally the Druid Arms until 1915-ish when Julius Drewe (Home and Colonial Stores tycoon and creator of the peculiar Castle Drogo which stands crumbling high over the nearby River Teign) paid the brewery to change its name to Drewe Arms to match his. Let us all be Drewe. Outdoor seating on tables tucked away from the wind in front and in the garden behind, the pub has recently been renovated but the original part has been left largely undisturbed. This means that you walk in a narrow aisle, order a drink at the tiny bar drawn from carefully coddled shelf- casks in the original tap room and carry it either outside or into the snug unless you want the more upscale experience in one of the dining rooms.
Our first drink at the Drewe Arms was in the back garden under a summer sky, all by ourselves. Trees in heavy green leaf, a nice breeze and a blue sky, we congratulated ourselves on a choice well made. Later, after a home-cooked dinner of real bread and real cheese and Dartish chicken we went for a long walk where we got only modestly off-piste through some meadows, over stiles and past cows, circling back through the village churchyard which landed us right in front of the pub again. Leaving the evening's gloaming for the cozily lit interior, we were warmly welcomed as neighbors for the week and forgiven for cooking our own meal rather than eating out. The pub lends itself to a few people just standing in the hallway with drinks, minding the doorway and chatting to the bar staff. Tom stayed to talk and I took my chardonnay into the snug.
A British pub snug is just what it sounds like--a cozy place to sit with a drink. Think settle or stool, often an open fire and room for a few couples or a group of after-work celebrants. On this evening it was just me-- and Mabel. Taking in the satisfactory fire, the dart board and the small hatch into the bar, I turned my head and met the rather critical glance of a small round woman with arms made powerful from years of pulling pints. Gazing towards the dartboard from her portrait gracing the far wall, she struck a familiar chord. It wasn't just because she was portrayed sitting just where I was (where she would have been looking out the small window opposite me), nor was it that this (according to the plaque beneath the photograph) had been her pub for 75 years.
No, Mabel and I had met before and it wasn't until that night that I woke remembering when.
We all make memories of where we've been or where we would like to be. I tend to buy books and it was in one of those purchased years ago that Mabel had made her appearance. A small collection of photos of British pubs, hers was a riveting face and I remembered every detail of that well worn snug and her tired slump. You could tell her feet hurt. A small book of ancient buildings and their as-they-were interiors, I'd enjoyed flipping through it for as long as it sat accessibly on a living room table. I'd marked pages of pubs I thought we should someday visit. Even when it was eventually disappeared to a bookshelf I had occasionally pulled it down to "be there" and had spent many a moment with Mabel. Hers was an uncanny portrait, one of those that make you imagine an entire history. I sometimes thought I could hear Mabel sigh and wondered what she was looking at. Now I knew.
According to a 1995 article in the British Independent which chronicles the village's brief fling with running the pub themselves; Mabel Mudge, known to one and all as "Auntie", officially retired as Britain's longest-serving pub landlady on October 4, 1994. It was her 99th birthday. In 75 years at the Drewe Arms in Drewsteignton, Devon, she presided over one big change: the installation of running water and electricity.
Suffice it to say that we had a delightful week exploring Dartmoor, getting lost as night closed in on the Two Moors Way from Fingle Bridge past Castle Drogo, avoiding oncoming cars on high-hedged single-track lanes and finishing each day at Auntie Mabel's, as the Drewe Arms is still called in the village. We joined most of the surrounding population in the pub's Long Room for the final (and disappointing) game of the World Cup. Mabel's great-great nieces and nephew chased after their dogs in the square in the long summer evenings and their mother brought us a dinner tray of home-made roasted baby courgettes.
When we returned home, I dug out the photo book and looked for Mabel. There she was (page 22) and will be. Turning back to the front (they are all lovely pubs) I laughed at what I had written to Tom on the flyleaf:
"Oh down to the boozer we'll go, down to the boozer we'll go.
We'll hold hands over Black and Tans 'til the candles burn down low."
Looking back at the Drewe Arms, I thought Auntie Mabel would have had a thing or two to say about that.
I am a big fan of the online forum, Slow Travel, whose devotees are committed to touring depth rather than breadth, so it was no surprise that one of us brought up the subject of Doc Martin. We're not talking clunky shoes-- this Doc Martin (Martin Clunes) is the popular ITV British television 4 going -on-5 series featuring an annoying but highly skilled London surgeon who takes up a general practice in a very small Cornish fishing village due to his having acquired an unfortunate phobia to blood. The Doc also struggles with what appears to be an unfortunate phobia to humans.
So when the Slow Travel topic came up about staying in Port Isaac, the village stand-in for the fictitious 'PortWenn' where Doc Martin is filmed, I replied:
"...and here I was--a complete Doc M neophyte when my friend Gwynedd and I walked the SW Coastal Path from Pentire Farm to Port Quin (a three- footprint walk according to the map's scale of 1-easy to 3 -"strenuous") to Port Isaac last year. It was an absolutely gorgeous cliff-side walk around the Qellan and Varley Heads past Lobber Point, up and down seaside hills, hoisting Rosie the Lurcher over the stiles she refused to leap and finally the descent into Port Isaac. Noting a sign importantly announcing the home of Doc Martin I naively asked Gwynedd, "Who's Doc Martin?"
She was horrified--you don't KNOW? We walked down into the village, stood at the small beach where the VW gets sunk in Episode 1 (little did I know) and up and down the High Street past the school house and the point of giggling girls (five of them in situ as we passed), looking for a: our husbands who were supposed to be rendezvousing with us and b: a pub that allowed Rosie the Lurcher. No sign of either, so we walked on to Port Gaverne where we stopped at the extremely dog -friendly Inn for a warm fire and drink with our found spouses and then on by car to dinner at the tick-tock clock-eccentric Earl of St Vincent in Egloshayle.
The view from the broad fields just up from Doc Martin's surgery out over the village is ancient and surreal at the same time. Huge cliffs mellow out into the Terrace down below before yanking themselves back to precipitous drops. Fishing boats chug out of the harbor along the coast making their own trail of whitecaps in the aqua waters.
Slow Travelers wanted to know if there are pubs in the village. There arepubs and inns aplenty in Port Isaac (I think any village in Cornwall without a pub would have some pretty dreary days) but when we were w alking through after a long, somewhat damp walk in Full Dimpsey (the Cornish term for low cloud and fine drizzle), one was closed and two were barred to dogs. Rosie the Dog was insistent on joining us for a warm hearth and a soft rug.
The Old School House Hotel, not surprisingly the filming site of the PortWenn school, looked pretty upscale. I peeked into the windows as the tables were being laid for dinner and given we were trudging by so many times in spouse-tracking, I became pretty familiar with their progress, getting at first a warm smile, then next circuit an amused grin, and finally waves from my new best friends doing the set up.
The village must be far more crowded when it's summer and there are more people than lobsters, but in November, we stood out as what we were--gawkingingly muddy daytrippers in search of warmth. The only conversations we had were with the innkeepers who said no dogs, the giggly girls whose comments were clear but one-sided, and with Rosie the Lurcher who said she was hungry, footsore and saw no reason why we shouldn't stop now.
The Southwest Coastal Path runs 630 miles (we have tried and tried to cover it all in shorter shifts--no lu ck yet) and some of the nicest bits are near PortIsaac. Enthusiastic walkers can hike (about 12 miles) in to Padstow if they don't mind some serious ups and downs, and take the bus back after a nice meal at a Rick Stein. Doing shorter stints the way we came, head up the hill past Doc Martin's and walk about two hilly miles to Portquin admiring the sea and the thoughtful stairs provided on the steepest hills, and then walk back unless you feel buoyed enough by view and fresh air to take the 3 -footprint challenge another few miles to Pentire Farm. It's a stunningly beautiful walk that fuels good daydreams to get you through a snowbound winter.
Abel Tasman National Park, South Island New Zealand
It's not always Tom's fault. What I have discovered in the enlightenment that often comes with additional years as a planetary citizen is that the flaw may lie in my following Tom. There we are, moseying up and down volcanic hills and native bush on a single file trail and I knock myself out with an overhanging rock. Life lessons learned from travel don't always come easily.
My lovely and long suffering spouse loves maps. All maps. He pores over them on winter nights, studies them closely before venturing out and keeps them to himself as we trek whichever trail he guides us to wherever in the world we happen to be. This is a win-win for me as I am of the persuasion that says start here, walk for a while and when in doubt bear left. We do not now nor will we ever own a Global Positioning Satellite Receiver for much the same reasons that some people prefer raw food.
So back to this 'following' business. Imagine the day. We have spent the morning kayaking and then shuttled by aquataxi from Kaiteriteri to Tonga Quarry over the azure sea that laps the shores of New Zealand's South Island Abel Tasman National Park. The sun shines, the sky is blue, the water warm. We hop over the side of the catamaran as we reach Kaiteriteri and wade ashore. Tom takes out his map. "This way" he says, although the large brown sign saying 'this way' is visible to both of us.
The Abel Tasman Coastal Path is perfect. No -really. Ferns, palms, waterfalls, native bush, fine sand and sweeping views from the top of each winding rise, it's easy to daydream. This is the thing about following Tom. When there are two people walking and Walker One is in front and that person has the map, all Walker Two has to do is to keep Walker One in sight. Pleasant daydreams. No worries.
The last little rise of the first leg of this lovely tramp leads to a blue lagoon at Bark Bay. When the tide is out you can walk across the lagoon. When it is in, you stick to the shore. I do not have an enormous backlog of experience with blue lagoons and find them riveting. Gentle swells of peaceful water laze under offerings of flower petals and leaves. Foot follows foot, eyes follow water. Bang, the overhanging rock lying in wait just around the next bend runs me over. Tom, who has of course noted both the height, distance and perimeter of the rock and carefully bent under it clearly expects I will do the same. Hearing my thud, Tom turns back as I rise to stand and-- hit my head again. Bam, down I go. Tom makes the huge and advisably avoidable mistake of laughing. I crawl under the rock, check my head for gaping holes, grab my hiking stick and we trudge along the idyllic seaside, me pouting and Tom keeping a healthy distance still ahead, still sputtering.
When we finally stop to throw ourselves down on the soft sand beach fronting this aqua heaven I announce that I plan to return to this spot and this place tomorrow. By Myself. And I do. The next day I ride the water taxi-drawn-by-tractor from Marahua's main street to its harbor l aunch to Bark Bay. I spend an hour diving into the lagoon's far side as the tide sweeps out and carries me and the other ten year olds back to shore. I alternate reading my book on the comforting sand with floating lazily in the Tasman Sea. I idly watch hikers attempt to swim across the lagoon with backpacks on their heads either in an effort to avoid the longer walk or as protection against overhanging rocks.
Recovering, restored and rock-head free, the water-taxi carries me back to Marahua where I say yes to a mea culpa dinner at Hooked on Marahua and we spend it talking about the Next Walk. We get to the point we always reach after these little setbacks and remark for the millionth time that our 'what not to do ' list is getting to be a lot longer than the 'to-do's'. This is what we came up with for a top five tips to walking in Abel Tasman:
Do watch where you're going stupid, as there may be overhanging rocks.
Don't laugh so hard your tonsils hurt when your walking companion knocks herself out on an overhanging rock.
Don't continue to indulge in what you annoyingly call 'chuckling' for the next fifteen minutes even if it did look pretty funny.
Don't escalate the situation by 'accidentally' poking your walking companion's sandal with your walking stick no matter how much your head and feelings hurt.
Do seek solace in a blue lagoon. If one is not immediately available try a blue margarita.
And a bonus: Do have the seafood chowder at the Hooked on Marahua Cafe.
Once we have wandered back to our hillside chalet I sit on the deck in the gathering dusk with the roaring cicadas, watching the kind of sunset that makes you think in color. Tom lights careful candles, spreads maps over the floor and makes plans.
Hogmanay, Edinburgh's enormously popular New Year's festival, will be missing our company this year. It's a long way to go for a party and our Massachusetts hometown is promising us midnight fireworks. Maybe next time.
Our first Hogmanay was adventure and we liked it so much we did it again. And again. When they do that pan-global tv midnight sweep after Times Square on New Year's Eve, it's Hogmanay that shows cascading booms of color exploding over Edinburgh Castle. They do not show we two eating fish and chips outside in the icy chill off Rose Street as we have forgotten to book anywhere for dinner, or watching the Proclaimers in Princes St Gardens, the only ones stone cold sober as we have forgotten to bring a thermos of champagne, a flask of whiskey or a plastic liter of Buckfast, the alcopop choice of the untutored teenagers swarming the six digit member street party that rages outside the Gardens.
Hogmanay is music and it lasts for days. Determined not to miss a thing, we join the world's largest Strip the Willow, fork out 7 quid so we can carry real fire in the Torchlight Procession from Parliament Square to Calton Hill, get a little teary over the thousand massed pipers in full regalia parading through the dark night, and jump in and out of the Princes Street Party which seems to have overspread from its original venue despite Edinburgh's Constabulary's best effort. We once even bought tickets for the candlelit classical Concert in St Giles which some people swear by but it seemed too sombre a start to a whoopee night and I am pretty sure I could see chilblains creeping up my legs in the icy Cathedral chill. The Keilidh is always sold out before we commit but we grab tickets for the Concert in the Gardens which puts us in an excellent if slightly deafening position for the Midnight Moment fireworks pinged off Edinburgh's 7 hills: Blackford, Braid, Calton, Castle Hill and Rock, Corstorphine, Craigmillar and of course Arthur's Seat.
We have not (yet) joined the Loony Dook plunge into the sea on New Year's Day, but there's still next year.
Once the fireworks grand finale has come to a crashing end, there is a throat- choking moment only partially caused by the clouds of smoke around the Castle. Just like the Whos down in Whoville post- Grinch, the entire city sings. Auld Lang Syne pours out of every street, window, hill and stage, even native-speaking Japanese lip synchers join in. There is a terrific roar from those whose heads are going to be very sore in the morning and the live music crashes on.
We make our way through the crowd of silly- hatted partiers past the naked man dancing on top of the ice cream truck and students mocking our American pronunciation of Happy New Year (Happy New Yearrr with the emphasis on a light and upwardly inflected year in Scots and Happy Neww Yeer with a dead heavy flat fall on year in Amer) to one of the many strategically- sited free bus stops which the City provides to return revelers from whence they came. We climb up to the top deck front windows as we leave the celebrations for dark, snowy North Berwick, weaving our way around the eastern side of the Firth of Forth through Musselburgh and Prestonpans, Cockenzie and Port Seton. The bus makes an unscheduled stop to pick up an inebriated teenager running after it in the snow who climbs in for a round of laughing jibes with the group of girl gigglers in the back and stops again when he changes his mind and wants to get off.
Gullane and Dirleton are winking their lights out as is North Berwick when we get to the end of the line. Walking slowly with the other stragglers under a star-lit night sky, we hum a little Auld Lang Syne to the sea gently booming beside us.
AULD LANG SYNE Words adapated from a traditional song by Rabbie Burns (1759-96)
Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And never brought to mind?Should auld acquaintance be forgot, And auld lang syne?
CHORUS: For auld lang syne, my dear, For auld lang syne, We'll tak a cup of kindness yet, For auld lang syne! And surely ye'll be yourpint-stowp, And surely I'll be mine, And we'll tak a cup o kindness yet, For auld lang syne! We twa hae run about the braes, And pou'dthe gowans fine, But we've wander'd monie a weary fit, Sin auld lang syne.
We twa hae paidl'd in the burn Frae morning sun till dine, But seas between us braid hae roar'd Sin auld lang syne. And there's a hand my trusty fiere, And gie's a hand o thine, And we'll tak a right guid-willie waught, For auld lang syne
We went for the music but stayed for the romance. Wandering the German Christmas Market (bratwurst and beer garden) which occupies the green space in Eyre Square for a month before Christmas, we joined the pedestrian parade looking for The Perfect Pub. Slurping salty north Atlantic oysters by the fire at the iconic Quays was lovely, but besides us, a Guinness -slinging couple at the bar, and the oysters; the place was empty. Outside, the pedestrian shopping streets were packed with shoppers, revelers. and street musicians, despite the increasing chill as night rolled in. Joining them, we looked at merino cardigans, Irish baby bibs ("make mine a pint of milk") and eyeballed a window full of fiddles, guitars, whistles and accordians while shopkeepers talked economic disaster. Line -caught haddock and chips from McDonagh's eaten on the quay by the roiling Corrib; the fragrant, steamy fish warmed our hands and bellies against the increasingly Arctic air.
Live music in Ireland frequently starts right around when I start yawning, but Tig Coili has two sessions where one bleeds into the other at 6:30 and 9:30, so we circled back to grab a seat. This engaging little pub is sandwiched between Mainguard and Shop Street creating a sort of this side/ that side music experience as visitors exit and enter through opposing doors. The musicians weren't there at 7 but we pulled stools and waited. One by one players sauntered in, dropped an instrument box on the bench, hugged a few people, took a drink from the bar and went outside for a smoke.
By 8 the place was packed and the music (oddly, Irish pub bands consist increasingly of banjos, balalaikas, and bozoukis) rockin'. The two doors opened and shut with frigid regularity but the couple fooling around in the entryway held my attention as they beamed enough warmth to heat up the entire room. I caught the long haired young woman's eye and she held up...a ring, so it was no surprise when her tall, beer- happy companion rapped his pint glass for silence and in Scandinavian -accented English announced that he had just asked "this wooman" to marry him and she had said yes.
A round (ale) on the house along with a group congratulation with many well wishers, and the band played on. The music got cheerier and the craic was cookin'. The band dedicated the next song and two more glasses of ale to the newly engaged duo. I suspected the song (in Gaelic) might not have been completely dedicated to the joys of love and marriage as several giggling flat caps at the bar slapped each other at the refrains, but it didn't matter. People took it upon themselves to congratulate the young couple and drink to their happiness. Cameras snapped and there were repeated cries of "Slainte!". The band asked if they would be requiring their services at the wedding and the couple said sure, if they happened to have a gig in Stockhom that week.
Looking around the gathering as the music played over and around the happy, Guinness-fueled gathering, I thought I could see each one of us imagining this couples' life--sharing the news with friends and family, getting married, raising a family, growing old. Would they always cherish this night? This place? These well wishers? Would they come back here for anniversaries? Bring the kids? Would they dance to this music at their wedding?
We sat through another set and braced ourselves for the dark stroll back to our lodging. Opening the door into the cold night leaving the fire and the light and the music behind us, we held hands and walked back into our own lives.
It is Saturday morning, and it is my birthday and the two, as we are all well aware, are a rare collision. Cold outside but warm under the covers, the phone rings at 8. I pick it up, expecting to hear some early- bird birthday cheer.
Good morning?" I sleepily say into the receiver. A quick talkin' no nonsense automaton with no time for niceties announces itself as the Fraud Department from American Express. Fraud? I sit up. The automated voice reads a list of recent transactions made on my card. I am to press the number 2 if I have not authorized them. I rub my eyes and pay more attention.
The first charge is $1.67 to UPS UK, made three days ago. I yawn and don't think I have mailed anything in Great Britain on Wednesday as I believe I was here in the U.S. on Wednesday and even though I have turned a new decade, I believe I am unlikely to have forgotten my location, but there is no conversation with my personal robot so that we can discuss this, so I press 2. The second charge is to the Stop and Shop. I press 1, thinking about the lasagne I still have to make out of the cheese, pasta, sauce and spinach collected on that charge as my family birthday dinner looms ahead.
Next comes an unkown pending charge to Apple Computer. I don't believe that I have purchased anything from Apple Computer, especially as we are a PC/Apple home and I am the PC, but I can't commit without more information and there is no number for Can't Commit so it is as I am puzzling over that charge that I hear that my card has bought me, or someone posing as me, a $1500 air ticket to Mexico. I press 2 and a human voice shoves the robot aside and offers me a "Good morning." I cannot help but feel a tiny frisson of expectation at the two word combination of "airplane" and "Mexico" on a cold October morning. My family are masters of the practical joke, there is every possibility that this is their roundabout way of offering me a lovely birthday present indeed.
The very nice Amex Fraud Alert Support Person tells me that my card has purchased the poser -me, a nice ticket on AeroMexico and all I need to do is disavow it and they will cancel my card and re-issue another. Now that I have someone besides Robovoice to talk to, I find myself more interested in where the ticket is taking the poser- me, what date and at that price, is it economy or business class, which seat have I chosen and is it one bag or two fare inclusive, but the Fraud Support Person can not tell me any details. He asks me to confirm my card number and I announce that as it is my birthday, and as I am in my warm bed and have no intention of getting out of bed in this very cold house which is not in Mexico in order to retrieve my credit card, he just asks me a few personal details known only to me, but how do we KNOW I am me and not someone who is not only posing as me but has accessed my personal details as well? And how did poser -me Get my card number anyway? Who's the leak? The kid at the gas station on King street? Sly Amazonians at Amazon? I go off on a totally nonsensical thought trail which has that tired lady at Stop and Shop packing for Cancun, and I almost regret calling the card in as she always looks like she needs a vacation.
The Fraud Alert Support Person at Amex while polite and moderately helpful clearly has no interest in the hypothetical. He wishes me Happy Birthday (not in his script so he says it quickly, with an audible smile) and says I will receive my new card within 4-6 business days. Even after hanging up, having agreed to a new card and no heebie jeebies, I have them anyway.
When we were in the UK in September I went to our local bank and informed them that I would be using my ATM card in the UK. The teller did some hocus pocus with a little machine and announced it free to use. I do this ceremony regularly now, having been locked out of my card twice, once in Istanbul and once in Scotland. What my local bank does not tell me is that I can only use my card when it is "in my presence" which means I cannot use it to book a hotel on line or order a great deal saddlepad to have sent to our last stop. i do not know how anyone will be able to tell if my card is actually in My presence, or poser- me's presence but a human body is definitely required. This means that in order to do online, I have to use my fallback Master Card as the UK is very anti-Amex (which is rather hilarious actually as my Amex card is with Virgin Atlantic) and when we return from our trip I have three anxious phone calls from Master Card about suspicious activity on my card.
Although it is nice to know that while all these credit card companies who may be single handedly keeping the US Postal Service afloat, send reams of "you have been pre-approved" ways to spend money I don't have, which I believe may have paid no small part of what seems still to be chronic World Wide Recession; are looking out for both me and poser-me with nearly the same tenacity that the CIA hunts terrorists, it is inconvenient and very nearly defies the why of credit cards rather than cash anyway. It is almost ironic later in the week when I receive a thick letter on creamy paper from my local bank informing me that they, or a third party branch of they, have inadvertently sent all of my details to another third party, including any online payments to credit card companies from my checking account but not to worry, the last third party down the line burned it all. The letter says I am now enrolled by my local bank as a way of softening their glitch in a free year of Identi-Safe which sounds like a witness protection program, and encourages me to call if I have any questions. I do, so I call and recount the curious coincidence of this inadvertent leak on my bank's part and my Amex card having purchased a ticket to Mexico. My local bank assures me that there is no possibility of this and yes, isn't that a coincidence ha, ha.
So all this leaves me with a few observations.
1. Who's in charge here? There seem to be a lot of people and robots and poser -me's who know a great deal more about my financial transactions than I do.
2. When we go to Ireland in a few weeks, will card after card lock down? Will it be like Istanbul when we looked at the lifeless little pieces of plastic standing between us and our next meal ?
3. If poser-me uses our card to buy a ticket to Mexico, which one of us gets the airmiles?
Three Cliffs is one of the outstandingly gorgeous beaches in the outstandingly gorgeous South Wales Gower Peninsula. Cited as one of Europe's Ten Best, it comes complete with a long flat beach, caves, rivers which flow into the sea and a very satisfying castle. Last time we visited we hiked in and out --on two feet. This time I borrowed an additional four.
Booking horseback treks in the UK is a popular holiday activity. I generally aim for "hacks" as these are faster rides (treks being beginner stuff) and life with my lively horse Archie has well prepared me for action. This ride, at Parc Breos near Swansea off the A4118, hard by theGower Heritage Centre where you can take gurning lessons, looked like a mixed bag when I got there. The day started wet due to torrential rain and lowland flooding and hoping the car didn't sink when I gunned it over road lakes that weren't there yesterday. Arriving late, I was assigned the last pony in the paddock, Chico; a lovely but contrary round-barreled bay Welsh who had the enviable ability to hide in plain sight and was a bit of a gurning champion himself.
Our orders were clear. Brush your ponies, bridle them and set them free. Stand with your back at the fence and slide down to the gate, avoiding any equine hijinks on the playground. Next, we had a 15 minute demo on how to ride a horse. This was a good thing for the three young German riders clad in admirably white sneakers and jeans who were new to the sport, and interesting for the rest of us, with me being the only "native" speaker, even though my accent is New England. Lining up for saddles and sent out to re-find our mounts, I looked for Chico, but he had disappeared. Bea, a small Italian child who seemed to know everything anyone really needed to know, cheerfully acknowledged my confusion and pointed to the pony behind her, " 'Ere is the Chico!" We saddled up. Do not touch the fittings. Get on from ground. Wait for rain to stop. When rain does not stop, get on anyway. Six Germans, two Danes and me. One gets yelled at a lot for violating ride protocol, but as she clearly does not understand English, she smiles and carries on. I occasionally hear German chatter which comes back to me with "The Chico" casually popping up and I discern that everyone else is counting themselves lucky for riding a horse who clip clops rather than clippity clips.
The rain finally lets up, and it is a memorable ride through country lanes and bracken-thick trails to the summit of neolithic Arthur's Stone. We "experienced" riders have several satisfactory gallops as the ride sections off to allow beginners their walk and the wilder contingent their high speed coastal chase. We pass down to Three Cliffs Beach. I am terrifically grateful to the dancing- in- his -footsteps Chico for carrying me both up and down. We easily cross the two rivers while the tide is reassuringly far, far out. Three Cliffs allegedly has the second fastest/highest tide in the world outside of Canada's Bay of Fundy. It's not unusual for helicopters to have to swoop in to rescue bathers, kayakers--or ponies.
We have a gallop up the dunes and tie the horses to puny pieces of gorse so they can graze and rest and we can head for the Three Cliffs cafe for sandwiches. The German twenty-somethings all picnic by the headland and kiss and doze in the sun. I eat lunch in the cafe garden with the Danes (father and daughter) and two young German sisters, one of whom is deathly afraid of bees. There are bees.
It's interesting, the Danish father accompanying his 13 year old daughter. This is the fourth family I have encountered this summer where the parents have taken up horseback riding as a common denominator for joining their offspring on summer holidays. The week previous, I rode out near Brecon with Gary and Vivian from Hong Kong who were having their last summer with their Cambridge-bound daughter--on horseback. If it's a trend it's a nice one, far nicer than say the ones my parents had where we went on holiday with their friends, most memorably during Republican or Democratic National Conventions which saw the production of great adult angst and the consumption of a lot of adult gin.
Having finished my sandwich at the cafe, I wandered back to the clifftop to gaze meaningfully over the sun speckled sea, while to my left the German couples posed in FaceBook bound life- endangering positions over the rocks. That masthead arms -out thing the Titanic movie spearheaded is still very au courant. I admired the blueness of the sea, the steep limestone cliffs and the perfect reality of being here and not anywhere else, until Bea called to me, "You must come and find The Chico --we leave!"
I found The Chico--wound deeply in the gorse, his gratitude for my releasing him unapparent, re-mounting by leading him into an odd circular depression in the dunes which may have been where the Tardis once landed. We trotted through a golf course and down a huge cleft in planet earth, emerging up the other side to a few arced golf balls and a hugely threatening sky. I dug my rain jacket out, a dicey operation as The Chico was still dancing and insisted on doing a four square dosey-do without partners, but I got the sleeves on and the zip zipped and then woosh.
The thing about lightening storms when you are on horseback is that you are usually "out" somewhere in say, "the countryside" and you tend to be trapped between the metal stirrups which anchor you to the saddle, and the metal shoes which anchor your horse to the ground. This is generally a Good Thing, but when you see a series of forked lightening hit the beach fifty yards from where you are drenchedly descending to ford the rivers necessary to return to the cliff from whence escape is possible, it is actually a Bad Thing. The Chico and Bea on her little Welsh pony Baby ("Baaby, now you be good pony, we go here now") and I were last in line. Chico descended the cliff to the beach in the same way that I climb ski slopes--sideways. Each time thunder roared, he shifted to a quick 360. Bea looked nonchalant and the rest of the ride had already found the beach and were trotting towards the two rivers. River One--forded. The distance between River Two was a tide filled beach, two lightening strikes and Thor hurling down thunder claps that sends ponies like The Chico, mad.
Bea, Baaby, The Chico and I brought up the rear and watched as the rest of the ride (outdistancing us both by height and by speed) crossed the enormously rushing intensity of what had been a gentle broad stream two hours earlier. The bigger horses gained their footing on the far side as Baby and Chico were coaxed in. Daredevil Bea stayed right at my side as I nervously watched to ensure that Baby's head stayed above the rushing tide, and felt Chico's feet leave terra firma and swim against the current. Bea mouthed something at me, but through the deluge, the crash of thunder and the crack of lightening, I couldn't hear her. She looked pretty cheerful though.
Chico found land just before Baby's tiny hooves did, and we raced up to meet the Ride, trotting along fields and roads until we finally reached the home stretch. Lightening, thunder and drenching rain hounded us the whole way back.
Later, when we released the ponies in the paddock, The Chico balefully melted into the crowd and we stood in the rain watching them head for shelter. I asked Bea what she had said as we crossed the river. She thought a moment and answered, "My boots, these boots with which I ride, they are full of water." She demonstrated by pulling one off and emptying a gallon from each foot. I found I could do the same and we laughed. Ha ha.
There was an old hand hanging around the corral and I said, "Wow that was some ride--we were on the beach in forked lightening." Welshmen don't chew baccy, but this one might as well have. He paused, looked me in the eye and said, "Oh that's happened."
"Happened, like on a Ride?"
"Twice," he said.
"So... what happens when the Ride gets struck by lightening?"
"Oh, everyone falls off."
"They fall off? Then what?"
"They get back on and ride back."
"They ride back? Are they okay?"
" Oh yes. Of course their heads feel funny for a few hours."
I thanked the immensely capable and terrifically cool Ride leaders one of whom was telling the other that this had been the most dramatic outing she'd been on. When I asked them what they would do had the Ride actually been struck by lightening, one drew her finger meaningfully across her neck. Goners. Soggily wandering to my car, I was over- helpfully assisted in backing and turning by the German young men who were celebrating their survival with a suspiciously pungent cigarette, and headed home. Choosing the longer, twistier but high ground single tracks to avoid flooding, it was a slow drive. Once back at our friend's small village bungalow, wet boots, jacket and hat abandoned in the yard, I had a very welcome, deep hot bath. By the time I emerged, the sun shone.
One of us is a soul thumpin' soccer playin'/world football fan. The other can take it or leave it but doesn't really mind having to watch fast men in shorts, kick a ball.
It's Sunday, June 30, 2002, and we're in the UK which is experiencing an intense bout of World Cup Fever. We're in Bath at Flan O'Brien's a sort of sort of Irish pub It has the best tv in town. The place is packed and the Guinness is flowing a lot faster than the local brews. We have the last two seats (0n the radiator) and Tom is not shy about heading back through the throng for a pint. It's Brazil versus Germany and we are rooting, as is everyone else for "Brasil" our fellow enthusiasts wearing yellow tee-shirts in support. There are some unkind but searingly funny comments about the German team. Both teams are playing brilliantly and the score is nought/nought. It's an all UK/Irish (and our puny American duo) crowd, until the tall, thin blonde woman in the long raincoat wanders in. She too winds her way to the bar and asks in a strong German accent for a bottle of... Heinekin? The tv is loud, but not loud enough. The ribaldry stops for a moment and we are all a bit more self conscious about what we say about the "other" team. There are some thrilling plays but the score stays zip-zip. The German woman does not shed her raincoat, even though it is quite warm and clearly not raining in the pub. She stands quietly watching, making her beer last. I wonder if she is an enthusiast, a patriot or perhaps has a brother playing midfield.
A huge cry erupts, glasses aloft as the first half ends and the winners are anybody's guess. The German woman buttons her coat and slips out the door. We follow, I buy the kids yellow commemorative T shirts colorfully emblazoned Brasil at one of the stalls and watch the second half back at the flat. Brazil wins 2-0. Tom sees this as a good reason to go play a round of golf and then head down to the Hobgoblin to celebrate.
Three years ago, in Cape Town, a twelve year old from nearby Khayelitsha Township earnestly told me that he hoped to play in the World Cup. Or watch it. Or have South Africa win it. We bought little stickers, the silly acronym oval ones people use to show some kind of insider's track to Nantucket (ACK) or their planet (Earth) that said South Africa 2010, and put them on the car's bumper when we got home. People looked at us oddly when we parked at the Stop and Shop. South Africa? What about it?
Now it's here and we're part of the world which is set to watch the first match between USA and England in Rustenberg at 8:30 p.m. their time , 2:30 p.m. our time and 7:30 GMT. There will be much shouting down the phone between here and Wales I suspect. According to the BBC, The British Beer and Pub Association predicts that nearly four million fans will flock to pubs, downing an extra nine million pints of beer. You do the math.
It's likely both nations will stay in competition. Or their play will lead to huge disappointment. "Rounds" end later this month as the winners emerge, and the Real Games will happen when we're in the UK in July, starting back at Flan O'Brien's in early July and following the games as we head west. It's not easy being Yanks. If the U.S. is still in play we may have to wear raincoats and ask for a bottle of (arrgggh) Bud.
We're headed back to Bath for a few days in a few weeks and I for one, will insist on exploring on two feet rather than two wheels. The only way I'd say that biking in Bath is at the top of my list of must-dos would be if you took that lengthy list, turned it upside down,shook it hard and jumped on it a few times. Anyone foolish enough to insist on biking the Bath Skyline Trailshould note that the updated (shorter single loop) version has little levels in the map key indicating steepness of terrain. They're not kidding.
Looking Backwards 2002: Somerset, July
Fortunate are those who find the rental company early (the one hidden behind the railway station) hire a shiny new two wheeler and pedal down the very flat and pleasant Kennet and Avon tow path. Less fortunate are we who take our time and saunter in to find the choice of hire is down to two bicycles which look suspiciously like the ancient three speeds tossed in the basement back home twenty years ago. Solidly made of heavy steel , squeaky brakes, squeaky gears, we "adjust" our hard little euro- seats and pedal in the opposite direction.
Tom, as always, has a map. The National Trust suggests we take the Six Mile Bath Skyline Circular Walk. I point out that map says walk, see it's in the title. Tom says bike. First stop, straight uphill. The map itself (50 p back then) is quite pretty. Folded into an easy eight quadrants, the front shows a bucolic view over the city, three quadrants describe Features of Interest and ask us to keep in mind that the paths may be muddy so stout shoes are advisable.
The map itself is shades of green with the darker bits the lilting woods (Rainbow, Bathwick, Smallcombe, Bushey Norwood and the Fairy Wood). Prior Landscape Gardens is on our route. The map, decorated with butterflies and birds, is flat and there is no indication that the walk-- is not.
The next five hours are spent pedaling bike, braking bike, viewing Features of Interest, pushing bike, throwing bike (hard) and self (gently)on ground at regular intervals, and wobbling through the middle of cow pastures, contemplating the challenge of stile-biking. My stout shoes are more than muddy.
Prior Park, delightful as it is, with its gorgeous Palladian Bridge view of Bath, is on a serious gradient not mentioned on the map. Walking down to the Bridge is a good idea. Biking is not.
Rainbow Wood Fields is described on the map as offering budding Dog's Mercury, Wild Garlic and Hart's Tongue Fern for the walker's enjoyment. Enticing Features of Interest include birds. There are those of us who will recall Donovan singing sweetly about Chiff Chaffs, and there are few who would not be willing to pedal down a summery meadow path in hope of sighting a Willow Warbler or a Green Woodpecker. While we do find the Wild Garlic (not difficult even with eyes closed), the map is mum to what makes a Chiff Chaff.
There comes the moment (as it always does) when, glaring down at the map, I point out, with some expository description, that what might be a lovely walk, does not make a lovely bike ride. My bike refuses to a: lose weight or b: do any of the work itself. Only one of the forward gears works and the brakes are the kind that require the rider to drag her stout shoes on the ground to avoid hitting things. I suspect that once again, just as in that first ride many years ago over the dunes from Herring Cove to Race Point Beach, Tom, on his "men's bike" has the sleeker ride. Mine is clearly designed for being gently ridden side saddle down level village lanes. No one in America would attempt this vertiginous ride unless suitably mounted on a high- tech 22 speed mountain bike with five brakes and wide gel seat which cost more than a Volkswagen.
Having now cycled through most of the nonsensical loops of the map's dotted red line along Skyline Walk, we race down the long hill to the Fairy Wood, up the steep climb to the University and pant for breath. Pushing the bike through hummocks and bovine deposits on bovine pastures affords a view over the city of Bath--not bad. View of extremely annoyed charging mother of darling baby calf--not good.
Circuiting Bushey Norwood (early Iron Age hill-fort guarded by cows left undisturbed and unseen by us) around the golf course (more cow pastures), and Bathwick Wood, past the Golf Club (toilets closed to non-members)we stop for a breather under the arch of Sham Castle. Finally coasting down, down, down, feet gently slowing the descent as we head for the lowlands, we glide along flat lanes to the Bathampton Cricket Grounds ("friendly"game in progress) and head for The George.
No place finer than The George on a Sunday afternoon. Sited right on the canal, its lazy courtyard is full of Sunday diners, so we take our drinks up to the canal bank and watch the cricket on the other side. The great thing about cricket is that you can look at other things for a while (narrow boats, walkers, cyclers, Willow Warblers) or leave altogether to go get another drink or a sandwich or walk to London and back, and you've missed little.
By the time we lazily pedal back along the canal towards Bath, the sun has shifted towards evening and I wish the day would never end. Tom laughs so hard at this that he falls off his bike, pretending that he meant to. The bike ride, I agree, now we're on flat land, was exhilarating. We idly watch a few couples headed towards incipient divorce trying to navigate their holiday hire narrow boats through the canal locks.
"Maybe", I say, later on, after we have wheeled our way through Stanley Gardens, returned the bikes, eaten enchiladas at Las Iguana's and are sitting outside the Hobgoblin in the suprisingly dark city night, "we should try that next time." "Try what?" asks Tom, happily halfway through his pint of Wizard's Staff.
It's London, the weather is November and not nice. We've taken the Cockney -narrated ferry (again, same Michael Caine jokes) downriver from the Embankment to St. Katherine's Pier . The gray clouds are still high enough to be hopeful. Hungry, we're heading over London Bridge for walkabout food.
The press of Saturday people at Borough Market make strolling impossible and at times simply breathing is alarmingly at risk. Visitors are generally like us; in search of immediately consumable food rather than dinner fixings. The handsome displays of peppers and wine and bread and pheasant go undisturbed. We wait in a long queue for sausages grilled by Aussie twenty-somethings, purchase an armful of fragrant heather sprays and spend time hanging around the Wensleydale Cheese because no one else is.
A South Bank River Walk on a gloomy day calls for a Thames side drink on the deck of the Thames-side Inn. Leaning over the rail watching the Thames police launch shuttle its crew of seriously yellow suited divers on their way to a mysterious something, holds our attention until they get swallowed by larger craft. It's not that this pub is any great shakes, but it juts right out into the Thames in a pleasing, under- the- falls kind of way. The Founders' Arms down the walk has a terrific multi- directional river webcam, and maybe we're on it, viewers in Tokyo watching our tiny selves watch the great gray river.
Strolling down Gabriel's Wharf past the book stalls, maps, and prints, the weather closes in and paperbacks are resignedly covered by tarps. This part of the South Bank teems with walkers, diners, skateboarders and legions of Maclaren double baby strollers whose prisoners are encased in waterproof plastic shields. Carved out of old riverside garages, chic shops and businesses line the walk between the London Eye, which currently stares at dismal skies, and the power plant -turned-Tate Modern. The drama of the rain-fed Thames gives new meaning to the word roil.
We join the river rubberneckers witnessing a drowning. Thames- bank sand sculptors create exotic installations in the hours between tides. One combo street theater group, who call themselves Dirty Beach, regularly carve elaborately sandy living rooms complete with sofa and tv from the gritty river bank.
Today's sculptor is into big heads. A glum woman with sharp cheekbones, pouty mouth and flowing sand locks looks resigned to meeting her maker; her eyes closed against her tidal fate. The artist's tip bucket is handsomely full but I toss in another pound coin. A cigarette dangling from his mouth in either a purposefully rakish bohemian artist kind of look, or simply as a way to keep it sand-free, he grins a thanks, but while his back is turned the Thames tosses a wave over the sand head.
The artist banks a channel to temporarily divert the breach against the inevitable, but the tide has turned. His woman is a goner. The water flirts with her hair, stealingstrands and toying with her head and ears. The channel floods and smooths her chin and cheeks. I can't watch the inevitable and we walk on, leaving the rest of the ghoulish voyeurs to see her out to sea.
A perfect day, we lose ourselves in early dark to the crush of pre-Christmas Oxford Street, shop for but do not buy a new duvet cover, ride the steamy number 137 bus back to Sloane Square and share a drink by the warm fire at the Cooper's Arms. Looking deeply at the fire over my glass, I ask Tom if he can't just make out a sort of head shape right there in the glowing embers. Tom says I am being macabre and we sit in the quiet pub thinking about the weight of water.
One of the things about traveling with someone else, anyone else; is that they may have strong memories of having been there before--without you. Sometimes this is engaging and you squint to imagine this person you're looking at now, being in this place the two of you are standing in; then. Interesting becomes irritating if their previous experience took place with someone they felt very fondly towards who was not their mother. Fortunately Tom has traveled only to the UK with me, some of our offspring and their offspring-- and his friend Joe. Most of our memories are our memories.
Tom and Joe bicycled through the UK after college (a very long time ago). Every now and again he mentions that they passed this way, down this road (Stonehenge, Oxford, Chepstow, Abergavenny) and went to that pub. It wasn't until this autumn that he felt a strange but insistent pull to return to the insular Wye Valley's Symonds Yat, and it wasn't until we missed the turn off the B4432 that he clued me in to why we were driving backwards.
"We're going where?" It's hard to get excited about visiting a place called Yat. It's even harder when you pull in for what the Other Half insists will be a five minute stop, and he has a falling out with the parking meter. It requires coins, we are low on coins and we are in the Middle of Nowhere. Worse, there is a painfully well behaved auto queue behind us of booted hikers who clearly aim to spend more than five minutes at the Yat, and they do have coins. Since I am driving, I leave Tom to figure it out and drive into the Forest where it turns out the parking lot is not actually very near the parking meter. By the time Tom shows up (he borrowed some coins from someone behind us who thought he had an 'interesting' accent, "You're not from around here, are you?") I am away up the ridge, looking for the promised Wye Valley view.
Symonds Yat lies in England a blink away from Wales. Tom had a bike tire blowout here on that sepia trip which required much bike pushing, a float across the Wye by hand pulled ferry, and a friendly repair on the west side. It's odd, these moments of memory, when you are instantly transported to who you were then. A couple of twenty-one year olds swooping their bikes down the hills through the cool arborage of the Forest of Dean going fast, too fast, and the inevitable rock in the road.
We are on a large rock at Symonds Yat East, on the Gloucestershire side and Tom's ferry took him to Symonds Yat West, which is Herefordshire. It is all very green and sheep friendly, but the woods behind us are vaguely reminiscent of state parks in Missouri, which always seem to carry a faint aura of doom. A sign tells us we might see adders, falcons, deer or dormice and warns us away from the sometimes savage wild boars. We crunch leaves for awhile on a circular forest loop, climb a hill and gain the view. Limestone cliffs carved by the rushing Wye drop down to green valleys and cliff hugging villages. Tom thinks he sees the repair shop that fixed his flat, but surely those middle aged mechanics are today's village ancients.
We have tea at the park cafe and avoid the school children on a forced march who have made it no farther than the cafe picnic tables. The hot tea is good, and we settle on a bench with our feet on a fence overlooking Wales. If we were birders, or horticulturists or photographers or anything other than wow here we are tourists, we would have a focus to our view. But we are resigned to just looking. I am very nearly past being tremendously annoyed at being hijacked to Symonds Yat.
A short bridge hangs over the road to the ferry but it's not until later that we follow its single track to the shore. The ferry is Not In Service after the great winter rains that cause the Wye to rush madly through its channel and flood the verdant valley. Back on the B4432 Tom looks keenly for the very spot his bike tire blew but is not sure if it was after this bend or on that straightaway. Eventually he turns his back on his young self coasting down that hill, headed enthusiastically towards the rest of his life. We emerge into the real world, dodge an oncoming lorry headed for the A40 and carry on.
We're often really dumb walkers, largely due to a compelling need to go off-piste, which is an American flaw. Brits tend to stick to the paths. Americans bypass the detour, jump the road closed tape, get stuck, and send up flares.
It's a lovely day in Edinburgh. We've had a glorious walk. Cosmic blue skies, warm air; fall is here and the hills are alive with walkers, rappelers, and students who actually think adults have no idea what a bong smells like.
Climbing up from Duddingston past the ponies and the meadow and the village and the pub; we head across the field and steep grassy path, up the eastern terraced slopes of jackdaw- rich Crow Hill. Aptly named, we're dive-bombed by two of them, either of which would leave little room for the other 22 blackbirds in any virtual pie. Up meadowy Nether Hill and not up Arthur's Seat directly across the way (too many people), we lean over the edge and look down. A trail which drops somewhat precipitously and exits where we want to be, looks enticingly brief, saving us the long walk down the crowded Radical road. Our OS map tells us it's Guttit Haddie, which means gutted haddock and that's exactly what it looks like; a jigsaw serrated hollow down the back of a steep, but manageable trail. What we can't see from our happy glimpse from Nether Hill is the part 30 yards on, where the path has suffered from what the Brits ominously call Retreating Cliff.
Both of us are complicit in the decision to leave the beaten path, so there is no your fault discussion when we find ourselves stranded half way down the badly eroded verboten slope. I sit, Tom sits, and we look down, down, down and consider the very real possibility that if we persevere in our foolish descent we will crash and burn. But how out? This is suddenly not just impulsive and dumb, it's dangerous. No way up, no way down. We Are Stuck. I, for one, am not in favor of tumbling down 100 feet of volcanic arroyo, and if my read of Tom's perch on his rock is right, he is as glued to it as I am on my rock. What to do, what to do.
Gazing over the horizon,I'm day dreaming a little about the sea and the city. Tom looks up and sees the Japanese students before I do. I've missed the drama of the students standing where we'd stood at the top of the hill, looking down at our scramble and excitedly deciding to follow. Tom does his best to wave them back but it's wave and wave and here they are hand to handing down the rocky drop; fellow international outlaws.
I watch with a mild sense of horror. As far as I can see, there is no way out and the students (six of them) are steering their way towards my rock. Girls with handbags, boys with city shoes, they demonstrate the impressive capability of twenty year olds, to go because someone in the group said to. This being stuck on the side of a mountain feels hazily akin to a similarly stupid situation I may have been involved in on Mount Tamalpais back when I too, was twenty. Time stands still!
The six smile, wave, talk non stop, and find a route below us which involves a few energetic leaps and bounds and we watch as they bounce off the last rocks and land on --land. There is a Japanese argument over what now, until they melt below our horizon and we unfreeze, look each other in the eye, take a deep breath, slide straight down rock face, and follow. Our leaps and bounds are not quite as dexterous, but we rapidly find ourselves down and alive. ,
Wearing what prove to be nearly indelible imprints of our volcanic slide on our backsides, we try to brush each other off, examine arms and legs for pebble shrapnel and generally appreciate our return to terra firma. Looking back up towards whence we've come, we see a few hopeful faces foolishly peering down at us from way, way up there. Turning our bad- example backs, both feet on good Scottish turf, we gingerly take the low road to Duddingston. By the time we've found the pub and the sun has gone, we've lost that sudden brush -with- disaster feeling which is, of course, how we humans carry on; don't you know.
Having been possibly the last person on the planet to have read the DaVinci Code,my knowledge of Freemasons extends only to secret handshakes and the seedy local Masons' bar that housed our kids' annual soccer banquets. I did see the movie (twice--on airplanes, I really liked the part where they gallop into the fancy museum party) and developed a mild interest in the idea of an ancient order of Templar Knights.
We took Tom's mother and sister to visit Rosslyn Chapel, which was shrouded as it always is, in scaffolding, and filled with people who'd read the Da Vinci Code with far greater passion than I. An unfulfilling drive down the four lane A1 to Old Craighill Junction, Rosslyn Chapel doesn't look like much from the outside. We eavesdropped a tour, and I stood for a few minutes looking at the maize glass, an impossible piece of insider's information about North American corn, that pre-dated the European "discovery" of North America. Or, was it impossible? Weird place. I bought the Rosslyn Chapel bottle opener, the one with the Templar Knight as handle, and a piece of pretty good shortbread at the Chapel's cafe and store.
Back inGullane I had been coveting the tomatilla-like Chinese lanterns growing in the abandoned forecourt of the empty Templar Lodge with the big For Sale sign. These lovely, delicate orange autumn flower pods dry beautifully and are a staple fall stock for us here in Massachusetts. They brighten the house from autumn harvest through long, cold winters. I wanted those flowers; that piece of home. Now. Checking out the scene, just across the street from the Oxfam charity shop , the Gullane Delicatessen and behind the Gullane One Golf Club first tee, I slipped inside the border yews, gathered an armful of glossy smooth horse chestnuts (also a mainstay of a New England autumn) and snipped a bouquet of Chinese lanterns. I greedily went back the next day for more, and hung them in upside down bunches on the whitewashed wall of our fisherman's cottage. They looked swell.
Stealing flowers from the Templar Lodge gave me a bit of the heeby jeebies. I kept looking over my shoulder at something not quite there, and Tom refused to come any farther than the horse chestnut tree.
There are all kinds of odd stories about this place. The most recent one was a few years ago, when a Japanese film company put up a 'round the clock rooftop webcam streamed back to Tokyo internet. They aimed to track UFO activity on volcanic, Traprain Law. A slab sided, sugarloaf shaped hill, home to ancient peoples for thousands of years, it stands in direct view across the fields to the Templar Lodge. Steven Prior, the defunct hotel's manager, who himself dabbled in the paranormal, told BBC reporters at the time, "Some Japanese golfers on holiday here saw something strange up there, and word of this seems to have got back to Japan. There is a long Celtic tradition of fairies on the hills ... you wouldn't take your baby up there for fear of it being turned into a changeling." Ethereal starships, hovering faeries, a million points of light; old tales talk of Templar treasure offloaded on the nearby beach, secretly borne to Rosslyn's underground chambers and vaults.
Who planted those flowers? Physalis, sprouting through macadam in one large clump, they looked purposeful and non-invasive, while they are prone towards taking over in warmer climates. Why? Did they arrive from a scattering of seeds sown by the ever present wind off the Firth of Forth? Pods from another galaxy? A last gasp effort to throw a little color at a last gasp hotel?
The Lodge was,a very long time ago, a Scottish "fortified house"built in the High Middle Ages, modestly prepared for attack. How it became a Templar Lodge, a black leather bar hotel, and eventually a conference site for UFO enthusiasts who featured shapeshifter replacement witnesses, reflects more about time and place than it does mystery or intrigue.
The village of Gullane pushed hard to retain the Templar Lodge as a hotel, but no bites. Approved recently as renovation flats and private homes; the Lodge is history. Whether or not the Knights of the Templar, alien illuminati, or simple Scottish ghosts disturb the high end conversion, is anyone's guess. I can totally imagine a brace of lost-in-space knight- ridden war horses racing through the parking lot, scooping up magical Chinese lanterns (said to be good for gout), and galloping on, over the hill, down to the sea; splashing across to Fife.
Last we saw the intrepid walkers, they were high on a Cotswoldian ridge overlooking--Wales. Now three in the afternoon of a winter's day, the sun dropping down in the sky, they consider their options.
They examine the map. As usual, they are doing a walk backwards. Left-handed and left brained, this is not a problem for him. She has to hold the map upside down, roll it and shake it, squint a little and crumple it back to him. Here, you look. Calmly, he irons out the map with his hand. If they take this first bridleway after those woods, and along that fence which keeps the shee p there and the walkers here, it should lead them to the fields which eventually end in lane, and the Ford Road.
He pauses for effect. They can of course not take the bridleway, opt for the longer route and follow this ridge to its eventual dip--and the Ford Road. She says bridleway (she has this thing for hoof prints) and he obliges. They wallow through two miles of mucky path which makes them rethink the wisdom of sharing the road with thousand pound creatures who have twice as many legs. Trudging on, they are mindful (ouch) of the prickly hedges and brambles, only partially pruned by the wan efforts of a volunteer citizenry who have made some (but not much) inroad on keeping the path open. She stops to pull an impossibly heavy tree branch from the path as a gesture of country code good will and he lets her struggle until she finally asks for help. It's a really big branch.
Arriving at a small lane, he thinks this must be where they go left to the road. She has her eye on the horse racing stable the lane runs by, allows as how this actually doesn't look like the path on the map, but eagerly agrees to explore it in hopes of equine sitings. The aggressive stable lad whose aggressive dog growlingly keeps the walkers at bay, advises them that the trail they are looking for is not here; it is over there, although he does not actually ask them which trail they are looking for. They retreat. She pats some ponies, they rejoin the bridleway until they reach the right farm, the right lane, and, eventually the next choice. This trail follows soft winter pastures lined by gentle woods, few farms, many sheep and no humans. The medieval Campden Lane brings them back to the Ford road.
Faced with four simultaneous signs: This Way(local footpath), That Way (Cotswold Way), Over There (Gloucestershire Way)or Follow the Road, they choose This W ay (local footpath) as one of them is always in favor of offroad shortcuts. He reminds her that this nearly always gets them lost, but she's already out of earshot. They climb a stile into a field of nervous, skittery sheep who scatter as they approach, like lambs before wolves. Their long shadows must look like stalking giants. The path, obliterated by sheep tracks (only sheep and wolves follow sheep tracks) is not even remotely evident. These walkers have learned (due to much experience and numerous arguments involving stupidly circumnavigating fenced fields) to look ahead for the next stile, which usually appears in some sort of break in the trees or fence. Aha, there it is at the top of the field, a long climb up. Sheep baa, they hike, here's the stile and whoops, just past this copse, there's another one just down there, a much easier route. Ha.
Another climb across golden stone harrowed fields, they reach the perfect little farm high on a hill overlooking everything. It's late on a winter's day and the house's chimney trickles smoke as its inhabitants settle down to an early tea. The walkers know this because they are horribly nosy Americans and have walked quietly along the hill, and watched. Passing the house, its view and its sheep, they open the gate and gain the tiny lane to the ridge which harbors bucolic North Farmcote.
Rejoining the Cotswold Way which now travels an ancient cobblestoned drovers' path, they are on the home stretch; a good thing, as the light is leaving the sky-fast. Just before the Way dips into the darker woods, they stop to see shepherds and collies sort out the sheep high on the hills above them. Whoops, nips, hallos, and a few invectives guide one group of hotfooting sheep into a new field and replace them with what looks like an identical set. The shepherds on their quad bikes and their sheep- sneering collies glare at the walkers long enough to hustle our duo on their long darkening descent through the forest.
The drovers' path sits below the woods, worn down by a thousand years of wagons and two and four legged feet. Trees have reclaimed any effort to farm these hectares. Private Keep Out signs along the wood warn walkers to--keep out. The Cotswold Way is clearly suffered by locals and not necessarily embraced as a bucolic right to roam. Past the fruit farm, along the slippery cobbles, they emerge victoriously back at Haile's Abbey very grateful to find their car where they left it, and that they have not (this time) lost the car keys.
The sun sets over the little twelfth century church, its light softening the air, sending rosy rays to warm the moment to idyllic. Smiling, walking back to look over the gate where this day began, one of them wonders if the other has eaten all of his "hikers" chocolate bar. Breaking the last bit into two pieces, he hands her one. Life is good.
Tom, like many big picture/detail people, loves maps. His heart sings when he sees an Ordnance Survey, and I had to finally haul him away from the lure of their neatly color -coded stacks at the Waterstones near the British Museum, as we were late for a date with a pint, at the Museum Tavern. I don't know why I bothered, as I spent the next hour talking to a voice muffled behind a map marked #45, The Cotswolds.
OS maps are great. They come with little symbols showing castles, barns--and pubs, as well as individual trees and the smallest, teeny tiniest, path. Local Tourist Information Centers (TIC) usually offer even more detailed maps showing local walks. Circular walks, pub walks, water walks, hill walks--these little maps are swell.
So it wasn't much of a surprise for me, when Tom slipped into the TIC in Broadway (the one in the Cotswolds, not cross 42nd street), and re-emerged with, "A Complete Footpath Guide to Winchcombe and surrounding areas" which identified five long distance paths, footpaths, bridleways, byways, forest rides, and other "permissive" paths at a scale of one mile to the forefinger (or three inches), reproduced in this tidy one pager by Finial Press in Stroud, by permission from our friends at Ordnance Survey.
A few hours later, sitting on a tree stump along a farm lane, looking down across the pastures of Sudeley Castle, trying to eating a cold yogurt with a small spoon, on a cold day, without taking my gloves off; I too, took a a look at the map. "This guide takes you off the beaten track..." said the first fold, which is of course, what had instantly induced Tom to plunk his 50p down for it, "...into the hills and valleys surrounding ancient and attractive Cotswold towns...whether you want an hour's walk or an all day's ramble."
I located the former tree, now tree stump, holding our picnic (the cheese and crackers held down by Tom's backpack against the wind, the apple slices stolen by gulls who were themselves off their beaten path) just along the Warden's Way near Park's Farm. Although we had moseyed rather than marched (or rambled rather than hiked?) since leaving the parking lot at Haile's Abbey (with a quick run -in to see the medieval wall paintings at Haile's Church) on the Cotswold Way, we had covered nearly three and a half forefingers of this designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Tom joined me, pointing out the many, many pathway choices in front of us, in our quest for a circular walk which would begin and end--at our car. Cotswold Way, Windrush Way, Warden's Way, Gloucestershire Way, and the mysterious Wychavon Way. We could make ours a greatest, greater, or great loop, depending on whim, and our remaining hours of daylight. Failing to take note of the map's casual contours, I traced my fancy, we threw our cracker crumbs to the gulls, and headed up a ridge so steep, we could see Wales, which was not exactly what I had in mind.
Still, it's a heady feeling when you've put one foot in front of the other, past churned fields of unharvested golden Cotswold stones, and woods hiding the dark, dangerous, snufflingly secretive world of farm bred boars. The distant view opens and opens and opens, until you can see the whole range of those mighty Welsh mountains, and wonder why the sun seems to be stuck there, and not here.
It doesn't take a BBC weatherwoman to know which way the wind blows. It blows on me and thee and the great North Sea--and I for one look out sharply for Oregonian coastal-like sneaker waves when we are walking anywhere within a mile's distance of water. It's the kind of weather that leaves you drenched in the five minutes it takes to find your car in the Europcar hire lot at Heathrow. In the wake of the largest amount of rainfall in the shortest amount of time in recorded history, bridges across Cumbria are collapsed or closed, as are schools and work. Local authorities advise people to ignore their satnav (there are apparently no settings to rule out downed bridges) and stay away from water. Sadly, some people have been swallowed (or have 'gone in' as the news reports) by the River Usk and the River Dart.
The Workington Bridge over the Usk (Cumbria) is about to come down leaving residents with no access to schools, food--and work, other than by a bad, bad carbon footprint 90 minute diversion.Residents are fearful of their local economy suffering irreparable loss. On Sunday, a local Reverend, exhorted her congregation to, "Pray for the Brewery" in hopes that Jennings Brewery, the town's largest employer, now on the "wrong side" of the bridge, will stay, despite the absence of a way in--or a way out. By comparison, Wales, if it weren't for the winds, and the great sea waves, would seem lame.
But the Welsh winds are anything but ignorable. The sea here in Porthcawl (home of one of the great annual Elvis Festivals) is a-roil and the wind, ceaseless.The Sunday outing for many people, in cars lining the promenade, is to have tea while watching the sea; throwing sandwich crusts to gulls who find it nearly impossible to land long enough to snatch them before the wind does.It is so windy that the bags are sucked out of rubbish bins, ebbing and filling with volatile air, tossing their contents to the sky.
A short drive down the coast to Kenfig, leads to the gorgeous stone Prince of Wales where the locals are taking refuge from the wind but as it's Sunday--no food, and on to the Angel for a hot meal, where our neighbor looks morosely at what must surely be his last pint. The bar tender orders him a cab, and he says sadly, "Not quite yet lovey. Soon, soon."
Our little car rocks and rolls in the gusts, but the Fairway Hotel seems stolidly rooted and only the sound of the gale, and the age of the bed keeps us awake. We eat a full (well almost full--skip the beans, fried bread, fried mushrooms but yes to black pudding, egg and mushy seaweedy lavah bread), Welsh breakfast at a table defiantly inside the great picture windows, watching the weather head across the sea. Tom says it may be just too windy to leave. The car is speckled by white sea foam, seats sodden with rain blown up through the undercarriage.
Who visits Wales when it's wailing? You get quite used to the wind after a while. The Chippy on the promenade is open, despite the risk of one strong gust's sending it seaward, and dog walkers are actually buying ice cream cones to slurp as they walk backwards into the gale, their dogs hopeful that chunks of vanilla cornet will blow their way.
October 31, East Lothian From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggetty beasties and things that go bump in the night, may the Good Lorrrrd deliver us.
Our mother used to tuck us in bed with this terrifying, yet comforting little homily (along with the one about bedbugs),and in the cold autumn evenings told us the ghostly story of the doomed Tam O' Shanter, who galloped his mare Meg through the darkest of dark nights.
It's no wonder that Hallow'een is my favorite holiday, for many excellent and compelling reasons;the crisp fall night, the moon, the leaves crackling, the ghoulies and the ghosties--and the chance to peer nosily into other peoples' living rooms, one night a year. We used to live in a neighborhood where our teenaged babysitter's father handed out shots of single malt to the adult chaperones, but we moved.
Tom buys armloads of corn candies and small chocolate treats, dumping them into large bowls to offer willingly in lieu of tricks. He is ever hopeful that there will be leftovers.
When we lived in Scotland for a while, a couple of years ago, we weren't sure if they "did" Hallow'een. We enthusiastically knew about Samhein--the Druidic summer's end, which involves bonfires and mystical otherworlds, but these ceremonies seemed more popular in touristy Edinburgh than in semi rural Scotland, and when I mentioned it to a friend, she laughed. Okay, I get it. We asked someone else, and were sniffily told, in no uncertain terms, that Hallow'een is an American import Scotland could better do without. BBC Scotland devoted a certain amount of airtime to this rowdy behavior producing controversy in the days leading up to the end of October, but it was clear by the costumes, candies and pumpkin bags on the High street, and the energetic preparations for monster bashes at local pubs, that Hallow'een is alive and well north of Gretna Green. The Scottish term for all this was "goin' guising" but it sounded pretty familiar. Tom stocked up, I cut pumpkins, lit them and set them in windows, and we waited.
Here's how it works at home. Really little kids show up way too early, sometimes before it's even dark, which should be outlawed. The wear costumes from Old Navy, Disney or the expensive Waldorf toy store downtown. Their careful parents allow them to take one peanut- free sweet from Tom's brimming bowls and are hopeful that it will be an organic gummy Fruit Snack. The kids squabble over Three Musketeers.
By six, the tiny ones have given over to mid sized goblins who ask if they can have three candies. Some of them (fewer and fewer) collect pennies for Unicef. By 8 pm the middle and high school crowds, out on their own, dressed casually in a last minute sheet or black jacket, cruise for goodies. Finally, at 9, on the verge of blowing out the pumpkins, we get the college crowd-- first years still hungry for their childhood, wearing the best costumes of the evening, and decorously thankful about cleaning us out of the remnant Raisinettes and Smarties.
Things, (she said darkly), are different in Scotland. The pumpkins sat, one in the window and one on the front door step, burning wickedly in the dark. Our neighbor's tiny children came by at 6 (in Scotland in late October it is dark, dark, dark by 4:30) and then silence. I went outside to case the joint, looking for marauding bands of ghoulish adolescents. It was so quiet I could hear the sea in the sheltered bay, a couple of hundred yards behind us. 7 pm, no one. Tom looked hopefully at the (modest for him) bowl of Mars bars. By 8 I figured it wasn't worth it to stick new candles in the pumpkins, I'd just let them burn down, if the strengthening wind didn't blow them out first.
At 8:15 the door was hammered by the sound of a million demonically thundering fists. I eagerly opened the door, ready to let that devil in. A trio of twelve year old Harry Potters looked me over politely, and asked if I was ready for the riddle. A riddle? What about I give you a treat, you agree not to trick, and that's it? What kind of celtic madness is this? I didn't guess that kid's riddle (some insider's Scottish joke), nor either of his mates. Cost-- three handsful of sweets, and a lesson learned. Six more sets of Harry Potters, a few Dumbledores and a Deatheater, twice as many tortuous riddles; an hour later, the cupboard was bare, and I was a confirmed idiot.
By 9:30 All Hallow's Eve,we blew the pumpkin out, turned the entry light off, and walked across the dark village green, down the windy lane to the fire- bright pub, for a pint. The wind whipped up a few ghoulies, a bogle and goblin or two, taunting us with gusts of the sea, on our dark walk home.
Tam O' Shanter
This truth fand honest Tam o' Shanter, As he frae Ayr ae night did canter: (Auld Ayr, wham ne'er a town surpasses, For honest men and bonie lasses).
O Tam! had'st thou but been sae wise, As taen thy ain wife Kate's advice! She tauld thee weel thou was a skellum, A blethering, blustering, drunken blellum; That frae November till October, Ae market-day thou was na sober; That ilka melder wi' the Miller, Thou sat as lang as thou had siller; That ev'ry naig was ca'd a shoe on The Smith and thee gat roarin' fou on; That at the Lord's house, ev'n on Sunday, Thou drank wi' Kirkton Jean till Monday, She prophesied that late or soon, Thou wad be found, deep drown'd in Doon, Or catch'd wi' warlocks in the mirk, By Alloway's auld, haunted kirk.
It's not easy being a Hibs fan. You have to wear green, jump up and down on stadium seating and worse--know all the words to the Proclaimers' songs.
It's soccer back in the USA, a sport more known as the venue of soccer moms than soccer dudes, but its football in Edinburgh, and it's us versus them. Draped in green Hibs' scarves, standing on the stadium seats, we're cheering our team, the Hibernians against the Hearts with song, volume and energy. The Hibs (Hibernians) do not have a recently stellar track record, but this is the golden year.
I am a bystander, a dragged- in companion to three enthusiastic Hibs fans; Barry, Gwynedd and my Tom, who is also a diehard Cubs and Red Sox fan, and knows adversity when he sees it. The game begins with each team parading out, and squaring off. Both teams's supporters' noise from the stands (the Hearts--Heart of Midlothian or Jambos, are the "other" Edinburgh team) is loud and semi musical. Imagine rows and terraced rows, of loud men wearing loud colors, singing as loudly as they can-- the green half of them singing, "Glory, glory to the Hibees" and the maroon half singing "the Hearts' Song" --fans swaying slightly to the tune, waving football scarves like matadors to bulls.
Although the stands do have seats, no one sits. Football clubs in Edinburgh do not serve beer at games but there is plenty of evidence of its consumption on the streets leading to Leith's Easter Road Stadium, and in the general demeanor of the fans. That they remember all the words to all the songs is remarkable, but it's also possible that singing keeps them sober. Barry and Gwynedd are clearly part of the Hibs fraternity, Tom and I lipsynch. Hearts score, Hibs sing. Hibs score, Hearts sing. Yellow jacketed officers patrol the foot of the stands in an effort to keep fans from rushing the field--a popular pastime. There is of course, a certain amount of that universal, men in herds, stands shakin' foot stomping. Removing it from play, I wrap my Hibs scarf -as muffler around my head.
And so it goes. I am caught up in the game, and the songs and the general energy. Football is Fun! It's a close game, but the nod goes to Hibernian and the fans go wild. Really wild. Then lights dim. Hibs supporters throughout the stands wrap arms across each others' shoulders--and sing, some in three part harmony. Curiously the song is the melancholic, somewhat obtuse Proclaimers tune, Sunshine on Leith, which may be about broken hearted love, interminably grey skies in Scotland--or football. Although I am pretty sure some of the Hearts fans are singing rather unsportsmanlike lyrics to the same tune, we all--Hearts and Hibs fans alike, have a wee tearie in our eye.
My heart was broken, my heart was broken Sorrow sorrow sorrow sorrow My heart was broken, my heart was broken
You saw it, you claimed it You touched it, you saved it My tears are drying, my tears are drying Thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you My tears are drying, my tears are drying
Your beauty and kindness Made tears clear my blindness While I'm worth my room on this earth I will be with you While the chief, puts sunshine on Leith Ill thank him for his work And your birth and my birth
It's not like we're driving up Mt Snowden. Consider Mt. Brandon, on the Dingle Peninsula. People walk, drive or bike up the hairpin road on the Connor Pass. Some hire folksy gypsy caravans, and try to convince their non like-minded caravan- pulling horses to drag them up. Fair weather cyclists ascend by van, and descend by bike, flying down the curves and turns--missing that noble greater sense of freedom that comes from having painfully pedaled up in order to coast down.
On Mount Snowden it's walk or train.
We're taking the train. Here's why:
Riding the historical, belching, rack and pinion steam train up Mt Snowden seems a clever way to see a big mountain in a short time.
The weather is not very nice
It looks like rain.
It takes three hours to hike up
It takes three hours to hike down
The summit cafe is closed for repair
The summit is closed for repair
We're already surrounded by legions of end-of-term, team bonding, mountain climbing, day out school children, headed up
We're Americans. We don't feel like walking.
Done deal. Tickets bought, check. Walking map purchased showing route train takes, which coincidentally follows most popular(easiest) ascent trail (there are six), check. Binoculars, check. Hiking poles, boots, water bottles and rain gear, stuffed back in car, check. Here comes the train.
LLanberis (two L's make a Welsh Y with a slight choking sound in the back of the throat) Station is our launching pad. A vintage -clad conductor takes our tickets, closes the carriage doors, jumps into the engine and appears to also be driving the train. The fact that it is a generally good day for slackers means our numbers require a double car, one engine, and we fit ourselves into what is an increasingly small space. Fortunately we are not, as our some others, seated with passengers whose girth requires more than their allotted space. Unfortunately, our group includes talkers. They have a lot to say a lot about, but as they are saying it in German, it is all German to us.
A quiet man and his quiet son sit directly across from us and thankfully they stay quiet all the way up. We're quiet too. It's the quiet family and the loud family and the big family and all the rest of us in the very small carriages climbing the very big mountain. Toot, Toot (steam engines do say that, toot, really), we're off. Steam engines also say chug, chug and ours satisfactorily chugs its way, pushing us uphill through a lovely valley and a hand hewn cutting and past the happy hikers who are at the first leg of their long walk up the Llanberis Path. They wave, we wave, I am pretty sure I can hear some rude school children alluding to our laziness and we leave them in our smoke.
Did I mention that we're sitting backwards? This is what happens when Tom and I ride trains; cog, steam, diesel or Amtrak we are last in and we get the backwards seats. This is actually okay when it's flat and you're whizzing along and it's Penn Central next stop, but incredibly disconcerting when you're going backwards and uphill and the engine is behind you.
The train does its train thing and the scenery moves from valley to hill to beyond the tree line, chug, chug until the halfway station where we 'take on water' which of course is a bad thing for boats, but apparently a good thing for steam trains. There have been choruses of oohs and ahhs and there it is, by passengers who are facing forwards, which we assume means summit sightings but could of course mean dragons or oncoming trains on our track. We concentrate on looking at everything we have just passed and the legions of happy school children in their inappropriate --for-mountain-walking uniforms skipping up the trail, socking each other and grabbing a smoke.
Our train, designed to go all the way to the summit, passes through a huge rocky valley which I am pretty sure must be where they filmed Planet of the Apes but Tom says of course not, that was Arizona. The train stops. We all sit in our carriages waiting for it to start. It doesn't. The quiet father and son get out. We get out. The loud family and the big family get out and the conductor/engineer tells us this is as far as we are going. Everybody out. We're at Clogwyn Station I think, since that's what the tickets say, but there isn't actually a station.
The train sits, we stand. Everyone is out of the train, there is no shelter--and it starts to rain--a little. We walk around the bleak perimeter which ends precipitously at the top of a huge gorge which requires peering over to see down, accompanied by cries of, don't go near the edge. We look at a summit high above us but aren't sure if it's our summit or another summit (there are a number of those around here). It rains a little harder. I remind Tom that it was his idea to put our rain gear back in the car. He reminds me that I said we didn't need it because we would be sitting in a train. It's really raining. No conductor/engineer in sight. The loud family is not happy. We look up, we look around, but our looking is seriously hampered by the fact that we are in dense fog--and wet. This is a lot like being on a whale watch in bad weather, except that of course it's Wales and the biggest mountain outside of Scotland, not whales and Stellwagen Bank. Ha.
Toot, toot. The doors to the carriages miraculously open and we climb back in. The quiet father and son are missing. No one counts heads and we begin our rack and pinion descent, our view limited to mist which is just as well because in some places we pick up speed while going straight down. Once we are back in the Rocky Valley it begins to clear a little. We can pick out familiar boulders, and wet walkers. The school children are hilarious in their soddenness, their drenched school uniforms a giddy indicator that lessons are over and summer is here.
We turn a corner and my eyes connect, for just a moment, with the eyes of our outward journey seat mates--the quiet father and son-- who are walking their way back.
Late Winter, Cotswolds The gate stands at the top of the meadow, a mile past a meandering little river which winds through a golden Gloucestershire village. Its frame bent just enough to look as if it might have been shoved aside by a small, impatient dragon - it is the kind of Narnian door that promises adventure. You ping the catch back, stride through and hey presto, you've wandered into a sixteenth century landscape that's real--but too real to be real, if you know what I mean. It takes a mighty intervention to "preserve" space like this.
A row of trees-- the many -armed, and mysterious whych elm, solid beech and comforting oak, stand leafless in the January sun. An ancient stone fence stolidly rings the fields. Just off in the near distance are the chimneys of an old manor house tucked down in the hollow by the stream. I have to shake my head and roll my eyes around for a few moments to get back to my own time, but am still a little startled to look down and see my legs in jeans and my feet in rubber boots, which definitively mark the here and now.
It is almost balmy here, at high noon, in the coldest part of an English winter. I have peeled off my jacket and stuffed it in Tom’s daypack, along with gloves and scarf and hat and anything else I am supposed to be carrying, in favor of his carrying it. The sun is doing its best to think spring. The ground is relatively dry, although we have worn our wellies into which we, habitual walkers of wet lands, have nonchalantly tucked our trousers. When we reach the next little, immaculate-right-out-of-the-movie village before returning on the slightly circular path, we ford the deep stream and splash around for a while; big kids in a giant puddle, only mildly heedful of the strong little current which could trip either of us, if we don't stop fooling around.There's no one here but us.
It's January and it feels, smells and looks like October. This happens sometimes in southern England, and it is more than pleasant. The Warden's Way, an easy wander, winds through some of the Cotswolds' loveliest, preserved, and best kept villages, and it is hugely popular with weekend walkers, and weekend walkers' dogs. Today, we have it all to ourselves, which gives the whole place a surreal aura--kind of a ' post-Plague' deja vu. The wealthy weekend owners of these former workers' homes, are off skiing in Gstaad or just hunkered down in their Mayfair flats. It's too cold for tourists--except for us.
This is the kind of walk that makes the possibly dubious into confirmed believers of the Right to Roam. The concept of own- and- share dovetails sweetly with a general awareness of the Country Code-- which means that we carefully close the gate after opening it, do not throw our litter on the ground, nor our beer bottles at the stone fence and refrain from scaring sheep. We could not do this at home, where No Trespass is a treasured citizen's right and the concept of walking across common ways, is nearly as foreign--as sheep...
We're not walking all of the 13 mile Way--just the bit between the pub (Coach and Horses) parking lot on the busy three lane A429 on the off side of Bourton on the Water. Given the swift winter afternoons, our window of walking light is not enormous.
The River Eye (more the Stream Eye), flows benignly beside us for much of our little walk, gearing up for its quick immersion into the greater River Windrush (which, oddly, looks just what it sounds like). When we find ourselves in Lower Slaughter (fortunately not what it sounds like), the water wheel turns only as a visitor attraction, and, as we are the only visitors and we don't stop, it turns unsung until spring brings the proper number of gawkers.
Our satisfying splash through the river leads us back along its banks, through Upper Slaughter, past the Manor-turned-Country House Hotel, over the meadows and through the gate. Russet fields, a few sheep and regrettably soon,we're looking at civilization. The car park pub is way too real; cheek to jowl with the highway and the byway. We climb into the car to head for the lively Crown and Trumpet, and join the loud crowd viewers of the Spurs/Arsenal game, in poncy Broadway.
I have to, at the very beginning, admit that I have a tendency to see ghosts. It's not my fault,and it's always a surprise. I come from a long line of tea leaf readers and people who who have convincingly two -way conversations with relatives who have 'passed over'. My mother, on the advice of her Séance- enthusiast English mother, banned Ouija for two generations after an unfortunate experience in 1927. My "other" grandmother (Russian) did eerily accurate Yiddish fortunes; predicting babies, events and bad weather.
When I say ghosts, I don'tmean wispy smoky see- through things, I mean real people who don't apparently exist in the here and now. Sometimes they bump in the night or walk by with a martini in hand, and others they stubbornly insist on getting into what I think is my bed, and they think is theirs. Once I demanded that we leave our week's farm cottage rental on a Blue Flag beach on the Dingle Peninsula after our first 24 hours, because an old man squeakily rocked all night in our bedroom chair, insistently saying, "Geddout geddout." I have probably the world's longest suffering husband.
So--this time it was Devon, in an old coastguard cottage high on a stormy cliff. I hadn't slept
well after an intense weekend of visitors and activity, and woke up in the middle of the night, in that way that says you won't fall back asleep unless you get up. Deep country pitch dark, I opened the curtains for
a bit of moonlight as I had done many times before (sometimes the moon shone straight over the sea, round and full into our bedroom window). I headed downstairs to make a nice cup of tea.
Opening the door to the landing, I sleepily noticed a person tucked into the comfy hall chair, huddled into a wool blanket gripped closely by his or her two hands, distinctive in the shaft of moonlight. I sleepily said,” Oh sorry,” closed the door and went to look for the landing light. All
the light switches in the cottage were hard to reach and it was dark. I needed help. “Tom?” We were, I thought, the only ones in the cottage. No answer. Back to the landing. Tiptoeing a bit closer, looking again at the person silently curled into the chair, I stage whispered, “ Tom is that you?" Tom yawned an answer from our bedroom, “What?"”.
Waking up a lot faster than is advisable for anyone at any age, I very nearly fell backwards down
the long, steep stairs, but fortunately my arm shot out a life- saving grab at the railing. The person in the chair thoughtlessly made no move to help me, even though I was fairly voluble in a rather unladylike way about my near -miss dive down the staircase. In fact the figure did not move at all. Asleep...or?
I ran back into our bedroom to check to see if Tom really was still in our bed (yup), and back again to to see who was in the hall, already really annoyed that I'd been startled--and scared, and ready to have a few words with our midnight visitor. Gone. Poof. Tom got up and patiently, helped look for my ghost. The chair was empty--no blanket, no coat, nothing that could have tricked me into thinking it was a someone. Bedrooms-check, landing- check, windows-check. I sat in the chair too--very briefly, just to see if it was still warm and it wasn't--in fact--it was cold. Tom, who has learned over the years not to patronize me about these ghostly sightings, sat briefly in the chair, pronounced it neither warm nor cold, reminded me that the whole house was cold, and went back to our hot water bottle- cozy bed. I
stayed awake for hours.... listening. The two dogs snoring in the kitchen, said nothing. I switched the lights on and off for awhile and tiptoed around opening and closing doors, trying to recreate the scene--but my ghost had, apparently, taken his woolen blanket and fled.
We woke to bright sun, and two men
putting up painters' scaffolding outside our bedroom window. Tom agreed that we would make breakfast and drive up to the moors. We walked. And walked. The weather was gorgeous and the moors were incredible and the huge
circular walk had tors and fields and jumps and medieval villages and bogs and French
school children and chocolate bars and a picnic by a bucolic stream. We
wandered through little moor villages and had dinner in lovely
Harberton, at the nine hundred year old Church House Inn (broccoli bake and Lost in the Woods ale) with its ghosts, then back
to dogs and the cottage--and our ghosts.
I have to admit that I made myself stay in bed at night once I was in bed-- all the weeks that followed. Some nights the dogs or the wind or the sea or the creaks of an old house kept me awake and I took to reading with one of those silly book lights which gives just enough illumination to read three lines and to double check the shadows.
We don't always walk. Sometimes we just stand. We might wave our feet a bit and there may be some mad dashes to find shelter--or the toilets-- but not a lot of ground gets covered. Still, at the end of the day we feel like we walked and sink gratefully into the couch in front of the fire, with a glass of that nice sauvignon blanc in hand, the rain outside where it belongs.
And so it was at this year's Russell (New Zealand, Bay of Islands) Birdman Weekend Extravaganza. Russell is, as Kiwis lushly say about views, friendships,hugs and small children--gorgeous. A small village accessible most easily by a small car ferry Opua to Okiato, it is summer home to money, yachts and high end "cottage" rentals.
It's winter now and off season rentals are a steal, which is why we are cozily ensconced with our children and their three, four- and- unders, in a gorgeous villa with a side of honeymoon cottage overlooking Russell Harbor. Warm fires, porridge for breakfast, a ride on the high speed Mac Attack to the wave shattering Hole in the Rock, and we are in love.
Serendipitously it is Birdman Weekend. Friday evening kicks it all off with the Drag Queen Racewhere local teachers, electricians, fishermen and solid citizens sport high heels and feathers to race along the pier to a series of mini challenges which end at the pub. The day leading to the race, we are told down at the hardware and the pharmacy and the Four Square grocery that it's all in aid of the schools but, (a certain amount of foot shuffling here) of course the contestants are doing it for the laugh, all hearty blokes' blokes. Har har. The race happens as the winter day starts dropping into darkness--a swishy saunter down the pier, through the obstacles, much laughter, local crowd and everyone back to the pub, although I note that several of the contestants seem loath to remove their costumes and there is much arch toe pointing and leg flashing.
The weather--is winter in July, which even here in "sub tropical" Bay of Islands is not warm-and the sea is more than chilly. Although the week has been warm, sunny days, Friday night is expected to bring in a storm. A big storm. We keep festive umbrellas at hand along with softer than soft fleece Katmandhu caps and scarves. It's not raining yet--but the very nice Scottish couple who are caretaking our holiday home tell us somberly that the prospects are poor. The weather is expected to be worse than predicted. As we are neophytes here, we have no idea what that means, until a freight train wind tells us somewhere around midnight, that the roof is trying to fly off. The fireplace is full of rain, and the squalls are enough to send three year old Elena straight back to Massachusetts at about the same speed as an Air New Zealand 747 had we not held her very, very tightly.
If we had been home in rain date America, tomorrow would have been canceled; and we listen mockingly to the locals at the pier saying the show will go on--but it does. The Russell Birdman Festival has to be one of the most honorable do or die extravaganzas anywhere outside of Australia. It pours. It gales. People come. Everyone is soaked within ten minutes but no one cares. The littles line up with wet hats and scarves and umbrellas whipped inside -out by the wind and we all watch as contestants saunter down the pier to their own music-walk the gangplank-and jump in. Gorgeous.
High school wet- suited divers await underwater for mishap (the Pope takes longer to surface than is entirely comfortable for the crowd) and a small fleet of fishing boats and motorized dinghies escort the leapers to shore. Betty and Wilma (Flintstone) toss in their foot-mobile before jumping--and the local St John's Ambulance sacrifices an inflatable patient. Birdman him/herself runs mysteriously, neatly and swiftly, before arcing cleanly into the harbor and swimming back to shore. Drama and laughter combine with the music and the ingenious announcer to create an ambiance of fun and adventure despite the drenching rains, gale force winds and sea of umbrellas.
The littles, wet, but satiated by the hot sausages from one of the family stalls under the overhang (home-made sausage wrapped in white bread with a big splat of Heinz ketchup that tastes gorgeous, but leaves trails of bloody ketchup to be hosed off by the rain) stayuntil the very cool all -the- way -from-Auckland thumbs-up Funky Monkeys get down at the Pub Around the Corner where the adults drink beer (or sav blanc) and refreshingly hang out in back, refraining from the New American Parent need to pretend that they too, are four.
Later that night, back at the pub with a pool cue and a beer, I try to pry--who IS Birdman? The Maori bar tender (he was the cute one in that fabulous red frock in the drag queen race)-- says his lips are sealed --it's the village secret, and tries not to let his eyes stray towards anyone in that huge happy group by the fire.
North Yorkshire, July It's getting dark and I'm hungry. Really hungry--and cranky and muddy and I'm pretty sure that my absolutely favorite-of-all time irreplaceable shiny Italian red leather sandals are history. This forest is impenetrable and Tom has admitted that we are, as he puts it, "path free" which is his unique way of avoiding having to say those inflammatory three little words: We Are Lost. I know we're lost, he knows we're lost, but Tom is more likely to focus on the what next and I am thoroughly engrossed in the what now.
When someone asks me if I'd like a stroll to the pub for dinner, and when that pub is the Plough Inn in Fadmoor, North Yorkshire which combines ambiance,tiny rural village pub location, and lovely food which might include a creamy Wensleydale pasta and will definitely offer something fragrantly lamb and rosemary; my shoes (as in this case the now sadly wilted red leather Italian sandals) are on and I am out the door.
Tom has thoughtfully extended that invitation this evening as we have been pleasurably walking part of the Cleveland Way for a large part of the day, arriving back at our self catered cottage to discover that the cupboards are bare and our supper choices are limited to oatmeal and a bottle of Old Peculiar.
The pub is a good distance by road and I don't pay much attention to Tom's suggestion to take a short cut--always a cautionary sign.That was hours ago, well at least one hour-- and the sun was still high on this North Yorkshire summer evening when we followed the little red line on Tom's TIC map to the local leg of The Inn Way, off the hard packed earth road, into the deep deep woods.
What could be more delightful than following a walk called The Inn Way? The map shows it as a six day 89 mile circular walk Helmsely to Helmsley connected by--inns. Our little jog of it would take us to our little inn, The Plough and Tom does not notice--or somehow chooses not to let me know he's noticed-- that this section includes the highest point of the entire walk, which I sincerely hope is behind us--Sleightholmdale (cottage) to Fadmoor (pub).
The path we've been following seems to have been either an old path used possibly once or twice a century, a newer one that was a poor idea, or Not The Inn Way At All and has pretty much petered out by the time we've slid nearly vertically up a muddy embankment, crossed over another forest road to nowhere, and we've had to make the kind of decision that involves direction and setting sun and whether Fadmoor is to the west, the north west or just plan north.
I like to wet the tip of my finger and hold it in the air to test direction which Tom says is ridiculous because (he was a multi-badged boy scout) that is how you test for wind direction not for direction direction, but it works mysteriously well for my personal radar and as Tom has had a serious credibility dip what with the getting lost and all--we go my way which does self righteously lead us out of the forest over and through a many -hectared barbed wire sheep field--and then another one and three more just like it, so that by the time we stumble around a huge farm and through the sort of muddy and animal- rich ground detritus huge farms tend to collect and onto the Fadmoor road and into the Plough Inn, we are instantly stopped at the door and asked if we have reservations.
Reservations? At the pub? Ummm...no, could we just eat at the bar? What no bar dining without--a reservation? Could we just get a drink and (I beg) possibly some crisps? We are shuffled to a corner of the bar where none of the spiffy diners (where do these people come from?) have to see our poor, bedraggled selves.
Slinking out when we are done, we walk very, very slowly all the way back down the village road out to the main road, and the long hard packed earth road, down the steep hill, to the stable that is our food- free self catering cottage. I drink the beer. Tom quietly makes mush.
Americans hike, Brits ramble, and Kiwis tramp. Tramping up and down is a popular hike in New Zealand as these engaging Seussian mountains often come from lava mamas. Their shapes are so pleasing and there are so many of them, appearing just over the horizon almost everywhere on both islands, that they cry out to be patted. You can almost imagine taking a herd of them for a little bobbling walk.
We've spent several days in the "real" mountains northwest of Napier, staying in a camp already well up in the snowy range so we saw snow--which while amusing when it is summer in New England, quickly grows less so when your hands get cold, there is shy cabin heat and when the sun sets it is just you, the mountains, a huge night sky and a lunar- like absence of humankind. Icy mornings are made bearable by rapid sunrise and the lively gong, crackle, pop of Tui birds. Tom did some walking but I stuck to letting trekking horses haul me up the heights. Magnificent, not to be missed, and over-- once we headed down to sea level at cerulean Hawkes Bay, the upstart home of good grapes.
Staying at a vineyard cottage on the leeward side of Te Mata Mountain, we keep looking up at it on our walks along the river or through the fields and figure we'd better just get it over with and climb up, won't the view be fab. We could always drive up part way, as there is an auto road right up to the tippy top, even though we've only ever given in and done that on Mt. Washington many years ago which seemed like (and was) an excellent idea at the time.
Te Mata is a comforting shape. A mythical Maori sleeping giant, it peaks beyond a connecting range of worn mini summits which remind us very much of our own ancient Holyoke Range, popular with---harrier hawks (natch), as well as hang gliders. Easy peasy, a gorgeous sunny day worthy of California's best, sends us in search of a place to leave the car which doesn't offer itself until we are past the megamansions balanced precariously on fault line cliffsides, partially up the Te Mata road. Whoops.
We pull in next to a van full of school holiday adolescents giddy with having completed their climb. The Peak Trail leads to ...duh, the peak of Te Mata, four hundred meters up and we are feeling pretty dumb and Mt. Washington-like as we realize that our car has climbed 200 of them for us. The little thing is sitting there desperately gasping for Diahatsu Sirion breath, imploring us to get out. We feel almost silly pulling out our walking sticks for this romp in the park and head for the trail, which follows the road for the first few yards until it starts to wrap itself thoughtfully around the mountain.
I have plenty of time to take photos as Tom stops every now and again to check to see how his broken rib (horse fall in mountains) is holding up, so I get to enjoy the day, the view and begin to gain a deep fondness for this funny eruption between the flat Pacific coast and the Ruahine, Kaweka and Maungaharuru Ranges which lie just there in the distance-- wild and gentle and inviting all at the same time.
Craggy Range and the green and seductively elusive gannet sheltering Cape Kidnapper's lie just east. We can just make out Mt Ruapehu in Tongariro, the nearest active volcano, reassuringly distant from us. There are really no bits of this popular tramp that might make me think twice about climbing it with a leashed four year old, unlike most of the New Zealand paths we have climbed, which have a tendency to offer sheer drops on hair pin turns--much like some of the roads the Diahatsu has cleverly kept all four tires on, despite the terrain's clever attempts to toss us over.
Reaching the peak is no big deal and when we get there the parking lot is full. The Peak Trail wanders down the other side and meanders through a good chunk of mountainous Te Mata Park but we plan to look out and head back, as there are two wineries on our list of afternoon activity. We stand looking over the Heretaunga valley and the sea and the mountains and the teeny tiny school boys from the van near our car, who are nervously shouting with laughter as their teachers dangle them from ropes off limestone cliffs. We admire the tiled map local artists and school children have made for our enjoyment and imagine what it must be like to parachute off that launch ramp. Later someone tells us that it is not unusual for one of the parachutists to occasionally slam into the lower humps of Te Mata if the wind is wrong, or to wind up on a coastal thermal which deposits them, if they are lucky, on Waimarama Beach, miles a way, last stop before Chile--a long tramp home.
We are climbing Jacob's Ladder--all 209 steps of it. Rising up from a small lane in Duddingston, it is my favorite staircase of all time and all places outside of the Roman Steps and those that lead to my bedroom. It takes us to the high meadows towards Arthur's Seat--the 823 foot high lumpy volcanic crag-- highest of all seven craggy 'hula' which make the "tine of Auld Reekie" today. Hard aside Edinburgh's Holyrood Park, on beyond the Scottish Parliament (new) and Holyrood castle (old) it is viewpoint central for anyone wanting to see there from here. Arthur's Seat itself is a hearty, brief climb and where I first heard the apt British term, "I'm a bit puffed" from a nice woman in a narrow wool skirt and pearls who beat my friend Lucie (who isn't called Sierra by chance) and me up by a whole minute, although she pronounced it with a Scottish twang as "poofed" which means something else altogether.
We are in thrall to this inviting open space and climb from every entry point-- from the bottom via the Radical road, from the center via Salisbury Crags and from our car parked nicely by Dunsappy Loch to picnic on Dunsappy Crag. This walk from tiny, exclusive Duddingston on the far side, makes a most excellent to and fro destination if it includes the Sheep Heid Inn which is the oldest pub in Scotland but still serves good beer and good food, although I for one, have never taken advantage of its skittles alley.
If we do the walk the other way around,descending to Duddingston to have dinner at the Sheep Heid, wandering post- meal to gaze at the tiny loch and imagine the houses on the other side of the wall; we wander back to Holyrood by the Innocent Railway, flashlights (torches) in hand for the early winter dark.
Under date April 20, 1826, a correspondent to Hone's "Every-Day Book " gives an amusing account of gathering May dew on the first of May:On the very summit of Arthur's Seat a moving mass was to be. seen, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, many of the male sex in kilt, all dancing round a May-pole. Whisky, or mountain dew, rather than May, was in repute. Groups were to be observed on knoll and flat, music and dancing were the order of the morn among all.Under date April 20, 1826, a correspondent to Hone's "Every-Day Book " gives an amusing account of gathering May dew on the first of May. On the very summit of Arthur's Seat a moving mass was to be. seen, dressed in all the colours of the rainbow, many of the ...
Fast forward Jet Lag Plan A: go to airport, park car, check in, transit security, buy book, look at Charlestown out Terminal E windows, and wait for Aer Lingus flight to leave so can get snack and drink at Sam Adams pub, get in plane, have drink, eat food, read book, fly over ocean, land, get off plane, transit immigration, find hired car booth, negotiate insurance coverage, negotiate Heathrow roundabouts and straight on to A road, M road, A road, possibly a B road or two, stopping to refresh/refuel at motorway stops which look like and are about as thrilling as--motorway stops-- to eventual destination. Plan A is useful when it is freezing, raining or so windy you have to tie your scarf around your head to keep it from flying off.
Jet Lag Plan B: We have such a great track record for visiting the UK when the sun shines, that we're thinking of hiring ourselves out as a national PR scheme. So, Plan B means starting the holiday as we mean to go on--outdoors. Here we are, same shape re it's morning here and night at home,and we're in a small car hurtling along the M4 headed towards high noon. And yawning big time. Tom has a plan (Tom always has a plan). We have two key needs: nap and food, but we still need to get where we're going at a reasonable (pre-dark) hour.
The National Trust, the privately-run historic preservation organization which also owns huge chunks of British Open Space, nearly always has something on the way to where we're going that has nice little walks, a nice cafe, and a nice tree to nap under. We have long been card carrying members of the Trust via the American branch, the Royal Oak, whose generous invitations to join them on the occasional garden tour or great house circuit we have sadly to decline due to the enormous disparity between what a trip we plan costs and what a trip they plan costs. They send out a newsletter and an annual membership which gets us into every single one of their extensive holdings, as well as offering a satisfactory feeling of contributing to open space when we walk around a breath- taking peninsula which they have single handedly wrested from development.
Here's how Plan B works. Using the National Trust map and/or guide or website pre-trip to "gather information" about what's on our way, Tom elects two or three top choices which he thinks we might encounter sometime around the Big Yawn. So--say we're headed for Cornwall (which is a long drive any way you look at it) and we're passing Bath around 11 am. A quick left off the M-4 and we're following the A46 to Dyrham Park where there is a car park with a brisk walk (the Cotswold Way runs through it) to the Big House and gardens full of little nooks and crannies with viewing spots, green lawn and shady trees.
We unfold ourselves from the car, locate the lightweight travel rug-blanket we try not to forget (when we do, we have to buy another at the Trust Shop--which keeps our friends in rug re-gifts at a fairly steady rate) and meander for a stretch. A stop at the cafe for sandwiches, maybe some soup (soup--a good antidote to almost everything) and a bottle of sparkling ginger lemongrass soda sees us back to the meandering until we find the Perfect Spot. Skipping the Big House completely (it would be thoughtful if the Trust would extend membership benefits to include naps on some of those comfy daybeds or down piled mattresses the formerly wealthy slept on) we settle on the travel rug beneath the spreading chestnut tree or beside the ornamental foliage-- and pass out.
Waking half an hour or so later really quite refreshed and pleased with ourselves, we visit the always excellent Trust toilets (usually 'green' as in electric hand dryers but no heat) and head for the car, the motorway and the rest of what we assure each other, will be the best holiday ever.
Some dedicated walkers are those who yearn to tread paths other people meaningfully created a long time ago-- possibly because there were no busses, and no M4. Well worn trails which sometimes sink below the field beside them, towered over by ancient hedges, they have been the cause of many a weary foot (true pilgims shun shoes) on a hopeful pre-Gortex journey. The Canterbury pilgrimage to visit the shrine of Thomas ah Becket (who was murdered in 1170) is one of those--and it is surprisingly popular. Not only historic and a rather lovely meander through the Weald and along the chalk cliffs, there is always the possibility that visiting Becket's bones could yield miracles to those in need of instant cures for leprosy or blindness, although there is no exsiting record of where dem bones were hidden.
There are organized treks that anyone can join, but true afficianados are those like these kids who did the walk on a field trip. Alabama author Jerry Ellis, who has a passion for walking in the footsteps of his ancestors and claims to have thumbed enough miles to circumnavigate the globe five times, has written both about walking the Trail of Tears from his Cherokee clan and Canterbury on his Brit side . His research involved stopping at pubs and talking to a lot of bent-arm beer drinkers, which is always a nice way to walk. Perhaps the most engaging walkers are those like Ed and Will who want to BE a Canterbury pilgrim and aren't too worried that they've shown up a eight hundred years too late to catch up with the posse.
ThePilgrim's Way is a loop of the 153 mile North Downs Way which runs from Farnham to Canterbury via--Dorking. The national trail follows the bucolic top of the chalk downs, while the pilgrims are at the bottom--with all the sprawl. The "real" Chaucerian Pilgrim's Way from Southwark Cathedral in London to Canterbury Cathedral is easy to follow--it's the A2. Enthusiastic walkers who want to alternate the six lane experience for a few less congested routes need look only to our friend Google which estimates it will take them approximately 19 hours and 18 minutes by foot to hike the 57.6 miles cathedral to cathedral.
What do you do once you get to Canterbury and you've kissed the Cathedral? One of our young friends who was on the women's rugby team at University there told us her most enjoyeable moments were when they danced victoriously on the tables down theHobgoblin.
I'm sitting in the rental car adjusting mirrors and making the windows go up and down while Tom walks around kicking its tires. The car is French, or masquerading as French-- as the steering wheel is British right and the French drive on the right. Here it is left, left, left. The thing I can count on is that no matter its nationality, I'll be signaling with my windshield wipers all the way to Bodmin Moor.
It's 3am Our Time when we head out to the M4--me steering and Tom shouting out" Lanes!", " Look left!" and directions-- like we haven't done this a million times. Navigating the roundabouts between the airport and the motorways pump up enough adrenalin to see us well past Reading. I'm relaxed, enjoying the ease of just shifting into fifth gear-- and pointing straight. BBC 4 is on- air and we're whizzing past green fields, large lorries and hysterically small, slab sided Daihatsus.
Despite the lure of signs we don't heed, like Windsor Castle (once is enough) we motor on until we, figuratively speaking thank god-- hit the wall. There are a number of ways to deal with a sudden attack of slo mo. The nicest one is to stop and eat. Too soon and not far enough along for a pub lunch, we pull off at the motorway Road Chef in Membury, south/east of Swindon which has recently gone upscale. No MacDonald's this--- it serves a most welcome (and possibly the most expensive) Full English Breakfast from here to Aberystwyth . One bright yellow fresh sunny side up egg, two rashers perfectly done bacon, one sausage, and a delicately sauteed tomato coupled with a slice of granary bread and a pot of tea. A look around the shop area (nice deals on fleece) a purchase of a chocolate bar and the new Hello if they were all out at Heathrow, and we're back on the road.
By 11 am we desperately need to stop for obvious post- tea reasons, and we're yawning . One option, if the weather is not excellent-- is to pull off again and nap in the car. Motorway stops in the UK are apparently a popular place for a quick snooze as our nodding neighbors are either all asleep--- or dead.
It has become extremely windy, a fact we find quite comforting as it pleasantly buffets our little hatchback which, despite being bottom of the heap economy, has Upper Class seats that lie nearly flat. We quickly doze off, rocked by the wind, oblivious to everything around us. Bing--half an hour later we wake to some eastern standard time clock, taking a minute to connect with reality: ummmm....we're in a parking lot , in someone else's car, in someone else's country-- but the familiar sight of ginger Harry on the cover of the Helloon the dashboard brings it all back. Tom peers out and oddly informs me that, "The dog is gone." I pat him, hand him a chunk of Cadbury's Bourneville dark and head back to the motorway-- good for another very few hours.
We live in Massachusetts; which means the flight time to London is only about six hours--nearly the same as travel by jet to LA, and roughly similar to sitting in stalled traffic en-route to Provincetown on Labor Day. The big travel difference-- other than one large ocean and most of eastern Canada-- is of course jet lag. London- bound planes from Boston leave generally around 7 pm, arriving at 6:30 am at Heathrow or Gatwick. With a five hour time difference, that's smack in the middle of what is prime REM time for most of us. There are as many "cures" for jet lag as there are for hiccups. Don't eat-do eat. Drink water but don't drink alcohol. Go to sleep earlier for a week. Put a bag over your head and stick Kleenex in your ears. After much trial and error, we have pretty much settled on our own course of treatment which allows us to cheerfully get through the night and the next day with only one Dramatic Incident. Here's how it goes--but a caution--we're big believers in serendipity:
Step One-- We buy some of those horribly hose-like black DVT socks and actually wear them on the plane. Unlikely as it is that we will get DVT as it is something only other people are afflicted with, we figure we will be really, really annoyed with ourselves (and certainly with each other) when our brains swell because we were too cheap or too vain to wear the socks. A walking holiday comes to a grinding halt when you can't actually walk. Of course the socks are so tight they could make your brain swell anyway. We also buy a bright blue little packet of homeopathic No Jet Lag tablets and forget to take them.
Step Two: We try for a flight upgrade. I mean really try. We have been fortunate to have amassed enough airmiles to often turn left at the jetway door and it makes us very, very happy to be able to do so, as we will have the option of actually sleeping. I generally put my head down (on down and covered by down) for a few hours but Tom is enslaved by the on- demand video selections for most of the ride. The upside of this is, it's terrific, the downside is, they make you eat and drink. On Virgin Atlantic (our flight of choice) you can, if you choose, eat your way through several menus from Halifax to Dublin, with interludes of fine wine and a glass or two of single malt at the bar while a flight attendant makes up your "bed." There is plenty of room to tug on your DVT socks.
If we're down back we will have had a thimble of house white, a plastic container of the cafeteria lasagna I personally always avoided in college, and several hours of a stranger's head in our laps. Should there be any flight turbulence my dinner tray will launch little packets of salt and pepper and most of my dessert at Tom. The litre bottle of water we bought airside for an outrageous $3.50 throws itself under my seat and ends up as an aisle hazard five rows down. I lose my reading glasses around 10 pm which is okay as I am deeply into following our journey on the interactive skymap. We will have had to put our DVT socks on back at the airport because, given the space available, we can't actually reach our feet. The breakfast yogurt and hot tea are most welcome but we realize that we've now eaten three meals (not forgetting the fried clams at Dine Boston pre -flight) in the space of seven hours and it is only 2:30 a.m. Eastern Stomach Time. Suddenly we don't feel so good.
Step Three: Cabin lights are on and we are securing for landing. I find I've been sitting on my reading glasses all night and use them to fill out our landing cards--same family/two names/two cards. Tom puts on his shoes, first carefully removing the mustard sachets and pepper packets. We disembark with heartfelt thankyous to all flight crew for working so hard to keep that great bird successfully in the sky and speed walk through corridor after corridor (Tom says he's pretty sure that sometimes the plane actually lands at Gatwick and we're having to walk to Heathrow). Ushered into the huge immmigration line- bender with all the sleepy babies and parents and people wearing saris and flipflops in midwinter London; we have our passports stamped so that we can run downstairs to huddle together again around the luggage carousels. If we have flown up front we get to wave a Fast Track pass to saunter down an easy check-in with a bunch of suits and happily use the stairs while everyone else crowds the escalators to the Baggage Claim Area. We nearly always lose one another here- a sort of ritual we seem wedded to, as one of us dives for a trolley and the other is riveted by the scene. Kids precariously perched on trolleyfuls of bags, celebrities or celebrity look alikes, friends from Boston you have to say hello to as you didn't know they were on the plane, and the amazing size of some of those suitcases which make your head ache while you mentally calculate what it cost their owners in overage fees. Step Four: Tom's golf clubs are always a source of some drama as they could show up anywhere--or as he steels himself, perhaps not at all. By the time we've discovered/remembered/retrieved what we sent in the great belly of the beast, we steer course for the race through customs which has a three trolley lane with a tricky hairpin bend in the last furlong. We blinkingly emerge through the duty free shop which offers 7 am teeny tiny cups of Bailey's to a herd of non takers, to the Arrivals Hall. A sea of greeters with chauffeur signs hope that ours is the name they display so they can get going. It's not. Step Five: ATM and toilets (self explanatory but this is generally where I lose my DVT socks) and purchase of new Hello magazine (rather not explain). Step Six: Rental car. This is dicey as it could be a Big Hassle if the rental agent is on commission to sell us stuff we don't need. Americans are prime suckers for taking out enough extra insurance to buy their own car. This is at times the scene of our One Dramatic Incident. After "agreeing" to the 500 pound deductible, additional driver fees (surely only one of us can be driving at a time?) and signing here--- and here and here, we nearly always zone out on what number bus station we are supposed to stand at for the shuttle van. Pushing the trolley out the hall's rear doors it is SO good to be outside looking for it. By the time the shuttle bus finds us, we are grinningly pleased with ourselves. We're here. next steps .....
Marahua, Abel Tasman National Park, South Island, New Zealand
Ride the horses from Lord of the Rings said the flyer on the wall at the Abel Tasman tourist information center in tiny South Island Marahau, New Zealand. It showed pictures of thickly muscled steeds romantically galloping on a moonlit beach. Two hour rides cost $85 NZ dollars (about $63 US dollars-pretty much the going rate). I wrote down the number and tucked it into my backpack, then sauntered down the summery quiet road for a late day January swim in an azure sea.
It wasn't until we were back at our chalet perched high above the coastal beaches that I dug out the stable phone number. My call got an answering machine so I left a message and enjoyed a nice chardonnay on the chalet's deck in the warm early evening as cicadas began to simmer down a little, letting through the bucolic sounds of people cutting and baling hay in the fields far below.
I called again a day later and talked to Matt who told me he wasn't sure if they were doing any rides out as the sun was shining and they were making hay. I peered over the deck railing and just made out a small figure in a red jumpsuit sitting on top of a baler with a cell phone in his hand. Half the meadow was cut and baled. The crew were using a small wagon hauled by a ridiculous mini (when they might have been using a Lord of the Rings giant war horse) and seemed to be alternating the actual loading of bales with swigs of beer and moments of general hilarity. They would not be available to offer rides until it rained. The forecast looked bright.
We ate our dinners at one of the two cafes down the hill and when we went for our fish and veg at the hippy Park Cafe eaten under a large open window with a view of the sea, I saw another flyer announcing camping and horseback riding so I wrote that phone number down too. When Icalled I got Old MacDonald's Farm and Holiday Camp and the person I spoke with, possibly Old Mac himself, made me a booking for the following evening as Brian, the hostler, liked to go out when the weather was cooler. I quite agreed. It seemed sadly unlikely that Old MacDonald's Farm would offer any equine Lord of the Rings.
The next day spent largely and perfectly hiking and swimming and in water craft, I drove down the hill from our chalet, took a left past the café and a sharp right to the camping farm where they told me to go back out, drive a bit farther and turn left into a field with horses. So I did all that and bumped across the meadow towards the horses Brian and Luke were tethering to a rope barrier. Luke said a brief hello, unhooked one of the horses, athletically swung up and cantered off bareback, a daredevil in shorts, his dreads flying heroically behind him, leaving me, Brian, the two remaining tethered horses at one end of the field and several others who roamed free casually cropping luscious green New Zealand grass.
Brian and I sized each other up in a laconic sort of six gun- free western style. He wore old jeans and an ancient button down shirt and I had on all weather combo riding/hiking boots and an unfortunate pair of what had become pink half chaps. I borrowed a "helmet" from his trailer and helped brush the mare Brian was generously allowing me to ride. Neva a savvy bay, was station (ranch) bred with curiously large round hooves and had that look that you sometimes see in wise mares which is sort of a warning: measure up or you're off. Brian gently combed and saddled her and kindly asked her to accept the bit he had warmed in his hands. She graciously allowed me to ascent to the saddle, adjust my stirrups and take up the reins. I politely thanked her but not as much as Brian did. Brian adored Neva, and with good reason.
It was just the two of us, Brian and me, and we walked the horses towards the beach via the arts colony where Neva took a dump and Brian got off to ceremoniously clean it up. We walked through the parking lot near the beach where two young men sitting on a car bumper well into an evening's inebriation commented derisorily on our namby pamby girly sport and then by the Park Café until finally we were on the huge flat beach. Brian had not stopped talking but Neva seemed to have taken a shine to me so I was happy. I could not tell Brian why America had voted for George Bush (twice) nor could I reassure him that the economic and environmental future of the world wasn't hanging by a thread due to the outrageousness of American corporate greed but once we were really ON the beach he took a tiny talk- break and we both just enjoyed the gorgeous evening and the fine horses and the incoming tide.
Brian enjoyed talking, but like Neva, he seemed to take a shine to me as well and told me his own story which was not atypical for these parts; a wander down the coast, a trailer, stay for 8 or 10 years maybe get restless and leave sometime soon but maybe not. He lived for his sheep and his horses. Brian said the summers were fine in Marahau but the winters were kind of slow. I sort of half listened until I startled at the word "murderer" and then relaxed just a little when Brian clarified that it was sheep (his own) that he murdered and ate and when we got back he would give me a couple of chops which I assumed were those of the lost lambs and not violence directed towards me personally. A gentle but driven soul, Brian relished the shock value of the word "murderer" so much that a small spray of spittle accompanied his pleasure in speaking it aloud.
By this time we were dancing in the sea and had several sweet gallops up wedge shaped sand banks and through the waves and it wasn't until Brian mentioned that he wasn't sure where we were that I came down from my riding- a horse- on- the beach- holiday- high. What did he mean? I could see the Park Café, the trees sheltering the parking lot, the coastal path and the little mountain with our tiny dot chalet a few hundred yards across the flat beach.
Brian looked increasingly anxious as he scoped the beach and told me that he rarely came out this far and was not really, really familiar with this part of the sands especially as they constantly shifted. Somehow in between his rambling dream of someday taking trail ride groups up the old mountain pack roads he said existed beneath the dense foliage of the coastal volcanic mountains (which he could only do he graciously said, if all the riders were as accomplished as I) and his continuing and vocal annoyance at the avoidable but potential disasters awaiting the outside world, I gleaned an undercurrent of what lost could mean on a darkening beach with an incoming tide.
Although it may have seemed sensible to just aim, say, for the Park Café and gallop on in, Neva said otherwise. Her eager gait slowed to a crawl as she very, very carefully placed each pudding bowl hoof on spongy ground, never leaving her weight on any hoof for more than a teeny tiny moment. Brian was somewhere off to my right, concentrating on the same intricate ballet. It did occur to me that I might get off and walk as the mystery of what Neva was doing slowly unraveled and became the one word Brian had not spoken-quicksand.
Having had many an encounter with the demon bog during "walks" in the UK, quicksand is still the stuff of myth for New England me. A quicksand is just that-a water saturated sand that does not create enough tension to support weight. It is exacerbated by any nearby running or subterranean water -for example, gulp, an incoming tide. Vibration makes it unstable. The vibration of a hoof or a foot can destabilize the viscous sand and create the sucking effect that essentially closes around the unfortunate limb like wet concrete. Remember that tubular woven straw trick toy where you tell your friend to stick both fingers in and pull back, trapping their forefingers until they relax and let go and then they wonder why they stay friends with you? Quicksand has the same reaction. Once you pull back (one would say a natural reaction) the tension of the sand causes it to lock and tighten. Struggling makes it worse-and hurries the descent into whatever depth the sand remains unstable. Although not usually very deep, people die in quicksand because they panic or succumb to exposure-or drown.
Neva of course didn't need any of this advice and Brian had, amazingly, gone mute after cautioning me NOT to get off. We did a four legged tiptoe over quivering sand as the tide began its evening rush towards shore. The sun had gone down behind us leaving heavenly red clouds over the mountains, all of which we were able to examine in great detail as we minced along. Brian was, I must say, very cool. His faith in Neva and his own horse was paramount and infectious and he knew to leave them quietly alone to do their work. Neva's great hooves continued their dressage over the dicey sands which took enormous physical effort as she had to remain completely balanced step after step after step. I tried to sit as relaxed and light in the saddle as I could, taking my cue from Brian who sat back dreamily with reins dangling from one hand.
I could feel Neva make contact with her first bit of solid sand one hoof at a time. Her pace instantly altered and she strode out purposefully headed for shore, leaving Brian to navigate the last soft patch until he could trot up to us. There was no altering Neva's plan as she worked out a route to a distant path that eventually led us over a leaping ditch, through a river and on to dry land.
We circled back through the car park, ignoring the now truly drunken louts who I mentally imagined up to their necks in quicksand trying uselessly to raise their cans of lager to their mouths, down the road over the bridge past the café, back through the art colony and into the long field. Brian's spirits had perked up enough to allow him to argue the future of global nuclear threat which took us right through the unsaddling and brushing down and offers of well deserved Polo mints to the champion horses and at last it was time for me to say goodbye to the magnificent Neva.
Brian asked me if I would like to go out again before we left Abel Tasman and I thought yes I would but as it turned out I accepted a counter offer the next day to kayak to Bark Bay and hike back and then we were gone; headed north to Picton and the Marlborough Sound.
The little twelve passenger Dartmouth Ferry that runs up to Dittisham (you can take the Dittisham-Greenway ferry across to Greenway with just a shout, a bell and a wave) is a lovely ride. It is a bright, cheery red and turquoise overhung by a yellow half cabin and terribly inviting; making it always tempting to jump in and head up river even if your arms are full of shopping, the ice cream will melt and you're actually headed the other way. The converted traditional fishing boats (there are two—Champion and Warrior) delicately chug their way through Dartmouth's busy harbor packed with scores of fancy sailboats, many of which never actually hoist their sails; serving only as sleepover water decks for fizz sipped in riverside splendor by their weekend owners.
We’re going up- river on Champion as Warrior is in need of a repair and we’re headed for a five boat day—which is very nearly, perfect. Dartmouth offers many opportunities to travel short ways via the river and we’re working hard towards a penultimate day out that will include every single one. This is as far as we've gotten. Our plan is to head to Dittisham where we will disembark at the end of the long pontoon, walk to shore, secure two wrapped picnic sandwiches and a boat. The Anchorstone Cafe provides both.
The sandwiches are an easy choice (one fresh crab mayonnaise on wholegrain, one Devon ham with golden yellow Sharpham Rustic Devon cheese baguette) but we have had to choose from the dizzying selection of boats-- Wayfarers, Luggers, Toppers or motor boats and as we have no idea what the rest are—we go with the motor boat. The only motorboat we see as we pass down the jetty, is half drowned.
Jasmine from the boat hire/cafe gets us up to speed. Her younger brother brings up a seriously big possibly circa 1963 cavernous dinghy with a small outboard, her name on her bow, Sian.“Have you anything smaller?” I tentatively ask, “Only that one,” he grins, pointing to the unfortunate sunken boat which looks decidely not seaworthy. We climb into Sian, carefully stow the sandwiches, look at the river map we are handed which shows where to steer clear when the tide is going out, rev her up and head backwards. I have to stand up to see out and hope that a: I don’t knock myself into the water and b: I don’t crash into anything. I make Tom scrunch down in front as the boat straightens out and heads upstream through the Dittisham harbor. Sian's great nose comes up as the motor digs down. I can see the ancient oaks that line the banks, the blue, blue sky above and the crab catchers standing by that boathouse on the shore. What I can’t see is anything directly in front of me, which is good news as apparently nothing is, but bad news as there might be soon.
We had imagined a gentle putt putt up river, dangling our feet in the stream, munching sandwiches, possibly arriving at Totnes for an ice cream and a stroll or perhaps dawdling up the Bow to the Maltsters Arms and then gently motoring back. We do get to the sandwich part, the dangling toes is out of the question unless we hang on to the side of the boat with our fingertips but there is little chance we will reach Totnes. The tide is turning—fast. This is where the map comes into play. It has x’s on the spots we are to avoid, and turning around, I carefully pick our way through them, rounding that bend, avoiding the Chinese junk curiously looped to that float and doing, if I say so myself, a most excellent job of artfully navigating inter-tidal treacheries.
Green fields, waving walkers, pastured ponies, houses-we-wished-we-owned high up on the hills we motor slowly past, it’s all part of the bucolic river life we would very much enjoy becoming accustomed to. Feeding the last sandwich crumbs to the gulls, we slide past the dock at Greenways and plot a path against the rushing tide as we cruise back into the Dittisham float. Jasmine sees us (or is anxiously looking for us) and sends her brother out to grab the stern and haul us into port. As we wobble out, headed for the Ferry Boat Inn and a congratulatory pint of Devon-made Jail Ale, we are riveted by the arrival of the Picnic Boat . A small canopied transformed fishing craft—it has room for a romantic couple at a well stocked picnic table in its stern—replete with champagne, what looks very much like fois gras, prawns and lovely grapes. Turning our backs and thinking, “some day” we happily climb up to the pub and look out its windows at our next watery leg.
The first time we went to New Zealand I was totally obsessed with the idea of being on the other side of the world.
The day we got here, after an exhausting three weeks sharing a small space with our children and their children, making up for the months immediately past and future of our not being there; after two flights and eight hours just to get to LAX, six hours at the airport celebrity spotting and partaking of free wine and green lipped mussels in the Air New Zealand Lounge, fifteen hours and two planes to Christchurch and a complete and mysterious loss of an entire day en route as we crossed the international date line; we finally reached a room with a big cushy bed and a bathroom that we had all to ourselves where I watched the water go down the drain.
Not claiming any personal expertise in most things scientific, I do like to think that I have fairly good powers of observation, as I enjoy looking at things. I looked at the water swirl around the basin, counter to all my personal observations in all my years of emptying baths and running taps. I realized, with a great and profoundly satisfying pleasure, that I really was standing in a bathroom on the other side of the world. In flying over the dark Pacific I had peered out the cabin window and thought the red crescent moon, sheltered in the darker lit circle of its real self, appeared to be on the “wrong” side and that the Little Dipper hung upside down and backwards, but who was to say that wasn’t the time and the wine talking.
But then, as I say, I’m no scientist and operate largely by feel; knowing west and east only when the sun is out, or I am near the Hudson River. I had been one of those children who really had believed that, if you dug a hole straight down on the beach, you would be able to crawl through to China and had not only systematically dug summer after summer, but learned very purposefully to use chop sticks in the eventuality of hitting the right beach, the right hole, at the right time. I knew enough not to tell anyone what I was doing, because grown ups were otherwise convinced by a science I was skeptical about.
I would very much have appreciated what one of the twins tells me is a Google tool calledDig Here . You identify your own back yard on a world map, press the button and it shows you where you would come up if you dug straight down. Peter says tunneling through his living room floor in Pittsburgh leaves him floundering in the Indian Ocean well off the coast of Perth, Australia. Amazingly, using the same tool has me here-- in New Zealand--if I were looking through the hole dug in our then Scottish garden-- although I too would need some seriously powerful water wings to paddle ashore. Sadly, my childhood fantasy of digging to China would have happened only if I were digging somewhere off the coast of Cape Horn, where I don’t believe chop sticks are requisite dining implements at all.
But here it is—my scientific truth. The bath water, as observed by me, and despite all myth -busting data "real" scientists have documented, enters the New Zealand drain I am looking at counter clockwise to how it gets there in my sink in Massachusetts. Even if you splash it across the sink, it still reverts to this anti -directional flow. I welcome an opportunity to watch a swimming pool empty but suspect, given environmental austerity, one is unlikely to arise. The tides and the wind do, thrust by the Coriolus Effect, come in “anti” clockwise-- making westerly winds bad and nor’easters good—a phenomenon that I doubt I can ever feel any ease with as the local weather report puts a big, sunny, happy face on the letters NE in the winds forecast.
My wrist watch however, plods on—heeding the universal mandate to tick to the right, even though it has failed to recognize that while it is Saturday here, it is Friday in Boston. Jar lids still screw and taps close to the right. It is only the stars and the winds and the seas that register the enormity of planetary distance and gravitational pull. I haven’t yet experimented to see if New Zealand wine pours itself backwards, but put that on my observational list of must-see’s.
John O' Groats is such a fabulous name it attracts lots of us who should know better. Walkers who collect charity funds by walking 874 miles-- the longest reach in Great Britain-- from Land's End (Cornwall) to Scotland, aim for here. A recent rambler completed his second coast to coast trek --naked . Dunnet Head , the windy overlook just outside of town, is considered the most northerly mainland point in Great Britain. It's magnetic appeal draws those who just want to stand here and take a picture-- as well as those who want to to sail out of its port to Orkney --a collection of small windswept islands whose inhabitants ally more with Norway than Scotland. They raise cows. An island joke is that they used to raise chickens but there was a high wind and the chickens all blew away. My friend Alison says that sometimes the winds are so strong, the children at the primary school have to be tied to ropes at recess.
We've driven in the rain, passing the nuclear power plant that is closing down in Dounreay where the only employment will be as part of its clean-up, and arrive at our base in Mey--the Castle Arms where, in mid September, we are two of its four guests.
The morning's ferry, the locally owned and operated Pentland Venture which has surely seen better days, is us, some others, and a boat full of hearty Germans who enjoy the sun and breeze up on deck on the outward leg and climb into tour busses with German tour guides when we reach Orkney. The rest of us climb into the single English language bus, even though some of us are Japanese and French, and take off for a whirlwind tour of the sites--Skara Brae (a neolitihic village excavation whose most meaningful message is twofold: people were really, really short 5000 years ago, and they lived in what look today like miniature golf courses), the ancient Ring O' Brodnar stone circle and the Churchill Barriers whose wartime design and execution were the work of Winston C. and 1500 Italian POW's even though they didn't finish until 1945. The wind is strong--and getting stronger. We get a message from the bus driver after the Italian Chapel (the one the POW's stuck onto the end of a quonset hut) that the weather is "deterrrrriorating" and we'll have to cut the Kirkwall free- time to hustle, because our boat is leaving---now. We arrive at port just after the German contingent and chase a safety-overload -double crowd on to this last ferry. As soon as the last of us has cleared the gangplank it is drawn up; the gates slammed shut and the small ferry chugs off into the gathering gloom, even though it is only four o'clock on a northern Scottish early autumn's day. The only seats left are on the upper deck which is okay and kind of exciting until we hit open water and the waves jump over deck and on to us. The wind winds its way through each of us and every thing. Although the people who live here know wind as their daily element, it is growing stronger and seems just on the verge of savage-- but none of us is actually saying so.
The German crowd cheerily raise their voices over the elements (which now include a sharp, drenching rain) to be heard, and seem to be thrilled. I am not thrilled-- nor is the young woman from Swansea sitting next to me. By the third great swell, I announce a desire to be lashed to the deck-- as there is little to describe the alarm to the uninitiated caused by a large wave breaking over your head on a small boat. I'm soaked to the skin--she's not. We holler small talk over what is now full fledged storm about her "miracle" trousers which are waterproof, windproof and cost a hefty pile of pounds.
When I look over at Tom, he seems to be, annoyingly, enjoying himself. He smiles encouragingly at me and I wonder what our children will do without us once we are washed overboard or go down with the ship. The Welsh woman next to me asks me politely if--- given there are the three of us, and she and I are staring fixedly at the one life ring strapped to the deck in front of us--could we share?
I think for a minute about striking a quick deal--her miracle trousers for one hand on the life ring but say, "Of course."
We reach the small, deserted harbor at John O' Groats pushed in by enormous waves which seem intent on taking us right over the jetty and on to Inverness-- the boat is expertly hauled around and chained to the pier. Stumbling down the stairs as they still pitch and sway, we make our way out, run across to the car in lightening and thunder and huddle with the heat on full blast until we have thawed enough to drive back to the Castle Arms. The storm that night is the kind that sends the lights on and off, a Morse Code of chance and we hang out with the Germans at the inn's pub and its comforting fire, thinking Dr. Who-like about the end of the world.
Joan loves throwing parties. Handing us a pair of garden shears and a large black plastic bin bag, we are sent off to gather sprays of ivy and holly for the holiday table. "Big, glossy leaves like these mind you!' she tells our retreating backs as she holds a shiny rhodendron branch over her head. It's not raining-yet. There's a back path, a bit overgrown but navigable that leads behind Warfleet inlet up to Gallant's Bower and the circular walk via Little Dartmouth and back by the sea leg of the South West Coastal path to Dartmouth. Feeling uneasy about "borrowing" bits of greenery from the National Trust woods we decide to get the sneaky work done first and then enjoy the walk.
I get stuck (literally) in the undergrowth and thick leaves of yesteryear, trying to go more deeply into the steep hillside forest to snare ropes of green. The wood is ivy thick and I imagine that the trees we are gently and only very partly freeing from their tendrils, are taking a gratefully deep breath. Tom snips the twined bouquets from theeir higher branches. Pretty soon we have what Tom considers to be more than enough greenery. He throws the bag over his shoulder Claus-like and we walk up the rest of the path, through the ancient fort, past the bluebell wood (it's not May so no need to linger) to the view just below the Coast Guard cottages which encompasses all of the harbor, the River Dart exiting to the sea and the opposite shore where the coastal path wanders on, requiring the Lower Ferry to get there from here.
Reaching the muddy farm lane, stirred up by huge tractor tires ,and lined by tall hedges which will be full of birds and flowers and wild garlic when it is not November, we reach the gate of Little Dartmouth. There are changes going on here--an old barn gone, two new ones erected and the planning permission and scope charts posted for us to comment on, so we do-- reassured that the meticulously layered stone barn remains, apparently useful only as an office as it is no longer large enough to house that huge tractor and the other mid- western lookalike farm machinery. This place used to have a spitting llama in the near field with the lambs and a donkey, but maybe its absence is also a sign of the times. The near field is, according to plan, now a barn.
Little Dartmouth is National Trust land and as we let ourselves through the gate into the home fields with the home cows and the enormous round bales of home hay, we feel particularly conspicuous wearing a big plastic bag on our backs (we keep trading off). A modestly popular spot for weekend walkers, we're getting some pretty odd looks from a couple with matching jackets and the young woman who works at the pub we were at last night. Her dog races over to give us the kind of serious sniff that accuses us of a poacher's haul-- at least three rabbits and a brace of pheasant. Hiking it higher in an attempt to look casual, the bag splits a little and a holly arm boings out in a last desperate attempt to scream a botanical cry --murderers, kidnappers, help. I think for a moment that it would be nicer to wear this bag over my head than on my back, so I tell Tom it's his turn to carry it.
We're walking more purposefully now, with an eye to putting at least a field's distance between us and the rest of the world. Tom takes the loot for a detour to the cliff bushes thinking he looks like a casual walker and nods at me to get a move on. I try to but I have to ask those two young women who keep stopping to kneel what the little white things are they are collecting from the cow grass into small waist bags. They look at me in that special way people who know a lot about something have for people who know very little, and inform me of its Latin name which I assume, means mushroom. I collect some too, but forget they are in my pocket until we are back in Massachusetts where they look and smell more like gorgonzola crumble than a fungus delicacy.
Here's where the path splits. It goes up and back to the lane or down the kind of steep down where you have to hand hold small tree branches and negotiate mud in order to reach the sea. The South West Coastal Path goes this way, under the cliff and over the tide -filled gorge by footbridge and we go with it. Ordinarily we might go down to the sea rocks here but the flapping black bag does not make for surefootedness on slippery boulders. Once the trail curves back up and past the odd little cave with a bench tucked into it for windy picnics, we're on the home stretch.
Hungry and thirsty-- Dartmouth Castle and a cup of tea next stop. Our eery tramp through slippery oak leaved trail to the river's rocky promontory, leads to the Castle cafe--- which has just closed. It is raining. I am carrying the sack now and all I can think of is ditching it. We head down the lane, up the drive to the house, toss the bag in the door and jog into the village. The crab sandwich shop is also closed, but the sort of lonesome pub Tom likes because it has Old Speckled Hen on draught, lets us bring in warm Cornish pasties from next door which we eat by the gas fire, watching the rain and the wind blow over the harbor while the boy at the bar plays video games on the pub's computer.
When we get back it is nearly party time. Joan, pleased with our stash, has arranged the greenery stylishly in the center of the long white clothed table which is much admired by the guests who arrive and are handed a glass of fizz. Dinner is a huge success with much laughter, rich conversation and great food. Serendipitously, no one lights fire to the centerpiece like we sometimes do at home, and Joan promises to set it free when we're done.
Even though we have had a wonderful stay at Cumbria's Cross Keys Temperance Inn I've probably ruined any chance of our being welcomed back. Ever. It's not really my fault. The traveling sisterhood will understand the demons that visit when it's been raining for hours and you've read all the books, eaten the last KitKat and sort of extemporaneously decide to cut off your hair. I didn't mean to dump it all in the definitely non 21st century toilet when I mindlessly hit plunge. It just happened.
We've been on our way "north" from weeks spent "south" and a few days stop in the Lake District where we've booked at Sedburgh's Cross Keys Temperance Inn in West Yorkshire's Howgill hills. The driving rain which has hounded Yorkshire all summer has pushed us up the hills and along the A-66 past tanks and troops who are ready for flood assistance.
It's rained and rained-- and rained. No, really, it's amazing--as though those deepest lakes of Coniston and Windermere have sprung enormous leaks and geysered their waters heavenward. Not good driving weather we nearly miss the Cross Keys and when we pull into the small parking lot ours is the only car. The Inn isn't really much as size goes with only the two rooms but opens for meals at lunch five days a week and dinner on weekends. Our confirmation e-mail warned us not to arrive when we have as no one will be here, but it's raining, and the door is open.
A fire in the downstairs library is old but still warm. We peerinto the dining room and nose around a little until we hear jangling pots and pans and voices laughing in the kitchen where two women cooking our dinner tell us just to go on up and choose a room as we will be the only guests on this wet night. The narrow little staircase takes us up to another cozy library with a bedroom at either end and we choose the cheery pink flowers , double bed and deep bath with a window that looks over the farm next door on one side and the rain slick A683 on the other.
I have a core need born of Yankee life in a cold climate that drives me to take full advantage of a deep, hot bath when on offer and when I emerge it has stopped raining. Tom and I look at each other, grab our shoes (and my clothes) and sprint outside because as lovely as the Cross Keys is, what we have come to see is Cautley Spout . Sliding down a small bank and over an even smaller footbridge--there it is. A spout is a thin, powerfully long waterfall and this one, the longest in England, drops magnificently as the Dales- driven River Rawthey falls 200 meters to the plain where it regroups as river and rushes between pasture banks to meet us.
We walk as far as we can in the evening dusk knowing we have no chance of climbing the ridge of the Spout which is part of the Coast to Coast Path before nightfall. Accompanied by wanderingly friendly, hairy black Fell ponies as night falls, we walk back.
Our meal at the Cross Keys is wonderful (we are one of three tables and I have the recommended buck shot -free rabbit pie) and as a National Trust- owned historical Quaker temperance inn we are, in these liberal times, allowed to provide our own wine. When they tell us we are the only ones staying here, they really mean it. The rain starts again as we climb back to our room, the lights downstairs go out, the key turns in the lock and the last car edges wetly onto the road-- leaving us both guest and landlord of ourselves.
We sit in the library reading from its eclectic offerings and savouring the sense of being alone in a wild storm in a sixteenth century inn. I find a book about William Penn's journey through Yorkshire in 1684 when he stayed here--back when it was a hotbed of radical Quakerism. Too early for bed, I watch the rain for a while, take another bath and cut off my hair. If there are any ghosts they are thoughtful in a Quakerly way and allow us to sleep easily to the sound of steady rain.
It is still raining the next morning but we can see the Cautley from the breakfast room window even if we can't climb it. I guiltily thank the nice woman bringing us our food who is also our host and full of stories about climbing and riding up over the Spout and the generations of locals who come to the Cross Keys for its famous green eggs and ham and don't own up to the hair fiasco even though Tom thinks that all plumbing is in working order. I take my oddly lightened shorn head to our next stop and a wet walk along part of Hadrian's Wall Path where any ghosts foolish enough to be out and about will be those of second century Roman soldiers miserably yearning for sun and warmth.
When the kids announced they were moving to New Zealand for a year everyone said "Ooh we'll come visit!" I figured that would be about as likely as the million people telling us the same thing when we lived last year in the UK. The only transatlantic visitors hearty enough to join us were Tom's sister and his 88 year old mother. I told the kids not to bother renting a place with an extra bedroom. So they didn't.
Which is why I am scratching my head looking at this e-ticket that clearly indicates that a: it is my passport to Auckland next month and b: I have done it again.
I am bizarrely looking forward to 24 hours in the air (think how many books you can read in a day when it's impossible to sleep, there's nowhere to walk, the phone and internet are off and someone brings you food on a regular basis) and a week on the ground so that I can do it all over again, but am startled at its actuality. The kids and I had talked about our visiting them but not in precise terms and delightful as they are we rather thought we'd wait until at least one more of them was out of diapers.
Tom and I talked--could we bear to exchange our summer's plans for backpacking in the Highlands for winter in New Zealand? Could we bear not to? We agreed to forego a week at the Cape, the Scottish sojourn and all that summer New England offers for three weeks in July to see the littles who Tom seriously worries will not be allowed to return home once the New Zealand rugby team the All Blacks get a look at baby Lewis' solid thighs and prodigal walking. Replete with well earned air miles we figured a trip down under would be "free".
So where did this February ticket come from?
I put it down to the three I's: Impulse, Internet, Ice. The first two are not surprisingly, interconnected. Air New Zealand runs one of those websites with fare names like "Sweet Dreams" which dangle enticing prices for long journies with "free" stops in places like Papeete and Nadi only to snatch them back if you dawdle. I spent most of one cold Sunday trolling the competition, going back and forth to my calendar and my checkboook, adding in the number of lovely airmiles accumulated by traveling to the other side of the planet and back and daydreaming about a world which the kids reported was "too hot". The too hot may have been the clincher as it always is for those of us who have just shoveled another fifteen inches of snow and refilled the wood stove for the third time in four hours.
I call Air New Zealand whose 800 number rings you right through to Auckland where you get to talk to an enthusaistic agent who talks funny and complains about the heat-- and put a ticket on hold. That service costs more than the web but gives you time to come back to your senses. I have a cup of tea, take a walk in the snow, do some "real" work, come back, open the Air New Zealand page--and punch in the million numbers it takes to spend close to four figures. My gamble costs me missed opportunities for cheaper connections to Los Angeles but I am non refundably going to New Zealand in four weeks and already imagining hugging those babies, turning pages, and looking out the plane window at the Big Dipper hanging upside down.
It's nearly night but the wind has lulled to a dusky stillness and I say to Tom, let's take a walk. Just a little one as we spent the day in the wind walking the Cotswold Way up to Broadway Tower and down through woods and meadows but our rain gear has satisfactorily dried by the cottage fire and the air smells lovely.
We agree we'll just mosey down the lane a bit past the pub which is not yet open but Tom brings map and torch anyway because we have now agreed that map and torch go together like boots and coat-we shouldn't leave home without them.
My boots (high top cozy green hunter wellies same as the queen--so they say-- wears to walk the corgis) are good. My rain coat is a foil to the fleece that is my must layer in an English January and I throw on a waterproof cap with visor--just in case.
The lane leads to a gate. The gate leads to a trail. We look at each other,shrug and go through over the bridge down the path. Tom stops to look at his map. There is a circular walk we might just squeeze in before real night, the air is still soft and the brook lined path ahead inviting. Why not?
Soon we meet mud. The cow trodden farm hillside we are climbing is so slick that I telemark vertically up the slippery slope. The farm itself sits comfortably mid hill surrounded by ancient outbuildings, fragrant smoke issuing from its several chimneys, lights softly glowing from its low windows. The trail circles above the farm's yard on a single track lane as we cross the top of the hill in what the Scots call the gloaming--a blue twilight whose rich deepness yields an equally deep pleasure at our being here in this place at this time. We see the lights of the village we've walked from blink on across the hills. They seem surprisingly far away.
Does the circular track start here? Or over there? Tom gets out the map and the torch, carefully studies it and leads us down a fenced perimeter--into the deep--dark--woods. Like a shade pulled against the sun, the thick trees, even in leafless winter, eclipse the light and we are blinded by the dark. My eyes have trouble making the transition and the trail having turned again to that slick muddy slide, I do the sensible thing and grab Tom's arm for balance. Okay, okay I admit I also grab it because the trees are really enormous and it is really dark and there are some odd little crunchy noises coming from that shadowy patch below us.
Tom balances me, the map, the torch and himself as we negotiate the hairpin turns pocked with tricky holes that make our boots squelch and slide. The teeny torch does nothing more than show us feet and as it is in Tom's hand it is his feet we are staring at. The crunching noises have ominously stilled when suddenly a violent gust blows in rain and all of the tree tops above us become huge winged creatures who rise up angry, flapping and screeching and way too close. My feet shoot out from under me, I grab Tom harder--AND HE LETS GO. I shoot down the slope sure that I'm about to be monster dinner and stop only when the mud grabs hold and leaves me sitting in its slimy tentacles.
"YOU dropped me!" I yell at Tom even though he helps me up and does the best he can to not laugh and says that he didn't mean to drop me but the good news is that he saved his map and glasses and they are not muddy at all.
I am so mad that I stalk off dripping mud and leaves and tears and even though the rain increases with my foul mood it does little to hose me off. I slog up the long hill until finally reaching the village road, tramp down it in what is now a full tempest arriving at the cottage well ahead of Tom but have to wait to get in because he has the key. We do not talk for the whole hour it takes me to try to wash mud from my hair, my face, my boots, my trousers and my jacket. Realizing that this is the best I can do in this trying situation I allow Tom to join me at the pub's fire where he placates me with scampi, a hot baked potato and a large Chardonnay.
It isn't until we are ready to leave for the airport two days later and I catch site of the back of my jacket that I come to a fuller comprehension of the tenacity of Cotswoldian elements. I will fly back across the Atlantic Ocean branded by streaks of what I can only hope my fellow passengers know is just mud.
Gwynedd is upset but not as much as her daughter the bride.
"What do you mean they haven't got the kilt?"
I can hear her over Gwynedd's mobile phone as can anyone several blocks either direction of Prince's Street--and certainly the unfortunate man at Edinburgh's Moss Bros fancy dress hire who is the bearer of extremely bad tidings. The wedding is imminent and the groom, demands the bride, is wearing the kilt. I am here only as a bit player--the drama is between these three: mother, daughter and Moss Bros.
What am I doing here anyway?
It had seemed perfectly insane--but also enticing. I'd called Tom on an early September day to share the amazing news that Julia and Will were getting married--in Edinburgh in early October and he'd said, "Let's go". Let's go? Travel to Scotland for a weekend? "Sure--we've got airmiles." Well, we do have airmiles and we could probably swing a Friday off work but, as I pointed out to Tom--we hadn't actually been invited.
He called Gywnedd, Gwynedd called Julia, I checked with the airline and we were booked more of a loooong weekend as we would be leaving on a Tuesday night when there were available seats.
Which is why I am here whiling away the time looking at the display book of Worse Case Scenario Weddings at Moss Bros where people usually hire tuxedos except in Scotland where they hire kilts. The groom had ordered his kilt at the Swansea (what do the Welsh know about kilts?) branch of Moss Bros and they'd gotten it wrong. The attendant says he may be able to cobble together a substitute after a frenzied series of calls to Swansea to secure measurements but not the family tartan. He suggests the Scottish National tartan and Gwynedd--in hyper mode now--automatically nixes it as she is Labour Party through and through but then comes to and realizes he means a different Scottish National (not the secessionists) and as the tartan looks very much like the one originally ordered, we take it and drive home through driving rain and two rainbows feeling pretty smug
Moss Bros tells us:
Contemporary Highland dress comes with an impressively dashing array of accoutrements:
Tartan kilt fastened with a kilt pin
A decorative sporran (useful as a wallet and as a weight to prevent the kilt from swishing out of control)
Knee-high hose, secured with coloured flashes
Black-laced brogues, tied around the ankle
The skean dhu (black dagger) which is tucked into the hose easy to grab in battle
Tartan trews as an alternative to the kilt
Shirt and tie (or bow tie and wing collar for evening)
The groom is there when we arrive and after dinner and a healthy sharing of a few drams of the very smooth Bunnahabhain (Bunahaven) single malt he has brought with him, the men take him aside to try his outfit on. He strides into the kitchen in his clan finery-- lurchers and spaniels intent on licking his shiny shoes and it is clearly apparent to all of us--but none so much as the bride--that it will not do. The groom is a strapping great lad--a kite surfer and outdoorsman on whom the kilt fits more like my mini in 1966. The bride is not happy--it will all have to go back.
The ridiculousness of the big man in the small outfit however makes all the whiskey cheerful men decide to put the outfit to good use. They leave for a bit and shortly later return with Tom happily decked in the kilt below and his new All Scotland football team birthday shirt on top. Tom has secretly always wanted to try on a kilt (don't all men?) and he enjoys himself parading around, striking Robert the Bruce poses for the camera and displaying his hairy shins as Moss Bros also forgot the knee socks.
There are many funny jokes made, more Bunnahabhain consumed and as it is also Tom's birthday, a candle lit cake. I suspect that Tom's wish as he blows them out, is to keep the kilt.
The wedding goes off without a hitch at the Registry office, as does the wedding lunch and the wedding dancing even though these Glasgow Uni grads have no sense of dance music. Julia demands a Gay Gordon and we have a march around the marquee. It is freezing and the dancers are clad in puffy down jackets as we warm to the music.
We party late, enjoy every minute and leave early the next day casually arriving home in time to sleep, get up and go to work as though we are old hands at this whirlwind transatlantic travel thing.
By Tuesday it is all faraway and long ago and I can only vaguely (Tom is wearing his birthday All Scotland tee short) recall that we were in Scotland just the other day.
Over the sea to... we're on a ferry sailing from dreary mainland Mallaig, Skye next stop. It's gray, cloudy and we are surrounded by excited twelve year old American boys who are not minding their captor. The sea is smooth and dark and two seals who saw us off, have slid away back to the shallows.
"Speed bonny boat, like a bird on the wing, onward the sailors cry; carry the lad, that's born to be king, oér the land to Skye....".
My mother was lulled to sleep with this sonorous but historically misleading folk tune by her mother and her grandmother; both Brit transplants to hot and humid 1920's Missouri. The two older women remained homesick forever. I sang it to my first born with awe that I was singing "that"song to my own baby. The song is a sweet one but it doesn't actually allude to the terrible cost of Prince Charlie's quest to be king, the Jacobite revolution, the Culloden massacree and, not incidentally, the subsequent pre- US Revolution relocation of Tom's (my good humored partner) lowland forebears to North Carolina. Young Prince Charlie escaped, was hidden all over Skye by Flora McDonald and many others, and eventually made it to France.
Loud the winds howl, loud the waves roar,Thunderclouds rend the air;Baffled, our foes stand by the shore,Follow they will not dare.
Bart (that long ago infant first born) had this song played for his mama/son dance at his own wedding, impossible to really dance to, it ensured we would both be using our dryclean- only wedding best sleeves to wipe tears. I sang it one dark, long night two years later while rocking Bart's colicky newborn son Oskar. Oskar seemed to calm to the tune, listen and sigh; the song's connecting him to all the babies of all our pasts.
We are following in the wake of another son Xander and his future wife Kai who took the "Harry Potter" train from Glasgow to Mallaig and then this same ferry to Skye just after his 21st birthday when he was supposed to be studying in London.
Walking the pier their first evening in Portree, they passed a fishing boat and said howdy to its captain who was still on board. What's it like fishing here, they asked? Ha! Hard work! He threw them a challenge. If they showed for sailing at 5 am he would invite them to join him as crew for a day's prawning. When Xander opened his eyes early the next morning Kai threw him his shoes and a jacket and hauled him down to the pier. The two of them, wearing full foul weather gear worked an unforgettable fisherman's 12 hour day sailing out of Portree's dock with its pretty pastel color houses --hauled prawns for breakfast, hauled prawns for lunch--hauled prawns for tea.
Many's the lad fought on that day,Well the claymore could wield,When the night came, silently layDead in Culloden's field.
So it was not without a few silent tears (I don't pretend to be anything but a melancholic ýearner) that I watch the Maillaig shore disappear behind our Caledonian ferry as we churn off to Skye. And I think we are not alone because I can half-hear that singular tune low-humming from many chilly throats as I walk the slippery top deck.
Burned are their homes, exile and deathScatter the loyal men;Yet e'er the sword cool in the sheathCharlie will come again. Long after his Scottish army was destroyed at Culloden, their families burned and driven out of clan fiefdoms, Charlie died a drunk in France, never returning to Scotland.
Speed, bonnie boat, like a bird on the wing,Onward! the sailors cry;Carry the lad that's born to be KingOver the sea to Skye.
This is the kind of day that makes me hunger for Scotland when I am away. A huge blue sky, clear, bright light, and air that carries a blended tang of sea, grasses, peat and....impossible as it seems here on the edge of urban, cosmpolitan Edinburgh--cow.
I give a good sniff, appreciating each nuance of what makes this exact moment in time unique and wonderful and realize that Tom has stolidly kept walking up the vertical climb of the Radical Road. Rather a radical in his own right, Tom looks deep in thought and may have forgotten that he came here with me. It's not that easy to run up this incline that wraps itself directly under the volcanic Salisbury Crags ostentatiously perched above Edinburgh's Holyrood Park. I love the name of the road ( it's pedestrians only) and its invitation to climb it is overwhelmingly compelling. We hustle up it whenever we are here, and increasingly that is whenever we possibly can be.
Yesterday we spent the day walking through Edinburgh doing other things and every time we paused on any kind of a hill at all, there the crags were, dotted with small figures who had yielded to temptation. Climbing Calton Hill, directly across the city, we looked across to where we are now. It's a beautiful climb and it leads to everywhere. This whole volcanic morass boasts lochs and meadows,the ruins of an abby, a church and of course, Arthur's Seat (that's in local lilt an eerily familiar Bostonian 'Airthurr"). The highest point on this broad expanse of meadow and crag, it is THE 360 degree view point. Sometimes I am pretty sure you can see Oslo if you look really, really hard and it is one of those days when the air is so clear that is makes you super attuned to smell, taste and view.
It's been a long morning, some of it spent getting lost in a car looking for a place we didn't find, and about which we had words, so it is no surprise that Tom is marching to his own drummer and that I am running to catch up. Here is where I pass St. Mary's School-turned condo across the park, where we first stayed, cheek to jowl with the crags and over there are novice rapellers, learning to cleat and leap.
Headed uphill I am only a little conscious of the gradually changing light and it is only when I finally and breathlessly reach Tom and grab his arm to slow him down that the advent of mad, wild, black clouds just to the north of us make themselves known. We both feel the literal chill of a dark shadow passing over us and look up to see a mass of angry, chaotic storm clouds blowing towards us off the North Sea, bringing a cold gust of what's to come.
We are of course not alone on the path. Elderly women in cloth coats walking hand in hand, mothers pushing prams, fathers and sons and dogs, backpackers; we are an assorted lot, but here for the same reasons. Having reached the zenith of this particular height, we debate whether we have time to walk on to Duddingston, a small village over the hill and home to the famously cozy Sheep's Heid Pub where a pint and a sandwich might be nice, or carrying on up to Arthur's Seat to get the whole miraculous view.
Turning to gaze once again over the cityscape, the storm shows itself as closer and meaner. When the first drops of rain begin, a couple of the walkers turn tail and run. It's only when the torrents unleash that we ourselves face the reality that is
Scotland; fair one minute, foul the next. Being hearty New England yankees we rarely let the weather turn us back, but are not wearing our usual wet weather gear, and is that lightening...and snow?
Heading back down the hill as quickly as we can, we are showered with rain, dusted with snow and finally, pelted with hail. We pass several walkers more determined than we, including two Japanese tourists bravely holding maps over their heads to ward off the elements, two mums with babes in prams sheltered by see -through plastic shields, and one somewhat dazed young woman in a very wet woolen coat and high heels, delicately carrying a handbag in one hand and a blown-out umbrella in the other. Arthur's Seat or bust. Sliding down the last grassy slope we skid into our car, fortunately parked in one of the Holyrood lots, and wait out the storm, which dramatically blows past us, headed for the Highlands.
It embodies everything romantic in my walker's soul despite the reality of Emily, Jane and Charlotte's particular corner of it being uninhabitable. North Yorkshire is dales that hide sweet villages and hidden gardens, moors shining golden and purple under a soft autumn sky, real pubs with real ale and real fires and a wildness that embodies all that Nantucket used to be back when it was an island and not a causeway just off the Hutchinson River Parkway.
There are other Yorkshires in the east and west and south but it's the magnetic north that pulls me.
On our first Yorkshire stay we rode the train from London and spent a week in a flat just behind the Minster with fifteen year old Xander who was immensely patient with his parents and took full advantage of his temporary access to beer disguised as lemon shandies. The sun shone and the River Ouse sparkled as crews in racing sculls avoided slamming into gaudy narrow boats moored to the shore. We walked the city walls in the early morning mist and thought we could just see the Howardian hills. Xander and I galloped horses across green meadows in Helmsley, picnicked on fresh milk and apples by a lively stream and won a round of beer at a Monksgate pub on quiz night.
It's years later and we have visited York twice since then, most recently after Christmas this year. We stayed one dark winter's night in a bed and breakfast overlooking Kit Kat Stadium, the chocolate home of York Football and wandered into the city center to eat dinner. That eye catching seventeenth century bakery with the funny gables and leaded windows is now an Aisan fusion restaurant where they do a nice mojito and pint of prawns. Teenaged girls giggled bare-armed and already drunk down High Street despite the bitter bitter cold.
After dinner we moseyed back towards the Minster only incidentally rediscovering the quiz night pub and its friendly neuk with a cheerful fire.
Tom had a pint of Samuel Smith's Winter Welcome and I had a glass of a creditable chardonnay which really marks the change time has wrought as I would have settled for the only plonk suffered by serious beer pubs way back then.
Our visits to the greater Shire of York have been far more frequent. A week here and a week there or a few days as we pass through on our way to or from Scotland, it is an intentional diversion always beckoning as we negotiate our way up the M-1.
There is an excellent motorway stop near Penrith where you can get a good sandwich and a cappucino and sit outside on these big boulders looking across to the Yorkshire Dales and wrestle with an immediate longing to abandon the car and walk on.
There is a definite aroma of Highland in my kitchen. As I am in Massachusetts and nothing is on fire (other than dinner--but what's new about that) I am sniffing for source.
This happens mysteriously in mid winter. Peaty air wafts from my state of the art Logitech V20 laptop speakers which are audibly producing the BBC broadcast "Around Shetland". As the Scottish radio announcer lets us know that the weather has "deterrrrriorated" with gales and gusts causing the cancellation of the Scouts meeting in Tingwall and the Alcoholics Anonymous session in Scallaway, the comfort of an earthy fire warms the room. The Shipping Forecast is up next.
A big fan of Les Blank's old smellaround films where you could sit in the movie theatre watching AND smelling beans and rice, I am not at all surprised that the BBC can bring these wild islands in northern Scotland right into my kitchen. They do amazing things.
I work at home a lot. Although there are long days when I really don't want to hear another voice, there are many more when some grounding in life outside is encouraging. The BBC is, thanks to the miracle of internet, my best friend. I can start my day with The Latest News Bulletin and BBC 4 . When I need a cheery break it's off to Good Morning Scotland; although it is already noon in Glasgow. Switching back to BBC 4 (my true love) I get the News at One, and on Sundays a read through of what's in the papers. The BBC offers many of their listings on play it again status. Midday gets me Woman's Hour and the Afternooon Play, with timely interjections of The News.
By early evening I'm ready for a break and the Archers. I used to think Jill Archer was a total drip, but she is doing a surprisingly thoughtful job of raising her annoying husband's dead lover's son Rory.
By nighttime it's Traveling Folk or a BBC4 documentary on global warming or hiking with Rambling Claire and in the very late hours, there is always local news from the Borders or Highlands or peaty Shetland. Sometimes I listen to Radio Wales or Radio Devon or Radio One. When I just want background comfort I dial in Radio Gaelic which is almost always an incomprehensibly speedtalking rather impressive woman who I imagine walking around her kitchen with a microphone clipped to her apron as she throws together a plate of clooty dumpling and giant haggis, dashing over every now and again to spin a disc. She plays nice faraway music like accordians and lonely fiddles.
Here's the thing about the British Broadcasting System(which also includes tv). Approved by a Royal Charter it mandates that programming must appeal to a "diverse" population. Nationalized means that it is owned and run by the state, and not by the whims of a profit making public. It offers 54 radio stations and eight excellent tv channels (BBC1, BBC 2 etc) nationwide offerings are dedicated to a particular key stations including sport, Muslim and Hindu prayers , comedy, drama, talk, news and music, music, music. There are no ads. None. BBC stations are paid out of taxes. Each television in the entire nation is taxed at the substantial rate of 131.50 pounds for a color tv, 44 for black and white pensioners over 75 pay nothing and blind people pay exactly half.
When we're in the UK my husband listens to BBC 5 (sport) on his battery radio while he's taking a shower. When I travel long distances for work I download a day of BBC on my Ipod and listen to Rambling or News at 8 , Book of the Week or the omnibus edition of the Archers all over again. Back when we had a Subaru Forester I was content just listening to PBS and the instant weather channel but now the Toyota radio is just a conduit for my Ipod. Sometimes I have to shake off a poncy britedge to my yankee speak when I get to work.
This holiday was intended to be pure respite—no energetic long walks, no rushing around to see new sights, no days spent in dark museums. Although we did make a longer than we wanted to (it takes a carbon- guilty day each way) round trip drive from London to Scotland, we loved our stay with friends and the drive through Cumbria and Yorkshire in midwinter light. We did not love the M4, the M1 nor the roundabouts at Heathrow, but then who does? Besides leisurely walks with the Lurcher puppy Rosie along the Firth of Forth (try saying that one three times fast), we did celebrate New Year’s day by taking one modestly energetic ten mile circular walk with Barry over meadows and down a Scottish drover’s road in the rain. We’d hoped the Crown in East Linton might be open midway for a beer and a sandwich but it wasn’t and we made do with a yogurt from the Coop. I got a heel blister from hiking in wellies with sliding socks and had to hop around on one foot while trying to apply a bandaid (plaster) without falling face forward in mud. We left the next morning figuring we would make Gloucestershire before nightfall but the drive took longer than we’d thought—as it always does in England.
By the time we got to our National Trust holiday cottage (booked cheaply as a post Christmas short stay) in a teeny tiny village reached by a long, dark lane, it was dark, raining, we were cold and I announced that if we heard one more BBC4 radio report on Gordon Brown’s impending visit to China I for one, would go completely insane. Well versed in the requirements for holiday cottage stays we’d stopped at the Evesham Tesco which we fortunately found easily but which was unfortunately out of everything. Well, not everything as there was plenty of tea as long as we chose PG Tips but no smoked salmon, no whole meal bread, no fresh milk, no eggs, no yogurt. A woman stood weeping by the condiment section, “Where are the jars of jam with strawberry bits?” she moaned as I reached past her to snag the last jar of ginger marmalade. The coffee aisle hosted a voluble gathering of Polish shoppers who were clearly displeased by the dearth of ground roast.
Totally tourist (no one can actually afford to live in these little pockets of quaint) Snowshill is a picture book village (the parent part of Bridget Jones was filmed here) which means that it’s maintained pretty much just as it was and just as it was means it’s dark once the sun has set. Since the sun sets around 4pm in winter it’s pitch black in the hours when we’re used to being able to see.
No street lights, no window light, we had to shine our high beams to make sure we were unloading into the right cottage (door left open, keys on table) since from the outside, the row of sixteenth century cottages built into the hillside look pretty much alike. The golden stone cottages stood stolidly by the lane wearily awaiting the next holiday tenant’s ooh’s and aah’s. Ours was notable because it was the smallest, had eaves looking out over its sloping rooftree and sat squarely in the middle of its larger kin.Plus it looked just like the picture we’d cut from the Trust catalogue and had magneted to our fridge since November. We could just make out the white letters of Spring Cottage painted on the door’s lintel.
Rentors of UK holiday cottages usually leave a welcome tray of two cups, two spoons, two little plates, cookies (biscuits), a pint of milk, tea bags and coffee crystals. We fired up the electric kettle and enjoyed a little pick me up even though as Americans we don’t do Nescafe. Having lit the fire using handsful of the fragrant peat bushel we’d carried with us from Scotland as the English are not in favor of this peasant fuel, we did as we always do when we first arrive at a holiday let; rearranged the furniture, tuned the radio to BBC4 and tossed our walking gear artfully around the front hall.
Warmer and having regained a holiday mood, we agreed that although tea and biscuits may provide basic sustenance, alcohol is mandatory.We inched our way down the pitch black street towards the light leaking out of the Snowshill Arms and spent the evening in front of the pub fire downing Donnington’s Best Bitter along with the post fox- hunt swells (some of whom actually wore gaiters and Argyle knee socks) and a very nice plate of scampi and chips. Ah, thought I as I reached for another flattened fried shrimp and a swig of fine ale, this is the life. I announced to anyone who cared to listen that I could be found right here at this seat, in front of this fire for the duration.
When, after a few rounds shared with the swells, we serendipitously re-found the door to Spring Cottage, I took a deep hot bath and crawled under the down duvet in our cheery yellow bedroom. Tom was still downstairs attending to the fire so I had to yell. “So—long walks, late afternoons reading by the fire, BBC 4, dinner by the fire and then pub, fire, bed.” No response. ..”And peat—I want to wake up to the smell of peat and have breakfast by the peat fire.”
I fell asleep. Tom, who far prefers his peat in a nice glass of Laphroig, tended the fire and hoped he wouldn’t torch Spring Cottage, which is something the National Trust politely asks its tenants to avoid if at all possible.
When people in the US wish you happy holidays, they generally mean, enjoy your time off. In the UK it is a far more literal term as it implies you are actually going somewhere to have a holiday. No one "vacations" at home, they just "stay" at home. My friend Gwynedd explained this to me when I tossed out an "Enjoy your holiday" as we left the village veg and fruit shop. The veg and fruit man was still standing dumbstruck in the doorway watching us waggle down the street with our little paper bags of earthy new potatoes and carrots. "He either thinks you know something he doesn't and he's taking a trip, or you're nuts." Looking back over my shoulder, I could see that he'd decided on the nuts interpretation which seemed appropriate for someone who sold them. Also note that I called the new potatoes earthy and not covered with dirt, as earth there is dirt to us and dirt there is dog shit to us.
Still, many Brits do take holidays during Christmas as most people have substantial time off from work and school and a week in sunny Majorca sounds pretty good when it's usually dark at home. There is also a curious national affinity for driving a couple of hundred miles to a place where it will still be dark so that you can pay a lot of money to have a holiday in someone else's holiday cottage and write cheerful entries about the rain and the fireplace in the guest comment book when you leave." What a lovely house in a beautiful location, we had a fantastic holiday. Kids are longing to come back - thanks for a great week"
This is one of the years when we decided to join them.
We’re very fond of visiting the UK right after Christmas. Airfares hit rock bottom, we’re often in time for Hogmanay or some other excellent New Year’s bash and there’s usually no snow. Well at least there’s a lot less snow than December generally offers New England.
The best part though is in knowing that no matter how work pushed we are in the lead up to the “holidays” nor how endless the tasks inherent in celebrating with an ever increasing number of family under- fives, we know that the real gift is when we clutch our passports and ditch them all.
Having returned only a few months earlier from our year away from everything, it seemed frivolous to even consider leaving again but it had been an eventful interlude and by the time we’d had our second blizzard, we were more than ready to cash in some air miles. Some nights I would ask Tom to “tell me the story” of our impending escape. I’d make him include every detail and start from the moment we got in the car to go to the airport. Usually we were both nodding off by the time he’d seamlessly seen us nestled in our plane seats balancing flutes of champagne, but it was a comforting sleep that followed.
Although Tom and I were neck and neck in ruining Christmas (usually one of the twins does that) it only made our impending departure that much sweeter. Tom stuffed too many mimosa oranges in the garbage disposal and stopped up the sink on Christmas morning and I broke the stove mid turkey. The next morning while the plumbers were taking apart the kitchen, one of the two year olds was pushed off the top of the couch by her older brother on my watch and had to make a VIP ER visit to have her on duty doctor uncle (one of the twins) play hero by relocating her arm.
By the time we slunk out the next day we knew we deserved the ice storm that dogged us all the way to Logan.
Edinburgh webcams These are a little grainy at times but offer great opps to eitehr look at the Castle which seldom changes--or Princes street which does.
Dartmouth webcam Mostly this view from the Castle Hotel (a village hub--pretty good fish and chips--nice fireplace) is of the boats in the inner harbor. When the tide is out the boats sit on silt. Sometimes the webcam just says Java--but it gets over it.
Cafe Alfresco webcam Cafe Alfresco is the best breakfast joint in Dartmouth--cool food, cool music and their own cool webcam.
New Zealand web cams-- Lotsa New Zealand webcams--alll in the sun. A feel good check in when it's snowing here.
The Sheepdog Experience
B and B with Sheepdog Training Homely Delamford Farm near Ayr (and not far from Prestwick) not only offers farmhouse b and b, but training for handlers as well. A short walk out the farmhouse door and over the nearest hill takes you to the cave Robert the Bruce stayed in on his way to battle King Edward at Glen Trool in 1307.
Kiwi Sheepdogs New Zealand is of course where all the sheep have gone and sheepdog trials are huge.
Lake District Sheepdog Experience Fancy having a go at running the dogs? Book ahead to enjoy a nice day out at this lovely farm in the Lake District.
LA8 8 HX
Contact / bookings to Alan and Chris on:
(T) 015395 31440
email us email@example.com
Sheepdog Movies We all know about Babe but our family favorite is Mist—who shares the real life education of How to Be a Working Collie
Sheepdog Trials USA Just in case you're in Oregon and keen to see how it all works—the US runs an excellent sheepdog competition as well—with $40,000 in prize money!
The Shepherd's Barn Bucolic accommodation on a working sheepdog farm in Quernmore, Lancashire near Lancaster and an hour from everything else. Sheepdog training available as well as duck herding lessons (!).
The Working Sheepdog Website Care to try this at home? Everything you need to knows here, including DVD's, videos and How to Blow a Sheepdog Whistle
Maillaig eats Maillaig can be pretty lively in the summer and has lately offered up some very nice places to stay and eat. We stayed out of town at a lonely and creepy "lodge" (yet another place where we were the only ones in residence besides the landlady in red lipstick and evening clothes) but ate at the Tea Garden and can heartily recommend it.
Caledonian Ferries Talk about hearty--these ferries go everywhere in all seas. If you happen to be on one with a gift shop take a look at their excellent signature fleece jackets. The ship cafe's full Scottish breakfast is pretty tasty too--if you have a sailor's cast iron stomach.
Isle of Skye tourist information Portree's TIC (tourist information centre) is located just up from the harbor and is a popular place to pretend to look at maps and brochures when waiting for a rain deluge to slow. Backpackers stow their sopping wet bags and run across the street to use the public facilities. Beware the sadistically enthusiastic TIC staff advice on climbing.
Fox hunting Controversy Hounds killing foxes in an organized hunt was banned by Tony Blair's government creating a rift between countryside and town voters. Defiant fox hunters carry on....
Understanding the Coriolis force See--all the research says the water goes the same way despite the hemisphere and dependent on the way the sink is made--a scientific fact I would believe if I hadn't SEEN IT WITH MY OWN EYES
New zealand Surf Webcams webcams--you have to love them, the truly perfect antidote to not being able to be there. Look closely at the Fitzroy Beach webcam in mid February--that's me--the one with the silly hat waving her arms madly at the toddlers headed for the surf.
Southwest Airlines--connecting to Air NZ Okay maybe there are cheaper ways to connect from where you are to LAX but Southwest is the only airline that allows you the same baggage allowance as Air New Zealand--two whopping 50 pound bags free. Stowed away. This means you can either bring lots and lots of presents to your loved ones in Rotarua or bring home a very nice NZ surfboard or some Marlborough pinot noir.
Air New Zealand US Air New Zealand site--click into flexible dates for a month's fare scan but note that these are a bit of a bait and switch as soon as the computer says getting full--the fare in the lowest category changes. It may however change back the next day--or not. Theirs are some of the best economy seats long haul--however that still doesn't mean you don't arrive with pretzel legs.
The Failure of Testing
The failure of testing
President Bush wants to "test every child, every year." But a growing movement of families and teachers insists this is a formula for mediocre schooling and stressed-out kids.
By Meg Robbins
"Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts."
-- Albert Einstein (from the opening page of the Web site of Parents Across Virginia United to Reform Standards of Learning)
In the familiar arc of a typical school year, May used to be a merry, merry month of giddiness and anticipation. Warm weather, tube tops, the proximity of summer -- it was the pixilating curtain raiser to liberation in June. Now, however, it is a mean season of standardized testing in which the stakes are high and the feelings of dread and resentment are pervasive. And this year, as students, parents and school administrators across the country take a stand against academic brinkmanship, May has become a month of rebellion.
An Almost Perfect London Walk I start reading and can't put this thing down. I am right there, "...about four inches above the top edge of most tourist maps of central London," according to Ebert, and stepping smartly along, accompanied by literary references at all stops. Apparently there's been a lot written about Hampstead, and Curley's read it all. Some he includes opportunely (I mean why NOT read a little "Ode To A Nightingale" while gazing at the cherry tree which offered Keats the shade under which to write it?) and some is right out of Nairn's London which is a favorite of Ebert's ("..the most passionate and acerbic guide every written about London"). Mostly it's directions written in bold print, "Turn right and walk along the street." Each page has a photograph to accompany the walking clues, along with some brief background info and the inevitable literary quotation. This is a book you could actually use while you are walking without the risk of running into things.