Friday, February 20, 2009

Part 3 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SUNDAY, JAN 18 - Again I woke up about 8 a.m,, after staying up rather late last night with chit-chat, wine, and whiskey-filled chocolates. This morning, Sylvia treated me to a delicious real English breakfast: fried egg (no over easy or over medium, just fried) bacon, sausage, fried mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and tea and toast. Made with my almost-5-pound bread, thankyouverymuch. ;-)

Thus fortified, we headed off towards my cousin Paul's place in Stoke-on-Trent. I wasn't sure why UK Mapquest said it should take over an hour to go 38 miles, but I soon found out. It was a lovely drive up into the dales and moors into Derbyshire's hills, woods, and villages. But the roads are all very narrow, not an inch of shoulder or verge on either side, and the towns and villages crowd right up against the pavement, no room for even a twitch of the wheel. Nonetheless, English drivers rocket along in mad, merry unconcern, as if in a dance with which all are long familiar.

The road at one point followed a narrow, craggy gorge up through to Buxton, a noble old spa town, and broke out atop moorlands and broad, plunging hills studded with sheep, stone walls, and plastic-wrapped round bales of hay. From the road, we paused to admire an enormous manor house called Chatsworth, which sits nestled among pastures and hills and little woods. Sylvia said the place is wonderfully grand to tour, when it's open, and from the road it actually makes Buckingham palace look rather shabby.

Passing into Staffordshire, the land gradually gentled and we went through the big town of Leek, which stood anchored more firmly in the 21st century. Out again we flew, town and country as ever closely and abruptly mingled, now sheep pasture, now parking lot, now farm, now housing tract and farmland again. Big woolly sheep grazed here and there on the hillsides and in wee green plots. I saw a good many people walking with dogs of all types, even an aged border collie on a leash.

Shortly we came into Stoke, a sprawling, modern, and not terribly interesting metropolis. I found it a bit comforting to imagine that "urban boring" is a universal building style. ;-)

Cousin Paul, however, lives out in Bignal End, an area at once tidy and attractive. We had a bit of confusion over telephone directions, but he found us and guided us in.

He and Lynn have a lovely little townhouse, sided o one side by his daughter and her family, and on the other by his brother, who is ill. The English, I realized, build UP, no such thing as a single-storey home, and they build with clever economy of space. Paul's house is quite lovely and cozy, and I hope they didn't go to too much trouble for my arrival.

They sat us down directly for a proper English tea, complete with nice cups and a porcelain teapot in a cozy, all on a serving tray. Paul poured for us, tea with milk and sugar, very tasty, and I felt entirely tasty. Truly a delightful interlude after the drive, and a wonderful gesture. For Paul, it seems, there is no such thing as strangers in his house. ;-)

Then, while Lynn carried on with making supper, Paul bundled us into his zippy little Ford Fiesta, and took us hurtling about the little lanes and hamlets of his district. The English don't seem to bother with one-way roads, and if the lane narrows to a single track, or cars parked on one shoulder or the other (often with one wheel on the lawn or sidewalk) then opposing oncoming drivers seem to magically discern who should yield the right-of-way and who should come on. Then they immediately take off rocketing along again until the next encounter or lane change. It's rather unnerving for an American, but both Sylvia and Paul kept a firm control of the wheel. I decided it was best not to think about it, too much. ;-)

Anyhow, off we went, dashing about country and hamlet. At the Scot Hay Cricket Club, we pulled off and got out amidst watery sunlight and a *frigid* damp breeze, to look across the fields towards Wales and I think Lincolnshire. Off again, we looped madly along little lanes who's only change in 900 years seems to have been the advent of pavement. At Bartholomley, Paul stopped at a 900 year old Norman church, where we walked among mossy gravestones, a good many laid flat as paving stones all around the church. There he showed us a grave dated to the early 1700's which he said might be a pirate, complete with engraved skull and crossbones.

Inside the church, (which was unlocked) the reverent hush invited reflection beneath the high, shadowed arch of its ceiling. A stained glass window and two great, aged oil paintings of Moses and Aaron adorned the wall framing the doorway.

I should have liked to explore at greater leisure, but Paul probably feared his lady wife's wrath if we came back late for supper. So we hopped back in the car and on our way.

And what a dinner it was! I wish I'd been bold enough to photograph the table, with the lovely settings and candlesticks and good china. Silvia and I were seated and treated to an excellent English dinner: roast beef, steamed veggies, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and brown gravy, with wine and/or water freshened with slices of lemon and lime. Then, after we'd digested a while, we moved to the front room for coffee and a pudding made of a hot apple-berry crumble served with warm English custard on top - absolutely heavenly!

With such splendid fare and cheerful company - Paul is as animated as his wife is composed - it was hard to find a point to say goodnight. Thankfully Paul drove as guide to get us out of the maze of lanes to the motorway, which would get us to the M1 and home.

Back at Sylvia's, we mucked with computers to secure and watch a good download of "Supernatural," then nattered until we realized - ACK! - it was nearly midnight.

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