Ah, England in the spring, blue skies, the sun shining, the perfect temperature. The fine weather didn’t last, but the first week was marvelous. You think you know all the colors of green grass and foliage, until you go to England. Apart from a few new houses, designed to blend in with ancient homes and gardens in rustic villages, little Rushall Village and nearby Upavon haven’t changed for decades. If you read Demon on a Distant Shore, you may be able to picture the area. Little Barrow is based on Rushall and Upavon combined, although I must stress the characters and businesses in the stories are fictional, not based on local villagers. But, anyway, this post is not about my books, or writing, or publishing – so if that’s what you want to see, read no farther – it’s about my recent trip to England. As a British citizen and legal USA resident I am lucky to belong to two countries, both of which I love. But there’s something special about revisiting the home of your birth when your childhood memories of there are happy.
The first 11 days with Mum in Rushall were bittersweet. I saw firsthand that the everyday household tasks we breeze through are terribly difficult for her now. She rarely let me help her. “I have to do this myself,” she’d say. “I don’t usually have anyone here to do it for me.” But I did become the chief dishwasher and potato masher and she let me mow the grass and vacuum the living room floor. We took the little local bus to Pewsey, Devizes and Marlborough, and otherwise just sat around talking and dozing – she due to age, I due to jet lag. I walked the path to Chilton Village several times, because it’s beautiful and I needed the exercise. I wish I could have stayed with her longer, or forever.
After a lovely time with Mum, it was off to stay with my sister in Newbury, and no more lazing around. My first full day there, we went to London to meet up with niece Cath, and my friend author Carol Townsend. We took a bus from Paddington to the Brick Lane district. Fascinating place. Artists are given free rein in many of the more modern areas and we spotted weird and wonderful artwork all over the place. If you go there, look up as well as all around, or you will miss stuff on rooftops and along walls. We slowly made our way through the old East End, wandering along Dickensian streets too narrow for modern traffic, to our destination: the Spitalfields Markets. My niece first took us into a building where vendors had set up stalls selling glorious, hot food from all over the world. The temptation to sample everything was almost overwhelming, but not wanting to spoil our lunch, I heroically passed it by. We were in Spitalfields Old Market and it was incredible. I have never seen such an eclectic assortment of beautiful merchandise and, yes, more food stalls . . . drool. The Spitalfields New Market is in a big, modern complex of shops and restaurants and although the merchandise was fabulous, it didn’t have the Old Market’s ambience. We were surprised by a living statue so good I didn’t know what he was until he moved and startled a passerby. We ate at a Greek restaurant where all four of us discovered Greek cuisine is much more than souvlaki and dolmades. Thank you, dear niece, for a terrific day in London.
It had been a long day when sister and I got home, and we went out again for supper. The next day it rained just as we got to the old Newtown Road Cemetery with its gothic angels and stones. It pretty much rained for the rest of my visit. England still hasn’t recovered from all that flooding and even where it looks fine, the ground must be waterlogged because a light rain caused flooded roads and roadsides. At the railway station, water bubbled up from a drain in the middle of the road and the station entrance on one side had to be closed. Being stout Englishwomen, we ignored the rain and went into town for supper. Monday was a long wander around Newbury – including lunch and supper.
Tuesday was a nostalgic visit to the tiny village of Herriard in search of my Nan and Granddad’s old home, and I found that what I remembered from my childhood days was far from accurate. I had a picture in my mind, of walking from the church, down the road a little way, and there was the farmhouse. Nope. We walked for MILES till we found it. The place has been vastly altered by successive owners and renovations to the rear makes it look like a different house altogether. We knocked on the door and asked to take photos of the outside anyway, and the very nice owners invited us in. The inside, although also remodeled, still retains its old-fashioned charm, but the huge kitchen I remember is in fact very small and narrow. The copper boiler Nan used for laundry is still inside the house. The hand pump is still out back. Then we tromped MILES more in search of another home of theirs, and think we found it. Then MILES more to the local pub for lunch. It seemed like an upscale kind of place where we were asked if we had a reservation. A reservation, in a country pub, for lunch! What is the world coming to? For all that, they forgot to put the cheese and bacon on my steak burger. Shame on them. We stopped in Basingstoke on the way back. Having failed to find a gift for my hubby, we were sure to find something in the gigantic mall. Nope. I ended up taking him a Mr. Tom candy bar. Well, his name is Tom. Wednesday was a morning in town and afternoon packing my suitcase and relaxing. My sister saw me off to London on the 8:29 train from Newbury.
I did have a little kerfuffle with the man in the station’s ticket office. I pre-purchased my ticket online and accidentally deleted the confirmation e-mail, which included the confirmation number. In the past, I’ve just had to give them my credit card, they pop it in their machine and my booking magically appears, but now they want the confirmation number. I didn’t have it. I didn’t get my ticket. Had to buy another one. Bah humbug.
Thank God the station is near her house! I was exhausted and my feet hurt so much. I have plantar faciitis in my feet which makes walking any distance difficult and painful. As it is, I can only wear Crocs and not be crippled. No more beautiful shoes for me, but at least Crocs now make some really cute styles. All that walking around cities, towns and country lanes hurt something awful and my feet looked like they belonged to a hippo at the end of each day. They still haven’t recovered and I’ve been home three days.
I had a great visit, although at times I felt like a stranger in a strange land. People in the States and in England often comment on the fact I still have an English accent after all my years here. When in England, my English accent gets stronger. Perversely, the accent can lead to confusion. I don’t always remember which version of a word to use unless I have time to think about it – imagine the looks I get when I ask a waiter for the check, not the bill. People think I’m English and expect me to know what everything is called and how it works – even my sister, who should know better. There’s a whole lot I don’t know, but I’m expected to and get the “stupid old lady” look when I have to ask, especially when traveling. A few trips back my friend Carol stymied me when she said she’d get me an Oyster Card to use in London, and my sister said she had to pop out to top up her Key Card. I don’t know the latest English slang or about current events on most people’s minds. And nowadays, hardly any merchant will accept a non-British credit card, because theirs have identity chips embedded, which ours do not, and when I offer it (just in case) I get a “you should know” pitying look.
I think I’ve gained ten pounds. During 17 days in England, many hours were dedicated to satisfying my food cravings. You may be thinking that’s a shallow goal, but believe me, when a bunch of British people get together the main topic of conversation is food, every single time, and we go a little crazy when we go home, consuming vast quantities of all the food we’ve missed eating. Even the basics, like eggs, cheese and milk, taste richer. And the cream – oh my gawd, every dessert needs cream, and I wish there’d been a way to bring home a deep-fried donut filled with cream and a drizzle of strawberry sauce. However, not all was as it should be. I regret to say, Mr. Brain’s Faggots are not what they once were. Mr. Brains’s – what a name for something made of offal and generally discarded bits of meat. Don’t mock – you eat hotdogs, don’t you? Balogna, maybe? Faggots are now made from “cuts of pork and liver with breadcrumbs and herbs,” and are over-processed with the consistency of pate, and bland. Mum said the butcher’s or deli versions are better, but I couldn’t find any. I looked at every pub menu I passed – and there are a lot of pubs in every English town – in search of one with good old steak and kidney pie on the menu. In the end, I got a pie from the butcher and it was yummy. But the fish and chips from my favorite chippie have gone downhill. The chips were revolting and the battered cod, although still nice, just wasn’t what it used to be. I think I drove my sister crazy as I dragged her around town to fulfill my food wish list. Just to mention a few: fish and chips, steak and kidney pie, pork and egg pie, scotch eggs, haslet, Easter eggs (not the same as your American Easter eggs, my dear), sausages (not the same as your American sausages, dearie), caramelized onion chutney, English style quiche (which we used to call egg and bacon pie when I was a kiddie), custard tarts, sticky toffee pudding, honeycomb, my favorite chocolate bar Wispa Gold, Thornton’s Chocolates. The list was endless, and most of it now resides in my stomach.
And now I’m hungry so am off to eat lunch; one of the things – IMO – the USA has perfected: American style pizza.