Last week, on a train, Mike and his cohorts were discussing air pollution. “Do you put scrubbers on top of your smokestacks?” an American inquired. Englishmen howled: a scrubber is a prostitute! The next day, Mike verified this with his Cockney cab driver. “Oi yea. An’ we call ‘em old boots, too!” There was shortly afterward a line in a BBC production in which a woman scathingly sneers at her boyfriend, “An’ you were snoggin’ that scrubber down th’ pub!” At least I knew that snogging was making out; I needed no translator!
The month began with friends visiting from Austin just before the US Labor Day weekend, which here is one of a few “bank holiday” long weekends when everyone flees town. Clark relieved Mike at the UT lab, and they’d arranged meetings in southern England to discuss technologies on both sides of the Atlantic. After dinner here Sunday evening, we took our guests to the singalong pub, and Monday we took a train to charming Sherborne, home of Thompson Marconi Sonar people, our hosts. We stayed at a 200 year-old small country inn, the Grange, surrounded by gardens entered from our rooms, with a comfortable dining room and original paintings in the lobby. We sipped hot tea on the cool stone terrace and admired the gardens. Inns provide electric hotpots for quick water boiling, and a tray: teapot, two cups and saucers, spoons, a selection of teas and instant coffee, and biscuits (cookies). All was overseen by an energetic British couple.
The picturesque town offers ancient country lanes, a green, abbey and school that could grace any travel brochure. The Sherborne Abbey saw 27 Saxon bishops before the Norman Conquest in 1066, became a parish church after the Reformation, and in between was Benedictine. Its illuminated missal from 1400 enhances the British Museum. When Henry VIII dispersed monastery riches to his pals, townspeople soon raised £100 to buy it in 1539. Supposedly St. Stephen Harding, author of the Cistercian constitution, studied there before moving to France and receiving St. Benedict as a monk; ancient Benedictines in black and white habits came in 998.
The church today, overseen by a vicar, was rebuilt in the early 1400’s in perpendicular style with soaring fan vaulted ceilings and a thirteenth century lady chapel for Mary, plus side chapels. The fan ribs are covered with carved bosses, one a mermaid combing her hair, one an angel. Contemporary women have copied these lively old designs in needleworked kneeling pads. The church’s local Ham stone “like old gold” emits beautiful warmth, except for a few red areas: a flaming arrow from discontented townsmen, in one of many arguments with the monks, started a fire in 1438, coloring some interior stones by loosening iron. The roof, then thatched, burned, melting the church bells. Across the way stands the stone almshouse, still helping the old and poor, but the cloister and refectory buildings are long gone.
Our visit was on a sunny morn, on the first day of school. Hundreds of boys in uniform were filing out of a chapel service. From eighth grade through high school, they wore navy slacks, sweaters, and light blue shirts. Masters wore academic gowns. I approached some pink-faced lads and learned they were all new eighth grade boarders, rolling their eyes as they revealed their pockets would most surely be pulled off all shirts by upper classmen: damages were already evident on several shirts. They would also have to carry books and lockers up the stairs for upperclassmen. One boy from Connecticut seemed as eager as the others for the first school break in 3 weeks, a chance to go home. “Public” school here is really private school, with high fees, but most students hoping for Oxbridge educations (i.e. Oxford or Cambridge) begin this way. Sherborne School, founded in 1550 by Edward VI, was endowed with abbey lands that they probably still have today. (Here “tuition” means teaching or instruction, not costs or fees.) The Blair government claims education a priority, but there are huge inequalities, often class based.
A small town museum sits across the grassy square dwarfed by the huge abbey, a girls’ day school is nearby, founded in 1899, and the town hosts nice antique stores, a brook, restaurants, and clothes shops, set amid flower gardens and scenic vistas. I bought Mike’s birthday gifts in one antique shop with my friend Linda's help: an oval mirror for a dresser top, a wooden arm chair with upholstered seat, and a small table, all Victorian. The proprietor was helpful as we looked around: we’d actually just stepped in for a peek after lunch at the next door pub! Anything older than Victorian gets quite dear.
That afternoon after lunch with Sally and Shirley, wives of our hosts, Linda and I took a cab to the nearby “New Castle” begun by Sir Walter Raleigh in 1594, as opposed to the castle nearby, now in ruins, from the early 1100’s. Legend says an alarmed servant, seeing Raleigh smoking, flung a tankard of ale on him to quench the fire. Once Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, we're told he was so excited on seeing the property on a trip from London that he fell off his horse! It was deeded by the Queen in 1592, but when she furiously learned of his secret marriage to Lady Betty, her lady in waiting, he was exiled from court. After Elizabeth’s death, James I, ostensibly Protestant but secretly Catholic, sought favor with Spain. Raleigh was forced to sign his beloved stone home over to James, since Catholic Spain was eager to be rid of him. Raleigh lived in Sherborne nine years and in the Tower of London 15, when he was sent to South America to bring back gold. He returned not only empty-handed, but without his 17 year old son, killed in a skirmish, and he was then beheaded. (Nobles were beheaded and the poor hung. Some evildoers were chained to posts at river’s edge until 3 successive high tides passed.) Heads could be exhibited indefinitely on pikes at the town gates, to be picked by the crows as they warned travelers of the wages of sin.
We marveled at Raleigh’s vast serene green and golden grounds, with gardens redesigned by Capability Brown in 1777, and a lake with ruins of an earlier castle on its far side. Volunteer town guides talked about the history of several richly furnished rooms. The furniture, ornate carved marble fireplaces, leather books, old windows and basement kitchen spoke to the various inhabitants, including the present ones. There is an orangerie for the orange trees in winter, and a public tea room, and the stables nearby are used as a plant nursery and gift shop. The present Digby family heritage stems from James I’s gift, in 1617, and there are paintings and photos of family members and events, often large oil portraits in furs, ruffles, and ribbons. One painting was of a fox hunt, an activity soon to be banned if the present government has its way. It’s cruel to the fox, they say. (Proponents say the farmers who lease their lands need the money from hunt leases, and foxes are killed anyway.) Britain will also allow billboards later this year if the present vote holds, to bring farmers cash for leasing billboard sites. I say, fox, run for your life, and not around a single ugly billboard in your peaceful green countryside.
The terms hug and cuddle seem often interchanged here, and at our departure I asked Sally to differentiate which I might be giving her. Our thin crusty cab driver, devoid of upper front teeth, and leaning against the car, nearly spat out the explanation from under his cap: “It’s a cuddle w’en ‘ees kissin’ on yer neck when ‘ees doin’ it!” Also, what’s “tea” and “cream tea”? The latter means clotted cream is served with your scones. It’s rich and heavy, like very thick whipped cream turning to butter, and couldn’t possibly cause weight gain! My bathroom scale, from Wooly’s, my favorite store, tells me how many grams and stone I weigh, but not how many pounds. Better not to know! Are you familiar with the term bespoke? It means custom made, and is used often in describing men’s fine clothing, but was used in Raleigh’s castle to mean custom furniture designed for a particular room. In this case it was a pair of window tables on the heads of gilded ostriches, symbolizing the family crest. (A stone is 14 pounds, as if you didn’t know!)
After a day of meetings, the boys rejoined us and our British cohort Nick drove us past his old stomping grounds on narrow country roads to Weymouth, a faded Victorian seaside resort appropriate to a low-end budget. En route we passed the prehistoric Cerne Giant, a nearly 200 foot high frontal nude male with an erect phallus, who carries a club. He is cut into the chalk hillside, and looks like a white cartoon outline on a verdant green page. Imagine the people who carved him! How many did it take, and for how long? We walked through town to a fresh seafood dinner at Perry’s, overlooking a busy harbor. Weymouth forms the south end of Thomas Hardy country in Dorset, and Sherborne the north. Hardy’s characters supposedly lived in Wessex, and the author died in 1928 after describing many area buildings and scenes, but created scandal by describing fictional fallen women. Hardy trail maps sit in the shops awaiting literary tourists.
Weymouth is worn and a bit tatty, crowned with raucous seagulls soaring over rowhouse chimneypots and peaked roofs, now sagging and gray, and would make a perfect backdrop for a campy stage revue. You may stroll along the busy Esplanade under old fashioned iron street lights for opportunities to win both Mickey and Minnie in coin-operated machines, zoom through racing lanes via screaming computers, or slake hunger with cotton candy or doughnut batter, dropped into hissing hot oil. Strong smells of fish and chips mingle with beer and cigarettes in the brick streets. Vacancy signs swing next to bursting colorful hanging baskets decorating narrow row hotels, one door after another. Many old people, often infirm and using canes (walking sticks) or chairs fill the lanes, but also families with children, even though school has begun. A busy highway follows the soft curve of a calm sea, and beside it, a wide sand beach is dotted with rental stands for plastic paddleboats and kayaks. It’s a place devoid of Brad Pitt lookalikes, 25 years behind the times, overseen by large statues of George III and Victoria. I found it funky and appealing, with a seamy underside left unexplored.
The next day, after meetings, we drove to Romsey, a charming Hampshire town near Southhampton, where the men met a professor and former UT lab associate who does amazing things with cochlear implants and computer game noise. Linda and I toured the town with a green badge guide (different from a blue badge guide who has wider knowledge, geographically). Lord Mountbatten had a huge brick-walled estate nearby, where Charles and Diana honeymooned. He was Charles’ elegant godfather, a war hero, killed by an IRA bomb. The estate gates are surmounted by lifesize bronze wild animals. Our inn nearby was ancient, with slanting floors, big fireplaces, and half timber walls. There was no lift to our comfortable second floor room, so we climbed with our bags. (Ours actually is the third floor. The ground floor is exactly that in Europe, on the ground, then upstairs the first floor, and finally our second floor.)
The town cathedral’s nun once collected rents, tithes, gifts, boarding fees, and fair receipts as landlord. That abbess, as local lord of the manor, could dictate punishment, even to the gallows. However, a woman’s abbey was usually only half as rich as a man’s. (So what’s new?) About 100 nuns, we were told, processed into the church side door eight or nine times a day after a midnight service, starting at Prime, at 6 or 7 AM, and ending with Compline about 8 PM. The church sits where traditionally stood a nunnery since 907, reformed to the Rule of Benedict. It emphasized moderation, adopted by the west, over hermits’ extreme ascetics of the east. Worship, meditation, study and manual work are still the rule.
Benedict’s sister, St. Scholastica, founded the Benedictine nuns, but a few naughty medieval nuns enjoyed pets and servants, or merrily slipped out to the taverns. Daddy may have abandoned them because a church dowry was cheaper than a husband’s, and many nuns had no religious vocations. Henry VIII used abbey scandals to consolidate smaller abbeys, but eventually even the larger ones were taken. This abbey was commissioned by Henry I in 1120 and finished in 20 years. His wife Queen Maude studied in that convent, a finishing school for ladies. The abbey was expected to entertain visitors: records show nearly as much money was used for entertaining nobles as was given to the poor. The church is carved with Norman zigzag marks and pointed arches, pointed out by the two vested volunteers from the parish who served as visitor guides. “Brilliant! Lovely! Well done!”
That evening after the train to London, my Daytimer revealed a morning tour of Buckingham Palace with KCWC, set up months ago. The palace opens only for a short time each summer. Clark and Linda went off sightseeing, Mike went to the office, and I grabbed a taxi. I was off again queueing with the ladies. (Wags hope queueing becomes an Olympic sport; Britain will take gold.) Signboards along an outer courtyard explained some of the palace history and the significance of the architecture and pedimental carvings at the main diplomats entrance. We walked slowly on red carpets, past enormous gleaming chandeliers, rich velvet cushions on custom golden chairs, marble and porcelain sculptures, brilliantly colored vases, tall candleabra, and a mirrored ballroom. There were Americans milling, and also Indians, Japanese, Germans, and Italians. Clothing ranged from cutoffs to saris, but umbrellas were de rigeur that afternoon. Wish I’d brought mine! The good natured guides in each room are hired just for the season, and questions ranged from history (“What’s the name of the king in that portrait?) to inanity (Do you know what the Queen keeps in those drawers?) The guides smiled sweetly. The huge palace was once a country house, and is completely filled with treasures, many gathered by connoisseur George IV, the Prince of Pleasure.
George IV bought an expensive, even for him, small round table with a head of Alexander the Great mosaic in its top, surrounded by heads of Caesar and other Roman generals. He asked that it be included in all portraits of him. Palace paintings alone include Rembrandt, Vermeer, Rubens, and Van Dyke, and there are Sevres china and intricate furniture masterpieces in every room. Special carpets and clear plastic wall protection is added prior to these visits, and there is a vast white tent (“marquee”) souvenir shop next to the tent loos. Prince Charles had just visited the day before, speaking with tourists, and Andrew visited recently. Some Navy friend came by that evening, and we went out for dinner since he was off to Sri Lanka the next day to expedite peace games, and full of cogent observations on the state of affairs around the world. Then we set off for Croatia, and Clark and Linda left for Austin.
Coratia was wonderful--see more in a later chapter. Back in London and delighted to be home for awhile, we noticed the grass in Hyde Park was cut short, following a summer of looking like a hayfield. It’s kept longer in some areas to help wildlife. Trees are not yet changed in color, but leaves gather on lawn and sidewalk. Horse chestnut trees dump thousands of spiny green balls, and their shiny nuts soon roll in the pathways to gather dust underfoot. Days are now equally divided between dark and light, and dark at this northern latitude will soon overtake light, as autumn settles in. On September 17, Mike’s birthday, I wore a sweater as we walked under gray skies. Here, the trick is to remember to bring an umbrella when it’s not raining, since it may soon be.
En route home from the Oratorio Sunday mass, we stopped at Hyde Park’s Serpentine Gallery for a new show of photography and video by Gillian Wearing, a young woman interested in the seamier side of urban existence, via individual film stories. One small dark chamber showed masked people who had answered a newspaper ad. They were revealing a negative childhood trauma. In every case, it was family violence recalled from their youth: physical, sexual, mental. The varied full face masks, with hair and cutout eyeholes, concealed identity and forced concentration only on their eyes and words. Skin color, voices, and throats were the only clues. How powerful! Another area had color photos of about twenty men with a very plain obese woman, each discussing her, in his own writing, on 2 pages of typewriter paper next to each photo. The spelling and punctuation were unique, but they told of her temper, her size, her love of a can of beer. One said if you were tired, you wouldn’t need a pillow, because you could lay your head on her breasts. Another reported he had to wash her before he slept with her because she smelled so bad and didn’t know what to do with soap, and sometimes put it inside herself and made him get it. After Mike said “Do you call that ART??” a few times, we continued on home. We read the paper, cooked a festive dinner, watched the Olympics and enjoyed just being home.
Our son Patrick’s visit was fun, despite fear of Europe’s fuel crisis, and he saw lots in a few days. He chunneled to Paris, with a backpack and guitar, and will visit Amsterdam before flying to Barcelona to play five gigs with band friends. His previous time in England was with his soccer team at 14, using his San Diego paperboy money to visit a Manchester friend. We went to dinners, plays and museums, and he’ll be back here before his Austin return. Navy friends visited from California, and we had drinks here before a fine French dinner nearby. Mike has reviewed 43 proposals and goes to Australia all next week with them—20 hours in the air. Tonight was UT football at the nearby White Hart pub with Texas Exes, to view tapes of last Saturday’s game against Houston—a big win. We take "the vow of silence" and no one knows who will win until the tapes are played! Ourraggedy tomatoes are pulled out from the roof garden, but there are still many nice days left before fall settles into winter. I finish this chapter still in my nightgown at midday, having done nothing productive except read the morning paper and type these words.
Countless arcades tucked between taller buildings offer well-lit and dry shopping.
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