It’s still raining. The Times reports autumn '00 is the wettest since records began: 18 1/2 inches, surpassing 18 inches of 1852 and requiring assistance from the Armed Forces and the MoD (Ministry of Defence, spelled with a c). The 1852 rains were “the Duke of Wellington’s flood” beginning at his funeral. The third wettest fall was in 1729. Our spring was the wettest in history—with daily rains, like now. And it’s dark by 4 PM. Weather here is not the big draw!
The month explodes with noise from firecrackers for Guy Fawkes Day. We may hear more noise because people go to Hyde Park to fire them; only one building buffers us from it. “Please to remember the 5th of November, gunpowder treason and plot. We see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.” There are local celebrations and private cookouts, and an annual inspection of the basement beneath Parliament to be sure no beady-eyed schemer stores 30 barrels of gunpowder there again! Guy Fawkes, a Catholic, was discovered and hanged, then quartered, after the 1605 plot to blow up James I (a.k.a. James VI of Scotland), a Protestant. Today, it’s Real IRA who keep trying to blow up London. Elsewhere, Christmas lights and window decorations appear, and shoppers on Oxford Street overflow the already crowded walks.
For Thanksgiving, we were invited west of London to visit friends in Hampshire; they enjoy celebrating American feasts, since one is an American college friend of our daughter’s. At the couple's wedding, we'd stayed in a farmhouse listed in the Domsday Book, the census following the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Son Ted and his family had arrived the previous day, so all 8 of us departed on the morning train from Waterloo station. Because of recent derailments many trains are terribly slowed, but we had no problem, and the children drew pictures at their table and munched crisps on the hour-long ride.
Our friends' old brick home was topped with numerous chimneys and surrounded by hedges and organic gardens from which much of our dinner came. Nearby were sheep, horses, dogs, and chickens, the latter diminished by a vicious fox. Fox kill not merely to eat-- leaving carcas trails. Roy the caretaker also raises hens: gorgeous golden headed pheasants.
An aromatic Thanksgiving turkey roasted in the kitchen Aga as the children returned from school. Their playroom held a piano and a very large fish tank, holding a very very large fish, and lots of toys. Off the kitchen a large solarium overlooks a brook flowing under a small wooden plank bridge. Two mute swans swam by, stark white against dark waters and grasses. (Swans belong to the Crown.) In a grove beyond sits an enormous tree house, and garden sculptures offer a respite from greenery. A tall grass mound flows into a concave braided-rope cup, sinking into the earth. In reply to that circle below, a tall open circle of brick is set into a square, which marks entry into the vegetable garden. Beds are blocked off and crisscrossing paths lead to fruit trees and vines. Behind another hedge is the rose garden surrounding a swimming pool; assorted flower gardens line a brick wall beyond the vegetables.
Reading an earlier Sunday Times magazine, I was startled to see these very gardens! We kept the article as a remembrance of a sort of late day-once-removed from Giverny! The home holds interesting paintings, furniture, and art.
Dinner was held off until we visited the Victorian Christmas fair in Winchester, which took 2 vans and ended up being mostly children’s rides, happily sampled by all our group of 7 under 8. Father Christmas came a-jingling at the reins of his horse-drawn sleigh followed by hordes of laughing children, some bearing lanterns. We didn’t wait for his lighting ceremony, but forsook the rides and calliope music (and wind and sprinkling rain) for our dinner. It was delicious, with our provisions being the pies and the champagne.
In many bedrooms and bathrooms, each decorated differently, we spent the night, cozy under comforters. Our “Gothic Room,” harbored a large four-poster black metal bed with matching six-foot iron candlesticks nearby. Dramatic burgundy walls met windows overlooking the stream. A stone fireplace and a huge round mirror surrounded by gleaming golden sun rays added delight to our eyes and souls. The others had 2 rooms, one for the kids and we learned that 22 have slept there, when families are visiting! We’d all crammed all into our London mews with sleeping bags and inflatable mattresses.
Quiet Arlesford sits along the Arles River, with a couple of inns and an old Saxon church—i.e. pre-1066 Norman Invasion. Galleries and restaurants mix with the ironmongers, grocers, and inns, near many pleasant places to walk. Winchester, on the other hand, is a city whose High Street was developed by Saxons and Romans 2500 years ago. King Alfred the Great, whose statue crowns the top of the street, created his capitol of Wessex in 871, brought the Vikings to Christianity, and thus began England. Winchester College, 1382, is England’s oldest public (i.e.private) school, beautiful red brick and green lawns
After breakfast we left the country wonderland and visited the stone cathedral in Winchester, 1000 years old. On previous visits, I’d been unable to enter, due to private services. This time I toured stone carvings and admired choir stalls, numerous side altars, and Jane Austen’s grave: this is her neighborhood. The crypt below was closed. I’m always amazed that the beautiful hand embroidered woolen kneelers stay put, not nicked by visitors. Their motifs reflect the carvings above. We bought a few things at the church gift shop, including pens for all the kids and a Christmas choir CD before walking back to the station. Choral music here is beautiful!
Back in London, we sated the kids’ yearnings to ride a double decker bus with a rainy trip along Oxford Street in rush hour. White Christmas fairy lights festooned the street and neon colored some windows. We mingled with crowds in shops, and headed for every escalator we couldn’t talk the children out of riding.
Christmas spirit blossomed at Harrod’s on Monday, when kiddies and I joined the queue for Father Christmas underneath a sign saying, “2 1/2 hours wait from this point.” Yikes! It was before 11 AM on a school day! But sweet young women with wicker baskets full of biscuits and lollies (cookies and lollipops) distributed them, with occasional bursts into song of Rudolph the red-Nosed Reindeer and Jingle Bells as the line slowly wended its way. The songs were accompanied by constant racket, since each lolly’s stem was a whistle. Somehow adults retained good natures, and kids were high spirited and noisy, but happy. I nixed seconds on the bottled water offers to the kids, fearing a potty run. Eventually we got close enough to enter the “Christmas Grotto” with our group of about a dozen, where we were slowly ushered past dioramas of Christmas worldwide: motorized Japanese girls in bright kimonos with twirling umbrellas and flowers in their hair, Mexican dancers in sombreros and full skirts, a Canadian boy in snow with a moose. Each told was a story, uttered by a sweet woman who must have repeated it while herding each group until she sank into blithering idiocy. We sang again, cheerfully as commanded, and, since we were happy and we knew it, we clapped our hands, stamped our feet, and wiggled our noses. Again. Finally—FINALLY— we were ushered into Father Christmas himself, on his throne, with his shiny red gown, huge silver beard, and exceptionally red nose.
Little blonde Amanda, (“Demanda”) in my arms, cast her 2 year old blue eyes on him and let out a shriek that would peel enamel from your teeth. I turned around so she could just see him, if not sit on his lap: another lengthy shriek. Her big brothers wanted a scooter under their tree, and Robbie asked for “Angels in the Outfield.” Father C had a hard time with that, either because he was unfamiliar with American movies, or because Robbie's lisps mimic a Daffy Duck soundbite. Sam sweetly requested “a Christmas tree toy,” a sure thing, since he has yet to learn greed. The boys had a photo made with the charming man (£12), who chatted calmly, as though it mattered not a whit that 4000 antsy kids and parents would kill to jump the queue.
After exploring nearly every incredible acre of vast and varied Toyland riches, carved hobbyhorses, dolls, stuffed animals, cars, and Lego villages, we ate lunch on the 4th floor and were fortunate enough to watch reruns of “The Flintstones.” It goes well with fish and chips. As we left the building, police were clearing Brompton Road for a bomb scare.
Quite different from crowded Oxford Street was our immediate neighborhood, where merchants hosted the Connaught Village Christmas Fayre. Jimmy Choo, a shoe couturier who shod Princess Di and is routinely in Vogue, opened the affair at his shop at about 6. He cultivates an idiosyncratic image wearing a small Fu Manchu beard and oversize puffy velvet beret. Tiny white Christmas lights strung everywhere sparkled as happy strollers consumed glasses of hot mulled wine or small mince pies offered in booths and shops. A brass band played as it moved past various brightly lit shops, and a few hardy carolers joined in, despite occasional drizzle.
I visited a frame shop with huge discarded golden frames for 5 pounds each, a painter’s atelier with the artist in a wine-colored velvet suit, a candle shop, a beauty shop, (offering outstanding trays of Indian hors d’oeuvres!) and the Rye pottery. The last is an outlet for a well known pottery on the coast, offering painted pigs and cow collectibles, a crèche, and figures from the Canterbury Tales, and golfer bookends. Mike was in Paris. The merchants hope that with the Paddington area expansion, this could remain an arty enclave, but there are parking, increasing rents, and other troublesome urban issues. Paddington may soon have a 42 story building, and Westminster Council plans for the canal to be further opened and beautified. The new Hilton Hotel over the station, behind plastic since we arrived, is due to open later this year and is gradually shedding its covers. We’re anxious to see it.
At the other end of the neighborhood, pavement rage has become an issue on busy Oxford Street! (There are no “sidewalks” here.) Nine million pedestrians annually visit its shops, and an additional sixty thousand people work nearby. It seems that nefarious lollygaggers impede those walkers with a mission. There have been insults hurled against slow walkers, and pushing. Suggested remedies include a slow lane at a mile an hour and a pacer lane at 3 mph, with cameras tracking.
As we decorate for Christmas, we chat with local merchants. The lady selling Christmas boughs pointed out the building near us where Wallace Simpson lived, and said that at one time, “all” the people nearby had a Bentley or a Rolls. (An exaggeration?) Why, she said, her niece had just been in New Zealand, and it’s the same thing there! Tsk! However, there is definitely feeling among some shopkeepers and taxi drivers against the ethnic changes occurring so rapidly. “Ignorant” is a blanket term I often hear. Schools are coping, as in the US, with different customs and beliefs, languages, clothing, poor pay and prestige for teachers, and equal opportunity. Political correctness is in.
A walk away is Bond Street, connecting Oxford St. and Piccadilly. I walked its length, past elegant Christmas windows of Tiffany, Hermes, DKNY, Gucci, and Armani. The smell of money perfumed the air, and one stylish shop window outdid the next. This is the season when million-pound bonuses are dispersed to lucky local executives, a practice the Navy has eschewed, alas for us.From the back of a double decker bus on Oxford Street I tried to quash anti-capitalistic thoughts about schoolteachers’ and nurses’ poor wages.
On Christmas Eve we attended Sunday morning’s choral service at Westminster Abbey, and afterwards discovered the cloister area behind the church. It’s a beautiful green lawn (“garden”) surrounded by an ancient stone-carved colonnade, and there is a small coffee shop tucked alongside the pillars, where we vainly tried to temper the cutting wind and mist. It’s not hard to imagine robed monks poring over their breviaries here, their robes pushed by sharp winds. An adjacent museum and cathedral school were closed, but hold promise for another visit. We met a beautiful Muscovite and a couple from Japan, who requested photos.
That evening, we braved nasty weather to trudge across the dark park to the Brompton Oratory, due to open its doors at 11:15, with carols at 11:30 before midnight mass. We arrived at about 11:15 to be about 8 millionth in the soggy line of umbrellas pouring into two rear doors. Worshippers packed into pews like sardines, and we snaked along with the wet masses crowding both arched side aisles and seeping into the numerous side altars. The gorgeous Mozart mass, with parts of the Messiah added at the offertory and Communion, were beautifully done, as usual, but accompanied with an orchestra, which was unusual. The gospel was sung, in Latin. We left a bit early, and just before reaching the park, hailed a warm dry cab, arriving home around 1:30 in time to have a scotch and open a gift. We slept in, opened gifts, and hosted a very pleasant dinner for a new family who will be living in Japan come June. They’d returned from Egypt with their daughter, a grad student here. Doug teaches oceanography at Annapolis, and Peggy writes on travel and art. One wishes others a “Happy Christmas” here, and I wish that to all of you readers.
No Christmas meal is complete without crackers, tubes which pop when pulled apart by two people, and reveal their booty of a paper crown, to be worn immediately, a joke, usually very lame, and a plastic toy, of the Jack in the box variety. However upscale crackers can sell for several hundred pounds, holding better prizes such as silver or jeweled toys. We never had the problem of resisting such an urge, but at several dinners over the holidays we or our hosts had the crackers handy and we wore our colored paper crowns. I'd sent Ted and his family home with a box of Disney Winnie the Pooh crackers.
Later in the month we attended Tosca in Royal Albert Hall, not an ideal place for opera; it was pleasant but next time we’ll try another venue. Hanging “saucers” in the ceiling aid acoustics. We attended Sunday mass at Westminster Abbey and sat in Poet’s Corner during a gorgeous a cappella atonal service, filled with haunting dissonance. Nearby were grave markers of poets Shakespeare, Dryden, Eliot, and Pope, and across the way, monuments for Isaac Newton. Faraday, Darwin, and scientists, and Churchill and statesmen, with the tomb of the unknown warrior bordered with red poppies directly at the main west portal entry. Afterwards we attended the Portrait Gallery’s show of the last 100 years.
Since it was close to Remembrance Sunday, November 11, red poppies everywhere covered lapels, wreaths and memorial markers for those who offered their blood for our freedom. The day is always well marked here, and many white-haired veterans wore medals on their civilian clothing. They’re a lively bunch. Mike had been to a previous service at the Abbey, when the lawns were filled with rows of small wooden crosses, each emblazoned with a red poppy. The media make mention of veterans all week, and there is a parade. British make a much more public homage than Americans do. Red poppies bloom everywhere! It’s also time for Christmas shopping.