It’s still raining. The Times reports this autumn is now the wettest since records began: 18 1/2 inches, surpassing the 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. I told you spring was the wettest in history—with daily rains, like now. And it’s quite dark by 4 PM. Weather here is not the big draw!
For Thanksgiving, we were invited to visit friends in Hampshire; they enjoy celebrating American feasts, since one is an American college friend of our daughter’s whose wedding we attended. We stayed in a farmhouse listed in the Domesday Book, the census following the 1066 Battle of Hastings. Our 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 many recent derailments many trains are terribly slowed, but we had no problem, and the children drew at their table and munched crisps on the hour-long ride.
The friends lived in an old brick home, topped with numerous chimneys, and was surrounded by hedges and organic gardens from which much of our dinner came. There were sheep, horses, dogs, and chickens, the latter diminished after a fox killed many. Fox kill not merely to eat-- leaving a trail of carcasses. Roy the caretaker also raises hens: gorgeous golden headed pheasants.
Thanksgiving turkey roasted in the kitchen Aga as the children returned from school. The 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 the 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. 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, the Vikings to Christianity, and thus began England. Winchester College, 1382, is England’s oldest public (i.e.private) school.
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 for us 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 little 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 are similar to a Daffy Duck soundbite. Sam sweetly requested “a Christmas tree toy,” a sure thing, since 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.
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 Shakespeare, Dryden, Eliot, and Pope, and across the way, monuments for Isaac Newton 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. It’s also time for Christmas shopping and wrapping.
Wattle & daub homes are 6000 years old! Woven wattle strips are daubed with clay on timbered frames
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