Summer 1999 in England
July 1999: There are tremendous advantages in not being traditional homeowners when it comes to traveling overseas. When I first started planning this trip to Europe it was intended to be for 3 or 4 weeks, but there were so many people and places we wanted to see that I began to wonder why we were rushing back. After all, there were no houseplants to water or lawns to be cut, and we could keep in touch with our business by email, so I began to plan the “ideal” visit, which turned out to be 9 glorious weeks!
The first question was not the usual “When shall we go?” but rather “Where shall we fly from?”. With a home on wheels we had to decide where we would be in the middle of July – and we weren’t used to planning that far ahead! Denver proved to be a good choice as our daughter-in-law, Jennifer, managed to arrange for us to leave the RV in one of the Beaver Creek ski parking lots.
We hadn’t been back to England since 1996 so it was with some excitement that, on July 10th, I said goodbye to Mick at the airport (he would be following a week later) and boarded an American Airlines flight bound for Dallas, where I would take a connecting flight to London. That was a little ironic: a stopover in the city we called home for eleven years! However at 1.40pm we were told that, due to weather conditions in Dallas, there would be an hour’s delay. At 2.40pm the pilot informed us that it would probably be another half hour before we received clearance for take-off. At 3.15pm we learnt that three passengers who had gone to buy food had failed to return and we were unable to take off with their bags on board! Finally we were airborne and eventually touched down in Dallas at 6.15pm – to connect with a 5.30pm flight for London! I raced through the airport and, with great relief, found the “boarding” sign still displayed at the gate; we then experienced a further 2-hour delay due to storms and risks of lightning. Not the perfect start to my trip – RVing is much more straightforward!
Things could only get better. The weather in England was beautiful: sunshine and cloudless blue skies. As we flew over the southwest of England, the wide-open spaces of Dartmoor soon gave way to a patchwork quilt of fields and hedgerows far below; soon I could see Poole Harbour, weekend sailors appearing as tiny specks on the water. A few minutes later we were over my hometown Bournemouth and the Isle of Wight before turning north and finally landing at Gatwick.
I spent the first few days with my sister and brother-in-law, Barbara and Rod, in Kent, appropriately known as “The Garden of England”. The good weather continued and we enjoyed spending time in the garden and going for cycle rides through the beautiful countryside – impossible to keep to the left in those narrow country lanes! Occasionally we would meet a tractor or a rider on horseback and, at one point, crossing a railway bridge, we caught a glimpse of the Eurostar as it hurtled beneath us at 150mph towards the Channel Tunnel (affectionately known as the “Chunnel”) on its way to Paris.
It’s very convenient having a sister who works in a bank when you’re traveling around Europe needing different currencies, and Barbara arranged for me to get travellers cheques (English spelling!) – probably the safest way to carry money with you, and they can be exchanged into local currency at any overseas bank (for a small commission). Of course, credit cards make life extremely easy when overseas; alternatively, nowadays you can use a Money Access Card in most ATM machines – the money is deducted from your US bank account and delivered to you in local currency. Again there’s a small commission but it’s very handy!
Three days later I set off in Barbara’s car to stay with my good friend, Tessa, in Berkshire. We spent hours catching up on lost time, visited the beautiful old town of Winchester, and went up to London one evening to see the show “Chicago”: a great choice, especially for a visitor from the U.S.! I then spent the weekend with our friends Pam & Steve, before meeting Mick at the airport. On the Sunday afternoon Pam and I walked to Horsham Park and sat on the grass listening to the band playing in the bandstand, along with many OAP’s (old age pensioners) sitting in deck chairs, the men wearing shorts and knotted, white handkerchiefs on their heads, enjoying their afternoon “cuppa”. Some things in England haven’t changed in 50 years!
Mick’s flight arrived on time, and we drove south to Bournemouth, my hometown, also the home of our friends Anne & Ron Clark who made us so welcome. After a couple of days visiting more friends and relatives, and revisiting favourite haunts from my childhood (why do these always seem so small?!), we continued southwest to Tavistock in Devon, where we spent the night at Virginia House, a traditional (but luxurious) British B&B – thoroughly recommended! Incidentally, one change that we did notice was the number of B&B’s advertising “All Ensuite“. Long gone are the days when you had to creep along the squeaky floorboards of a cold, dark hallway to the bathroom in the middle of the night! That evening we enjoyed another tradition – fish & chips, with Dixie and Julian, long time friends who were about to move to the US (we are probably their only friends excited about that!)
Too many visitors to England spend a week in London, with maybe a day trip to Bath or Stratford-upon-Avon. Well, if you have the opportunity to go, be sure to get out of the cities and into the countryside. The southwest of England is especially beautiful, and from Devon we went to Somerset to see Jill and Steve Bocquet, friends we hadn’t seen for perhaps twelve years.
Jill and Steve live in the heart of the country, just outside the town of Glastonbury. They’ve converted a barn into a wonderful home – a very popular trend in recent years – and their garden is a joy to behold. (Jill takes most of the credit for that!) They are right next door to a farmyard and delighted in relating the story, with photos, of the morning they awoke to find a cow standing in their swimming pool. It took a crane, several men and many hours to hoist it out!
English people love to go walking in all kinds of weather – when it’s raining they simply don their kagouls and their wellies and off they go! Fortunately we didn’t need either, and there is no more beautiful place on this earth (in my opinion) than England on a sunny day. If you enjoy walking, buy an Ordinance Survey map, which shows, in detail, suggested walks in the countryside and all the footpaths and public rights of way. Jill took us on a fabulous 6-mile hike over Exmoor, with splendid coastal views, past 10th Century churches and picturesque thatched cottages. And of course we ended up at the village pub, where we revived ourselves with a well-deserved pint of cider (a traditional Somerset drink) and a Ploughman’s (warm, crusty bread with cheese, salad and pickle; mmm!!).
From Glastonbury we drove north to see my sister and brother-in-law, Ann and John, who live near Stratford-upon-Avon, and we met our 11-month old great-nephew, Callum ….. gosh, that makes me feel old!! We spent a day in the Cotswolds, visiting the picture-postcard town of Bourton-on-the-Water, although we much preferred the time we spent exploring the countryside around Chipping Camden, away from all the tourists. Mick: Bourton had special significance for me: my father was stationed at RAF Little Rissington during the Battle of Britain, and my mother and brother Peter were evacuated from Bristol to Bourton and lived there for several years. This was (long!) before I was born, but I remember the lovely town from many childhood visits, photos and my parents’ stories.
While exploring some of the lovely olde-worlde shoppes in Chipping Camden we discovered a marvelous book: “Meeting God in Quiet Places: The Cotswold Parables” by American author F. LaGard Smith (who for twenty years has lived half the year in his country cottage in Buckland.) He invites us to walk with him through the Cotswold countryside and shows us much more than just bunnies and sheep … This is a real gem; if you ever plan to visit the Cotswolds we recommend you read this book. Even if you don’t, or can’t plan to follow our path, it’s still well worth the read.
From Chipping Camden we took an 8-mile hike through woods and fields, along country lanes, through churchyards and small villages. This is the England we all imagine – simply beautiful. Next time we’ll stay much longer.
These walks were useful preparation for the real thing because we were soon heading for the magnificent area in the northwest, aptly known as the Lake District. We had arranged to spend four days with our very good friends, Vivien and Bill, whom we’ve known for more than thirty years – now that makes me feel REALLY old!!
Bill had made reservations at The Queen’s Head in Hawkshead, a delightful old English Inn, with low, beamed ceilings and full of antiques. Each day we took a different hike with fantastic views, up and down hills, past lakes and streams, over stiles, through fields of sheep, all basking in glorious sunshine. Around 4.00pm we returned for our afternoon cup of tea, and later, after a run, or maybe a little shopping for souvenirs, we enjoyed the hotel’s excellent cuisine – one of Mick’s favourite dishes being a local speciality known as Cumberland Pie. We would thoroughly recommend a visit to this part of the country, but don’t expect the weather to be quite so perfect; we were just very, very lucky! Mick: one highlight for me of our time in Lakeland (a new name for the Lake District) was my run/hike up “The Old Man at Coniston”, one of the higher local peaks with spectacular views. I almost made it to the top – in pretty good time – but the late evening and the lure of Cumberland Pie back at the Queen’s Head made me turn back before I reached the summit (well that’s my excuse and I’m sticking to it!)
Being from the south of England, we have spent too little time in the north, so this year we decided to put that right. We drove across the beautiful Yorkshire Dales, stopping at a pub for lunch, to Scarborough, a popular seaside town on the east coast. Our friends, Katie and Joe, have bought a delightful little Mews Cottage just off the Esplanade and, although one night wasn’t really long enough to catch up on the past three years, it was still great to see them again. From Scarborough it was a short hop to Driffield to have lunch with our English friend Rachel from Dallas who was visiting her Mum – now that felt very strange, as I associate her with my “other life” in the States!
When planning this trip, I had drafted a rough itinerary and written to a few people to let them know we were coming. We had made reservations in the Lake District, as it’s a very popular place to visit, especially in summer. But accommodation can always be found at B&B’s at the last minute, which allows far more flexibility. Such was the case in the city of York.
We spent the next day as tourists in this beautiful medieval city, exploring the old city walls, visiting the Jorvik Museum (which illustrates in “living” form the Viking era of the first millennium), York Minster (one of the most beautiful cathedrals anywhere in the world), and strolling around “The Cobbles”. This is one city that is truly worth a visit.
During the next three days we managed to see more friends from the past, Liz and Pete in Cheshire from college days, Susie and Jenny in Hertfordshire from school days, and Gwyneth and Tony in Kent whom we met when we were first married. I’m so glad that we’ve kept in touch with all these friends over the years. More than any places we’ve lived, or things we’ve owned, friendships are the most precious gifts that can last a lifetime.
Our time in England was drawing to a close as we headed back to my sister’s to return her car, having clocked up nearly 2000 miles – thanks for the loan, Barbara! It had been a wonderful month and, although we have no plans to move back, we certainly look forward to more trips “home” in the future. But now it was time to look forward to the rest of our trip, another five weeks that would take us to Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Spain. Want to come along? Then turn to the next chapter of my journal!