CHOLSEY 1: 23 August 2011
Joy, bliss, happiness….. England!! As beautiful as ever – and my spirits are singing.
My latest English home, in the village of Cholsey, is perfect….upstairs, downstairs, a big living room, kitchen/dining room and big windows overlooking a very pretty back garden. Cholsey is quite rural but only 30 minutes by train from Oxford in an idyllic country environment. London is only 60 minutes by train in the opposite direction, and Maidenhead is on the same line. My home is just around the corner from the railway station. And as well as all this, I have a magnificent Mercedes car to drive – and a bike. Walking trails, including the Thames Path, abound in Oxfordshire, so there’ll be no excuses for not exploring far and wide over coming weeks. I’ve already wandered around the village, and I drove into nearby Wallingford yesterday.
I came up to Cholsey on Sunday after spending 3 nights in Maidenhead. Struggled through a few days of Jet Lag (capital J, capital L) from which I’ve now fully recovered, thank goodness. I think it was probably caused by a combination of the flights to and from Thailand only a few days before the long haul to Singapore and London, and the mad scramble to get ready for Rose (my current home exchangee) to move into my apartment. But despite the fatigue I thoroughly enjoyed catching up with Maidenhead friends again and adored going to the charming little Theatre Royal in Windsor to see “Three Days in May”, a political thriller about the lead-up to WW2 in Britain. Warren Clarke (of Dalziel & Pascoe fame) starred as Churchill and was very appropriately gruff and jowly.
The flight over was as good as can be expected for so many hours trapped in a small space. But I did have the best seat on the plane on the Singapore-London leg so can’t complain too much. When flying on a Singapore Airlines A380, remember seat 48D stands alone… there’s no seat in front, so plenty of room to stretch out, stand up etc.
The 2 night stopover in Singapore was fun with Doreen and Cyn (former CARA work colleagues), but we wouldn’t recommend the Excelsior Peninsula hotel where we stayed. Next time we’ll save hard and upgrade to the Marina Bay Sands… it’s an awesome architectural structure of 3 huge pillars topped off with a great long ship, high above the Singapore skyline. It looks a bit like a giant ironing board, but is no doubt exceedingly luxurious inside. The whole city is awash with high-rise buildings, and huge cranes constructing more of them. Immaculately clean and decked with flowers, Singapore now is nothing like the old colonial outpost it was in the days of Stamford Raffles 100 years ago. We went to Raffles Hotel on our first evening of course, and had the obligatory Singapore Sling in the very gracious courtyard …outrageously expensive, but most enjoyable.
Other activities in Singapore included a wander along Clarke Quay (though clubs bars and restaurants are all still asleep at 11am), then a river boat ride to Marina Bay, a ramble along to Change Alley and a trip on the MRT underground to Chinatown. The markets are great in this Chinese part of town – though not as cheap as Bangkok – and the Chinese Heritage Centre is well worth a visit. It’s a little museum that tells the story of the Chinese settlers who poured in to seek their fortune. Sadly most were destined to a life of poverty, in overcrowded shanty houses with opium dens, gambling, prostitution, gangs and cruel landlords. These days the Chinese houses with their coloured wooden shutters attract tourists with money and cameras…. better than the dirt, disease and poverty of days gone by, I guess.
We also took the Night Safari trip to Singapore Zoo. This one gets a mixed review from me. The buffet dinner and little train trip through the jungle were excellent, and we saw lots of animals in the special night lighting hidden in the trees. It would be hard to fault the efficiency of the Singaporeans who run this attraction, one of the most popular in the country… but with dozens of tourist buses making the trip, and thousands of people being herded along, this wasn’t my idea of fun travel. Having a guide who didn’t shut up didn’t help either. Grump, grump, grump….
There are pros and cons to stopping over en route to the UK, I’ve decided. It didn’t seem to prevent jet lag but it was interesting to sample a taste of Singapore – especially with friends.
England is definitely my scene. I still can’t get enough of the history, the green-ness, the country lanes, the villages, the trains and the whole general lifestyle. The shops are far more attractive than those in Australia and the supermarkets are on a totally superior scale. Food is excellent and comparable in price. There’s no sign of riots or racism in Oxfordshire – only lots of evidence of a strong community spirit and pride in their surroundings. Wallingford too is an extremely attractive small town about 6 miles from Cholsey, very historic, with the ruins of a castle built by William the Conqueror in 1067 when he was fresh from winning the Battle of Hastings. But the town even predates William. It was established by King Alfred to defend his territory from the Vikings in the 6th Century. These days it has lots of pretty shops, a fantastic antique centre, restaurants, coffee shops and an interesting museum.
Cholsey is quite small – only a little Tesco shop, post office, a butcher and a barber near the village common, called the ‘Forty’. The most famous person who lived around here was Agatha Christie who is buried with her archaeologist husband in the old village churchyard. According to the guidebook, her books were translated into dozens of languages and, collectively, sold in the billions. I found her grave with its rather elegant headstone. Her fans apparently still make pilgrimages to this little churchyard.
CHOLSEY 2: Saturday 27th August
In Oxford yesterday I saw a quote from WB Yeats (the poet) which pretty well sums up how I feel about this gorgeous city. He said “I wonder that anyone does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful…. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking.”
I think I probably walk around Oxford with a grin on my face too. It’s a place that makes me feel really happy. It would have been even more beautiful when Yeats was alive, without all the traffic and tourists. But the ‘dreaming spires’ and lovely old colleges are still here and they still weave their magic. You only have to step inside the gates of the colleges, or into a little chapel or crooked cobbled street, to feel the history and the silence. Everywhere you go you’re reminded of the life and learning that’s gone on here for centuries. If I had my life over again, this is one place I’d try to become part of.
It was so easy getting to Oxford by train on Tuesday for my first return visit since the Maidenhead days, and I spent most of the afternoon at the superb Ashmolean Museum. Impossible to describe the treasures here but one could spend years in Oxford and still come upon wonderful things at the Ashmolean. The way all these priceless exhibits are displayed is special too. Many are grouped to show how different civilizations have developed and cross-cultural ideas have emerged … for example, the influence of Greek and Roman sculpture on Buddhist carvings …. and vice versa; the way writing has developed over centuries in different parts of the world; the food culture of different civilizations etc. And I can’t get over how popular this place is. There are people of all ages and nationalities wandering around, and yet there still seems to be space for everyone.
Yesterday (Friday 26th) was also spent in Oxford. And it was back to the Ashmolean for one of the free guided walks at 1pm. This one was titled ‘Pilgrimages’ and we got to see treasures and icons of religious pilgrimages to the East and West over the millennia – all very beautiful and interesting. (LATER 2020: A year after seeing this exhibition I walked the Camino de Santiago.
Although it was a drizzly kind of day yesterday it didn’t dampen the spirits. I went into Trinity College, the Sheldonian Theatre and a special exhibition at the Bodleian Library about the making of the King James Bible (first edition 1601). It was fascinating to see the changes over the centuries as so many learned scholars translated the original Latin texts into English and the monks illustrated them with superb calligraphy. Interesting also to see how the various interpretations changed the meaning of words over time too. (But somehow people still think it’s all the original word of God…) My favourite exhibit was the so-called Wicked Bible from sometime in the 17th century. The publisher made a misprint with his old wooden printing blocks, and the
7th Commandment came out as “Thou shalt commit adultery”. Needless to say most of these Bibles were seized and burnt when the mistake was discovered, but a few escaped. And the Bodleian has one – of course!
The Sheldonian Theatre serves the same function as Bonython Hall at Adelaide Uni . It’s a hexagonal building designed by Christopher Wren and still used for University ceremonies, graduation awards etc. Climbing up the long spiral steps to the dome provides a chance to see the incredible architecture and wooden structure inside the building – and a good view over the city from the cupola at the top.
Apart from all the history in Oxford, there’s also all the modern swing of a University town with lots of young people around (even though it’s still summer holidays) and lots of bookshops, cafes, pubs, quirky little shops, and a very tempting market with beautiful shoes, bags, gifts, toys and lots, lots more.
But I haven’t spent all my time in Oxford. On Wednesday 24th, I walked from home in Cholsey along the Thames to Wallingford. It took about 2 hours – a lovely walk through meadows and woods, passing boats, watching swans and avoiding cows. It was quite a warm day so very pleasant to sit for a while with a coffee and a book when I got to Wallingford. I then rambled around the remains of the old Wallingford Castle. There’s not much left of the old stone ramparts, but the whole area is now a very attractive park and garden which the good folk of Wallingford were out enjoying in the sunshine. I like Wallingford with its old market centre, lovely antique shops, up-market dress shops, great tourist information centre etc– but after several hours of walking, I caught the bus home and hopped off just across the road from my place.
On Wednesday evening, I went to the Cholsey Women’s Institute meeting. The WI is a very old British organisation. Every village and town seems to have a WI group – rather like the Australian CWA, I imagine. At least these days they call one another by their first names, but I got the feeling that the days of ‘Mrs This’ and ‘Mrs That’ were not too long ago. Cholsey WI meets in the local church hall, decorated with posters made by the Toddlers Play Group, the Girl Guides and other community groups. The evening started with entertainment by a visiting actress who did Joyce Grenfell type monologues, sending up all the old Brit stereotypes. Quite funny really.. . and then came the General Business with all the arrangements for the next fundraiser, a report from the craft group, reading group, morning tea get-together etc. I guess I’d probably get involved if I were to be here longer….
Peggy and James across the road asked me over for afternoon tea on Thursday afternoon. We munched lovely cucumber sandwiches in the garden. They’re are a lovely couple, good friends of Rose’s.
Pauline is coming to stay for the weekend, so we’re going to set off and explore the countryside of Oxfordshire. More next time ….
CHOLSEY 3: VISITORS
It’s been full house in Cholsey over the past two weekends with two lots of house guests and plenty of frivolity.
Pauline came up from Maidenhead for the Bank Holiday weekend (27th-31st August) followed by Doreen, Cynthia and Doreen’s 86 year-old Mum for
2 nights this weekend. The following notes are a jumbled attempt to record some of what we did.
Weekend 1 – with Pauline: Drove to Abingdon, another lovely town on the Thames, and the one with that claims to be the oldest town in Britain. This might seem a pretty grand claim in a land that boasts amazing archaeological finds in every town and village museum, but it’s supposedly based on the fact that the oldest remains from the Iron Age have been found in archaeological digs around the Abingdon area. There’s also the ancient Abingdon Abbey – or what remains of it – which dates from Saxon times in 675AD. There was a wedding in progress in the Abbey grounds when we were there so we couldn’t get in to see the Long Hall and other remaining buildings, but it was fun watching the bride and groom being photographed in the gorgeous gardens and cobbled lanes. There was also a village fair in full swing in the market square….. a bit of a change from the Iron Age, I guess, but they probably even had rituals and celebrations way back then.
From Abingdon, we meandered on to nearby Dorchester , the scene of much mayhem and violence because it’s where many of the Midsomer Murders episodes have been filmed. It’s not at all hard to see why. All the houses and inns along the winding main street are like something out of a story book, extremely picturesque and quintessentially English.
Dorchester Abbey was open and it’s still in remarkably good repair for such an ancient building. The Abbey is still used today as the local place of worship, as well a setting for concerts, drama and exhibitions. It dates from 635AD and once would have housed many monks before Henry VIII got to it and dissolved it as a functioning monastery. The famous Jesse Window dates from the 14th century and combines stained glass and stone sculptures. As in all these old churches, there are many effigies of saints, carved tombs, an ancient font and other beautiful features.
Back in Wallingford, we had dinner at the Coach and Horses Inn.
Sunday 28th found us in Wallingford for morning coffee and another wander around this town’s nooks and crannies and little streets with names like Turnaround Lane which lead to more old houses, mills and churches.
From here we drove to Broughton Castle, near Banbury, about an hour’s drive away. Broughton has been the stately home of the Fiennes family for several centuries – and yes, Ralph Fiennes is a grandson of the current Lord who owns the Castle. It’s a lovely old castle, not too overwhelmingly large, surrounded by a moat and pretty gardens and it too has been the setting for many films and TV productions, including ‘Shakespeare in Love’ and others I’ve forgotten. Various kings, lords, ladies and others have stayed in the castle’s bedrooms over time, or given paintings, or somehow contributed to the history and life of this lovely place. I think I’d have been happy to have been born in Broughton Castle….
Another English heritage house on our route home was Rousham Gardens, so we strolled around this idyllic pastoral setting through walled gardens and cow meadows, past ponds, cascades and statues. All very peaceful in the late afternoon sun. c
Next day (Monday 29th) we did a potter around the Parish of Cholsey – about a 4-mile walk through woods and fields to the twin villages of Aston Tirrold and Aston Upthorpe with their chocolate box cottages, old barns and 3 churches. Had coffee at the Sweet Olive pub, then rambled on past Lollingdon Farm, the former home of poet laureate John Masefield.
It was then back into Wallingford in the afternoon to explore the excellent town museum and the antiques shops.
Tuesday 30th: OXFORD. We did a fantastic free 2-hour walking tour around the city today with a very knowledgeable young guide who entertained us liberally with tales of madness, mayhem and martyrs, while also extolling the history and beauty of this city that he clearly loves. We heard tall tales and true of many of the Colleges, student pranks and traditions, eminent scholars and lots of fascinating facts – such as the fact that there are 10 floors beneath the Bodleian Library, full of books… one copy of every book that has ever been published in England. Incredible!
Pauline and I had done a bit of our own wandering before the tour and enjoyed the calm and beauty of Balliol College (famous Fellows include 3 British PMs, a number of poets and 6 members of the Obama administration). The College dates from the 1200’s. We also dropped into Blackwells Book shop to see the Norrington Room, the biggest single room full of books in the world – it’s massive.
Pauline went back to Maidenhead on Tuesday afternoon, so I caught up with washing etc – and did another Parish Potter on Thursday – before Doreen, Cynthia and Joyce arrived on Friday morning.
Weekend 2 with the former CARA workmates
Friday 2nd September: A gorgeous sunny day, so after sandwiches and cake in the garden, we drove randomly off to see more of the glorious countryside. Found our way to Wallingford, then Abingdon, enjoyed a drink in a pub garden by the river and strolled around the shops. Joyce (Doreen’s Mum) is 86 and needs a wheelchair for getting around the streets – and it didn’t take long to discover that the quaintness and charm of little English towns doesn’t make life easy for people with mobility issues. On the whole, I’ve been reasonably impressed with the level of accessibility for people with disabilities in England, but 16th century buildings, cobbled streets and narrow footpaths in the oldest towns certainly present challenges for both town planners and wheelchair-users. However, we managed to get everywhere we wanted to go and Joyce was fiercely independent wherever possible.
Had an excellent dinner at the Red Lion in Cholsey– fish and a glass of fizz, followed by delectable pudding.
Saturday 3rd September: This was A Big Day Out, starting in the morning with the gigantic Jumble Sale at the Sue Ryder hospice at Nettlebed. This event is held every 3 weeks and has to be the biggest Trash and Treasure sale in the world!! I’d been told to get there early – before doors opened at 10.30am – but by 10am there must already have been hundreds of cars and thousands of people. It’s huge!! And fantastic!! You can buy anything from furniture, carpets, designer clothes, gardening supplies, books, bric-a-brac, hats, bags, shoes, luggage, paintings and more and more and more. Most stuff is only £1 or £2, with clothes only 50p (about $1 Aust dollar). Needless to say, we couldn’t resist and came home with bags of stuff between us.
This weekend was also the Wallingford Bunk Fest, a huge carnival and folk festival with live bands all day, Morris dancing, market stalls, food, beer and family fun. And the Cholsey-Wallingford steam train was running throughout the day with buskers and ale on board. This charming little train is run these days by volunteers along what’s called the Bunk Line. We did the trip both ways, feeling like Harry Potter on his way to Hogwarts. It’s all delightfully old-fashioned and fun. The Kinecroft at Wallingford, normally a great big open green field, was full of people, marquees, dancing and Womad-type stalls. It was another beautiful sunny day, so spirits were high and fun was had by one and all.
Sunday 4th September: This is England, so you can’t count on the weather. The plan today had been to have lunch at Henley-on-Thames and enjoy a stroll along the river. But the heavens opened and it bucketed down all morning. We still drove to Henley but I was really sorry the others couldn’t see it in all its royal regatta glory. It’s a beautiful town with hundreds of boats and flowers and charming shops – but not today. It seemed as if the rain had set in for the day (as it turned out, it hadn’t of course) so Doreen, Cyn and Joyce headed south for home and I caught the train back to Cholsey. Then… guess what ….the sun came out in a blaze of afternoon heat.
I’ve just been down to the little railway bridge by the church to do a bit of train-spotting before the steam train gets put to bed until its next special outing.
CHOLSEY 4: DONKEYS and other DELIGHTS
I’ve fallen in love again – this time with donkeys. Eighty-three of these beautiful little animals live at Island Farm Donkey Sanctuary not far from here. I’ve visited twice in the past week and am ready to ‘adopt’ two of them for Ben and Julie, Bron and Michael. ‘Our’ donkeys are Brewster and Pollyanne… two of the dearest, gentlest little creatures you could ever meet. Many of the resident donkeys at Island Farm had been neglected, abused or in pretty bad shape before they were rescued, with quite a few coming from horse fairs, gypsy camps and old farms all over the country. They now live happily in lush green fields with straw to sleep on, regular vet checks and lots of love from volunteers and sponsors. On Saturday, the Farm had a special fundraising event which I dragged Pauline along to.
We both felt it was like stepping back in time to a quaint old-fashioned jumble of stalls, animals, miniature steam engines and other sundry fun-of-the-fair activities, including a display of live owls! Best of all are the donkeys though…..
I combined my first visit to Island Farm earlier in the week with a walk around Brightwell-cum-Sotwell, the nearby village. Despite its funny name, this village is an absolute delight with many thatched cottages, winding lanes, an old manor house complete with moat and ducks, and even an old mansion which was supposedly used by smugglers and has its own ghost. It’s a magical little village that almost feels as if it might disappear if you blink your eyes. Pauline was just as enchanted when I led her around after our visit to the Farm. Of course the cottages around here are probably worth £1 million … so there’s nothing quaint or fairy-tale about the real estate prices.
The gardens in all the villages are dripping with apples, plums, quinces, beautiful old English trees and flowers. And often you’ll find a barrel of apples outside a front gate with a notice to Help Yourself. I’ve enjoyed some delicious stewed apples over the past week ….
This week I also took myself to the first meeting of a new Cholsey and Wallingford Reading Group that’s being established. It turned out to be a group of mainly young Mums, so reminded me of days gone by in my own Book Club days in Adelaide. However, these young women didn’t seem to mind an Australian senior citizen (probably older than their own mothers) dropping in…. I’ll only get to one more meeting before I leave Cholsey, but it was good to talk books again, and the book chosen for next month is ‘Pigeon English’, which is on the short-list for this year’s Man Booker prize.
Much else has kept me very busy during the past 5 days, starting with a trip to Henley on Wednesday. I adore Henley and wanted to see it again in the sunshine. I did a circular walk by myself along the river and through the woods which took me about 2 ½ hours. The riverside path in Henley passes by some impossibly beautiful houses, gardens and natural woodland, with boats of all shapes drifting by. Then the path veers off through fields and bridle paths and autumnal woods passing more gorgeous houses and expensive horse properties. It’s very upper class countryside around Henley-on-Thames – with a very comfortable lifestyle enjoyed by all who are fortunate enough to have been born into it. Though having said that, I also have to say that all the people I meet on my wanderings around the country are friendly, helpful and not at all snooty or pretentious. In fact, I find English people on the whole much friendlier and more open than people at home…. it’s so easy to talk to anyone on the trains, in cafes, shops, waiting in queues etc. There’s a feeling of well-being here in this part of the world, despite the GFC, climate change and other bad news. Maybe it’s got something to do with the strong sense of community in all these town and villages – something we miss in the suburbs of Adelaide.
On the drive home from Henley – which should normally take about ½ hour – I wanted to visit Greys Court, a National Trust property. After many wrong turns and miles of winding hedgerow roads, I finally found it just a couple of miles outside the town, but the maps and signposts had not made the task easy. Normally I would find this quite frustrating, but when everywhere you go is all so pretty -and you have all the time in the world to get there – it really doesn’t matter. And it’s always worth it at journey’s end. Greys Court is a medieval mansion nestling amid rolling hills, the former home of Sir Felix and Lady Elizabeth Brunner. It was given to the National Trust in 1969, with Lady Brunner continuing to live there until 2003. It still has the feel of a 1930’s family home, with lovely rooms and a delightful series of walled gardens. It also has a connection with donkeys, with its huge wooden Donkey Wheel which was used in the past to draw water from the well … a donkey would walk around inside the wheel to pull the big bucket up and down.
This week has also included two visits to my neighbours in this street. One of Rose’s friends, Pat, lives down the street, and makes the most exquisite miniature dolls house furnishings. Rose had told me to contact her and I am so glad I did. I can’t even begin to describe the quantity and quality of her amazing art and craft work . She has superb Victorian and Edwardian dolls houses, completely fitted out with tiny hand-made tapestries, carpets, cushions, patchwork quilts and all the trimming and trappings of a home of the era. But in addition, she’s made the most amazing little ‘shops’ with tiny goods and chattels to suit … hundreds of little cakes and biscuits in the patisserie, tiny sausages, chops and other gourmet meat dishes in the butchers, and a vast array of miniature costumes for the fancy dress shop, with hats, shoes, gloves etc to match. There’s enough to establish a little gallery but she doesn’t want to show her work, or sell it. I’ve never seen anything like it and was quite captivated by her skill and the beauty of her work.
After afternoon tea with Pat, I was invited across the road for dinner with Peggy and James… delicious local roast pork, home-grown vegetables, French wine and a tasty cheese platter. Is it any wonder I love this country and its people?
But there’s still more….
On Friday, Pauline, the 2 Marys and I joined the Maidenhead U3A group for a fabulous guided walk around the hidden parks and gardens in the City of London. This was my first trip into London this time – it was so easy to join the Maidenhead mob on the same train down from Cholsey. Pauline, Mary W and I were probably the youngest in the overall group of about 10 women ( at least a couple of them were over 80) but they were a sprightly lot who managed the 2 hour walk easily. We started with coffee in the crypt of St Pauls Cathedral and looked around the recently-refurbished Paternoster Square outside. This part of London is all about trade, finance, corporate banking etc, and there still seems to be plenty of optimism in the market if the trendy young corporate yuppies in the square are anything to go by. Or maybe they were just drinking champagne and enjoying posh nosh in the attractive eateries to drown the sorrows of the global financial crisis? Anyway, London still looks pretty prosperous and full of energy to me.
The walk was led by Sally, one of London’s fantastically knowledgeable Blue Guides (and who has also become a good friend of mine in England … we’ve caught up several times since this first walk). We wove our way around corners and churchyards, between towering city buildings and the rather spectacular Barbican, to find little pockets of gorgeous greenery and flowers where City workers have their lunch and birds and bees try to maintain their way of life in the busy metropolis. Much of this area was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666, and then destroyed again in the bombing during World War II – but it’s incredible how things re-grow and re-establish. Many of the gardens are in old church sites that have been protected and all have fascinating stories to tell. This part of London is also home to the Livery houses – the Goldsmiths, the Pewterists, the Wax Chandlers and all the other trades and industries that made London such a centre of commerce through the millennia. Sally was a wealth of information about the history, and pointed out dozens of things I’d never have seen of known about otherwise. It was an extremely interesting walk and well worth the cost of the train fare to get into London (nearly $40 Australian – yes, trains are expensive, even with a Senior Rail Card.)
Following the guided walk, Pauline, Mary W, Mary O and I continued on our own ramble down to the Monument. This tall, tall tower was erected as a monument to the people who died in the Great Fire, and it’s said that if it were laid down, the point at the top would touch the place in Pudding Lane where the fire started.
After the train ride back, I just had time to whip home and change clothes before setting out on another train to Oxford – this time to go to the Playhouse to see a one-man performance of “Under Milk Wood” , the lovely story-poem by Dylan Thomas of life in a little Welsh fishing village. The actor Guy Masterton played all 60-something characters with nothing more than one chair on the stage. Quite fantastic! I just loved being at the theatre in Oxford at night, surrounded by all sorts of people I’d like to have as friends. I didn’t actually speak to anyone, but still felt very much at home.
This Diary entry is so long already, but i might as well finish it off with yesterday’s activities (Saturday 9/11). Thoughts of Twin Towers and New York were furthest from my mind as I wandered through the beautiful towers of Oxford once more with Pauline. (She’d come up to stay for the weekend again to see my donkeys and share the pleasures of Oxford’s Open Doors festival).
Once a year, Oxford opens all its doors to visitors. It’s a great chance to see the great Colleges and other buildings, free of charge. They also do lots of guided walks around more unusual parts of the city. I’d booked for the walk along the Oxford canals and waterways to learn about the economic and social importance of the river and the canals. This turned out to be another treasure with a fantastic guide who actually lives on a river boat and is a river historian. We heard all about the lives of the boatmen in the days when the canals were the highways of the country, with barges pulled by horses bringing all the manufactured goods down from the midlands and north of England for shipping to the world. There’s a maze of these canals throughout England and it’s one of my ambitions to do a trip in a narrow boat some time. The parts of the city bordering the canals were rough working-class areas in days gone by – and there are still many signs of the old way of life with horse stables, pubs with names like The Nag’s Head, and poorer little cottages. But the walkways are now quite attractive leafy lanes and much of Jericho, the older part of Oxford, is a lively student quarter. Oxford University Press still operates its printing works here too.
As well as the canal walk, Pauline and I visited the Bodleian Library and were able to go inside the Divinity School and see the magnificent fan-vaulted ceiling in the 15th Century room that has been described as the most beautiful room in Europe. I’m not sure how this claim stands up against all the other wonders of architecture and design around this part of the world, but it certainly is very lovely. Among the other Colleges we looked around were All Souls with its superb chapel, Jesus College, Hertford College, New College, Exeter College – and possibly more that I’ve forgotten. Each one has its own beauty and special features, all designed around quadrangles of green, green grass and flower beds. So many famous names from history emerge as one wanders from one of these stunning places to the next. The sun shone for much of the day and Oxford was glorious.
We also walked along to Holywell Cemetery to see the graves of many eminent people. Best-known is Kenneth Graham, author of ‘Wind in the Willows’. It’s a peaceful, secluded little corner of Oxford that is now looked after by a volunteer group who are as much interested in the wildlife and flora of the area as the old tombstones and graves. The charming one-armed woman who walked around with us and a small group of other visitors knew far more about the flowers, butterflies, lichens and grasses than she did about the famous souls who rest beneath them. It was a very enjoyable little walk and talk.
Today (Sunday) has been a kind of catch-up day for email, supermarket shopping etc – because Penny arrives tomorrow and it will all be on again with more sight-seeing, walking, driving, eating and drinking…. What a life…..
CHOLSEY 5: Penny’s visit (Monday 13th – Sunday 18th)
Penny has hitched onto part of my home exchanges for the past 3 years, en route to/ from Scotland visiting son Richard and family. And we’ve seen more of the world together since our swinging ‘60s days in London. But, lo and behold … the transport jinx struck again. For 3 years in a row we’ve had dramas in our meeting plans. Last year, Rome surpassed even its own normal low standards of inefficiency with late trains when it decided to throw in a full-blown train strike mid-way from the airport to my little house; and the previous year, Penny’s bus to our agreed rendezvous in the Lakes District was delayed. This year British Rail completely cancelled the Edinburgh train that was supposed to link with the one she’d booked from Newcastle to Oxford. So she missed the connection!
I’d gone up to Oxford to meet the Newcastle train, but when Penny didn’t step off it, I just headed back home to sit by the phone…. and sure enough, a couple of hours later the doorbell rang. She’d caught the next train down from Newcastle, and found her way to Cholsey and my front door. And her phone battery was flat.
So with everything being well, this week has been action-packed with more sight-seeing, drives, walks, eating and drinking, a literary festival and a stately home or two.
Friday (16th) was a feast for the intellect at the Literary Festival at Blenheim Palace. This 5-day Festival, run by the Independent newspaper, seems to be a tad more academic than the upcoming Henley Festival (for which I’ve also booked tickets) but we thoroughly enjoyed a full day of great talks and debates within the splendid grounds of Blenheim. Unlike Adelaide’s fabulous Writers Week, people pay to attend these events over here, but the Festival does throw in coffee and cake, or a glass of wine, at several sessions.
We heard Hugo Vickers talk about his new book, “The Tragic Life of the Duchess of Windsor” which is somewhat controversial because he presents Wallis Simpson as more of a victim than a scheming divorcee who brought about Edward VIII’s abdication. Then there was a talk about Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the esteemed landscape architect who designed so many of the lakes and gardens that surround England’s beautiful palaces and mansions, including Blenheim itself. The afternoon sessions were presented by (1) a panel of journalists who discussed the events in the Arab countries this year and (2) a young woman envoy to the UN in Afghanistan about the failure of the Western nations in understanding the complexities of this fragile country. It was all immensely interesting, and whilst it soon became clear to us how much we don’t know about current world affairs, we did pick up some new and fascinating insights into the Middle East and Afghanistan.
During the day we also had time to explore some of the Palace grounds, and at day’s end we walked across to the very picturesque village of Woodstock, outside the Palace gate. Being near to the Cotswolds, most of the village houses, shops and pubs are built of the beautiful, creamy Cotswold stone and old slate roofs, and they twist and lean along the little lanes that wind off the main market square. I’d been to Blenheim 3 years ago, but didn’t explore Woodstock then so was delighted to have the chance this time.
Most of the week’s activities didn’t require as much mental effort as the literary lectures – but neither did they need much physical effort. We did some walks around Cholsey and Wallingford, also visited the nearby village of Ewelme, Greys Court, Henley and the Maharajah’s Well – then spent a whole day in Oxford on Thursday along with Penny’s friend, Bev, from Dunedin. Bev was staying with her daughter in London so it was a great chance for her and Penny to catch up, and for the 3 of us (all Social Workers) to spend the day together.
The Maharajah’s Well at Stoke Row, near Henley, is a fascinating piece of sculpture and engineering in an English village – and has an extraordinary story. It was the gift of the Maharajah of Benares to Stoke Rowe in the mid-1800’s. It looks very ‘Indian’ with gilded domes and a decorative elephant on top, so is quite out-of-keeping with the rest of the village. However, it did serve a valuable purpose for over 70 years in helping this poor village community to get water without walking miles with heavy buckets. The Maharajah was grateful for the assistance he’d been given by Great Britain, so when he learned of this village’s plight, this was his return gift. The well is 368 feet deep (taller than St Pauls Cathedral and twice the height of Nelson’s column). It was dug by hand, with only one man at a time being able to fit down the shaft. It was renovated in 1983, and the Queen owns a replica of it. Incredible – and a bit bizarre…
Ewelme is a little gem. A tiny village tucked away in a vale between rolling hills and fields, its main claim to fame is its old Abbey and alms houses which date back centuries. Thomas Chaucer (Geoffrey’s son) is buried in the Abbey, along with the Duchess of Suffolk who was the landowner of this part of the country. The alms houses around the church are very pretty with their little cloisters and central garden…. they were originally built for the old (and poor) men of the village, but over time, women have managed to gain theright to move in too. In earlier times, if a married couple lived there, the wife had to move out when her husband died… however a few enterprising women saw an opportunity to stay on if they married the incoming new male lodger! These exquisite little houses still cost the princely sum of £5 per month for the residents.
Ewelme’s other main attraction is its watercress beds. Once upon a time, this village supplied all the watercress for England, transporting it to London, the Midlands, and everywhere. Of course this is no longer financially viable, but a group of Ewelme volunteers still maintain the natural reserve and the beds of cress in the stream that flows through the village – and a very pretty sight it is too.
Thursday in Oxford gave me a chance to act as tour guide and show Penny and Bev some of my favourite haunts. All being book-lovers, we browsed for a while in Blackwells huge reading room, then visited Balliol College and adjourned to the Turf Tavern for lunch. Afterwards, I left them to do the 2-hour free walking tour that Pauline and I had enjoyed last week, while I spent a couple of happy hours in the Oxford Museum and at Alice’s Shop (where Alice in Wonderland used to buy her sweets…) It’s opposite Christs College where Lewis Carroll and Alice’s father were colleagues – and it’s full of Alice memorabilia at exorbitant prices.
Another pleasant surprise this week was learning that Penny’s son, Richard, had to come down from Edinburgh to Reading on Wednesday for a meeting. Even though she’d just spent 3 weeks with Richard and family, it was a great little bonus to be able to catch up again for dinner on Wednesday night. I went along too and enjoyed meeting Richard again. When I saw him last in NZ, he was a teenager! We met at Goring railway station and went to a lovely old pub on the River for dinner, then drove him back to his hotel in Reading.
Yesterday (Saturday) I needed to catch up in my own space for a while, so Penny went off to Oxford alone. (She enjoyed the Oxford Museum, the Covered Market and the Wine and Food Fair at Oxford Castle)
And this evening (Sunday) she’s gone to Heathrow to catch her flight home to New Zealand. We spent most of the day doing a lovely walk through the fields and woods around Ewelme and visiting tiny St Botolph’s church at Swyncombe. It was mostly sunny until near the end when we got drenched! We then enjoyed a last late lunch and drink at the Red Lion in Cholsey before coming home for the final packing and departure.
Tomorrow (Monday 19th) I’m off to Herefordshire to stay a few days with Daryl’s mother. It’s all go in England – but I’m still one very happy traveller.
CHOLSEY 6: Herefordshire, Wales and the Cotswolds
Too much to see and do & not enough time to write…..I only wish I could pack all this beauty into a box and bring it home and share it round.
This week was my driving holiday across to Herefordshire to visit Daryl’s mum in Weobley (pronounced Webly . The nearest big town is Leominster, pronounced Lemster … they don’t seem to like the “o’s” …) Anyway, however you say it, it’s a lovely little place, one of Herefordshire’s black-and-white villages. Many of the buildings date from the 15th and 16th centuries, and are built in the Tudor style with exposed heavy black wooden beams, with whitewashed walls between the woodwork. They twist and lean at all kinds of angles and look very quaint. I wandered around the village on the morning that Sylvie went to her volunteer job at a school for kids with disabilities (which she’s been doing for over 25 years), and blazed away with the camera. However, photos will never be good enough to capture the atmosphere of all these pretty places.
Other activities during my 3 days in Weobley included some bracing country walks with Sylvie and Harvey, her friendly brown spaniel. Once again I was captivated by the network of footpaths and walking tracks through the farms and woods. Autumn is definitely the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” over here – apples, pears, coloured leaves and ploughed fields … quintessential English countryside in abundance.
One day we did a longer walk (without Harvey) up onto part of Offa’s Dyke. Offa’s Dyke Path is one of the Great Walks of Britain, along the border between England and Wales, 177 miles in total. We did about 3 miles – all uphill – and had wonderful views over the English hills and dales and the Welsh mountains. Offa was a powerful Saxon king in the 8th century who ruled over a huge part of the Anglo lands. He built this massive earthwork construction to keep the marauding Welshmen out of his kingdom. The Dyke is up to 20metres wide in parts and roughly follows the present-day border. It’s a well marked walk and we had no trouble, but the guide books describe the whole walk as quite challenging – not a doddle. From the highest point that we climbed to, we could look down into Welsh villages and across to some coal mines. We also passed lots of wild Welsh ponies in the bracken on the way back down.
Another day we enjoyed a visit to the Westonbury Mill Water Gardens. Privately owned and established, this garden is laid out around ponds and streams behind an old mill. Like all the English gardens I’ve seen, everything grows in a rambling profusion of colour and abundance. Features here included a dovecote and gargoyles, and a fern grotto with a domed roof made of coloured wine bottles that sparkle in the sun like a cathedral window. The garden has been featured on a BBC gardening program.
On my last evening, we had dinner at Jules Restaurant in the village – thick stone walls, old wooden tables, French cuisine and a very cosy atmosphere.
The drives to and from Herefordshire were also a highlight of this mini-holiday. I took a different route each way so I could see more of the countryside, and arranged a one night stopover in Bristol on the way back in order to visit the famous ss Great Britain. The driving was quite easy – a mix of motorways and back roads, and a gazillion roundabouts. I’m pleased to report that apart from a minor hiccup getting through the city of Hereford, I didn’t get lost once! I stopped when I felt like it, and along the way ‘discovered’ the lovely little town of Ross-on Wye, the beautiful city of Cirencester, and some of the most exquisite Cotswolds villages.
In Bristol, I took a ride on one of the open-top hop-on, hop-off tourist buses because I didn’t have much time to spend there. It’s the first time I’ve ever used one and I don’t think I’ll bother again. You get bombarded with facts and dates and stuff you can’t remember, while lurching around streets and squares and parks and gardens that you probably don’t really want to see anyway. I didn’t much like the ‘feel’ of Bristol, a bustling, noisy, sprawling, dirty, chaotic city. It’s an old seaport on a tidal estuary with a wealth of history in trading wool, wheat and other British farm products to the new worlds of America. It also became immensely wealthy through trading black African slaves to the cotton planters in the southern states of America. These days there are lots of small boats in the docks, but Bristol seems to have lost its place to London, Liverpool and other major ports around the country. I guess the system of locks and bridges along the river into the main dock is impressive, but I didn’t really have time to study it all.
The major draw card for a visit to Bristol has to be the ss Great Britain. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the Great Britain was the first propeller-driven transatlantic steamship, and at the time, the largest ship ever built. I first came across Brunel when I lived in Maidenhead – he was a great British engineer in the 19th century who built bridges, dockyards, railways and tunnels. Among many other modern wonders, he designed the Maidenhead railway bridge with the widest single span of any brick bridge ever built. However, the Great Britain is even more superb, both as an engineering marvel, and for its history. Built in the Bristol dockyards in 1843, this ship is now back in its home dock after foundering in the Falkland Islands in the 1930s and being rescued and refloated in a mammoth operation in 1970. It’s a massive iron ship which has been restored and opened to the public as a museum. You first go down under the glass ‘sea’ to view the hull and huge propeller, then you go on board to see the engines and the passenger decks – splendour in First Class, rather cramped in steerage. It’s very ‘real’ … even to the extent of onboard smells, from freshly-baked bread in the galley, to sea-sick vomit in the tiny cabins! The Great Britain transported tons of cargo and thousands of passengers to the colonies, including to Australia during the gold rush days, and she was also used as a transport ship in the First World War There’s a wealth of memorabilia on display, from passengers’ diaries, to photos, letters, videos of rounding Cape Horn, all kinds of nautical stuff, stories of the Captains, information about the food, on-board entertainment, cargo etc. It’s wonderful!!
The other Brunel-designed structure in Bristol is the massive iron suspension bridge over the Avon channel. I didn’t go across it, but had a few good views of it as I drove or bussed along the road by the cliffs of the estuary. It’s worth looking it up on the internet to see how huge it is.
After a lazy sleep-in at the Travelodge in Bristol’s outer suburbs, I set off through Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire on the way home to Cholsey. I’d decided to use mainly A-roads, rather than motorways and to go via Cirencester – and I’m so glad I did. On this beautiful sunny day the countryside looked magnificent. Many of the country roads are avenues of overhanging, sun-dappled oaks and elms and ash and – I really haven’t a clue what they are– but they’re all beautiful, especially at this time of the year with their autumn colours.
As soon as I drove into Cirencester, I knew I had to spend some time there. It’s an old Roman city and is now on my list of Must-Return-To places. I spent 3 hours wandering around, having lunch and silently ooh-ing and aah-ing at everything. I’ve never seen such gorgeous shops either – I was nearly tempted to toss aside my principles and just buy, buy, buy. Honestly, if I lived in England, I would have cupboards full of fabulous clothes and a stunningly furnished house. I’d also give tasteful hand-crafted gifts and eat gourmet delicacies every day. All these treasures are to be found in quaint little shops and markets everywhere in England –but Cirencester was special. Being in the heart of the Cotswolds, its old houses and buildings are soft cream in colour and very inviting. As I was strolling down one lovely old street of original weavers’ cottages, camera in hand, a very nice woman asked where I was from, and then invited me inside her cottage to see what it looked like! Do you reckon that would ever happen in Australia?? I don’t think so!! Needless to say, the cottage was just as pretty on the inside as the outside and it went back quite a long way through a maze of little rooms to a beautiful conservatory and cottage garden. I asked her if she’d be tempted to do a home exchange in Adelaide….. I have to say that, in my experience, people in rural England are all friendly, kind and welcoming.
There was a big funeral service happening in the Abbey while I was there, so I didn’t get to see it all, but I enjoyed the market place outside and the sweeping Abbey gardens and grounds. The woman in the Tourist information office was also one of the nicest and friendliest I’ve met anywhere – she gave me some good ideas for villages to explore on the drive home. So all in all, Cirencester was a winner.
I headed from there to Bibury – once described by William Morris as the most beautiful village in England. This would be a hard contest, but I do believe Bibury would make the short list. As I was driving over the little stone bridge coming into the village, what should be coming the other way but a horse and carriage carrying a pretty bride and her groom! With swans and ducks and flowers and old stone cottages all around, it was a perfect sight. I found a park by the old church, then strolled through the village footpaths and treated myself to a Cotswold ice-cream. How much bliss can there be in a day??
The back roads are definitely the way to go to explore this part of the country. Enticing road signs along the way tempt you to visit other gorgeous villages with names like Much Marcle, Goosey, Hole-in-the-Wall and Wormelow Tump! But I couldn’t do them all, so just soaked up the beauty of the country all around me. In some places there are miles and miles of little stone wall fences around the fields, which must have taken years to build in days gone by. At this time of the year, many of the fields have been ploughed, ready for the winter rains, I expect. But there’s such variety in the colours everywhere, and something new and lovely around every bend. One such surprise was Buscot Park, a National Trust property I’d intended to visit some time, but hadn’t got round to looking up exactly where it was. And here it was on this lovely little back road in the Cotswolds.
Buscot Park is the home of Lord Farringdon. It’s a neo-classical house set in peaceful woodlands, and home to a wonderful collection of paintings and furnishings. Lord Farringdon and family still live there – and I think I actually saw him. As I was wandering through one of the stately hallways, a kindly gentleman with a little dog walked past and went down the stairs marked ‘Private’. I’ll swear he was the man in the silver-framed photos on the piano.
The weather is perfect in southern England right now – 27 degrees and a cloudless blue sky. The Brits are loving it – they’re calling it a heat wave on the news! We’ve had 4 days in a row of beautiful sunshine, and the forecast is for a continuation of ‘scorching’ days over the weekend. It’s really too lovely to be sitting inside writing, but I’ve been out in the country soaking it up for the past few days and have a busy weekend ahead, so today’s a day for catching up with other stuff. I can’t believe how easy it is to be so totally self-indulgent…
This week is the Henley Literary Festival. I spent all day on Wednesday at Bix Manor, a lovely old home (now a function centre), about 30 minutes from Cholsey, and 5 minutes from Henley. It’s one of several venues they’re using for the Festival. It couldn’t have been lovelier with the glorious sunshine, tables and umbrellas in the garden, wine, tea, coffee and delicious little cakes, very pleasant English people to chat to throughout the day, lots of books, and … the icing on the cake … some great writers and speakers to listen to.
The first session was a panel of travel writers from magazines and newspapers, including ‘Vanity Fair’ and the ‘Daily Telegraph’. They shared some amusing anecdotes, tips and inside information about the joys and pitfalls of travel journalism – all very entertaining. The Telegraph travel editor read out 2 pages of his “banned word” list– words such as gorgeous; stunning; picturesque; winding lanes; cobble-stones; and heaps of other clichés about the joys of England! (… lucky these Cholsey Chronicles are not being submitted for publication…)
I also enjoyed hearing John Julius Norwich, the current Lord Norwich, an esteemed historian and monarchist, aged 82, talking about his latest book “England in 100 Places – from Stonehenge to The Gherkin”. Then it was Colin Thubron recounting his pilgrimage to Mt Kailesh in Tibet, and Christopher Oondatje (brother of Michael) with his collection of “Boys Own” type adventure stories about his own life. Rachel Johnson’s session was booked out. She’s editor of ‘The Lady’, a posh women’s weekly magazine, and sister of Boris, the colourful Lord Mayor of London. But over afternoon tea I got chatting to a lovely English woman who had a ticket and had to leave early, so she offered to share it with me. When she snuck out the side door, I snuck in – so we heard half the session each. Rachel was another very engaging speaker. She must be rattling some of the conservative upper classes since she took over “The Lady”….
But back to last weekend – and where I left off in the last Diary. It was the Choko Beer Fest in Cholsey on Saturday. Choko is a community project linking Cholsey and Kodumela in South Africa. Over the past 4 years, Cholsey has raised over $80,000 to support development projects in Kodumela as well as local organisations. They’ve also had an exchange program for people from the two communities. Rose has visited the African town. The Beer Fest is one of many fundraising events in the annual calendar, so I went along to check it out. It was absolutely nothing like you’d imagine a beer bash to be. There wasn’t a rowdy, drunken yobbo in sight. It was a real family day on the lawns behind the church hall. There was a wide variety of local ales and ciders for sampling, as well as wines and good food for sale. And some great live music.
I didn’t know anyone there, but I sat very happily, glass of wine in hand, listening to some really good bands and solo guitarists. The Choko project is a perfect example of what communities can do – and the village of Cholsey demonstrates the kind of community spirit and action that happens all over rural England. So often I wish I’d grown up in this country.
On Monday (or was it Tuesday ?) I took myself for another Thames Path walk – this time from the Shillingford Bridge along the tow path, then across the fields to Benson and Warborough, before cutting back to the river at Shillingford again. Warborough is another idyllic village of rustic cottages, thatched houses, a lovely village green, 1000-year old church, little store and pub. I had some friendly conversations with other people out walking, a man fishing and some nice elderly women sitting in the sunshine – as well as many nods, smiles and waves from people in the village or cruising along in boats. Everyone you meet along the way smiles and says ‘hello’. Don’t anyone try to tell me the English are reserved. I love them.
With a couple of free days between literary festival events, I decided on the spur of the moment yesterday afternoon to go for a drive to make the most of the weather. I’d always wanted to see the famous White Horse on the chalk hills near Uffington, so headed in that direction with plenty of time to detour off to some of the villages on the side-roads. I’m sure you could just stick a pin in a map of England and land on somewhere beautiful, but I chose Blewbury and East Hendredge because I recalled seeing them mentioned somewhere in my great pile of Oxfordshire tourist information. By far the best way to explore these places is just to park the car anywhere in the village and then wander wherever the mood takes you. There are so many interesting little footpaths leading down lanes lined with cob walls and gardens, and you just come across beautiful houses, duck ponds, old weathered barns, black and white thatched cottages – a picture opportunity around every corner. Blewbury was particularly beautiful, but East Hendredge also had a quiet, rustic charm with lots of graceful, centuries-old houses.
The White Horse on the hill is hard to describe. It’s a huge, stylised galloping horse flat in the hill, created over 3000 years ago by some ancient tribe who dug deep trenches in the shape of a horse and filled them with chalk. No-one knows exactly who these people were, but it’s thought that the horse dates back to the Bronze Age. It’s high on the rolling hills that look over a great expanse of the Downs. The views from up near the top are magnificent. But the strange thing is that it’s very difficult to see the full shape of the horse from anywhere below, and even when you get up high and close to it, you can’t see the whole thing from any one single angle. The only photographs that show the whole horse shape have been taken from the air. So how did the ancient people make it? And what is its meaning? I managed to get a few photos that give some idea of the horse and the surrounding countryside – including the flat-top hill below the horse that has a large white chalk square in the middle, where folk-lore says St George fought the dragon. It’s a mysterious place, but quite beautiful in the golden sunlight that shone everywhere yesterday. I realised that if I’d done a bit of preparation before setting off in the car, I could have made a really good day’s walk in this area – there are paths everywhere around these hills, some leading to other ancient sites. But it was actually quite hot climbing up the hill, so maybe not the best day for a long walk.
Must mention one thing that got my hackles up this week … though seeing it’s the only black spot in all the weeks I’ve been here, I’m not grizzling too much, and it certainly hasn’t marred my love of England. I got a nasty little fine from Oxfordshire City Council for being caught on CCTV in a bus-lane. Apparently an absolute no-no in Oxford. The frustration is that I had never intended driving within the city of Oxford, but on the way up to Blenheim Palace a week or so ago with Penny, we took a wrong exit road from one of the many roundabouts on the ring road, and quite accidentally found ourselves in the centre. Obviously while trying to find the way out, I must have got into a bus lane – and bingo! I tried a written appeal (pleading the poor ignorant Australian tourist etc.) but got a load of bureaucratic clap-trap back, so it was easier to simply pay up and forget it.
Tomorrow (Saturday) it’s back to Henley for more of the festival, then on to Maidenhead to stay with Pauline overnight. She’s joining me on Sunday for a couple of sessions, including ‘Readings on the River’ when we get to float down the Thames while listening to someone reading passages from good books. With the weather forecast as it is, it should be divine.
Henley-on-Thames…. home of the Royal Regatta and the annual Literary Festival…. also some of the most expensive riverside real estate in England. With the glorious summery weather last weekend, Henley looked more beautiful than ever, and thousands of people were there to enjoy its shops, cafes, flower-decked streets and the vast array of boats on the river.
Parking the car was a challenge on Saturday morning, but I got there early to hear Linda Grant. She’s a contemporary author whose latest book appealed to me, ”We Had it so Good” – a novelabout the baby boomer generation in England moving through from the heady days of the 1960’s to mid-life and beyond…. how hippies have somehow turned into corporate bankers, and world peace and freedom haven’t exactly become a reality. She was entertaining and I’ll look for the book when I get home.
Following this session, I drove on down to Maidenhead – quite a familiar route now. Had lunch with Pauline and we headed back to Henley together to hear Gervaise Phinn later in the afternoon. He’s also extremely popular in England, rather like James Herriot, except that he writes about schools and children in the Yorkshire Dales, not vets and animals. I read 3 of his books last time I was over here – gentle, funny tales about life in Yorkshire villages and his experiences as a teacher and school inspector. He speaks just like he writes, with lots of amusing anecdotes and a genuine passion for education, and for children, particularly those who grow up in rural out-of-the-way places without the advantages that many others take for granted.
It was heaven being in Henley. We whiled away an hour or two between literary events with a drink in the sunshine in the main square, an extremely pleasant way to pass the time.
Sunday morning saw us back again for more delights and decadence. We heard Bella Bathurst talk about “The Bicycle Book” –a fascinating piece of research about the universality of bikes as a cheap and functional mode of transport everywhere in the world. This talk was in a little French restaurant, a more intimate setting with a smaller audience, mostly cyclists of one kind or another. There was a tinge of lycra in the air….
In the afternoon we enjoyed another kind of transport – the mv Hibernia, a pleasure boat on the river, made even more pleasurable with actors reading poetry as we drifted along in the sunshine. Sunday turned out to be the hottest day of the British heat wave. The mercury actually climbed to 30 degrees and there were photos in the papers of people flocking to the beaches to enjoy this amazing weather. (It turned out to be a record – the hottest October day ever recorded in Britain).
I stayed with Pauline over the weekend. Maidenhead is only 20 minutes from Henley so it was just as easy to stay there as drive home to Cholsey. I love Pauline’s house and garden too … there are books in every room, including travel guides to every country you could ever think of, also photos on every wall. In the computer room, she has all the certificates of long-distance walks she’s completed over a period of many years. I noted them down:
- Offa’s Dyke (177 miles)
- Grand Union Canal (London to Birmingham)
- Land’s End to John O’Groats
- West Highland Way
- Coast to Coast (St Bee’s Head to Robin Hood Bay)
- The Dales Way (Ilkley to Bowness)
- St Cuthbert’s Way
(……and part of the Spanish Camino that I’m doing next year).
Tuesday was a day of activities in and around Cholsey. I joined the village Walking Group in the morning for a 5-mile stroll around the neighbouring village of Brightwell-cum-Sotwell. This group only walks once a month and I haven’t managed to connect with them until now . And sadly I’ll be gone before the next walk. About 12 local people turned up, all very interesting, knowledgeable and great company, including a naturalist, a writer, a couple of scientists and a bunch of others who were all good fun. The walk included a stretch of an old Roman road – now just a path along the side of a field. We also happened upon a farmer with his border collie rounding up a small flock of sheep. It was fascinating watching the dog respond to calls and whistles. He got the sheep into the next field very easily. At the end of the walk we had lunch at the local pub. This is the life ….
On Tuesday evening it was the Book Group meeting in the village tea-room, with yet another bunch of lovely local people – this time all young women. The book we read, “Pigeon English”. has been short-listed for the Man Booker prize. Most of us found it extremely worthwhile, funny, sad and clever. It’s told in the voice of an 11-year-old boy from Ghana, recently-arrived in England and learning to survive in an East London housing estate. Recommended reading if you want an insight into another culture of class, race, hardship and misogyny.
Pauline came up here by train on Wednesday, and we drove to the twin villages of Streatley and Goring to do a walk described in one of the many fantastic walking guide-books about the Thames Valley. We covered approx 5 miles up hills, through woods and valleys, beside fields and past a golf course. There were wild grouse everywhere in the open fields. Big fat birds with bright plumage. Back in Streatley we enjoyed tea and cakes at “The Swan”, the hotel where Penny, Richard and I had dinner a couple of weeks ago. It was good to see it in the day time – another very pretty part of the river with lots of boats, ducks, swans and masses of flowers.
After so much walking, driving and having fun, I’m now having a few days off, catching up at home. Hey…. I need a holiday!! Next week there’s another busy schedule lined up, including a day in London, theatre in Wallingford and a couple of days in Huntingdon with former home-exchangees and sailing-in-Greece friends, Chris and Hazel.
LATER: Monday 10th Got bored sitting at home yesterday, so checked the “What’s On in Oxford” and found there was a matinee performance of “Strictly Gershwin” by the English National Ballet. So, hopped on the train, bought a ticket at the theatre and spent an afternoon high up in the cheap seats enjoying a combination of superb dancing and all the razzamatazz of Broadway.
I learned later that this show had had a sell-out season at Royal Albert Hall and is now touring the country. England is in a dancing frenzy at present with the hottest show on TV being “Strictly Come Dancing”…. the same celebrity dance-off competition that we have at home, the name of which I’ve forgotten. Have to say I’m watching the UK version and enjoying it.
CHOLSEY 9 – the last week
This will be the last one from Cholsey… I didn’t think I’d even get to Journal number 9, but there’s so much to record that I must get it all down.
Let’s start with last weekend (14th-16th Oct). I drove up to Huntingdon (near Cambridge) on Friday afternoon, a 3-hour drive on motorways, A & B roads, and another million roundabouts. I’m reasonably confident driving on British roads now, but still have to concentrate extra hard when negotiating roundabouts and junctions. And I still make the occasional mistake… such as on the drive back on Sunday when I missed the exit off the M4 and had to go many miles further on before finding a way back…… ho, hum …. I guess these little challenges happen to stop us from getting too complacent.
It was great to see Chris and Hazel again, and they proved equally good hosts on land as at sea. We’d only spent time together on the yacht before – in Greece in 2009 & 2010. Hazel’s sister Isobel also came down from Norwich for the weekend – I’d also visited her in 2009- and the neighbours, John & Pauline, called in for drinks. So it was a real reunion.
Over the weekend we visited villages I hadn’t explored during my Huntingdon exchange. Also went for a couple of good walks along the River Ouse calling in at pubs along the way – I even got to have a coffee at The Bridge Hotel this time, a very fine and gracious old establishment. It felt good re-visiting a place I knew, and I felt very much at home again.
Last week, before the trip to Huntingdon, Pauline (from Maidenhead) and I spent more time together too, with one day in London and another up here in Oxfordshire. It seems strange, but I’ve only been to London twice during this stay, and still it remains absolutely my most favourite city in the world. I get an incredible buzz in this great city….the people, the traffic, the theatres, the shops…. it’s so alive and so fantastic. On this visit, Pauline introduced me to the new Docklands area around Canary Wharf which I hadn’t seen since the 1960’s. Before WW2 this part of London rang to the sounds of old steam ships and horses and men working in one of the busiest trading ports in the world. The whole area was bombed heavily during the Battle of Britain and my rather faded memories of it during the 1960’s are of a dark, dirty river frontage with derelict warehouses…. though I do recall at least one ancient seafarers’ pub overhanging the riverwhich had become a drinking haunt for the 60’s generation. (Was it called The Ship Inn??? – I did spend an evening there way back then.)
Nowadays, in the 21st century, Docklands is full of tall, glitzy buildings – banks, commercial centres and apartments – fabulous architecture and design with many little bays and basins crammed with a mix of old working boats and pleasure craft. There are pubs, restaurants and shopping plazas, and a few old wharf buildings have been transformed into the Docklands Museum and upmarket restaurants – somewhat similar to the Rocks area in Sydney. There’s not much left of the character of the old docks, though. Pauline and I did a walk around the area with a map downloaded from the internet, and found a few fascinating remnants of history, including an old Victorian pumping station with the most ornately decorated exterior. The few remaining old buildings and workers’ cottages could no doubt tell many a tale of the vibrant past. And it’s not hard to imagine the ghosts of old sailors still haunting the place.
Another futuristic feature is the Docklands Light Railway, a computerised, driverless train that does a loop around the docks. It connects with the Tube and only takes minutes to get to Canary Wharf. I think it connects with the main London Olympics venues too, so Docklands will be an even greater hive of activity in 2012.
After our stroll around the docks, we headed back to the Prince Edward Theatre near Leicester Square to see a matinee performance of “Jersey Boys” – the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a show packed full of hits from the 50’s and 60’s. I bopped along very happily and loved it.
The following day (Wednesday 12th), Pauline came up to Cholsey and we drove to Waterperry Gardens, near Oxford. This place had been highly recommended to me by the man who led the Cholsey walking group. He’s a well-known botanist and natural history expert in the area, so I figured it must be good – and it was. It’s a large flower, fruit and sculpture garden on the original site of a 14th century stately manor which has had several reincarnations through the centuries, one of the most recent being a Ladies Horticultural College in the early part of the 20th century. Apart from the beautiful gardens, there’s a plant nursery, an art gallery, a garden and gift shop, tea-room and an amazing little museum housing a private collection of old and unusual farm tools and rural bric-a-brac. The elderly gentleman who put the collection together was there and we spent nearly an hour being entertained by his stories and demonstrations of how some of his strange but practical things worked.
A 14th century church has survived on the site too, with some of the oldest mediaeval glass windows in the country. England never ceases to amaze me with its all hidden treasures and history. I’m also astounded that these wonderful items have lasted so long. How can it be that some small boy (or vandal) hasn’t thrown a stone during the past 600 years or more and broken these precious little windows??
In the evening, we went to a play performed by the Sinodun Players in the Wallingford Corn Exchange theatre. Agatha Christie was a strong supporter of this local amateur theatre group during her time in Wallingford, so I’d assumed that it would be a fairly high quality company, but I was disappointed. The play was “The Devil’s Gateway” a story of the women’s movement in the 1980’s, including the famous Greenham Common protest against nuclear weapons… however the acting wasn’t great and the whole thing felt quite dated.
Thursday turned out to be another magnificent day weather-wise. In fact most of the past week has been warm and sunny, so I did another local walk from the Thames Pub Walks guide-book. Starting in the nearby village of South Stoke, I walked to North Stoke (via Little Stoke) along a beautiful stretch of the Thames, then back across the fields and over stiles. About 5 miles, or 8 km in total. It was a stunning day and the views across the hills and fields were glorious. All three Stoke villages were pretty with the thatched cottages, country churches, apple-trees and rambling gardens that I’ve become so familiar with in these parts.
And so now back to this week ….
I spent today and yesterday in Oxford, trying to soak up as much of it as possible before having to fly back to Oz. Yesterday I did an extended guided tour of the Bodleian Library, one of the oldest and most distinguished libraries in the country, founded by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602. Monarchs, Prime Ministers, Nobel Prize winners, famous authors and eminent scholars have studied there over the centuries and it has the most wonderful atmosphere of old books, beautiful ceilings and timber nooks and crannies. The extended tour took in the oldest reading rooms where the library began in the Middle Ages, right through to the newly restored underground tunnel that links to newer sections of the library. We also visited the Radcliffe Camera which is not normally accessible to visitors. There are over 9 million books in the Bodleian and vast quantities of other materials such as maps, manuscripts, journals etc. An added bonus was seeing the current exhibition, titled “Treasures of the Bodleian”. On display are some of the most precious items held by the library … such as a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, the Magna Carta, ancient maps, a hand-written draft of one of Jane Austen’s novels, a draft of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein with comments scribbled in the margins by husband Percy, a letter written by Mahatma Ghandi, and a poem by Wilfred Owen with suggestions pencilled in by Siegfried Sassoon.
The Wilfred Owen poem was the main reason for my return trip to Oxford today. The Library has a series of free lectures happening during the month to accompany the Treasures Exhibition, and today’s talk, about the Wilfred Owen poem, was by Professor John Stallworthy, Emeritus Professor of English at Oxford University. It was held in the magnificent Convocation Room (next to the superb Divinity School), so I was truly in my element attending a very informative and entertaining ‘lecture’ at Oxford University in one of the most significant rooms in the history of England. Sheer bliss!
The weather is still bright and sunny, but it’s definitely coat and scarf season now. Today was a lovely, brisk day with a clear blue sky, so Oxford shone. I walked around a lot, taking streets and paths I hadn’t explored before. I visited the Botanic Gardens – not a patch on Adelaide’s – though to be fair it is more of a scientific and research garden here with a large collection of medicinal plants and herbs. Also today I gained a clearer idea of the various rivers, streams and canals that meander through Oxford… the Thames, the Cherwell, the Mill Trill Stream and the Oxford Canal. There are lovely walking paths along the waterways and through the gardens and meadows that surround the Colleges.
It’s so sad to be leaving this beautiful place but I’ve enjoyed every minute of it and will return one day.
CHOLSEY 10… the really last one.
I have to do it. It’s Sunday afternoon 23rd and I’ve got time, so here’s an account of the last few days.
This morning I actually went to church…. but only into the bell tower to watch the bell-ringing. While the congregation gathered below, the bell-ringers gathered up in the tower to pull the ropes to ring out the call across the village and surrounding fields. The tower is accessed up a narrow spiral stone stairway and there’s an open room half-way up where the ropes hang down through the ceiling. There were 8 ringers this morning, pulling individually or in pairs to make different peal patterns. It was fascinating watching them but impossible to tell just how each pattern was rung. Every so often, the leader would call out some instruction, and different pairs would pull together – then they’d change again on command. Rose and her daughter, Saskia, are both bell-ringers when they’re at home in Cholsey and they’re both now involved in churches in Adelaide. (I only learned from Saskia that there are several churches in Adelaide with real bells and bell-ringers… it’s amazing what you learn on home exchanges….)
Cholsey church is built on the site of an old abbey dating back at least 1000 years, and bells have been rung here for most of this time. The biggest bell was made by a local blacksmith in about 860AD – and it’s still in use. I was able to go right to the top of the tower and actually see the bells swinging when someone below pulled – they’re big and very loud up at the top. Most of the ringers went home after completing their task, rather than down to the service. So I did too. As Jenny (the bell-ringing leader) said as we walked out, “I enjoy the tradition and the history of the church, but the ‘faith’ bit is a problem”. My sentiments exactly!
On both Friday and Saturday I went for 2 more lovely walks around the countryside – both of which I found almost by accident.
There are two round hills outside Cholsey that dominate the countryside – they’re called Wittenham Clumps, probably because they both have neat clumps of trees perched on top – rather like funny tufts of hair on a round, bald head. You can see them (and also the massive chimneys of the Didcot nuclear power plant) from everywhere around the district and I’d always meant to drive over and have a look. So, on Friday I did just that, with no idea what to expect. A pleasant surprise awaited. There are walks all over and around the Clumps, through Wittenham Woods, and right down to the Thames below, then across the fields to Dorchester. I hadn’t had any intention of going for a longish walk, but once I got started I couldn’t resist going all the way to Dorchester and visiting the ancient abbey over there once again. The previous visit had been by car, but it was much more enjoyable just finding the tracks and the footpaths – exactly as people must have done for centuries. The area is quite a popular spot for walkers. There were lots of people and dogs scattered across the hills and fields, amongst the trees and cows, all enjoying the sunshine and scenery. Wish I’d discovered it sooner.
Similarly, on Saturday, after a quick trip to Wallingford, I decided just to wander down to the bridge for what would probably be my last look at the river for this year – and I just found myself walking further and further along the Thames Path because it was so gorgeous. I hadn’t been in this direction before so didn’t know what to expect, but the path led to Benson Lock, one of the many locks along this river. I watched a couple of river boats go through, then crossed the lock-bridge and continued walking through the outskirts of Benson, past more thatched cottages and stately houses, until I came to a side road to take me back into Wallingford. One of the crooked old houses along the way had a blue plaque outside saying that Jethro Tull had lived there in from 1700-1710… (the original one, not the 70’s rock band). Old Jethro apparently invented some piece of farm machinery way back then, which put him into the history books.
Time is really drawing to a close now. The packing has started and I’m finishing up the leftovers in the fridge. James and Peggy across the road have kindly asked me over for dinner tomorrow night (I had them here one night last week), and Pauline is coming up on Tuesday to say goodbye and help me drag my luggage to the station. I’ve decided to get to Heathrow by train. Pauline will get off at Maidenhead while I continue to Hayes-and-Harlington to pick up the Heathrow Connect.
So that’s it… two-and-a-half wonderful months in Oxfordshire almost over.
I will return!