Elizabeth Jane Corbett

writing her way home

Category: England

A Famous Five summer

As a child, I read English books. I went on adventures with the Famous Five, the Secret Seven and the Five Find Outers, regaling mum with tales of long hot summers, camping on lonely moors, bathing, exploring castles, and picnicking on boiled eggs, tongue, ginger beer and treacle tart. Mum would always sniff at the end of my tales and say:

'That's all very well, Elizabeth. But the summer is never like that in England. It rains all the time.'

At the time, it felt like having iced water poured over my back. I imagined that along with the freedom of a different era – an era in which teenagers camped, travelled and adventured alone – the weather was also a fictional creation of Enid Blyton's. In my fifty first year, I can finally say mum was wrong. They do have summers like that in England. And this is one of them. The newspapers are calling it a heat wave but that is a weak description. I am therefore calling it a Famous Five summer. As I've climbed over stiles, cycled down Cotswold lanes, and eaten cream teas, I have found myself transported back to a simpler time.

Sadly, as well as having no idea about the English weather, emigration also deprived me of some other basic knowledge namely that the word Cotswolds, means sheep enclosure in rolling hills. I got the first hint of this when having dinner with friends in Essex.

I had no definitive answer to this. I'd seen advertisements for Cotswold cycling holidays and it had sounded idyllic. We had booked a cottage in Blockley, a village nestled in a tranquil valley between Moreton in Marsh and Chipping Camden. Realisation came quickly. Along with a valley, there must, of course, be hills. To go anywhere, we had to cycle upwards. Added to which, the cycle hire company had delivered us bikes with bald tyres, worn gears and dis-functional brakes. We cycled into Chipping Camden determined to rectify this situation, only to find the proprietor was nowhere in sight. Now being impatient, and not a great fan of being ripped off, my husband started to sort through the bikes in his yard. I doubted this was the right thing to do. When the bike owner turned up, his pursed lips and heightened colour confirmed my suspicions. Andrew was not deterred. After a short exchange, the bike guy (a young man with a distinctly Polish accent) realised this cocky Aussie wasn't going to back down.

'Hang on.' He said, raising a finger. 'I'll have a look in the shed.'

'You should have waited,' I whispered in the man's absence. 'He won't help us now.'

I revised my opinion a moment later when the bike man wheeled two gleaming, almost new bikes across the yard.

Cycling was easier after that. Though I still had to stop for breath when riding home from the supermarket in Moreton in Marsh and the road took us through the aptly named village of Borton on the Hill.

Fortunately, my primary school geography made rapid sense of the shading on the map. Some routes were hillier than others. But we did some lovely rides – to Shipton on Stour and Stow in the Wold, Hidcote Gardens, getting lost, stopping to check the map, punctuating the day with coffees and cream teas. One day, we took our bikes on the train to Oxford. The Oxford tour guide was a portly fellow called Joseph with a passion for his subject. He presumed a great deal of knowledge and seemed primarily interested in showing us famous film sites, but he was entertaining, in his custard coloured corduroy trousers and cardigan. It was worth paying for a slice of his eccentricity.

There is something magical about an English summer. The days so long, the streets and gardens bursting with blooms, the hedgerows alive with bees, butterflies and summer berries. I enjoyed listening to the Blockely Church bell ringers on Thursday evening, going to the pub, buying pork pies and cooked beetroot in a bag, the ever present smell of pollen, damp earth and sheep, and of course the Enid Blyton weather. I wish I could have stayed longer in Blockely.

 

 

Railways and taxis – our second week in The UK

Week two has been dominated by the words rail travel. Having arrived at Andrew’s work destination, reality showed what the map had already indicated – we were staying well and truly outside of London. The hotel, Runnymead on Thames, being situated on the banks of the River Thames somewhere between Egham and Staines. It wasn’t on my agenda – I had London museums I’d wanted to visit – but with Windsor Castle being a short easy train trip, I decided to make it my first day’s destination.

I am always amazed, despite not having lived in the UK since I was five years old, at how familiar England feels. One of Andrew’s American colleagues told me I’d have to catch a cab to Windsor. I knew this wouldn’t be the case. I walked for a mile or two along the banks of the Thames and caught a train. Disembarking at Windsor, I wasn’t surprised to find myself slap bang in the middle of a quaint English prosperity. I wandered the shops. Took a tour of the castle (apparently the Queen likes to spend her leisure days at Windsor). I don’t blame her. It’s not a bad spot for a weekender. Though, I doubt she makes use of the free Wifi at Pret a Manger.

The next day, I had organised to meet a friend in London. I knew Alison from the SaysomethinginWelsh forum and we have spent many a happy Skype hour conversing in Welsh. We have, on occasions, resorted to English but for the most part our relationship has been conducted in the Welsh language. This day in London was no exception. We met at Holborn Station (texts and organising emails largely in Cymraeg), picnicked in a garden close to Lincoln’s Inn, visited an old Chapel and visited the John Soame’s museum with only the occasional beth yw y gair am – what’s the word for? To interrupt the flow of our conversation. We have so much in common both having ties with Australia and the UK, daughters with similar health problems, a love of reading, and writing and, of course, underpinning it all our love of the hen iaith – the old language. It was a magical day, made all the more memorable by the museum guide who approached us just before closing time. Excuse me, he said. Ydych chi’n siarad Cymraeg – are you speaking Welsh? Ydy! We replied. We spent a delightful quarter of an hour speaking Cymraeg with him as the museum staff locked up around us.

The next day involved a two hour trip down to Christchurch, to see my Aunty Jean in her care home. She didn’t know me. She hasn’t known me the last three times I’ve visited. I go for the sake of my uncle and his wife who oversee her care. It is always sobering to see people in the late stages of Alzheimer’s. As ever, I was struck by the grace and kindness of her carers.

It is so easy to get around the UK by train (albeit expensive) and I must have been getting a little over confident because the next day disaster struck. We started out easily enough. Bought return tickets from Egham to Chelmsford with quick tube trip to Camden Market planned enroute. England was experiencing a heat wave (Andrew had read in the Melbourne Age) and the day was indeed stifling. But we had fun wandering around Camden. The markets go on forever. We could easily spent a full day there. We settled for a couple of hours, going on to spend a delightful evening in the company of old family friends in Essex.

Coming home, we left Chelmsford a little later than intended, reaching Liverpool Street Station only to miss the last train to Waterloo. Night buses. I knew there were night buses. The trouble was, anyone that could have helped us had long since departed. The station was now in the hands of a set of surly security guards. They were herding everyone out the streets. The taxi queue was a mile long. My pre-paid British phone credit had expired. Andrew’s Aussie account wasn’t working. And no one knew anything about night buses. We faced a long night walking round the city (my suggestion), finding an over priced hotel (without the aid of phones or internet), or joining the taxi queue. At this point, Andrew sidled up to the man in charge of the taxi queue and ‘happened to mention’ our destination. One of the listening cabbies ears pricked up. I saw the pound signs in his eyes.

‘I’ll take you,’ he said, lowering his voice. ‘It’ll be jumping the queue so walk along the road now without making a fuss. My cab’s the blue one over there.’

We did as we were bade. Needless to say it was a long silent journey back to Egham. We spent an unmentionable amount on taxi fares. We were dumb, is suppose – dumb Aussies in London. I should have checked the times of the last train home. But this was London. A world city. Brimming with international tourists. Who’d have thought it would pull on its night cap at half past twelve in the morning.

 

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