Tuesday, February 19, 2008

History and mystery

Andrew and I have been making a point of getting out and seeing our surroundings, and we've tried to include Enfield and not just central London. There doesn't seem to be much going on in quiet, suburban Enfield, but we've discovered quite a bit of excitement lurking underneath the surface. "Lurking" sounds so ominous, but just you wait and see.

A couple weeks ago, we walked up to Forty Hall, a stately home and grounds that are now owned by the local council and open to the public. We didn't go inside the house because we ran out of time, but we did wander around the gardens. There were some beautiful trees, including a tremendous magnolis, and the place was filled with young families and people walking their dogs. There were ducks and swans in the lake and squirrels playing in the trees, and no cars within hearing distance. It was really lovely. Always on the lookout for informative signs, we found some that gave us a brief history of Forty Hall. Now, we knew from previous research that most of what is now Enfield used to be a royal hunting ground, but we didn't know that it extended all the way to Forty Hall, which is a 30-minute walk north of where we live whereas the rest of the old hunting estate is away to the south west. Apparently there was even a palace where Forty Hall now stands, and Henry VIII often stayed there. I can see why; there are some beautiful views from the hill top. We look forward to enjoying the park this summer.

This Sunday, we explored another nearby spot, Trent Park. This land also used to be part of the orginal hunting estate, and when the land was broken up into smaller pieces and sold off, Trent Park was bought by a family that later included the World War I poet Siegfried Sassoon. The family home that was built in the 1920s is still there and part of Middlesex University's campus now. Winston Churchill was apparenty a friend of the family and stayed with them sometimes to relax in the countryside.

As with Forty Hall, we didn't know any of the history behind the park. We took the bus up to the park and had quite a walk to get to the entrance. Along the way, we had a nice picnic overlooking the campus sports fields. We even got to see part of a field hockey game. Once we got into the park proper, we realised we had made another promising discovery. The park is beautiful, with broad, hilly fields just crying out for a game of frisbee or a summer nap. It being much too cold for that on Sunday, we kept up a brisk pace and walked all through the park. There wasn't much to see in the way of attractions; it was mostly just trees, but there were two notable exceptions. One was a huge stone obelisk built in 1707 in honor of the birth of the son of the Duke and Duchess of Kent. The back of it is covered in graffiti, some spray painted recently and some carved long ago.

The other attraction didn't look like much at first. In fact, we almost missed it. We were wandering through the atmospheric woods when I spied another informative sign. We walked over to it and saw what it described: a rectangular moat surrounding a small raised area of earth. The sign said that there was a settlement there around 1,000 years ago. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of two or three small buildings, some roof tiles, and bits of chain. There is nothing left now, but as I looked over the moat at the little island, I noticed a speck of bright light. I thought it was just the sunlight filtering through the trees, but I could still see it, even when I moved. We walked over the thin strip of land that crosses the moat to investigate.

My speck of light turned out to be a lighted candle, which was bizarre because there was no one there. We couldn't see or even hear anyone in the surrounding forest. The closer we looked, the stranger it got. There were vines and tree branches gathered and shaped into a makeshift shelter over what looked like a shrine. There were several candles inside, a couple of them still burning. Hanging in the trees nearby were colourful ribbons, feathers, beads, windchimes, and crystals. Someone had built a campfire recently, too. We assumed it must be a hangout spot for some local kids and wondered that it hadn't been cleaned up by the park rangers. We explored the rest of the island and found four more shelters, each one bigger and more elaborate than the last. It was like stumbling on the hiding place of a mysterious cult, except that for every intricately formed wreath or artistically placed candle there was a cheap plastic toy or mismatched ribbon hanging from a branch. Come to think of it, though, it did look like a modern day shrine, like you see set up by friends and family members after a tragedy. There were no teddy bears, but there was that particular blend of plasticky kitsch and natural beauty. Bemused and mystified by the place, we moved on through the park, stumbling at last on the last sight of the day: a group of real-life, honest-to-goodness gypsies around an illegal campfire. We laughed and figured maybe they had built the little island shrines. Only later did we realise we were wrong.

Once we got home we did a bit of research. The island, we learned from the sign, was called Camlet Moat. We remembered it only so we could look it up later. Well, apparently Camlet used to be called.....Camelot, and some people think that's where King Arthur lived! So the shrines were pagan shrines to his memory. It seems silly to think that King Arthur would have lived in Enfield, but there are other alleged King Arthur connections in the area. One real life figure who did live at Camlet Moat was Geoffrey de Mandeville, who was a mover and shaker in royal affairs during the Middle Ages, as well as a crusader, and is considered by some people to have been the most likely candidate among the crusading knights to have discovered the Holy Grail. So some people think that the Holy Grail could have been buried there. Further "evidence" that we read about takes us back to Forty Hall, where someone claimed to have discovered, in the lake, an iron cross enscribed with Arthur and Guinevere's names and a passage in Latin. He took the cross, and when the local council demanded its return and he refused, he was put in prison for a year. He never did reveal the location of the cross and was found, hanged, in his apartment, taking the mystery to his grave.

Enfield is turning out to be much more interesting...and spooky...than we had imagined.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Friends and neighbours

We have had quite a social time of it since we came back from our Christmas break. In January we went to a photography exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery and lunch in Chinatown with Amy and Don. Later in the month we went out for drinks with Stewart, our upstairs neighbour. Then there was Stewart's birthday party and a Waitangi Day celebration with Amy and Don. All good times.

The photography exhibit displayed winners of the annual photographic portraiture prize. Some of the photographs were standard modern art-y pictures of serious-looking drag queens and circus performers, but the ones I liked were actually real people, not what artists seem to think are real people. There were pictures of children running around at birthday parties, shopkeepers at work, and friends enjoying meals together. They were really nice. We had a great time in Chinatown, too. We consulted our London Cheap Eats guide to find a good, reasonably priced restaurant, and we were not disappointed by the food, although the service continued what is apparently a London tradition of grumpy Chinese servers. We just laughed, though, and enjoyed our dumplings.

Stewart is our new neighbour, and we introduced ourselves to him one day on the stairs. Apparently this was a very forward, American thing to do, but it's so nice to know who is living near you, and besides, the world could always use a little more friendliness. He was very friendly in turn and invited us out for a drink with him. He grew up in London and knows all sorts of out of the way places that we would never find on our own. One drink at a pub near Oxford Circus turned into a very long night out, as he took us on a tour of Soho, a really cool wine bar in Covent Garden that specialises in Port, and a theater in Highbury & Islington that turns into a bar on Saturday nights. At about 2:00 in the morning, we made our way to a kebab shop with a nice little dining room hidden behind a secret door, where we feasted on spicy lamb and cool, refreshing yogurty salad. Then we caught the night bus home and fell into bed at 4:00! We're such sophisticated urbanites these days :-)

Last weekend was Stewart's birthday, and we made an impromptu tropical feast for him on Friday, with coconut shrimp, mango salsa, black bean salad, and mojitos. On Saturday night, Andrew had to go to a Barclays dinner, but I went down to Knightsbridge with Stewart and met up with 20 of his friends for a delicious Indian meal. His friends were fantastic. They all had really interesting jobs -- lots of teachers, like Stewart himself, a television editor and her husband, a producer, people who had taken time off to travel around South America and Africa -- and they were very welcoming and interested in my opinions. I had a great time meeting them, and it didn't take much talk on their parts to convince me to go out with them after dinner. There was a vague plan to find a night club, and after walking past several with long lines -- sorry, queues -- around the block, we found one and situated ourselves upstairs. This was my first night club experience, and I must say, it was a lot of fun! There was even a minor celebrity there, some B-list soap opera actress or something. I didn't know who she was, but everyone else did. It was pretty funny to watch her; she obviously considered herself to be a big deal. It was a pretty low-key place, but they were playing a really good mix of music, and I eventually got up the courage to do a bit of dancing, which was another first. I had such a good time dancing at my cousin Amber's wedding in December that I figured, why not give it a shot in London? It started out with my usual apologising that I'm not a very good dancer, that I only know how to do ballet and Scottish highland dancing and other stuff with choreography, but then they wanted to see that, so I busted out some highland steps when The Pretenders came on. It went down a treat, and I had so much fun that I just sort of kept on dancing. I think I surprised everyone because I'm still a pretty quiet person, but hey, I surprised myself, too. It was another absurdly late night, and Stewart and I took the night bus all the way from Trafalgar Square. Phew!

Last night we went over to Amy and Don's place for dinner. Waitangi Day, which was on Wednesday, is a big national holiday in New Zealand, and they invited us over to celebrate. On Friday, Amy and I went to a couple of New Zealand import stores to find New Zealand snacks and candies and stuff that reminded her of home. We had New Zealand chips and dip, which is just like our French Onion dip, but made with reduced cream instead of sour cream. I must say, I prefer the tang of sour cream, or soured cream as it's labeled here, but chips and dried soup mix are always a welcome combo :-) For dinner we had roast lamb with cabbage and mashed kumara, a New Zealand variety of sweet potato. Then there was dessert: a beautiful pavlova, a New Zealand favourite. It's a huge, flat baked meringue covered with whipped cream, strawberries, and kiwi fruit. Everything was delicious! We really, really like those two, and we had a great time hanging out with them. We managed to catch the last train to get home with no major transport hassles, which was a relief after the difficulty we faced trying to get to their flat in the first place.

They live in West Hampstead, and we got on the train to get to the tube to get to another train to get there, but after waiting on the train in Enfield Town for about twenty minutes and being told several times that there was a technical problem, the doors suddenly shut and locked. We all thought this was weird, but then someone said, nervously, "there are a bunch of armed policemen walking through the train." Sure enough, there were four policemen with machine guns walking slowly through the train car, looking from side to side. There were no more announcements about technical problems at this point. The police moved up into the next car and everyone pressed up against the windows trying to see what was going on. By this point, about a dozen more heavily armed cops were walking up and down the platforms on both sides of us, looking down at the tracks underneath the train. I had a horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, wondering if there was a bomb or something. Then Andrew saw the cops pull a couple of teenagers off the front car and search and question them on the platform. No one ever told us what had happened, but Andrew, who could hear some of what was going on, thinks there was a stabbing nearby and these two kids ran away and got on the train. The cops were looking for a weapon. It was really scary, though, because we didn't know what was going on, and it's really shocking to see guns in England. Most cops don't even have pistols, much less machine guns. Eventually they opened the doors and we went back up to the street, where everything was covered in police tape. We had to wait for the all-clear before we could leave. We were pretty shaken up, but we were perfectly safe, so off we went on a bus to a tube to another tube to a train to West Hampstead. Quite enough excitement for one evening!