Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The summer roundup, part two

After the Marders left, our next guests were Maura and Gilbert Borrego from Blacksburg. They were going to a wedding in Greece and stopped for a few days in London on the way. They stayed with us in Enfield for a few nights, and we showed them around the city a little bit. We all went over to the Kiwis' house for a Fourth of July party with hamburgers and cole slaw and potato salad and cherry pie...yum! We took them to our favorite Indian restaurant and on our favorite along-the-river walk. We even had the pleasure of running into them by accident outside the National Portrait Gallery on a rainy Sunday afternoon! It was nice to see old friends in a new place and nice to have two more people to share our city with.

After a couple weeks in Milan and Paris, Monica came back to London to continue her study abroad programme in Holborn, and we got to see her several times over the summer. She came out to Enfield to have dinner and sleep over a few times, and we got to hang out with her and her roommate Christina a few times, too. We all went out for pizza and saw the new Batman movie to get a little American goodness, and we all went out for fancy ice cream sundaes at Fortnum and Mason to get a little British goodness. It was great to hear about all the fun places they discovered, and I can't wait to try the cupcake bakery in Notting Hill that they raved about. We saw it the other day but the queue was really long so we skipped it. I saw the cupcakes through the window, though...very tempting.

Near the end of July, we rented a car and drove up to Cambridgeshire for the weekend. We spent two nights camping on an organic farm with a beautiful lodge that looked like it was straight out of Rivendell. The lodge also contained a restaurant serving almost entirely local produce, and we had a glorious meal there the second night. The first night, we missed the restaurant's closing by about 15 minutes and ended up having snacks from the car for dinner, as we were in the middle of nowhere and couldn't get to any food. The adversity felt somewhat familiar from our last camping trip. 

But the next day dawned and we made a fresh start. We headed out on the open roads (that part of England is very flat) to Wicken Fen, where we learned about the fenlands. Anyone who has read the Chronicles of Narnia would recognize this landscape from the Silver Chair. The fens are marshwiggle territory. The land is very soft and wet, and it is laced with narrow canals, which were dug hundreds of years ago to drain the marshes for agricultural production. In Narnia, the marshwiggles are tall, spindly creatures that gather reeds and catch eels for a living. The inhabitants of the real fens historically made their living the same way. At the museum, we even talked to a man (tall, thin, brown, and scruffy, with a straw hat and a pipe) who still catches eels and who looked exactly like Puddleglum! (Does anyone know what I'm talking about? I was so excited, and I haven't found anyone yet to share my excitement.) He showed us his eel traps and his special boat with a huge gun on the front for shooting ducks en masse. He was, shall we say, a character. He told us a lot about the history of the place, too. We didn't spy any of the elusive eels, because they were all hiding in the mud and the reeds, out of sight, but apparently there are just millions of them in the canals. The local people used to pay their taxes in eels, and the nearby cathedral city is even called Ely (eel-y). We didn't see any eels, but we did see all manner of other creatures. We went on a short boat tour down the canal, and we saw dragonflies and little fish and lots of birds, including, according to our guide, a Harrier Hawk, which is apparently quite rare. After our boat trip, we wandered along the paths through the reeds and climbed a tower where we could sit and look out over the vast expanse of nothingness. It was beautiful in a desolate sort of way. It started to drizzle a bit, as it does, so we stopped in the cafe for a cup of tea, as we do. 

Then we drove up to Ely to see the gorgeous cathedral and the charming riverside. Now I have seen a few cathedrals in my day, but this one was really something. The main part of the cathedral - the nave? the apse? I can't remember - was richly decorated, and the ceiling above the altar, well over a hundred feet up, was painted with a choir of angels. The pillars running down both sides of the aisle had typical English carvings on them, with alternating patterns of sawteeth, stripes, curving lines and diamond shapes. The side chapels were poignant, as usual, with their lists of veterans from the wars and their battered battle flags from the local regiments. But the really remarkable part of the cathedral was the Lady Chapel. English cathedrals usually had chapels dedicated to the Virgin Mary, and these chapels were usually targeted by Henry VIII when he had the cathedrals purged of their Catholic imagery during the Reformation. This Lady Chapel bore clearly the marks of Henry's desecration. You could see every injury perpetrated by the soldiers. Every carving (and there were hundreds of them) had its face bashed in. Only a few faint patches remained of what were once brightly colored walls. Most stunningly, all the stained glass had been stripped away and replaced with plain, unadorned, clear glass panels. With the afternoon light streaming in, it was a place that wore its sorrow and its calm resignation like a gentle cloak. It was incredibly peaceful, in spite of the violence that had been done to it. Henry may have damaged it, but he didn't take away its soul.

Feeling refreshed in mind and spirit, we returned to the campsite for a nap before dinner. And what a dinner it was. Everything, from the flour for the bread to the vegetables to the pork in my dinner and the wood pigeon in Andrew's, was sourced locally, most of it from that farm. And everything was delicious. It was quite a departure from our usual camping dinner of bread and cheese! Andrew got a kick out of his dinner, too. Those pesky wood pigeons were everywhere last summer, and they were loud, loud, loud, so to learn that they are also delicious felt like payback.

The next morning we packed up early and set out to Northamptonshire, about an hour away, for the highlight of the weekend: the Festival of History. It was amazing. There were thousands of people there in a massive field dotted with tents, arenas and exhibits. The festival was populated by history re-enactment groups with costumes, weapons, and props from every era of English history. There were Druids, Romans, knights in real armor, Elizabethan jesters, cavaliers and roundheads, redcoats, Victorian ladies, World War I Tommies, and even some "American" GIs. We had a great time wandering around, looking at all the displays, but the best part was seeing the people from different historical periods interacting with each other. Roman soldiers cheered on jousters, and World War II paratroopers walked through the encampment of a Renaissance papal envoy. It was great fun. The shows were impressive, too. We enjoyed the jousting, archery, chariot racing, and trench re-enactments, although the trench gunfire was a little too real for me. The soldiers laughed at me. But I suppose one has to keep up one's spirits on the front line. The best show, though, was the D-Day re-enactment. They had real Spitfires and Messerschmidts, and about ten people parachuted down onto a field in front of the crowd to prepare for battle against the Germans. There were explosions aplenty, and one paratrooper had to use his reserve parachute when his first one failed, so it was all quite exciting. I'll try to post Andrew's photos from the event. When it was all over, we found the car (after about 30 minutes of searching) and drove back to London. Well, Andrew drove. I just navigated. What a good husband he is, to drive me all over the countryside. Lesson learned though: just pay the extra 20 quid for an automatic!


Laia said...

Sounds Fantastic! How I love to travel and now three months on the job and no vacation in sight...ay! Your post brought some sweet nostalgia. The english countryside sounds so beautiful. How odd, the eels! I'd love to hear more

Robert said...

a) nyuck nyuck on the purchasing of the automatic ..

b) The Festival of History! How awesome! I await pictures ...

b) I share Andrew's elation of eating those animals which annoy me most. I imagine that the turkeys lurking in brookline are delectable.