Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Easter 2009

Easter, for some reason, is a huge deal here, even though almost no one is religious anymore. This means that everyone gets a four-day weekend, about which the British actually are pretty religious. We took advantage of the long weekend last year by going camping in the Chilterns. It was just a quick train ride out to High Wycombe, where we picked up an Ordnance Survey map and food supplies for two days. Now you might think, Easter? Isn't that a little early in the year to go camping? And you would be right. But we decided to give it a go, anyways, and while it was chilly it was still fun. The weather was appropriately gray and drizzly, so we knew for sure we were in England. The scenery told us that, too. It was beautiful, all rolling green hills and tiny country lanes and sheep everywhere. We camped on a farm a 10-minute taxi ride away from the town. The farmers were very friendly, but even they thought we were a little crazy.

We walked to the nearest village on the first afternoon, to find an ATM so we could pay the nice farmers. We were mostly on little footpaths, but we were just off the edge of our map, so we couldn't quite tell where we were going. Along the way, we saw lots of families walking their dogs, and dozens of kites. Not the sort of kite you're thinking of, though; the bird. Apparently the Chilterns are a major bird refuge area. The red kites are particularly prevalent, and they are not shy about swooping down in front of you to capture a tasty morsel. Andrew and I saw one come out of nowhere to catch a small, furry thing right in the middle of the road. In the village we found some tea, like you do, grabbed our cash and headed back to the tent. We had already entered daylight savings time, so it stayed light late enough for us to play some card games and have our favorite camping dinner of hummus and bread. Once the sun went down we headed to the pub across the way, but we didn't have too much to drink because we wanted to get an early start the next day.

One good thing about sleeping in a cold, damp tent is that it gives you plenty of encouragement to get up in the morning. We got up and started what we hoped would be a nice, long day's walk. We were still off the map, but we were able to figure out the right direction so that we could eventually join up with the mapped area. The right direction, as it turned us out, was through a few little neighborhoods, across several muddy fields and in and out of a small forest. About halfway across the first of the muddy fields, I realized my cute little sneakers were not the best choice of footwear. They toughed it out, though.

Our initial destination was the village of West Wycombe, which was supposed to be picturesque. It was. We had a nice lunch at the pub, where I managed to clean off my shoes enough to be respectable, then we headed back out into the mud. Once we were clear of the village, we headed back uphill. We wanted to get to Hughenden Manor, which was once the country home of Benjamin Disraeli, the great Victorian prime minister. I didn't care that much about Disraeli himself, but it looked like a nice house, so we steered ourselves that way.

Let me tell you about our map. This was the first time we had tried to navigate using an Ordnance Survey map, a special series of highly detailed maps beloved of British walkers. We were not quite prepared for the level of detail, and we had a hard time getting used to the scale. There were so many paths that it was hard to tell where we were on the map, but we powered through and soon found our way into a grove of enormous, ancient elm trees. Everything was hushed, and we slowed down to enjoy the trees. They were probably the biggest trees we've seen in England. It looked like Sherwood Forest, or Lorien, or something in Narnia. I list all these simply because there are so few trees left in England that it's rare to see the sort of landscape that inspired the woody settings of English literature. I had seen hills and mountains, beaches and marshes, rocky outcroppings and quiet streams before, but this was my first real forest experience. I loved it.

But eventually the trees cleared out and we could see where we were on the map, which was not at all where we thought we were. We were having such a good time walking that we didn't mind having to walk further, and we ended up coming at Hughenden from a better viewpoint this way, anyways. We were on the wrong side of a hill, so we walked around, and up, passing smaller groves of trees and vast swarms of yellow daffodils along the way. We got up to the house in time for a cup of tea and a scone and a walk through the formal gardens, which were small but exquisite. Some day I want to have tiny hedges in my backyard in the shapes of Celtic knots, with bright tulips planted in between. Mmm.

It was mid-afternoon by this point, and we had just reached the farthest point of our planned walk, so we started to head back toward the farm. We walked through more of the glorious forest along the way and started to gain confidence with the map. I'm usually the more confident navigator, but Andrew was much better with the map that day. He guided us to the edge of the Hughenden estate and, after a couple hours, into a tiny village that must have belonged to the estate in years past. It had a gorgeous church that was playing host to a wedding. We could see the guests' hats over the hedge. They were playing terrible music and having a great time. The village was beautiful. All the buildings were at least 200 years old, and they had perfect little gardens, some pristine, some exuberant.

At the end of the village was a pub where we stopped to consult the map over a pint of cider. We were hoping to be able to find a cab to take us back to the farm, not because we were tired (although we were pretty tired) but because it was getting dark and we didn't want to walk down narrow country roads without a flashlight. As luck would have it, and has had it many times over the course of our travels, one of the locals overheard our predicament and offered us a ride. His name was Rodney Stewart, and he lived in the area. He was a real comedian. He teaches jazz at the Royal Academy of Music, and he relished the role of tour guide, pointing out local landmarks on the way up to the farm. By the time we got there it was well and truly dark, and we were grateful not to be trudging along the side of the road. Instead, we dropped off our map and headed straight to the pub for dinner.

We ended up making some friends in the pub. A girl heard our accents and introduced herself as an American studying in Warwickshire who was visiting friends in the village. She was tickled to meet some of her countrymen in that tiny pub, and she invited us to join her friends at their table for card games and stories and a great time. We barely even noticed the cold when we went back to our tent, and before we knew it, it was morning and time to get back to High Wycombe and catch the train back home.

We had a great time camping, but we were also looking forward to getting back to civilization. Plus, we had an Easter dinner to make for four guests. The Kiwis were there, of course, and my friend Jennifer, from ballet, and her husband, Aaron, also joined us. Jennifer and Aaron were in London studying for the semester. I met Jennifer in ballet and we quickly discovered that not only were we both from America, but both from Florida, where we had both attended UF, majored in English, and greatly admired Dr Brantley. What a small world! She and Aaron were spending their final semester of UF Law School in London, and even though they had only been there a few months they had already discovered lots of cool restaurants and pubs in London. They were very happy to share. We had roast pork and vegetables for dinner, plus a cheese course courtesy of Jennifer and Aaron, and a lemon tart, I believe. It was all very springlike, a rebellious act in spite of the gray, chilly weather. The triumph of hope over circumstance. Perfect, in fact, for Easter.

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