Letters home, 2000, July 16

16 July

Dear Mum and Dad

Remember the Fernleaf girl, in the advertising soap about the family that was breaking up? She became the Anchor girl when Anchor took over the brand? She’s here on our TV now, for Volvo. She and her boyfriend are way out in the woods with a huge mountain backdrop and the boyfriend is trying to cook dinner over the fire. The result is horrible to his taste, so he sneaks around the tent and drives off in the Volvo 4X4 coming back very quickly with two big pizzas. She opens the box, is about to say something and decides better of it. Tucks into the pizza. You’re never far from civilization with a Volvo 4X4.

We had a lovely, lovely local weekend. We went to the market yesterday morning as we always do to get the veges and any other groceries. It is cultural festival time in St Albans and there was a group down by the clock tower doing a medieval mummers play. This one was a puppet play with big puppets. The one we saw was a kind of comical adaptation of the story of George and the Dragon with lots of audience participation and a huge colourful dragon held up high. Eventually, George gets to teach the dragon a lesson – in these environmentally friendly days it doesn’t do to kill the dragon, of course – and marry the beautiful princess.

This afternoon we drove up to Beachwood Green near Luton airport to the home of my cousins Donn & Sylvia Heath. Your great grandmother, Sadie Tearle had three brothers, Joe, Fred and Tom Adams. Ivor Adams is the grandson of Fred and Donn Heath is the grandson of Tom. We had a very interesting moment while Donn Heath absorbed the fact that the only difference between me and him was my accent!

Anyway, in the village today Donn and Sylvia were helping to organise a village open garden festival with local home gardens open to the public. We visited all of them, finishing with cream teas in the garden of a very large home, known locally as “the big house” or “the manor” although it is quite modern. It was lovely and sunny this afternoon so it was nice to be outside after all the cold and wet weather we have been having lately.

When we got home our neighbour Karen had her dinner with us then we went off to Ivor’s so I could work on his scanner. Iris gave us some beautifully fresh raspberries from her garden so we have just had a raspberries & ice cream supper.

I start my new job with Tescos tomorrow morning. Elaine is coming with me to Luton hospital to have my eyes checked, although they are now greatly improved. They think I caught some sort of virus thing in Belgium. I will then go off to work at Welwyn Garden City.

We’ve just come home from a really great night out. There’s a fellow who sings traditional English folk songs in French Row, just outside the Cafe Vicolo where we sit and have a cup of coffee every Saturday morning when we go to the market in St Albans. He calls himself John of French Row and he sings for the MS Society charity. He invited us to the Bull pub in Redbourne for a songs night. And we went tonight. It was just beautiful … all those lovely old songs that Butch and I used to sing in my university days at Waikato.

Also on Saturday, I updated my running shoes – that is, Elaine bought me some new ones for my birthday. On my first run on Sunday afternoon at least I did 4 miles under 30 minutes, and this afternoon I did 4 miles in just under 29 minutes. I’m looking to see if I can do the Great North Run in Newcastle, or maybe do the Garden City 10-mile again. So we’ll see how it goes. The first day at work in Tosco was a bit unusual – I didn’t know the answer to any of the questions that any of the callers rang in about! That’s a bit of a worry, but I am confident that I will pick up the patterns soon ….

Yes, well, I have just finished my first week at Tesco and it was quite interesting. I haven’t driven in England much before now, so driving to work has required a bit of education, too; although I haven’t actually got lost, I have driven home about four different ways, none of them intentionally. Progress House is in Shire Park which is on the edge of town, so I don’t get to see anything of Welwyn Garden City, but the group I am a sort of a member of has taken me to lunch at the Crown and Anchor pub in Tewin, a little country town 10min away, we’ve been to the Shire Club where you have to have a security pass to get in or it costs you 50p entry fee, and we’ve been to the cafe on the ground floor. Elaine makes my lunch, so none of that has cost me anything, but they are interesting places to go.

Tesco hasn’t yet organised too many of the tools I need to start work – my door pass arrived only yesterday, as did my AHD logon, but that’s all. I haven’t got a system logon, so Simon logged me on – illegally – as him, I haven’t got Lotus Notes so I can’t get or send messages, I haven’t got a telephone logon, so Simon let me – illegally – use his. And I haven’t got a mainframe logon, so if anyone rings me about problems with the mainframe, I can’t help them. All the servers were turned off on Tuesday, so we couldn’t help anyone at all and some of us couldn’t even log on.

There are some people from Novell working on the servers in the basement on pain of death if they don’t get things rectified, and the system administrators can’t set up any new accounts (like mine) otherwise everything is FINE. I sat at Simon’s elbow from Mon till Wed, then on Thurs I sat with Kevin, watching how the infrastructure worked and how the calls were answered and trying to see what were the most common problems. On Friday, two helpdesk guys failed to turn up and on Monday one of them is leaving, so they put me to work on Friday afternoon, fudging all the legal niceties as I said above, and I fell into the deep end. In the course of the afternoon, I took ten calls of about 15min each and I resolved ALL of them. None of them was left open, and none of them was referred on. One guy said “I can’t find the trakworks.ini file.”

I said, “That’s nice, where is Track Works?”

He said, “You haven’t been here too long, have you?” He was still most impressed when he went off with his program working properly.

So that’s it, I am now on the Helpdesk and working at the craft. The contract goes until 02 Feb 2001, but the manager says that it should go on much longer than that. We’ll see.

The only thing wrong is how COLD the place is. I know this is summer, but it looks like I’m not going to get much of it because where I sit is right under one of the cooling fans and I have to wear a jersey inside all day. When I get into the car, I find the day is roasting hot and I have just missed it. Because Elaine is now on holiday, we have six weeks to find another car. That shouldn’t be too hard. The Metro Centre wants to sell us one of theirs so we should be able to get a really nice little car for about 200 pounds.

Yesterday morning we decided we’d better chase up my new car, so we went round to the Metro Centre on the London Road and had a look at a couple of the cars he had for sale there. One of them was in our price range (300 pounds) it was quite tidy and the MOT for it was current till March next year. Also, it had seat belts for the rear seats. It’s exactly the same colour as the one we already own. Metro cheese. He said he’d make sure everything was tidy, legal and running smoothly and we’d pick up the car probably next Friday. So there you go, two cheese-coloured Metros in the parking lot.

We did get to the Gardens of the Rose yesterday. We went to the market first to have our cup of coffee and had a good chat with John of French Row, the folk singer. While we were talking to him we heard Eine Kleine Nacht Musik – played too fast, but rather well – coming from a small orchestra the other side of the clock tower, so we went to investigate. The orchestra had two violins, a viola and a cello and they had obviously played together a few times before – their tone was deep and very co-ordinated.

They went on to play the William Tell Overture and quite a few other family favourites. Apart from their excellent sound, we also loved the way they got kids up to help them and they danced and gestured as they played. It was a delightful 1/2 hour we spent listening to them. For some reason you get very good acoustics if you stand in front of the clock tower and no-one has to have any form of amplification in order to be heard perfectly well by a crowd of about 100 grouped under the robinia. It is just so romantic.

We decided to go to the Gardens of the Rose even tho we would get there at about 2:30pm. It’s a beautiful place, all right; the house is an old manor, but I don’t know anything about it other than it is now the HQ for the Royal National Rose Society – patrons, Princess Anne and Lord Runcie. They will obviously have to get a new vice patron, because Lord Runcie, retired Archbishop of Canterbury and Bishop of St Albans, has just died.

The gardens are in 30 acres of rolling Hertfordshire countryside and are actually in Chiswell Green (pronounced Chissel Green) but that’s only a suburb of St Albans anyway. We had a quiet and contemplative afternoon in the warm sun wandering around admiring a beautiful garden of 30,000 roses. One section of the garden was called the Peace Garden and was a collection of all the most famous roses that are descendents of the Peace rose. I didn’t know that Superstar was a “Peace Rose,” but there was a bed of Superstar and all its descendents in the Peace Garden. We got a really awful bright red plastic rose fridge magnet as our memento. A good day all told.

This morning I have been for a six-mile run and it was a respectable enough 43:54min. I haven’t done much work since the Petersfield 1/2 marathon, but it looks like the work I did in Belgium on the cross-trainers wasn’t wasted effort. I found out there that my highest heart rate is 178 and my resting pulse here at home at 42. I have bought the latest Runners World magazine and at last I have a new pair of running shoes, so I am lining up a couple of races for next month.

We’ve got the first of the leaf drop happening with the early-wintering birches, but there’s no sign yet of general colour change in the trees.  When I’m in the Tesco building, the trees around us make it look like we’re in a forest. We can see to a horizon that’s about 10 miles of rolling countryside away, and everything in view is trees, we can hardly see the rooftops because the trees are so big and they grow so densely. Every single tree was planted by hand. The fields all around us are deep yellow with ripe wheat, maize and barley and we can see combine harvesters at work on most days.

Many fields have large stacks of wheat or barley straw bales waiting for the truck. Some fields have even been re-ploughed and we can see the dusting of fertilizer sitting on the ground. The fields around Beds/Bucks/Herts are on beautiful, gently rolling countryside, they are 20 to 50 acres in size and all are ringed in magnificent oaks, elms, ashes, chestnuts and sycamores. The entire countryside looks like a gigantic park.

We went to Knebworth House yesterday. It used to be just an old Tudor manor, and home of the Lord Lyttons since about the 1450’s but in the 1840’s (around the time we signed the Treaty of Waitangi …) it was added to considerably and they put up towers and added gargoyles and laid out some lovely gardens. It was used as Wayne Manor in Batman! And I thought the entire movie was shot in America. The outside has been about one quarter renovated so it will look very impressive once the work is finished, but in this week’s paper Lord Cobbold says he may have to sell the place because the work is too expensive.

They used steel reinforcing rods in the 1840’s additions and in England’s damp and cold the rods rust, which breaks up the stone. The Victorians got very energetic with lots of these manor houses and all of them (I know of another 3 in the area) now have to have huge amounts spent on them removing the rods and fixing the damage. The Victorians thought the rods would make the building last longer. Anyway, it’s a fantastic looking building and the gardens were a very pleasant afternoon’s stroll. And, it’s not far from here, off the A1(M) near Stevenage.

One of the more recent Lord Lyttons was Viceroy to India in the 1870’s during the British Raj and it was he who organized for Victoria to become Empress of India. Winston Churchill was a frequent visitor here and his painting of the Banqueting Hall now hangs there. Queen Elizabeth the First also visited here in the 1570’s (I told you the place was a Tudor manor house) and the Lord Lyttons were all knights of the garter. One of the more unusual paintings is of a nun and a monk holding a baby and grinning widely. It’s described as “Tudor anti-Catholic propaganda.”

AND we have the fridge magnet of the house ….

We went to Southend-on-sea for the day on Sunday. It was such a fine sunny morning and I’d already been for my 12-mile training run, so we thought we’d go and look at the sea. I’ll tell you what … you wouldn’t go to Southend-on-sea twice. It seems the kids in various schools your Mum teaches at have said with great enthusiasm that “You gotta go there!”

We took the M25 at London Colney, past the Stanstead turnoff and on down to junction 29 where we took the A127 to Southend. The prettiest part of the trip is in Hertfordshire; once you get into Essex, the scenery gets much more industrial and scruffy. There are lots of untilled little fields lying fallow and full of weeds, many of the fences are in poor condition, there are unpainted warehouses dotted along the sides of the roads, that sort of scruffy.

Southend is quite big and it took a bit of navigating to find the beach. The town would have to be at least as big as Hamilton, but the beach is narrow, pebbly, with a bit of sand and heavily fortified with groins running out to sea trying to stop what little beach they have being washed away. The town is on the banks of the Thames and does not look out to sea, but across the river to tall chimneys and industrial installations on the other bank, at least 5 miles away. The view is dominated by a long jetty swinging from the far end of the beach to about a mile out to sea and we could just make out a few people walking on it and a little train running along it. Behind us, the beach carried on for another 2 miles before it turned left and the Thames met the Atlantic.

We parked our car about half way along the beach and walked west, with the sea on our left and the road on our right. We stopped at a Louisiana 30’s style eatery for lunch and although he was unkempt, the chef could cook. Elaine had a seafood platter and I had fish and chips … for the first time in England someone knew how to cook chips.

When we got to town it was the sort of place that was made for kids; we could see why the kids in school had recommended the town so enthusiastically. But actually, it’s horrible, noisy and loud. Every second place is a casino or games joint, there are three tattoo parlours, every other place is an eatery, and on the shore side of the road opposite the town there is a narrow strip of sideshow sort of attractions clambering over the rocks – flume rides, adventure rides, flying swings, pirate ships, that sort of thing – all with their music turned up and all flashing their lights and waving their flags.

Kids heaven, I should think, but sort of down-at-heel and tawdry and the people who walked about chewing their Southend rock looked sort of desperate for fun with their new tats and their hot, screaming kids. We bought the fridge magnet of a brightly multi-coloured sailing dingy and found a badge for the blanket. We ate some of the locally-made sticky peanut fudge and watched the traffic wardens sticking parking fines on the cars that hadn’t paid-n-displayed. Next stop Blackpool, I suppose …

The very best wishes

Ewart and Elaine