Letters home, 2001, May 19

19 May 2001

Dear Mum and Dad

I took my London Marathon medal into one of the local jewellers to be engraved, but after telling me it would cost GBP13.00, he said the engraver wouldn’t do the job because the gap left on the medal was too small for the machine to write in. He also thought the metal wasn’t the right sort. I then took the medal into the Maltings and spoke to the fellow on the trophies stall, who had done other jobs for me. He spoke to his engraver who said the space on the medal was too small for machine work, but he would hand engrave it for me. I asked how much, “7.50.” Done. We went next door to one of the best coffee shops in the country, Costa, and had a beautiful big latte while we waited the 1/2 hr he said it would take. When I picked up the medal he said, “Blinding time, well done!”

We had a wonderful day yesterday at the Duxford May Display. Duxford is near Cambridge and was one of the Battle of Britain air force bases. It holds the first air show of the year and they had mostly WW2 planes. It was so exciting to see these wonderful and historic planes swooping past and doing aerobatics under the clouds. There was a whole section devoted to De Havilland and we were interested in this because De Havilland had his factory in Hatfield, just down the road from us.  There’s a full-sized model of the De Havilland Meteor that broke the world long distance speed record when it flew to Australia, mounted by The Meteor Roundabout opposite The Galleria, near here.

Ivor said that late in the war they could hear the huge screams of jet engines under test. De Havilland built the Vampire, and the Meteor and today, the only two non-military aircraft in the world that can cruise faster than sound are Duxford’s De Havilland Meteor and Concorde.  Both of them are over 30 years old. We also found a most peculiar link.  Elaine’s father’s boss, Maurie Andrews, flew Hurricanes and Iris’ father put the electrical wiring into them. I didn’t say it was a close link, but we did stand there and digest that while we looked over the Hurricane on display.

There was an entire flight wing consisting of two Hurricanes, a Spitfire and a Corsair all in RNZAF colours and all NZ owned. I didn’t find out if they had actually seen active service for the RNZAF.  The most impressive flying we saw all day was the Harrier jump-jet. He climbed vertically off the runway, hovering noisily but perfectly still, then he went sideways, backwards, drifted slowly forwards and then took off up into the cloud cover with a howl and a roar of pure power that still gives me goose-bumps just thinking about it.

There was also, of course, the Avro Lancaster and a section devoted to the Dam Busters.  We have an interest in that because the mayor of Te Kuiti, Les Munro, flew over 100 missions in the Dam Buster squadron.  There was also a mounted practice bomb, filled with concrete, of the type used in the dam attacks and a piece of film showing the planes practising dropping the bomb.  It’s a big, cylindrical bomb and there was a small motor in the plane to make the bomb rotate backwards at 500 rpm. The plane had to be 60ft off the water and travelling at 220 mph when the bomb was released.  Barnes Wallis’ office was in London Rd, St Albans, where we get our cars serviced.  He also was on the design team of the Wellington bomber.

On static display, and taking up most of a huge hangar, was the B-52, 4-engined Stratofortress: measure it out – 182 feet of wingspan. There was also the Vulcan bomber and I can still remember it coming to Rotorua when I was in primary school. Concorde was there and so was the Blackbird. This is a spy-plane and it carries no weapons, just a camera – mind you, a good one, it can read the number-plate on your car from 100,000ft.  

It’s much bigger than I thought a single-seater, twin-engined plane would be, because it’s about the size of Concorde.  It probably goes about Mark 4 and travels at around 200,000ft, but it broke world records at Mark 3.1 and 120,000ft and no-one’s seen it do anything more.  Anti-aircraft missiles are too slow and can’t get high enough to catch it.  One of the guys who works at the museum was chatting to me about it and he said that when a missile blows up near it, the plane is going away from the blast so quickly that the blast seems to implode rather than explode.  We didn’t see all of Duxford by any means, but it was a very good day out.

On Monday it was the May Bank Holiday so we thought we’d go and have a look at the Knebworth County Show in the morning and then visit Chenies Manor House in the afternoon.  Knebworth is on the A1(M) just out of Stevenage and when we got to within a mile of junction 7 the traffic just stopped, on both lanes going north.  We thought that since we were only a mile short of the turnoff, we’d wait in the queue but 3/4hr later, when we were still ½ a mile short of the place, the queue was still pretty well stopped.  

We thought that perhaps the priority was Chenie because it was open only seldom and we’d been to Knebworth before. The right lane was moving quite a bit quicker, but so it should have because no-one was turning off it. We drove up to junction 8 and used the cloverleaf there to get us back onto the southern lanes.  When we got back to junction 7, we could see that there was a considerable tail-back and no reason at all for the right lane to be stopped. We measured the tail-back; three miles of it.  People must be starved for a bit of country, so the entire population of Hertfordshire must have decided to go to Knebworth.

Chenie is a tiny village just to the east of Amersham, on the A405, but it makes up for its lack of size in being entirely exclusive.  There are two-storey expensive houses and a very toffy school, but the manor house and church were a revelation.  It was a Norman church, built around 1220, because the first minister was recorded on one of the walls as having been there from 1232.  On the walls were the most beautiful brasses.  In medieval times the rather more wealthy would have a brass plate made on which was a portrait of the occupant of the grave.  

Many of the plates are deeply carved and quite ornate, with biblical inscriptions and descriptions of the deeds of the person portrayed.  They were usually on the floor of the church and lately people have realised that 800 years of walking on these brasses is ruining them, so the brasses have been lifted and mounted on the walls.  In their own way, they are highly expressive and deeply moving.  Not all that many are dated, but those that are have 1300 and 1400 dates. I haven’t yet seen a date later than 1540.

These churches are basically walls, about 3ft thick, with arches held up with elegant round pillars. There’s a bell-tower which doubles as a lookout tower (or the other way round) which has a steep stone staircase inside.  From the staircase people inside could fire missiles through narrow slots in the walls out onto attackers.  The roof is usually framed with wood and then tiled or slated.  A very simple roof, it’s the walls that do the work.  These Norman churches feel solid, protective, comforting and somehow ageless and solemn.

They are not very big and must have been relatively cheap to build, because England’s population wasn’t very numerous or particularly wealthy and yet these churches are often only a few miles apart in the centres of very small villages.  They are always built of local material so they have a regional flavour which reflects whatever the commonest building material of the time was.  In spite of their great age, most of them are still in use and for me they are the most romantic symbols that England has. There was an annex and we could see through big windows that there were quite a few big sarcoffigi and some large carvings against the walls.  The most remarkable was of a Norman knight in full chain armour lying with his head on his dog, also wrapped in a chain.  Next to the knight was his wife, dressed in beautiful medieval clothing.  They were full size and carved to represent as closely as possible the people in the coffins they lay on.

Chenie Manor, it turns out, was the original home of the Earl of Bedford, the Russell family, of Bertrand Russell fame.  The whole house was built over a deep, dark crypt which was first a wine cellar and then a dungeon. Nice – people were actually incarcerated there.  Henri V111 gave the Russells Woburn Abbey when he dissolved the monastries and they shifted there, but retained ownership of Chenie Manor until about the 1700’s.  In a small paddock close to the house is a 1000-yr old oak tree, rather battered by time, but with a huge, broken trunk.. Henry V111 visited the Russells quite often, once with Anne Boleyn when Elizabeth was a baby.

We were sitting on a seat outside the house discussing the oak tree and Elizabeth when we noticed the manor’s unusual chimneys.  “That’s Christopher Wren,” says Elaine, because those are the same chimneys as Hampton Court Palace.  Well, she was right.  It may not have actually been Wren, but it was the same workmen. The chimneys have this unique twisting brick pattern built into them. Then we found out that the Russells had built the extension on the church and that most of the Russells are interred there.  It was private property, so we couldn’t go inside, but I would have loved to have seen in there.  The statuary was quite remarkable.  A funny little thing I found out – Midsummer Night’s Dream was written for the marriage of the Third Earl of Bedford and Lucy Harrington, I assume at Chenies Manor. And lastly, think of this; there is a young oak tree growing in the same paddock as the old one and is intended one day to replace it.  The young oak is planted from an acorn taken from the same branch of the tree used to hang the last Abbot of Woburn ….

We saw on the front page of the local newspaper that on the weekend immediately after 22 April, St Albans was going to celebrate ANZAC Day at the town cemetery opposite St Paul’s Church in Hatfield Rd.  This area of St Albans is called Fleetville, but I’ve no idea why and the cemetery is quite a large one.  We thought that if St Albans was going to put on a service for the ANZACs the least we could do was to be there.  I suppose about 50 people turned up along with the Girl Guides, the Burma Star soldiers, a man in full military uniform from the Australian High Commission, the Secretary to the New Zealand High Commissioner and the Mayor of St Albans, Rona Phillips on her very last official engagement.

It was a quiet and dignified occasion and people remembered the soldiers who had died of their wounds in the two hospitals in St Albans.  There was a cup of tea in St Paul’s afterwards and there we met Mark and Margaret Gill from the NZ High Commission in NZ House.  He was a very nice chap, thoroughly enjoying his stay in Britain and have, like us, lots of adventures and taking full advantage of the travel opportunities being close to Europe gave him.

Now you may not believe this, either, but Elaine and I were invited to Die Fledermaus, the opera by Johann Strauss 11.  I was pretty worried because I wasn’t too keen on being bellowed at all night in German, but it was actually quite a light-hearted affair and it was sung in English.  It’s an awful plot concerning a wealthy man and his wife, both of whom want to have a fling and actually end up with each other.  I even knew a few of the tunes; I simply didn’t know they came from this opera.  Pretty up-market for St Albans, all right!  

The costumes were good, and the orchestra was very good, but the singing was a bit … average.  It’s called Die Fledermaus – The Bat – because she gets invited to a ball but she has to dress in disguise and she comes all in black with a high-winged mask looking somewhat like a bat.  It’s part of the plot that he doesn’t recognise her in her bat dress, she looks absolutely stunning and very mysterious and he tries to seduce her.  Nice music, though.

So to follow that up, we also get invited to the Phoebus Trio: harp, flute and viola.  They were superb.  At times the viola sounded like a cello and the music they played had been written especially for this trio of instruments.  The most beautiful piece was written by an English composer, William Mathias and was a musical portrait of the three musicians he wrote the piece for.  Not particularly lyrical, but evocative and emotive, at times wild and at times peaceful, just like real people.  On Monday night we go and see the last of the musical goodies, the Ionian Singers who sing mostly unaccompanied.  That should be a treat.

I’m about to start my last days at Tesco and Elaine has made a very nice feast of afghans and apricot fudge for me to take to work..  I’ll miss the people at Tesco because they were a very pleasant group to work with.  It’s a very good company, keen to keep its traditions and to upgrade its members’ culture.  To that end I now have THREE Tesco awards.  I am the only one on the helpdesk who has so many because these awards are nominated entirely by the customers – by the people who ring up the helpdesk. The other guys say, “Oh, yeah, that’s just because they like your Australian accent.” All my awards have been nominated by women, and the other helpdesk analysts know I’m not Australian – they just want to “take the mickey” as it’s called here.  I have had two or three phone calls a day from IT placement agencies, but no offers of work, so it’s a bit of a worry.

I have largely overcome the effects of the London marathon, I’m back to being able to run 10 miles and tomorrow morning I do 12 miles then some sprints.  I’m having a go at getting my 10km time below 40min.  That is hard work.

Last weekend we got invited to a football match where a group of kids from Elaine’s class was playing in the Barton Town club team.  They were playing in the final of their competition and were so thrilled to have made it to the final, they wanted us to go up and cheer them on.  They were such charming boys and they played their hearts out, with a lot of skill for boys of only 9 and 10yrs.  They didn’t win, but they still treasure their finalists’ medals.  After the game we drove into Bedford and had a walk along the banks of the Ouse. It was a beautiful, sunny day, the third in a row as though it were full summer and people were lying about sunbathing or picnicing under the trees.  

The Ouse itself is big enough to allow quite a large ship to sail to Bedford from The Wash, which was one of the reasons it was such a strategic city.  These days it’s not so important and the river is the most horrible greenish brown colour you have to wonder how polluted it is.  We called in to explore the lovely St Paul’s Church in the middle of Bedford and we lit a candle for Jason.  We walked back along the river tow-path to our car and then the three-day drought broke with heavy clouds, a dozen flashes of lightning, crashing thunder and a torrent of rain as we drove home.

Remember we went to Leicester to see the Leicester Tigers’ grounds with Jack Dalgliesh?  And we met Dean Richards?  Well, today we watched Leicester win the Heineken Cup in grand style with three tries to none, over Stade Francais.  It was a great game – Mum would have loved it. The Heineken Cup is THE rugby trophy of Europe.  We watched it on TV, of course, but since we had been to the Leicester grounds and we’ve got the tiger to prove it, we’re happy to support Leicester.  Many of them are in the Lions team which is about to tour Australia and guess who is the coach of the Lions?  Graham Henry.  Go Graham.  Another interesting thing is that the assistant coach for England was John (?) Mitchell – he’s gone back to Waikato and we hear he’s doing great things with them. Talent will out.

The foot n mouth outbreak is nearly over.  Yesterday was the first day in which there were no new cases and the countryside is slowly opening up.  There are lots of arguments and recriminations, of course, but the thing that is most clear for me is the massive extent to which English farming is subsidised.  But the same is true for all European farming.  Some of these farms are 45 acres sustaining 100 ewes and 170 lambs.  The farmer concerned stands in front of the camera bawling that his livelihood is being taken away from him.  I’d cry with him if he was talking about his little flock that he had carefully bred up in his spare time – but a livelihood?  

They were paid 26 POUNDS per sheep destroyed.  It’s unbelievable.  It’s also incredible that a whole family can live on 45 acres with 100 ewes.  Although it was poor farming practices that caused the outbreak, as they have caused the BSE/CJD outbreak, it wasn’t just the farmers who suffered and it wasn’t even them who suffered the most, but they are the one who will get compensation.  The ones who suffered the most were the tourism industry, which itself is worth 10 times more than farming, and rural businesses dependent on farming and tourism. And they will get no compensation at all.  They shouldn’t either; in business you take the smooth and bank it to get you over the rough.  If you don’t you shouldn’t be in business.  The same applies to farming.

By the way, no, we do not eat beef on this side of the equator.  We eat lamb – there’s no mutton or hogget here – and pork and poultry and we don’t use Bisto or any other beef extract, nor beef sausages, nor hamburgers, or steak n kidney pies. It’s likely that the current crop of  CJD cases is the forerunner to a very much larger group of people who will all die in the pandemic.  It’s estimated that one-tenth of Europe will die because the affliction can take 20 years to develop.  This recent group are those most easily affected – there are many more to come and cattle are still being found, in France and Germany, for instance, with BSE. We’ll try to stay away from it and only eat beef on our visits to NZ.

 That reminds me; we left NZ on 31 May 1999 and arrived in England on 3 June 1999.  Very shortly, we will have been here for two years.  Whenever I see my workmates feeling depressed and harassed because they feel their life is jailing them I tell them that the only walls they have are the walls they erect around themselves.  They are in a jail of their own making.  There are so many jobs here, and many of them pay very well for people of skill and talent, there is no need to feel that life is closing them in.

We have a long weekend coming up – here they call it a Bank Holiday – and we are going up to Suffolk to interview someone who has applied for a job in NZ.  It should be most interesting and we’ll see lots more countryside we haven’t seen before.  That reminds me, one of the guys at work was looking on the Internet for a castle to take his girlfriend to for a holiday and he said to me, “Hey Ewart, you’ve seen more of England that most of us have, what’s it like in Bristol?”  

So I was able to tell him about the incredible bridge over the Bristol Channel and how the tides rise 16 feet in Infracombe on the North Devon coast because of the amount of water that flows up and down the Bristol Channel every tide. And the sheer between the incoming tide and the outgoing tide. And the smugglers coast. We had a good look, too at all the castles pictured on the Internet and how few of them were actually castles at all, more like manor houses.  The only one that looked really like a castle – like Warwick Castle, for instance – was GBP400 per week, I think per person. He thought he might take her to Ilfracombe instead.  Cheaper and still very pretty.

I hope this note finds you well and that you are enjoying life in Tairua.  Dad’s sharpener is ordered, it should turn up any day and I’ll forward it to you as soon as I see it.  We’ve sent Geoffrey a very nice birthday card and a present we hope he’ll have a lot of fun with.

Lots of love

Ewart and Elaine