Letters home, 2001, Dec 3

3 Dec 2001

Dear Mum and Dad

Ivor is improving every day.  We went to dinner at their place last night and Ivor ate everything we did, although not as much, and as far as we could tell enjoyed the meal and had no after effects.  He doesn’t go back to hospital for any tests for a couple of months yet but he is in good heart and certainly looks much improved.  He was absolutely delighted to get your Christmas card, which we delivered last week, and it was one of the first such cards he got.

We put up our Christmas tree yesterday.  It’s the thing, here.  You do your Christmas decorations on 1 Dec.  The shops and the daily advertising have been full of it for the past couple of weeks, of course, but the beginning of December is when you start to see the decorations go up in people’s houses and see the lights flashing in their windows.  We didn’t do anything particularly startling this year because I just stood last year’s tree up and put last year’s decorations on it, as well as last year’s lights. I did, however, get a snow blanket for the tree.  This is a length of thick, white, woolly cloth and you cut it up and crumple it on the ground around the foot of the tree to make it look like the tree is standing in thick snow.  

I have set the little Dickens doll under the tree and she looks absolutely gorgeous in her copious red overcoat standing under the street lamp in the deep snow singing her carols from the song book held in her green mittens.  I shall get a battery for her shortly and we will be able to hear her singing from amongst the presents Elaine has set under the tree. When we went to Ivor’s I saw that he has some coloured lights flickering bravely in his living room window and everyone in the street walking past can see them.  I must do that; it’s all very well having lights flashing on the Christmas tree, but coloured lights flashing in the window are de rigeur. We have a timer that turns on small lights in the living room at 7:00pm and I’ll rig the tree and window lights up so that everything starts at the same time.

We have now come to that time of year when it’s dark at 4:30pm, long before we start coming home and just getting light at 7:00am as we scrape the frost off the car before driving to the railway station. I have no idea why the English insist on having outside parking for their cars, with very few houses having a garage or even a carport. Actually, since I’ve touched on the point, the one topic the English talk about more than the weather is transport. Everyone has to get to work, almost no-one can walk to work, so almost everyone relies very heavily on the transport system to get them to work. The system is heavily overloaded and it is groaning and cracking under the pressure.

Everything is overloaded – the roads are choked such that a single accident on any motorway can cause a 20 mile four-lane tailback within half an hour, the city streets are nose-to-tail with cars and lots of parked illegally on double yellow lines because finding a park is so difficult. Cars weave in and out amongst the parked cars in a way I’ve only ever seen done in England. It’s like this; if there are no yellow lines to prohibit you from parking, you can park – anywhere.  This often means that streets wide enough to allow only one car in each direction get cars parked on both sides of the road, usually half-way across the footpath, with a corridor wide enough for just one car. If there’s a car already in the corridor, then you wait until that car, and all behind it, have passed through before you can go forward.  

The trains are fully crowded, at least at peak periods, with most of the train-load standing, and very few trains now run on time because a whole generation of under-funding and under-investment have left the track and all its infrastructure breaking down many times a day everywhere, all over the country. The train traveller going to work pays the most expensive fair of the day, and generally has to stand for the whole trip.  The buses are hopeless; on time for a bus is that time 5 minutes before until 5 minutes after the time on the timetable. Here in Jersey Farm I’ve had to give up using them because at the time I want to catch one, about 6:30 am, they far too often don’t arrive at all.  So with an overloaded road system, an overloaded train system and a bus system that doesn’t arrive for the working person, it’s very difficult to find a way to get to work that isn’t almost as stressful as work itself.

The neighbourhood I work in is that part of Southwark called The Arches. When the London to Dover railway was built from Blackfriars Station through Southwark it was on an elevated platform about 30 feet off the ground and it left behind a real forest of brickwork arches and within them is a darkened underground mini-world.  Lots of the arches have been boarded up and provide rented accommodation for small businesses with narrow alleyways following the bridge above to give access to the doors cut into the boarding.  In one particularly densely arched area there is a permanently manned car-park of about 200 cars.  It’s like gangster alley: Mercedes, Alpha Romeos, BMWs, a Ferrari – that sort of thing.  If it was parked on the street it might be attacked, or perhaps the owner likes to keep it here so the tax-man doesn’t know he’s got it.

 Just down the road from 168 Union St is the house that Mum’s grandmother, Helen Hinkley, lived in so this is the neighbourhood in which she grew up. It’s full of dark brick buildings and 3-storey warehouses and with all that coal smoke from hundreds of Victorian brick cottages in the neighbourhood, each with a coal-fired stove in the kitchen as the only source of warmth, it must have seemed a very dismal, cold, damp place to a young girl growing up in poverty in Bankside. Add to that the noise and smoke from the railway overhead, the constant rattle of wagons delivering goods to the warehouses and the clip-clop of horses hooves it would have been noisy as well as smoky, dismal, cold and damp.

Add to all of that the open sewers and the horse manure all over the road and it would have been smelly, noisy, smoky, cold, dismal and damp.  Just the place you’d want to leave; I don’t blame her.  Today, you can only see where this neighbourhood has come from, it’s not like that at all to be here now, but on a cold, misty morning walking to work from Blackfriars through The Arches to Union St, it’s not hard to visualize how the Victorians lived in Southwark.

I have just bought a book called The Magic and Mystery of England by Ivan J Belcher because it had the Bridge of Sighs in Cambridge and a Morris dancing troupe on the cover, while there was a photo of the fishing boats drawn up on the beach at Hastings on the back. Now that I’ve got it home to read more closely, it’s even better than I thought; the man who wrote it likes lots of the places we’ve been to.  Look at this list just for the time we have been here.

St Paul’s Cathdedral.  We have both been inside and stared at its majesty and grandeur.  Every day, I see it as I go to and from work over Blackfriars Bridge and every day I marvel at its simplicity and its elegance. The chief mason to Sir Christopher Wren, and who helped build St Paul’s, was a St Albans man who is buried in St Peter’s Church on the main road in St Albans

The Chiltern Hills.  These are the hills that wrap around Tearle Valley and across which runs the Ichnield Way, picking carefully the dry route all the way from near Norwich almost to Henley-on-Thames.

Ilfracombe Harbour.  It has a 30-foot tide, smugglers caves carved into the mudstone cliffs and beautiful little stone cottages clamped to the hillside overlooking the town and the harbour. We went there several times to see dearest cousin Clarice.

Tower Bridge, London.  I took Genevieve’s photo in the late afternoon light from the Embankment with Tower Bridge right behind her. It’s a lovely photo. I was also given the privilege of running across it during the London Marathon earlier this year.

The Radcliffe Camera is a circular stone building in the heart of Oxford and is actually a library of which our cousin Barbara is the Head Librarian – the Bodleian Library.

The Magdalen Bridge, Oxford. You hire a punt and go punting down the river, gliding under this 18th century stone bridge.  Magdalen College was built by the Bishop of Winchester – he of Winchester Palace in Southwark with The Clink in its basement, which I walk close by every day.

The Houses of Parliament just down the road from where I work

King’s College in Cambridge with that fantastically beautiful chapel in its grounds, begun by Henry V1 and not finished until Henry Viii.

Christ Church, also in Oxford, with its most beautiful Norman cathedral.

Clapper Bridge, Eastleach, Gloucester. Two parishes, two little Norman churches, not more that 200m apart, one either side of the clearest trout stream I have ever seen, crossed by a small stone bridge that is centuries old.  The bridge is made of slabs of stone piled up and topped with a horizontal slab.  Very simple but very strong. It goes by the name of Keble’s Bridge. The village is made of old stone cottages with two very nice large stone farm houses and a most beautiful stone pub, where we had lunch.  Elaine’s family comes from Eastleach, that’s why we went there.

The Grand Union Canal near Soulbury, Bucks.  Not far from Tearle Valley, this canal was part of the backbone of the Industrial Revolution and these days long thin, brightly painted and decorated canal boats still potter slowly up and down the canal, opening and closing the locks as they go.

Shakespears’s Birthplace, Stratford-upon-Avon.  We’ve been there twice and had a tour through this house. Stratford is a charming town, but Warwick has a lot more genuine Tudor buildings and is much more authentic in feel.

The Tower of London. We went through there and I had a go at the warder about the Princes in the Tower.  I said the Tudors had turned on the publicity machine to blame Richard III and he said, “It was Richard III.” I saw I wasn’t going to win with that line, so I said it was his fault, that he was the jailer and he had let his charges be taken away to be killed illegally, knowing it to be illegal and therefore collaborating with the murderer. We glared at each other and then he turned to the much more polite lady next to me at the counter.

Churchill’s grave, Bladon, Oxfordshire.  This is quite a site.  There are families of Churchills and Spencers, here.  Winston Churchill has a big stone monument in Westminster Cathedral, but he is buried in this little churchyard in a village not far from Blenheim Palace, just outside Oxford.

The Horse Guards, Whitehall. On a warm, sunny day we watched the horse guards sitting still on these tall black horses. Whitehall is a wide street linking Parliament buildings with Trafalgar Square. When the Horse Guards change watch there is quite a ceremony, but when the men dismount, they are very stiff and sore young men indeed.

Morris Dancing.  We have several morris dancing troupes in St Albans and the city often hosts Morris dancing meets and competitions during the May celebrations.  There is a lot of drinking and a lot of fun and many of the troupes come from the Continent – more in the tradition of country dancing than actual morris dancing – but lots of fun for all that.  When we were visiting Redbournebury Mill a troupe turned up and it was there we first met Martin, the St Albans Town Cryer.

THE places in London: Regent St, Oxford St and Harrods in Knightsbridge. Famous for their lights at Christmas time. Famous for their shopping and their shops. Trafalgar Square, Picadilly Circus, Covent Garden Market.

Big Ben.  People usually call the tower or the clock Big Ben, but it’s actually the name of the 14 tonne base-tone bell that tolls the hours. The man who designed the clock was our own St Albans lawyer Edmund, Lord Grimthorpe. He also paid for and restored the St Albans Cathedral so that the building we see and visit today is the result of his work.  Some of the Victorians were remarkable men with huge amounts of energy and unbounded ambition and skill.

Fishing boats drawn up on the beach at Hastings. One of the first experiences we had of solidly, determinedly traditional ways of life. Elaine got second in the run to be the marketer for The Stade – the heart of this traditional fishing industry – but you don’t get any prizes for being second.  They didn’t want someone not English to do it.

Buckingham Palace.  This was the end point of my London Marathon and it’s always somewhere our visitors simply MUST go.  Outside the gates is the monument to Queen Victoria and the two huge statues facing the palace were given by New Zealand.

Knebworth House.  There are lots of gothic pillars and bits tacked onto the outside of a very large Tudor house not very far from here.  We have been there twice and have driven past it lots of times. Knebworth House was used for the filming of Batman and it has beautifully laid out and well attended gardens and grounds.

Hampton Court Palace.  We went on a trip there down the Thames with Ivor’s daughter Jill.  Christopher Wren did most of the work on it that we can see today, but the house is internally a Tudor building and majestic in its own right, though you wouldn’t really call it a palace, more a grand country house.  The gardens are just wonderful.

Warwick Castle.  Joni and I went there on a trip we did to Rugby and Stratford-upon-Avon.  It’s a magnificent building, owned these days by Madame Tussaud’s, started by William the Conqueror, with large round towers at the corners and a commanding view along the Avon River. Joni and I explored it for a couple of hours just before it closed for the day and there’s a tableau set up through several rooms of a visit by Winston Churchill when he was a young man. We were very impressed with the town itself.  Thelma’s son, Martin, lives there.

Hedge Laying.  Some of the hedgerows in England are over a thousand years old, including one near us, along Jersey Lane. The hegderow maker partially cuts through the shrub or branch and then bends it more or less horizontally, laying the next shrub over it and so on all along the row.  The top part of the hedgerow is tied with prunings. The hedges are usually kept about 5 feet high and the resultant woven hedge is stock proof without a single post except for those necessary to make and swing the gate.

Bluebells.  One of the most dazzling and magical sights you can ever see is the carpet of bluebells under the slightly greening trees in woodland open spaces in early spring. It is impossible to describe it and the effect is much too subtle to photograph because although you can see the massed display of blue flowers covering the ground, what the photo cannot catch is that the very air is turned blue. There is green at your feet and the view gets progressively bluer, the further away from yourself you look. The carpet looks about a foot thick and seems to float in the air.

The daffodils at Waddesdon Manor.  Waddesdon was the very first Great House we visited in England, a Rothschild mansion.  Our cousin Alec, Thelma’s brother, took us there.  We’ve been back to the village a couple of times and the last time there we bought a delightful copper and brass Victorian bed warmer from the antique dealer there, who knew the local Tearle brothers.  The daffodils cover very thickly some fields directly in front of the house and are a thick sea of yellow in spring.  Around us in St Albans there are long stretches of highway and city roads which are lined with daffodil yellow that have been planted by the council over many years.

Swans.  All the white swans in England belong to the Queen. On our own River Ver, very close to the cathedral, and out on Lake Verulamium, the white swans glide around and will accept bread from your hand if they feel like it.

Ashridge Forest, near Tring. Thelma took us here for a day out quite recently. The huge Gothic house here was built on the site of a 13th century monastery and it was here that Elizabeth I arrested her sister Mary.  Most of the trees here are beeches, native to England since the Ice Age.  The seat of the Rothschilds was here at Tring Park and we have also visited the Zoological Museum in Tring.  Thelma said that she and her cousins, including Jennie Pugh, used to walk and run through the trees and along the paths in this small forest when they were young. Thelma is particularly proud of her association with Ashridge Forest because it is owned and managed as a nature reserve by the National Trust and Thelma is a long-time active member of the NT, including working in this forest park.