Monday, May 16, 2011

England Trip Friday the 13th - Rye, Icklsham, Hastings

Friday, May 13

It has been a lucky day. Once again the weather is clear and sunny with just a couple of small fluffy low floating cotton ball cumulus clouds to punctuate the blue skies. A leisurely breakfast overlooking the garden, and then off down winding roads of Sussex, stopping first at the waterside town of Rye. Its residents were known in the past as fishermen with a talent for smuggling on the side.

In the heart of town bumpy narrow cobblestone streets wind uphill from the old harbor. Many of the old houses are half timbered structures, the gaps between filled with wattle-and-daub covered with plaster and whitewash. At the roof peak of an old pub I see 1762 carved into the beam. Another building has a small plaque reading "rebuilt in 1686". Opposite the Mermaid Pub is a house named "The House Opposite". A block over the street running down the hill is just as narrow, lined with shops and houses just as old, but somehow looking more modern with its asphalt pavement.

The old harbor, really nothing more than bulkheads on either side of a small river no more than sixty feet wide is no longer a point of commerce. Slightly frumpy looking round bottom boats pleasure boats or those with retractable centerboards sit in the mud twenty feet below the quay waiting for the incoming tide to float them again. The active harbor is about three miles downstream where the water is consistently a bit deeper and the river a bit wider.

A short drive from Rye is the town of Iklesham overlooking soft green fields that roll down to the sea. Hidden from the main road, down a side street at the edge of town is "The Queen's Head", an old English Pub built in the early 15th Century. Dryed hops hang in bunches from old hand hewn beams that angle up to a peaked ceiling. An old bar angles across one corner of the main room, and bulls-eye windows transmit a distorted view of the world outside. We step down into a smaller side room where small dark oak beams support a low flat ceiling and take a table next to a wide fireplace. Each of us orders a different mid day dinner from the menu and a pint of nice dark ale to wash it down.

It is another short drive from Iklesham to the town of Hastings. There is still an active fishing fleet here, the only place in England where the clinker-built lapstrake round bottomed boats run directly up onto the gravel beach instead of docking. All was calm on the waterfront today, but when the surf is up it must be cause for considerable tension as each boat runs toward the beach, maintaining enough speed so that the waves will not swing the stern around, resulting in swamping or capsizing. As the bow crunches onto the gravel strand a crewman leaps off the bow with a line that is attached quickly to a cable that leads to the winch that will complete the landing. In order to launch again, a bulldozer with a special padded blade will push against the bow until the boat is re-floated.

A multitude of narrow black net drying houses perhaps twelve feet on a side and two stories tall crowd close together along the beach. There is room for a single road along the beachfront, and directly behind that eroded sandstone cliffs rise up sharply. A steep funicular railway car climbs at a forty-five degree angle up to the top of the cliff, balanced by a second car on the way down. At the top, a broad grassy ridge provides a sweeping view of the coastline to the west, past Bexhill and Eastbourne all the way to the silhouette promontory of Beachy Head jutting out into the English Channel.

Our mid-day meal had been so filling that this evening we skipped a regular dinner, opting instead for tea and a raspberry dessert.

Friday, May 13, 2011

England Trip - Jet Lag, a Steam Train, Bodiam Castle

Wednesday, May 8

I had staggered off to bed at 9:30 p.m. and fallen asleep right away. After about four hours, my body and brain, acting in concert said," OK, you've had a nice, long nap, and it's time to wake up!" Unfortunately, my half-open scratchy eyeballs confirmed that it was only 1:30 a.m. in Heathfield. I lay awake for some time, lying in bed and looking out the window at the setting first-quarter moon. I finally drifted off again, waking to the coo-COO-coo, co-COO-coo of wood pigeons in the tree outside the window.

After a leisurely breakfast the four of us climbed into the Vauxhall, a medium size British car made by Ford, and with Hugh navigating we set off for the town of Tenterden and a rendezvous with the Kent and East Sussex Railway. Partly funded by The National Trust's lottery dollars, and manned by a multitude of volunteers, a ten and a half mile section of old branch railway has been restored to working condition, complete with a large collection of steam and diesel engines, a variety of passenger cars, village stations, switches, and road crossings.

Nine vintage passenger cars were already hooked to the coal-fired steam engine which sat on the station tracks, softly hissing its steamy breath into the cool morning air. The stubby little locomotive getting ready for the day's work was an American made switch-yard engine, shipped to England in 1943for duty moving strategic materials and supplies during World War II.

We found seats facing each other across a table in one of the cars. The steam whistle gave high-pitched too-whoot, and with a surprisingly soft huff-chuff, huff-chuff and scarcely a lurch, the train glided out of the station.

The scenery was pastoral, the tracks at some points being bounded by willows and in others opening to vistas of fields with silly sheep, some of which stood gazing at the passing train while others bolted in panic from the mechanical monster that seemed to be pursuing them.

The track wound alongside a shallow, flat valley that showed evidence of being channeled long ago in parallel water-filled ditches where reeds were cultivated for use in thatching the roofs of houses. In other places there were expanses of flat flooded areas where we saw ducks and gracefully elegant swans paddling about. In fields that were dryer we frequently spotted brilliantly colored male pheasants strutting about, keeping watchful eyes on their drab mates.

There were green fields, highlighted with patches of yellow buttercups, and fields with acres of brilliant yellow mustard flowers, and off in the distance on the low rolling hills on the far side of the valley vast sky-colored slopes covered with blue flax.

Not being a trunk line railroad, each time we came to a road the train slowed and stopped, the way barred by a gate. The train man would hop out, trot over to the gate, wait until there was a break in the stream of passing cars and trucks, and then swing the gate across the road, opening the way for the train to pass through the intersection. Once across, the train would stop again and the process reversed, the train man opening the road to vehicular traffic while closing the gates across the train tracks. Boarding again, and with another shrill too-whoot!, we would be off again.

A forty-five minute ride through the countryside found us leaving Kent and back in East Sussex, pulling in to the Bodiam train station. We walked down the platform to watch the engine disconnect, back up a ways, and then switch to a parallel track to move forward again, pass the standing rail cars, switch once again and re-attach to the opposite end of the train for the return trip to Tenterden.

Only about four hundred yards away down a narrow, high-crowned road and across a small bridge we saw the towers and ramparts of Bodiam Castle casting reflections of themselves in the wide surrounding moat. A short walk, and soon we were crossing the bridge over the moat, passing under the massive portcullis and into the open grassy center of the castle. Now mostly roofless and floorless, with some walls crumbling, Bodiam Castle was built in 1385 by Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, characterized as "a soldier of fortune".

We spent several hours exploring the ruins. We scrambled into small outer defensive rooms with narrow slots for firing arrows. We wound our way up high, steep tower staircases that all spiraled to the right, designed to prevent invaders from drawing swords as they might make their way upward. We looked out across the green valley from the highest ramparts, trying to imagine what it must have been like to live here in a castle in the twelfth century or in a thatched hut in 500 B.C. when people were already here.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

England Trip - Gatwick, English Roads, Heathfield

Tuesday, May 10

The Sun has already jumped up from the eastern horizon, although my watch, still on Virginia time indicates that it is not yet 1:00 a.m. The cabin light comes on, and people stir and stretch, seeking relief from the cramped contortions of semi-sleep that afflicts most overnight air travelers. The flock of flight attendants emerge from their hidden nests, pushing carts of juice and coffee down the aisles.

By the time we have nibbled our way through mini-muffins with egg, a small banana, and a cup of some strange fluid masquerading as orange juice, we are over land. The random shapes of the fields below, sharply delineated by hedgerows, look almost like stained glass, done all in brilliant green. The pitch of the engines changes subtly and the ground begins to creep nearer as we begin the long glide to Gatwick.

As we exit from the long lines of the immigration and passport checks Hugh and Barbara are waiting for us with smiles and hugs, and the intervening five years since we've last seen them evaporate like mist under a warm Sun.

It doesn't take a lot of mental adjustment to accommodate to hurtling down the left multiple lanes of traffic on the M23 Motorway south, but Hugh soon exits onto one of the A roads, heading south and east toward their home in Heathfield. The motorways in England are similar to U.S. interstate highways, with broad multiple lanes. The main thoroughfares, all prefixed with the letter A before the route number are a different matter. All the A roads we've experienced so far are sinuous, with narrow lanes. There seem to be no road shoulders, and trees and bushes crowd to the very edges of the pavement. Speeding cars and trucks break off any encroaching young shoots, trimming the vegetation into perfect vertical walls that frequently make right angle bends at truck-top height to form dark green tunnels. Neither do there seem to be many restrictions on parking, and where roads pass through villages and towns there are often places where parked cars reduce the width of the road to somewhat less than one and a half lanes. It becomes a test of driving skill and bravery to determine whether you shall brake for the oncoming car or speed toward the single lane opening with hope that you will be able to cut back into your own lane before you have a head-on collision. Roads with a B designation are like the A roads, except that they are generally narrower, with perhaps more twists and turns. Of course there are more of these than A roads.

We arrive in Heathfield unscathed, and after being shown around Hugh and Barbara's beautiful house and spectacular garden, are invited to take a walk in the nearby woods. There are miles of woodlands within a few hundred yards of the house, and we quickly leave the bright sunshine behind, immersed in that wonderful slightly yellowish Spring green of newly leafed forest.

The breezes that dance through the treetops continuously open and close gaps in the overhead canopy, sending bright shafts of sunlight down toward the forest floor, spotlighting crowds of bluebells. Misty the dog is delighted to run free, hurrying ahead to investigate wondrous odors that our less sensitive nostrils cannot detect. There is no underbrush, and one can almost imagine long ago bowmen walking stealthily among the old tree trunks, stalking a deer.

We wander for awhile through open farm fields that stretch in rolling grassy folds off to the village of Mayfield a few miles distant, then plunge back into the cool liquid green of the woods. A short distance downhill we come to a steep embankment. We climb the few yards to the top, and are standing on the bed of an old branch railroad that was closed and stripped of rails and cross-ties almost 50 years ago. Following the railbed for a way we come to an old arched brick bridge that once carried a road across the tracks below. We scramble up the slope, cross the bridge, and head back to the house as the sun slides toward the western horizon.

The back of the house has large windows facing almost due west, look out over a green wooded valley and more distant fields all the way to the horizon. The evening is cloudless, and we stand on the back porch watching as the Sun, now orange and fading, touches the horizon and seems to sag, melting itself into a stair-stepped rounded pyramid, then shrinking to a red mound and finally a glowing sliver before sinking out of sight. We stay for a few minutes more, watching the shadow of the Earth begin to creep up the misty atmosphere toward night.

England Trip - Enroute

Monday, May 9

Hartsfield Airport, Atlanta is a city unto itself, figuratively if not literally. Its Concourses A through E analogous to busy streets, with shops, restaurants, and news stands lining the sides, scurrying pedestrians crowding the thoroughfares, all of them intent on getting to somewhere else as quickly as possible.
Boarding the big Boeing 767 that will carry us across the ocean, we shuffle slow-motion down the long narrow aisles and install ourselves in the small spaces where we'll spend the next nine hours.

     I love the beginning of any flight. Rolling down the taxiway, watching other planes ahead, the glimpse down the length of the runway as the pilot swings the plane into position for takeoff. I like the sounds, the mechanical whir as the flaps are extended, and the whistling, wailing sound of the engine turbines climbing through octaves toward full power. The best part is the moment when the brakes are released and the aircraft surges forward, accelerating down the runway, watching the nose lift in the moment before the sudden surge at the instant the wheels leave the ground and we leap into the air, watching in fascination as the ground falls away.

     Our flight path takes us northeast across corners of Georgia, Tennessee, West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York. By the time we are winging across Vermont and New Hampshire the sun, falling toward the western horizon bounces firey orange sunglint up toward us from lakes and rivers far below. At 35,000 feet the sky is always clear, with delicate gradations of color for sunset that fade rapidly as we race on eastward.
As we fly across the Atlantic we will pass through five time zones, and although we will land at London's Gatwick airport around 7:30 in the morning in England, our internal clocks will still think it is only 2:30 a.m.

Although this great circle route doesn't take us near Greenland or Iceland, there are some observable indications that we are flying a northerly path. I look at my watch, which tells me it's midnight, although the plane is rumbling on through some more easterly time zone, and already there is a ember-red glow in the north east as if that whole quadrant of the horizon was awaiting some celestial wind to fan it into flames. Craning my neck and spreading my hands to block the reflections of lights inside the airplane I can just make out the lopsided W shape of Cassiopeia, it's center point aiming vaguely in the direction of Polaris. By contorting a bit more I can just barely see it at the upper edge of the window high above the tip of the wing.

As we float eastward at almost 600 mph the sky continues its evolving light show, an infinitely delicate gradation of color from melted-glass orange though daffodil yellow and even a faint spring leaf green to robin's egg blue, mauve, and finally a rich purple high up.

Long before the Sun actually puts in an appearance the scattered light begins to reveal a vast expanse of faintly pink cotton-ball clouds stretched out below us, showing subtle variations in local wind currents that create swirls and eddies in the overall texture of the cloud layer.