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.

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