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.

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