Going to the Gallops at Newmarket

Anyone who is a real fan of horse racing ought to go to Newmarket, not only for the races, but for the atmosphere that’s so thick you can hardly see through it.  We’d had Newmarket on our wish list for years, but finally our wishes and the timing of our visit to England coincided, and we started making plans months before we left home.  Our friends Sally and Jack McGill, formerly of Sarasota, now live in Norwich, so we decided to take the last week of our stay in England and travel to East Anglia to see them and that beautiful part of the country.  They had never been to the races, so we bought tickets for the July 28 race meet at Newmarket for the four of us via the internet from home with a click of a mouse, quite a change from our first ticket-buying experience for Royal Ascot five years earlier.  Then, in order to get tickets for the Royal Enclosure on Ladies’ Day, we had to go through the U.S. State Department and submit a detailed application, together with a letter of reference from a public official who knew us personally.  Luckily, one of my good friends from my time in Oregon was the former Chief Justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, and he was delighted to write a letter certifying that we were respectable citizens and unlikely to embarrass the United States in front of the Queen.  For Newmarket, we only had to read the dress code for the Premier Enclosure (nice afternoon attire, hats encouraged but not required, no shorts, sneakers, torn jeans, or other unacceptable clothing choices) and decide whether or not we wanted to reserve places in the prix fixe restaurant or dine a la carte.

Because it rained during so much of our time in England, we hadn’t really taken advantage of our beautiful woodland setting.  But our last Monday in West Sussex, Clive the woodsman gave us a walking tour of the woods and showed us why he is so valuable to Pom and her woodland skills program.  He knows every plant and tree, every clearing and trail, and he can make a “living” fence simply by partially cutting through a tree branch and bending it into place, where it continues to grow.

Clive at work

He built a charcoal burner and makes charcoal every year, just as the people did in those woods six hundred years ago.  He has more woodcraft skills than we knew existed, using tools he fashions himself.  If we were ever in a nuclear holocaust, I’d want Clive to teach me how to survive and take care of myself.  He is truly amazing.

Treats for William

I gave William, the Irish cob, his daily treat the evening before we left Keeper’s Cottage after our five weeks’ stay.  He had become very friendly by then, and we knew we would miss him.  It felt strange to drive down the dirt lane from the house the next morning for the last time, not sure when or if we would ever return, but we took only good memories with us.  The weather, of course, was beautiful that day, as if to remind us that the summer’s rain had been all our fault.  We’d told the staff and the locals that they would have perfect summer weather as soon as we left, and it appeared that our promise would be fulfilled.

Because one of the most famous aspects of Newmarket during the summer is watching the horses — hundreds of them — walk from their stables around the town to The Gallops, acres and acres of rolling meadows on which the horses train every day, we drove straight to Newmarket and checked into our downtown hotel so that we could see the horses going to the Gallops early the next morning.

Misty morning on the Gallops

Newmarket is generally considered to be the birthplace of thoroughbred racing (in 1174, so if there’s a better claim out there, they’ve had plenty of time to make it) and now is home to more than fifty training stables and sixty-plus breeding studs, in addition to seventy trainers and three thousand horses.  One of the largest training stables at Newmarket is owned by Godolphin Racing, headed by the Ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum.  Godolphin’s distinctive blue racing silks are copied in the jackets of its exercise riders at the Gallops, as we saw.

Godolphin exercise riders

Racegoers from everywhere come to Newmarket to watch some of the best horses in the world compete on its two racetracks, the Rowley Mile and the July Course.

We love English racing, not only for the pastoral beauty of the setting, but because all the races are run on the grass, on wide swaths of green, green turf that blanket the gently undulating race courses.

Looking up the track

Some of the tracks have mile-long straightaways, which means that the horses don’t have to negotiate any turns.  It also means that a field of twenty-plus horses in a race is common, since no one has to battle for an advantageous position coming out of a turn.

Racing is mostly about the horses, of course, but the jockeys are the second most-important factor in this incredibly exciting sport.  We know that racehorses are great athletes because we can see their conformation, their musculature, their gait, their temperament.  But jockeys are, pound for pound, the finest athletes in the world, in our opinion.

Finish line ahead!

A good flat-racing jockey (as opposed to a steeplechase jockey) might be just over five feet tall and weigh 115 pounds, but every ounce of that weight is muscle.  And that small person has to control a 1,200-pound animal capable of running a mile in 96 seconds, using only his knees and hands, steering the horse out of traffic, not allowing the horse to use up its speed and stamina too soon, and staying aware of the position of every other horse in the race.  And all this while balancing on his toes in the stirrups, bent low over the horse’s back but never touching the saddle.  What these athletes do every day boggles the mind, especially considering the injuries all of them suffer during their careers.  There are more and more women jockeys nowadays, as we’ve seen in the U.S. in races our own horses have entered, and they are just as strong and tough as their male counterparts.

Before each race, the horses are saddled and led out into the paddock, where their owners are permitted to see them up close and where their trainers give the jockeys any last-minute instructions.

Final instructions

Every track has its own unique paddock setup — for instance, at Ascot the paddock is almost like a show ring, with seating around the outside of its enclosure where spectators can watch.  When the Queen has a horse entered in a race, she often goes into the paddock to talk with her trainer, which gives the rest of us quite a thrill.  At Newmarket, the arrangement is much less formal, with the paddock set in a rectangle just beyond the finish line and viewing areas along both of the long sides.  We like to get a closeup look at the horses before we place a bet on the race (not that we know much about what to look for), and then we make our picks.  I look at a horse’s pedigree, past racing history, and recent workouts, and if all else fails, I choose the horse by its name, the color of its coat (I’m partial to greys), or the silks worn by the jockey.  All very unscientific, of course, but sometimes it works.

Before the races at Newmarket, the four of us (Jack and Sally McGill, Gerry, and I) had lunch at one of the restaurants at the track, where a woman at a neighboring table offered to take our picture.  Sally and I wore hats, as did a few of the other women, especially the younger ones.

Lunch before the races

We saw several quite attractive young women that day, including one spectacular-looking example of why you need a very good full-length, three-sided mirror to check all angles before you leave the house in a dress that forgives absolutely nothing.  Luckily, she didn’t have a single bulge or blip to spoil the effect, and she was gorgeous, as well.  I don’t think either Gerry or Jack even looked at the horses in the paddock for that race.

Nobody came away a big winner that day, but everyone cashed at least one ticket, and we had a wonderful time.  The weather was perfect, with sun and fluffy clouds and a light breeze, and the horses were all beautiful. Racing may be called “the sport of kings,” but we’re very glad that it’s outlasted most of the monarchies and has become accessible to everyone.

Next, a brief look at historic Norwich and then on to Ipswich and “Constable country” and some of the English country houses in the eastern part of England.


Sussex, Part Two

We are four weeks into our visit to West Sussex.  News of the Olympics is everywhere, while Andy Murray’s Wimbledon disappointment has faded into memory.  He cried. . . he should not have cried. . . no one cares now.  That was yesterday.  The Brits move from one perceived sporting disaster and one fallen hero to another.   God help Luke Donald if he doesn’t win the British Open.  Curses on the head of any British athlete who fails to win an Olympic medal.  We read several British newspapers daily, and the headline on the front page is, invariably, “How will Britain do in ___ (fill in the blank)?”  And every failure is trumpeted scornfully in the press. The British press seems to particularly enjoy its “Schadenfreude”.

We are well settled into our West Sussex house in the woods, with only a week till we move on to our northward trek to visit our friends Sally and Jack McGill in Norwich.  Despite the three months of almost nonstop rain England had experienced this summer, our four weeks here have been wonderful, with lazy days of lounging, reading and TV-watching, punctuated by trips to the Tesco Superstore in Horsham or the shops in nearby Billingshurst.   Dinners are as often cooked at home on the Aga as eating out. Weather permitting, we go to one of the many National Trust properties in the vicinity and have visited beautiful gardens and impressive country homes.  We always try to have lunch at one of the “Top Pubs of England” during these trips, and have never been disappointed.  Food at gastropubs has only gotten better since we were last here in 2010.

Our day trips have included a visit to Petworth House, one of the homes of the great Percy family — the Earls of Northumberland — during the 17th century.

Petworth House

The house is full of magnificent paintings and sculptures, including two dozen or so works by Turner, who was given a studio in the house by his noble patron.  We’d been to Petworth during a previous trip, but on a rainy day the interior of the house is too dark to allow visitors to see the paintings very well.

JMW Turner

So this time we waited for a sunny day (there have been a few of those) and had a great experience.  Petworth also is home to an original copy of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, displayed in a glass cabinet in the middle of a room, open to the Prioress’ Tale.

Nymans, another nearby National Trust property, was the home of Anthony Armstrong-Jones’ (Lord Snowdon’s) mother and had the most incredible rose garden we’ve ever seen.

Nymans rose garden

The house itself is intriguing.  It was built on the bones of a very plain Georgian house in the early 20th century in neo-Gothic style, so it looks a lot older than it is.  A disastrous fire in 1960 gutted the main part of the house, including the Great Hall, leaving very romantic-looking ruins, which were not touched except to remove debris.


The 1690 country house Uppark has an interesting, if chequered past: The last remaining male heir to the place had as his mistress at one time Emma Hart, who later became Lady Hamilton and was the longtime mistress of Lord Nelson.  At one of the lavish house parties, she danced naked on the dining room table.  That same heir married for the first time — at the age of 72 — his 20-year-old dairymaid and left Uppark to her on his death.  And H.G. Wells’ mother was the housekeeper there in the late 19th century.  It was raining when we went to Uppark, and we weren’t allowed to take pictures in the house, so all we can do is tell you that it is very beautiful, especially considering the fact that a disastrous fire in the 1980’s, caused while repairs were being made to the roof, destroyed much of the interior.  Firemen rescued most of the furniture and paintings, but structural damage was severe.  One of the chimneys fell through three floors of the main house and ended up in the basement.  Restoration took five years, but the results are amazing.

We briefly visited Wakehurst Place, the garden allied with the famous Kew Gardens in London, and were impressed with the variety of trees found there.

Wakehurst Place walled garden

Giant sequoias stand guard along the paths, as well as many blooming trees we were unfamiliar with.  Wakehurst also has a water garden, complete with ducks and swans, and a carefully designed rock garden.

The grounds at Glyndebourne

We spent a very enjoyable evening at the opera at Glyndebourne, where we saw a superb production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola and had a terrific English country house opera experience:  drinks in the Long Bar, then the opera starts at 5:20, breaks after the first act for dinner, either in the Prue Leith restaurant or a picnic on the lovely grounds. The performance resumes after 90 minutes, and ends in time for the London train at 10:00.  Very civilized.

Inside Glyndebourne Opera House

The opera was just great, with wonderful voices, talented singing actors, beautiful costumes, creative sets, and a fine orchestra in the pit.  It had been several years since we were last at Glyndebourne, but we were reminded again of why it is considered one of the world’s best opera companies.

We stayed overnight after the opera at another beautiful country house hotel, Horsted Place, about two miles from the opera house.

The family that formerly owned Horsted Place were close friends of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, who used to spend weekends there with their family when the royal children were young.

Horsted Place

The house is beautiful and comfortable, and it must have been a pleasure for the Queen to be able to relax with friends and family for a few days out of the public eye.

Last weekend we went to a matinee performance of Shaw’s play Heartbreak House at Chicester Festival Theater, featuring Derek Jacobi.  Our seats gave us a great view of the stage, but we weren’t impressed with the theater’s acoustics.  We missed about 80% of the dialogue (except during a torrential downpour that drummed on the roof for  ten minutes, when we missed 100%).  If you can’t hear the dialogue in a Shaw play, you might as well be sitting there watching paint dry.

This week features a dinner at The Blue Ship, our local  pub, where we will host the entire staff who cared for our needs here at Keeper’s Cottage.  Amanda, our majordomo, whom we drove crazy with problems early in our stay and who takes care of us while running the Woodland Skills program; Clive, the woodlands manager; Darren, the gardener; and Yanina, the housekeeper, a Bulgarian beauty.

Beyond all that, we will go into London on the train to spend the day buying Olympic gear for the family as souvenirs, as John Lewis department store is the only official purveyor of official clothing for the Olympics, and Lillywhites has all the football (soccer, to us) gear for every Premier League team.

If possible, while we’re in London we hope to get tickets to the matinee performance of the play War Horse, which has been sold out for weeks. Occasionally, some tickets are turned back in to the box office, so we’ll drop by the theater before the show and try our luck.  Nothing lost, since we’ll be in town anyway.

And then on Saturday, we take the train to Ascot, where — all dressed up, LKS in her new hat, and GLS in blazer and tie — we’ll watch the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth stakes.  We’ve seen all the favorites run in other races, either in person or on TV, so this will be a great racing day.

We’ll catch up with you in Norwich next week.



A Change in Organization

In order to make this blog more user friendly, and to help navigate more easily to posts of interest, we have categorized our current trip journal as either European River Cruise or England 2012. If you click on one of those categories on the right side of the home page, all blogs pertaining to one or the other will be shown. Remember that the blogs appear according to the date they were experienced, so newer or more recently published posts may actually be found further down the list than older ones. Hope you are enjoying them. LOHR was published yesterday, and RHINE CASTLES should be up shortly.




Sussex Vignettes

Sometimes the best way to capture the flavor of a place is to recount several seemingly unrelated incidents that eventually add up to a complete picture.  So, in no particular order, here are some of our observations about Sussex.

Shortly after we arrived at Keeper’s Cottage, we drove into Billingshurst to take care of a couple of essentials.  After almost a month away from home, Gerry was in serious need of a haircut, so he went to the barber shop on the High Street that had been recommended by Clive (the woodsman at the cottage).  The price listed on the sign was £9.50, which seemed pretty reasonable — about $15.00.  But afterward, when he was presented with the bill, it was £6.50.  Gerry is aware that he doesn’t have as much hair to cut as he used to, but he was puzzled and asked why the price was so much less.  “You get the OAP price” was the answer — “Old Age Pensioner,” the British term for a senior citizen.

After we met Pom Oliver, the owner of Keeper’s Cottage, she invited us to come to dinner that Saturday at The Barn, the home base for her Woodland Skills program, which is about a hundred yards away as the crow flies, but a quarter mile by road.  Since it’s pretty muddy out here once you step off the deck, we drove.  Pom’s husband, Kent, was there, along with Clive the woodsman and Pom’s ward, a pretty young Chinese girl named Qiao, and her boyfriend, Dwayne, also Chinese.  The young people go to school nearby, and Pom is acting as Qiao’s guardian while she’s in the UK.  Kent is a charming, intelligent man — also a film producer, like his wife — and a terrific dinner companion.  He is looking into exporting wine to China, which sounds like a very interesting business proposition, and he asked us to give our opinions about some of the wines he was considering.  So we had a mini-tasting while Dwayne prepared the dinner (I think he hopes to have his own restaurant one day).  Pom and Kent are now working on a documentary about the famous Flying Tigers of World War II, which may explain some of their current interest in China.  It was a lovely, warm, relaxing evening, and we were reminded of how hospitable and friendly the English are toward strangers.

We have a family of moorhens by the lily pond — mother, father, and four round, fluffy black chicks that look like ping pong balls on legs.

Moorhen family

I’ve only seen the chicks once, very early one morning when I came up to the kitchen to make coffee and surprised the entire family having breakfast in the short grass off the deck.  The rest of that day, one or another of the parents periodically came close to the house and yelled at me whenever I made an appearance, warning me to stay away from the babies.  Moorhens are extremely protective of their young, we’re told, so I didn’t argue the point.

Deer on the path

There are brown bunnies and small brown deer in the woods, perhaps roe deer, and we see them from time to time, although never up close.  One of the does has twin fawns, but we’ve only seen the adults.  A few days ago, Gerry came rushing into the little study where I was working on the computer, almost too excited to speak: he’d just seen a fox on the mowed path through the woods.  At first, he thought it might be a dog, but then he saw the long, red, bushy tail.  Foxes aren’t very popular with the locals, I suppose, but we city folk are thrilled when we have the chance to see one.

Coming back from buying a newspaper at the nearest filling station a few days ago, Gerry had a confrontation with two young male pheasants who were walking down the middle of our lane.  They were determined to continue on their chosen path; and as Gerry drove very slowly up to them, they fluttered up into the air with a great beating of wings, flew ahead a couple of yards, and settled back down onto the lane in front of him.  Only when he actually bumped them gently with the car did they move off to the side of the road, probably muttering, “Big bully!” as they went.  When we were driving down the lane yesterday, coming home from the market, we saw two unusually-marked finches on the fence.  One flew up into the trees, but the other sat and looked at us for as long as I left the engine off.  Its light tan body, white rump, black and yellow wings, and black and white head with a bright red head scarf were so distinctive that we were sure the bird book in the cottage would identify it, and we were right.  It was a European goldfinch, not found in America, and it was spectacular.

Woodland path west of the cottage

One thing we learned the first time we rented a cottage here is that English houses, especially old ones, never have screens on their windows and doors.  Part of the reason is that the windows typically open out and are held in place by long rods at the bottom that hook over latches on the window sill.  But mostly I think it’s just a matter of tradition.  So in the summer, when we open the windows to let in the lovely soft air, we also invite in whatever flying insects might be in the neighborhood, mainly very large, fat flies with a very brief life span.  So every morning, the stone floors are littered with tiny corpses, which Gerry sweeps up with a whisk broom and dustpan and deposits outside.

We can always tell we’re in an English market as soon as we get to the produce department.  British strawberries and raspberries are in season now, and are selling at half price in many of the shops.  Beautiful leeks and small heads of cauliflower; fat pods of English peas; baby corn and broccolini and tender French green beans; a dozen different kinds of new potatoes; sweet bell peppers and fresh greens and cabbage and tiny crisp heads of lettuce — I could just pull up a chair and spend the day in one of the produce aisles.  There are some things you can’t get here, like tender, flavorful cuts of beef or most seafood (except for very expensive scallops and equally expensive — and small — shrimp), but we work around that.  The British still haven’t discovered how to make plastic trash bags that don’t shred on the way out of the garbage can, or paper towels bigger than a Kleenex, or zip-locking plastic storage bags, or decent dish sponges, or any kind of plastic food container.  On the other hand, you can buy very good ground coffee now — everyone uses a French press coffee maker —  instead of the instant coffee that was all we could find when we first started coming to England more than twenty years ago.  And no one makes double cream like the British — you can stand a spoon up in it, and it’s delicious.

Yellow roses in our garden

It’s rained at least a little nearly every day since we arrived, as those of you who watched Wimbledon will know, but we really don’t mind the rain.  The peonies have finished blooming now, but the yellow roses are very hardy and are putting on quite a display, rain or shine.  Wherever we go, the locals apologize for the weather, as though they were personally responsible for making the sun shine for us.  We went to the Blue Ship, our local pub, for dinner ther other night in the pouring rain; and as we blew in through the front door, a table of local residents having drinks in the bar cheered our temerity.

People are beginning to recognize us now: the cashiers at Budgens, the grocery store in the village; the clerk in the wine shop; the owner and his wife at the Blue Ship (she gives us a big hug now when we come in for dinner); the woman who owns the little bakery and sells decadent sweet rolls as well as wonderful sandwiches; the young man who has the unenviable job of policing the car park that has only recently begun charging for parking, so he has to put up with a whole lot of vitriol from the locals; the guy at the till at Martin’s, the local newsagent, where we buy our daily papers.  This is just the way we like to spend our time in England, doing everything at a leisurely pace, so we can immerse ourselves in life here and feel less like tourists and more like semi-regular visitors.  With so much beauty around us, we need time to absorb it all.  Even a lifetime wouldn’t be long enough.


Keeper’s Cottage, West Sussex

In my last post, you may remember I mentioned that our rental car died once or twice before we got to Gravetye Manor, a glitch I attributed to my unfamiliarity with (a) driving an Audi in general, and (b) driving a diesel Audi in particular.  But a nightmare trip from Haywards Heath on the (naturally under construction) A272 — 30 minutes of stop-and-go driving, with the engine cutting out every time I stopped — convinced both of us that something was dangerously wrong with that car.

Once we finally, and very thankfully, pulled up in front of our home for the next five weeks, we’d decided to tell Alamo to come and get the Audi and bring us something that actually ran.  But all our frustration evaporated at the first sight — and scent — of Keepers Cottage.  When we walked in the door, we were greeted by huge bouquets of flowers in every room, mainly giant pink peonies, all freshly cut from the gardens that surround the house.  The fragrance of peonies has permeated the entire house, lasting for days.

Keeper’s Cottage

Originally the gamekeeper’s cottage for the large estate of which this property was once a part, the house has been sympathetically restored and enlarged by its present owner (more about her later).  The period cottage was built in the mid-nineteenth century and is thus quite a lot newer than the places we’ve rented on our previous visits to England.  But the agent with whom we’ve dealt for twenty years has never once steered us wrong, so when he said he thought we would love the house even though it is different from the ones we’ve lived in before, we trusted his judgment.  And we are very glad we did.

Keeper’s Cottage from the gardens

When the owner bought the property and its surrounding sixty-three acres, the cottage was virtually in ruins, with no roof and no discernable charm.  But the woodland setting was, even then, incomparable, and someone with vision and style could see the potential in the bones of this small house.Now, surrounded by a stone wall enclosing the most beautiful flower garden of any house we’ve rented, the cottage is a delight.  Massive flagstones wander unevenly across the floor, and mullioned windows in the small dining room frame the yellow roses in the garden like a Monet painting.  Light green walls and cream-painted woodwork give the rooms a springlike atmosphere, and the furnishings are both eclectic and comfortable.

But this isn’t the part of the house where we spend most of our time.  There were long-disused dog kennels and runs on the property, so (using the original footprint) the new owner obtained planning permission and designed and built a stunning modern addition linked to the old cottage by an all-glass conservatory.

The kitchen

The ground floor of the addition consists of one large, airy room encompassing kitchen, dining room, and sitting room, with walls of glass where all the windows and doors can be opened to bring in even more of the outdoors.  The kitchen has an Aga (that and a free-standing shower are really Gerry’s only requirements for renting a house), a brand-new glass cooktop, a dishwasher, a big side-by-side refrigerator, and more wooden countertops than even we can clutter up.  The sitting room has a huge fireplace, a big, comfortable sofa, three easy chairs, and a flat screen TV that gets what seems like every channel available in the UK, and has a DVR, so we can record programs — no, programmes — that are on too late for us to stay up for.

The sitting room

The master bedroom and bath are downstairs, in a cleverly constructed daylight basement with smooth concrete floors, a separate shower room, antique rugs, and a fascinating collection of art and collectibles.  There is a skylight in the ceiling over the bed (visible in the photo later on that shows the deck around the “new” part of the house), and we wake up to the prints of little animals and large birds on the glass overhead.  This morning, two glossy rooks competed for deck space, walking over the skylight and uttering loud challenges, accompanied by mysterious thumps.  Oh, and there are bookcases loaded with books all over the house, from very recent novels (like Hilary Mantel’s Bring up the Bodies, which I read just before we left home) to biographies and travel books and history books and anything you might be interested in.  The variety of the reading material reflects the wide-ranging interests of the owner and her husband, giving us a sense of who they are without ever having met them.

The house comes with staff, although they seem more like neighbors we’ve learned to like immediately.  Amanda met us at the house and took care of all our problems, large or small, with unfailing good humor.  She arrranged for the RAC to send a mobile auto mechanic’s shop to the house to see what could be done about the car.  She coaxed our laptop into better behavior and showed us how to do it ourselves later, if necessary.  She recommended a local barber for Gerry and a good dry cleaner when we need one.  She showed us where all the light switches are (no small thing) and how to call for help in an emergency.  Everyone needs an Amanda.

And we have a woodsman!  Clive, Amanda’s partner, is apparently capable of doing everything.  He takes care of the chickens and the horse (yes, we have a horse) who live at the bottom of the garden, and he brought us two fresh brown eggs one morning, with apologies because the chickens don’t lay many.

Clive and William

The horse, William, is a 20-year-old Irish cob who used to pull a wagon, but is now retired to his own daisy-rimmed pasture where he keeps a close eye on the comings and goings up at the house.  Clive brought us a big jar of horse treats, and every afternoon I take a handful down for William.  He hears me as soon as I step out the back door and ambles up to meet me at the corner of the fence.  The first day, he shied away when I tried to pet him after I’d given him his snack, but now he lets me stroke his soft nose and brush his mane back from his eyes.  Clive and Amanda are also looking after the owner’s little dog, Duster, a small brown terrier who sometimes comes to the kitchen door if we’re visible in the room.  She gets treats, too, of course.

The contemporary wing

And now about the owner of this wonderful house: Pom Oliver is a most remarkable and unusual woman.  She and her husband are both independent film producers, and she was a member of the first all-woman team to walk to both the North and the South Poles.  Recently, shes been involved in establishing a woodcraft and woodland skills center on part of the property, and it seems to be up and running quite successfully.  For more information on Pom and her team and what they do here in these beautiful woods, go to their web site:  She came over for coffee a couple of days after we arrived, and we enjoyed meeting and talking with her enormously.  We look forward to a longer get-together in the future with both Pom and her husband.

And now, finally, about the car.  A big RAC van arrived at the house our second morning, and a very nice young man checked everything he could without taking the car on the road.  So he asked me to ride with him while he tried to replicate the problem.  I was beginning to think it really was just me when we stopped at an intersection and the engine died.  After three or four similar experiences, we were heading back to the house to arrange for a different car when the mechanic, just to make sure, stopped a couple more times.  After the second stop, the car started up again on its own, and his face lit up.  It turned out that the engine is supposed to turn off when the car is stopped in gear with the driver’s foot on the brake.  As soon as you take your foot off the brake, the engine purrs back to life and off you go.  Aside from being extremely put out at the rental car people for not mentioning this tiny detail (of course there’s no owner’s manual in the car), I was so relieved to know what was going on that I could have hugged that Audi, mud and all.  So we kept the car, and it performs beautifully.

Next time I’ll tell more about life in the Sussex countryside.  Meanwhile, if you’d like to see a gallery of pictures of Keeper’s Cottage and its surroundings, click here.



Gravetye Manor, Sussex

For anyone who has been wondering where the posts are for the rest of our river cruise, I promise to get to them now that we have reliable internet access and a much less demanding schedule.  Cruises as port-intensive as ours was, from the Black Sea to Amsterdam, leave very little time for keeping a journal.  Add to that the fact that we were without a keyboard until we got to Vienna, and virtually without the internet from then on, and you can see why I got so far behind.

But once we boarded the plane in Amsterdam for the one-hour flight to Gatwick, we really began to unwind.  As we flew over the southeastern part of England, dropping in altitude by the minute, I could see the familiar green countryside spread out beneath us in a one-tone patchwork quilt of fields, hedges, and pastures.  I never tire of that view of England, especially on a beautiful sunny day.

Our luggage arrived on the baggage carousel without incident, and we collected our rental car, fished our big AA Road Atlas out of the carry-on, and set out for the village of West Hoathly.  Gerry navigates and I drive in England, except for his solo trips to the nearest shop for a newspaper, and it doesn’t take more than a few minutes for both of us to slip back into our routine.  Of course, unfamiliarity with the car (an Audi wagon with way too many bells and whistles) resulted in some hard braking, and the engine died at the rental car exit gate, but we thought it was just that I hadn’t relearned the finer points of right-hand drive and left side of the road traffic.

We are renting a house in the country not far from Billingshurst and Horsham, in West Sussex, and the term of our stay runs from June 20 to July 25.  Because of our internet problems, we hadn’t been able to make an online reservation for June 19, our first night in England.  The owner of our house had suggested Gravetye (pronounced just the way it’s spelled: Grave-tie) Manor, a country house hotel not very far from where we’re spending the next five weeks.  We didn’t have any information about it except that it looks beautiful, has an excellent chef, and is a member of the Relais & Chateaux group of hotels, no small recommendation.  And we didn’t have a reservation, so the chances of our getting a room at the inn were slight.

I followed Gerry’s instructions as he directed me along extremely narrow roads, all of which seemed to be undergoing some sort of construction project requiring the traffic to make a detour (without any road signs to indicate where we actually were); but quite suddenly we found ourselves in West Hoathly, the village outside of which Gravetye Manor is located.  A little further along the road we saw a nicely lettered sign telling us to turn right to get to the hotel.

Gravetye Manor

A long, winding, narrow road led us eventually to a spectacularly beautiful 16th-century country house, set behind flowering borders, with a walled garden on each side.  I couldn’t magine that there was a vacant room, but Gerry went in to speak to the receptionist while I waited in the car and reveled in the quiet of the countryside.

In a very  short time, though, a friendly and enthusiastic Irish porter extracted me from the car, collected our overnight bags, and ushered me inside, accompanied by a lilting stream of praise for the gardens behind the house.  We had been given, he said, the most beautiful room in the hotel, which would be ready for us shortly.  Meanwhile, would we please step outside, take a seat at one of the tables tucked away in various corners of the garden, and someone would bring us a drink while we waited.  Dazed and a little overwhelmed, we sat down on blue canvas chairs and let the pure perfection of everything we could see wash over us.

Gravetye border

The house, of warm grey stone with tall brick chimneys, was built in 1598 by Richard Infield for his bride, Katherine; and the initials “R” and “K” can still be seen carved over the entrance from the formal garden.  Set in a thousand acres of parkland, the estate managed to escape much of the political turmoil of the centuries and even today seems to embody a deep sense of peace.  Its most notable owner, however, should be given credit for giving this beautiful place its unique and enduring character.

William Robinson was one of the greatest gardeners of all time.  He was a pioneer of the creation of the English natural garden, a concept that has been admired and copied all over the world for over a century.  His books on gardening are still in print and selling well.  He bought the manor house and its surrounding thousand acres in 1884, and he created at Gravetye the kind of garden he had always sought to design, one that enhanced the natural beauty of its setting.

Peonies in the formal garden

We were reminded of the gardens at Upton Grey Manor in Hampshire, where we stayed five years ago, which were designed by the equally great English gardener Gertrude Jekyll.  She was an Arts and Crafts-era gardener, but we’re sure she must have known of Robinson’s work and even, perhaps, have known him as well.

Robinson lived in the house until his death, well into his nineties, in 1935; and during his time there, he made tasteful improvements to the interior (not following the trends of the time, fortunately).  He panelled the interior walls with wood from the estate and added “modern” conveniences like fireplace furnishings in the rooms.

Bee on poppy

Our room, interestingly enough, had been Robinson’s study, so the ceilings were higher than in the other rooms.  In the bathroom, there was a non-functioning fireplace, used as a design element, which had been discovered only when the current owner was doing a major-league interior renovation of the house in 2010.  The fireplace was inside a wall, so instead of removing it, they chose to feature it.  Between 1958 and 2004, the manor was used as a country house hotel, but nothing like the calibre of the present facility.  The owner from 1958 onward retired and eventually sold the property, and in 2011 a full-scale restoration began.  Brickwork, chimney, and roof repairs ensured that the manor will remain as it is for generations to come.  Redecoration has been carefully done so that everything retains the flavor of the origianl house.  All the bedrooms are named for trees that grow on the estate, so our room was “Holly.”

“Holly” tester bed

A four-poster tester bed, a window seat, glorious views through mullioned glass windows, plus more comforts than most homes offer — we could have happily stayed for a week.  Every good hotel provides a book in each room outlining the available guest services, but one entry in the book at Gravetye Manor speaks volumes about the unique nature of the place: “Individual deerstalking can be arranged on the estate.  Please speak to the receptionist.”

But the principal work undertaken by the new owners is the restoration of the gardens as envisioned and developed by William Robinson.  A staff of seven gardeners now looks after the property, one of whom always brings his beautiful dog, Vera,  to work with him.  When I was walking around for a last look at the gardens, he cut me a bouquet of bright red poppies to take with me.  Such a beautiful, welcoming place, and something we would never have found on our own.

Window seat at Gravetye Manor

Dinner, as expected, was a treat.  The dining room is small and elegant, with lovely paintings on the walls, fresh bouquets of flowers from the gardens on the tables, and a superb prix fixe menu of wonderful dishes.  Breakfast the next morning was equally delicious (Eggs Benedict for Gerry, “full English breakfast” for me), and then we made our leisurely way to The Haven and Keepers Cottage.

To see more of the house and gardens, click on this link.