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.


About our European River Boat Cruise posts

For those of you who have been following my Tauck riverboat posts, I haven’t finished them yet, although I can see the finish line.  If you’ve had trouble finding them, it may be because I date them as of the date when we were actually in that city or at that location, rather than the date I post them on the web site.  The easiest way to find them is to go to our “Home” page and scroll down until you see the categories listed on the right side of the page.  Click on “Travel,” and only posts with that designation will come up.  Then scroll down through the posts until you come to the ones with the names of the cities we visited on the river cruise.  The more recent ones will be nearest the top, the older ones below (last to first, in reverse order).