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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.