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.
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.
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.
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.
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.