United Kingdom – 2007

15 August 2007
The weather. This seems to be the main topic of conversation as soon as you set foot in England. I can’t really understand why because it is absolutely crap. It’s middle of summer and absolutely pissing it down. I’ve had better days in peak winter season in Cape Town, yet the consensus here is that it is not a bad day out.
Frankly though, I don’t give a toss what the elements are like outside; all I’m interested in right now is a bed. Last night on the airplane was 12 hours of complete and utter torture. I love my kids, but traveling through the night with a two and a five year old should be banned by some United Nations anti-cruelty charter. Robert, who was stretched out on the seat next to me, timed his kicks perfectly to coincide with me just about dropping off.

Thank God for in-flight entertainment. The movie “300” proved a delightfully violent interlude with visceral scenes of graphic action exploding on the small screen to keep my brain suitably occupied. I watch it twice, reveling in the unashamed blood fest of gore and bloodletting.

Heathrow is as Heathrow does. I queue with the other undesirables in a rank and unmoving line, then exchange monosyllabic grunts with an uninterested customs official. Fortunately, we’re being picked up by Ric, Cathy’s brother, and it’s therefore not necessary to wrestle the throngs and luggage onto the public transport network.
Ric, Rachel and their five kids (two sets of twins in there) live in Tunbridge Wells, a premium village sprawling within a woodland greenbelt approximately an hour south of London. This is like Tolkien’s Shire if ever you could imagine it, with moss-covered tree trunks and badger-padding footpaths and furtive foxes rusting for pheasant in verdant hedgerows.

16 August 2007

A day of urban adventure as I negotiate the South-eastern rail system into the heart of London. The British capital is as peculiar as the nation it serves, blending big city bravado and don’t-give-a-shit reserve with the occasional dollop of traditional English gallantry.

I have meetings with a couple of magazines and publishers, but my main mission for the day is to head onto Tottenham Court Road in search of a big zoom lens. It’s a great place to shop, with all the camera and computer shops in close proximity and many of them run by sharp-witted Indian families. Barter is the name of the game here and the sales talk is as slick as anywhere else in the world.
I end up buying a notebook after bargaining myself into an offer I simply cannot refuse, then duck into a pub for a pie and ale (and also avoid one of those inexplicable summer rain showers that seems to appear from nowhere).

I eventually locate my big mother of a Canon lens at York Cameras, a tiny shop near the British Museum. Tradition and courtesy seem to have staked a temporary claim here, holding the forces of consumerist capitalism at bay. Prices are reasonable and the well-informed advice comes free of charge and one can but hope the shop manages to stave off the inexorable march of chain store consumerism.

I manage a quick whirl through the British Museum, but it is a short-lived cultural interlude as I have to dash to make the train back to Tunbridge Wells. So it’s back into public transport crush, where you invade the personal space of people who find it bad form to make any sort of eye contact.

17 August 2007

You can’t visit the United Kingdom and not visit a castle, so we pile the Marais-Williams rabble into Ric’s massive people-mover (one of those space-pod vehicles with 3 rows of seats and drop-down DVD screens). We navigate country lanes past sheep-filled meadows and country pubs for 45 minutes, then muster the toddlers and tweens and teens for a friendly assault on the beautiful Bodiam Castle.

This National Trust site must surely rate as one of the most evocative castles in Great Britain. It was originally built in 1385 by Edward Dalyngrigge and its square turrets, green courtyards and wide moats immediately transport one back to medieval times. The kids (most of the girls dressed as princesses) run amok, and all I do for the next hour is play guardian angel up and down narrow, winding staircases and inside dark dungeons.

18 & 19 August 2007

I manage to fit in a couple more runs as I explore the rural surrounds beyond the borders of Tunbridge Wells and Frant. Although the weather remains grey and overcast, the woodland literally shimmers with a hundred shades of green. Oaks, alders, elms and trees totally unknown to me grow in profusion, turning my run along Partridge Lane into a magical fairyland mystery tour. Rabbits hoppity-hop, squirrels scamper, pheasants squawk and, if you’re quick witted enough you are sure to spot the occasional fox scampering across the road in search of prey. Green branches and boughs sprout skywards, bending in to enclose the lane within a verdant tunnel and it is as if I’m running within the green haze of a surreal dream. Knysna might be lush, but this is undoubtedly the Kingdom of Green.

As the token South African male, I’ve been volunteered as the resident barbecue expert and the mission for the day is to pull a good old braai out of the hat. Finding quality meat is easy enough, but paying in the region of R900 for lamb chops and a few burgers is bleak, even if you try to think in Pound terms.

Also, forget about the concept of a wood-fired barbecue – the real deal here in Tunbridge Wells is a shiny gas grill tucked away in the garden shed. Good thing there is a shed, because the weather is grim and end of story is an indoor braai. So there we are – me, my boet-in-law Ric and the Czech au pair’s boyfriend, sucking on Grölses lager and smoking out the shed. Not the best braai I’ve been to, but the meat’s good, so no worries.

20 & 21 August 2007

Littlehampton. God, what can I say. Grim, grimy, gray and cheerless enough to make you want to chew through both wrists. It is a rather unfortunate name in that the word “Hampton” in some of the English dialects is a euphemism for penis. So it is off to the town of “Littledick” where my mother-in-law rather grudgingly resides these days.

Now, spending time with an ageing, pessimistic and relatively confused mum-in-law is always a touch trying, but never more so that when it is in a dull and drab village purporting to be a seaside resort. I’ve not been subjected to the infamous Gulag prison towns, but they can hardly be less imbued with soul than the seaside prom at Littlehampton.

Lost-looking swans wander up from the mudflats to wheeze at toddlers in anoraks; boats flotsam and jetsam about on the river Arun, which exudes odours reminiscent of a disinfected sewer; a brash amusement arcade dispiritedly bawls out brainless tunes; and pregnant teenage mothers with hollowed cheeks and defeated eyes drag on their fags while staring at passersby from under heavily made-up eyes.

The fish and chips were good at least, but other redeeming features are few and far between. And the selection of on-shelf beers at Sainsbury’s knocks the socks off what is on offer at my local back in Cape Town. So I wander around the working class streets with the kids, gaze in incomprehension at the holiday makers trying to catch crabs along the pier and commit to a couple of plodding runs along the upper reaches of the River Arun.

22 & 23 August 2007

Time to trek north, so we tackle the M25 and A6 past London and Manchester into a region epitomizing the flip side of English culture. This is where Cathy was born and it is a tribal melting pot where Fab Four lyrics, football hooliganism, dour pragmatism and a gritty realism hold sway. If ever I had to live in the UK, this is probably where I would dig in and prepare for my personal war on atrocious weather.

“The North”, to paraphrase Stuart Maconie in his book Pies and Prejudice, “is something both powerful (like Newcastle Brown Ale) and attractively vague (like most Oasis lyrics). It is big and complicated” he says, “square metres of it are crowded, square miles are almost deserted, encompassing everything from Lake Poets and Lindisfarne Island to sink estates, ASBOs and Doncaster, the Aids Capital of Great Britain.”

To me, tripping along the A6 past Manchester is to travel into England the way I would like to believe it was 30 or 40 years ago. Life seems to be lived according to some unspoken code of honour, where people call a spade a spade and where working-class wit jousts with irony, sarcasm and affability in approximate equal measures. Shop assistants you do not know from a bar of soap call you ‘luv’, the accent comes across broad and craggy and the beer must surely be life sustaining.

We’re staying with Phil, an old-time friend, in a small village on the outskirts of Lancaster. This is a fetchingly solid city, brimming with honest stone architecture and sweeping green-spaces; big enough to boast some top-notch curry houses, yet small enough to explore on foot. The River Lune meanders through the genteel urban sprawl and canal boats cruise the waterways spider-webbing through the emerald hills and dales of the surrounding countryside.

Walk along the tranquil Lune Estuary and you will be transported into an archetypal English rural scene, with flocks of Dorset Horn and Hampshire Down sheep dotting impossibly green fields. Blackberries burst forth from tangled hedgerows, slate roofed farmsteads stolidly stake their claim amidst the moorlands and shuttered country inns and pubs dot quiet country lanes. It’s a bit like stepping into the pages of those English setwork books I had to read at school and I can somehow sense a connection through the generational gap to this place.

We take the kids to play on the vast marshes of Morecombe Bay, walking on to the shimmering mud flats from Bolton-le-Sands. Only a handful of professional guides know the tides and treacherous patches of quicksand lurk along this innocuous looking shore, so we do not venture too far onto the muddy plains. Beth and Robert, both feeling a bit better after punishing bouts of flu, strip off and go rudey nudey in the mud, cavorting like two tiny dervishes until they’re bedecked in dirt from head to toe.

I procure some organic, salt-marsh reared lamb from Red Bank Farm and we spend a gorgeous afternoon barbecuing with Cath and Paul. They live outside Lancaster near Cockerham village and the sunset over the rural fields makes for a glorious finale before my early morning flight to Russia.

(For Russian adventures, see Amazing Russia Journal)

1 – 6 September 2007

Lyme Regis is situated slap-bang in the centre of the south west of England’s Jurassic Coast. Now this is a lofty claim from the local regional tourism organisations and does not quite gel with the generalized image of flabby and overweight Britons eyeing the beach with a touch of trepidation.

And let me tell you, it is a sight for sore eyes. What I cannot grasp is the concept of coming to the beach and then gingerly scratching about like a tom cat in a dirty sand box. There are people on the beach here who would be over-dressed at a parent-teacher convention. Not far away from me, a guy in jeans, loafers, shirt and jersey reclines with his family, licking an ice cream while pouring some steaming Earl Grey from a thermos. This is weird, am I right?
The people who should keep themselves well covered, however, do not have the decency to do so. Southern Right whales would beach themselves here in Lyme Regis if they knew the amount of blubber awaiting them here on the pebbled stretches of Dorset. But now I’m being full of crap. The south coast here is truly scenic, and even though I came here expecting the summer holiday from hell, I grudgingly have to admit that this is beautiful.

The beaches are swathes of wave-kissed pebbles, soaring chalk cliffs top out high above the shimmering sea and the village itself is all cobbled streets and quaint cottages clinging to the rolling Dorset downs. Grassy knolls carpet the eastern cliff tops, while a dank, deciduous woodland rustles in glorious emerald abandon along the chalky ridges to the west.

I do daily runs into the kingdom of green, losing myself within an endless and seemingly sub-tropical forest swaying all the way to the village of Seaton. Or beyond, for all I know. Squirrels pheasants, rabbits, deer and just about every animal to ever scurry across the pages of a Beatrix potter book seem to flit in and out of the shadows, occasionally seen, sometimes imagined, but definitely out there.

It’s called the Jurassic Coast because its cliffs harbour gob-smackingly huge multitudes of fossils. I’ve not read the brochures or books, but I believe most of them are trilobites and smaller creatures agelessly suspended within the grey shale. And this is why people from all around the world come to visit this renowned World Heritage site.

We’re the exception, I suppose and we don’t get to searching for ancient, albeit tiny, dinosaurs. We do however pig out on ice creams, fish and chips, stodgy pies and the flagship Dorset Cream Teas with clotted cream. Most importantly, I get to spend time with Beth and Robert, running riot with the kids while the short-lived summer burns brightly.