Dynnargh dhe Logh. Welcome to Looe. I didn’t see this sign until our last evening. But I did feel very welcome.
Our last night in Looe was just about as perfect as it could be. The previous days had been stormy, but massive rains left everything feeling clean and fresh (and flooded – there were floods throughout the area).
The early evening tide was very high, the fishing boats were coming in laden with mackerel and accompanied by masses of seagulls.
We walked up the cliff for pre-dinner drinks at our “lounge” in Hannafore, overlooking the sea. A last talk with the friendly bar tender (who is writing a book called “My Life Behind Bars”) Then as the sun was setting, we went down to East Looe for a dinner at Papa Ninos – a little restaurant that has only 5 tables and makes everyone in the room feel connected to each other. As a starter, we had the best mussels we’ve ever eaten. They were fat and flavourful with a Marinière sauce of white wine, cream, garlic, onion and parsley that was sublime. I’ve had this dish in a number of restaurants in the area, and I would have to say it was the best at Papa Ninos. I’ve included my Moules Marinière recipe if you want to try and make them at home, although I can’t guarantee that they will be as wonderful. Fresh mussels have been a revelation.
I had red mullet that was grilled to perfection, and Tim had Turbot in a pernod sauce that was exquisite. In our 12 days in Looe we had, between us, 18 different varieties of fish and shellfish. This dinner was certainly the cap to an extraordinary seafood adventure.
The harbor was dark and misty as we crossed the bridge to go back to West Looe and finish the evening singing with the locals in The Jolly Sailor. We’d been there the week before and were welcomed as old friends. The songs poured out, accompanied by guitar, bodrun, accordion, harmonica, banjo, recorder, penny whistle and that wonderful bottle cap rhythm stick instrument that probably has a name that I don’t know.
(sung to a rolling beat)
“It’s all the young fellows have gone to the city.
All the young fellows have gone to the town.
And soon they’ll be earning there double the money
Than they ever earned on the harrow and plow”
(sung to a sad and mournful tone)
“I asked them who
I asked them how
They answered you
They answered now”
“For Cornish lads are fishermen
And Cornish men are miners too
But when the fish and tin are gone
What will the Cornish boys do?”
We drank local ales and Cloudy Cider and bid a fond farewell to Cornwall.
Looking for day trips from Looe, we decided to go to Plymouth, about an hour’s bus ride away. For North Americans, the big thing about Plymouth is that it is the place that the Mayflower sailed from. Filled with Pilgrims or “English Dissenters”, the boat’s inhabitants were looking for a new life in a land of religious freedom. The rest, as they say, is history.
For the English, Plymouth was a major shipping port, and with neighbouring Davenport as a shipbuilding and dockyards town, the area was of great strategic importance during the Second World War. That, unfortunately, led to it being especially targeted by the Germans. The Plymouth Blitz consisted of 59 different bombing raids on the city and resulted in the destruction of virtually the entire city centre.
We arrived in Plymouth on a lovely sunny day. The harbor was busy with picturesque sailboats and tourists. It was the first day of English half term and there was a feeling of carnival in the air.
Our time in Plymouth was limited, so we decided to focus on the art exhibit “British Art Show 7: In the Days of the Comet”. The British Art Show happens only once every 5 years and is recognized as the most ambitious and influential exhibit of contemporary British art. There were 5 different galleries involved with the exhibit in Plymouth, so traveling to each of them would give us a unique view of the city.
Our first stop was to be “The Slaughterhouse” in the Royal William Yard. To get there we followed directions from the tourist information office that led us along the Grand Parade, a promenade along the oceanfront. Prominent on the waterfront is Plymouth’s Lido, and although I have always known the word, I never really knew what a Lido was: “A public open air pool or beach”.
Plymouth’s Lido is the “Tinside Pool”, built in Art Deco style 1935. It survived the bombings, but it was apparently a rather convenient marker for the German raids. A 55-meter diameter semi-circle stretching out from the cliff edge, the Lido has a large fountain in the middle. There are segregated changing rooms and terraces where orchestras used to play above the bathers. It fell into disuse and was closed in 1992, but it has since been restored to its Art Deco glory and was reopened in 2005. Although only open in the summer months, there were a couple of intrepid swimmers on the beach directly beside the pool. It was that kind of a day.
But as our walk progressed, the day turned cool and we went through other parts of Plymouth that have yet to be restored. In fact, we were surprised that the tourist office sent us along Millbank road, a very disheveled part of town. We passed by the marvelous but entirely decrepit Victorian New Palace Theatre. The New Palace Theatre opened in 1898, and most of the great vaudevillians played there over the years.
But after vaudeville it went downhill and became a bingo hall, a dance hall, a disco hall and eventually closed in 2008 in what much have been a rather spectacular drug raid. Judging from the trees growing out of it, I suspect the days of restoration are passed. I’ve found a photo blog by an urban explorer that shows some of the inside. (http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=64222)
Looks like all of the original Victorian fittings are still there, even down to the rigging for the fly gallery. It is horrible to think of something that beautiful being allowed to crumble.
After a much longer and uglier walk than we anticipated based on the directions from the tourist office, we arrived at The Royal William Yard. This is a fabulous renovation project, still in its early stages. The former army barracks are being rebuilt as luxury condos and the surrounding buildings are restaurants, stores and galleries.
We had a good tapas meal at the renovated Bakery building and the gallery we went to was in the old slaughterhouse. With a marina in the centre, this area is destined to become incredibly fashionable, similar to the Distillery district in Toronto. Except for one problem. You’d have to want to live in Plymouth.
Although the gallery itself is a gorgeous space, the art show was a huge disappointment. We travelled to the next location, and on and on, getting lost and frustrated as we negotiated the streets of Plymouth to get to the Art Gallery, the University, the Arts Centre and the Museum. Rebuilding after the war, much of the city centre is grey concrete and uninspiring. Much of the artwork, which is touted as cutting edge, is in fact idea-driven, technically uninteresting and empty. There are only a couple of the 39 artists whose work touches us in any way. George Shaw is up for the Turner Award and we hope he’ll win. He paints with Humbrol enamel paints, the kind used for models, and his work reflects the poverty of growing up in Coventry council estates. They are dark, lonely and melancholy. Wolfgang Tillmans has a huge photographic print (the size of a whole wall) that was made without a camera. He exposes photographic paper to points of light, creating textures and colour that are really uncanny.
By the time we had been to all of the art venues, the day was overcast, and so were we. Plymouth has no “feng shui”, says Tim. We caught the next bus back to Looe and treated ourselves to a wonderful fish dinner on the wharf at The Old Sail Loft. The Old Sail Loft is part of the “Fish Fight” campaign, fighting for sustainable fishing practices. http://www.fishfight.net/the-campaign/ We had a delicious meal of fish that had “extremely low food miles”. It was caught just off the coast by Looe fishing boats, and travelled only 200 yards from the boat to the restaurant. It was a perfect balm to warm us from the chill of Plymouth. We were very grateful for each mouthful.
The Eden Project has already reached mythic proportions. Conceived by a group of visionaries in the early ’90s, it has become, in 10 short years, a beacon of hope and inspiration around the world.
We travelled to The Eden Project by bus. If you arrive by public transit you get £4 off of the admission price. The bus drove through the small villages of Cornwall, into the middle of countryside, into the middle of an idea.
“There’s no rule book for a successful future, so imagination, creativity and enterprise are needed to try to find new solutions” (from the Eden Project Guide).
The idea – “to create a place like nothing anyone had ever seen before; a place that explored human dependence on plants and the natural world; a place that demonstrated what could be done if people who wanted to make a difference got together.” Tim Smit
With funding from the Millennium Commission, and a variety of public and private sources, the Eden Project bought an old, steep sided clay pit, 60 metres deep, with no soil. They filled it with soil made from waste materials (seriously, they worked with Reading University to make soil from mine wastes, composted matter and worms), populated it with a huge diversity of plants (“the plants that changed the world”) and built structures and infrastructures that have resulted in an astonishing educational centre.
We were greeted by one of the most wonderful horse sculptures I have ever seen, made entirely from driftwood and capturing the grace and elegance that is the essence of a horse.
Once inside the grounds we worked our way through the zig zag path of the “Outside Biome, the one with the sky for the ceiling”.
The plantings explore the crops used for food, fuel, medicine and materials. There is a whole section devoted to plants used in mythology. The project engages in “extreme gardening”, developing plants that will survive changing conditions, and, of particular importance for the Outside Biome, will develop strong roots to hold soil on slopes.
All of the displays combine stories with plants. Founder Tim Smits realized that “plants could be made far more interesting by weaving human stories around them, tales of adventure, emotion and derring-do” (from the Eden Project Guide). Everywhere we go there is information, stories and artwork.
The Weee Man is a giant sculpture created by Paul Bonomini made from all of the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment that one person throws away in a lifetime. He weighs 3.3 tonnes.
There is an outside stage for performances. Bands from around the world play in huge outdoor concerts at Eden. In the winter it is converted into a magical ice rink.
The “Inside Biomes”, constructed in huge geodesic domes, are the Rainforest Biome and the Mediterranean Biome, each with its own climate, propagating and cultivating the plants from those regions.
Inside the Rainforest Biome it is heavy and hot. With an average temperature of 25° C and humidity of 90%, the signs warn us to make sure we have water with us and not to climb too high if we have a heart condition. The Biome is divided into regions: Tropical Islands, Malaysia, West Africa, and Tropical South Africa. There is information and displays on crops and cultivation as we pass by banana, rubber and coffee trees, spices and waterfalls. We’re introduced to “Architecture Sans Frontières”, a program that designs and builds shelters for people in disaster zones. It is overwhelmingly rich, dense and authentic.
We took a lunch break in “The Link” which joins the domes. The cafeteria-style café has a range of wonderful food made on site – earlier in the day we could watch people making the pizzas and bakery items at long wooden tables. Wooden slabs functioned as our plates/trays and we loaded them up with Greek salad and broccoli, leek and cheese torte. Signs told us to remember what we have taken to eat and to pay for it once we had finished. A trusting and gentle environment.
The Mediterranean Biome is divided into the Mediterranean, South Africa and California. The air is cool and dry. We’re advised that the Biome doesn’t shield us from ultraviolet rays and that on sunny days we’ll need our sunscreen lotion. But it is autumn now, and I realized that the Biome is seasonal – we have not stepped into an artificial recreation of a hot Mediterranean day. Rather, it is autumn inside, as well as outside. This is not a recreation — it is a functioning environment.
A fish stew is cooking on the “outside” stoves. We see olive, lemon and orange trees, grape vines, a huge range of pepper plants. We smell sage and sweet scented plants used for perfumes.
There’s a great sculpture dedicated to a Bacchanalian feast. We don’t quite feel like joining in, but there are locally produced wines, should we feel like imbibing.
The “Core” is the education, arts and events hub, from which the project operates school programs. “It isn’t just a building. It’s a metaphor”. The building design is based on a sunflower and at its centre is a 75-ton Cornish granite sculpture of a seed that “plants a symbol of hope, to grow ideas for the 21st century”.
We finish our day at the visitor centre that sells Eden grown plants and a wide range of responsibly made items and foods.
Tim and I were overwhelmed by all of this. The design, the inspiration, the scale. Every detail has been clearly thought through. There are on-going projects and calls to action, but everything is done in a gentle and respectful manner, because there is an understanding that change can only happen through collaboration. www.edenproject.com
The weather has been, for the most part. “Sunny, with cloudy periods”. On one particularly sunny day, we decided to have a picnic.
There are wonderful local foods available here. Right up the road from the cottage, there is a good independent grocery that carries a range of local cheeses and specialty items. I loaded up with some Cornish “Crumbly” cheese (nutty and a bit cream/dry), Cornish Blue, roasted peppers, marinated artichokes, olives and a loaf of crusty bread. We got some locally smoked wild salmon, a little bottle of Cornish apricot Mead and headed for a rocky beach just east of Looe.
The sun was baking hot as we arrived. We settled into a sheltered rock face, kicked off our shoes and started to unpack the picnic. Admittedly, there were some clouds in the sky, coming in fairly quickly, but they seemed to fit into the idea of “ … with cloudy periods”.
We had just tasted the Mead (very yummy, tasting of sunshine, perfect for a picnic) and served up first helpings of fish and cheese when the rain started. There was really no place to take cover, and it looked like the rain would be over by the time we packed everything up. So all we could do was to try and save the bread from getting too soggy and the Mead from getting watered down while we kept eating.
The rain let up after about 15 minutes. We were pretty wet, but clean and happy. The hot sun came out, we packed up the sodden remains of the picnic and walked the hills to dry off before heading back to the cottage.
Our little cottage has no view of anything at all. It is a cute place, but it easily drives us to cabin fever. So we have adopted another “lounge” overlooking the sea for our early evening pre-dinner drinks.
Just around the bend from West Looe is the small community of Hannafore. Sitting high atop the ocean cliffs, with spectacular views, is the Hannafore Point Hotel. Large overstuffed couches sit beside the full-length windows of the bar. With few customers, we have the place entirely to ourselves. We settle in with books and glasses of wine to watch the sunset. A good, dry ending to the day.
Moors dominate the landscape of so many English novels. But it seemed like the only words ever used to convey this foreign setting were “desolate” and “windswept”. As a Canadian, this didn’t give me a lot to go on. So when Tim suggested that we head out to the Bodmin Moor (featured in Daphne Du Maurier’s “Jamaica Inn”), I hoped I could add few more adjectives to the description and be better able to understand this mythic setting.
Because we are travelling without a car, our choices are dictated by the schedules and routes of trains and coaches. The town of Minions is a little over a half hour away by local bus and as it is right on the edge of Bodmin Moor it was a good place to start our moor adventure.
Minons sits 1000 feet up from the sea level, so the bus ride from Looe was steep and twisty. The town was prosperous in 1863 when Captain Jack Clymo discovered a vein of copper ore. Over 4000 people were employed in the mines. But todayall that remains of the industry are over 20 derelict mines, dotting the moors. The town consists of two shops and small group of cottage homes.
The bus driver let us off with the reminder that there is only one bus out of Minions, coming through 4 hours later. And not to miss it, unless we wanted to spend the night in the moors.
The minute that we walked into Bodmin Moor, I realized that the first and best word to describe a moor was no other than “desolate”. And with the wind whipping our faces so hard that our words were snatched before they were heard, it was definitely “windswept”. Startlingly cold, spongy underfoot, with small tufts of gorse, it is the first place I have been in England that is totally open and flat. Your eyes play tricks on you. It is impossible to tell how far away or large the landmarks are. A 2-foot high marker can look like a distant tower. A slight roll in the foreground persuades you it is the edge of a non-existent river valley. I felt a slight panic at the idea of getting lost, and watched constantly for any markers I could see.
The Bodmin Moor has been a huge source of granite throughout human history. These days, it is primarily used for grazing ponies, sheep and cattle. The high area where we were hiking is dominated by “tors” (rocky peaks) and “clitter” (granite strewn slopes) and an exciting layering of history, both geological and human.
As we walked into the moor, the first thing we saw were the “Hurlers”, 3 Bronze Age stone circles, with 35 m diameters, grouped together.
Legend has it that men were turned to stone for playing “hurlers”, a Cornish game, on the Sabbath. A ghastly fate – I am not sure that even as a rock I would want to have to stand out on the Moor for eternity.
From the Hurlers, we walked up to the Cheesewring atop Stowe’s Hill. This precarious looking pile of rocks is a natural formation from erosion during the ice age. They are astonishing natural “sculptures” of the granite. They are an unnerving presence in the landscape.
“If a man dreams of a great pile of stones in a nightmare, he would dream of such a pile as the Cheesewring.” Wilkie Collins.
We decided that it was time to find somewhere a bit out of the wind to eat our picnic lunch, so we headed to one of the derelict 19thcentury mines, and managed to find a corner in which to eat.
Of course there wasn’t much protection when the rain started. Although it was really just a light misting, we decided that we wanted nothing more than a cup of tea and headed back to Minions to warm up.
We had a little over an hour before the bus, so we wanted to try to see Trethevy Quoit, about a mile away. We have a good ordinanace map, but not everything is marked so we followed directions from the proprietor at the tea shop at Minions. We left Minions at a brisk clip, passing “Long Tom” or Longstone, a medieval wayside cross by the side of the road, and headed along the country lanes.
We were determined to get to Trethevy Quoit, but knew that we had to get back to “Commonmoor”, just outside of Minions, to catch the bus. But we weren’t entirely sure where either Trethevy Quoit or Commonmoor were, and it was starting to rain. Panic began to set in as we ran. “Just one more corner. Just around this bend?” And suddenly, behind a couple of quite ordinary houses, was this huge 9-foot high stone structure.
Trethevy Quoit is a Neolithic portal burial chamber. Originally covered by a mound, it consists of 5 standing stones, topped by a massive (20 ton) capstone. One of the supporting stones has fallen into the chamber, and the capstone has since slide onto an angle, but it is remarkably in tact. It is thought that the Quoit was used as a burial mound or portal to the other world.
It was worth the run and the panic. And clearly the luck of the ancients was with us because we were late for the bus, but the bus was also, unusually, late and we caught it with 2 minutes to spare.
Back in Looe, we capped our day of Neolithic adventures by a night at the Jolly Sailor pub, just down the street from our cottage. The Jolly Sailor is Looe’s oldest pub and has been going since 1516. A group of locals assembled with guitars, penny whistles, accordions and mandolins to sing songs of love, protest, sea faring and adventure. Singing along, pint in hand, we felt a bit of Cornwall had definitely entered into our souls.
The coastal path from Looe to Polperro is well worn and friendly. Approximately 5 miles, the hike takes you along the cliff edge with magnificent views of the rocky beaches below. It was a gorgeous warm day of mixed sun and cloud, so, with water bottles and snacks in hand, we headed out.
We meandered through fields of cattle and yellow flowered gorse bushes (said to flower every month of the year), passing the occasional dog walker and being passed by more serious hikers and making sure to stop and breathe in the sea air.
We arrived in Polperro about 2 hours later, ready for a good pub lunch.
Polperro is an even smaller fishing village than Looe, with tiny houses clustered around the harbor. We were pretty tired and hungry from our hike and we headed to the first pub we saw, The 3 Pilchards. It is the oldest pub in Polperro, and has dark low ceilings and lots of homemade food. A Pilchard is a kind of sardine and was the catch that made Polperro a vibrant village in years gone by. Tim opted for the “2 Pilchards Plate” which, when it arrived, was a mound of shrimps, prawns, calamari, crab, smoked pilchard and mussels. I had ordered the Thai fish stew (a specialty of the house), but Tim’s plate was enormous and it took both of us to polish it off. The fish was some of the freshest I have ever tasted and went beautifully with Sharpes Ale, a local from Rock, Cornwall.
Because Polperro is small, the proportion of tourists on a fine Sunday was rather off putting, so we decided to travel on fairly quickly. Not ready to finish our hiking day, I suggested that we push on to Lansallos, which I had heard of in our search for cottage accommodations. We decided to walk along the roads inland from the sea to get there, walk back to Polperro along the coast and then take a local bus back to Looe in the late afternoon.
Going inland, Lansallos was about 3 miles away.
It was a beautiful country walk with tall hedgerows on either side of the road and picturesque farms dotting the landscape. Lansallos consists only of a few houses and a magnificent Norman church built in 1321 on the site of a Celtic chapel. An incredibly peaceful site, the Church is surrounded by a very old cemetery. One of the gravestones is dedicated to: “John Perry Mariner, who was unfortunately killed by a cannonball by persons unknown”. Poor John Perry was only 24 when he died, and the imagination boggles at this unusual death in 1779.
We saw not a living soul in Lansallos. “Benath Dew Genough Why” – “God be with you” in Cornish.
We headed back along the coastal hike. We probably should have found out more about it before heading off.
The hike from Lansallos to Polperro is, to say the least, a challenge. Some of the cliffs have steps to help the weary traveller, but they really serve to let you know how high or low you are going. 168 steps up, followed by 130 steps down, followed by… Tim kept chirping up “We’ve just climbed an 8 story building. That was 13 stories” etc. Not only that, but the path is right on the edge of the cliff. It is a severe challenge to anyone suffering from vertigo.
Thankfully, there are occasional benches to help you to recover between climbs. It was an incredibly strenuous hike, especially for two rather inexperienced hikers. But it was astonishingly beautiful.
Two hours later, with the sun just starting to set, we hobbled into Polperro to catch the bus back to Looe. Adding it all up, we put in well over 12 miles. Triumphant, we got back to the cottage, gratefully soaked our aching joints in deep baths, made pasta and curled up in front of a cozy electric fire.
As odd as it sounds, we decided to take a vacation from our vacation. We booked a cottage in Looe, a fishing village on the Cornish coast. Tim’s mission on this trip is to do a lot of walking on the coastal path and Looe, directly on the path, was advertised as a picture perfect English fishing village.
We left London via Paddington Station early on Saturday morning. The main train took 3 hours to get us to Liskard where we changed to a branch route to go to Looe.
The train to Looe was a tiny one-car train that went through leafy green woods, right beside a flowing stream. After 5 minutes of going forward, the train stopped and the driver left the front engine, walked through the train, and started driving in the other direction. We thought at first that he was heading back to Liskard, but apparently he was just going onto another track from a siding. Within another 10 minutes we were in Looe.
Looe is actually comprised of two villages – East Looe and West Looe – each wrapping around the small harbour. They were connected in 1411 when an estuary bridge was built. The current bridge was built in 1853. East Looe is the main commercial village filled with shops. West Looe is quieter and is primarily filled with accommodations.
Our cottage in West Looe is up a quiet, narrow, twisty street. It is a small two-story structure attached to a row house, and we enter below ground level. It is very dark (the bathroom is the sunniest room in the house) and has virtually no views out of any windows. But it is cozy and clean and private. It has a well-appointed kitchen, which is really the best feature as we are planning on cooking a lot of fresh fish.
The harbor is around the corner and to get to the shops in East Looe we can either walk around the harbor (about 5 minutes) or take a “ferry” (one man in a motor boat) for 40p (1 minute trip).
One of my favourite things on the West Looe side of the harbor is a dedication to “Nelson”, a distinctive, “one-eyed” Grey Seal who was well known along the Cornish coast for over 25 years.
He eventually “settled” on the rocks in Looe and the “Grand Old Man of the Sea” was apparently fed by local fishermen, villagers and visitors and was a great favourite of all.
After settling into Horton Cottage, we were anxious to walk about and get a sense of the town and points beyond. It was a warm and sunny Saturday, the tide was out and the beach was filled with families and laughter.
We walked a mile along the eastern coastal path to get our bearings, marveling at the rock formations and the quiet.
We hadn’t realized how much we missed vistas and fresh air.
Back in the village, we watched children set up around the edge of the harbor catching crabs just for the fun of it. They lowered little bait packages down into the water and then reeled them up covered in small (3 inch) crabs, which they put into buckets of fresh seawater. Inevitably, some crabs got away, and the kids squealed as they tried to catch them on the dock. The competition was in the number of crabs caught in any one lift (“Look, Look! I’ve got 5!!!). They were all released 15 minutes later.
Beside the dock, the tide was coming back in and so were the boats, laden with fish – John Dory, mackerel, lemon sole, crabs, halibut – to unload at the commercial market beside the dock. Looks like it has been a good day. Gulls cried overhead as we strolled lazily back to Horton Cottage.
You can get £12 tickets to shows at the National Theatre on the day of performance. They start selling at 9:30 in the morning, so you have to get there first thing and line up. So I got up early on Saturday and headed to town and got a ticket for the matinee of “The Kitchen” by Arnold Wesker.
Ticket in hand, I had a lot of time before the show. I decided I would head over to the Imperial War Museum, a 15-minute walk from the National Theatre. But as soon as I stepped out of the theatre, I was approached by a couple of earnest young men asking me if I would take part in the Aviva Insurance “You are the Big Picture” campaign.
I am a fan of Aviva. They sponsor the National Theatre Live broadcasts that have allowed me to see great NT performances while in Ottawa. For “You Are the Big Picture”, Aviva is photographing thousands of people and for every picture they use they are donating £2 to Save the Children. I was asked if I wanted to take part. Aviva had set up a tent outside the theatre, and everything would take place right there. A makeup artist would “Just give me a little Jeuge” (have no idea how to spell this but everyone said it – keep the g soft when you say it), and a “world famous photographer” would take my picture. I would be given an 8 x 10 glossy – all free of charge. Well I said yes, of course!
Inside the tent, all shapes and sizes of people were getting “jeugged” and treated like celebrities. We told that our pictures would be projected on the wall of the National Theatre that night. Appropriately “jeugged”, I went into the photo shoot, had a bit of chit chat (click, click), smiled affably (click, click), was told I was very photographic (click, click) and thanked. My photo is being sent to me in the mail.
My 15 seconds of fame being over, I headed to the Imperial War Museum for a dose of reality. The War Museum was opened by King George V in 1920 and is a “museum of social history, concentrating on people’s experiences of war, the way they behave in war and the impact of war on society.”
I wanted to go to the museum to see a special exhibit called The Children’s War. Focusing on the child evacuees during the Second World War, the exhibit gives a poignant view into war through the eyes of children. There are diary excerpts, toys, photos, evacuee kits and a recreation of a house from the 1940s to give you a direct and tangible sense of life at the time.
The British evacuation during the Second World War was the largest evacuation in history. By the end of the war 3.5 million people, mostly children, had been evacuated from their homes. They were primarily evacuated to the countryside in England but thousands were sent to Canada, the United States, South Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. Posters of the time exhorted mothers not to be tempted to bring their children back to the city:”Children are safer in the country: Leave them there.” It was an incredible exhibit and left me thinking a lot about Tim’s mother raising her 3 daughters in Gloucestershire during the war, while his father was in service. She always described their evacuation to the countryside as somewhat idyllic. For others, it was clearly a nightmare from which they never recovered.
On my way back toward the National Theatre, I came upon a market with just a dozen or so stalls behind the Royal Festival Hall.
I bought a wonderful Moroccan Falafel with spicy Harissa sauce for lunch. Seems every weekend that I am out and about in London I come across a different market. This one was a perfect transition from the exhibit at the museum to the play at the National.
“The Kitchen”, by Arnold Wesker, takes place in a kitchen of a large restaurant circa 1950.
It is a director’s tour de force where 30 actors portray chefs, waitresses, cleaning staff, proprietors all in a balletic harmony and disharmony of action. Very few theatres in the world could produce something on this scale. It is a restaurant that apparently serves 1500 for lunch, and you believe it as the orders pour in and chefs chop and cook in a flurry of activity, flirting and fighting. It is a United Nations of workers “backstage” in the kitchen, all of whom are struggling to find their place in post-war England. A mammoth study of character and movement, there is also an element of allegory. A huge and fascinating piece of theatre, it would take at least 5 viewings to see all of the action.
I treated myself to a quick “Autumn Cocktail” at the market as I headed back to the train to Surbiton to begin Thanksgiving preparations for the next day.
Thanksgiving is not celebrated in England, or anywhere outside of North America I realize. But I am pretty hardwired for a harvest celebration at this time of year. Maddy hasn’t had a chance to celebrate Thanksgiving for years, and Amanda Lunberg is American and was definitely up for celebrating, even if it was not exactly the right time of year for her. So we all decided to do a big Thanksgiving dinner with Peta. Bryan, Penny & Eric.
The Brits are fascinated by the details of the holiday, trying to figure out if there is anything special that we do other than cooking and eating. “We are thankful. That’s all. Thankful for the harvest. Thankful to be with family and friends. Thankful for a holiday.” To which Tim adds, “Thankful that it has nothing to do with presents”.
Peta helped us to set up the harvest table. Jo made fresh salsa from the French tomato harvest for our hors d’oeuvres. We cooked a large, free-range turkey and made all of the “trimmings” – stuffing, mashed potatoes, roast potatoes, roast onions, gravy, squash casserole and Tim’s fabulous red cabbage.
Maddy made broccoli casserole and her famous pecan pie (Bryan says she is not allowed in the house without one). Amanda Lunberg made delicious pumpkin pie and Penny made apple crumble from her apple harvest. Mid-meal we took a break and were entertained by Eric with photos of their recent trip to Turkey and Greece.
Bryan opened Cremant and we all got very noisy and thankful, together.
With Tim in Boston, I decided to take a trip to visit Annie Thomas in Bristol. We’d met Annie in France and liked her immediately. She teaches Language and Literature to high school students, helping them to get their “A” levels. Tim and I had been to Bristol in 1976, but I remember nothing about the visit save for a dim memory of pub with a parrot.
The weather was unusually hot and lovely. After lunch in Annie’s terraced backyard, we went walking along the Avon River.
Bristol is a port city that has checkered past. It rose to prominence when John Cabot (Giovanni Caboto) sailed from Bristol in 1497 and arrived at Newfoundland. Ah, a Canadian connection. A replica of his boat, the Matthew, was built to commemorate the 500thanniversary of the voyage, and it sailed to Canada in 1997.
The replica of the Matthew now sits in the harbor in Bristol, and it is amazing to think that such a small and delicate vessel could make it across the ocean.
Bristol became an important commercial port, but when I ask Annie what Bristol is known for she immediately says, “Slave Trade”. Bristol was on the triangle of slave trade that sent Africans to the New World to work the sugar, cotton and tobacco plantations. It is an infamous past that I see no acknowledgement of, although Annie says that all school children learn this history in school.
What I do see is a wealthy Georgian suburb, high in the hills, a sign of 17thcentury prosperity, built on slave trade.
In the 18th century, Bristol moved away from trade and developed as a prominent shipbuilding centre. It is still a working shipyard, although the boats repaired here are now pleasure crafts, not commercial vessels.
In recent years, the harbor has undergone a renaissance. Art galleries and museums have taken over the old warehouses, new flats give residents wonderful riverside views, and there is a profusion of small cafes and restaurants. There is an air of luxury, culture and fun.
On Sunday, the whole town seemed to be out enjoying the hot sun glistening on the water. On the water there were model speed boat races (really annoying with a terribly whiney sound), rowboats and sailboats.
Annie and I walked and talked, stopping for coffee at The Olive Shed, an outdoor café on the river that oozed garlic from a profusion of tapas choices.
We walked the entire perimeter of the harbor, passing the Llandoger Trow, the pub where Daniel Dafoe met Alexander Selkirk, the model for Robinson Crusoe. I forget to go and check to see if they have a parrot.
We headed up the hill toward The Downs. Bristol has 2 universities, and classes were due to start the next day. Consequently, the Downs were filled with university students picnicking, singing, drinking and gently smoking various substances. It was a peaceful, party-like atmosphere. We climbed up the Cabot Tower, which was erected in 1897 to commemorate John Cabot’s voyage. It gives an amazing view of Bristol and the lands beyond.
For dinner we went to Annie’s favourite, The Grain Barge, a ship converted into a pub. We sat on sofas on the deck of the ship and looked over the harbor, watching the evening lights come on and a crescent moon sink under the horizon. “Gert Lush”, which is Bristolian for “Really Good”.
The next day, Annie took me to Clifton Village, which is the wealthy suburb of Georgian row houses up the hill from the harbor. Because Bristol is built upon the hill coming up from the river, our walking took us on tiny streets zigzagging through the town. At the top of the town is the Clifton Suspension Bridge. Designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the 76 meter high bridge spans the Avon Gorge from Clifton to Leigh Woods in northern Somerset.
The bridge was completed in 1864, and the workers that we spoke to were doing some re-pointing that hadn’t been done in 50 years. One lane of traffic can go over the bridge at a time, and apparently 12,000 cars can cross every day. We walked over, fighting vertigo, amazed at the engineering marvel.
Bristol felt vibrant, beautiful and friendly. A city of 400,000, Annie boasted that she is able to walk to concerts, to the theatre, to her Italian, German and French classes, and to her work. And of course, she is able to walk down to the harbor, to enjoy dinner at the Grain Barge. A very livable city.
Summer came to London last week. Tim left for Boston, to receive the Boston Globe Horn Book Award for his book “Blink and Caution”. I was in a mood to enjoy the rare hot English sunshine, so I packed a small picnic lunch and set out for Kingston-Upon-Thames.
Kingston is about a 10-minute bus ride from Surbiton. It is a lovely market town and was, in the 9th and 10th centuries, the place where Kings were crowned. At least 7 different Saxon Kings were crowned there. Hence the name King’s Town.
In the centre of town there is a thriving market, with stalls selling fruit and vegetables, as well as a very good butcher, fish monger, cheese seller, a stall of olives and hot fresh pretzels. Last week Tim and I came to the market late in the day, when the sellers are practically giving things away, and we got the ingredients for a fabulous Roasted Sweet Potato and Fig Salad. I’ve included the recipe, because it was really unusual and very delicious. Back in Canada, figs are usually too expensive to consider for something like this, but we got 5 for £1 at the market.
On Friday the market was in chaos because there was a film shoot going on for a Christmas commercial. In the blazing summer sun the square was filled with film extras in winter hats and Christmas decorations.
The river, however, was not disturbed. There are walks all along the Thames, and they were filled with mothers with children, students, business people, retirees – everyone out enjoying the day, many clearly playing hooky. I went along to Canbury Gardens and sat on a bench under the dappled shade of a tree to eat my lunch, read my book and just generally watch the world go by.
A few lazy canoes, kayaks and rowboats. A canal boat. A small motor boat. A tourist boat. Everything and everybody was moving slowly, gracefully. The swans glided by, occasionally rousing themselves to fly 50 yards up stream in the hopes of better eating. When swans fly they only barely rise out of the surface of the water, and they paddle their feet on the surface as though they are trying to get some traction from the water.
Their feet make a great thwacking sound and, along the loud thumping of their wings, it is surprising how the sound of the movement of these ridiculously gorgeous birds is so noisy.
After my visit to Kingston I went into London to see the final performance of “Body of Work”, in which the sound of movement also plays a part.
“Body of Work” explores body issues and body politics. It is a 60-minute piece with five dancers of very different body types. They work together and separately to question how we relate to our bodies. The music ranges from a kind of African drum base to synthetic scratching, but one of the most striking sections uses the song “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow”. A dancer breaks off to dance a fearful and passionate response to the song. The other four dancers each take a corner of the stage and begin to draw on themselves with lipstick. You realize that the drawings are marks for a plastic surgeon – a circle and an X on the thigh; a nip and tuck of the stomach. The question in the song becomes: “Do I have to change myself for you to still love me, tomorrow?”
In another section, the dancers draw “seams” along their legs and suddenly are on catwalks, striking the numb poses of fashion models. They break off, bind themselves in plaster gauze on sections of their body, and thrust themselves back to the catwalk. There are images of pre-natal life, of self-loathing, of longing and desire.
Sometimes the dancers appear as 5 individuals. Sometimes they seem to be different facets of one person, fighting to come to resolution. By the end of the piece the floor is littered in discarded clothes, bandages, water and mess, but the dancers are in smooth calm white dresses that resonate classicism. They move as a supportive and aware group. There is no sound but their breathing.