A Side Trip to Bristol

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 Matthew

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.

Georgian Row houses on the hills above the harbour

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.

The Bristol Harbour

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.

The Llandoger Trow

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.

Cabot Tower

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 Clifton Suspension Bridge

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.

Annie in the walkways of Bristol

Childhood wasn’t far. We took a bus.

In 1925, A.A. Milne bought Cotchfield Farm outside of the town of Hartfield in East Sussex. Although the farm is now privately owned, there is a public path and we are in need of an “Expotition”.

We arrived in Hartfield by bus from the town of Tunbridge Wells. Hartfield is a tiny village, listed in the Doomsday book of 1086. It is basically one street, with tiny converted cottages and two inns. We stopped at the Anchor Inn (built in the 15thcentury) for a pub lunch (Fisherman’s pie, locally made).

Pope's Cottage

Across from the Anchor Inn was “Pope’s Cottage”, originally built in the 13thcentury. At the end of the main street was a little sweets shop that was frequented by a young Christopher Robin.

Sweets Shop

Our pilgrimage begins at the sweets shop, where we are able to pick up a map to Pooh Bridge. Maps are available in English and in Japanese, as are instructions for how to play “Pooh Sticks”.

Tim stepping over the Stile

Our walk to the bridge takes us 2 miles out of the village, over wooden stiles, through sheep fields, along a public pathway bedecked with raspberry canes. The day is perfect, with billowy clouds against a bright blue sky and just a hint of breeze.

It takes us a leisurely 40 minutes, and as we come toward the bridge we see a beautiful tiny wooden door set in a tree.

A small door in the base of the tree

An inscription has long since worn off, but we can still see, at the top of the door, the engraving: “Mr. Sanders”. (“Winnie-the Pooh lived in a forest all by himself under the name of Sanders”)

Mr. Sanders

Beyond is the bridge.

Pooh Bridge

It was restored in 1979, and is solid wood, strong enough for the horse traffic that comes along this path. The sunlight dapples the river, showing a proliferation of small sticks on the downstream side.

Amanda plays Pooh Sticks

We add our small offerings into the pile, racing from one side of the bridge to the other to see them come through.

Back in Hartfield we have tea in the Rose Garden of the sweets shop (called “Pooh Corner” now). A perfect day. Some go to Lourdes. Others go to Pooh Bridge.

“Sometimes, if you stand on the bottom rail of a bridge and lean over to watch the river slipping slowly away beneath you, you will suddenly know everything there is to be known.” Winnie-the-Pooh

Goodbye to France, Hello to England

On our second to last night in France, Suzanne and Christian invited us over for dinner and I asked if I could make the dessert. I wanted to make a Tarte aux Mourres. Picking blackberries brings out an almost religious feeling in me. The deep purple, sun-warmed berries, bloated with juice, line all of the road verges. Such beauty. I love picking them with the sun at my back, hearing, just on the other side of the verge, the gentle snorting and snuffling of a large Charolaise cow.

However, there is a bit of treachery there. A bit of pain is part of the process. The thorns are sharp, and the roadsides are plagued with stinging nettles. These seem to thrive right beside the best berries. Tim says the experience is an important moral lesson –in order to receive this extraordinary gift, you will have to undergo a bit of pain. But it will be worth it in the end. And it is. We are just at the end of the blackberry season now, but Tim and I were still able to pick over a quart of blackberries.

To make the tarte, I approximated a recipe from memory that leaves most of the fruit uncooked – it is a great pie if you want your fruit to still taste really fresh. The recipe I have included works for any fresh fruit.

The meal at Suzanne & Christian’s was a true French feast – an extraordinary 5-course, 5-bottle meal. We began with some true Champagne, lovely tiny bubbles that whetted our appetites as we nibbled a local pastry and tiny tomatoes from Suzanne’s garden. Next was “Vin des Fossiles” from Saone-et-Loire. It is made from a grape I have never heard of – Auxerrois – and was crisp and light and lovely with our tomato tarte appetizer.  The François Pinte Aloxe-Corton was a gorgeous and rich Pinot to go with our thin Entrecot steaks. We fried these on a griddle at the table, with some shallots. Suzanne made a beautiful dish of aubergines, potatoes, tomatoes and Parmesan cheese. The whole mixture brought out the pepper taste of the Pinot. For the cheese course, Bryan chose a special wine from his part of Christian’s wine cellar – a Givry Premiere Cru 2000. The way that this wine went with the cheese course is impossible for me to describe. The cheeses themselves were correctly eaten in an order – the soft Brie, followed by the dry chèvre and completed with the creamy St. Agur blue. My Tarte aux Mourres was about 3” high, solid with the blackberries that we had picked that morning. A great success, it went perfectly with the Cremant de Bourgogne, 2008, Veuve Ambal.

Christian admits that they don’t eat in this true French fashion very often! We felt very spoiled.

The next morning I had one final class with Suzanne. I am deeply grateful for the friendship that Suzanne and Christian have shown me. After the class they offered me an aperitif, a Vin Doux Naturel. It is a Vallée du Rhône Grenache that is 16% proof, a slightly sweet, thick wine, served chilled. Not sweet and viscous like an ice wine, but very smooth and very earthy. They gave me olives and dried pork from the same region as the wine to taste as well. Just a little nibble to share before I left. I don’t think I have advanced much with my French, but there are so many wonderful things I have learned!

Christian and Suzanne and our aperitif

It was a day of lasts. I walked up the hill past the chickens, past Claudette and Robert’s to a last lunch on the patio. Bryan’s special Frissé salad. It is a simple, filling country salad of Frissé lettuce, Lardons (bits of pork), Comte cheese, and topped with a fried egg. Bryan keeps a big jar of home made salad dressing in the cupboard to pour generously over the top of anything and everything. Of course you sop up all of the salad dressing with fresh baguette, and wash it all down with local Sauvignon Blanc.  How can we possibly leave this heaven?

But we do, on an early morning TGV (Tran Grand Vitesse), from Le Cruesot to Lille, Lille to London. Our gorgeous Maddy is at St. Pancras station to meet us, to guide us and help heft suitcases to Surbiton, Bryan and Peta’s wonderful London home. With loving family around, we get down to the business of making the transition to a new phase of the adventure.

Jo, Peta, Tim & Maddy in the garden at Tolworth

Starting, of course, with a large, welcoming, meal.

Family dinner at Tolworth. The eating continues!