September 6, 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 5

The Day I Went to the South of England

Trains are wonderful things, really.  At first I found it surprising how few people seem to drive in England; I'd expect that in London where mass transportation is so readily available.  But it seems true throughout the countryside as well, and why not?  When you have a railway system both as extensive and efficient (relatively-speaking) as the ones in the UK, why bother spending money on vehicular upkeep?  I really wish the US had a better train system than Amtrak, one that was even half as successful as those in Europe.  But I digress.

After Whooverville finished in Derby, I took the train south towards Littlehampton to meet up with Alan, my next guest host.  When I arrived I half-expected Alan to materialize outside the station to pick me up (he just seemed like that sort of person), even though he'd not said anything about doing so.  So when I didn't see him, I just assumed I was being presumptuous and went to grab a taxi instead. The driver let me off on a side street, directing me to the correct house.  When I got to the front door, though, the lights were largely out, you couldn't see the house number in the dark, and there seemed to be a name over the lintel that wasn't the name I was expecting so I became confused and started looking around the corner.  The taxi driver, apparently waiting to make sure I got in safely, saw me waffling and came out to point again, insisting I was in the correct place.  So I sucked it up and rang the doorbell.  An older couple answered the door, which confused me still further.  I hesitantly asked for Alan and was immediately ushered in while being told he'd just gone to pick me up.  Of course. Because that's generally how my life works.

After a brief flurry of explanations and texts to Alan to sort things out, his parents wasted no time in making me feel completely welcome.  So much so, in fact, that by the time Alan arrived back from the station I had already been plied with tea.  We all ended up chatting till 3 in the morning, during which I learned that Alan's father Fred had once been taught by none other than William Golding of Lord of the Flies fame (and by all accounts not a very good teacher).  So naturally I had to tease Fred about his class having been the inspiration for the book.  I also learned nearly everything there was to know about Alan's family, his parents clearly very proud of each and every member.  Afterwards I was shown sleepily to my room where I quickly checked my messages and then crashed for the night.

William Golding (photo by www.openlibrary.org)

A scant 4-5 hours later (sleep is for the weak when visiting Europe!) I went downstairs and was treated to my first ever "full English Breakfast."  It was delicious, I must say.  I could definitely get used to those!  Of course doing so would mean I'd never need to eat lunch again, but minor details, right?  After another couple hours of pleasant chatting with his folks, Alan and I prepared to leave for sightseeing in nearby Arundel.  I asked Alan's mum Barb if she could spare a couple of safety pins I could use to hoist up my jeans, which were starting to get loose, presumably from all the walking I've been doing.  (I'm going to be really disappointed if I haven't lost weight by the time I get home).  Anyway, Barb wandered off and came back instead with a whole hanger full of belts and handed me one.  Rather than loaning it to me for the day, however, she insisted that I just keep it because they had plenty.  It even had a Celtic-ish design down the middle.   I'll bet Barb was the cool mom when Alan and his brothers were in school...there's always a cool mom at whose house everyone wants to hang out.

Getting into the car next to Alan at first was just plain weird for me.  It's one thing to have a taxi driver on the "wrong" side of the vehicle, but in those instances you're in the back seat and not really paying attention anyway because you're too busy gaping at all the sights around you like a slack-jawed idiot.  So sitting up front on my usual side while Alan sat next to me busily shifting gears and zipping down the other side of the road was quite an interesting experience for me, especially for the first five minutes or so.

Inside Arundel Cathedral

Once in Arundel, Alan and I hiked up a relatively steep hill towards the local cathedral, which was built in the gothic style in spite of being constructed in the 1800s.  The cathedral was absolutely gorgeous, with lots of architectural detailing that really made it sing.  I enjoyed visiting it very much.  On the way to Arundel castle we stopped by FitzAlan's Chapel as well, where I saw an unfortunate sculpture of a knight's corpse in full armor and regalia, below which lay a sad, mostly skeletal little man, presumably meant to convey what happens after death.  It was like an awkward advertisement: "Welcome to our chapel!  You're going to DIE!!  Let us show you what the before and after will look like, in case there's any doubt!  Better start praying NOW!!!"  I also saw carving of a woman whose headdress made her head look disconcertingly like a Cyberman from Doctor Who; turns out she was a duchess/princess instead.  Not that Cybermen were ever all that particular about those whom they assimilated, mind you...


Tell me that's not a Cyberman's head...I dare you.

Next we went down to the castle proper and bought tickets to see everything including the medieval keep dated back to the 12th century in the time of William the Conquerer.  There we climbed up to the battlements for a stunning view of the surrounding area.  On our way back down from the keep we ran into a beleaguered father was standing off to one side, wearily warning folks that they were "about to get scared," at which point an adorable little blonde boy of around 2 would jump out of the stonework niche in which he had been hiding to throw up his hands and "Rawr" at people like a tiny little lion cub.  Needless to say I felt it my sacred duty to provide an appropriately terrified response and, between the two of us, Alan and I had the little boy giggling with triumph.  All the way down the stairs and across the bridge we could still hear him rawring at people; he was nothing if not determined and enthusiastic.  It was absolutely hysterical.

View from the ramparts of Arundel Castle.

Approximately eleventy-billion stairs and spiral staircases later we made it to the main part of the castle.  Turns out Arundel is one of the holdings of the Dukes of Norfolk, something I did not know.  In fact, later on during the tour I saw a copy of Queen Elizabeth I's execution order for Lord Thomas Norfolk for treason in trying to marry Mary, Queen of Scots...whoopsies!

In the main hall we passed a large display of some weird 3D heraldry statues, many of which depicted assorted disembodied limbs holding things.  I've never before thought about how odd those might look on someone's heraldry, but they're definitely bizarre when rendered three-dimensionally.  On all the walls were large portraits of assorted dignitaries associated with the castle.  I later learned the castle environs, especially this main hall, was used for much of the filming of The Young Victoria, not to mention being featuring in assorted other movies and TV shows such as The Hollow Crown (Henry V) and Doctor Who.

In addition to all the portraits I saw several gorgeous inlaid chests and cabinets scattered throughout the main part of the castle.  At one point I asked Alan if he thought I could get away with swiping one; he gamely agreed that there were so many one could probably go missing without anyone noticing.  Might be hard to get one through customs, though, so I forced myself to desist.

I rather lost interest in the chests once we entered the castle's library full of old books, however.  I must have looked like a kid in a candy store, all alight with the warm glow of bibliophilism as I stood there gaping at the endless tomes and having little bookgasms or while leaning over the velvet ropes as far as humanly possibly in order to better see all the titles behind their glass cases and to smell the heady aroma of musty old books.  Other people go to pubs to get drunk...all I have to do is stand in a library and inhale aging print as though it were literary marijuana.  Meanwhile, Alan seemed largely content to follow along next to me, no doubt amused by my child-like glee over all the books and architecture surrounding me.

As we wandered the halls and various rooms of the castle, I made several random jokes and observations (as I'm prone to do), such as that the banner over one person's head in a painting made him look like a Hershey's kiss.  Alan remained imperturbable, no matter what ridiculous thing popped out of my mouth.  During our tour we even got to see a room designed especially for a state visit by Queen Victoria and Albert in 1846, including some spiffy heraldic scrolls hanging on the wall that made me squee a little inside at how much they looked like the scrolls given out in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism).  I gather Arundel Castle was also host to the marriage of the future King Henry IV.  You've got to love Europe...history seems to overlap itself constantly as you move throughout the country.  What must it be like to have such a rich and pervasive past?  Small wonder if most of the world considers the US a bunch of upstart young whippersnappers.

On our way out of the castle through the gift shop.  Why must every tourist site everywhere trap corral you in this way?  It's like falling from Narnia directly into the town of Marketington.  Didn't stop me from purchasing a small book about the castle, though, which is a truly lovely edifice.

Arundel Castle peeking out of the treetops.

As Alan and I walked back to the car park, I discovered that I'd lost the sweater I brought and which I had slung over my purse strap in the heat of the day.  While it was my go-to, all-purpose "nice" cardigan, my feet were tired and I wasn't about to go hiking all over the castle grounds and up the steps to assorted parapets just to locate it.  I figured whoever found it probably needed it more than me, so I quietly consigned it to the charity gods and wished it well on its journey.

After Arundel, Alan took me down to the shores of Littlehampton to show off his hometown.  We stopped for tea in a little cafe sculpted to be reminiscent of driftwood, but which Alan informed me really looked more like a big dog turd.  Actually, he had a point.  After an enjoyable chat over the tea, I made Alan take me down to the beach so I could stand in the English Channel.  I don't know why, but I seem to have this thing about touching bodies of water whenever I can.  Endlessly patient with my quips and observations and photo ops and now this, Alan dutifully walked me down to the shore where I promptly plopped down on the shore to strip off my shoes and socks.  Getting to the shore proved a bit trickier than anticipated because of all the rocks, but I somehow managed and can now proudly say that I have stood in the English Channel and let the waters of the Motherland flow over and through me.  The water was cool, but not unpleasantly so; after a few minutes of letting the waves lap at my feet I waddled back over the loose stones to put my shoes back on, at which point I looked down at my now-sandy feet and realized I hadn't entirely thought this through.  Doing my best to be resourceful, I wiped off as much sand as I could with my socks, then put them on over the remaining sand and tied on my shoes.

Well, hello there, English Channel.

We then went a bit further down the shore and Alan walked me down a pier going out into the Channel.  Alongside it was a smaller passage of water where the River Arun comes down to meet the Channel; Alan pointed out where they had been building up the area with some nice flats and such.  I particularly enjoyed just standing at the end of the pier with Alan, looking out over the shoreline and the wide expanse of water sparkling in the sunshine while the sea breeze whipped through my hair.   I couldn't have asked for a more delightful afternoon.

The River Arun in Littlehampton, West Sussex.

As we walked back to the car park, Alan and I continued chatting about politics, genealogy, and our seafaring ancestors--pirates for him and Vikings for me (same difference, really)--among other things.  Once back at the house his mum made us a delicious chicken dinner, after which she insisted I have dessert.  Barb reminded me very much of my adopted grandmother, who was the sort to tell you how good you looked for losing weight even while shoving a piece of pie down your gullet.  Alan's mum wasn't quite that over-enthusiastic, fortunately, but the resemblance was still there.  When I told her she reminded me of a Southern mom, Barb zippily replied that she was a Southern mom...just from a different continent.  I can see where Alan gets his wit.  Barb also supplied me with my first ever Flake candy bar, which had become a bit of a joke prior to my visit.  It was good--definitely flaky and a bit fudgey in flavor.  The British have much better chocolate than we do...tastes infinitely less processed.

Flake refers to the cohesion of the chocolate, not the personality of the consumer.

Once again I ended up staying far later than intended, in spite of having to get up early for a sunrise Stonehenge tour in London the next day, but it was such a lovely evening that I just couldn't help myself.  Alan's parents are warm and generous and absolutely adorable together and Alan himself is a warehouse of knowledge.  I enjoyed my time with all three of them very much.  After a brief mix-up with my train schedule back to London because I fail at travel planning, they got me sorted and sent me on my way well-fed, relaxed and one new Tolkien book to the good.  What could be better than that?

Book swag from Alan.

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