Wednesday, 15 January 2014

it's chucking it down but DON'T MENTION THE WEATHER.

Welcome to Devon, England. Here you'll find cream teas aplenty, thousand year old country lanes and farmers of all kinds. Have fun, watch out for floods and remember, DON'T MENTION THE WEATHER.

We have been in the motherland for nearly two months now and we are learning ever more about our English friends. Like when it's raining it is actually 'chucking it down', if you want to do something you are actually 'up for it', tea preferred over water, you are allowed to put exclamation marks in the names of towns, a la Westward Ho! (I'm not sure what Westward Ho!ians do when they want to jubilantly welcome visitors to their town though...) and although the locals are allowed to be as derisive and moany about the (at the moment fairly terrible) weather, as a visitor you are most unwelcome to join in the chorus of whinge unless you want to hear 'this is England! What do you bloody expect!'. I feel it may be a bit of a sore spot. We are clever though so now when it is raining we just smile resignedly and say 'ahh well, we had that lovely spot of sun last week, no problem.'

Since leaving London we have been taking full advantage of the expansive hospitality of Will's distant relations, and meandering through Devon along the way. We have celebrated christmas England style: roast turkey and all the trimmings (including that odd English condiment, bread sauce) and pudding with custard and fruitcake and thousands of mince pies, danced in the new year in a barn amongst kids and dogs and wellies and a punk band, wandered down countless tiny country lanes that are so old the road level has sunk several inches below the fields on either side and so narrow that if two cars come upon each other one has to reverse until they find somewhere to pull in, drank warm pints of ale fireside in homely little pubs, eaten scones with clotted cream thick as butter and admired some beautiful cloudscapes. And spent more than one relentlessly rainy day getting our cabin fever on. It's all terribly English really.

Our explorations of Devon started in Halberton, a little hamlet near the thriving metropolis of Tiverton, about 3 hours south of London. We eased our way into country life with walks along the nearby canal and cycle rides in and around Tiverton, a town where there is no excuse for bad hair ("Tivvy" is no metropolis- that was my facetious side shining through- but as a relatively small English town it has no less than 7 hairdressers...we counted. And this is a recurring theme in small town England; apparently a complete absence of sun is bearable if one has perfectly coiffed hair). We visited Exeter, the nearest city, and wandered along its quay, admired the kitsch for sale at the christmas market and took a tour around the wonderful cathedral. Here we learnt about the cat that was employed, at one penny a week, to catch the vermin drawn into the church by the animal fat used to grease the huge mechanical clock and about why Americans should not be allowed to join group tours. We bought each other christmas presents then tried to forget what they were so we could be surprised on christmas day. We decorated the christmas tree and made lots of goodies to ingratiate ourselves with our obliging hosts.

As I couldn't come to England a fourth time and again miss one of its most iconic sites- and Will was also keen- we borrowed the car one Friday evening and hit the open road. After we had packed- the kitchen sink stayed in situ, but barely- I jumped in the driving seat and we were off. Well, I jumped in the driving seat, sparked fear in Will's heart as I panicked and "jokingly" clarified which pedal was which, and we were off!

Our plan was to sleep in the car and be at Stonehenge for sunrise the next day, as it was the winter solstice and something very clever is supposed to happen involving the sun and the stones and the shadows on the winter solstice at Stonehenge. Of course, the English sun is a little bit contrary and on this morning, to the consternation of the thousand or so people standing around in the miserable dark drizzle, it decided that the clouds probably had everything under control and it might just stay in bed. We did get an unexpected glimpse into paganism though as we celebrated the solstice druid style. For those playing at home, here's how it's done: first call for peace in all corners of the globe, then get everyone to chant together- this will create an eerily harmonious sound in the circle, then talk a bit, do some praying and beat some drums, smoke weed and be cheerful. Dress-ups are appropriate...unicorns, human trees and capes aplenty.
Pagans are a slightly odd bunch, turns out, but welcoming in the shortest day of the year with them in a huge stone circle in a field in England was certainly memorable.

However, we aren't druids and after about an hour the magic of the morning could no longer block out the freezing cold wind and rain and we jumped gratefully back into the car, turned the heaters to full and drove to Bath. 2000 years ago we would be eagerly heading for a day of pampering and socialising; preparing to have our skin scrubbed and scraped, our eyebrows plucked and our ears cleaned, to sweat in a sauna and re-energise in a plunge pool, and to gossip, giggle and flirt our way around the swimming-pool sized main bath. All the while in the nude. Fast forward several millenia and we are wandering, fully clothed, around a slightly more subdued bath-house complex guided by the disembodied voices of Bill Bryson and a knowledgeable English lady. We couldn't take a dip, unfortunately, but we did drink from the fountain of magical (very irony lukewarm) Bath water. We are now immortal.

Our appetites for local history not quite satiated we took a walking tour around the city and learnt about Bath: the making of. Obviously the presence of natural hot springs play a major part in Bath's history, in that there wouldn't be a city there at all if it wasn't for them (and those canny Romans turning them into a fashionable destination). The limestone found in the local hills is also a major player, being the main material for most of the old buildings.
Moving into the human realm, the city owes it's outstandingly aesthetic architecture to a father and son team named John Wood (elder and younger). They were champions of the Palladian style-elegant, harmonious, proportionate and balanced- and sought to turn Bath into the Rome of England. A square, a mansion and the foundations of the Circus- his magnum opus- later and John Wood the Elder died. His son took over, finished the Circus and added to it the Royal Crescent, which is considered to be one of the best examples of Georgian architecture in Britain- and speaking as someone with no architectural knowledge at all, it is amazing; a building that makes you happy just by being there. He was obviously pushing the right buttons; most of central of Bath is his work. We'll leave the Woods to their building and move onto the man who cleaned up Bath's society. Beau Nash came onto the scene in 1705 with his velvet and diamond rich wardrobe, his fortune made in gambling and his personable charm and transformed Bath. He commissioned a ball room, set in place a curfew so that people felt safe on the streets, introduced rules such as the one that forbade 'exhibitions of resentment from either gentlemen or ladies on the grounds that someone had danced out of turn'. Essentially he poshed up Bath, and he looked damn fine doing so...

"(Beau) wore his gold-laced clothes on the occasion, and looked so fine that, standing by chance in the middle of the dancers, he was taken by many at a distance for a gilt garland".
                                                                                                         Lord Chesterfield

100 years later Jane Austen ensured Bath would be on the future literary trail by making the city her home for 5 years and using it and it's society in Persuasion and Northanger Abbey.

Before we left Bath we visited another of John Wood's creations, the Assembly Rooms, a function centre housing some incredibly glittery chandeliers and the fashion museum, where we looked at lots of dresses and I got to see how uncomfortable women used to be back in the days of hoop skirts and corsets. The answer is very, surprise surprise.

Then with our brains heavy with new information we ran back to the car, made it within minutes of our parking ticket expiring and headed home to rest our fact-filled little heads. Christmas was mere days away and we needed to be bright and well-rested for all the eating and present opening to come.

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