Oh to be in England 1

Friday 24th August 2012, Normandy
The past three months back in England have flown by and once again we find ourselves back in Normandy at the start of our next round of Travels with Modestine. For those of you joining us for the first time we wish you welcome while for those faithful fireside followers who have kept us company over the years we welcome you back once more to travel along the by-ways of Europe where we hope you will encounter with us unexpected delights along the way. Of course, there is also the risk of a few less than delightful encounters but let’s not think about those too much. If we did we’d never set off travelling in the first place.

When we left you last we’d just reached home safely, but several weeks early, after Ian had his purse stolen in Cologne leaving us in something of a pickle. For once the insurance actually paid up for our misadventure, replacing our lost money and paying for replacement locks on the house! Eventually cards were replaced and life began to seem normal once more.

Our priority then was to get the garden into some sort of order. Nature can run wild when it has the chance and the constant rain over the early summer caused everything except Ian’s runner beans to run riot. Honeysuckle tendrils and ground elder roots were rampant and the potatoes, onions and carrots were hidden beneath a blanket of Jack in the Hedge, coltsfoot, nettles and dandelions. We are proud to say though, that by the time we left England the garden was transformed, glowing with bright patches of hydrangeas, fuchsia and monbretia. Now it is rhubarb that is taking over on the vegetable patch while Modestine is carrying a large bag of home produced potatoes and onions to keep Remoska busy as we travel.

Our overgrown garden in late May, Exeter

Oh yes, Remoska, our loyal cooking pot and veteran of many travelling campaigns, is no more! She exploded in a spectacular manner somewhere in Denmark. We brought home her corpse however and to our astonishment, the Lakeland shop in Exeter actually replaced her without charge! That’s pretty amazing service after several years of use on varying electric supplies across Europe! Now her descendant has become part of our team and seems prepared to offer us just as excellent a service.

It has been an exciting if damp summer in Britain. The last three months have seen both the celebrations to mark the Queen’s diamond jubilee and the hosting of the Olympic Games in London. This has meant we’ve seen more Union Jack flags and British patriotism than we’ve ever observed before around the country. The flags went up for the Jubilee and were still flying after the main Olympics when we left. The Games everyone knows about. The Jubilee, while marked with official activities centred on London, was also widely celebrated throughout the rest of Britain with street parties, children’s sports activities and village fetes. We saw more than one flag-waving scarecrow of HM Queen sitting in a wheelbarrow by the roadside at the entrance to rural Devon villages! In Exeter the day was notable for constant rain which definitely spoilt things. However, down at the canal basin and the quayside on the Exe, hardy Morris Men braved the wet to wave hankies and hit each other with sticks as the bells on their boots jangled and rain dripped from the brims of their top hats. A hurdy-gurdy player provided the music and pint-holding dads, children and damp dogs showed their appreciation from the shelter of the cobbled fish market awning. It was all good fun and very British!

Morris dancing, Exeter quayside

Our daughter Kate has been house-sitting during our recent travels while she works on the restoration of the dilapidated little terraced house she purchased down near the river. It is still not finished but it is gradually emerging as a clean and attractive Edwardian property complete with original fireplaces, wood-block flooring, panelling, and rustic-looking stained glass and stripped pine doors. Apart from seeing-in workmen while we were home, our main task was to assist Modestine in removing the detritus of mangled wood, worm-eaten skirting boards and rusty ironwork to the council tip. Now though, everywhere begins to look amazing! A kitchen, bathroom and shower-room have been created, the house re-wired, re-plumbed and central heating installed. The flooring glows golden pine, wooden cupboards have been stripped back, walls plastered, a new back door to the garden knocked through and the outside toilet door blocked off with original bricks reclaimed by Ian. Gutters have been replaced and new drainage installed. Kate planned and organised everything herself, employing her own team of workers. She has even learned the skills of plastering, brick-laying and carpentry along the way. With a very tight budget almost all the materials and furnishings have come from Ebay. She’s definitely found her niche in life but in the current financial situation, much as she’d love to do it commercially, she’s not giving up the day job just yet! We though, are so impressed at what she is achieving!

Dilapidated property, Exeter
Removing hazardous material from the garden, Exeter
Two days after purchase, Exeter
Front lounge, Exeter
Mother lends a hand with restoration, Exeter
One of many rubble collections, Exeter
Discoloured panelling and essential dust masks, Exeter
Back scullery, Exeter
Creating and dry-lining a kitchen, Exeter
Creating a bathroom from the corner of a bedroom, Exeter
Dining area nearing completion, Exeter
Lounge/dining area nearing completion, Exeter
Newly created kitchen nearing completion, Exeter
Newly created bathroom, Exeter

One of our first visits was up to Yorkshire’s East Riding – to Beverley where our son Neil lives with his wife Jeevani and our grandchildren, Deyvika and Indika. June was incredibly wet and it never seemed to stop raining throughout our stay. Venturing out one afternoon we got so drenched and the roads were so flooded we had to wade back through the waterlogged roads dragging Indi in her pushchair!

The Minster seen against a lowering sky, Beverley

Beverley is an ancient market town. It lies some ten miles from Hull and thirty from York. The nearest seaside is around 15 miles away on the east coast at Hornsea, sadly neglected, and Bridlington which can be rather charming.

Neil and Deyvi on the seafront, Hornsea

One Sunday morning we took a family trip into Hull, a city built on the Humber estuary and famed as the birthplace of William Wilberforce who did so much in Britain to put an end to the lucrative slave trade. Down near the port, with its many old warehouses, we discovered a canoe polo match taking place! It looked brilliant fun for those with no sense of the cold!

Canoe polo, Hull
Customs House, Hull

Our visit coincided with a reunion in York with friends made when Ian had been a student at Library school some forty years ago! We none of us looked as youthful as we had once been but otherwise we were all very much the same. It was a very happy occasion despite so few of us being able to make the day.

Reunion of friends from Sheffield library school in late 1960s, York

Before returning to Exeter we drove north to Wetheral, near Carlisle, to spend a couple of delightful days with Jill’s library friend Peter and his wife Jill. Carlisle lies just as far north as you can get in England with Scotland just a few miles further on.

Railway viaduct, Wetheral
Jill with Peter and Jill, Wetheral

One wet and chilly day we crossed the border to visit a small, private library set up in the 18th century in the village of Westerkirk out on the Scottish moors. It is the oldest public library still functioning in Scotland. The collections were established in 1793 for the benefit of local miners and received a huge bequest from the renowned engineer Thomas Telford who had been educated in the village of Westerkirk. He went on to construct some of Britain’s most notable bridges, canals, aqueducts, drainage projects and harbours. The library remains a free lending library to this day though the collections rather reflect the technical interests of the original miners and of Telford. One wonders how many people would choose to venture out onto the dark and lonely moors on a winter’s evening to return a library book! To visit we had to knock at a nearby cottage door to request the key.

Westerkirk public library
A brief history of Westerkirk public library
A history of the collection, Westerkirk
Inside the library, Westerkirk
Leather bindings, Westerkirk library
Peter and Jill using the collections, Westerkirk library

To make our day completely bizarre our friends then suggested we visit a Buddhist monastery higher up the valley of Eskdale towards Lockerbie, surrounded by heather, rowan trees and hardy Scottish sheep shivering in their damp fleeces. In the centre of the lake a golden Buddha sat in the lotus position beneath the head of a giant snake. At the heart of the monastery we took off our shoes and entered the brightly coloured temple where we sat on fat silky cushions trying vainly to absorb the tranquil atmosphere. It was all far too surreal. Outside, saffron robed monks and woolly hatted volunteers strode about carrying bowls of food, spinning prayer wheels as they passed. Volunteers work in the vegetable gardens and kitchens, or offer their labour to restore the buildings. Others simply stay for a few days to meditate and recharge their spiritual batteries. Any profits made from visitors are used to make a weekly mercy run to Newcastle to provide food for those in need. It’s a sad reflection that such a mission is still needed in Britain, even more shameful is that it is left to Tibetan monks to organise it!

Entrance to the Buddhist monastery of Kagyv Samyé Ling, Eskdale
Golden Buddha in the lake, Kagyv Samyé Ling, Eskdale
Prayer wheels, Kagyv Samyé Ling, Eskdale
Stuppa, Kagyv Samyé Ling, Eskdale
Pathway of prayer, Kagyv Samyé Ling, Eskdale
Temple, Kagyv Samyé Ling, Eskdale
Taking tea at the Buddhist monastery, Eskdale

Just into Scotland is the small town of Gretna Green. In Scotland the marriage laws were different than in England and in times past young English couples would flee angry parents to cross the border to marry in great haste. The church stands just a few yards into Scotland.

Gretna played an important role during the First World War. Far from the centre of war a factory was established on the banks of the Solway Firth for the manufacture of cordite, needed in the production of explosives. An entire town was established in a matter of months, with housing, shops and a pub. Young people, almost exclusively women, could earn good wages working in the factory though the work was highly dangerous. There was the ever present risk of an explosion and the materials used in the production of cordite were potentially lethal. The cotton fibres affected the lungs of the workers while the nitro-glycerine with which it was mixed by hand was highly toxic. There was though, no shortage of volunteers. The money was excellent. The writer Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle was so horrified by what he saw there on an inspection visit, he called the cordite “the Devil’s porridge”.

Mixing the gun cotton with the chemicals, Gretna
Accommodation provided for the workers, Gretna
Recipe for producing the Devil’s Porridge (cordite), Gretna

We returned briefly to Gretna the following day to make the acquaintance of Phyllis, somebody we “met” when she contacted us concerning something in one of our blogs. We have since followed each other’s activities with interest and we were excited to meet for the first time over a coffee in the town. Thank you Phyllis, it was a delight to meet you at last.