blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

People and places

Where to start? People or places?

This trip was to see people rather than places. Although well planned in advance, it felt miraculous to see George (from Australia) meet us (from Canada) at the airport and then have our daughter (in England) join the three of us that same morning on the street outside NPL where she works; she had slipped out between meetings to give us a hug. That weekend, her sons seemed pleased to spend time with their rarely seen Uncle George who gave them a model Maglev train from Japan and taught them to play Chinese chequers.

When my mother was a girl in the 1920s, she used to have an exotic Uncle occasionally visit from Rhodesia, bringing candied fruits with him.

My mother is vague as to who came to call on her at the end of January, only aware that she’s “had a lot of visitors recently”, as she puts it. To see George delivering her Chinese and Australian gifts from that great distance and holding her hand was an important moment for me. My sister and brother-in-law, George’s cousins and 5-year old Phoenix also enjoyed George’s company that week; George kept Phoenix entertained with paper dragons and toy koala bears for hours and even, using the computer, created a movie starring Phoenix, what a thrill for the boy! One fine morning, Faith, Mel and Rhiannon took George down to Dunraven Bay where they had the beach to themselves and found fossils. They got back up the cliffs on steep ladders, near a waterfall that made a rainbow against the rocks. We had a congenial family supper at the Gwaelod y Garth Inn, despite the fact that at least three out of the seven of us were fighting the flu that evening. I shared some lunches with my mother too and one afternoon read her the poems she has written at various stages of her life, which awoke many old memories. When we said goodbye to her (perhaps for the last time in George’s case) she was feeling sleepy in her chair, stroking a stuffed toy hedgehog, didn’t quite realise we were going and so the farewell caused less of a pang than it might have.

February 1st, Chris and I took George to Goldcliff where our friends live; we were there last February too. Kay served us some lunch and Andy led us on a refreshing walk up a lane through the fields, beside the irrigation ditches, letting us appreciate the fresh air, the wayside primroses, and a familiar panorama of hills to the north. Then we drove through Newport to Cwmbran where we’d lived for over three years in the 1990s, although I was the only one in the car who recognised the streets there. The two men did at least remember the house where we used to live, at the top end of Wesley Close. There was no need to linger, so we pressed on to Abergavenny and Crickhowell in the Black Mountains, spending two nights under low beams in the attic of The Dragon Inn. We had supper at a rival inn up the street, The Bear, 500 years old.

February 2nd was a fine day for driving to Hay-on-Wye on the narrow old roads through the hills, through “the most beautiful landscape in the world”, as Chris called it. We stopped at the peaceful, enchanted little whitewashed church, no bigger than a cottage, St. Mary’s of Capel-y-Ffin, which Emma tells me she remembers, though her brother doesn’t. It has a dozen teddy bears of various sizes sitting on the front pew, a harmonium, a balcony with a crucifixion painting by David Jones on the wall, and a wonderful altar window overlooking the mountainside with calligraphy etched into the window panes by Eric Gill, saying the very appropriate opening words of the 121st psalm: I will lift mine eyes unto the hills, whence cometh my help. I can imagine wanting to be buried in the little graveyard outside, outside of time, where birds sing in the ancient yew trees. Across the road from the church an old fashioned phone box still stands, one of the few left in Britain, next to a whitewashed farmhouse. This tiny community was an artists’ commune in the 1920s; I gather it was primitive and wild in more than one sense. Some of the artists were suffering from PTSD after their 1st World War experiences.

Then we slowly rolled further up the Vale of Ewyas and across the Gospel Pass, snow on the hilltops, where wild horses roam. This was our last full day with George, from whom we parted at Cardiff Central Station at lunchtime on the 3rd, roisterous rugby fans milling around us on their way to a Wales-Scotland match at the Cardiff stadium. Back he went to New South Wales, with Chris and I continuing north on the trains to Manchester and York, seeing enticing views of the hills between Abergavenny and Church Stretton (under the Long Mynd), breaking our journey overnight at Shrewsbury. No family or friends there, though I had vague memories of a hiking holiday in this part of England with my parents and sister when we were teenagers. We stayed at the Premier Inn beside the bus station, opposite the river bank, quite a comfortable lodging. Despite the grey skies and rain, Shrewsbury city centre was an interesting place, with more tudor buildings still standing than in any other town in England, apparently. It has a red stone medieval castle, a mock tudor railway station that’s quite impressive, and an all-inclusive museum where I learned about Charles Darwin, who grew up here. I also found some good paintings there, including a watercolour by Turner of Shrewsbury’s English Bridge over the Severn as it looked in the 19th century.

Beyond Shrewsbury, on Sunday, the views were increasingly northern, the area around Crewe and people on the platform there depressed-looking. We changed at Manchester Piccadilly for the Transpennine Express to York, a fast train that took us through snow-capped hills. There was an atmosphere of fun on the train, with three ladies in their 60s returning from a wedding, in the seats across the aisle, proposing toasts with glasses of champagne. The steward with his Yorkshire humour kept announcing over the tannoy that “John” was able to serve us refreshments at the rear of the train, but couldn’t come through the other carriages with his trolley because of “all the loogage and too many bodies”! We came through Huddersfield and Leeds, the dark satanic mills still prominent features of that landscape.

We reached York on the afternoon, in time for Chris’ work meetings on Monday 5th. Once more we had a reunion with friends because Rob and Sally and two of their daughters live there; during the week we met Jenny, now working on a PhD at York University, and all of Bryony’s family. On Sunday Sally immediately took us for afternoon tea at the famous Betty’s tearooms, made us supper at her house and she and Rob joined us for two restaurant suppers (one at the York Assembly Rooms, now a stylish Italian restaurant) as well as treating me to lunch on Wednesday, my free day, when we walked right round the city walls.

On the Tuesday I met ghosts, including the ghost of my former self, by taking the train the Yorkshire Wolds country, from York to Scarborough and back, so that I could walk to the places I knew while I was a pupil at the Scarborough Girls’ High. I didn’t go to the school itself, but did walk with a rapidly beating heart past my old house and up Throxenby Lane to Throxenby Mere --- ducks, swans and Canada geese swimming there --- and the steep Raincliffe Woods; I went up Throxenby Lane in the direction of my primary school too, before catching a bus (from the same brick-walled bus-stop as ever) back into town, names and moments coming back to me all the way. Or is it a landscape of dreams that I remember? In town I rediscovered the harbour, the beach and the spa, only superficially changed since the 1960s. Even Boyes’ department store was still prominently doing business. Carol Boyes used to be in my class; I slept in a tent on her back lawn, once. From the beach I had a good view of the ruined castle and St. Mary’s large church where on one occasion I sang Faure’s Pie Jesu solo, having a job to keep in synch with the distantly placed organ. Half a century later, snow flurries filled the air as I climbed from the rockpools to the Italian Gardens in the South Bay.

My Scarborough day ended (back in York) with my attending Evensong in the Minster, which happened to be a special service on the anniversary of the Queen’s accession to the throne. The excellent Minster choir sang Handel’s Zadok the Priest as the anthem and the service was a fine quality setting by Gibbons. One of the psalms was Psalm 121, mentioned above!

Thursday, my cousin Wendy and my aunt Ruth were the people to visit, this time in Darlington, hardly more than half an hour’s journey from York by train. I could see the Sutton Bank part of the North York Moors to the east --- the stomping ground of my youth! --- and I think I caught a glimpse of Roseberry Topping. Wendy met me at Darlington Station and immediately said that I looked just like my mum. It was good to spend time with her after such a long gap. She took me out to lunch at an old pub at Hurworth Moor, called The Tawny Owl, which entailed a short drive through the local country, none of it familiar to me, although I must have been driven along these roads as a child, since all my mother’s relatives lived in this part of England. My lunch was an excellent vegetarian (butter squash) pie. We spent a while at Wendy’s house too where she showed me fascinating photos of my Victorian ancestors and some paintings by our grandfather that I don’t remember seeing before, and in the afternoon we saw Ruth in her house too, who couldn’t believe her eyes when she saw me. I look much older, apparently. (Well, it has been almost 17 years.) On her mantelpiece, she had a photo of George playing the cello.

That week I also paid two visits to York’s Art Gallery, described in a separate blogpost.

Our final day in Britain was mostly spent travelling to Heathrow where we stayed at the Ibis Styles to be sure of a quick getaway the following morning, not a bad hotel for the price, efficient, comfortable, and easy to access by bus, with quiet rooms, although the noisy background music at breakfast was off-putting in the extreme. We spent Friday evening with Emma, Peter and the boys at a Spanish restaurant near their house at Hampton Hill, whence the 285 bus took us straight back to the Ibis, taking half the time it did on the outbound journey during the rush hour.

It’s worth recording that our longer than usual flight from Heathrow to Ottawa took a northerly route over the southern tip of Greenland, to avoid over-strong headwinds, which gave us the chance to see the pure white scenery of that country from high above: the glaciers, sheer mountainsides and fjords dotted with icebergs. No sign of human interference at all, down there. It was worth seeing.

Elva and Laurie, like the faithful friends they are, met us at Ottawa airport and drove us home.

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