England – spring 2010

Birds, Old Friends, Magnolias and “The Emmas”

2010-04-10 09-39-04 - IMG_2297During our, now annual, visit to England, as well as catching up with family and friends we managed to fit in many, many pretty good birding and walking opportunities … but more of them later.  This is not a chronological record of our travels – that would be boring for our readers, would it not –  but a series of highspots and observations that we can look back on in our declining years and go misty-eyed over.

We are experimenting with a different means of sharing our experiences with you.  The original idea was to fill these pages with artistic images – and indeed the original draft did look beautiful and artistic and you would all have adored it and gasped in amazement … Sadly, the file size was large enough to scupper a battleship and so we have resorted to Plan B which means that this document is primarily textual but littered with hyperlinks to small, mini-galleries of photographs that you can click on to see some illustrations of the places being so lucidly described.  So that the links work for you, we suggest that you read this on your computer rather than causing the death of a couple of trees by printing it out.  This may end up as something that the sign to the left (actually encountered on this visit) warns of … Let us hope not.

And so:

To begin at the beginning.  After a little over twelve years of NOT living in England we are beginning to find that some of the idiosyncrasies of the natives have been forgotten by us and to a degree this visit has been one of rediscovery.  So,  let us first consider the “Interchangeable Emmas”, the “British Martini” and the “Oldest Inhabitant” amongst others.

Dramatis personae anglicum.

In one of his several books,  the Englishman-of-letters Terry Pratchett introduced us to the “Interchangeable Emmas”.  We had quite forgotten these lovely, young ladies (originally, upper-class volunteers working at the Sunshine Sanctuary for Sick Dragons in Ankh-Morpork) who also are to be encountered working in shops and restaurants all over England but who have no true equivalent in Canada … England is replete with them, all identical with posh accents, private school educations and usually blonde hair plus stylish clothes.  For the most part that are quite indistinguishable from each other – forgettable eye-candy who seem to be employed more for their charms and pleasant demeanour than for their ability to do a  good job.

As an example, and one that also introduces the British Martini, let us relate the night we were staying near Huntingdon and went for a meal with a friend to The Cock, an excellent pub-restaurant that has deservedly won national awards for the quality of its food. It didn’t let us down foodwise at all and the Emmas were delightful to behold … but as we were studying the menus IE number one (IE-1) came and asked if we would like a drink to start with. I asked for a Manhatten, something of a classic that I expected a resto-bar with class could handle. She looked a little surprised but trotted off with the order. She returned … “Sorry, we don’t have the ingredients. Can I get you something else?” … I asked for a Martini and off she trotted again and even offered me the choice of three sorts of gin to choose from so I reasonably thought I was going to be alright.. After a pause, her identical twin, IE-2 came up. “When you ask for a martini do you mean a straight dry one?” “Yes”. “Errm, what would that be with?” … “Well, gin and dry vermouth of course”. Away trots IE-2 and then returns with the drink … “We didn’t have any vermouth so I’ve just brought you a dry martini, is that OK”. Well it was OK, if a rather puzzling statement, but it was soon clear that what had been brought was simply a shot of Martini Vermouth on ice – no gin. What is youth coming to when they have no idea what a classic basic drink is – even when I had told her what to put in it and she worked in a bar … OK, a pub bar rather than a club bar, but nevertheless. It’s not just the Emmas, though. Later in our grand tour, in an Italian resto in Sunningdale (again, excellent food) a martini was delivered in a tall glass with a straw! Red, sweet, vermouth and lemonade, no gin would you believe. Ye gods.

And so … we moved on to the Cotswolds where we met another great British stereotype. We spent three comfortable nights in the Shaven Crown Hotel in the village of Shipton-under-Wychwood (700 year old building, tenth oldest hotel in England, honey-coloured stone walls, terrific food, not expensive etc etc). When we arrived it was sunny and we fancied a beer and soon settled down in the walled courtyard with pints of Hook Norton Brewery bitter (one of the best) and were quietly watching the white doves that live there when “The Oldest Inhabitant” puttered out from behind a large wooden door and started to scatter a bucket of bird seed on the ground around our feet. Same thing the next morning at breakfast, there he was with his flat hat and bucket of cracked corn and seeds. Could easily have been 90 if a day and we presumed this was “his job” … and a very important one too. Every community should have an Oldest Inhabitant.

Not forgetting … twelve years ago one of the things that used to drive us wild was the poor service in shops and restaurants but we have been very pleasantly surprised in recent years to enjoy helpful, smiling, Canadian-style service almost everywhere (albeit, often in a Polish accent) and thought that the problem had miraculously gone away. Wrong. There is a service area on the main A1 highway north of Stamford that still maintains the tradition. We like to think it is unique, but suspect not. J went up to pay for a couple of sandwiches and found the till unattended. Over a period of several minutes three members of staff appeared to ask if anyone was serving her (one of them being the plumber who carried a mastic-gun in hand) before disappearing ane never being seen again. Finally a lady in charge was heard bellowing “who’s supposed to be on that till” and a sulky young girl – most decidedly not qualified to be an Emma of any species – appeared with the immortal cry of “Sorryt’keepyerwaitin’” in that unattractive neolithic accent of the English under-educated classes. Sigh, there is still work for the missionaries to do.

And so – lets’ visit some good places in England

Where did we go? The point of a travelogue like this is not to bore the reader, but to enlighten and to share experiences by means of well chosen descriptions and a few delightful photographs. Our tour was multi-locationary (if there is such a word) and we don’t intend to go into every minute and tedious detail. Instead, there follow some impressions of places we visited that you might like to consider when in this part of the world.

Fen Drayton Gravel Pits

An new RSPB bird sanctuary

Four hundred years ago the fens were a vast wetland full of opium consuming (it’s the poppies) yokels and millions of fish and fowl. Then some bright spark created the farming industry, Dutch drainage experts were imported, fertile fields appeared in the peat followed by massive soil loss as the winds dried the land and blew it out to sea. Then they discovered gravel deposits and started to dig big holes and now those holes are being reflooded and turned over to bird reserves. Not a solution to a problem that should never have happened in the first place but a step towards redemption perhaps.

The gravel pits that lie behind the villages of Fen Drayton and Fenstanton in Cambridgeshire were taken under the wing of the RSPB just two or three years ago and are starting to look very interesting. The lakes are bounded by trails from which the waterfowl can be watched while the trees and shrubs hold an interesting selection of small and pleasant birds such as the Reed Bunting, a particular favourite.

A full screen slide show can be seen at the following link or you can view a mini-version that is inserted below:

The Great Fen

Ambitious and bird-filled

The Great Fen project is a hugely ambtious attempt to bring back at least part of the great fen that used to occupyHissing Sid much of Cambridgshire and Lincolnshire a few hundred years ago before the agri-business people brought over some Dutch drainage engineers and turned the place into one giant potato patch. Two remnants (Holme Fen and Woodwalton Fen) somehow survived and the intention is to reconnect them by returning the intervening three miles or so of land to original fen landscape. Flat land, lots of water, extensive reed-beds and just teeming with wildlife and plants. A totally gorgeous place.

Buzzards, Kites, Hobbies, Kestrels, warblers and buntings everywhere, ducks and geeses of assorted species and Hissing Sid. Along one of the main trails we saw a female Mute Swan on her nest a few feet into the reeds to one side. Duly noted and admired, we passed on but later in the day on the way back to the car we found that Hissing Sid had taken up station on the trail next to the nest and nobody, nobody was getting past him. A male Swan in aggressive mode is a big and a powerful bird that can do you some serious damage and he looked intent on murder … So, discretion being the sensible thing, we opted to take a side-trail we had not explored and by-pass him. He ruffled his feathers and stomped about with a “tha’ll larn’em” attitude and we sank in the six or so flooded portions of our alternative trail. Very muddy, this fenland … The oldsters used to go about on stilts and now we know why.

A full screen slide show can be seen at:

Wimpole Hall

This is an ancient pile south of Cambridge now owned by the National Trust and once the home of Rudyard Kipling. The gardens really are rather splendid and we enjoyed a guided tour of them by old chum Penny who volunteers there throughout the year and is very knowledgeable.

The Wimpole Hall slide show is here:


We gave ourselves a few days away from friends and family and went to stay in the Cotswolds in an old inn that we had stayed in a few times fifteen years ago when we lived in England. It is one of the ten oldest hotels in England, dating back over 700 years. Once a royal hunting lodge in the Wychwood Forest and then taken over by monks it now provides very comfortable accomodation, terrific food and Hook Norton ales. What more could a chap want? Not as formal as it used to be but the breakfasts are as huge as ever.

Burwell and Stow-on the Wold

Burwell is a tourist trap, but a nice one with beautiful old stone buildings and a splendid setting right in the middle of the Oxfordshire Cotwolds. We have a couple of pictures for you if you do not know it.  Stow is also a tourist trap and typically Cotswoldish but it also has a very fine tea room where Jean started a new tradition by having, not a birthday cake, but a Lardy Cake.  Gloriously sticky and I hope to repeated annually henceforth.

Kelmscott Manor

William Morris and the Pre-Raphaelites

This is a gem. WM and his disciples lived here and did much of their famous design work and writing within its walls and grounds. In presentation, it is a little hushed-tones and precious and there are one or two too many reverential retired school-mistresses and majors acting as guides and wardens but for all that, WM did produce some wonderful work and the setting is perfect. It was in the cafe here that we met some more of the Interchangeable Emmas, including a useless Emma but the food was filling and the soup warm on a cold day.

There is a huge Rookery in the trees outside the house that we had fun watching (and listening to) that has been here as long as anyone can recall – very ancient bird real estate.

A slide show of the Cotswolds, including Kelmscott Manor can be seen at:

Batsford Arboretum

Magnolias and Cherries

This is a medium sized arboretum that everyone should visit in the spring. Depending on whether you believe their website of their brochure they have either 98 or 78 varieties of Magnolias, all of which were in flower on the day we arrived along with many examples of flowering Japanese Cherry trees of which this arboretum holds the national collection.

Here is the Batsford Arbo slide show replete with Magnolias:

Savill Garden

We discovered this totally wonderful place rather by chance. We spent the last couple of days of vacation staying with a young relative about 40 minutes from Heathrow and had intended to visit Windsor Castle on our last day and do some ruins and culture stuff like all good North American tourists ought to do … But after spending the first half of the day on phone and internet worrying about the effects of the Great Volcano Disaster on our ability to fly home we decided instead to visit the Savill Garden in Windsor Great Park.

Stunning. If royalty has any uses whatsoever, and frankly I think they don’t, then spending the money they ill-gottenly gained on gardens like this by way of compensation is the way to go. Clearly money is no object here and everything is perfect – simply everything. If you want to see what a garden can be then you simply must visit this perfect place.

Sadly, because of the volcanic stress we were under, the camera was forgotten but there are more than enough images of what to expect on their website –
see http://www.theroyallandscape.co.uk/landscape/savillgarden/

The Great Volcano Caper

… And then we made our way home. Despite the efforts of the UK air traffic system which had grounded all flights for a week. As we landed at Montreal airport the chief steward came on the intercom – “Science triumphs once again” to huge applause and laughter from the passengers.  This was followed (more laughter – and I paraphrase here) by “If anyone is thinking at all of ever flying anywhere again we hope you will remember that it was Air Canada that got you home safely”