We left France from Dunkeque and took the ferry to Dover in England. On the way from Dover to London we stopped at the Battle of Britain Memorial just prior to the 70th anniversary of the 1940 air battle, which Churchill determined saved Britain from the Nazis. A friend of ours was the son of one of the Battle of Britain pilots – Sir Geoffrey Page (now deceased), who was a driving force behind the memorial. Martin had visited the site on the south coast of England near Folkstone, just as building had started so he was keen to see the finished product. It was a very thoughtful place consisting of a main building shaped like a plane and sculpted grassy banks that look like a propeller from the air. There were a couple of Spitfires and a wall of names dedicated to the very young men (in their early 20’s) who fought in this famous battle.
1940 Spitfire at the Battle of Britain Memorial
We headed north towards London on the motorway and noticed on the south side of the highway hundreds, perhaps, thousands of trucks queuing to get into the Port of Dover and onto the ferry to Calais. This was ‘Operation Stack’. There has been lots of trouble at the Port of Calais causing chaos at the English Channel port. Wildcat strikes by port workers in Calais and thousands of migrants (mainly refugees from Africa and Arab countries) living in ramshackle camps waiting to jump on the back or underneath the big trucks in order to get to the UK. This is a big problem for the EU to solve, but it does not look like it will be resolved in the near future. In the meantime there is chaos at the ferries and at the Eurotunnel. We were concerned because we had to go back to France the same way.
We were facing a sea of London traffic – it was hot and took us about three and a half hours to get from Dover to Twickenham, through south London. It was our bad luck that there was also a tube strike and Wimbledon Fortnight (tennis) had just started. After a couple of days in near Richmond, which included a beautiful walk through Richmond Park, we headed up to Wisbech to visit my mum and cousins.. This is a Royal park, close to the centre of London, with wild deer, bird life, small lakes, lovely oak trees and horse riding. Beautiful spot – even on a hot sunny day.
Hanging out with my cousins who live on the Norfolk, Cambridgeshire border felt a bit like being in a couple of episodes of ‘The Archers’. For those of you who do not know this long running radio soap opera let me enlighten you.
‘The Archers’ is a BBC Radio 4 drama that has been running for almost 65 years. There is a new 15minute episode six days a week, with an omnibus edition on Sundays. It was originally designed to inform people about life in the country and the challenges and joys of life as a farmer. The action takes places in the fictitious village of Ambridge, in the equally fictional county of Borsetshire. The soap opera centres around the Archer family (started with Dan and Doris many years ago), their friends and neighbours, the issues in farming and the differences between working and middle class people in rural England.
Their country accents sound very much like my cousins who live in the rural farming area of the UK called the Fens. Although theirs is a matriarchal family (focused on two sisters and their husbands, their father, their aunt (my mum), children, grandchildren and great grandchildren), it is very like many of the characters on the Archers; they all work in jobs or small businesses (but not on the land), and live as multi-generational family within the small town of Wisbech (pop 30,000). Everyone in this extended family seems to be very helpful, supporting each other through difficulties and crises as well as celebrating together.
The charm of ‘The Archers’ is that it reflects ordinary families, their stories and rural life, which also includes such things as rooster’s cock-ado-doodling at dawn (which is about 3:45 around here at this time of year). My cousin Veronica has chickens and one very vocal rooster, which I have threatened with the words – ‘coq au vin!’
There seems to be no equivalent in Canada to multi-generation families living in one place (or in one program) because people tend to migrate more and it is rare to find five generations living in the same town. In Canada the stories of families are much more about where people move from and to, and the poor old CBC seems to have stopped making radio dramas (one of my favourite forms of entertainment).
We stayed with my mum for a week or so, Martin took off and went to visit his sister in Twickenham. Time in the UK is useful as we can shop (stock up on black tea, Roses Lime Juice and marmalade), and do other bits if business. We also had a look around the area and visited Sandringham Castle and Peterborough.
We have been to a few French chateaux of late – they are very formal, covered in gold leaf, and house incredible art work, portraits, sculptures, murals, and fabulous furniture drapery and wall coverings. The gardens are full of more statues, fountains, and formal lawns. Sandringham on the other hand is country estate – the place where the Queen of England and her family spend Christmas and Easter etc. The contrast between the French formality and the British Royal family was marked. To be fair, Sandringham does not call itself a palace or a castle, – it is a country house. We also remembered that French royalty lost its legitimacy and its head, whereas the British royals remain very popular.
It is also newer than the French chateaux, as the property (Sandringham Hall) was originally bought by Queen Victoria in 1862 and expanded for the future Edward VII in 1870. It has been the home of queens and kings of England, Scandinavia and Germany. Queen Elizabeth’s father George VI died here in 1952, so it has a special meaning for the family.
The entrance to the public part of the house leads into a room called the Saloon, a place where the Royal family gather for evenings together out of the public eye (No pictures allowed in the house but I am sure they are on the website). I felt like I was in the Queen’s living room (which I was), and could imagine the Royals hanging out playing cards, board games pianos, reading and doing jigsaw puzzles. The rest of the house was equally informal, the dining room, small and large sitting rooms and a very modest ballroom. The gardens were park-like, again my imagination had the Queen and her corgis strolling through the grounds. There is a museum in the old stables as well as a collection of Royal carriages and cars. We had a welcome cup of tea and a scone in the tearoom and set off for walk by the Wash.
After a week in Wisbech, Mum, Martin and I drove up to Yorkshire via my cousin’s seaside chalet in Skegness. Her ‘bolt-hole’ as she calls it, is close to the beach. So we set off with Kerry down the wide (about one kilometer) beach to a pub that was actually on the beach. We had a drink and walked back. It was a warmish evening and light until quite late (10:45).
The next day Mum, Martin and I drove up to the seaside resort of Bridlington (0 11’W 54 05’N). My mother said she would like a few days by the seaside and we had arranged to do some visiting along the way. Bridlington has wonderful beaches and unlike Scarborough – where we were in October, it was very flat so mum felt she could walk around more easily. We stayed in a bed and breakfast guest-house close to the Spa building (the place where concerts, exhibitions and summer theatre took place). It was right next to the beach. Martin and I had a room at the back of the B&B on the top floor. Unfortunately it was also a roosting place for seagulls. These gulls are big, ugly, mean, raucous and noisy. They squawked and wailed all night – literally. I felt I was on the movie set of the Alfred Hitchcock movie “The Birds”. It was quite awful listening to these blood-curdling cries at 3:00am. Even Kerry tried to find a quiet place away from the cacophony.
We spent one afternoon at Sewerby Hall and grounds. I remember going here as a kid – there was a park with all kinds of exotic creatures – they had llamas, and wallabies. The lovely Georgian country house overlooked the North Sea. The Hall has been refurbished in an Edwardian style, with tasteful furnishing and museum standard exhibits. The exhibits included a couple of rooms dedicated to the Hull aviator Amy Johnson. She held the flying record from the UK to Australia in 1930 – the new record she set was 17 days! Amy Johnson was an ace aviator who died while flying during World War II.
Apart from the gulls we had a nice time in Bridlington. Another cousin (my mothers nephew) and his family met us for dinner one night, and I was able to get together my childhood friend from Hull. Andrew (my cousin) took us to the ‘ old town’ of Bridlington – quite a way from the beach and like entering another world. The ‘Old Town’ is a seventeenth century mews with old bank buildings, houses, pubs, carriage houses and stores that had been beautifully restored. This time I really was in a movie set – apparently this street was recently use as the set for the new movie of “Dad’s Army”. This was originally a TV comedy series about the Home Guard in WWII – a rag tag bunch of older and infirmed men who were not conscripted but were involved in the war effort. The movie is due out later this year.
Andrew is also the chief Environmental Health office for the local council, we asked him about the variable rules relating to dogs in pubs. Some places they are welcome and some they are not. Apparently there is no actual rule about dogs and pubs, Andrew called it the ‘aesthetics of hygiene’, which was an interesting description of the rules applied on the basis of individual company decisions. Not sure if this is the case in Victoria or whether the aesthetics of hygiene are determined by the VIHA Medical Health Officer.
The weather was turning cooler as we left Bridlington and drove to York to pick up young Joan and then headed south back to Wisbech. The traffic in the UK is amazing and seemingly never-ending. We spent another few days in Wisbech as the weather became more and more autumnal (15C and rain). One day it was so dreadful (number 6 on the rain scale) that we stayed in and put the heating on – nice July weather!
A couple of days before we left, Martin and I drove down to Cambridge to meet a friend for lunch. We did not meet my friend Abigail in Cambridge but decided it was easier traffic and parking wise to go a village called Grantchester (think of the Rupert Brooke poem). Again I was in a movie set – both real (see UK TV series) and figurative.
We had lunch in lovely pub and then walked the common-land along the River Cam, and watched a variety of people trying their hand a punting. It was quite amusing.
We headed back to France on a Monday amid the horror stories of the hold ups, migrant deaths, 2000 migrants swarming the Euro-tunnel and traffic chaos. We were sooooo lucky and avoided the major routes south of London and had booked our ferry out of Dover to arrive in Dunkerque. The trip was slow but essentially uneventful, the ferry was about 2.5 hours late (makes me think that BC Ferries is more of a gem than we in on Vancouver Island appreciate) but arrived without incident.
It was late when we arrived at our hotel in the small town of Lens in northern France. The next day we visited the Canadian monument at Vimy Ridge where during the First World War (April 1917) Canadian troops achieved an amazing tactical victory by taking a strategic ridge, albeit at the cost of 10,600 Canadian casualties. Canada lost about 60,000 young men in World War I. Their sacrifice is remembered at Vimy Ridge by a massive white stone monument that was completed in 1936 and restored in 2004-7. Currently the 100 hectare memorial park is run by the Department of Veterans Affairs, whose guides provide tours of the tunnels and trenches dug during the campaign. This was not a movie set, but a very real place and very moving.
I closed my eyes and let my imagination hear sloshing mud and the gunfire, smell the ordinance, urine, and burning flesh, and remember the slaughter of tens of thousands of young men on both sides. Then we went to the cemetery, looking at the graves of the young men most of whom died on April 9 1917. It was weird to see all the graves with the same death date, but we were in the killing fields of Europe.
After three weeks away we are now back on the boat and living our quiet, quite idyllic life on Skookum in Moret sur Loing. After visiting places like Vimy, we appreciate the joy of living in such a beautiful peaceful place. Thankful for our blessings, we are looking forward to another couple of months cruising – lucky us.