We left Skookum on a Wednesday morning, on our long convoluted route back to Britain and family visits. We had left our car Scarlett in Chalon sur Saone. So we took the TGV (very fast French trains) from Valence to Chalon (about 200kms). Then we drove to Reims, where we stocked up on Champagne J for my mother’s 90th birthday next year. The Crystal Hotel in the centre of Reims was our overnight stop, in this now familiar city, and enjoyed a dinner of mussels and wine.
Mussels for dinner in Rheims
The next morning we set off early for Dunkerque to catch the ferry over to the UK. It was a long day, as we did not arrive at Martin’s sister’s home until 8:00 pm (UK time which is an hour behind Europe). After supper and the first of many Brexit discussions we collapsed into bed.
For readers who don’t know Martin and I took a 54 day cruise in January and February all the way down to Tierra Del Fuego, calling in many ports including the Falkland Islands, four capital cities, seven Brazilian cities and other parts of the Portuguese world. Our ship the Marco Polo was an older cruise ship taking around 700 passengers southward through 100 degrees of Latitude. Spending 54 days afloat gave us an opportunity to have some amazing experiences, take on new projects, and meet and become friends with some interesting people. Ninety per cent of the passengers were British (or like us, expats traveling on a UK passport) with a sense of adventure and a variety of interests. One of the purposes of our trip to the UK was to reconnect with the friends we had made on our journey.
Riverside One Apartments on the Thames
On the cruise I joined the creative writing group, which turned out to be a great bunch of intelligent talented people who have remained connected, thanks to the Internet. The day after our arrival in London we reconnected over a lovely lunch on the Kings Road, Kensington/Chelsea with Janine (one of the pals from our writing group) and Robin. Before lunch we had visited them in their beautiful apartment on the South Bank overlooking the Thames. Their building was designed by Sir Norman Foster, who still had architectural offices there. He is a famous British architect who also designed the Reichstag (German Parliament) in Berlin. Walking over Battersea bridge passed Mick Jagger’s house – we almost rang the bell and ran away (it was really a photo op).
Almost knocking on Mick Jaggers door
Carol – Martin’s sister joined us for lunch. It was great time, excellent food and included another Brexit discussion. Everyone we met in London had voted ‘Leave’ and seemed oblivious to the fact there was very little truth told in the campaign. They were optimistic about the future expecting a blip in the economy but seemed to feel that the slogan ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ fitted the new reality perfectly.
I could only greet this belief with consternation, as we are committed Europeans and would have voted Remain. I know the EU is a highly technocratic powerful bureaucracy, where immigration is a problem and there are rules and standards not every country wants to comply with, but on the whole it works, and works to benefit everyone including the UK. It seems, post-Brexit analysis suggests, that this referendum was as much a protest vote against the Cameron Conservative government and its austerity programs, as it was against the EU and its immigration policy. Indeed, I would suggest that at least 2 million ‘Leavers’ would change their vote to Remain if they had the opportunity.
Now the pound sterling has dropped and the economic forecasts are grim. Lucky for the Brits they have the most powerful Canadian in world fighting their corner (Mark Carney – head of Bank of England). However reading some of the comments in Guardian on-line newspaper shows how ungrateful they are to have him on their side.
Since we arrived in Britain (July 7), we had the night of long knives in the Conservative Party, then they all agreed that only a woman could sort out the mess. The new UK PM Theresa May seems to be a bit of a contradiction but she seems to have stabilized the political situation. The appointment of the Brexiteers to key positions in Cabinet to actually implement Brexit was a stroke of sheer genius: ‘your mess – you clean it up and take the heat when anything goes wrong’. Boris Johnson for Foreign Secretary is also a great decision – he will make intellectual mincemeat of Trump (if that ghastly would-be dictator is ever elected). Fingers-cross another woman (Hilary Clinton) will sort out the dangerous situation in American politics.
British politics today is a feast for the media, confusion for the public and a downer for the economy. The British, in their usual way, take the approach that humour (the meaner the better) will solve everything. Lets hope they are right! Now I should shut up and let the British get on with it, they are a resilient, some might say, stubborn people, who will need all their strength to get through the next few years (Rant over).
We drove up to Wisbech and my mother’s home the next day – it great to see her looking so well. We had not seen each other since she left Canada in April. She is very well and really quite marvelous for an 89 years old. My cousins, to whom I am eternally grateful, keep an eye on her and help with all kinds of tasks and transportation. We had planned a holiday in Somerset for a few days. So after a day of rest and Wimbledon tennis (Well done Milos – next time), we set off for the south-west of England. It is a lovely part of England that is steeped in ancient history (where isn’t?). We had a five hour drive across country to Bridgwater where we had rented a holiday flat for 4 nights. We had a few goals for our visit to the South West – to have a UK vacation with my mum, to discover more places, and visit with more of our new friends from the Marco Polo voyage.
Our first excursion in Somerset was to the lovely town of Glastonbury and the City of Wells. Glastonbury is famous for the rock festival, which has taken place in a field close to town for the last 50 years. The Glastonbury Festival is a big name draw (Adele was there this year) and is also know for being a weekend of rain and bad weather. Posters for the event feature pictures of people wallowing in the mud! It is a delightful place I have visited on quite a few occasions but never made it to the Festival.
There is a hill within sight of the town has a tor (a church tower) on top of it. St Michael’s church as destroyed by an earthquake in 1275 and only the tower remained. This area is the fabled Avalon, shrouded in myth and mystery. According to myth and some Roman historians it was also the first century home of Joseph of Arimathea, who was possibly a direct disciple of Jesus Christ, and brought the Holy Grail to the UK.
Glastonbury Abbey was left in ruins after the Dissolution of the Monasteries ordered by Henry VIII in 1539. The original monastery was a magnificent structure started in the tenth century completed two hundred years later.
The bones of King Arthur resided in Glastonbury Abbey for many years and today it is the sacred centre for Gaia and Neo-Pagan worship in the UK. It is also the site of the Chalice Well where women came to take the waters for their health. The waters are iron rich and helped anemic women feel better, so that tells us a lot about ancient healing.
This attractive calm small town is very inviting and has an atmosphere of generous wisdom and joy. It is also very pet and people friendly. Surprisingly to me, my mum thought it was a lovely place – colourful streets decked out with flower baskets, colourful people dressed in the hippy styles of the 1960’s and colourful stores selling amulets, trinkets, toys and clothes all in keeping with the mythological traditions of this ancient town.
We then drove to the ancient city of Wells about 15 miles away. It is the smallest city in England with a population of around 10,500. The magnificent cathedral and the bishop’s palace were started around 1250 and took a couple of hundred years to complete.
Construction workers on Wells Cathedral
The city was granted a charter in 1201 and has been defined by its ecclesiastical role, and now its tourist role, for the last 700 years. The cathedral dedicated to St Andrew is a truly beautiful building lovingly restored and open to the public on a donation basis.
Our second day in the South West was a visiting day. We tripped down to visit a pal from the Marco Polo writing group in a seaside town of Budleigh Salterton. After a great lunch, served with delicious (really) English wine, we walked the beach and visited our friends ‘beach hut’.
Literally it is a small hut at the end of a row where they stored deck chairs and other beach type things. Martin, of course, had to have a bit of fun sitting on the stony beach with a hankerchief knotted at the four corners shading him from the sun (an ancient male tradition at the seaside in the UK). Apparently these beaches huts are very expensive and much sort after, so we felt quite privileged.
Later in the afternoon we motored further into deepest darkest Devon to visit some dear friends who could not make it to our Table 5 reunion dinner. Pam and George live in the gorgeous village of Stoke Gabriel near the river Dart (and Dartmouth). The view from their home is spectacular.
After driving Devon roads for a few miles (single track roads with high hedges on each side) we drew up into the drive way to be greeted by George and one of his neighbours – Dave. Dave immediately asked me if we knew Claire Martin. “Of course” I replied, “She was the CBC weather lady who ran for the Green Party (and nearly got elected) in North Vancouver.” ‘That is my daughter’ responded Dave, very proudly.
Talk about a small world!
We spent the rest of the afternoon with Pam, George and their family (daughter son-in-law and grandchildren) chatting and catching up. While Mum and Martin were knocking back Pimms No 1, I was drinking tea as the designated driver. Devon roads required me to be on full alert. I did the magic spell around a 1000 year old Yew tree in the local church yard in Stoke Gabriel – wishing for reunions of all the lovely new/old friends we made on the Marco Polo.
Stoke Gabriel Magic spell to walk around the Church yard yew tree.
All our friends in Somerset and Devon were also ‘Remainers’ as the EU debates continued. This told me a lot about ‘like minds’ that come in the shape of friends, all of whom were also grandparents!
The next day my mum decided she needed a rest, so Martin and I took a drive to Bristol leaving her in the holiday flat where we were staying. The works of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was our main agenda. Brunel was the most famous and possibly the greatest English engineer of the Victorian period. Bristol is home to two of his most famous projects/ inventions– the Clifton suspension bridge and the SS Great Britain; a great iron steam/sailing ship.
Clifton Bridge Bristol
The Clifton suspension bridge crosses the Avon Gorge and links North Somerset with the City of Bristol. It is high above the tidal river Avon. Although it was designed by Brunel, who won a design competition in 1829, the bridge was not completed until 1864, after his death. Brunel may have been a great engineer, but his accounting skills were somewhat lacking, although he did not end up in debtors prison like his father – Sir Mark Brunel –another engineer. The delays resulting from bankruptcies, distractions and illness meant that two other engineers oversaw the completion of this truly remarkable bridge.
Our next visit was to the SS Great Britain museum. We had seen the mizzenmast of this great ship in the Falkland Islands so Martin felt that we should see the rest of it in Bristol. The SS Great Britain was designed and built by IK Brunel as the largest ship afloat in 1845. Brunel’s design of an iron/sailing ship with a screw propeller driven by a steam engine was the fastest passenger vessel on the New York – Bristol run (14 days). By 1852 it was a passenger vessels taking immigrants to Australia, and continued in service until 1881.
The SS Great Britain fell on hard times after that and ended up in the Falkland Islands where she served as a Quarantine ship and coal hulk from 1884 until she was scuttled in the harbour at Port Stanley in 1937. Lost but not forgotten a generous donor paid for her to be towed through 100 degrees of Latitude to the Bristol dry dock where she started her extraordinary life.
The SS Great Britain is now a marvelous (but expensive) museum, which allows a visitor to see underneath to see the iron hull as well as tour the renovated ship as it was when it sailed to Australia. This is a major attracting on Bristol, certainly worth a visit if you are in the area.
Our last day in the southwest was quite wet and cool. We made our through the Somerset countryside to the historic city of Bath, famous from Roman times for its healing heated waters and now for it’s magnificent Georgian architecture.
I made one small nostalgia stop in the picturesque village of Ubley where I done a survey for a university geography course in 1971. Our destination for the day was the area of Midsommer Norton (really – we thought we could be murdered if we stayed there) for our Table 5 reunion dinner.
Ubley Public Library
Table 5 was the number of our dinner table on second setting on the Marco Polo. For about 50 nights we had dinner with the same six people at the same time, it was a time that forged friendships and shared experiences. I invited everyone to our house in Canada on September 23 2017, but Mags and Ray re-empted me by inviting everyone (including my mother) to dinner and an overnight stay.
Although Pam and George could not make it, Peter and Linda drove down from Bolton (200 miles) and the seven us had a wonderful evening, dining on a delious dinner prepared by incredible cooks (Mags and Ray), drinking wine, telling stories and sharing memories like the old friends we had become. Dolly Parton has a song called ‘You can’t make old friends’ on her Blue Smoke Album, but that ain’t necessarily so. Our sea voyage and shared experiences had made us old friends. I know we will continue to be in touch and share our lives for a long time to come.
We drove back to Norfolk and spent a couple of days before Mum and I set off for Hull and York (to stay with young Joan). It was another long drive (4 hours) but I had no help so I was very tired by the time we go to Joan’s in York. We were scouting out venues for my mothers 90th birthday party – she has two parties planned; one in or near Hull and one in Wisbech. The trip to York gave us an opportunity to visit my uncle, at 86 he was not too well but still as sharp as a tack.
It was fun for everyone to spend a day in Hull as we toured a few hotels and finally settled on a venue in the village where mother had lived for almost 30 years. Hull has also been designated the ‘City of Culture’ for 2017, and is being spruced up. My childhood friend Anita and I checked out some of the new exhibits. One focus is the Hull born and raised 1930’s aviator Amy Johnson and her famous Gypsy Moth aircraft. She flew to Australia alone and in record time. Anita’s artistic son received a commission to do a mural about Amy and the Gypsy moth, which now is on public display.
Amy Johnson on the Gypsy Moth
After a couple more rest days Martin and I set off back to France on the worst traffic weekend ever. We had booked our Ferry for Sunday evening but listen with dismay to traffic reports from Dover on Saturday where people has spent 16 hours in their car in gridlock trying to get to the ferries at Dover. We finally got on a ferry after only a three hour wait.
Eventually we reached a hotel near Arras in northern France and left the next morning, driving, without air conditioning for eight long hot hours arriving in Valence around 7:30pm. Our lovely friends in the port cooked as wonderful welcome home dinner. After almost 2000 miles of driving our Scarlett rattler was still in top form, but her drivers were a little pooped.