So on Saturday I left Cambridge, goodbye and good riddance. I never did post pictures from it, and I took a few nice ones:
I like this one in particular because I enjoyed reading the names of all the punting boats that the students taxi people around in. If I was to choose which one I'd like to ride in, I think I'd go with Mad George. Sheet to the Wind is the funniest one, but better (in my opinion) for a sail boat or catamaran.
The brick in Cambridge is very pretty in the long gold evening light.
I walked to the train station with my bags, which wasn't much fun, but it was a beautiful day. Though my experience at the B&B was quite bad, it has to be admitted that the surroundings of Cambridge had some bucolic charm! I took the train to King's Lynn, and then a rural bus (the bus driver had no idea where my stop was, but fortunately for me a kind and garrulous woman who lived in the next village up knew it exactly, and she rang the bell when we got close to it.)
Then my bag and I sat next to the highway for awhile, until the little bus that would come into Little Walsingham pulled up, and I had a genuinely thrilling and terrifying ride to Sandra's village - the driver drove very, very fast down the windy, bendy, roller coastery country lane and I had to hold on to the thoughtfully-provided rail bar with both hands the entire way. I arrived in Little Walsingham to find my friend and her charming, playful dog Holly waiting for me at the center of the village - the little stone town pumphouse. Sandra brought me back to her very pretty house (built in the 17th century, and is flying freehold with both of her neighbors in all kinds of eccentric and fun ways - the brick here belongs to the neighbors, a Scottish Anglican priest and his partner Clive and their little white terrier Mandy - Sandra's house is the flint one right behind it) to give me tea. Sandra is very shy about having her picture taken but I caught her in profile:
I do admire her pretty white hair. I don't know why she's shy about having her picture taken. I think she's very pretty. She showed me family photographs though and it must be admitted that there were some really epic beauties in it - her aunt, her mother, a cousin - it could give a person a mild complex. I found out her age at last, after guessing at it based on knowing that she went to boarding school with Julie Christie, and Rupert Everett's mother - she's 68. She looks much younger than that - I wouldn't have put her as older than my parents when we met.
Sandra made us tea and cut thick slices of granary bread from the farmer's co-op around the corner, which she then spread with salmon mashed in double cream. This is very different from salmon cream cheese in the sense that it is infinitely better and decadent. We ate it while sitting on the couch and chatting, which we did a good bit of:
I like Sandra's house. Every window has something in it which catches the light and an icon, and the entire house is crammed to the rafters with a lifetime's collection of items gathered during travels to Africa, the Middle East, the Laplands, the Arctic, all over Europe, the Far East - mostly natural objects (including rocks! She liked my story about my mother collecting rocks from all over on our French roadtrip to put in the garden back home) and tapestries. It feels like an adventurer's home.
Then we went on a walkabout in the village, which was a tremendous lot of fun for me because as the guest of a well-liked local, the reception was a bazillion times warmer than anything I'd had in Cambridge. It was like something out of a movie, the funny little dialogues she was having with everyone while I watched with delight at the zinging back and forth. "I've a mind to bring you up on charges!" she yelled at a cute red-headed guy in his 40s who was walking toward us with a capering little westie dog at his heel. His eyes widened in not entirely mock alarm. "Charges?!" he echoed, in a strong Scottish brogue, pulling along side us on the road. "Charges of ATTEMPTED HOMICIDE!" she said, waving her finger and scowling. "You left that giant rock right in the middle of my path! Again!"
Now his eyes widened in recognition, and he started apologizing in earnest, and over the course of the exchange that followed I learned that Clive liked to bring out this big rock to balance some kind of improvised clothes tree to dry clothes in the sun, and was forever forgetting it in the middle of Sandra's walk, where like as not she could trip over it and hurt herself rather badly on the cobbles. He swore he would not do it again. Evarrrrrr! Scottish brogue! We continued. We met a very handsome man with circles under his bright blue eyes who looked like he'd been smoking way too many cigarettes. Once we were well out of earshot she told me that he was the former village postmaster, and a ghost of himself ever since his (now ex) wife had brought false charges of attempted murder against him the year before.
I was sucked into the gravitational pull of a charity shop, which was all good, as Sandra's friend worked there. I found a very pretty 1950s copy of Through the Looking Glass, destined (I hope) for being read to nieces. I also found a pin that looked to me like it was written on in runes. I held it up and said I would take it for 2 pounds as well, and did the shoplady know anything about it? Sandra glanced over at it and said "Oh yes, it's an excerpt from runic Viking graffiti that was on the wall of a burial mound - it says something to the effect of "Ingeborg, a tall and haughty lady, had to stoop like everyone else to get in here!" I gawped comically at her. And of course it turned out that the pin had in fact belonged to Sandra, who had brought it in as a donation, and I had happened to pick it up and buy it.
Then we went on to the Historical Society (a single room featuring a great many old books and magazines for sale and a 16th century mural. I received a lecture on the mural. It went on for a very long time and was extraordinarily suspect on almost every term of interpretation, which was really... Reaching. But it was entertaining, if improbable and worthy of about a B+ in an undergraduate class on historical art interpretation.
Supposedly this is a monkey and its minder. Could be a monkey. That wasn't the craziest thing I heard.
I was half-dead from the stultifying lecture at the historical society, which I'd attempted to alleviate by purchasing a lady's magazine from the 1950s and a saddle brass for Walsingham, but retail therapy failed me. But along came Sister Wendy, who is as bracing as getting a faceful of cold seawater fresh from the crashing waves on a jetty. "WHAT HO!" said Sister Wendy. "I SAY!"
"Oh, excellent!" said Sandra. "Sister Wendy is one of the nuns of the Society of Saint Margaret!" I had been charged with the task of reporting on their habits and liturgy to Dear L. (naamaah
) and had expressed this ambition to Sandra on arrival when asked what I would like to do while in Walsingham - and though I'm afraid that my knowledge of the Anglican liturgy is so little (i.e., nonexistent) that I can't say much about their take on it, the habits are indeed marvelous - long grey dresses with the chausable-y apron pull over thing, and a fairly traditional long black veil held on with the white band, and best of all, a really quite large black and white (ebony outside and ivory in the heart) crucifix that resonated with the veil of the habit and made a nice unity of statement. I wish I had dared to take pictures of Sister Wendy!). "Watch out," Sandra added. "Sister Wendy and Holly together are a real demolition team! I had to replace a wall in the house one day after those two were playing together!" Holly, Sandra's dog, did indeed look VERY happy to see Sister Wendy and was wagging fit to bust.
"HALLO!" said Sister Wendy, having joined us. Sandra told her that I'd expressed an interest in the Society of Saint Margaret (which, incidentally - apparently has a community in Boston!) and Sister Wendy gave me a searching look. "OH REALLY! I WILL COME FOR TEA LATER! WE WILL SEE!" said Sister Wendy - and with that, off she sailed off, the abundant yardage of her habit flapping in the wind like the sails of a galleon on the high seas, Holly gazing longingly after her.
"Demolition team!" said Sandra. "We'll have to brace for impact!" We got back to the house after stopping in at the co-op - Sandra had insisted that I buy a Melton Mowbray pork pie before embarking on a pilgrimage to this place as she said they were absolutely disgusting, and that I should go somewhere else for my unscheduled layover. There were none to be had, so Sandra made the butcher promise to put one aside for us and that we'd be back for it tomorrow. We arrived back at the house just a few minutes before Sister Wendy arrived. Sister Wendy declared that Holly was a silly dog and "USELESS AS A CHOCOLATE TEAPOT!" and that she would take coffee instead of tea - when Sandra offered her a tin of cookies, Sister Wendy opened it and sighed with a long-suffering exhalation. "YOUR BISCUITS ARE PREDICTABLE!" she said, pronouncing the word "predictable" like it was a particularly rude word in Finno-Urgic. Bored with the biscuits and of her admirably athletic hurling of Holly's stuffed hedgehog so she could fetch it back, Sister Wendy returned to her inspection of my person, and appeared to decide that I would do. "I LIKE YOUR BOOTS!" said Sister Wendy, the first positive remark I'd heard from her, and so of particular value. The boots, incidentally, have been otherwise reviled and repudiated for their likeability, so I was pleased to hear a kind word about them as they've been so awfully good to me. I grinned widely and said "Thank you!" with probably a little too much energy, and Sister Wendy flipped her giant crucifix to one side and held it like a tiny ukelele while strumming it with the other hand, and began to sing - loudly and beautifully, like a resurrected Viking with a passion for Nancy Sinatra covers: "THESE BOOTS ARE MADE FOR WALKING", she boomed magnificently. "AND THAT'S JUST WHAT THEY'LL DO!" When it became clear that she was going to do more than sing just the refrain, which is what the women of my family do when we're song-referencing in conversations (you have been warned), but intended to sing the whole song, I joined in with the helpful and necessary "ba-dum-dum-dum" bass line. It was fun. She then sang some Dusty Springfield, and we did a duet on You Don't Own Me, and I think Sandra was ready to pitch us both out in the alley for a couple of caterwauling miscreants, when suddenly Sister Wendy launched herself up out of the couch and said "WELL I'M OFF THEN!" And off she went. I liked her - she was grand and loud and bawdy and slightly terrifying. Sandra says she is also thoughtful and a deep thinker. I'm not surprised. I think I understand that pretty well.
We walked around the corner to collect fish and chips for dinner! I had haddock. It was delicious. The crisp shell around the fish was thin and friable and perfect deep gold and sparkling with salt, the crisps fresh and good (nothing on the Belgian frites, but hey). I was beyond happy to discover that Sandra had no intention of eating them with vinegar, but had a jar of very good tartar sauce at home. Atta girl! It made up a lot for the really unnecessarily protracted gross-out she'd had when I told her about peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, the idea of which struck her as nasty on kind of an epic pickles-and-ice-cream scale. After our dinner we watched a fascinating documentary about The Worst Journey Ever - my uncles would like to read it, I think - and then she made us mugs of Horlicks, and we turned in for the night. I transferred pictures from the camera to the laptop and sketched out notes of the day - no internet - read for a little while, and went to bed. The next day we were up and out after a leisurely breakfast, headed to the bird sanctuary where she volunteers and to take lunch at a crab shack near the water. We ate a huge lunch of crab, and cockles, and tiny sweet shrimp - all fresh caught - and sardines, which I didn't know I liked (still wouldn't have them on pizza for love nor money) and hot new potatos with parsley and butter, and lemonade. It was all delicious. We headed back to Walsingham via some stops at local pottery shops etc., and I asked if we could turn in at some ruins I'd seen to the side of the road - which turned out to be part of a really lovely church which is still in operation:
They use a Tudor-era kitchen table as their altar, which Sandra loves about the church:
We ran into some friends of hers, as they were sketching stones in the graveyard. It started to rain soon after, so they were glad of our sudden appearance because it meant we could all pile in the car for the drive back to the village (they had walked, bold souls and sturdy soles).
Then Sandra and I went to tea at another of her friends' houses, where she hoped to sell her clavichord to a local (by residence, Cambridge by occupation) astrophysicist who likes Bach. Her husband, who teaches theology and science stuff at Cambridge, was also there, and their precocious and lemon-cake loving red-headed son Rupert - a very jolly family, and it was wonderful to sit and have hot milk tea and lemon cake in a cozy living room while an amiable fire crackled and popped in the iron fireplace while people discussed the merits of a portable clavichord while other people drew astonishing inventions involving supernatural creatures made out of Choco Pops and yet other people watched and asked grave questions about the mechanics of the flying machine made for transporting beer.
Sandra and I left because we had another engagement - to go out to see a friend of hers named Kathy and have a country road, was the idea presented to me - but it turned out that more specifically, the country roads were on the estate of the friend who, more specifically, is the Lady Buxton, Baroness of Alsa
, wife of Aubrey, Lord Buxton- who (in addition to being the producer of the BBC wildlife show Survival and one of the few surviving founders of the World Wildlife Federation, is also the former Extra Equerry to Prince Phillip, Duke of Edinburgh, a lifelong friend and regular visitor to the farm, where he likes to see their heirloom sheep and Highland cattle). Oh!
Incidentally, here is one of those Highland cattle - I can't remember which is Miss Flossie and which is Miss Bessie, but those are their names:
This unexpected brush with the peerage was a delight to my strange little American heart (we love the idea of nobility an awful lot for people who successfully rebelled against it in favor of bushwacking our way to a progressively more successful attempt at egalitarianism). Sandra paused and looked at me. I thought about this for a minute. "Prince Phillip is the guy who's married to the queen, right?"
Bright girl, me. Very on top of things. All I can say is that I did
know it, I just didn't remember it very quickly. Sandra laughed. Yes, she said. But not to make exclamations over it to Kathy, as she keeps the visits all very calm and quiet.
We met up with Kathy, who came out with three more dogs, and headed off for our country walk, which went on for a long time and never left their grounds. "Watch out for toads!" said Kathy. "They're crossing to get to the river to mate!" I looked around but at first I didn't see any toads:
But it was true - there were a LOT of tiny toads on the roads leading to the fields, they were just incredibly well camouflaged by the road itself. I held up the party by having to stop and take pictures of the ones I found particularly cute, like this one:
I like how the toad is all bumpy and the road is all bumpy.
This one looks to me like a gateway to fairyland.
The dogs were rambunctious and kept charging into the foliage in pursuit of pheasants, and at one point Kathy yelled that they'd got into a nest and we all charged into the brush to pull them off - I happened to discover the nest as we came in, and plopped down on my knees in the rain-wet dirt and grass in a kneeling version of a hockey goalie's blocking posture, bodychecking dogs that were hot to get at the eggs, which I guess smell *really* good to them and sort of hurling them back onto the green while Kathy chased the most intrepid hunter, her Parson Jack Russell Terrier, who cracked me up because it was SO bossy. On our way out of the rough (only one egg crushed in the battle for the nest) I twisted my ankle and fell down. Happily, it was a very minor twist, mostly because I fell down instead of trying to stay up. Sadly, the fall was into a plant I'd heard of but never encountered - nettles. OUCH. OUCH. OUCH. Kathy is an expert countrywoman and promptly set up the hunt for dock leaves, and bade me to crush them and rub the juice on the nettled areas. Sadly, some of these were under clothes, and would have to be dealt with later using the much less agreeable home therapy of straight ammonia (OUCH OUCH OUCH) but I was delighted to learn to identify these two plants and to listen to the lady talk about the doctrine of sympathies as she hunted for the dock leaves.
She was very kind to me, though I'd been made a little crabby by the whole covered in nettles thing plus a moment of stressy shock when I thought I'd managed to sprain my damnable ankle just days before my mother's visit.
When we got to the seaward end of the estate she pointed out at the water and said "There's nothing between us and the Arctic circle but that water:"
For the latter part of the walk we talked companionably and she asked about my research and I gave the telling of the backstory and the question and the motivations of the question all the narrative flourish and storytelling I could muster, and she seemed very genuinely interested and asked to be updated on the story as it develops, which I thought was awfully nice of her. By the time we got to the barn (whereupon there was another chasing of the black lab puppy Lily, when it was thought she'd gotten into the coop and stolen a freshly hatched chicken egg - we chased the dogs a lot, and Kathy said "I hear that some people have nice relaxing country walks!" and Sandra said "We must be doing it wrong!" - it was charming. I have to say that I do like the English sense of humor - not just the loud Monty Python one, but the quiet, wry, clever, always-on, never-neon one.
We came back to the house and had a light dinner of boiled egg (fresh from Kathy's hens at Old Hall Farm) with more thick slices of granary bread and butter from the farmer's co-op, and milk tea (the milk also from the farmer's co-op, fresh and with cream floating on top) and blackberry jam, and then - both of us jawcrackingly tired, to bed. I left the next morning with fond goodbyes all around, headed (over Sandra's protests that going there instead of Lincoln Cathedral was something I'd have to answer for to Saint Peter) to Melton Mowbray.