Thursday, 9 August 2007

We made it! It was a harrowing experience, but we’re all alive and happy in a little bit of English heaven. Wednesday we picked up the car and discovered we had only two turns to make it out of London. Unfortunately, we missed our second turn, and eight turns, one side mirror side-swipe (we hit a traffic barrier, just barely), and two rattled nerves later we finally made our way out of London.

Clay knew there would be many challenges, driving in a foreign country on the wrong side of the car, the wrong side of the road, with a manual transmission, but one thing he didn’t anticipate was his tendency to drift to the left side of the lane, and beyond. I find this disturbing, since I’m on the left side! I kept calling out “curb!” so he’d scoot back over. The problem was, and is, that English lanes are generally very skinny. I guess they were made for horses and buggies or something, certainly not for cars!

Our drive to Oxford was uneventful, we encountered some round-abouts, some two or three times before we found the right way out, but we found Oxford, with the help of the excellent GPS system Clay got before we left. There is a tiny round magnet that attaches to the outside of the car, and the laptop sits in my lap, kindly giving directions. Once we found Oxford, the nightmare began. There were lots of bicycles (remember those narrow lanes?), thousands of people walking along the sidewalks and streets, and streets jam packed with cars. The streets aren’t labeled, many one-way roads, and remember, we’re on the driving on the left hand side, and there were so many round-abouts spitting us out who knows where. It was like putting a first time skier on a double black slope. A skier put in that situation may sit down and slide down the steep parts on their bottom. We found a mail truck.

Clay followed that mail truck through the city, not caring where it went as long as it took us away from the center of chaos. I looked desperately out the windows and tried to have a conversation with the GPS in my lap, trying to see some of the beautiful town of Oxford and still help Clay navigate and keep from colliding with the curb/biker/parked car/pedestrian. The mail truck kept us in the correct lane, and unbeknownst to him, helped us out of the busy city center. As soon as we could, we pulled over behind some parked cars on the side of the road, and took a deep breath. The kids were pretty oblivious to the whole situation. They immediately informed us they were hungry and thirsty. I ran around the corner and found some calzones, while Clay planned our escape route.

We finally made it out of Oxford (never seeing Christchurch, where part of Harry Potter was filmed) and onto some of the narrowest lanes I’ve ever been on. I ate a very large carrot, and the crunching helped settle my nerves. Every time I thought Clay was going to run up the curb, or we missed our turn on the round-about, I gave my carrot a big crunch. Very therapeutic. I think I will carry them more often.

Somehow we survived, we did not side-swipe any high hedges, we figured out the round-abouts, and we made it here, to Swaynes Firs Farms, where the sky is blue and the sun shines and there are chickens and geese and peacocks and baby birds all around. The kids run around and play and help feed the chickens, and we are breathing again. The owners are very nice, Nancy did two loads of my laundry and took the kids all around to collect eggs (all sorts of different colors) and feed the birds, and Arthur showed us the little camera he has hooked up to a starling’s nest. We watched the mother bird feed her baby chicks, pretty amazing!

The day we arrived, a German family checked in for the night with a girl Alayna’s age, and even though she didn’t speak much English, and Alayna spoke no German, they had a ball climbing trees and playing hide and seek. Today an English family arrived with two kids, and our kids are learning how to meet other kids quickly and get on with the playing while the playing can be had. They were outside this evening playing with a football and tackling each other. Email addresses are being exchanged, we will have many new friends before this trip is over.

Today we went to Avesbury, which is kind of like Stonehenge but fewer tourists, smaller stones but more of them, older, and not roped-off. The drive went much better, Clay is doing an amazing job for someone who has only driven here one day, and he can navigate his way around much better.  I didn’t even need a carrot. We’ve worked out a little system. When it looks like he’s going to run off the left side of the road, or collide with whatever happens to be there, I give a quick sniff of panic. Just a sniff, mind you. No screaming. I’m proud of myself. Clay obliges and moves over about six inches.

At Avesbury we walked amongst the stones, through a ditch dug 4,000 years ago, and had a picnic. Clay and the kids pulled out their football, which always seems to draw attention since an American football isn’t seen as often in England. It’s a great conversation starter. We met a German man who does “acrobats with balls” (?) I think there was a communication problem, but he was nice and gave the ball a good throw (gave a jolly good go of it) before moving on.

As we hiked around, we climbed a large hill and saw a strange design in the wheat field below. A crop circle! We walked down a narrow lane and found a path through the field into the crop circle (actually a crop design, the wheat is crushed down in a pattern). A group of people were sitting in the center, listening raptly to a man tell about his alien sighting. The aliens are the ones who made the crop circle, or that’s his version of the story. Another woman informed Clay that the circles just “appear”, and he must not be “spiritual” enough if he can’t believe it. The kids found this very interesting and it led to a great family discussion as we wandered back up that skinny lane. Two little terriers tried to follow us, one was especially persistent and the kids had fun patting her belly and trying to coax her back home.

As we left Avebury, we came upon some amazing, ancient beech trees, their roots covering the ground like gnarled veins on an old woman’s hands. (I couldn’t wait to write that sentence down, indulge me). All is quiet now. Alayna has her own bedroom here, a tiny room with just a bed and wardrobe, and a window that looks out on the peacocks sleeping in the tree. She is in heaven. This house is full of quirky knick-knacks, tiny sculptures of kiwi birds and shepherdesses, and shells and pictures everywhere. You turn on lights by pulling strings, the key to our door isn’t a plastic card but a silver, old-fashioned, long-handled key, and the floor squeaks with each push-up Clay does. That’s right, he’s still doing 100 a day. He’s got to keep those driving arms in shape.


Friday, 10 August, 2007

Today we ate breakfast and hiked down to a ditch at the back of the farm. It is an ancient ditch, dug thousands of years ago, nobody knows for sure why they dug it. It’s called Grimm’s Ditch. Isn’t that a great name? It doesn’t look that amazing, but when you realize it was dug for a purpose so long ago, it becomes a mystery. Something exciting. The kids love to find the pinecones scattered all over the ground under the trees, make one tree the target, and see how close they can get to hitting it with the pinecone. They played this game with their new English friends, Emily and Theo, who arrived yesterday and left after their pinecone game this morning.

We drove to Salisbury, a piece of cake now. We made no wrong turns and found a place to park the car so we could visit the Salisbury Cathedral. While the cathedral was impressive, covered in statues on the outside, a strong, delicate spire that can be seen for miles and was built almost 1000 years ago, and lots of Gothic arches, the kids will remember the bag of chips we got for lunch more than the rest. They were called “naked chips” because they were just potatoes fried in oil, but what made them memorable was the bag, which showed a group of five naked women gallivanting across the countryside. Clay took a picture, Alayna was horrified.

The kids will also remember the creek we found running next to our car park. Lots of families gathered there to picnic and sunbathe. There were tons of kids in the water, and our kids were shocked to find many naked, or in just their underwear. We observed kids up to about age 4 went naked, then up to age 8 or so wore just their underwear (boys or girls), and those older than 8 wore their clothes or swimsuits. Our kids opted to keep their clothes on, since we didn’t bring their swimsuits.

We didn’t plan to find that creek, probably couldn’t have found it very easily if we were looking for it, but providence was kind to us and we parked right next to it. The kids spent several hours building little boats out of sticks and wading in the cold water. Clay and I read, and I took a little nap, it was a wonderful way to spend the afternoon.

We stopped at the store to get some provisions for dinner, then headed to Martin’s Down, a chalk land close to our bed and breakfast. It was covered mostly in knee-high brush, with paths where you could walk, and chalk peeping through when the ground got shallow. On the hills the grass grew, and the views were outstanding once we made it up the steep hill. I really felt like I was in the middle of a Jane Austen novel, or maybe James Herriot, out on the downs.

Clay has enjoyed visiting with Arthur, the owner of Swaynes Firs Farm, and the visitors like Adrian from Northumberland. They’ve talked about everything from religion to WWII to sailing to fox hunting. Did you know that chickens kill mice? And eat them? I’m learning so much. Tomorrow we must bid goodbye and head west, we’ll be staying in a castle tomorrow night.