“Half memoir, half travel, A Yank Back to England...is an absolutely wonderful book, not only about going home again but also about love and family and tradition and the passage of the years.” —Michael Dirda, Pulitzer Prize-winning literary critic (Washington Post) To see the entire quote, click here.
Deep in the garden, we found Sir Winston’s art studio. Venturing inside, we found a compact room, rather like a small cottage without a bedroom level, with paintings lining the walls. Despite the obvious contrivance of a cigar left in an ashtray and a paint-stained smock across a chair, there was one very authentic touch beside the easel: stacks and stacks of Havana cigar boxes filled with tubes of paint. Churchill’s paintings were bold, brash, energetic, exuberant South of France landscapes. To me, they all seemed to be tantalizing self-portraits, yet only partly revealing.
My recipe for Christmas mincemeat differs a bit from the traditional ones because I believe in using what is around your pantry. Basically, you'll need a combination of dried fruits-raisins, sultanas, currants, dates, figs, etc.-but, I think it matters not what kind of dried fruits you use. In the nut department, you are expected to use slivered almonds, but I used walnuts this year, and a few leftover pecan bits, with no ill effect. Same goes with the drinkie element. Brandy is traditional but I had rum and a little amaretto lying around, so I used that. Candied peel I omit altogether because, frankly, I don't like it. In short, feel free to improvise-you may even come up with a unique recipe!
For the mincemeat you will need Two large Granny Smith apples. Instead of boiling them into a mush I peel and quarter the apples and sauté them in a little butter, before chopping the apple bits up. Now finely chop a heaped cup of your chosen nuts-almonds, walnuts, pecans, or what-have-you. Then grate the rind of a lemon and orange and chop. Reserve the juice from both fruits. You'll also need a heaped teaspoon of ground spices. Choose the spices you like best; cloves, cinnamon, star anise, nutmeg. My family likes lots of cinnamon, not much nutmeg. Or add some grated ginger, now there's a thought... You will also need three cups of mixed dried fruit. This year I used a cup each of raisins, sultanas, and chopped up dried apricots. Use whatever you want, or have to hand but remember, larger fruit should be chopped. Now add two cups of brown sugar and half a cup of brandy or other favored libation. Fear not about the uncooked alcohol content if, indeed, you worry about such things. The demon drink will evaporate within a few days. And besides, you'll probably cook your mincemeat in a pastry or some such before eating it, which will "cook out" the booze. Unless you're naughty like me, and spoon it right out of the jar! Yum! Yum! (I get scolded though.) Into all this stuff, grate a stick of butter. I suggest you freeze the stick first, makes life easier. If you're feeling daring or traditional, go right ahead and use 1/2 cup good quality beef fat instead, instead of butter. Whatever fat you use, don't forget to freeze it first before attempting to grate. Now combine all the ingredients and liquids in a glass bowl and mix very well but gently. The mixture should be quite stiff. The spoon should be able to stand up in the mixture unaided, but not break! If it is too thick, add a little more rum, sherry, apple juice, or other tasty liquid. Now pop the bowl in the fridge and chill at least a day before plunking this classic confection into those clever airtight jars with the metal clamps and rubber rings. Alternatively, you can go right ahead and use the mixture for mince tarts or turnovers. Prodigal Wife folds little rounds of pastry over a bit of mincemeat, wonton-style but, as you see in the photo, I just plop a spoonful of the stuff on a molded round of pastry and bake till it's all bubbly.
Try to be patient! Mincemeat improves with a little age. Try and give it a week or two. The difference is startling! This stuff will happily reside in your fridge for six months or more. But if you're like me, you'll find your mincemeat far too irresistible to last beyond the season to be jolly....and why should it? After all, a spoonful of Christmas...
Cousin Kevin writes that Santa came early this year, and that he and the charming Maxine are taking turns reading (he said "fighting over it"). You'll notice the suprisingly healthful drink next to him, but Kev says he's going to make up for that tomorrow, when he goes for a traditional English meal: A Curry. What is on our wishlist this Christmas? Many more photos like this one...
But first, Frances insisted on exploring the immediate vicinity. A quick walk before dinner. It was where I grew up, she said. She was curious. I was not. But then, maybe I was. A little. The landscape in Dagenham had no contours, except for the occasional tarmac hillock to accommodate London Transport on its bold thrust eastwards. Yet, even with its flatness, Dagenham didn’t have a big sky like Aldeburgh. It narrowed at the edges of one’s horizon, cowering in one corner and skulking in the other. And so it was with Castle Green, the vast playing fields located a few blocks from my old home. Frances and I went for a walk there, following the path I took years ago with Rex, our family dog. We headed diagonally across an empty expanse, past a muddy soccer field and the sagging narrowness of an unkempt cricket pitch. Past the brick sports building that was always locked and always reeked of pee because the local soccer players could never get to the inside toilet. Past the wooden notice board with pasted-over information of long-gone events. Nothing new to announce. Nothing I did not know about.
Vi was one of my favorite aunts. She was my mum’s younger sister but looked on first glance to be older. She had silvery gold hair spun as thin as cotton candy and set on a vivid pink skull. She had a wizened chin, rounded at the end like a small doughnut. And when she smiled, her jaws caved in thanks to ill-fitting dentures. But her eyes twinkled with the mischief of a sixteen year old. Vi quickly changed the subject back to things meteorological. “I bet the weather’s all lovely where you are, Denis, ay? Ay? In America, isn’t it, Denis? Like in the pictures, innit? Hollywood. Lovely. Love it over there, don’t you, Denis?” I had never lived in Hollywood, or in California for that matter, but when Vi thought of America, she thought of sunshine and glamour and excitement. I suppose anywhere in America was a kind of Hollywood back-lot, if you had not been there.
In America, Thanksgiving focuses on family and turkey. In England, we didn’t have Thanksgiving; but in my family, all get-togethers focused on drinking. Just before emigrating to the States, I organized a farewell party. My mum and all her sisters, Vi, Flo, Mary, and May showed up armed with bottles of gin. Way past midnight, the five ladies were dead drunk—they sang and swayed their arms, laughed and cried, but they could not move. I made several phone calls and their sons, the cousins I had not seen in years, arrived, much later, to winkle their respective mothers out of my flat. Drinks parties in my extended family went on and on. Nobody ever left until the booze ran out. And, even then, one relative always had the bright idea of making tea and cheese sandwiches to ‘soak up’ the gin the old girls had consumed. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
Mike, a Brit expat who spends most of the year in Thailand taking photos and blogging, sent us this charming photo of his hometown of Oxton, Nottinghamshire. If you're wondering what everyone's doing, they're trying to see whose little rubber duckie will make it to the finish line first. Mike says the biannual event has strict rules—no interfering with your duck!—and the course is 800 yards along the village brook, which includes a couple of bridges. You know we love to say "only in England," but a friend of ours recently entered a duckie in a similar event in... West Virginia. You can see Mike's great photos of Thailand at his photo blog. And many of you read my life-as-a-Yank interview on one of his other blogs, British Expats Directory. If you have a great photo of England, send it on (72 dpi please)! If we post it, we'll link back to you.
The Mermaid was replete with secret passageways, a hide-out for contraband and a meeting place for smugglers! According to the walking guide Frances had picked up at the hotel, as Rye’s importance as a seafaring port diminished, its importance as a smuggler’s haven increased. The notorious Hawkhurst Gang used to hang out at the Inn, no doubt sipping their illicit contraband while keeping a watchful eye out for revenue officers. However, the hostelry’s most famous smuggler was fictional, Thorndike’s Doctor Syn, the vicar of Dymchurch! Frances rolled her eyes as I again rambled on about all his yarns, many of which featured Rye’s Mermaid Inn. For me, those fictional memories were suddenly anchored in reality.
We posted this last winter, but several people have asked me recently about Cauliflower Cheese—and it's on our menu for Thanksgiving—so we thought we'd post the recipe again. This is a classic English staple and when it’s done well, it’s a wonderful thing. Sadly the reputation for this dish has waned over the years and been relegated to the realm of ghastly pub food, made en masse for the lunch crowd because it keeps its heat, like shepherd’s pie with its layer of crisped mash. Even now, this maligned dish is usually found rubbing shoulders with a tray of baked beans and bangers, all held under the ubiquitous glass coffin atop near the beer pumps. And so after an hour or so, the cheese sauce turns into a rubberized cap, the kind a grandmother would swim in. This of course does nothing for the taste but it does act as a heat-sealant. This is a culinary tragedy. Done right, Cauliflower Cheese is a truly wonderful dish, good enough to be savored alone. But when it accompanies a prime rib roast...you are in God’s own country. Here’s how to turn a travesty into a culinary triumph. Cauliflower Cheese, prodigal-style Break up the cauliflower into florets, chop up bits of stalks if you are feeling virtuous, frugal, or both. Steam until crisp-tender, or cover and microwave for about 5 minutes. (If you use the microwave and value your fingers, leave the florets alone in the microwave for a few minutes to calm down. Anyway, you'll be kept busy making the sauce. ) Put 4 tablespoons of butter and 3 tablespoons of flour in a small saucepan; melt butter with the flour, whisk until no white bits remain. Take saucepan off the fire and let the flour cook off the heat. Add a little salt, a good pinch of nutmeg, and a 1/2 teaspoon of Coleman’s powder mustard (or a couple of shakes of powdered white pepper). Throw in a bay leaf if you must; I never do, I find bay leaves overrated. By now it should be safe to remove the cauliflower from the microwave, which you will use to warm up two cups of milk, either fat-free or whole if you are feeling naughty. Mind you, if you’re feeling particularly decadent (and I know there are one or two of you out there) add a little cream. Now put the saucepan back on the fire, whisk in the warmed milk, keep whisking for a minute or two until the concoction thickens. You have now made a Béchamel sauce. Congratulations. I don’t tell Frances but I now add a dollop of cream cheese, about a large tablespoonful, for extra enrichment and flavor. To your creamy cheese sauce add a large teaspoon of Dijon style mustard and a shot of Worcestershire sauce. (And by the way, this is pronounced Wooster Sauce. Wooster as in Bertie Wooster. No shire. No cester. Just Wooster.) Whisk your sauce again then set aside. Butter a large glass dish and turf in the cauliflower florets and edible stalk bits. If you have a 1/4 cup of cauliflower water residing aimlessly in the bottom of your glass dish or steam pot, add it to your sauce. I now sprinkle a generous amount of grated Swiss cheese over the florets, but you could use any grated mousetrap you happen to have kicking around. Then enrobe the cauliflower with your lovely sauce. The experts pour, but I prefer to spoon it on gently, making sure the sauce covers the cauliflower evenly. Now put the dish in the fridge for 24 hours to rest. No, no, I’m only kidding! But you do need to top the dish with parmesan cheese before going any further. For additional flavor and crunch I also add fresh breadcrumbs toasted in butter--it’s worth the extra step. Now you’re almost there. Mix a couple of tablespoons of the crumbs with an equal amount of Parmesan cheese and sprinkle this mixture over the sauced cauliflower. Pop the dish into a 350 F oven for 1/2 hour or so, uncovered. When the sauce bubbles and the top is a gold, mahogany brown ––et voila! Do let your cauliflower cheese repose for a few minutes before serving. This wonderful dish can be prepared ahead, and kept covered in the fridge for hours even overnight. Just don’t sprinkle the crumb mixture until you’re ready to bake. And no, it really doesn’t need any additional salt, the cheese takes care of that. And you can adjust the pepper and dry mustard to your taste. But do use the Worcestershire Sauce, especially now you know how to pronounce it. Enjoy!
After some initial misgivings, I was talked into doing a little video for Youtube (sneaky Prodigal Wife said it was "practice" for a reading!)... and here it is! Let me know what you think, but please be gentle...the grease paint is barely off my training wheels! (PS: If you find it amusing, please rate it/favorite it and pass it along...if you all like it, I'll do some more.)
In the better-late-than-never category, here is a spectacular photo of the Lewes Bonfires sent to us by our friend Gareth at What England Means to Me (some of you may have read the essay I submitted to this site). The bonfires at Lewes are quite famous and probably the largest in England, and I believe they combine several commemorations into one explosive sight. Have a great photo of England? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Momentarily confused, our waitress quickly regained her composure. I told her to lead the way and together we managed to get Kate and her stroller downstairs without waking her. We sipped wine and ordered lunch in a surprisingly airy cellar restaurant, blissfully devoid of cigarette smoke. We had half an hour to go before we had to pry my parents out of the pub. Time to be alone and relax. Kate woke up, a bit groggy, but after a change and a bottle, she obligingly went back to sleep while we ate and finished our own bottle.
Lew busied himself making tea while Mum sorted out two jars of her better-than-Harrods jam. Marvelous. Mum did not think she would be able to make it anymore. Picking the berries had become a very hard chore for them both. “All that bending. Too old for it now, son. Not worth it,” Lew explained. “Still, never mind, eh?” Mum was happy to move on and leave jam-making behind, somewhat resilient to the limitations age placed upon her. “How’s the blackcurrant bush doing?” I inquired, smiling, trying to make conversation, trying to ignore what Lew was saying. “Bigger than ever. Running wild it is, right, Jessie?” “But who can pick ‘em?” she said, again with a slight nervous laugh. I admired the two jars Mum had given to us. The tops were covered in parchment paper and tied with string. I held them up and studied them like bottles of fine wine, the last of the vintage.
Okay, everyone, I've been asked to supply a photo for a large poster that will be displayed in a bookstore (!). So we took a bunch of photos and narrowed it down to these four. What do you think? Should I go friendly like the top ones (with/without glasses), or more author-y like the lower ones (with / without glasses. We all have a different favorite, so please help! What do you think? We'd appreciate some input... or should we scrap these and start again?
Before we get to our giveaway winners, I wanted to say how much I appreciated the comments about the What England Means to Me posts (see below). I had never really spent much time (any time) thinking about it, so I wasn't sure how it would turn out, so I was delighted to see that a lot of you enjoyed the piece and saw themselves or their situation reflected in it. So, my thanks to all of you who left me such heartfelt. even moving comments.
Now, to business! We ended up with 36 entries for the Great British Journeys book—and thanks for pushing A Yank Back to England to page one on Amazon's travelogue/travelogues communities, by the way—so we used the old roulette wheel again. As you can see, the winner was number 2, Melissa at Smitten by Britain! Very appropriate, it seems to us, as Melissa went through all the hoops and had more entries than anyone else. So congratulations, Melissa! We had two entries for the journal, so we went with odd/even on that (though, as it turns out, #2 would have worked), and the winner is Mrs Apple at Apple Tree Academy. Last but not least, Emm in London wins the Orioles shirt, even though this is clearly the Yankees' week. Congratulations to our winners!
And yet... Once I got settled, the pull of England, the occasional tugs homeward, became more frequent. I found myself listening to more Vaughan Williams, more Britten and Holst than ever before. And I rediscovered meat puds and toad in the hole; even beans on toast made it back on the menu. I started to garden. To garden! (The world may think all Englishmen are itching to leap out of the closet but I think we're more prone to come out of the woodshed in a pair of wellies.) Anyhow, this Englishness grew. And now it knows no bounds. I even find myself riding my bike and singing along to the chorus of The English are Best. I'm glued to the telly whenever the most insipid period drama is aired. Just as long as it's English. On the box recently, I heard someone say, "Oooh you are awful...but I like you!" And, quite suddenly, marvelous Dick Emery dug a smiley faced crease in my memory.
It gets worse. I can't hear Jerusalem without getting a wet glob in the eye. And Churchill's wartime words embarrass me with a feeling of pride-or is it that odd, misunderstood emotion expats label as misplaced patriotism? I've started re-reading Mapp and Lucia, Saki, Somerset Maugham; and rediscovering the glories of Golding, Durrell, Fowles, and Bainbridge, to name but a few. Time for tea? I found local shops that import PG Tips, even Typhoo! Assorted British sauces, pickles, sweets, and sundries. Gentleman's relish? Piccalilli. You can get it all here. And I do. Somehow, America has become a receptive, dimensional canvas cleverly shaped liked that familiar little spec in the North Atlantic. So I happily dip into a paint box labeled Albion and splogged on the oils in big thick swirls, brushing out the unpleasant bits from the green and pleasant. Yet, for all that, my picture of England isn't as bland as one might expect. The colours ring true. They are as vibrant and lush as the music of England's countryside, as dense as a sherry-soaked fruitcake, as majestic as our literature, as lyrical as our poetry, and as magical as a kid's memory of a Christmas panto with Arthur Askey. England means more to me now than it ever would have if I had stayed. Moving back, I think I might lose my exuberant imagining of the place I once called home. I would take it all for granted again. And long for other landscapes I would rather not imagine, let alone paint, let alone call home.
(The following is the first half of an essay I wrote for What England Means to Me.) I left England at time when gainful employment was not all that easy to gain. Mind you, I was quite happy to gad about surviving on the odd song royalty or the occasional writing job. Reaching the dangerous age of thirty, I suddenly realized I had better try and get that thing I had, until then, steadfastly refused to search for: a proper job. Besides, several adventurous but potentially lucrative projects in music, film, and theatre had either crashed and burned or simply petered out rather ingloriously. So the time had come to look. I tried to get into advertising as a junior copywriter. Unfortunately my spotty resume as a lyricist, magician, and aspiring playwright impressed no one. Even being a member of a prestigious writers’ workshop did nothing to improve matters. “Fink you can amble out the Aldwych and get a job in advertising, who do you fink you are –– Jack the bleedin’ lad?” I thought I was an out of work writer, and certainly not one bit of a lad, Jack or otherwise. But I was thought to be slumming. Oh well. I could have emigrated to Canada or Australia, but I came to America and the Washington D.C. area. I liked Washington from the time I had spent there a decade before, as a kid in the magic game. And there was another reason: Washington was on the Eastern seaboard, which gave me a foot in the pond, an uninterrupted horizon, with good old Blighty hiding just beyond it. Americans I met were friendly, supportive, and very encouraging. Even my threadbare resume raised interest instead of hackles. Yes, the accent helped a lot. I sounded cleverer than I was. But folks gave me a chance, and I took it: I got a job. I was allowed to try things, be creative, and within a couple of years, I was senior writer at a major agency. Five years later I met Frances, we formed a small marketing business of our own, got married, had a lovely child. And now live happily in suburban Maryland. All’s well that lands well, as they say. And yet…
“Oooh-oooh! It’s Nanny! Hello Katie! Hello Katie!” Morning brought forth the sun, and Mum was ebullient in bright pinks and smiles. Kate took a running jump at Jessie’s legs, gave her a big hug, and started tugging, dragging her towards the patio. “Where’s your mother, where’s your mother?” asked Jessie, a little nervous in the face of Kate’s exuberance. As Kate tottered after a ball, Jessie tottered in the opposite direction.
Even though it was raining hard, I was looking forward to going somewhere different for a few days after a hectic week of hosting. It would be a time to unwind, negate the responsibilities of cooking, cleaning, chauffeuring, and entertaining. For a few days at least, I intended to play the unencumbered tourist, gliding through any visit Frances had planned for us.
We've been very remiss about visiting everyone lately, but we have been a little crazed! We promise to catch up soon, and hope you all forgive us—and, in the meantime, help us celebrate. We finally got our new website up (well, mostly)—and we're finally done with proofing! Hip, hip... So we wanted to share our excitement (and relief!) with all our bloggy friends. And how better to celebrate than with a giveaway? A couple, actually. Great British Journeys by Nicholas Crane Residents of the US and Canada: We're giving away a hardcover copy of Great British Journeys by BBC-TV's Nicholas Crane. You'll follow not the prodigal footsteps (couldn't resist) but those of eight explorers who set out to chronicle the state of the British nation, including Gerald of Wales, H.V. Morton, Celia Fiennes, Daniel Defoe, and William Cobbett. On foot, on bicycle, on horseback, and by boat—share their passion, imagination, and curiosity. Lots of photos too! Orioles shirt We wanted to make sure to include my former countrymen (and women) this time, as well as our friends down under and beyond, so we decided to make this a true cultural exchange. While readers on this side of the Atlantic enjoy this great book about England (and hopefully get in the mood for another book about England, hint, hint!), I'd like to share a bit of what I've found in America with the rest of you. Some of you may know that Prodigal Daughter is quite the little softball player, and she has introduced me to the game of baseball! I actually quite enjoy it and, I confess, sometimes watch it on the telly without her prodding. I know it's not cricket, but... So we thought we'd give away an Orioles shirt. The Orioles are Baltimore's professional baseball team and, while DC now has the Nationals, we've stuck with the Os. The fact that they lose quite often endears them to me even more—must be my English side making me root for the loser, well done and all that. (Note: this sleeveless shirt is man's large, which in US athletic wear is quite large. Perfect for a nightie, ladies!) And for the kiddies We want to get the little ones involved too! So we're giving away a travel journal for the budding tourists in your midst. (Sorry, this one's for US/Canada residents only. Postage is quite silly now.)
Enough chitchat, how do I enter? OK, OK, here are the rules. Quite simple really, and there are lots of opportunities to enter.
*For the book & shirt: You can only enter for one or the other, based on where you are. North American residents, you're in for the book; others for the shirt. (Please say!) *One entry for each of the following:
A comment in post below--make it exciting, we're celebrating!
One entry for signing the guestbook at ayankbacktoengland.com (it helps us climb in the search engines plus, it makes me look popular!)
A link to this giveaway on your blog, facebook page, twitter, or other networking site you might have. You must come back and leave another comment with link.
One entry for putting my book on your shelf at Shelfari, LibraryThing, and/or GoodReads. Must come back and leave another comment. (One bonus entry for Melissa at SmittenByBritain for having my book on her shelf before we'd even heard of Shelfari—thanks, darling!)
One entry for tagging my book "travelogue" and "travelogues" at amazon.com (you have to enter the actual words in the little box). Then come back and let me know...
One entry if you email us a lovely England photo (72 dpi please); photos that were submitted before or during our last giveaway do not count.
*For the travel journal: Just leave a comment in this post saying who it's for—and where they might be going! One entry per person (finish, as Lew would say). *We have to be able to reach you: if you don't have a blog, please leave an email in your comment. *Depending on the number of entries, we'll use the roulette wheel again, the bingo cage, or some other random method. (Will separate by prize first, of course!) *Contest will run until October 24, 2009 (midnight Eastern Time). Winners to be posted/contacted on Monday, October 26. If we haven't heard back in 72 hours, another winner(s) will be drawn.
That's it! Look forward to hearing from lots of you...
Haven't made it out to Stonehenge yet, but as the old Prodigal Wife is always on the trail of Merlin and all things Druid, I'm sure we will someday! In the meantime, Mary Ellen at mefoley sent us this great shot of this mysterious monument, which has apparently stood in place for millennia (must talk to our fixit man about that!). Mary Ellen says that she likes this photo because "the clouds were outstanding that day," but in my opinion, the best thing about this photo is—no tourists like us! She must have friends in high places. If you have a great photo of England, share! Email us and we’ll link back to you if we post it. (72 dpi please!)
Along the way, Jessie and Lew entertained Kate with old nursery rhymes. “Oh, the Grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men—” The second verse surprised us: they sang about putting the fox in a box and never letting him go. Quite unlike the version we played for Kate, where the fox is freed and nothing nasty happens. Times change. Kate liked her grandparents’ version and applauded. It certainly made more sense.
At the end of the harbor we saw a couple of chefs in white smocks and blue checkered trousers deep in conversation. Suddenly they stopped talking and made their way to the wooden stairs, something had caught their attention, all we could hear was the soft soggy swish of gold brown seaweed that clung to the underside of the stairs, then from around the sea wall, we heard what they must have heard, a soft hum and popping gurgle of an engine. A moment later, a small red hulled tug-like fishing boat came into view with an entourage of seabirds squawking and squealing at one other. On the prow of the boat, one of the crew stood holding a couple of flat fish and a striped silver fish. “What yer got?” one of the chefs yelled out. “Got any sole?” asked the other chef. “No sole. Got plaice.” The fisherman yelled back. As the boat bobbed up and down, the engine gurgled, idling in place. “Is that bass?” asked the first chef. “Yeah. bass.” “Don’t want bass.”
We have a wonderful variety of seafood and meats here in the States. For instance, beef here is so good, I used to pack a rib roast and bring it to Blighty to share with my folks. They just loved it! That being said, I must confess, I do miss English or Welsh lamb. Sadly, Americans are not big lamb eaters. And no wonder. Most American lamb is derived from sheep that ceased to gambol a long time past. The lamb here is a bit long in the tooth, a bit tough, and it smells gamey. The other lamb widely available is Australian lamb but, though better, this too tends to be a little tough and just a bit too gamey for my taste. Now, I’ve long been brining turkey and pork. So I thought, why not give the lamb a brine bath? So I did. And the result? Beyond my wildest expectations. The meat was moist, with the aromas of thyme and rosemary. The color was wonderfully pink, and it was a joy to carve. The meat tasted delicate and not a bit gamey. In short the brining turned American mutton into a sweet facsimile of the young, tender English lamb I fondly remember.
Preparing the meat First, let’s make the brine. This is good for any size leg, small or large. You need 1 cup of sugar, ¼ cup of salt, 15-20 peppercorns, bay leaves if you must, fresh rosemary, and stalks of thyme or oregano. You can, of course, use dried herbs if you haven’t got the fresh ones. I’ve also used a couple of lavender stalks in this recipe, but don’t use many as the flavor is quite pronounced. Combine all these ingredients into a saucepan with a quart of water. Boil up. When the sugar and salt have dissolved, pour the contents into a glass, Pyrex-type dish with 3 quarts of cold water. Now put the lamb in the brine. Don’t worry if it isn’t completely submerged. Just turn the meat every few hours, and don’t forget to turn it once before going to bed and again in the morning. You want the lamb to brine for 24- to 36 hours, then drain and proceed as you would for any roast lamb recipe.
Roasting the lamb As we’re going for the English thing, proceed as follows. Coat the lamb with a little butter, mixed with bits of apricot. Mind you, if you have Provencal leanings, you might prefer to anoint the beast with olive oil, garlic, and herbs but…that’s your choice. Pop the lamb into a 425 F oven at 10-12 minutes per pound for medium rare or 15 minutes a pound for medium. We prefer lamb on the rare side of medium so I go with 10 minutes a pound.
Greek-style brined lamb on the grill This year I decided to barbeque the lamb Greek-style, with great results. It goes like this. Keep the herbs from the brine. String up the lamb with butcher’s string, and thread and weave the herbs around the leg so it looks as if the beast had a greenish coat. Then skewer the lamb with two spear-like sticks. Using a Weber-type grill, bank up a good stack of coals on either side, then forage about for a couple of bricks. Now place your bricks opposite each other on the grill, by each of the two banks of coals. Set coals afire and wait until the coals turn white hot. Position the lamb so the ends of the skewers rest on the bricks and the lamb hangs suspended between the coals. I do this for two reasons: I don’t want the lamb to touch the grill and risk burning, and I really want to try and duplicate the Greek fire thing even though I do not possess a turning spit. Barbecue the lamb for 15 minutes, covered. Because you pronged it with two skewers, you’ll be able to turn the beast over quite easily. Lacking asbestos fingers, I use gloves to execute this maneuver. I suggest you do the same. Then lightly baste the cooked side of the lamb with a little of the brining mixture you so cleverly retained. Cover the grill and cook for another 15 minutes. Uncover the lamb and let it roast for another 20 minutes or so. The heat will be intense, and you do not want to overcook the meat. Check for doneness at this point. I had a big leg of lamb and the whole thing was cooked in less than an hour (this little roast in the photo took 40 minutes on our indoor grill, which gives off considerably less heat than the trusty old Weber). For medium, grill the lamb for no more than an hour. Remove from the grill, tent it with foil and let it rest for at least half an hour. Actually, you can leave the lamb to rest for as long as an hour without ill effects. Lamb can be barely warm and still be delicious and succulent. With all that heat residual heat in the grill, go head and grill up a heap of summery veggies to garnish your wonderful English/Greek style lamb. Do try grilling your lamb outdoors if the weather holds—it’s quite spectacular and tastes superb. But however you decide to cook your lamb, do brine it first. The brine will rejuvenate a lamb and put the spring back in the step of even the most muttony beasts. So do take a gambol on brining! Believe me, you’ll be roasting a winner.
Kent has some dramatically rocky and jagged coastline, punctuated by a few Victorian seaside resorts seemingly preserved in briny aspic. Here, in this southeasterly part of England, a visitor can easily discover oyster beds laid down by the Romans, forts with crumbling battlements, the grassy foundations and outlines of Roman temples and soldiers’ barracks, and part of a road that runs as straight and true as the shadow Caesar once cast over this part of Britain.
“And you never have milk in your tea?” Mum said it sympathetically, finding it hard to believe. “Never. Tastes better. Really. You should try it,” said Frances. “At my age! Tea without milk.” She laughed, then tried one more time. “Frances, you never had milk in your tea? Not ever?” Frances confessed to drinking her coffee black too. “Oh, well, coffee, yes, but tea? Funny, really. Oh, well.”
Those of you who've been following this blog for a while know we lost our handsome and well-loved Oscar Wilde earlier this year. Well, Prodigal Wife's birthday came around, bringing along a lovely new kitten. We've named him Daggers (see last post). It's the perfect name for him--he's a tough little lad, even though he's not much bigger than my hand. He's friendly though and, at least so far, we haven't seen any English-style reticence (a little bit of demure wouldn't be so bad!). So join me in welcoming our new family member--and wishing Happy Birthday to the Prodigal Wife, of course!
“Dagenham? You can’t possibly come from Dagenham!” a flamboyant acquaintance in the West End of London once told me. “You simply must tell people you come from ‘Darn-em’ and you must place your hand over your mouth as you say it, just in case.” Just in case? In case of what? I felt an urge to defend the place, but then thought better of it. Dagenham. “Call it Daggers,” said another wag. Well, I called it home.
“Let’s order some wine?” I said. “Thought you’d never ask! God, it's hot, isn’t it? Or is it me?” “No air conditioning,” I said. “Oh, I’m used to it now. Well, I should be. I’ve lived in England, what – twenty years?” Adelard was originally from Canada. “You have to get used to it. But I’ve come prepared. I’m Roget-Gallaired from stem to stern. And, as Bette Davis would say—” Adelard puffed on an imaginary cigarette and whisked the air with his paw. “Body odor offends me!” Adelard emitted a long, theatrical sigh quivering with happy recollections. “Aaaah, we don’t have stars like that anymore, do we? And the ones we have left – dropping off like flies, aren’t they?”
We have been hoarding wonderful awards like squirrels hide nuts before winter, but now it's time to reveal all...
The lovely Helen, A.K.A. The Machinist’s Wife, awarded me the "Honest Scrap" award, which really made me smile. You're supposed to list ten honest things about yourself, then pass it on to ten other deserving souls. Well, the reason it made me smile is, since we're being honest, I've already revealed quite a bit about myself on this blog and anyone who wants to get in deeper is going to have to, well, read the book!
I was honored to discover that the Transylvania-loving Rebecca of Living a Life of Writing me worthy of the Tao of the zombie chicken – excellence, grace and persistence in all situations, even in the midst of a zombie apocalypse. Apparently, these amazing bloggers regularly produce content so remarkable that their readers would brave a raving pack of zombie chickens just to be able to read their inspiring words. What can I say other than thank you!
The lovely Michelloui at Mid-Atlantic English , who is living my life in reverse—she's even married to an Essex boy like me—and whose blog we admire very much gave us this coveted award, which is given to writers with a “continually creative (“kreativ”) way of keeping their blogs interesting." Thank you very much—and ditto.
And, last but in no way least, our book-loving friend Carol at The Writer’s Porch gave us the "your blog is bloody brilliant" award, which is for bloggers who inspire, whether through laughter, grace or just darn good writing. This award, of course, was originated by the wonderful Melissa at Smitten by Britain, who is our first nominee for the Kreativ Award. (And wasn't I clever, picking the cupful of roses—now I have both!)
In fact, since some of these awards have been out and about, I think I will follow Melissa's lead and let our nominees pick their own award (though I do have some thoughts about this, let me know what you pick so I'll see if I was right!). So here we go. The award of choice goes to:
Beyond the main exhibits, near the entrance, was a gift shop. Among the various bits of Roman memorabilia were genuine individual oil lamps, found onsite. There were hundreds of them and quite reasonably priced. The shop also sold recipe books and jars of condiments locally made from original Roman recipes. One contained a kind of poultice of compressed raisins and apples, another was an intense anchovy paste with a musty flavor. Bravely, we took a chance and got a few jars as souvenirs.
Despite Frances’ enthusiasm, I was not all that keen to explore another ruin. Roman arenas and aqueducts and arches were one thing, mosaics under glass quite another. But I kept my thoughts to myself. Frances had been such a good sport about hosting my parents, I could hardly complain about a little sightseeing. And, I had to admit, some of the sites she’d picked had turned out to be a better kettle of fish than I had imagined.
Gareth at What England Means to Me sent us this lovely photo of The Jacobean Bell Inn in Burwash (Sussex), which was featured in Rudyard Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill:
“And while I am tearing my hair over this, Ticehurst Will, my best mason, comes to me shaking, and vowing that the Devil, horned, tailed, and chained, has run out on him from the church-tower, and the men would work there no more. So I took ‘em off the foundations, which we were strengthening, and went into the Bell Tavern for a cup of ale.”
Kipling lived at Bateman's in Burwash, of course, and you know how much we love literary travel! If you're wondering about the proximity of the graveyard to the pub, you see that a lot in English villages, where the pub and the church are right next to each other and the heart of the community. And of course, old pubs in England invariably started life as inns, where weary travelers rested their heads and their horses.
From Thurloe Square, it was a short walk to the Natural History Museum. Our timing was perfect. It was after four o’clock, and the entry was free. This famous Victorian museum was enormous and smelled as old as the fossils and dinosaur bones it contained. We walked around one of the newer exhibitions featuring dinosaurs covered in plastic skin that roared and clicked and made slobbering sounds. Kate was fascinated by dinosaurs, as most young children are, but even so, she was a little disturbed by their realistic look. And yet she was quite unperturbed, once I picked her up, by the huge, life-sized, animated Tyrannosaurus Rex we encountered in the high-ceilinged atrium by the museum teashop. Odd to see a fearsome dinosaur swishing a huge tail, roaring and swooping about as weary museum-goers drank their tea and did their level best to ignore it. In England, dinosaurs should not make scenes in tearooms. It just isn’t done.
We parked the car back at the hotel and strolled to the old part of Windsor, just ten minutes away. We swung by a sedate Regency street that led to Windsor Great Park, in fact Windsor Castle’s back garden. And what a garden it was, seemingly going for miles. The road from the castle to the park was covered in tiny yellow pebbles and not open to the public. Cars speeding down that thoroughfare probably contain a royal. At the end of the road, and across it, we noticed garlands of spiky chain, just in case someone did not understand royal protocol.
OK, this is not exactly the type of England photo we usually post but, as you know, the Prodigal household has been celebrating the lovely endorsement from Michael York, and it's a holiday weekend too, so... when Meagan of Lady Whole Lunches sent on this photo it seemed like just the thing. Here's what Meagan says: "It was a particularly sunny day in May at a wedding in the Clearwell Castle in Gloucestershire. The champagne had been delivered to the table, but no one was there to drink it, as they all went to watch the attempt at cricket. I love how it is the older men who are off running to get the ball, and the children seem to be idly inching forward." Thanks Meagan--and Happy Labor Day weekend everyone!
“I was good at maths,” Lew said, casually. “You what?” I blurted, “Didn’t I tell you? When I was in the artillery, I calculated gun angles, so the shell would land on the target. Six guns, I had. Different elevations, different targets, distances... Lot of things to take into account. Logarithms – did all the calculations an’ that in my head. We had a contest. I had my guns set up and ready to fire when everyone else was farting about trying to calculate the range. I won. Monty himself came up to me personally, congratulated me, he did.” “You never told me.” “About Montgomery?” “About the math.” “It was a long time ago. Mind you, I can still do all your mother’s bets.”
I know Brits are not supposed to show emotion (stiff upper lip and all that) but you know me better than that by now! Plus, what can I say? Michael York thinks the characters in my book -- my family in other words -- are rather Dickensian! Well! Well, I'm not in the least offended, in fact I totally agree and I love it! Anyway, Michael finished reading A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns, and here is what he said:
"A perceptive, engaging and informative take on contemporary England as seen through the eyes of a fellow expatriate who writes with humor and affection. The cast of characters has an almost Dickensian vivacity." Michael York
What a gentleman! I always knew I liked him. Now the ball is in your court--I hope you'll give the book a read and enjoy it too!
Being a Brit, I’ve always had a fondness for watercress sandwiches, the kind one has for tea with the crusts cut off, but I’ve always wanted to take their sophisticated, contrasting flavors from the tea table to the dinner table. Here, then, is my take on an old favorite, now transformed into an elegant cold soup for a lovely summertime lunch or dinner.
Choose your weapons The hardware. A chopping/mashing machine of your choice—luddite that I am, I like to use a pestle and mortar, but this is not necessary. Also a hand-held blender/whirring machine, and You a couple of glass bowls. The ingredients. A bunch of watercress, an avocado, and a ripe pear, three cups of light chicken stock, four-five thick slices of crustless country bread, a good dash of salt, a garlic clove, three tablespoons white wine or cider vinegar, and a lemon from which to squeeze a few tablespoons of juice. You’ll also need a quarter cup of olive oil, plus a teaspoon or two. If you feel so inclined, a tablespoonful of whipping cream won’t hurt.
Let’s get cracking Peel and chop up the pear into very small dice, squirt with lemon juice, and set aside. Now wash and chop up the watercress leaves and just the tenderest stalks, put into a glass bowl, reserving a little for garnish. There, simple.
Onward! While your chicken stock is coming to a low boil, mash up the bread, olive oil, salt, vinegar and tablespoon of lemon juice in your pestle or other mashing implement. Drop the garlic clove in the stock, blanch for 30 seconds, then fish out and add to your sloppy bread mixture. Mash up well. Tip the just-boiled chicken stock over the watercress leaves; this blanches them and adds to the vibrancy of the finished dish. Mix in the bread mixture. Chop up the avocado and add to your mixture. Now whirr everything up with your hand mixer (or food processor). If your soup is too thin, add a bit more bread and whir it into the soup to thicken. Now chill the concoction for a few hours, and you will end up with a vibrant, peppery, creamy soup. Check for salt, it may need a little more; if you’re concerned about salt add a little more lemon juice instead. Serve up in little bowls and sprinkle with the tiny pear fruitions––voila! You make of course make bread croutons if you’d rather, but ripe pear adds a luscious contrast. Top with a sprinkling of chopped watercress and, if desired, drizzle on a little cream—et voila! You have a cold, elegant soup with a hint of teatimes past, just perfect for a warm summer’s eve.
Just as we arrived, the sky opened up and poured down buckets. I could barely see anything. “Go check it out, see if it’s worth going in,” said Frances. I felt no great desire to get out of the car. “If we go in, we’ll still be outside. It is a garden,” I said, trying for once to use logic on Frances. After a bit more prodding, I got out to reconnoiter. I peeked over a fence for a free look. In good weather, the crumbling monastery sprouting plants and shrubs and flower beds must have looked quite delightful, but all I saw was an overgrown, sprawling, crumbling mess awaiting demolition. Only the keenest of enthusiasts could derive any joy from the garden in that downpour. And some did. I saw a flock of old ducks in see-through plastic bonnets, pointing out specimens to each other with unabashed excitement. Oblivious to the weather, they even smiled. Straddling large puddles, I hurried back to the car and explained the situation to Frances, who was now in the back seat entertaining Kate. I suggested she check the place out for herself. Wisely, Frances declined to leave the warmth of the car. As we pulled out, a coach was pulling in, with obviously hardier types than us.
One of England’s most famed gardens, Sissinghurst was created by the writer Vita Sackville West and her essayist-publisher husband Harold Nicholson, two members of the Bloomsbury Set who, after sowing their gayest and wildest oats, decided to take up gardening. The English either come out of the closet or the woodshed. Vita and Harold came out of both. Not exactly faithful to each other, they were faithful to their garden. Ironically, long after their deaths, with books and scandals all but forgotten, the garden they created became their most enduring legacy.
One of the things I've come to love about England is its fabulous gardens. So I was delighted when the lovely Teresa Inside the Mind of a MiniMadWoman sent on this wonderfully inviting photo of Hidcote Manor in Gloucestershire. Hidcote Gardens are considered by many afficionados to be the most beautiful in England—a definite must-see! (The manor looks pretty nice too!)
If you have a great photo of England, share! Email us and we’ll link back to you if we post it. (72 dpi please!)
We went around to the stables. The manager was merry and enthusiastic, and said she was looking forward to taking Kate on her first pony ride, a very important event in a young girl’s life. “Wonderful view. You must have some great rides here.” I indicated the rolling countryside, framed by poplars and willow trees around a pond. “Unfortunately, the hotel’s property ends at that line of trees.” “Really? I thought they owned acres and acres.” “They did, but they sold it. Think they regret it now, selling it off, you know. Still, we’ve got enough space for the younger riders, so it’s not too bad, is it, Kate!” Kate beamed. After having a gander at the ponies and horses, we strolled through the grounds and ended up at the indoor swimming pool, an oasis with palms and large glass windows looking onto the park-like setting. Kate splashed about in the tiny paddle pool with Frances, I managed a couple of languid laps, thinking all the while about the racing turns I intended to make in our enormous bathtub back in the room. Couldn’t wait!
We reported back at the front desk. Our room was ready. Perfect. Need help with bags? Thank you. The hotel was three stories high, apparently not worth installing elevators, so we followed our porter up a staircase becoming less salubrious and narrower as we ascended. We were heading for the old servants’ quarters. No matter, our room was big with a ceiling high enough to throw an echo. The bathroom was long and skinny and incredibly ornate, with a tub I could stretch out in. Big tubs – one of the things I loved about coming back to England. But first a nap. Two hours later, we were up and about. I felt human again, Frances was smiling, and Kate was eager to go out and run around.
With summer coming to a close, I wanted to tempt you with a lovely English fruit pud called, most aptly, summer pudding. I must confess, Prodigal Wife and Daughter never quite took to the cooling charms of this quintessential English dessert. They said it was too bready, too pudding-like, and just a bit too splodgy. And I really could not blame them: apart from fresh fruit, the standard recipe is mostly day-old white bread and gelatin. So here is a lighter version of this classic summer stand-by, one that has found favor in the Prodigal household. Unlike the traditional sweet, which is large and hard to cut into portions, I create individual puds crammed with fruit filling and devoid of gelatin, encased in a very thin layer of raisin bread! The resulting concoction is lighter, fruitier, and just a little more fun to eat—and everyone has their own pud, which is a great plus. This is a no-cook dessert (almost), another boon in the summer, but it does require at least 24 hours to set up. In fact, I’ve left them for 48 hours in the fridge, and the bread casing almost disappeared; the flavors meld, becoming richer and even more delectable. What a great do-ahead recipe to round off a special dinner party. Let’s begin. What you’ll need Equipment: Six ramekins or custard cups, whatever they may be (Prodigal Wife says Americans know what a custard cup is). You will also need teacup saucers, a couple of cans for weights, and two cookie sheets or large trays. Also, you’ll need a sieve, a glass bowl, and plastic wrap. The edibles: Purchase or pluck a lemon, a pannet of strawberries, and a carton of blueberries. If you use a combination of berries you won’t need gelatin (strawberries don’t have much pectin, so it doesn’t set up so well on its own). You can of course use other berries, such as raspberries and blackberries, but I find them outrageously expensive and don’t think they add that much. You’ll also need a loaf of raisin bread, sliced thinly or uncut and preferably not flavored with cinnamon. Or else use brioche of challah. Or panetone--I’ve never used that but I think the end result would be quite superb.
Now let’s do it! Roughly slice the strawberries and place in a saucepan with the blueberries and some lemon zest. Add a squeeze of lemon. You could also add a dash of leftover dessert wine, which is nice but not essential. Now add six tablespoons of sugar. Before adding the sugar, taste the fruits, if both are tart use a little more sugar. Use your judgment on this, but you’ll need some sugar or syrup won’t set up. As soon as mixture boils, take off the heat and let the cool. Slice the raisin bread as thinly as possible. Cut off the crusts. Recipes I’ve seen always call for day-old bread, but why wait? I don’t. Cut the bread slices into inch-wide strips. Line the bottom and sides of your ramekins with the strips, making sure enough bread sticks out at the top to fold back over. Overlap the bread strips a little and press down, making sure there are no gaps. Put the fruit mixture into the sieve over a glass bowl. Now wait an hour to let the lovely juices drain. Although you want to capture as much juice as possible, resist the temptation to press down on the fruit or you’ll ends up with pip bits between teeth. Now carefully spoon the fruit mixture into the ramekins until they crest the very top. Fold over the extra flaps of bread, and press down. Now draw the plastic wrap tightly over each ramekin. This will help set the mould. Place ramekins on the tray then place a tea saucer, ridge part down, on top of each wrapped ramekin. Put the other tray or cookie sheet atop the saucers, and weigh the tray down with the cans. Place all this in the fridge. I’ve taken a long time to describe what is in fact a very simple procedure. It does take a little longer because instead of making one large summer pudding you are making (I hope) individual ones. Much nicer. Now boil up the collected juices and reduce a little. You want to end up with a thick, rich, but pourable sauce, not a jam. Now you wait for a day, then... Remove ramekins from the fridge. Peel away the plastic wrap. Using a sharp knife, go around the edge of the pudding. Turn the ramekin over and turn out your pud onto a small pretty plate — Royal Worcester, of course! You will notice the juices have seeped through, giving the pud a lovely purple color that glistens on the plate. Dab any uncoated bits with the lovely reserved juices. Moat the plate with a little of the purple fruit sauce, add a dollop of whipped cream, and garnish with a sprig of mint, if you must. Now tuck in and discover just how delicious this classic English treat really is. Summer will fade but sweet memories of this fruity indulgence will not. Try it and see!
As our room was not ready, we decided to explore. The staircases went up and went down at various levels and ended in totally different locations. Most odd. The bedrooms – those we could peer into – were not uniform in size, and neither were the public lounges. The walls were dotted with photo portraits of the hotel’s original owners, dressed in formal dinner wear, outfitted for country walks with Norfolk jackets, casually resplendent for tea, or in gauntlets and flat hats, roaring to go for daring trips by horseless carriage.
On the ride back to Deal, Lew read snippets from the pamphlet Frances had picked up. The town of Sandwich was first recorded in the seventh century and had Saxon origins, though many believe it was settled much earlier. The name was derived from the Place of Sand, but it was the origin of the edible sandwich that intrigued us most. It all started in the mid-eighteenth century. The illustrious Earl of Sandwich, in order to continue gambling and, presumably, not break a winning streak, called for beef to be placed between two slices of bread so he could eat without getting gravy on his playing cards or ruffled shirt sleeves. Thus a new dish was created. Ironically, the earls of Sandwich had no real connection to the town. The first one, Edward Montagu, only took the title because his fleet docked at Sandwich prior to sailing for France to pick up King Charles the Second and return him to the throne of England. Montagu could just as easily taken his title from another town along the coast. “Anyone for a roast beef portsmouth?” I asked. We thought about it for a moment; it did not sound as strange as I expected. “Could work,” said Frances. “Although roast beef ‘rye’ would be better.” “Rye! Yes. Clever. Very.” I smiled.
Prodigal Daughter, who is much more technically savvy than we are, encouraged us old folks to get onto Goodreads and Shelfari. Which we did--but we can't figure out who's out there (Shelfari's search engine is particularly weak)! If any of our bloggy friends would like to join us, we would love that! If you can figure out the system, our user names and email on both sites are: Denis L aprodigaltouristATgmailDOTcom Frances E prodigalwifeATgmailDOTcom Hope to see you in the shelves! Denis & Frances PS: Signed up on Librarything too but haven't put any books there. Is that one as popular?
Now here's what I call a lovely cup of rosie lea! We were honored by this charming cup of roses from our friend Melissa at Smitten by Britain, which she says she created to recognize "bloggers who inspire, whether through laughter, grace or just darn good writing." If this is the case, we should give one back to her, because her blog is a breath of fresh air, and we always enjoy our visits. However, the idea is to pass it forward, so here goes. *More of a share than a pass-along, my first choice is Prodigal Wife, whose photos always inspire me (she turned me into a tourist, right?). The rosy cup will look lovely on her blog, A Slide of Life. *My "real life" friend Paul at See Me. Hear Me. Touch Me, because I want to encourage him with his new, non-theatrical venture, just as he has always encouraged me. Plus, his blog looks rather bare, I think. And, of course, due to the nature of the lovely award, I want to recognize these fellow tea lovers, because nothing is more inspiring than a real cup of tea: * ParTea Lady at Tea and Talk * Linda J. at Friendship Tea * Bernideen at Bernideen’s Tea Time Blog * Angela at Tea with Friends Just the name of their blogs make me smile--and there's always tea waiting when you visit. Well done everyone, and thanks again, Melissa!
We asked Cousin Kevin to take some piccies in Sandwich, that wonderful medieval town we discovered on our travels, almost by accident. He came up trumps with this weird and wonderful structure we vaguely recalled seeing near the river’s edge, but we could not quite remember its purpose. It looked like one of those cages naughty villeins were put in to rot! So Kevin put us to rights: It was a pole beacon. The structure was filled with wood, rags, and kindling, all to be set ablaze as an ancient first alert system. Prior to the arrival of the mighty Spanish Armada, these pole beacons were built, set up, and made ready all along the southern coast of England. When the invasion fleet was sighted in 1588 the beacons were lit, one after the other. This amazing sight of crackling fire and billowing smoke was the signal for all mannish men to assemble at their local church, armed and ready, and await instructions. The incident is recalled in history books of the time: “Sir Walter Raleigh sailed out to engage the dastardly Spanish in the Channel and Kicked their Arse.” Cousin Kevin adds, “And that’s why we all speak English today! See... I was listening during history lesson at school, instead of staring out the window.” And we are pleased you were paying attention, old chap!
For hundreds of years young men had been gaining a higher education just a few yards from where Lew sat. He left school at fourteen, a working class lad, not lacking intelligence, just lacking the encouragement and confidence such places of learning seem to bestow. I don’t think he looked around him and saw a missed opportunity for himself. It was a world in which he felt he could never belong. This, he imagined, was the world of Milton, Tennyson, Hawking, a world beyond his horizons, his class. But not beyond the ambitions of his family. “Your granddaughter may study here one day, Dad.” Lew’s face crinkled into the semblance of a smile. He nodded, I prepared myself for a bitter comment, a wistful phrase tinged with regret. “I’m knackered. I’m truly knackered,” he growled as he got to his feet. “There’s a pub up the road. We’ll go for that, me and your mother. Come on!”
And speaking of great English architectural feats... John and Kathy of casa dolce sent us this fabulous photo of the gothic Lincoln Cathedral in Lincolnshire. Built some 900 years ago, the massive structure can be seen from miles away, as the surrounding countryside is, conversely, quite flat. Read Kathy's post about their "daytripping" experience here. Have a great photo of England? Email it to us and we'll link back to you!
We walked towards the river Cam and crossed a small, hump-backed bridge. Beneath it were several young men in straw boaters with neckties swung around their waists to hold up their white flannel trousers. These would-be tour guides, local students, playfully accosted us as we passed by, extolling the virtues of viewing the River Cam from the inside of a punt. Clutching and jerking poles around, especially in public, was not my cup of tea. Punting was not for the uncoordinated, the inexperienced, or indeed, for me. Much better to watch. And so we did, from a hotel conveniently located just over the bridge. The hotel had a lovely terrace and verandah, and from there we happily nibbled toast, slurped tea, and gazed upon the tranquil river traffic and the ancient spires of Cambridge. A little later, we ambled back over the Cam and made our slow progress across a large lawn, towards those hallowed halls of academe. Lew prepared for the march with all the resolve and determination of Scott returning from the South Pole.
The streets surrounding the colleges gave way to warren-like passageways filled with cobblestone, bottle glass, and wrought iron work. We spotted the occasional gas lamp and flower baskets that dripped with pansies and geraniums. Dark and mysterious, the pedestrian byways of Cambridge were inviting, but where did they lead? Cambridge was indeed a town to wander. These were the same streets and turnings that Isaac Newton, Lord Byron, and Charles Darwin ambled down. Where would they lead?
“Don’t go to Cambridge in the winter! Or even early spring. Ghastly.” A friend who had gone to Cambridge tried to put me wise. “The wind comes howling down across the fens, the land is completely flat. No protection. Bitterly cold. Winter. Even early spring. As I said, ghastly.” He had shaken his head, looking every inch like a wet bulldog, and offered no further explanation. We went there anyway, hoping the early May weather would turn favorably warm. My friend had been right, the approach to Cambridge was flat. Reminiscent of approaching Dayton, Ohio! Suddenly, it’s there. And so were we.
Prodigal Wife is hosting tomorrow's Skywatch Friday (how cool is that?), so it seemed a good time to introduce everyone to her new photo blog, A Slide of Life, where's she's sharing some of the fabulous photos she's taken on her many travels. Of course, I exerted some of that mannish charm everyone's talking about this week to save her pictures of England for us--and you've already seen quite a few here--like this peaceful shot of Cambridge.
We walked past the village green, framed by a couple of pubs, and stopped to get our bearings. On closer inspection, one of the pubs was not a pub at all, having been completely converted into an interesting looking restaurant. Inside, the decor was bright blues and yellows, and looked very Mediterranean. Surprisingly, the food was English and good. I had a succulent rack of lamb and a trendy salad of tender young leafy things that, left to grow, would turn into stinging nettles and foul-smelling weeds. Frances had a veal chop and spinach. Kate had her normal one-course meal of formula. If the weather had been better we might have lingered around the antique shops, but it was getting cold and we were still pretty damp from the previous downpour. We decided to head home.
When we came outside into the insipid daylight, I looked up. Clouds, I noticed, were still gathering like a mighty armada of gray battleships waiting to attack once more. We started to look for somewhere to eat. Quickly. Across the street, we saw another large stately home, but I had seen enough for one morning. Even Frances did not press me to see more.
“It can get worse than this! No question!” We had stopped by the abbey to talk to a cyclist taking a breather and, like us, seeking a little protection from the elements. He showed us the winding path that stretched around the ancient fortifications along the top of the cliff, towards Whitstable in one direction, Margate in the other. “Are you are visitor?” I asked. “No, no, I live here. Retired.” He waved his paw into the wind. Retired or not, with his weather-beaten face divided by lemon specs, Spandex top and pants, and huge calves narrowing to tiny ankles, I could tell he was a serious biker. “The going’s mostly flat, once you get up here. Got to watch for the wind, though!” He waved, then rode off into the wind, prudently veering away from the cliff’s edge.
Cousins Kevin and Maxine of The Repairman Cometh took us at our word and raised a glass (or two) when they heard the news about the book. We laughed so hard at Kevin's note we decided to share it here (well, most of it), our first "guest blogger," so to speak.
I've poked around in the piggy bank with my knife and dug out some coppers so I can pre-order my hot-off-the-press copy of A Yank Back to England! Well done--the longest book I ever wrote was a thousand lines at school. Delivery is estimated 8th Feb in UK, do tell the publicist to get out the ol'caxton press and bang out some early copies... We've just recently returned from a two-week holiday caravan rally in the Vendee, France. A long drive but well worth it. We've flogged our holiday stories to death but have heard there's some new victims across the pond... My French is much improved: "Un beer pretty darn quick'o!" Lots of love to all (said in my deep straight voice), Kev & Max
You may have heard, the Prodigal household is celebrating--we've found a publisher for my book about my rediscovery of my old home! It's to be called A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns and will be out in December in Washington, everywhere else in January. We were holding off on the happy news (not on the celebrating, as you can see from the pic) until the website was ready, but we got scooped by our friend Melissa at Smitten by Britain , who already put the book in her Amazon store! (You are naughty, and we love you for it!) so... here we are! Site-less but thrilled! Until we're ready, we will link to Amazon on the side column (US, UK, Canada, & Europe) for anyone who wants to take advantage of the low pre-order price. (And tar very much!) For those of you who are unsure, or new to the blog, we do have a wonderful testimonial from Pulitzer-prize winning critic Michael Dirda, who read the mss and wrote:
“Half memoir, half travel book, A Yank Back to England never stints the reader: Here is England seen entire, from inside out, from bottom to top, as Denis Lipman returns from America to his working-class family home in blighted Dagenham. From there he, his young American wife, and his cockney Mum and Dad embark on a series of funny, touching, madcap and even surreal adventures as they visit celebrated landmarks and holiday spots in England—as well as a good many pubs. The result is an absolutely wonderful book, not only about going home again but also about love and family and tradition and the passage of the years.”
Couldn't ask for a better quote from a wonderful critic and author. Now one more thing: I want to thank all of you who have supported and encouraged us over the otherwise-bleak last few months--reading your comments and emails has been most wonderful and cheering, and I mean this most sincerely. So celebrate with us! Lift a glass to A Yank Back to England, to me, and to the long-suffering Prodigal Wife! Cheers, Denis (a.k.a., The Prodigal Tourist)
Reculver Fort stood atop a grassy, wind-blown headland, cobbled together from the remains of Regulbium, the Roman watchtower, and an old Saxon abbey. Christian and pagan ruins occupied the same site, still holding their own, sharing a similar aspect and an equal amount of respect. From a distance the Roman part of the edifice appeared stooped, near crumbling. But up close the fort looked like the head of a beast rising up from the land, strong and permanent. Gusts blew through the grass, first revealing then concealing the fort’s bone-colored foundations. Reculver was originally built by the Romans to monitor shipping and protect the inlaid channels and waterways that veined this part of Thanet. A thousand years later, single mast ships dipped their sails as they passed, acknowledging Reculver as a beacon and trusted landmark. Now, two thousand years on, it was protecting the three of us from strong broadsides of wind blown from the sea.
The talented Jo at Urban Cynic sent us this dramatic photo of the Palace Pier in "London by the Sea," the famous seaside resort town of Brighton. This is the pier Richard Attenborough used as a liefmotif in his wonderful adapation of Joan Littlewood's "Oh, What a Lovely War," starring my old friend Victor Spinetti. This gathering, almost ominous sky would have fit in perfectly! Want to share a photo of England? Email us!
We were obviously expected to take the pathway to the cathedral, but its cobbles, like endless rows of tortoises pressed together, were huge and quite impractical for a stroller. We set out across the grass. Along one side were a few ancient inns, originally built for overnight pilgrims and now catering to “day trippers” – sightseers like us – and locals. We stopped by one. “Sorry, can’t let her in,” the landlord said, pointing to Kate. “It’s okay, she doesn’t drink,” I said, trying for humor. “Well, nothing you would sell, anyway.” “Licensing laws,” the landlord said, shrugging. “What can you do?” He sighed and turned away. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and sitting at one of the outdoor picnic tables was no punishment. Even so, Kate climbed on our bench and poked her smiling face through the ground floor window, much to the amusement of the patrons inside and mild consternation of the landlord.
“I’m just going up the apples and pears,” said Lew, without explanation. Frances looked puzzled. Lew pointed to me for the answer. “You know, Cockney rhyming slang. He gets into it sometimes,” I said, still a bit morose. “Oh, apples and pears, stairs – I got it.” “She’s got it,” said Lew, chuckling to himself as he mounted the stairs. “Where you off to then?” I asked. “Just got to see a man about a dog.” “A man about a dog?” asked Frances. I pointed to the closing toilet door. Frances asked what was the rhyme in “man about a dog.” I told her, I did not have a clue. My old man and his expressions! But at least that one had caught me smiling again.
Our bloggy friend Melissa at Smitten by Britain sent us this beautiful (and award-winning!) photo of Anne Hathaway's cottage in Stratford-upon-Avon. Parts of this fabulous building are apparently pre-15th century, though of course many changes and improvements have been made over the years, including the addition of fireplaces in the 16th century. A far cry from our tiny thatched cottage in Rattlesden, though the two are probably contemporary! Email us your best shot of England! If we post it, we'll link back of course. Thanks Melissa!
We've gone through all our pictures from our various journeys to Blighty, and came across only one with all of our "regulars." We thought you might enjoy putting faces to the stories, so we decided to post it here. In shoes, from left to right, are Lew (Dad), Frances (Prodigal Wife), Denis (TPT), and Jessie (Mum). The little one is Kate (Prodigal Daughter?) at six months or so. The photo was taken in front of my brother Tony's house, in Chelmsford, the county town of Essex. Not much to see there, don't stopover!
“Is Mum alright, Dad?” I asked. “Don’t wake her, for Gawd’s sake!” Lew’s face registered fear and concern. “She’ll start doing a ‘knees up’ or get all funny. Either way, I’ll never hear the end of it.” “A knees up?” Frances whispered. I explained it was an East London dance that is only difficult to do if very drunk, which is the only time it is ever performed. A “knees up” required the linkage of arms, the stomping of feet, and high-kicking legs in order to get the required “knees up” while singing “Knees Up Mother Brown.” The image of my drunken aunts performing like inebriated Rockettes, trampling on each other’s feet, was not far from my mind.
Standing, from L to R: Lew (Dad), Frances (Prodigal Wife), Denis (The Prodigal Tourist), and Jessie (Mum). Floating: Kate (Prodigal Daughter).
About this blog
You are reading random vignettes, deleted scenes, and other extras from and about my book, A Yank Back to England: The Prodigal Tourist Returns. Enjoy, let me know what you think, ask questions, and thanks for your support! Cheers, The Prodigal Tourist
Years ago I shed my Cockney accent and left London's blighted East End for America. Since then, I’ve only returned to see my increasingly cantankerous parents and assorted relatives. Until my American wife comes along. She wants to tour, see the sights. No thank you. It’s not for me. But she insists, and I become a reluctant tourist in my former homeland.