“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.
We were lucky. Thomas the Tank Engine puffed and chugged into town, resplendent in red and blue, with a smiley face on the front of the boiler. As Thomas pulled up, we all applauded and children lined up to climb aboard. Kate got on the footplate of another train’s engine as it stood beneath a water tower getting a drink. We took her picture with a young costumed engineer before she took off for a ride on a miniature train. By then we all wanted a trip on a train – a proper train! Two trains were running that day, one with an engine over a hundred and thirty years old. After buying return tickets, “round trip” Frances called them, we walked the length of the platform, eyeing the waiting train, debating where to sit. We had a host of different cars to choose from and, as there was no surcharge, we decided to travel first class. Our carriage had serviced the South Coast Railway until the mid-nineteen fifties. The framed mirrors were of etched glass, leather straps lifted or lowered varnished, wood-framed windows. Walnut-framed maps adorned the compartment. Polished brass fittings sparkled. Lace doilies draped the headrests. Kate particularly liked the footrests. The seats were as large and comfortable as armchairs, upholstered in spiky royal blue velvet. Gold braid tassels held back curtains. A small side table stood beneath the window with a vase holder for flowers. This was the way to travel!
We joined crowds of people and loads of families with young children, and became part of a typical English Bank Holiday Sunday. Lots of smiles and squeals of anticipation all around. On one platform we found a restored station buffet, tall cast-iron girders, wooden eaves, big glass windows, polished tea urns, and a big marble counter. We peered in, then took off, looking for trains! On one siding were four steam mammoths and various antique railcars, some of which were being restored. We climbed aboard a luxurious Pullman, an old Great Western restaurant car, and one or two freight cars. Beyond the sidings were locomotive sheds, a museum, and another station buffet. So much to see.
Cuckfield turned out to be a great base to see nearby attractions. After a sumptuous breakfast, we headed out to Sheffield Park, home of the Bluebell Railway and its working steam trains, with a restored track stretching to Horsted Keynes twenty miles away. Sheffield Park was a beautifully preserved country train station, thronged with more people than it ever saw on its busiest day as a stop on a small branch line. British Rail closed many unprofitable lines in the late nineteen fifties, and this was one of them, but a preservation society reopened the rail line in the early nineteen sixties, attracting well-wishers and steam train enthusiasts of all ages.
My elementary school did have something the Weald schoolroom did not possess. Electrical equipment! Once a week, two teachers wheeled in a large gray box covered in stretched cloth. In the box was a gramophone – without a wind-up handle! Through this mysterious contraption, we heard Tchaikovsky’s Peter and the Wolf and Britten’s Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra. Of course, I did not know it was Britten at the time. I found out years later, when I heard it again, without the school version’s patronizing narration. Back then, the energy and excitement of the music was lost on us. We stared into space, trying to fathom why our teachers were so happy. They beamed at each other, rocked back and forth on their feet, and nodded sagely over something or other. One teacher conducted an imaginary orchestra with his hands in his trouser pockets. A little provocative, even to our innocent eyes. Occasionally, and with less gyrations, he conducted by gripping the lapels of his tweed sports jacket; then only his folded arms would flap about, like stunted wings. He tried hard not to betray the passion he so fervently felt and we hopelessly lacked.
After the ladies retired for the evening, Lew remained in place, eyeing the Jack Daniels but saying nothing. Although they would never admit it, my parents were quite alike in some ways. I took the hint. “Fancy a splash, Dad?” “It’s a big bottle, son, be less to carry home if we do.” So we lessened the load. I poured the drinks, putting less in mine and hiding the difference with ice. Lew took his straight. We sat there for a moment. I told him about the old schoolhouse we had seen that day at the outdoor museum. “Not much different from mine,” I said. “Didn’t like it.”
“It’s a lovely day for walking,” Frances smiled. “All sunny. All lovely!” Jessie piped in, and then, as though startled, “What is this place?” “It’s a museum,” said Lew, ominously. “There’re lots of old houses close by. From all different periods of English history! And a blacksmith shop,” said Frances, trying to muster interest. “After we walk a bit, we’ll go look at the animals. Kate’ll like that.” “You go on and enjoy, darling,” said Lew, patronizingly. “We’ll see you in the caff.” “What is all this exactly?” asked Jessie, who did not know what to make of the place. “Like I said, Mum, it’s an outdoor museum,” I said, patiently but not very helpfully. “Outdoor museum? I prefer to be inside, meself.”
Then, with the sun beating down on us, Lew suggested tea. Frances was innurred to the fact that my family and I drank hot tea in the height of summer, but she was amazed to find this strange predeliction actively encouraged right on the beach. “The beach tray!” I said, with jokey effusiveness. “It’s part of the English seaside tradition! Like donkey rides, Punch and Judy, and saucy postcards, the beach tea tray is a standard seaside accoutrement.” ”You’re so weird,” said Frances evenly, shaking her head, trying not to give my blatherings any encouragement. I shrugged and, undaunted. set off with Lew to buy a pot of tea with extra hot water, a jug of milk, dishes of sugar, and proper cups and saucers and spoons, all of which we majestically carted back across the sand to our little bit of beach and half-constructed castle.
Moments later, in my improvised cut-downs, Kate and I were jumping icy, gray waves that formed perfect semicircles on the smooth, flat sand. Plucking up courage, we raced into the water. I gasped, looked down, and saw my legs turn deathly white as blood fled my frozen pins. Kate just laughed. Adjusting to the cold, we waded in a bit farther. Tiny, gray-green waves collided in silvery arcs, dappling our mouths with the taste of salt, seaweed, and sun. After some extensive water play, we clomped back to the shore and tried to persuade Frances to join us for a paddle. Cleverly, she saw through our bold fibs regarding the tropical nature of the ocean blue and declined.
“Did you bring Kate’s bathing costume?” “A bathing costume?” Frances looked at me as if I were an exhibit in a museum. “Alright, alright, but did you?” “No,” said Frances firmly. Then she smiled. “But I did bring her swimsuit.” In addition to my arcane bathing terminology, Frances found my family’s English beach etiquette mildly amusing. She watched as we staked out a piece of beach with deckchairs. Within short order, Mum had taken off her hat and shoes and cardigan, and begun studying racing form. Meanwhile Lew had unbuttoned his shirt, taken off his shoes and socks, and rolled up his suit trousers to his knees. I was still ripping up my jeans, trying to create shorts, as Kate rushed towards the water’s edge.
“Look, that’s where Dickens stayed,” I enthused. “And that’s where he wrote The Pickwick Papers! There! D’you see? There’s a blue plaque.” No one cared. At the end of the High Street, the sea suddenly appeared, then disappeared from view. We turned onto Albion Street, gaily painted with double yellow lines and decorated with sporadic meters and lots of no-parking signs. “There’s nowhere to park! Brilliant, bloody brilliant!” Then, just past the harbor pub, The Tartar Frigate, I was relieved to find a waterfront car park tucked into the lea of a cliff. I stopped the car, got out, and stretched my legs. The harbor, originally built by Henry the Eighth, jutted out like a giant, slightly curved anvil, protecting its brightly colored, bobbing fishing fleet, a few waves away from a crescent beach, the pristine footprint of Vikings Bay. “What do you think, not bad, eh? At the end of the harbor, we can even buy some cockles and winkles for tea!” I said, happy again.
But it’s the rocks and the sand and the sea I adore the most. Perhaps I’m drawn to the edges of England because I can’t wait to get away from it all, and that’s why I love to plunge into the very salty, very cold, very uninviting grey green sea with lemming-like fervor. Maybe I like swimming away from the coast to gaze upon the undulating shoreline that crumbles gracefully, in part, like a giant piece of Wensleydale cheese. if only to better understand where I have come from and why I always swim back to it.
I was secretly longing to get back to the sea. I find myself drawn to the coast, and I need a connection with the ocean that pounds and tries to batter Albion into submission. I long to swim in the water or, if the weather turns inclement, to at least paddle my feet in the briny foam. For some reason I’m drawn to English seaside places, specifically Broadstairs, with its huddle of Victorian abodes clustered around the cliff top. I fondly imagine bewhiskered gents and corsetted ladies from a century ago, promenading along the front, taking in deep breaths, listening to brass bands in Cliffside Gardens, trying to escape the constraints and the conventions of their day, if only with an occasional burp or fart swallowed up in the sound of a brass cymbal or a crashing wave. I love the town’s rocky terrain, the tiny harbor, the gaudy seaside swag, its weather-beaten elegance and quiet claims to the past that always seem so warm and inviting, whatever the season.
“Have we missed the East Enders?” asked Jessie. “That was ages ago,” said Lew. “Bugger it,” said Jessie. And surprisingly predictable. She’d missed her favorite show, so she settled for what was showing. Lew had brought a book and was not bothered either way. When Frances entered the living room, Mum had already nodded off and Lew was looking at the racing page. “’Glorious Goodwood,’ that’s what they called it. Glorious, my arse! Nothing special. Lose your money on that course as well as any other course.” “We could visit Goodwood. If we had some binoculars, you could see the racing from the garden.” “Naaaw, better to see the racing on the telly.” “What’s going on?” Mum woke up, blinked at the TV. “Did I go to sleep?” “You were out like a light, come on, time to get you up to bed,” said Lew. Lew pried Mum out of the armchair and together they toddled upstairs.
“Right, Jessie, girl, let’s eat before it gets cold,” said Lew, rubbing his gnarly hands together. It sounded like sandpaper on wood. “Nice bit of bacon, this. Not salty. Lovely it is. Lovely,” cooed Jessie. “I forgot the tomatoes!” I said, jumping up again. “Shall we carry on then, son?” asked Lew. “I see you’ve got yourself a beer, Dad,” I said, somewhat peevishly, grabbing one for myself and Frances. Lew raised his glass to me and smiled innocently.
We piled up on gourmet treats as well as English basics, including a few eccentric eats like pickled walnuts and gentleman’s relish, a kind of anchovy fish paste. Frances threw herself into this shopping spree as enthusiastically as I did, running off to the sweets counter to stock up on Cadbury Flakes, her favorite English treat, as well as Crunchy bars and Smarties, like M&Ms only better, or so it always seemed to Kate and me. I got piccalilli pickle for Lew, who always slathered mashed potatoes with this dull, mustardy sauce with bits of pickled cauliflower and onions. I knew he’d like that. And sausages, good old Walls pork sausages, just marvelous with a thick, slightly sweet version of Worcestershire sauce called HP Sauce. Red, brown, black, green, yellow sauces, Britain has them all bottled. We also bought a small piece of crumbly Wendsleydale, marvelous with a slice of apple, a Cotswold cheese flecked with chives, and a creamy wedge of Stilton, gnarled and crusty on the outside.
The new hotel we had booked for our overnight stay in Windsor was replete with bow-tied French staff who were not only competent but actually liked children. As we were feeling somewhat drained, it was quite pleasant to be sequestered on a quiet suburban street, in a big old house with a well-tended garden and a big pond full of fat goldfish. Once settled in, we did not feel like moving. Fortunately, the hotel provided a set dinner on a French theme, not exactly memorable but quite acceptable. After dinner, we strolled around the charming garden and Kate made a bee-line for the pond like a human divining rod. Thankfully, that was the only excitement in store for us that evening.
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.