“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
To see the entire quote, click here.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

"We're in with the servants, madam!"

Of course, nothing is perfect. Some of the bedrooms were wonderfully appointed with four poster beds. Rooms for couple traveling alone. We were given the original servants quarters at the very top of the house, up several steep flights of stairs. Even though our room was huge and filled with charming furniture, it was still the attic. The location was obviously geared for families traveling with small children, who could scream to their hearts content without disturbing the other guests. Poor us.
“They’ve put us in with the servants, madam!” I groaned rather dramatically.
“Must have known you came from Dagenham.” Frances smiled.
In spite of myself, I grinned back.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

What people?

Unmarred by any other building, the South Sussex Downs rolled out before us cascading into the distance like waves of green pasture, racing to meet the shiny turquoise of the sea some fifteen miles beyond.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Who knew this was here?

The Hilton House had nothing to do with the hotel chain. Located just beyond Gatwick Airport near the village of Cuckfield, the former Victorian country mansion had been gently converted into a private hotel. Lounges were filled with large overstuffed chairs. The music room had a baby grand. We found the conservatory filled with a wide array of exotic foliage, pineapple plants and orchids. As we walked through, the glass doors that led outside were flanked by tumbling rose shrubs and hyacinth. We strolled onto the grounds across a carpet of green. Old stone birdbaths were surrounded by islands of geraniums, well-weathered park benches were perfectly placed for guests to enjoy the views beyond the garden.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

For whom the school bell tolls

“You weren’t much for school,” said Lew.
“Out when I was fifteen.”
“Not much older than when I left school.”
“You didn’t want me to stay on,” I said, wanting to know why.
“Wasn’t like that in my day. I got this lovely job, I did, at a bank. On account of me being tall. They gave me a uniform, with a lovely thick overcoat. And all I had to do was stand outside. But Mum found me another job that paid sixpence more a week. So that was that. I had to give up my job at the bank and give back that overcoat, all for sixpence more a week.”
“You could’ve said no,” I said.
“No? Naaaw! Didn’t say ‘no’ in those days. What your mother told you to do, you did. Gawd help you if you didn’t.”
“I never did what you wanted me to.” I said.
“You passed that exam, you got in the print. You did what I wanted you to do.”
“I think I really wanted to stay on at school.”
“Well, you weren’t much for it. Told you at the time. You weren’t good at maths.”
“Not much cop at algebra. Physics. The teachers...they weren’t bothered.”
“Gawd’s truth! You should’ve seen the teacher we ‘ad. The headmaster tried to cane me once. I broke his cane for him. Got me expelled. But,” Lew said expansively, “I was leaving anyway—”

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Teaching Denis to savor scones

My Mum could barely cook water. Baking, for her, was another country altogether, a dangerous land filled with peaks of burnt crusts and valleys of undercooked batter as treacherous as quicksand. When it came to scones, Jesse wisely went to the bakery aisle of the local Co-op. So I grew up with pre-wrapped, pre-cooked scones best described as baked widgets. These scones had hard brown crusts, the insides of which possessed the look and texture of hard-packed snow, with just as much flavor.
The scone Frances bakes is another matter entirely. This is a light, ethereal creation with an achingly soft yet firm top, beneath which is a light buttery interior where plump raisins hold sway. With each bite this tiny concoction tumbles apart with languid ease into a soft, sweet, slightly chewy morsel and the world is a decidedly better place for it. Proof in the pudding? Try baking Frances’ scones yourself. Just add clotted cream and strawberry jam (well, butter or whipped cream in a pinch). And if, at that point, your taste buds fail to fandango and saliva glands adamantly refuse to gush, you are beyond hope and you have my sympathies.

Here’s the recipe:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 Tbsps baking powder
1/4 cup sugar
6 Tbsps (3/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter
1/2-3/4 cup raisins
1 cup milk

Stir dry ingredients together in a bowl. Cut butter into mixture with pastry cutter or 2 knives until butter is reduced to pea-sized crumbs. Add raisins, pour in milk and stir quickly to make a firm dough. Don't overmix--no need to get rid of every flour speck and the butter bits make scones flakier.
Roll out dough on floured surface or between plastic wrap sheets until 3/4"-1" thick; cut into 2" rounds with cookie cutters and place and parchment-lined cookie sheet. Brush lightly with milk and bake in preheated 400 F (200 C) oven for 12-15 minutes or until lightly golden. Cool slightly but serve warm! Makes about 16. (Note: We made 50 teeny-tiny ones to take to international night at Kate's school and they went faster than the chocolate chip cookies!)
Enjoy and let us know what you think!

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Teaching Frances to eat scones

Frances parked the stroller inside the front parlor of our Elizabethan teashop, then we slowly edged my parents and Kate over to a table. Frances and I had tea, Kate had formula. Lew and Jesse had coffee and toast and cheese and Dundee cake, a rich fruit concoction strewn with slivered almonds. As the name implies, this sweet cake originated in Scotland and, with luck, is impregnated with that golden highland beverage. Frances ordered scones, which arrived with strawberry jam and a pot of thick, bright yellow, velvety clotted cream.
“No, no, darling, you don’t put butter on ‘em!” Lew snickered, but in good humor.
“What do you mean? How’re you supposed to eat them?”
I cut a scone in two for her, applied a layer of jam to one half and topped it off with a dollop of clotted cream.
“There you go! No butter!” I said. “Bon appetit!”
We all watched with approving smiles as Frances started to eat and enjoy her first perfectly layered scone.
“Oh, it’s so good – taste?” She did not have to ask twice.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

One more from Lavenham

We toddled on a bit farther and then we found our tearoom. This was a classic Olde Worlde, hickledy-pickledy kind of place. Just what you would expect to find in a village that was thriving when Shakespeare was still an undiscovered playwright.
Across from the teashop was a private house gloriously overrun by a dazzling array of purple and white wisteria. On closer inspection, I saw that ancient branches of the tree had sprung from the pavement to enclose the lower part of the house in its gnarly grasp. But from just a short distance away, the effect was magical, the house appeared to float on a huge bed of fluffy petals. The perfect backdrop for our “elevenses,” the mid-morning break when tea or coffee is slurped down with cakey things and hot buttered toast .

Friday, February 13, 2009

Seeing pink in Lavenham

We went to Lavenham in pursuit of history and a betting shop. When we arrived we found a well-preserved town with streets of half-timbered houses dating from the early part of the sixteenth century. Frances loved it from the moment she saw it. There was no beach in sight but, I had to admit, good views could be enjoyed from any direction. We parked along the high street, then gently made our way around to the market square. Interestingly, not all of Lavenham’s Tudor half-frame buildings were starkly colored in black and white. We discovered a cream-and-apricot colored guild hall, musty ochre-colored houses, and bay-windowed shops awash in muted Suffolk pink. All were dramatically framed by black oak timbers interspersed with high-gabled windows, sloped and gracefully curved with age.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Highway or byway? I did it my way.

“You didn’t take the motorway?" Dave, our genial keyholder, asked. "Should have taken the motorway, you would have been here in an hour. Hour and a quarter at the outside.”
I apologized again for our late arrival. Frances smiled, said nothing. To her credit, she did not gloat, at least not openly, at our navigational error. Our journey had taken almost three hours.
Dave couldn’t resist reminding me of the errors of my ways though. “You mean you were on the A12, then came off it? That’s a shame. I hate those little roads, all those twists and turns! Takes you an hour to go ten miles. Like I said—”
“The motorway.” I knew. I sighed.
He went on cheerfully, “Oh, well. Never mind, you’re all here now, so that’s alright.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

Stopping for directions

“Now, when you get up there, you’ll come to this thing we call a ‘roundabout.’ Got that, yeah?”
He talked slowly. He talked loudly. We realized he thought I was foreign. He thought I was an American! He said again, but slower, “a ‘ran-da-bhat.’ ” Bloody nerve.
“Anyway, you’ll come to this ‘ran-da-bhat’ and—”
He never explained what a ‘ran-da-bhat’ was exactly. Instead, he started making large circular movements with his oddly bent hand and arm. If I had been American by birth and not by choice, I might have imagined he was describing a carousel with gaudily painted wooden horses placed on the highway to amuse passing commuters, rather than a traffic circle. I stared at him. He smiled, nodding, looking like the amiable idiot he thought I was.
“Yes, yes, I know what it is, I’ve been ‘ere before.” I tried to thicken up my Cockney accent. He went right on, ignoring me and my strategically dropped aitches.
“But don’t go right a-rhaand it. Turn off before you do, and that’ll get you on the Ilford Road. Can’t miss it.”
I thanked him and we were on our way.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

Friday, February 6, 2009

Afternoon walk

“Been up to the church, have you?” A familiar voice jarred my musings as I walked back through the quiet village of Rattlesden. Again, it was Dave, only this time he was weeding a garden beside the pub. I stopped for a moment and watched him turn over the garden.
“So Dave, the food in the pub, you didn’t actually say before—”
“Well,” said Dave with a smile spread with irony. “He calls himself a chef, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s just a cook. But the food is not too bad.”
Well, it hadn’t been too bad at all. In fact, the Sunday cold plate had passed all expectations. Not that expectations for food in pubs ever ran that high with me. But the fact was, our “local” was very local, just a two-minute walk away. And the menu was surprisingly adventurous. So it seemed churlish not to try the place for a hot dinner. I ambled back to our little nest. I found Lew, recalled to life and back in the kitchen, making tea.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

A chance encounter

On the return from Horsted Keynes we stopped off at the recently restored Kingscote Station and ambled around the platform. The trains and stations were maintained and run by members of the preservation society. Like Civil War enactors, they dressed for their particular part – drivers, firemen, conductors, guards. One old chap was busily sweeping up, dressed as a porter. He wore a blue-striped shirt, a red polka dot kerchief around his neck, big blue dungarees, and a peaked oil cloth cap.
“They keep you busy,” I said.
He smiled, quite happy to stop and talk.
“There’s always work to do. We’ve just opened up this station, in fact.”
He had a rich, sonorous voice, a voice I had heard before but could not place.
“You don’t sound like a porter.” I smiled.
“We’re all volunteers, actually. Station was totally derelict until quite recently. We restored everything. Come with me. You won’t believe this.”
He led us down to a tunnel beneath the rail bed connecting both platforms. An Aladdin’s cave of shiny white porcelain bricks plastered and lined with very ancient enameled, baked metal posters for Camp coffee, baking powder, soap, cigarettes, and products long gone from supermarket shelves. Kate particularly liked the Cadbury and Fry chocolate posters.
“It was completely filled in,” our friendly guide explained. “Didn’t even know it was there until someone found the beginning of the steps. Quite a job of excavation, as you can imagine.”
“Wonderfully preserved,” I said.
“Isn’t it just!” he exclaimed. “A perfect record of an another era!”
“Why did they fill it in?” Frances asked reasonably.
“Haven’t the foggiest idea!” The volunteer porter chuckled like a big old walrus.
We said good-bye and caught the next train back to Sheffield Park. Then I remembered. Our porter was an actor I had seen on the box, years ago, but never in the role he now played with such relish.

Monday, February 2, 2009

We're on our way

A whistle blew, a flag waved, the train hissed. Engine wheels spun until they caught traction, and our car juddered and shook ever so slightly. We were on our way.
Our vintage train chugged out of the platform, billowing thick smoke, puffing and spluttering along, unhurried by timetables. We had to close the window every time we passed under a bridge or went through a small tunnel. But when we could, we leaned out the windows, enjoying miles of magical woodland and embankments tumbled with wildflowers. Tall grasses and hollyhocks seemed to sprout from the sides of soot-red bridges. Regiments of pink and purple foxglove stood to attention as we passed by and, not surprisingly, great swaths of bluebells gently swayed in the train’s wake.