Monday, October 20, 2008

My Great Britannic Adventure, Day Twenty-two

Friday, 7 April, 1989
Moatenden to Great Dixter to Bodiam to Hastings to Oxford
Day Twenty-two

Breakfast was in the big, low-beamed kitchen. Last night Mrs. Deane showed me one of the ceiling beams that some archaeologist was specifically interested in, as to its antiquity and date. Going from Cecil Hewitt I would’ve thought the original structure was rather different from what this other man had surmised, but then I’m just a novice at this sort of thing.

I’m afraid I was rather behind getting to the meal. But Mrs. Deane was quite cheerful about getting me my eggs on her big Aga-- after all, her son had just come in to eat, too; thereafter to help deal with some workmen who were expected in.

The Londoners were finishing their holiday today, too-- their daughter’s school was restarting soon. We all traded horror stories about driving in London, and then Mrs. Deane invited us to walk about in the garden, if we would, before we left.

Sadly, it’s still rather awry from the big storm in October of ‘87. She hasn’t been able to get the tree surgeons in to deal with all the broken limbs. And a lot of the plantings besides those trees were destroyed.

Still, it was nice to walk to the back of the garden and contemplate the daffodils beside the watercourse. Funny, but Mrs. Deane told me that the moat that gives the Priory its name was originally a dry one. Moatenden Farm, just across the moat to the north (and a separate property) has oast houses. Be fun to see inside one sometime.

Picked my way round to the front, to get a view of the 12th century bit in front. It’s mainly just the doorframe and so forth at the kitchen end-- the brick nogging dates, I’d say, from the late 1500s, early 1600s.

After I got my things together upstairs, I sat down and wrote postcards. That done, I settled accounts, loaded the car for the last time, then drove away south. Stopped in Headcorn, where I posted the cards. Great fun--it started raining, hard, as I dashed back to the car-- then just as quickly stopped again.

I thought of heading generally northwest, meeting up with the M25, then catching the M40 straight back to Oxford. That’d certainly get me there by car-turn-in time at 4:15. But it seemed rather dreary, and anyway the rate the M25 goes, I wasn’t so sure it’d be all that quick. Besides, I had a hankering to see the sea again, feeling I mightn’t get another chance while I’m over here. So on to the south it was.

I’d read somewhere that Great Dixter doesn’t open on weekdays till the end of May, but just for jollies I followed the lane to it when I hit Northiam, just to see.

Well, it is open weekdays, but not till 2:00 PM. Oh. Only 11:00 now. That’d mean another day’s car hire. Oh, well.

The man in the nursery, which was open, pointed out Bodiam Castle which you could just see on the horizon to the west, only about four miles away.

Well, why not?

So I followed the little lanes down and around and soon was there.

Bodiam Castle is such an odd little thing, especially after places like Warkworth and Caernarfon. It obviously meant business, sitting there so solidly in its wide moat. But still you get the impression of a small swaggering person who defies people to attack him. One backs off, just in case, but one is still left wondering if one’s leg is being pulled all along.

Worked my way round the moat counterclockwise, as the sun dove in and out of the clouds, till I reached the main entrance. Other visitors were going in and I decided that if admission was free, I’d look in. But if not, I hadn’t the time.

It was 90p. OK! It’s off again we are.

Wended along over to the A229, heading for Hastings. In Hastings the main roads don’t indulge in any such American nonsense as a bypass. No, the A229 went straight down to the seaside. There you pick up the A259 which runs parallel to the water, with the big hotels on one’s right.

The sea was in magnificent form today, sending great towers of spray over the sea wall and onto the windshield of the car where I’d pulled it over to get out and see. The waves thundered gloriously and I was sorry I had to be on my way so soon.

Decided to take the seaside road as much as I could. Went through Brighton, where I could glimpse the Royal Pavilion, freshly restored, I am told, on the right. And Shoreham by Sea, and on to Worthing.

It was there that I knew I’d have to give up my plan, for although it’s nowhere near high season a plethora of other trippers had the same idea I did, apparently. The sea road was incredibly clogged and slow. I made it partway through Worthing when, considering how shockingly fast time was getting on, I backtracked a ways then got myself onto the A27, a bit to the north.

That was much faster-- it even has dual carriageways in places-- and except for lacking the view of the Channel was just as pretty. I love so much to see the sheep on the sunlit green hillsides! It’s as if so many fluffy white flowers had sprung up and blossomed in the space of a night. And the view coming down the incline into Arundel is simply breathtaking. The castle and cathedral were bathed in light, made much more dramatic by the clouds gathering to the northwest.

Again, though, no time to stop-- I had to press on.

Not that I didn’t pull over a bit farther on-- I stopped and got out to take photos of the thunderheads piling up over the downs-- they looked so Midwestern!

As I entered Portsmouth, around 2:15, I saw that the needle on the petrol gauge was riding rather low. I started to look for a Shell station, figuring that since everyone’s gas is overpriced here I might as well patronise the oil barons my mother works for. And soon I spotted one-- on the far side of the divided road that the A27 becomes as it passes through the northern regions of the town. But there were no legal right turnings I could see for blocks and blocks.

So at next opportunity I made a left into a residential neighborhood, then another, then another, round the block hoping to find a cross street that’d intersect with the highway and allow me to backtrack to the filling station.

As I was on the northward leg of this square I passed a cyclist, giving him plenty of berth. At the end of the block I could see, as I approached, that the way ahead was blocked-- there was indeed a bridge over a stream or ditch, but closely-spaced bollards closed it to motor traffic.

Well, rot. I put on my turn signal in good time and when I reached the T-junction, turned left yet again.

All at once, I heard a bump on my left rear fender. A cry came from the road behind me, more of wrath than of pain. Chilled with apprehension, I stopped the car and looked back-- to see the cyclist lying on the ground just short of the intersection, his supine bicycle spinning its wheels beside him.

Well, you know me, especially when I’m tired and hungry and rather frightened besides. I ran back to the corner, grateful to see him getting to his feet, and said, "Oh, I’m so sorry! I didn’t see you! I’m so sorry! Are you hurt?"

The cyclist, a rather regimented-looking young man of about twenty-seven or so dressed in a BritRail messenger’s uniform, flexed his ankle and said, "Well, I suppose it’s all right," adding accusingly, "no thanks to you."

I went off on another volley of apologies and blametaking and he was well-satisfied to give me a grim little lecture on the rights of cyclists and the rules of the road. It was so shame-making-- for as one who for years got around mostly by bike, who should know such things better than I?

Then he got out his walkie-talkie, with another comment about how it wasn’t my fault that it wasn’t broken, and radioed his office, giving them the license plate number of the hire car and my driver’s license number and all the rest of it.

Immediately fears of horrendous lawsuits swarmed into my head-- maybe I wouldn’t be allowed to leave England. And whatever would the EuropCar people say?

Finally, as if he were a traffic cop and not an accident victim, he sent me on my way, saying cynically, "Next time you run down a cyclist, try a little harder-- maybe you’ll do a better job of it"-- as if I’d gone after him on purpose.

I found the way to the Shell station and got a fill up and a chocolate bar. I wondered morosely and guiltily what the attendants would say if they knew what I’d just done.

Continued on into Southampton, where I got a little lost trying to hook up with the A34 going north. It was around 3:00 by now and the primary schools, with all their uniformed scholars, were letting out. This forced me to take it specially slow-- another accident I did not need.

After I got on the A34 and up past Winchester, my head began to clear a bit and I got to wondering. How could that accident have been my fault, since he was the one who’d hit me, presumably as I’d turned the corner? And how, since I’d passed him about even with the previous cross street, had he managed to come up on me so fast, and why? And considering that I’d signalled for a left and the way ahead was blocked, how could he for a moment have thought that I wasn’t going to turn left, or have been such an idiot as to think he could pass me before I did? For afterwards he’d gone off straight ahead across the bollarded bridge.

And in place of my fear and guilt came a swell of anger-- anger at people who can so cleverly blame others for their own foolishness and at myself for habitually being such a patsy for that sort of person.

The day and my mood rapidly deteriorated as, short of Newbury, I came upon a backup that the radio said stretched out for ten miles and for which their traffic reporters would propose no explanation. All I knew was that it took a half hour to go five miles and my chances of making it to Oxford by 4:15 were to hell and gone.

When I got to Newbury, I discovered the problem-- It was simply the glut of Friday travellers and commuters taking their turns getting through the Newbury roundabout. Damn this road system! Haven’t these people heard of a proper interchange?

Thank God the road was clear after that.

I’d planned to reenter Oxford by the eastern bypass, by way of Littlemore and Cowley, but saw there was no way. It was 5:00 already and the hire office closed at 5:30. So I came up the West, got off onto the Botley Road, and wended my way through the rush hour traffic by way of Beaumont Street, finally reaching Banbury Road and Coverdale*.

Fast as I could, I emptied out the car, dumping my luggage in the basement flat [where I had been moved during the vac]. That done, I dashed back across the Chapel passage and back to the car.

Fought off the Oxford traffic back to the Botley Road. There I perpetrated an act that put the crown of absurdity on this whole confounded trip-- I mistook, or misremembered, the way into the carpark for the shopping center where the hire place is. Instead I found myself on the highway on-ramp and thence heading southbound back down the A34.

I didn’t care who heard me, I screamed in frustration! In an access of self-disgust, not to say self-destructiveness, I gunned the engine and as my speed mounted I didn’t give a holy damn if I were arrested for speeding or cracked up the car or committed whatever other mayhem.

But I couldn’t help but see the Palm Sunday cross that’d been hanging from the rearview mirror ever since Saffron Walden. And a more sensible voice reminded me of what a bad witness it’d be if I did something foolish with that present to proclaim me a Christian. Chastened, but still very upset, I slowed down and turned left into what I discover is Yarnells Road. This took me to North Hinksey Lane and back to the Botley Road.

This time, I didn’t miss the turning to the car park. And thank God, though it was 5:40 the EuropCar office was still open. I told them about the cyclist and filled out a report on the smashed door I so cleverly acquired in Stamford. The girl at the counter agreed that my second-thoughts version of the encounter in Portsmouth was probably the accurate one. She told me not to worry, they’d take care of it, since it was properly reported to them and she’d taken the particulars down from me in writing.

I couldn’t get my deposit back yet, as all the cash was locked up for the weekend. And I nearly forgot my Palm Sunday cross, running back to retrieve it.

I did not take a bus back to Oxford. I’d had enough of vehicles for quite awhile. Instead I loitered along the Botley Road, pausing to inspect the little ramifications of the Thames as they passed under each bridge I crossed. I stopped to see the locks at the Osney Bridge, coming down into East Street for a closer view. At one point, I passed a young guy who was trying to hitch a lift into Oxford. I nearly laughed in amusement as I told him, upon his inquiry, that the city was only a short distance ahead-- he’d might as well walk. Everything was bathed in a golden western light and as calm returned I felt a great sense of proprietary affection for my city as it appeared ahead.

And so to New Road, round by the castle mound, and thus by Queen Street to Carfax. It was a little short of 7:00 and I just had time to pop into the Coop on Cornmarket for some milk and other supplies.

Thus provisioned, I strolled up Magdalen, up St. Giles, and finally to the Banbury Road and Coverdale College*.

I’ve been utterly useless the rest of this evening. I made myself supper and took forever eating it at the desk in the little bedroom down here. And, ignoring the luggage that wants to be unpacked, I’ve finished reading Scott’s Heart of Mid-Lothian (and rot him, need he be so predictably moralistic in the end?).

The college is still overrun with those absurdly embarrassing students from Bemidji, Minnesota, and I still don’t know how I shall deal with the problem between Lukas* and me. But away with all that for now-- I’m back at Coverdale*, thank God, I’m home at last, I’m home!


Anonymous said...

Do you ever read any of Dorothy L Sayers, "Lord Peter Whimsy" mysteries? They are set in London mostly, but he is a graduate of Baliol, and his eventual wife has a book of her own, "Gaudy Night" set in Oxford.

My apologies if you've answered this in one of your posts, I'm terribly busy with school and have pushed many things to the extreme rear of my mind.


St. Blogwen said...

Oh, yes, I've read them all, repeatedly. Matter of fact, when I first arrived in Oxford in October of '88, I found the city very disorienting because there were aspects of it that reminded me strongly of my hometown of Kansas City, Missouri (you may laugh, but it's true), but it wasn't Kansas City. And it kept reminding me of that by throwing up alien and difficult things (like give-no-quarter-to-pedestrians drivers). So soon as I could, I bought a fresh copy of Gaudy Night, identified all the (nonfictional) places Miss Sayers mentions in it, and after that I was able to let Oxford be Oxford.