An American in Britain

Views from across the Herring Pond

Filed under Leisure

The South Downs Way is a 100-mile path for walkers and cyclists and extends from Winchester to Eastbourne.  We have now traversed 7% of that path.  While that may not sound like a lot, it really has taken us some time.  That’s because we do the round-trip (return), not the one-way (single) path.  We might cover more ground if we took advantage of public transport to deliver us to one spot and pick-up at another.

The second phase of our South Downs Way walk also started at the Jack and Jill windmills.  However, this time we headed east towards Ditchling Beacon.  The beacon, a small post in the ground, formed part of a chain of bonfire signals used to warn of the approach of danger.  Back in the Georgian/Regency days, this could mean the possibility of an invasion from the French, or even the coming of the Preventive Officer, depending on who used the site.

After the strenuous walk of the previous week towards Devil’s Dyke, we decided to take it easy.  This part of the South Downs Way encompasses the Ditchling Beacon Nature Reserve.  Parts of the reserve can be quite steep, but we only stayed at the top where the path is relatively flat.  But it afforded wonderful views.  From where we were, we could see out to the sea (English Channel).

Cows and sheep were grazing contentedly all around us.  The cows didn’t bother us, but we tried to avoid attracting their attention as we’ve heard the warnings about people being trampled to death.  The sheep and little lambies were, well, “sheepish”.  But our eldest managed to sneak up on a lamb and touch its fur before it ran away.

It was not the best of days in terms of weather.  It was quite windy and there was a slight chill, which did not help.  The kids had not been very willing to go for a walk because of the Devil’s Dyke experience, but after chasing lambs, they were in a better mood.  The younger one started to have a tantrum by the time we approached the beacon because she thought daddy and sissy were leaving her behind.  When told to run ahead and catch up, she started throwing hysterics and crying, “I can’t.  I can’t breathe.”  As we took a few steps forward and an ice-cream truck came in to view, that was the end of her histrionics.

Comments (3) Posted by Yank on Saturday, June 5th, 2010


Filed under Leisure

Today was another glorious late spring day with the temperature in the mid 70s, the sky cloudless and a gentle breeze rolling off the Sussex Downs.

To make the most of the good weather, we headed down to the Forest Way. The Forest Way is a bridleway, walking, and cycle path (part of the National Cycle Network Route 21) which runs between Groombridge in Kent and East Grinstead in West Sussex. It is a section of a former railway branch line which ran between Tunbridge Wells and Three Bridges. The line was closed in the 1960s due to government cut-backs.

We decided to tackle the section of the path between Withyham and East Grinstead. There is limited free parking where the path crosses Station Road in Withyham, so we left the car there and headed west.

Much of the path is lined with tall trees and other flora which offered welcome shade from the sun, and ample attraction for many butterflies and dragonflies. Various small tributaries and brooks pass under the path, running in to the River Medway as it snakes through the fields to the north. Perfect landscape for young explorers!

Before long, we reached the former Hartfield Railway Station which has retained much of it character, front and back, and, today, seems to be a nursery or daycare centre. After a short rest at a bench in the shade by Hartfield Station, we continued to Forest Row, some three and a half miles farther on.

Approaching Forest Row, between the trees on the north side of the path, we noticed a mansion among the hills and pastures which, at first, we thought was Hammerwood House, but later found out was Ashdown House School (see picture).

At Forest Row, we branched off to the left on to the former Station Road which brought us out to the familiar village green. The Co-op for ice cream and the public conveniences behind the Forester’s Arms Pub were our principal ports of call before heading back to the path.

It is difficult to discern exactly where the station once stood at Forest Row as both the land where it once stood, and the area where the line previously crossed the A22 have undergone significant development.

Crossing the A22, the path rises on to an embankment and remains mostly shaded before reaching East Grinstead close to Sackville College about 2 and a half miles distant.

We chained the kids’ bicycles outside East Grinstead library, (metaphorically) raided the local candy store and took the 291 bus back to Withyham to collect the car.

Comments (0) Posted by Yank on Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010


Filed under Leisure

This weekend we decided to make good use of the present spell of good weather to navigate part of the South Downs Way in West Sussex. We started at the site of the twin windmills, Jack and Jill, atop a hill in Clayton overlooking much of Mid-Sussex. There was ample free parking, so we left the car and headed west along the Hassocks Link Trail to pick up the South Downs Way towards Devil’s Dyke. Jill, the white restored windmill, was open to visitors but we decided to see it another time.

Heading west, we came first to a series of stables and paddocks where piebalds and bays grazed in the surrounding pastures.  Beyond the stables, the trail joined the South Downs Way at a four-way junction. To the left was a bridleway, ahead the South Downs Way went towards the Ditchling Beacon, but we chose the right branch which bisected Pyecombe Golf Course. This picturesque trail, flanked by heather and wild flowers, seems to be popular with mountain bikers. Several passed us before we reached the PGC club-house at the foot of a steady descent over half a mile. Here, the South Downs Way crosses the A273 and loops right to the village of Pyecombe. We stopped in to look at the Grade I listed 12th century stone church which offered a cool respite from the heat.

Both our daughters took the opportunity to read sections from the church guide from the 17th century pulpit.  As their voices echoed back across the empty nave, I pondered who else might have preached from the same pulpit to the many generations of the faithful to have sat in the church over the last 800 years. One such may have been the Reverend Lewis Beaumont whose marble headstone sits in front of the altar (see picture below).

Leaving the church grounds through the centrally pivoted Tapsel gate, we followed the path parallel to the graveyard as it sloped down towards the A23. For anyone duplicating this walk, the Plough Inn is nearby and would make a good place to stop for refreshments and a rest before tackling the ascent on the west side of the A23.

We continued over the A23 and, after passing a farm entrance, turned right away from the road, past an elegant 17th century cottage to commence the slow ascent to the top of West Hill. It was about this time that little legs began to tire and piggybacks to the top of the hill were the order of the day.

On reaching the top of the hill, we expected to see our destination, or at least some sign of it. We looked, and looked, and looked!  Then, faint on the horizon we spotted the outline of a building we thought might be the inn at Devil’s Dyke.

I was tempted to title this post “Getting Lost on the South Downs Way between Jack and Jill and Devil’s Dyke” for there were brief moments when we felt completely adrift among endless hills and dells.  However, a little later, and a good deal more tired, than anticipated we did reach the Devil’s Dyke Inn to enjoy a much deserved dinner.

Comments (1) Posted by Yank on Thursday, May 27th, 2010


Filed under Wildlife

Last summer, we ran in to one of Britain’s indigenous snakes. This evening, we returned from the local park at dusk and waiting at the end of our front garden path, overlooking the drop of the curb, was a hedgehog. This was the first live hedgehog we’d seen since arriving 18 months ago, and the kids were ecstatic. Using a shovel, we airlifted him from the danger of the road (throughout the year, we’d seen pieces of a few less fortunate hedgehogs on the roadside) to the safety of our back garden whereupon it sat for 10 minutes before scurrying off in to the garden shed. A brief argument ensued about what our new found friend should be christened. ‘Annabelle’ was the choice of our younger daughter, after one of her favourite literary characters, while the elder sibling opted, perhaps wisely, for the gender-neutral ‘Hedgie’.

Later, we pulled out the nature books and took the opportunity to learn a little more about hedgehogs.

Hedgehog

Comments (0) Posted by Yank on Thursday, May 6th, 2010


Filed under Leisure

This weekend, Audley End House re-opened its stables for the first time in about 60 years.  To celebrate, they reenacted a visit by Queen Victoria to inspect her troops with “All the Queen’s Horses”.  Having horse lovers in the family, we had to attend.

Unfortunately, the weather and the traffic did not cooperate well.  We had another one of those Arctic spells move in, so the skies were overcast for most of the morning and it was raining hard at times.  That made for a frustrating drive, as traffic always gets jammed through the Dartford Tunnel, even on a good day.

By the time we arrived, the rain had moved off, but the grounds were wet and muddy, and the skies were still overcast.  But the setting was so wonderful that I think we managed some good pictures regardless.  Essex and Cambridgeshire are truly beautiful counties.  You could almost forget that a road cut through part of the original estates of Audley End House.  Set in a valley with rolling hills around it and the river Cam in front, it was amazingly picturesque.

The English Heritage Society did a good job with putting together a show, and even though the turnout was low due to the weather conditions, the actors did not appear to grumble.  Army encampment tents were sent up on the grounds with the Corps of Drums of the HAC, the 17th Lancers and the Diehards Company giving talks and displays during the “Grand Arrival” and the “Grand Parade”.  Being a family event, they also had stalls for games for the kids.

Needless to say, we spent most of the time getting up close to the horses.  But, the wind picked up and it became quite cold.  Our younger daughter started fussing, so we decided to go indoors.  Unfortunately, it was too late to view the inside of the house, but the servants’ quarters were open.  You cannot but feel overwhelmed by the immense wealth of the aristocracy.

Comments (0) Posted by Yank on Monday, May 3rd, 2010


Filed under Leisure

This weekend was the warmest we’ve had this year.  It was too beautiful to be indoors, but we didn’t want to be going out too far, so we settled for a walk at Ardingly Reservoir.  This was next to Ardingly College, a prestigious private school.  What a beautiful setting for a school!

We arrived rather late in the day, so we didn’t have time to make it all around the reservoir.  The parking lot, charged at a pound a day, closes at 7PM and has a barrier to prevent people from hanging out after hours.  The reservoir was much bigger than we had expected.  We regretted that we had not thought to come out earlier and bring along a picnic.

It didn’t turn out to be such a good walk, though.  Not that the place was not conducive to a walk, but the kids just wanted to goof-off, giving each other piggy-back rides and rolling around, etc.  Our pace could only be described as an intermittent leisurely stroll.  We only picked up speed when they spied a small pig farm.  Unfortunately for them, the pigs were far too comfortable wallowing and did not come over.

Spring Blossom at Ardingly Reservoir

Spring Blossom at Ardingly Reservoir

There were small paths for birdwatchers, but we did not enter as the kids were too loud and we didn’t want to interrupt any serious birdwatching.  There was also a small area all around the reservoir that was fenced off for anglers.  I’m not sure if there’s a private angling group that the place is reserved for.  We’ll definitely have to come back later in the summer to spend the day.

Comments (0) Posted by Yank on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010


Filed under Leisure

I took a week off during the Easter holiday to spend some time with the family.  We didn’t have much time or money so we could only do small things.  Plus, the kids still had gymnastics most of the week.  But the highlight for them was visiting the National Stud Centre in Newmarket.

The girls love horses and have done so since they were babies.  They have not had formal riding lessons (as they are so expensive) but they have gone riding and the guides have always noted that they sit well on a horse.

We had watched the Grand National the week before.  One of the horses in the race came from the National Stud Centre and had not returned when we visited. But it did not detract from the kids’ enjoyment of being around the foals and seeing other former prize winners.

They also learned a little about breeding.  I must admit it was a bit uncomfortable when the older girl started asking questions about how it all worked.  I wasn’t exactly ready to discuss sex and breeding, even if it was about horses, especially in front of other people.  Luckily, she didn’t pursue the subject in detail as her younger sister would have done.  She was more interested in the fact that the workers lived in houses on the grounds.  She hopes to join them someday.

Foal at the National Stud Centre, Newmarket

Foal at the National Stud Centre, Newmarket

The National Stud Centre has a racecourse next to it and they run races during the summer.  There is also the Newmarket racecourse, which was not too far away, so we drove over to see what Newmarket was like.  It was rather small, still retaining some of the old village character.

From there, we decided to go over to Cambridge, as the younger girl hopes to go to King’s College someday.  After walking around the town (it was late afternoon and most of the shops had already shut) and around the colleges, we stopped for ice cream and watched the punters going down the Cam.  As we walked around the back, we took pictures of her and her Pooh Bear with King’s College in the background.  It will serve as a memento, in case she doesn’t go to Kings.

Comments (0) Posted by Yank on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010


Filed under Travel and Transport

I sat the theory driving test recently.  I meant to go through the entire thing last year, but so many things kept coming up, so it was put off and put off.  When I heard about the new “case studies”, I wanted to sit the exam before they were introduced.  When that didn’t happen, I tried to download the updates from the practice software we had from previously.  The updates didn’t install properly, so we were forced to buy the latest software.

What a joke!  It was such a waste of time and money to get the new software.  Maybe the case studies were meant to give young drivers something more to think about than just rote memorisation of facts, but in the end, the questions were no different.  You didn’t even need to read the case studies to answer them.  I only read them for my own amusement.  I thought the makers of the practice exams probably got it wrong since they might not know what the case studies were about. But when I got into that exam room and saw the case study at the end, I nearly burst out laughing.

The other point I found amusing was that they allowed people to take the exam in other languages.  Now, how is that supposed to make the roads safer?  We’ve seen drivers out there blatantly disregarding road signs and signals and we wondered if they were “foreigners” who didn’t understand.  Of course, they could have been natives who blatantly disregard road etiquette, but it does make you wonder.  Furthermore, we saw a story recently about people who make the stupidest excuses to avoid paying fines and some try to pretend they don’t understand the language.  Well, if they made it a requirement that people can only get a UK driving license if they do it in English, maybe they can remove that poor excuse.

Comments (1) Posted by Yank on Tuesday, April 27th, 2010


Filed under Shopping

There seems to be a common misconception among many Americans that when it comes to shopping and eating, there is far greater variety on the western side of the Atlantic as opposed to in Europe. While in some quarters of the market this may be the case, in the area that currently makes up 95% of our shopping, namely food, we have found far more variety in supermarkets this side of the Atlantic.

Our shopping basket frequently holds lush black and red seedless grapes from South Africa, Italian Kiwi fruit, New Zealand lamb, Dragonfruit (Pitaya) from Vietnam, salmon from the remote lochs of Western Scotland, Fuji apples from Japan and China, broccoli tips from Kenya, French and Italian cheeses, Spanish tomatoes, baby potatoes from Israel, and on. It has become a fun – and educational – game with the kids to note the country of origin of the food we buy.

If you know where to go, I’m sure these are all freely available in the US but we never noticed them on the shelves of our local larger supermarkets (Wal-Mart, Giant Eagle etc.) Here, these items and more all seem to be carried as standard.

Much of the variety in the UK may derive from the way in which the country gets its food. Comparatively little of the food consumed in the UK now comes from truly local sources. In contrast, the US provides much of its own food. This domestic production leads to greater availability; however, it seems to offer less choice for the consumer who chooses to shop beneath one roof.

The variety extends beyond the supermarket shelf. Large scale immigration into the UK in recent years has led to a huge variety in high street restaurants. For instance, in one block of a neighbouring town we can choose between traditional British fish ‘n’ chips, Thai, India, Italian, Spanish, Polish and Chinese foods – all within 100 metres; if we include the adjacent block the variety extends even further, including Iranian and Hungarian cuisine.

Anyhow, it’s time for me to have a cup of tea – from Kaisugu, Kenya.

Comments (2) Posted by Yank on Wednesday, March 31st, 2010


Filed under Leisure

Our English Heritage membership came up for renewal this month and what better way to celebrate than to take our first trip of the year to Down House, home of British scientist Charles Darwin.

Down House, Home of Charles Darwin

Down House

Down House is a little south of the village of Downe (the spelling of the village seems to have acquired its ‘e’ ending about the turn of the 19th century when still a Kent parish) and can be accessed by country lanes leading from the A21 or A233. It is a little off the beaten track and for us on this chilly February morning, the brown heritage signs on the roadsides provided better navigation aids than our Yahoo! driving directions.

The self-guided tour (using provided audio-visual devices and headsets) is divided in to two sections: the interior and the grounds.

The grounds include the gardens, a greenhouse, the barn (where usually there are active colonies of bees which, sadly – for us, not them – had been shipped out to warmer climes for the winter) and the remains of the tennis court. Extending beyond the gardens is a trail of about a mile known as the Sandwalk. Apparently, Darwin would walk this trail daily when taking a break from his work. Some nice views of the south-facing rear of the house can be had from the Sandwalk.

Inside the house is where this location comes in to its own. Much of the downstairs interior has been expertly restored to appear as it did during Darwin’s life (after Darwin’s death, the house was a private girls’ school, and later was given to the Royal College of Surgeons as a research facility before it was bought and restored by English Heritage in 1996.) Darwin lived at Down for 40 years, and wrote the full text of On the Origin of Species in its study.

With many original pieces of furniture and other items loaned from Darwin’s family or from private collections, the restorers have commendably created the look and feel of a lived-in Victorian house. From the decorative grand piano, slate billiard table, full Wedgwood dinner service (Darwin’s wife, Emma, was grand-daughter of Josiah Wedgwood the renowned potter; Darwin inherited the service from his mother, another of Josiah Wedgwood’s prolific progeny – the Darwin/Wedgwood tree is a little complicated, as you’ll see) down to pens and ink blotters, parlour games and distractions, maps and period magazines, it is all there offering a very vibrant feel of what it may have been like to live alongside the Darwins.

The upstairs is structured like a museum, with several rooms exhibiting artifacts, a games room where vital aspects of Darwin’s theories are described in games, videos and puzzles, and a room to rest in where children can dress up in period clothing.

This was a great half-day trip and we hope to return again in the summer to see the gardens in bloom.

Comments (0) Posted by Yank on Monday, March 22nd, 2010