Monday, 24 March 2008

I don't think we are in Kansas anymore, Toto

You can tell you are not in Brisbane anymore when…

- you go for a walk on Saturday morning to buy a newspaper from Tesco’s and there are 8 different newspapers to choose from

- the newspaper you choose features a CD on ‘The Great Poets’ and the previous week a different newspaper had one with ‘Great Poets of the 20th Century’

- on the way home again, it snows.

The forecast for Easter tells us that there is going to be snow up and down the country. Perhaps this explains why yesterday there were 482 000 people flew out of Britain (as part of a total of 2 000 000 leaving over the Easter weekend). There wasn’t enough snow this morning to gather on the ground but some of the flakes were quite large and the wind was bitterly cold.

Because we are going to be spending this first weekend of the Easter break at home (largely for financial reasons) this email will deal with more of our everyday life. During the week we have evolved a routine which involves everyone getting up, showered and dressed by 7:30am. Wayne either drives to school for an 8am start and the boys catch a bus to Sheredes at 8:03am or, if Meg is having the car, she drops Wayne at Hailey Hall prior to 8am and then heads back to drop the boys at school around 8:15am. The boys finish school at 3:15pm on Mondays to Thursdays and 3pm on Fridays, while the students leave Hailey Hall at 2:30pm on Fridays and 3:30pm the remainder of the week. However, every afternoon Wayne has staff meetings which can finish by 4pm but sometimes go as late as 6:30pm (depending on what sort of day it has been, and what sort of training etc. might be taking place).

If you Google our house you will see that we back onto the Marriott Hotel and a group of industrial offices, however the fenceline has trees and hedges so that it feels like we are looking out on to a small patch of woodland. If Meg is at home during the day she opens the curtains onto the backyard and watches ‘the nature channel’, as she calls it. This frequently features a grey squirrel (that we have named ‘Larry’) who frolics through the branches of the trees. Soon we plan to dig a hole under the fence so that hedgehogs can come under to visit us. Meg has even bought cat food to put out for them. The beautiful sunny weather that we have had (even today, in between patches of snow and rain there are bursts of glorious sunshine) light up the back garden and the crocuses and daffodils which grow in clumps among the grass. Birdlife includes pigeons, sparrows, thrushes, robins, tits, and the odd Canadian Goose. These geese can be seen, along with the ducks, up at the canal which runs between the western side of the housing complex and the A10 (the major road which runs near where we live).

Hailey Hall is a small group of buildings surrounded by woods and parklands. The school has a main oval and a hard court area, plus a swimming pool, greenhouse and various sheds and other facilities. There is a river which runs through it on which live 24 ducks that have just started to pair off and nest in various parts of the school. There are squirrels amongst the trees, as well as badgers, hedgehogs and stoats (or weasels, Wayne hasn’t got close enough to be sure) in the woodland which lies on the northern border of the school property. Wayne’s favourite time of the week is Wednesday morning when he does outside playground duty around the river and the oval. Very few students are out there (they are mostly inside eating breakfast) and he loves watching the ducks and other birdlife, or laughing at the squirrels as they run around the base of the trees. It is a very peaceful surrounding for what can be a quite tempestuous place inside.

Just a minute or so north of Sheredes, and a few minutes drive south of Hailey Hall is the town centre of Hoddesdon. Our afternoons often involve Meg meeting the boys there after school at the Hoddesdon library and Wayne walks down after his staff meeting has finished. Some of Quinn’s friends regularly meet under the clock tower at the northern end of the mall, but generally we take the opportunity to use the internet. We only received a home phone line on Thursday this week (thanks to Meg’s persistence in calling British Telecom over and over again) and the internet is due to be available at home next Thursday. Hoddesdon also has a Post Office, various bank branches, clothes shops, numerous pubs, and branches of most of the major supermarket chains. It also has cafes and takeaway stores, but we have rapidly discovered (much to Wayne’s dismay) that pizza is not worth purchasing. It is not that the pizza tastes particularly bad, but that it is hideously expensive. One large takeaway pizza (without discount vouchers) costs £15 (the equivalent of $37.50 in Australia) so pizza has largely disappeared from our diet.

Hoddesdon has a significant history, although much of what made it up has gone. The clock tower that Quinn’s friends meet under dates back to 1835 although the bell within it came from the chapel which originally stood on the site and dates back to the 16th Century. Sadly, there is a hideous 1970’s tower block which dominates the town. However, Rawdon House (which has housed offices since 1975) dates back to 1622 and was a nunnery at the turn of the 20th Century. Even the Anglican church is a relatively recent one, only dating back to 1864.

We hope you all have a happy Easter

Thursday, 20 March 2008

'Hot Fuzz' and 'Blackadder'

Those of you who have a good sense of humour might remember the television series ‘Blackadder’ which starred Rowan Atkinson. In the second series, set in Elizabethan times, there is an episode called ‘Money’ where Edmund owes a significant amount of money to a bank. If he doesn’t pay in time he will punished by “the baby-eating Bishop of Bath and Wells” using a red-hot poker. Consequently, it has long been an ambition of Wayne’s to go back to Bath (he had gone there with his family in 1982) to find out more about this Bishop. One of Wayne’s students had also loaned him a copy of the movie ‘Hot Fuzz’, which was largely set in the City of Wells (although called Sandford in the movie, which is apparently the all purpose name used for places in Police training in this country), which the whole family watched on Saturday night. So when it seemed that the weather in Stratford-upon-Avon (our originally planned destination this week) was set to be inclement for the whole of Sunday, we decided to go to Wells, in Somerset.

It was a rainy morning as we headed west along the M25 and then the M4 (which goes to South Wales). Strangely, the rain wasn’t very heavy but there was a still a lot of it. At times it felt like there was more water coming up off the road from the tires of the cars around us than there was actually falling from the sky. Finally we had encountered the English climate which we had been expecting, after weeks of really lovely, although occasionally very cold, sunny weather. While this meant that we didn’t get to see quite as much of the English countryside as we would have liked, we were able to concentrate on talking to each other about how things had been going.

Meg and Wayne were able to talk to the boys about their trip to Watford the day before. Some of you might recognise the name from the 1980’s when Elton John was the owner of the Watford Football Team which had considerable success. He is still significantly involved, the team is in the hunt for promotion to the Premier League, and there was a game on at their ground that afternoon so there were lots of people wandering through the shopping precinct wearing their very distinctive yellow, red and black colours. Initially we had gone there for two reasons; Meg had not been to this significantly large shopping area, and we had to visit the bank to find out why the rent had not come out of our bank account as we had requested. There were lots of shops, which made Meg very happy and we found a number of things that we had been looking for. Even though we didn’t buy anything from there, we also got to visit a Disney Store (which made the boys demand that they be taken to Watford as well). Fascinatingly, England still has lots and lots of shopping outside of the big shopping malls which predominate in Australia and the USA and there are all sorts of little specialist shops so we had a fun time.

The banking side of the trip was not so successful. Despite the fact that we had given the bank the form to take the rent from our account more than a week earlier, and it was only supposed to take 3 days, the bank had not taken the rent out, nor had they any record of the form we had given them. To our obvious delight, the Watford branch wouldn’t even phone the Harlow branch, where we had submitted the form. Instead they told us that we needed to drive to Harlow and speak to the branch workers in person. This meant more time in the car. When we got to Harlow the staff there couldn’t explain why the money had not come out either (it had gone to a central site for processing) but they promised to investigate for us (they haven’t yet rung, nor have British Telecom who are to set up our home phone line and who have promised to call us multiple times during the last three weeks). Finally, when we returned home we found a letter from the bank saying that they were uncertain as to when we wanted the money to come out (the form, which had already been filled out for us, had actually given both the starting date and the regular monthly date, so we were slightly perturbed as to which part of the instructions they had found confusing). Eventually we paid the rent for this month by Credit Card to our Real Estate agent over the phone and rejoiced at living in a country where the mail is delivered on Saturdays, yet bank staff seem to be unable to read (which makes you wonder what they do with that mail, perhaps it has lots of pictures).

Lots of the boys conversation related to things at Sheredes School; their teachers, the subjects they were studying, and the friends they had made. There are rabbits which live at the school, which Quinn has made a determined effort to see on a daily basis. He now believes that the rabbits in the UK have a real problem with Australians, but tries not to take this too personally. We also found out more about Suzanne, the police officer who Quinn and his friends had met while they were out on Friday night. Meg and Wayne were slightly confused as to exactly why a police officer should be talking to a group of teenagers on a Friday night. Quinn assures us that they had not been doing anything more than singing and shouting to each other and that Suzanne had simply wanted to introduce herself to them, as a form of community liaison.

Brock enlightened us on a number of theories that he has been developing over the last few weeks. One of these outlines the reason as to why he thinks it is important to wear clothes (not pyjamas or a one-sie) when he goes to bed at night. Apparently, it relates to his belief about being murdered in his sleep and the fact that God would not be as happy to use him as the Chief Angel to communicate his thoughts and wishes to the world if he was found to be wearing embarrassing clothes. Meg and Wayne tried to assure him that his being murdered in his sleep was an unlikely event, however they were distracted by the memory of an advertisement that they had heard the day before. It had asked the question, “Would you prefer to die in your bed at home rather than in a hospital?” then suggested that if this was the case the listener should call the organisation. Wayne was convinced that it was a euthanasia group who would guarantee that you would die in your bed, probably that very night, which led us all to think that maybe Brock’s being murdered in his sleep wasn’t so far fetched after all. This might go some way to explaining why Brock has started going grey.

The majority of the drive to Wells was straightforward, however, when we left the M4 (in sight of Wales across the water just west of Bristol) things started to go awry. Bristol itself looked lovely and is another place to which we will attempt to return. Since we arrived in England we have heard regular reports of flooding in the south west of England and it was in the Avon valley (yes, the same river that runs through Stratford) that we saw some of the evidence of this taking place. Whole playing fields were under water, as were sections of low-lying farmland. Indeed, one of the main roads running from Bristol down into Wells was completely cut so we had to take some detours through some very narrow rural roads. This was exciting, as the roads had rock walls on either side; and the woods we were driving through were very much like those from a story book; with old, bent, dark, trees and a deep floor of leaves and branches underneath a thick canopy, through which very little light emerged. Bristol to Wells took almost as long as Broxbourne to Bristol, but we arrived safely.

‘Hot Fuzz’ made brilliant use of the ancient limestone walls which are connected to the Cathedral and the beautiful Bishop’s Keep (which is surrounded by a real moat complete with drawbridge!!!). There are lots of entrances and exits through beautiful old arches (the actual cathedral, which was begun in 1180, has been digitally removed from a number of the shots of the village square) and it gives a lovely sense of age to the movie. There are swans on the moat and a swan features heavily in the movie (although a caretaker at the Keep assured us that they weren’t the swans from the movie, so it wasn’t worth getting autographs; they are however trained to ring a bell hanging from the gatehouse at feeding time!). Another nearby church (or at least a spike from its roof) also features dramatically in the film and two of the local pubs; ‘The Swan’, and ‘The Crown at Wells’ were the hotel that the main character stayed in (as did the cast in reality) and the pub that was a feature of the village of Sandford. ‘The Crown’ is in reality a 15th Century Grade II Listed Coaching Inn, however the interior used for the movie is actually a totally different pub, ‘The Royal Standard of England’, which is near Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire and the oldest free-house in England. In 1695, the quaker William Penn (the founder of Pennysylvania in the United States) preached a sermon from the window of ‘The Crown at Wells’ to a sizeable crowd and was arrested for unlawful assembly. Apparently he returned a few days later to preach again. However, what the boys found most exciting was the Somerfield Supermarket where a number of external shots were taken (again the interior was a totally different building in a totally different place), so consequently we had to take a photo.

One of Wayne’s workmates commented to Wayne on Monday morning that Wells is one of the most beautiful places in England. It is the smallest ‘city’ in the country and yet is treated as a village in the movie [the city status comes from it’s possession of a Cathedral which makes it the centre of a church diocese, although in this case the actual Cathedral site had been moved to Bath under the Norman Bishop, John De Vilula in the 11th Century]. The first Cathedral in the area was built around 700AD but this replacement cathedral is absolutely astonishing. The West Front contains around 400 carved figures, some larger than life, others smaller, featuring all sorts of people from the Bible and church history. The north transept has a clock which, when the hour comes, sees a figure of a bearded man in red sitting above and to the right of the clock ringing the bells with hands hammering and feet kicking. Other figures emerge for a joust every quarter of an hour, it is amazingly constructed. Not far away is another historical site, the path which Charles II took (the Monarch’s Way) when he escaped after the battle of Worcester in 1651. It runs beside the Bishop’s Keep on part of the 610 mile journey and there were people walking dogs and tramping along it.

We lunched on some glorious Cornish Pasties before beginning the journey home via the wonderful Roman city of Bath and this was an excellent decision (the pasties, not going via Bath). Once again we had to make detours based on the closure of roads which took us through some amazingly beautiful villages and woodlands and across gorgeous flowing streams. More frustrating though was to be approaching Bath and to find out that the Bath Half Marathon was being run on that day. Police roadblocks redirected us, and redirected us again as we tried to make some way into the city centre. Eventually we found ourselves at the same intersection near the southern side of Bath at which we had begun and gave seeing Bath up as a lost cause. We had to find our way around Bath, back to the M4, so that we could head east and home again.

There is only a week now until Easter, so there should be an opportunity for us all to spend a little longer away, perhaps going to Scotland. London is also on the map, when we will have some time to actually get into the city and take some time to see the sights. With Spring officially starting this week we are hoping that the weather will warm up somewhat, although paradoxically the boys and Meg want it to snow if we go to Scotland. Our interest in looking for places related to movies that we have seen has also given us another set of possibilities for places to visit. Having Elstree studios in the same county means there are lots of options quite close by. Meg has had a tooth removed, so she is feeling better than she was and we are still having the most wonderful time. We hope that you all are also and thank you once again for all the lovely emails and letters that we get. Look after yourself one and all.

One final note; this email should not be taken as an endorsement of the movie ‘Hot Fuzz’ nor does it reflect any of the opinions contained within. Meg found the movie quite scary at times, although the boys and Wayne were confused when she jumped in her seat because she saw a DVD rack in a service station. Brock, Quinn and Wayne do, however, suggest that if you enjoyed ‘Shaun of the Dead’ there is a good chance you will also enjoy this film.

Thursday, 13 March 2008

19th Century Novelists

“I do not, for one, think that the problem was that the band was down. I think that the problem may have been that there was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf. Alright? That tended to understate the hugeness of the object.” This Is Spinal Tap

This, might we say, would be a difficult feat. Travelling to Stonehenge on Sunday March 9th demonstrated just how huge it is. Brock commented afterwards that it was so much bigger and more impressive than even he had imagined it would be. How could people possibly have been able to get such large rocks on top of others, so high off the ground? Why would they have wanted to do so? The size of the spectacle would have been helped by the hundreds of tourists from all sorts of nationalities who were there with us. It may also have been aided by the fact that, immediately after we left, we went a couple of miles away to a site called Woodhenge. As the name suggests, instead of stones, the almost identical site had been constructed using blocks of wood. Because of the nature of wood, these had rotted to such an extent that concrete pillars now stand where the wood would have been. This meant that, unlike at Stonehenge, we were able to get right in amongst the pillars and imagine just how big and impressive it all once was.

After visiting these first two sites that were thousands of years old, we journeyed slightly further south to another, Old Sarum. Unlike Stonehenge, Meg, Brock and Quinn had never heard of Old Sarum, which was a great shame. In many ways it is as impressive, both in the sheer size of the place, and in the amount of history connected to it. The earliest fortifications date back to 400BC when it seems to have existed as a hillfort and market centre for the local area. During the Roman occupation of Britain (43 BC) it was re-established under the name Sorviodunum, as the defensive possibilities inherent in the site were utilised once more. In 552 AD, an Anglo-Saxon named Cynric fought and defeated the Britons here, and it was given the Anglo Saxon name of Searobyrg. Then, in 1003, King Sweyn of Denmark, destroyed the larger cities of Exeter and Wilton (from where the county Wiltshire gets the name) and moved the mint, among other things, to Searobyrg. By 1066 it was considered a borough (known as Sarisberie) at the centre of a huge estate owned by the Bishop of Ramsbury and Sherborne. When William the Conqueror arrived he also recognised the potential of the site as a fortification and made it part of the first wave of royal castles built by the Normans in 1069 (when it was known as Seresberi). A cathedral was also built, just outside the castle walls but within the enormous earthen fortifications, which was consecrated on April 5th 1092. 5 days later it was severely damaged by a violent thunderstorm. The cathedral was extended under Bishop Roger who also had a bishop’s palace built at the site, but his death in 1139 meant that building on the site was scaled back. Eleanor of Aquitane (the wife of Henry II) was kept in the castle for much of the 16 years she spent as a prisoner of her husband, but under King John, relations between the clergy and royalty deteriorated severely. As a result, the Cathedral was moved stone by stone into ‘New Sarum’, the city of Salisbury, which is 3 klms away in the valley below the castle and, although the castle was still occupied, by the time of Henry VIII it no longer served any purpose and he gave permission in 1514 for the stone of the castle to also be taken down. Even this was not the end for, despite the fact that, by then, no one lived at the site, its position as a borough meant that it had the right to parliamentary representation and it became notorious into the 19th Century as a ‘rotten borough’ by which someone could be guaranteed a place in parliament. Wayne had come across the name while reading about this practice in Modern History at both High School and University, but had not realised the other historical links to the place.

The wind was very chilly at Old Sarum, which made things a little uncomfortable, however it paled into comparison to the number of stops made on the way down to Stonehenge allowing Meg to vomit. Wayne had woken up that morning having to vomit also, so it seemed either food poisoning or a virus provided the explanation. On the bright side, we now know much more about the quality, cleanliness and facilities available at the various services between Broxbourne and Wiltshire. Compared to the following day, when the south west of England was hit by an enormous storm and Salisbury was experiencing winds of up to 80 miles per hour, a chilly breeze and occasionally overcast conditions were not worth complaining about. Certainly, the rabbits which lived in the side of the fortifications seemed more concerned about having Australians visit than the huge number of dogs which were being walked around the site or any weather.

We finished our day by travelling down into the valley to Salisbury, a gorgeous town with hundreds of years of history. Parking in the centre of the city, we wandered through the shopping district toward Salisbury Cathedral. We came across the river which runs through the city centre where others were feeding the beautiful white swans and mallard ducks. Interestingly, swans were not as calm or peaceful as their image would make them seem. Shops provided access to a toy walrus named Barry, and some styluses for Quinn’s Nintendo DS. We also managed our first ‘taste’ of McDonalds in England, where we discovered that not all the English are as polite as we had experienced previously. Apparently there is something about a Big Mac which just means you have to push in front of unsuspecting tourists and then claim that you were told to do so by a member of staff. Fortunately, the boys and Wayne managed to persuade Meg not to take matters into her own hands and we got hold of McFlurries to sustain us on the trip home without any blood being shed (although there are an English couple who may not realise just how lucky they are.).

Salisbury Cathedral is an absolutely magnificent building. It was begun using stone from the previous Cathedral at Old Sarum in the 13th Century but is now absolutely enormous. Having been founded prior to the English church becoming Protestant during the 16th Century it was a fascinating mix of old Catholic and Anglican styles and features. As you walk through the building you walk over and beside the graves of people which date back centuries. The stained glass windows are absolutely magnificent and the sense of history is almost overwhelming. The tombs of people connected with the Battle of Agincourt or the defeat of Richard III by Henry Tudor make those events seem real. People who are characters in plays by Shakespeare lie next to Archdeacons and Bishops from down through the ages. The concept that those who have money can buy anything, even a place in heaven (which led to the reformation of the church), is also fairly prominent. Most amazing of all was one of the 4 remaining originals of the Magna Carta (the English equivalent to the Declaration of Independence in the United States) which established the rule of law in England. It was signed by King John, at the behest of the barons, on June 15th 1249 and is kept at Salisbury Cathedral in the Chapter House. Obviously, because of the impact of British law upon the political and legal systems of Australia and the United States (among others) this document has had enormous significance down through the centuries.

Much of the trip home was spent admiring the gathering clouds which precluded the storm that the country was to have the following morning. Brock and Quinn began learning how to spot clouds with the potential for snow, although ultimately it only snowed in the North of England, in Ireland, and in Scotland. Despite it being a Sunday afternoon, the M25 on the way back to Hertfordshire conformed to its English reputation as the World’s Biggest Carpark, so there was enough time to discuss a possible visit to Stratford on Avon next weekend, and to listen to the football results. Despite initially having very little interest in British football, exposure to their schoolmates has convinced Brock and Quinn that Wayne was right in encouraging them to choose a team to support. Funnily, Quinn’s choice of West Ham has now altered to Everton (a good decision given that West Ham have lost their last three premiership games 4-0, while Everton are equal 4th and playing in the Quarter finals of the UEFA Cup). Brock initially elected to follow Newcastle but has now decided that Tottenham might be his second team, on the basis that his friends seem evenly divided between Arsenal and Tottenham.

Just so you know, both Meg and Wayne have stopped vomiting and seem much better. Finally, the title ‘19th Century novelists’ refers to Thomas Hardy (on whom Wayne wrote his university thesis), whose Tess of the D’Urbervilles concludes at Stonehenge; Charles Dickens who satirically condemned political abuses, such as the ‘rotten borough’ of Old Sarum; and Anthony Trollope, whose 6 part Barchester Chronicles were set in a version of Salisbury (renamed Barchester) and concluded with The Small House at Allington which was a village we passed on the way to Stonehenge. Anyway, that concludes our adventures for this week. We hope you are all well and enjoying reading about our travels. Thanks once more for your feedback and love, which we appreciate immensely.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

There'll be bluebirds over...

What a weekend!

Saturday morning saw us sleeping in after a very difficult week. Schooling issues for the boys, money issues concerning when and how Wayne was to be paid, added to some traumatic times at Hailey Hall; meant that all of us were tired both physically and emotionally. We needed to find French and English dictionaries and atlases, as well as some final pieces of uniform for Brock and Quinn. They will be finally starting school on Monday, after delays because of not having an address, then more delays because of half-term break, then the school not particularly making an effort to speed up processes. Neither of the boys have been complaining about not going to school (is anyone surprised by that??) but Meg has had to delay her own job search for the sake of looking after the boys. In the end, it would be wonderful for Brock and Quinn to make friends their own age; so much so that Wayne offered to take them to Hailey Hall. Perhaps if he hadn’t told them about some of the things that happen during the day, they might have felt safer to take him up on the offer.

Anyway, late Saturday morning we headed off to Harlow (on the border of Herfordshire and Essex, the next county across toward the eastern coast) to do some shopping. On the way we had to drop in to a uniform shop in Cheshunt to exchange a badge for one of the boy’s blazers which was incorrect. Consequently, we drove down through Waltham Cross to the M25 before heading up to Harlow. Even though it is only a very few miles from home we had not be to the Cross before and were amazed at what a lovely little town it is. It is called Waltham Cross because Edward I erected a stone cross there in memory of his wife Queen Eleanor in 1294. After she had died at Harby in Nottinghamshire in 1290, Edward brought her back to be buried in Westminster Abbey. At every place where they stayed the night on that trip Edward commanded that a cross be erected. Of the 13 built, only 3 remain (there are two more in Northamptonshire) and there is a replica one built at Charing Cross. The other interesting thing about Waltham Cross is that Anthony Trollope (a 19th Century novelist) lived there. Among other things, he is credited with the invention of the Pillar Box, those red letter boxes used to put mail in. Fascinatingly, the site of his house is now the Waltham Cross Sorting Office.

Harlow was amazing, a shopaholics dream world. There were something like 4000 parking spaces and the shopping centre (actually a collection of 4 or 5 smaller shopping centres all gathered in one place) was so big that Meg had to admit defeat at her attempt to see it all. However, she is determined to go back (in comfier shoes). Given the number of stores, and the almost ramshackle way that the various centres had conglomerated in the middle of the town, there were some absolute architectural monstrosities in the midst of it all. However, on the way back to Broxbourne we got to encounter something which was exactly the opposite. We took a slight detour just south of a lovely little village called Stanstead Abbots to visit the church of St James (see first attached photo). Our guide book described it as ‘a nearly perfect example of an ancient church’. The North Chapel was added in 1577 by Sir Edward Baeshe, who was not only the Lord of the Manor at Stanstead but was also ‘General Surveyor of the Victuals for the Navy Royal and Marine Affairs within the Realm of England and Ireland’. Sadly for him, he died in 1587, a year before the British Navy’s defeat of the Spanish Armada.

After a wonderful time exploring the church and it’s cemetery we made one final stop at Rye Meads, a nature reserve and wildlife sanctuary run by the RSPB about 5 miles from home. After talking to some of the staff about how to attract more birds, squirrels and hedgehogs into our own garden we went out to one of the hides to have a look for some of the wildlife in the Meads. Without binoculars it wasn’t easy to spot anything more than a Moorhen or two, till Brock noticed some dark moving shapes in the distance. Much to our surprise they turned out to be Water Buffalo who, as no doubt all or readers would have expected, graze in one corner of the area. We hope to go back at a different time of day to catch a sight of the kingfishers, otters, badgers and other birds and animals and to look a bit closer at one more bit of England’s history.

On the edge of Rye Meads are the ruins of Rye House. The Gatehouse, which is really all that remains, was built in 1443 and is the oldest remaining brick building in the whole of Hertfordshire. When Elizabeth I died, Rye House was the building to which King James of Scotland was brought in order to meet the nobility of England prior to assuming the throne. Interestingly, it was also the site of what became known as the Rye House Plot in 1683. Some republicans, upset after the collapse of the Commonwealth at the death of Cromwell, planned to assassinate King Charles II and his brother James the Duke of York on their way home from Newmarket. Because they knew that the route would pass by Rye House, they intended to block the road and kill the royals. The plot failed because there was a fire in Newmarket so the King and his brother came home early. Someone then gave away the plot and the participants were all hanged.

We had taken all our library books with us, so that on the way home we could stop in to the library, get online, and possibly borrow some other books. A fabulous side effect of having no money has been that we have all spent quite a bit of time doing things that don’t cost anything, and the library has been at the head of that list. The various branches of Hertfordshire Library have also given Meg a small opportunity to explore shops (for future reference only at the moment) while the boys are entertained by being on the Internet. Unfortunately, we had forgotten that the library closes at 4pm on a Saturday, so when we duly turned up at 4:05pm with all our books in tow, we then had to turn around and wander back to the car. At least, with the enormous number of newspapers that Britain has, there is amazing competition between them for readers, so the weekends generally see free DVD’s and CD’s to choose from. Saturday saw the Times begin a week of Games with the paper with Monopoly for the PC so there was something to do when we returned home (Sunday will be Scrabble, Monday is Trivial Pursuit, and the rest of the week is filled with Interactive DVD games).

Today, having not really ventured very far since our trip to Cambridge (itself just 37 miles away) we decided to take a jaunt down to Dover, with the aim of seeing the white cliffs, the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, and possibly even a glimpse of the French Coast on the other side of the Channel. The trip itself is very easy, travelling much of the way on the M25 (the London ring-road which circles the entire city) then jumping on to the M20 which heads straight down to Dover. We arose early because it was Mothering Sunday and there were gifts to give to Meg and a breakfast to be made, and got away so that we were approaching the entry to the Channel Tunnel before 9:30am. Unfortunately, some confusion over signage saw us actually at the tolls which would have put us on the train through the Chunnel to France (at the cost of £14). We hadn’t brought our passports with us, so this really wasn’t an option. The lady at the toll was very understanding and pointed us to a U-turn bay. Apparently, we were not the first to make this mistake, a fact which was confirmed by our sighting of a French car doing exactly the same little U-turn that we were doing in order to get ourselves back on the M20 to Dover.

Some of you might remember that the first place we were offered in England was at a school in Dover, so we were really looking forward to seeing the town. It is gorgeous. A really nice combination of old terrace houses, with some newer buildings. All of this with the channel and the white cliffs (it was only later that we spotted at the Dock one of the ugliest waterfront developments Meg and Wayne had ever seen) meant that even before we saw Dover Castle, on the hill overlooking the town, we thought that Dover was a great place. Once we had spotted the Castle we decided to drive to the top of the hill to see what we could see. As it turned out, this was a fabulous decision.

Because Dover is so very close to Europe (21 miles away from Calais, closer than Redcliffe is to the centre of Brisbane) it has also been the most obvious place for invaders to set foot. Consequently, one of the features of the Castle is a Roman pharos (a lighthouse) built in the 2nd Century AD. Next to it is a Saxon Church which dates back to 1000AD (prior to the Norman Invasion in 1066). The centre of the Castle is the Keep, the stronghold in the middle, which was built over 10 years from 1180 by Henry II, and in 1216 withstood one of the greatest of England’s medieval sieges. The views from the top were amazing, although the steepness of the old stairs meant that not all of the family made it up there. However, the inside of the castle was worth seeing as well. Apparently it was the first castle which had built in plumbing, examples of which we saw as we toured the inside. It had also been a place where Samuel Beckett had worked, prior to his murder in the Cathedral at Canterbury (not that far away). It was totally unlike what most of us had expected the insides of a castle to be, and yet made perfect sense, given that this was an incredibly old stone building which hadn’t really been inhabited (at least not in the keep) for hundreds of years.

What was most amazing about Dover Castle was not what was above the ground, but what was below. In the 18th Century, at the time of the Napoleonic Wars, when massive armies were being gathered in England’s South East in preparation for war, tunnels were made into the white chalk soil in order to house the armies. Approximately 2000 troops were eventually housed underground in the Casemate tunnels by 1810. Over the next hundred years there were quarters there for the tax office in their bid to thwart smugglers and also to combat pirates in the area. In the mid 1930’s, when some in Britain realised that Hitler was going to be a significant problem, the retired Vice Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsay was commissioned by the then Defence Minister, Winston Churchill, to investigate the tunnels and to equip them to be a military base providing protection for the Channel and England’s shipping. As well as excavating the level of tunnels that had existed for the last century and a bit, he also organised the building of an upper Annexe which became an active hospital, and a lower (Dumpy) level which would eventually serve as a base of Operations and during the Cold War become one of 12 sites around the country which were to be bases in case of Nuclear war.

Touring amongst the tunnels, watching films about the war (and especially the evacuation of Dunkirk, which was coordinated from this base), and experiencing the holograms, the smell of the food, and the recorded sounds which they use to recreate the atmosphere, was amazing. So convincing was one of the holograms that Quinn was certain that he had seen a ghost. English Heritage, which runs the whole Castle (as well as 800 other sites around the country, including Stonehenge) has done a fabulous job preserving the place. There were even elevators built to enable disabled visitors to be able to access different parts of the complex. The guides were amazingly knowledgeable and our group (which was the first of the day and included Americans, English, Irish, Japanese and French, as well as we Australians) found the whole place fascinating. Because we are members of English Heritage we get free (or at least incredibly cheap) admission to all Heritage sites, so we are hoping to get back to Dover, there are parts of the whole complex we would love to see again.

Travelling home was another exploration of the impact of the European Union and the Channel Tunnel upon the Motorways of Britain. Travelling along the main motorway back from the stepping off point for most of the Lorries (I have learned to stop calling them trucks) coming from Europe meant that we encountered a multitude of different nationalities. Most notable was the enormous number of vehicles from Poland and the Czech Republic. However we also came across Lorries registered in the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, Belgium, Ireland, Hungary, Slovenia, France, Austria, Croatia, and Liechtenstein. We are all really looking forward for the opportunity to travel in the other direction and explore those countries, indeed Brock stood on one of the battlements yearning for the trip to Paris we have coming up for the World Of Warcraft Convention and wishing the time would pass faster. In the meantime England itself has so much to see we have only scratched a tiny piece of the surface. With the excitement of it all and the anticipation of school tomorrow, both boys fell asleep in the car on the way home. Who knows what stories we will all have to tell by the end of next week?

Hope you are all well and look forward to hearing more news from home. Thanks again for all the support.