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.

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