Thursday, 3 April 2008

An Englishman's home is...

“Listen, lad. I built this kingdom up from nothing. When I started here, all there was was swamp. Other kings said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show 'em. It sank into the swamp. So, I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third one. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one... stayed up! And that's what you're gonna get, lad: the strongest castle in these islands.” Monty Python and the Holy Grail.

On Monday night we asked Brock and Quinn if they had any suggestions as to where we should go on Tuesday. Brock took a look at our Red Folder (a collection of possible places to go to, complete with maps to and from home and details of what would be there) and said that he would like to go to Margate. Quinn wanted to go and see another castle and possibly a maze. We went through our various books, atlases and maps and decided to return to Kent (where we had previously been to Dover) with our ultimate destination to be Margate.

Tuesday morning dawned with overcast skies and lots of drizzly rain. While Meg and the boys got changed, Wayne ducked across to Tescos to purchase some supplies for meals and snacks during the day. Hitting the M25 we headed east out of Hertfordshire, through Essex, then south over the Dartford Bridge before turning west once more on to the A2/M2. Wayne had tentatively planned to go to Rochester where there are a Castle and Cathedral which are run by English Heritage. However, as we made the turnoff to Rochester and Chatham we noticed another sign pointing in the direction of Upnor, so we made a spur of the moment decision to head there first.

As we drove into Upnor this decision looked to be a foolish move, we parked in a carpark (which astonishingly was free!!! outrageous for England where you pay to park your car almost anywhere) which was outside the village. As we had made the turn in all we had seen was locked gates and no sign of any castle. With some trepidation we left the car and followed the signs pointing toward Upnor Castle. Quickly we found ourselves in the gorgeous little village of Upnor Regis; complete with a cobblestone street, catflaps into the ramps to basements, and a pub dating back to the 17th Century. At the bottom of the Main Street was High Street, actually the Medway River and Marlowe House on the corner even had its own lighthouse/river viewing platform.

Upnor Castle was built expressly for protecting the navy of Queen Elizabeth I, which regularly moored at the dockyards at Chatham. Even after it had served out its military usefulness the castle remained a magazine supplying gunpowder and munitions to the men-of-war moored in the river. It was not until Upnor’s last days as a fortress that it was actually called on to defend the fleet. In June 1667, during the Second Dutch War, the Dutch fleet attacked and burnt a fort at Sheerness before moving upriver to attack the navy at Chatham. While the raid was largely successful, with some ships carried off and others burnt (the diarist Evelyn described the result as ‘a Dreadful Spectacle as ever any English men saw and a dishonour never to be wiped off’), the efforts of Upnor Castle to attack the raiders meant that the Dutch fleet suffered many casualties and were forced to withdraw. The males speculated as to whether this lay behind Nigel Power’s statement that, “there's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures and the Dutch.”

Having enjoyed ourselves immensely (especially as Brock lay in wait at the bottom of the stairwell and scared Quinn by jumping out and shouting), we set out once more for Rochester. This time we saw the Castle and Cathedral, but the sign indicating them was after the turn off. After some ‘interesting’ driving, we went back through the city which was full of glorious architecture from across the centuries, only to find the car park was full. Had the weather not fined up, we may have left and thus missed out on a fabulous experience. We circled the castle and found a park for Kylie down below the castle, alongside the River Medway, looking toward the beautiful bridges across the river.

The first castle was raised at Rochester at the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066. It was rebuilt for William Rufus by Gundulf (not the one from the Lord of the Rings) the Bishop of Rochester, between 1087 and 1089. In 1127, King Henry I added the keep (or Donjon, hence the term ‘Dungeon’ which passed into the English language) the massive rectangular tower which dominates the castle today. Perhaps the most significant event took place just after the signing of the Magna Carta. King John still had enemies and they took control of the castle in October of 1215 to prevent him travelling from Canterbury back to London. Royalist forces attacked, taking control first of the bridge, then laying siege to the castle. After almost two months they finally defeated the rebels by using a mine (made from the fat of forty pigs) to blow up one section of the Keep.

Rochester Cathedral is England’s second oldest, having been founded in 604AD by Bishop Justus. The present building dates back to the work of Bishop Gundulf (he was a busy man, wasn’t he?) in 1080. The Nave shows Normanesque architecture at its finest, while the front of building is Romanesque. In the end we spent so much time exploring the interior of the Castle, with Wayne and Quinn ascending to the very top of the Keep and descending to the basement with its Cess Pit, that we didn’t get to go inside the Cathedral itself. However, we had already seen it magnificently from the top of the keep and, as we toured the Outer Bailey, we got great views of the Cathedral from ground level. As well, Meg fell in love with a number of the houses which lay outside the castle walls and was only able to be pulled away when a resident noticed her gazing in the windows. Our only quibble with Rochester was the horror movie winds which whistled through the trees and castle windows, causing Meg to flee screaming from the scene while clutching her hair.

Some of you might be wondering why we would want to go to Margate (indeed, a number of the people of Margate asked us this question). The truth is that back in Queensland, on the Redcliffe peninsula north of Brisbane, is a suburb called Margate. Like the town in England for which it was named [Margate was originally ‘Meregate’ meaning ‘sea gate’], it is on the water, however they have significantly different histories. English Margate has been a leading seaside resort for at least 250 years, drawing Londoners to its ‘sandy’ beaches (a contrast to most of the beaches around the country). It was the first resort to introduce bathing machines and deck chairs, in 1898. Prior to that it was a ‘limb’ of Dover as part of the Cinque ports federation which attempted to control sea trade and defence from the 12th through to the 17th Centuries. More recently, the Graham Swift novel ‘Last Orders’, which won the Booker Prize in 1996 and was later made in to a movie, is about a journey to Margate to dispose of someone’s ashes. Perhaps the most famous connection with Margate is one of Wayne’s favourite artists, J. M. W. Turner (1775-1851). He had a mistress who lived in the town and consequently spent a considerable amount of time there. As a result lots of paintings were inspired by the land and sea scapes around the area. For our Australian readers one of his most famous paintings, Slave Ship (Slavers Throwing Overboard the Dead and Dying, Typhoon Coming On), may well have inspired one of the more notorious episodes of our recent political history. Consequently, the biggest contemporary art prize in England is called ‘The Turner Prize’ and a huge contemporary art gallery is to be built in Margate, to be completed in 2010. We visited the site headquarters and spent 20 minutes talking to the two curators about what they considered the insanity of ever coming to Margate. In the end I think we persuaded both of them to at least visit Australia, if not move there completely. Despite the negativity of the locals (and to be fair, everywhere we have been in England the locals have had the same view of their own town/city/village/country) we quite enjoyed our time.

Because the time was not yet completely late, we decided to make one final stop on our way home, to see if we could actually visit a hedge maze. Near the town of Maidstone is Leeds Castle, one of the more famous and historic because it is built on islands in the middle of a lake and has been there for over 1000 years. Sadly for us, we will have to return there as it was quite expensive to get in and looked like there would be so much of interest there that we would not have enough time to see around the place. We did, however, get a good view of the balloon in which you can rise up 400 feet to view the castle and surrounding area from above, while still tethered in the one place.

As we returned home after our many castles (hence the quote at the beginning of this email) we were very satisfied with the day. Meg suffered somewhat with getting her hair caught in Kylie’s sunroof and we were very grateful that we had finally bribed Brock into getting his hair cut (despite many protests, tears and tantrums) or he may have experienced the same problem. When we arrived, Brock set about baking some cookies, trying very hard not to misread the recipe. Late last week, while cooking the same recipe, he had read the instruction ‘Leave room for cookies to expand while baking’ and walked out of the kitchen. When we asked him what he was doing, he told us that the recipe had told him to ‘Leave the room’.

We hope you are all well and enjoying yourselves. Brock, Quinn and Wayne will be back at school next week and Meg has been informed that there is a great chance that she will receive some casual work as a Teacher’s Assistant. Thanks once more for all the emails and other correspondence we have received. We look forward to hearing more about how everything is going in your lives.

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