Sunday, 6 July 2008

Animals and birthrites

On a wall in the Symes household hangs a print of the John Constable print ‘The Hay Wain’. Although it is spelled differently, it is from this painting that Wayne got his name. Because Constable was an English landscape painter, there was always going to be a good chance that we were going to encounter the place in which the painting was painted.
As it turns out, that was a place named Flatford Mill, a tiny place just north of the city of Colchester, very close to where Constable’s family lived. Because there were other good reasons to go to Colchester, we decided that we would take the opportunity to visit Flatford Mill.

The trip out was as fascinating as all our journeys into the English countryside. We went through villages where almost every roof was thatched. We went past Stanstead Airport, from which one of the major cut price airlines into Europe does most of its flights. We were able to show the boys where Meg had had to drive when she was doing exam invigilation at a school at Stanstead Mountfichet so that they realised just how far away it was and how long it took her to get there. We drove into the outer suburbs of Colchester, one of the oldest cities in Britain, and realised that we were lost. The problem was that we had left Hertfordshire and driven into Essex, and our street directories and atlases were nowhere near as detailed as they needed to be for this part of the world. While Google Maps is an excellent resource, we have also come to understand that their instructions are not always as detailed as they might be. However, the purchase of an Essex street directory (it is the next county to the east of us, and we will be going back there) made life a little easier.

After a couple of failed attempts (the turns weren’t very clear and the English have developed an interesting approach to signposting which we will mention more of later) we found ourselves in the village of East Bergholt (which was where the Constable family house actually was) and made our way down into the Stour River Valley. As we have found before, it was important to park a little outside the village and walk the last hundred metres or so. For this we were joined by the members of an antique car club who had also made the journey. Even without the Constable link this valley is a beautiful part of the world and the house at Flatford Bridge which houses the Constable Centre would still be picturesque.

After looking at the pictures and reading about his history we went for a short walk along the river. There were ducks, geese, swans and lots of other birds, along with some gorgeous old boats buildings. We rang Wayne’s mother to tell her where we were (and cleverly forgot to wish her a Happy Birthday for the following day, sorry Mum) and just as we were describing the glorious surroundings it started to drizzle. So we headed back to the other side of the bridge and wandered down to the mill itself. There is a study centre here (which is how we discovered the place, one of the teachers at the school has taken a number of groups to stay there and raved about the place when he saw ‘The Hay Wain’ on Wayne’s computer) and just past that is the spot where Constable must have sat to paint.

One of the amazing things about England is how well they preserve some of their heritage. Apart from the changes in the trees through various cycles of growth and regrowth, and the absence of a cart with some workmen passing through the river, the scene is still very much as it was when Constable painted it. As we stood and took photos, a couple came along the path walking a dog and Meg persuaded them to let their dog be photographed with Wayne to add another element to the shot. They had lived in Australia (although they were both English) and were happy to loan Josh (the dog) as well as suggest a number of other places that we might like to visit. All in all we had a fabulous time and as we climbed back into the car to head to our next destination, Wayne mentioned that it was almost like visiting one’s birthplace, even though he had never been there before.

Some of you might remember that when we first arrived in the UK the boys and Meg spent a considerable amount of time watching television while schools and jobs were being organised. Apart from Home Renovation programmes, the other television show that they all became addicted to was one called ‘Zoo Days’, the first two seasons of which were hosted by Jane Horrocks (you might remember her as ‘Bubble’ from ‘Absolutely Fabulous’) and set at Chester Zoo. However, season three has been at Colchester Zoo and filming was taking place (we saw on a sign as we arrived). This proved to be harder than we had hoped. There were lots of signs pointing us in the direction of the zoo but, as we have found previously, once you actually get close to a place in England the signage stops until you are right on top of it. This is ok if what you are looking for stands out from the surroundings, not so good if there are a number of turns just before you really get there.

Colchester isn’t the biggest zoo we have ever been to (it is only 60 acres whereas Australia Zoo is 72 acres and Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, NSW is 741 acres) nor does it have the spectacular backdrop that makes Taronga Zoo in Sydney (51 acres in case you were wondering) such a wonderful place. However, the animals here are just as fabulous as they are in other zoos around the world. We loved how close we could get to some, while the space available to them was sizeable. Like the beautiful Adelaide Zoo (almost 20 acres) and Perth Zoo (47 acres) there are excellent connections with wildlife conservation areas in other parts of the world and the opportunity to sponsor individual animals. One of our favourite sections was the African wildlife area, where the ability of the animals to live together reminded Wayne of Monarto Zoo (2560 acres) near Murray Bridge in South Australia. Unlike Melbourne Zoo (55 acres) which has had some negative publicity this year, Colchester is gaining in popularity (hence the television show being set there).

There were animals there to appeal to everybody; penguins for Brock, turtles for Quinn, aardvarks for Meg and red pandas for Wayne. At the very beginning (where a handy trail was set out on the ground for us to follow) we came across some sloths which had the boys all excited, and this level of excitement continued for most of the zoo. We rushed to see some of the big cats (the zoo has one of the best collections in Europe) and the monkeys. Brock had to have his photo taken with the zebras (something to do with a girl at school apparently???) while we all wanted to see the baby warthogs who were charging at and head butting each other. We laughed at a poor male egret trying to help his mate build a nest out of sticks, who would struggle to bring her a new stick, each time only to have her knock it back down onto the ground.

Almost as fascinating were some of the other people who were visiting the zoo that day. Lots of the little children absolutely loved the animals they were seeing (although they found some a little scary). Many of them, despite the television series, had no idea what the animals were that they were looking at, nor where they came from. When they asked their parents they seemed to have even less knowledge. Most amusing were the small groups of people who would make fun of how the animals looked while anyone nearby who saw them were sniggering at how the people themselves looked (honestly, what is the British females obsession with wearing white trousers over dark coloured undies, or the teenage males for wearing their pants so low that you can see virtually all their underwear???)

Possibly the only drawback with Colchester Zoo is that, like Taronga, the countryside in which it is set is actually quite hilly. We walked up and down and down and up trying to see every animal that we could but, as we got close to the exit, it was getting harder to stay motivated to see the last of them. In the end, it was the fact that it was the red panda which kept us going and we were all very glad that we did. As mentioned, Wayne loves red pandas and has been to many zoos to see them, but Colchester has the best exhibit of any that he has yet been to. We were able to get really close to them yet they still had lots of space in which to play and hide. We got some fabulous photographs and then headed for the carpark (an experience which was much more like Australia Zoo, for those of you who have been there). It was a great day, topped off by some pizza which we picked up on the way home.

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