Saturday, September 24, 2016
The westbound transatlantic flight is, comparatively speaking—and we all know that most of our judgments are comparative ones—a piece of cake. We left London at noon and landed in Newark just before three—a flight of about eight hours. United now offers, for a modest increment in fare, what they call “Economy Plus”—the “plus” being about two extra inches that for me determine the difference between Inquisitorial torture and mere nagging discomfort. This left me if not exactly band-box fresh at least compos mentis and capable of reflecting with satisfaction on both the unique pleasures of a homecoming and the memories of so many beautiful sights and uplifting encounters of the previous three weeks. Three weeks, but six great places, and in all of them meetings with old friends, in most instances friends of more than half a century. Here’s a brief run-down.
Salernes: the town square on market day
Our first stop, Salernes, a typical Provençal village a bit inland from the Côte d’Azur, must be in the Var (though I am not absolutely sure). One of our oldest Oxford friends, Andrew Seth, has a fine old house there. This was not our first visit, but for several reasons it was the mellowest. We were among three couples, guests of our widowed host, all of us “seniors”, making up a delightful house party composed in equal parts of binge reading and seemingly endless conversations prosecuted over long, exquisite outdoor dinners that began in the dusk and devolved long into the night.
28, avenue de Suffren
Then a TGV (high-speed train) whisked us to Paris and “our” apartment and more very old friends (among Joan’s oldest, indeed), more dining, more lunching, more hassling with our French telephones, the usual rush of temporarily forgotten familiarities of sight, sound, and smell. Tourism in Paris is down, according to the press, though you couldn’t prove it by me. But a conspicuous feature of the streets is the large presence of heavily armed security officers. A big chunk of our Paris stay was actually spent in the countryside near Poitiers, where we again visited Joan’s cousin Gavin and his wife Val, who, after various physical and metaphysical wanderings, have ended up with advanced theological degrees and in a gorgeous rural place called Brux. More splendid trains that really work rendered toing and froing from Paris not merely possible but easy.
Notre-Dame of Poitiers
From Paris we flew to Edinburgh. It was something of a cattle-car flight but too short to be really unpleasant, especially as in less than an hour after touchdown we found ourselves ensconced in the lovely village of Whitekirk, home of our next hostess, Margaret Richards, another cousin and indeed the sister of Gavin. Just then she was basking in the glow of the receipt of a lifetime achievement award from the Scottish Society of Architects. Her own digs, a spectacularly converted set of stables approximately forty yards from the village’s medieval church, probably could have merited the award on its own. In St. Mary’s church I attended in the morning my first ever Kirk of Scotland Communion and in the evening my first ever performance of Schoenberg’s string sextet “Verklärte Nacht,” a haunting piece from the composer’s early Romantic period, before he went all strange and atonal.
St. Mary's, Whitekirk (East Lothian)
A leisurely train journey that began in Dunbar and for many lovely miles hugged the coast eventually brought us, after a couple of transfers, to Norwich and our friends Michael and Heather Nicholas who now live in the attractive riverfront village of Reedham. From Reedham we sallied forth over the next couple of days for beautiful excursions through the Norfolk countryside and to Norwich itself: pub lunches in sunny gardens, the cell of Saint Julian, tea in the cathedral refectory before Evensong amid its chancel choirstalls. The decoration of the Julian chapel was beautifully spare, a significant feature being a small silver dish filled with plump hazelnuts—a detail that will be meaningful to readers of the saint’s famous book and no doubt mysterious to all others.
The Yare at Reedham
Thence to London, where we “overnighted” (see next paragraph”) before moving on for three days to Joan’s brother and sister-in-law in their gorgeous village, Wye, a few short miles from Canterbury. Our stay there was mainly slow-paced. On two of the trains we had been on there had been two different girls sitting directly across the aisle from me reading something called The Girl on the Train. I interpreted that as a sign, so I spent the better part of a day reading it myself, though I did have several hours on my own in Canterbury as well.
The trip to Wye was bracketed by two nights in London—at a fleabag hotel (fortunately flealess in fact) near King’s Cross. This arrangement allowed us to see and take meals with yet three more dear friends. We came down from Scotland on Friday. On Saturday, before moving on to Kent in the late afternoon, we had a wonderful long visit with Margaret Davies, one of our fellow English “readers” at university nearly sixty years ago, who came down from Oxford specially to see us. And on Tuesday night, before an early start for Heathrow the next morning, we had a mellow evening meal with John and Fiona Smith, who came in to join us from their house in Barnes. The area behind King’s Cross/St. Pancras has been considerably upgraded since I was last there and is now a kind of London Dumbo full of wine bars, theaters, and hip restaurants. One of them I am prepared to recommend with enthusiasm: the Greek Larder, on York Place.
So there you have it: twenty-one days, seven major venues, thirteen beloved old friends, and all treated utterly inadequately in nine hundred and sixty-one words that serve at least to reanimate the blog.
King's Cross development (including "Greek Larder")