My house right now is filled top to bottom with a band of men installing my new security system. Because we have been burgled twice in less than a year, our insurance company is understandably a bit peeved with us. How did such undemanding customers of 25 years, dwellers in countless apartments in New York and London suddenly become so very… expensive? So they are insisting on an alarm system, before they agree to cover any more of our home invasions.
An atavistic instinct in me is enormously satisfied by the notion that some evil neighbor, having preyed on us twice before, is now looking with consternation from across the street, watching us become alarmed.
And it IS alarming.
Because these fellows are full of grisly tales from their native land, one from South Africa and the other the East End of London, where one apparently does not leave expanses of glass uncovered by metal bars, or doors with fewer than two…
Here is a link to the new and improved “Kristen in London,” still in the planning stages and we’re still building that recipe index!
But I’d like to ask your opinion on how it looks, what you see on the first page, how the hot links work. In short…
Do you like it?
I’m open to all ideas, so let’s get the ball rolling!
There is no substitute for going “home.” No matter how strongly I feel about my own home in London, or how much I loved our various apartments in New York, when I walk into my mother and father’s home in Indianapolis, I know I am “home.”
I feel so tall there now! The kitchen where I spent so many happy childhood hours seems smaller than I remember, the ceilings lower, the counters lower, the lights dimmer. All the cupboards (or “cabinets” as they were called in my childhood) are within my reach, but my strongest memories of them are from the vantage point of being 10, crouching on my knees on the counter, to get down a can of corn or the blender, which lived far in the back, on a dark shelf.
Every room in the house is testimony to my mother’s intensely personal decorating skills, and every object has been chosen with deliberate care to reflect her taste in any given year. When I was little, everything was yellow: checked sofa, chairs and curtains, the whole living room a sunny haven, flanked by the fireplace on one end and her conservatory/plant room on the other. Very 1970s! Now, yellow has been replaced by deep browns and clear whites, in the tuille of the chairs she inherited from her mother’s house, in the southern-style shutters at the windows, the masses of brown and white transferware china she has collected all her life. The walls are covered with samplers she stitched herself in the long days she spent looking after the three of us children, and there are displays of antique eyeglasses, symbolizing my grandfather’s career as a prominent optometrist in southern Indiana.
The plants are still there in the plant room: luscious ferns, tiny baby primroses in hanging baskets, the terrarium we children planted, with even the stepping stools stencilled beautifully by mother, reflecting her belief that everything one uses or looks at should be decorative, should add to the visual landscape.
She has a squirrel collection! No, not taxidermy (she is far too fond of living furry things to do that), but every other conceivable material: fuzzy Steiffs, cast-iron doorstops, paperweights, carved wood, all sitting demurely on a painted tray, tails tightly curled.
And everywhere are photographs. My mother has a positive genius for making arrangements of touching, significant, historical (she likes to call them “hysterical”) objects, combining them with photographs, placing them all in deep boxes behind glass: all our family history hung on the walls. My great-grandmother’s passport, wedding certificate, teaching degree, christening dress, string of pearls, photograph of her holding my grandmother, smiling at her baby from under a cloche hat. My mother collects printer’s type, and makes boxes for baby gifts, for my daughter a box filled with types of cats, symbols of New York City where she was born, my and my husband’s initials, her birth announcement, a photo of her as a newborn baby.
The many, many photographs of our family reunions, grandchildren arranged stairstep-fashion, the tiniest child changing as more babies appeared! My beloved grandfather, dead so prematurely at 64, in the happiest family days you can imagine, all of us grandchildren being pulled in a cart behind his lawnmower on the acres of lawn in front of their big, rambling stone house, on the street named for him… he with pipe in mouth, billed cap on head, broad smile as he spent his days the happiest way he knew, surrounded by his grandchildren. How he would have adored Avery. This is something my mother and say to each other at least four times, every time we get together. “Wouldn’t he have thought her the little princess,” for that’s what he called all of us granddaughters. We were each a princess, when he was with us.
So I went home, last week. My father valiantly dragged in my impossibly heavy suitcase, and I brought out presents for everyone, talking and listening, catching up on family and neighborhood gossip. Who had sold a house, whose children had got divorced, how many cars were in the next-door garage in various states of disrepair, who had turned gay or got arrested (it’s an interesting neighborhood)…
And in the morning there was time to sit out on my mother’s screened-in porch, surrounded by hanging plants, with a giant box of memorabilia from my 98-year-old grandmother’s house. My mother was glad to have me go through it, making a pile of things I wanted to bring home with me, including a photograph of some random great-aunts, old ladies in their flowery print dresses, eyeglasses with rhinestones at the corners, gnarled hands folded in their laps. And guess what? They were 45 years old when the photo was taken! Times have certainly changed… somehow I don’t think there was a “cougar” among them.
There is a dusty film in some unfamiliar format, of my baby mother held in her father’s arms, and an old photo album belonging to my grandmother with pictures of long-ago Easters spent looking for eggs under their giant spruce tree, and Christmases in polyester pajamas with tousled hair, all of us grandchildren gradually getting older until I suppose she stopped putting photos away, and just let them pile up on her bedside table.
That was the one quiet day at home! From then, time speeded up in a blur of visitors. My mother’s best friend Janet, gorgeous as ever, hostess of many, many sleepovers with her daughter who grew up with me, always the more glamorous, popular and beautiful! Just looking at her familiar face made me feel as if the intervening 30 years had never happened, and we were once again jumping off the dock at their lake house, or our lake house, or speeding on water skis behind one of our boats, all of us with perfect athletic figures and perfect tans, eating hot dogs and steaks and getting up at the crack of dawn in 1981 to watch Princess Diana’s wedding, on our dodgy aerial television.
And along with her came her great friend Dallene, famous in my life for teaching me to play piano, a joy that has stayed with me all these years; if I’m not as good as I was at age 12, it’s not Dallene’s fault! How many hundreds of hours I spent at the piano in her elegant Victorian house, with her son under my feet, trying to keep me from reaching the pedals! And her husband our high school football coach, the two of them bursting with energy to teach all of us everything they knew… Many years later, they turned up in London on a school trip, and I cooked something for them, a pork roast, Dallene thinks, and of course she says, “That was the best pork roast I ever ate!”
It was simply lovely to sit with them and my mother, feeling petted and loved, remembered as a skinny little kid tagging after the cooler kids, practicing my piano and making chocolate chip cookies, seeing them always in the bleachers at my diving and gymnastic meets, a set of ladies ready to take care of me and all our friends, stalwart mothers. I love to think that there are girls in Avery’s little social circle who see me as just such a mother, there to pick them up at the train station after school trips, to provide popcorn while they watch a movie. Every time Avery asks for help with her piano music, I think of Dallene and what she added to my life, once a week, for years and years, and I told her so! Which made us both happy.
Then it was onto producing lunch for my dear friends Bob and Ann, Bob who married us in his infinite philosophical wisdom, 20 years ago. Ann was and is a total feminist and iconoclast, and she was more than happy to turn the traditional marriage service into something that reflected who we were. To get ready, my mother polished the brown and white china, spreading a matching tablecloth on the dining table where we NEVER eat unless company comes! More china shone down from the cherry sideboard that my dad made with his very own hands.
It was tricky for me, queen of butter, cream and other fattening things, to make something that would please Bob and Ann who are 80+ for a good reason. They really take care of themselves, biking through Holland last year, playing tennis twice a week. So I really felt I didn’t want to poison them at lunch, and I spent a lot of time thinking of just the right dish: savoury and festive, yet not heavy and guilt-inducing. I think I invented just the ticket, and I have to tell you that I served the chicken salad in… a chamber pot. I really did, as you see.
Chicken Salad with Basmati Rice, Artichokes, Pinenuts and Courgettes
3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
2 tbsps olive oil
1 tsp Fox Point seasoning
2 cups basmati rice, steamed in 1 1/2 cups water
2 heads Boston lettuce, well trimmed and leaves separated
1 large globe artichoke
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 cup pinenuts, lightly toasted
2 medium courgettes (zucchini), cut into bite-size batons
1 red onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced with salt and lemon juice
juice and zest of 1 lemon
handful chives, chopped
handful fresh dill, chopped
2 tbsps mayonnaise
1 tbsp olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
Saute the chicken breasts in a large frying pan with the oil and Fox Point, till just cooked. Don’t overcook. Slice thin and set aside to cool, reserving the seasoned oil in the frying pan.
Steam rice and set aside to cool.
Line a large bowl (or chamber pot) with leaves of Boston lettuce, just the sweet inner leaves. In a separate large bowl, mix all the ingredients (including chicken and rice) for the salad and toss well. Add the seasoned juicy oil from the chicken pan and as much of the dressing (or none) as you like and mix well.
Arrange the salad in the bowl lined with lettuce leaves and serve with baguette slices, rolls, or as my mother did, buttered biscuits.
This was so delicious! So many different textures, colors and flavors that each bite was interesting. Be sure to serve a couple of lettuce leaves on every plate. If you’re the type of person who likes things wrapped in lettuce, eat the salad that way, wrapped in a leaf.
For dessert we had blueberries, blackberries, raspberries and strawberries tossed in a little lemony sugar water, and my mother’s all-time, old-fashioned favorite sweet:
1 box lemon cake mix
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup butter, melted
1 package lemon frosting mix or 1 cup lemon frosting
1 8-ounce package cream cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 cup lemon frosting for top
Butter a 9x9 cake pan and heat oven to 350F/180C.
Mix the cake mix, 2 eggs and melted butter and press into the cake pan evenly. Mix frosting mix or frosting, cream cheese and 1 egg and spread on top. Bake for 35–40 minutes or until set and golden brown. Cool and spread remaining frosting on top. Cut into 12 squares.
Now I know you will sit up at this and say to yourself, “Self, what is Kristen doing with processed foods full of high-fructose corn syrup and artificial flavorings?” And to this I can only say, this was the first dish I ever cooked in my entire life, age perhaps 10, and that’s what we did in those days. I’m sure if I put my mind to it, I could come up with a pretentious recipe using all organic pure ingredients, and it would be a page long and cost about $20. But why? How often are you going to eat Lemon Bars, anyway? Once a year? Go for it.
Bob and Ann and we sat around the table for hours, reminiscing about my college days (where he was my professor, to be sure, but he started when my parents were there!), our lives in London, discussing the recent election, my sister’s career, and theories of children in foster homes, all subjects dear to our hearts. Best of all were the stories about old professors my parents and I had had in school.
“Remember old E., how blind he got in his old age?” Bob asked.
“Sure,” my mother said promptly. “Once there was a kid in my class who had a bet that he could crawl out down the central aisle, and E. thought he was a dog. ‘Who let that mutt in my classroom?’”
“Versions of that story are legendary,” Bob laughed, “but the best is that one kid bet another a quarter that he could crawl out. When E. saw him, he walked back where the kid was on his hands and knees and said, ‘Young man, what are you doing?’ And the kid said, ‘I just lost a quarter,’ so E. got down on HIS hands and knees to look for it!”
Finally they had to go, having driven an hour from my college town to see me.
Thursday saw me having coffee (I really needed it at that point, jetlag threatening to catch up with me!) with my old high school friend Brent, now the director of the Indiana University jazz radio station. We talked over and over each other, trying to fill in the gaps between 1983 and now. Indiana politics, the history of our little neighborhood where we grew up, adventures in college, and of course the joys of Facebook, where we found each other after all these years!
He raced me home where we jumped in the car and drove two hours to the little town in Southern Indiana where my mother grew up, and where her mother now lives in a gorgeous little retirement home, where she is the undisputed Queen. And the oldest lady at 98! “Well, hey there, Bettye,” person after person called to her, while we were there. And she remembered me perfectly, although it’s been several years since I saw her, isolated as she is in that town, so far from London. “I’d like to go back there,” she said reminiscently, “and spend more than two weeks. I was there for two weeks with your grandfather, and it surely was not enough to see all there was to see…” her voice trailing off as she looked into the past, two dead husbands ago, another lifetime it must seem.
I confess to a little heart-thumping fear when I first saw her. So much older than I remembered, living not in the houses where I visited her as a child, but as a patient, really, in a nursing home. I know that my life is impoverished by not spending enough time with her, and with the other old, old people who exist in my life. Oldness can start to seem scary, so far away, as if they aren’t really people anymore. But the longer I sat with her, the more we exchanged stories, and she looked through the photographs of Avery and John that I had brought, the more I recognized the silly, chatty, resolute matriarch of our family who held us all together for so many years. When we got up from the table where we’d been sitting as she had a cup of ice cream, she started to stand up and abruptly sat back down in her wheelchair, laughing. “I almost forgot I was living in this contraption, honey! Almost stood up on my own two feet. Got to remember I scoot, now, not walk. It’s hell to get old!”
We left after an hour or so, and I kissed her soft cheek and she clung to my arm for an instant, saying, “It’s good of you to come see an old lady, honey,” and I could only hug her back and see her old, old eyes overlaid with the snappy brown ones in the photos on my mother’s porch. How odd it is to try to see the continuity between that buxom, beautifully dressed young lady holding my baby mother, and this lady so diminished and tiny. But when I said, “Now you behave yourself, young lady, till I see you again,” she squeezed my hand and said, “What would be the fun in that?” She’s still in there, after all.
As if this wasn’t overwhelming enough, I was then taken out for a super-fancy dinner with eight of my best friends from high school! Simply unbelievable, that I have been friends with Amy, in particular, since I was five (and she is still exactly the same, with an enormous booming laugh and sparkling black eyes, always looking for trouble), and most of the others since our high school days. What struck me was the continuity of their personalities! Jami, still a vegetarian as she has been since one thunderstruck day at age 14! Tawn, her sister, eccentric, brilliant and white-haired, as beautiful as ever. Lynette, ever the Francophile among us, who managed to marry a Frenchman! The “other Amy,” older than we, sophisticated and lawyerly but with the same wicked gleam in her eye. And the little sisters of the group: gregarious Jill, serene and gentle Jennifer, and Shelley, full of zest for life and well she might have, with a boyfriend who is, shall we say, considerably more YOUTHFUL than the rest of us! She too, is a discovery of Facebook, and say what you will about social networking, if it brings together friends from 25 years ago, I say, bring it on.
It was a good thing we started out at an outdoor table, because we simply shouted with laughter! Catching up with stories of our adolescent children (“is it OK if she has a total attitude, or should I nip it in the bud?” was a common topic!), our husbands (some of them high school sweethearts!), our parents, old teachers we remembered. “Remember how that health teacher told us that if you have a tapeworm, all you have to do to get rid of it is to hold a bowl of macaroni and cheese under your chin, breath in through your mouth, and then when the tapeworm appears, grab it and pull it out?” EEEW! A strong pedagogical memory for us all!
Home very late, as I really felt I had to talk at some length with everyone! We parted, vowing not to leave it another long space of years before we see each other again. How lucky I felt, to have had such good judgment in choosing friends, so long ago.
And that was that. Hugs and kisses all round with my mother, father and brother the next morning (and of course Maisie the cat!), and off to the airport. There I sat, not reading, not people-watching as I usually do, but lost in the space of years that comes to you when you step back in time. Four days of memories… and a lot of love and fun remembered.
Before I devote myself to the continuation of our Wiltshire story (ponies!), I must tell you that not only is today the UK General Election, in which we’ll get a new Prime Minister, but also tomorrow is the 65th anniversary of VE Day, Victory in Europe Day, and as such, I’ve been reading several books that I would recommend to anyone even remotely interested in the Second World War. I confess it’s the period in history that interests me more than any other, partly because it still feels present here in London (in America we’re not accustomed, for example, to walking past buildings with pockmarks labelled as war damage). But also we’ve been watching “The Pacific”, the nominal sequel to “Band of Brothers,” not so much as entertainment, I must say (hideously violent and depressing), but as a tribute of appreciation to the soldiers who lived through such horrors.
I offer you Citizens of London, a fascinating account of several famous Americans who chose to stay in London during the Blitz… and Americans in Paris, the same story in that beleaguered, occupied city. But perhaps even more overwhelming have been In Memory’s Kitchen, a cookbook (imagine) written by Czech ladies in a concentration camp outside Prague. A COOKBOOK written by starving ladies. And In My Hands, the story of a Polish teenager who became a Holocaust rescuer. You will cry with horrified sympathy, you will wish you could meet these people, express your gratitude, you will look around you at the riches and freedom we have and see the tiny, thin, wavery line that separates normal life from unbelievable suffering. All worth the read. And thank you to my friends Anne, Bina, and Alyssa, who made these heartbreaking, enriching books known to me.
Happy VE Day.
Well, I felt I couldn’t leave you all with the last post, the story of our adventures at Salisbury Cathedral, without some marvellous photos of those times, those views, those places. We were up SO HIGH! I can’t explain exactly what happened to me in Salisbury — was it lack of oxygen? — but it contained for me a sort of magic, a cocoon of safety, kindness, historical fascination and peace that will stay with me always. I can’t sing enough the praises of the Landmark Trust, and I hope you will spend your next holiday in one: to be enveloped in a property who exists for us only because some very far-seeing brilliant archaeologists and architects decided to save it, to be surrounded by its history, to find in each and every house the most minimal but perfect furnishings, always quite the same in each one, to read and write in the extensive Log Books… to follow in some places 30 years of visitors and their stories! Go, do, and write your story. I have passed the reins of this job to Avery.
And now for something completely different: my current obsession with… teriyaki sauce. Now, before you jump down my throat, I am fully aware the “terikyaki” is a method of grilling meats, and does not refer to any specific sauce. In this, I think it shares space with the Western concept of “satay sauce,” because “satay” really refers to the skewer method of cooking, but we all think it means a peanut sauce.
My point is, drop your skepticism for a bit and imagine what you think of as “teriyaki sauce.” You know what I mean: dark, salty, spicy, sticky. I know. That’s what I mean, too. And here it is.
(you arrange the amounts, I’m giving the proportions)
2 parts dark soy sauce
1 part Japanese mirin
1 part honey
1/2 part sesame oil
zest and juice of limes
fresh grated ginger (to taste)
fresh minced garlic (to taste)
So imagine you want to make enough of this sauce to coat fillets of salmon for four. That’s what I typically make.
You will want 1/2 cup soy sauce, 1/4 cup mirin, 1/4 cup honey, 1/8 cup (just a drizzle, in short) sesame oil, the zest and juice of 1 lime, and a 2-inch knob of ginger, peeled and grated, and 2 cloves garlic, minced.
Mix all in a saucepan and simmer till the sauce bubbles like a toffee, perhaps 3 minutes.
Cool and pour over the salmon fillet, then bake at 425F, 210 C for 20 minutes.
Believe me when I tell you that this sauce is DIVINE. Simple, wholesome, spicy, sticky. Try it on chicken thighs and breast fillets, which you can then saute in a frying pan. For a vegetarian meal, you can easily toss steamed broccoli, peppers, cauliflower, baked squash, in the sauce and serve with rice. Sublime. Make it.
But back to Wiltshire. At least, it’s strictly speaking Hampshire.
The New Forest! It’s a protected area much like Exmoor or Dartmoor, with ponies standing by the side of the road, and in the hillocky areas in parkland. Big ponies and small, brown, black and white, as you see: simply there for the petting! Well, actually we were told off by a park worker who at first claimed we might be bitten, then once Avery’s extreme equestrian experience was made known, said that petting them encouraged them to demand petting! And what’s wrong with that! John’s mom was the perfect paparrazza, following Avery everywhere to get the best possible shot. We repaired then to nearby Lyndhurst for a pizza lunch at Prezzo, lovely and relaxing in the garden.
Oh, the adventures we had. Back to town finally where the volcano hit and forced us into tourist destinations FAR off the beaten path (plus Avery blissfully shopping in Regent Street! did you ever see such a happy shopping face!), and my own personal ambition to cook something different for EVERY night of John’s mother’s stay, which by the end was approaching the four-week mark! But I did it. And now I just notice how often I repeat things, our favorites like… teriyaki salmon.
Quiet reigns here tonight, then, and election coverage is beginning NOW. So I shall love you and leave you, and tomorrow, we have a new Prime Minister.
Life: speeded up. I cannot believe it’s been a month since our unforgettable trip to Wiltshire, most especially the magical town of Salisbury, and that I am just now sitting down to look at these evocative photographs, and to describe a bit of our fun.
Just before we left, of course, was the horrid burglary and the loss of my laptop and my camera. Brilliant John was able to retrieve our photos from some Big Brother umbrella online, so everything is safe. But I have been astonished at how naked I feel without a camera! I have gotten so used to simply whipping it out to record a dish, or something Avery’s doing, or a beautiful sight in the countryside, that to have an empty hand and just eyes to remember has been an unpleasant surprise.
Thank goodness John’s mother had a camera in her possession when we were out of the house being burgled, and she is the Compleat Recorder of Everything That Happens, so we have marvellous photos of Wiltshire.
Since then, of course, we’ve had The Adventure of the Volcanic Ash, and all the mess that went with it. Finally, though, everyone is back in place at home, at school, and I’ve been on an adventure: to Rye, in East Sussex, on a reunion with my foodie and food-writing friends from the Arvon Foundation. Three solid days of FOOD. I dragged with me all the ingredients for my grilled teriyaki salmon, three-cabbage slaw with fennel, celery and carrots, pesto, many, many packets of sausages and bacon from my beloved Giggly Pig in the Hammersmith farmer’s market… you can imagine the weight of my suitcases!
All weekend we did nothing but shop for food, cook, talk about methods, ingredients and memorable dishes, then EAT. And sit around talking about cooking and eating! Pure heaven. Everyone contributed, with very little discussion or arrangement, special dishes, and the table groaned night after night. Rosie’s slow-roasted pork belly with rosemary, lemon and superb crackling, Pauline’s cauliflower roasted with chilli olive oil, a sauce of pork juices, Calvados, red wine and butter… Beets roasted and tossed with chopped parsley and lime juice, and finally Sunday lunch of two gorgeous legs of lamb, slow-roasted with Adam’s ambrosial marinade of every savoury ingredient imaginable: harissa, anchovy fillets, lime juice, garlic, rosemary, olive oil…
And the desserts! I started out as I usually do, saying warningly, “Don’t have your feelings hurt. I don’t really like sweet things.” But maybe it’s just that I don’t like rubbish sweet things! Because I liked everything: Sam’s Victoria sponge with raspberry jam filling, Rosie’s chocolate and Amaretto slice, and her incomparable Bramley apple crumble with homemade toffee sauce and custard! The chocolate slice, ah… quite wonderful: a kick of alcohol, a crunch of crushed biscuits, fluffy perfect creamy chocolate.
Through it all, we discussed food. What would be our Desert Island Ingredient (butter, for me). Does bread count? Last dish on earth? Foie gras creme brulee for me, smoked salmon for someone else, a perfectly cooked steak…
Conviviality, humor, generosity beyond belief. That is my group of friends, the Gathering of Nuts in May. Susan’s humor, Caro’s sparkling wit, Louise’s booming laugh, Katie’s smiling appreciation of us all… everyone so talented, warm and supportive. One of my favorite lines? I was complaining that too many English puddings contained gelatine, and said pompously, “Americans don’t like anything wobbly!” And nearly everyone chorused, “Except themselves!”
Rosie’s Celestial Chocolate and Amaretto Slice
(serves about 8)
10 crushed Amaretti biscuits
125 grams high-cocoa-content chocolate (Valhrona is excellent)
1 tbsp unsalted butter
1 tbsp strong espresso coffee
1 tbsp Amaretto liqueuer
4 eggs, separated
1 tbsp caster sugar
300 ml double cream
Line a loaf tin with greaseproof paper, then place half the crushed biscuits on the bottom.
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler, then stir in the butter, coffee and Amaretto. Set aside.
Whisk the egg yolks with the caster sugar until fluffy, and set aside. Whip cream, then mix it with chocolate mixture.
Beat egg whites till stiff and gently fold into chocolate mixture. Pour into loaf pan and refrigerate overnight, very important. When ready to serve, unmold from pan and scatter remaining crushed biscuits on top. If you want to be posh, Rosie suggests a shot glass of Amaretto on the side. HEAVENLY.
One lunch out: should you find yourself in Camber Sands, a stretch of sandy beach a few miles outside Rye, slip into “The Place at the Beach” and prepare for a treat. A simply gorgeous starter of creamy smoked haddock gratin with spinach, then massive fish and chips with a truly memorable tartare sauce. Don’t get Caro started on the risotto, however: uncooked, tasteless and quite inedible. Back to our little rented house on a sheep-filled hillside to cook another perfect meal for ourselves…
Now I am home. For a brief moment, it seems. My head is spinning a bit from what’s on my desk and mind right now: just home from Rye, I’m now heading off to Indianapolis on Monday to visit my dear mother, father and brother for five days. Before that, I’m signing the permission slip for Avery’s trip to Bath on the 15th, listening to John talking about going to Dublin the next weekend to look at his beloved Georgian architecture, looking into tickets for our return home in July, signing permission slips for Avery’s trip to St Petersburg before Christmas!
Yesterday afternoon, I just wanted to sit down and breathe for a moment. So I did.
I took a nap! Just collapsed on the sofa in peace, listening to Avery practice her singing lesson downstairs in the kitchen, and Tacy lay across my legs while I watched the trees along the road wave their springy yellowy-green leaves, where bare branches had accompanied my late-afternoon naps in the approaching dark of late winter. Peace.
Peace was what characterized Salisbury, no doubt! We arrived at the Wardrobe, a Landmark Trust building in the heart of the Cathedral Close, and practically in the shadow of the spire. As with all Landmark Trust houses, total simplicity and perfection. “Old Chelsea” china, perfect cleanliness, a little bar of soap with LANDMARK carved into it, harsh white sheets and piles of woollen blankets on all the beds, and VIEWS. Of the red roofs of Salisbury, the Avon river stretching out under the window, the manicured gardens of Ted Heath’s house next door!
Oh, the gorgeous cobblestoned courtyard of our ancient little house (a military museum sits underneath, part of the agreement with the Landmark Trust to have the little apartment for holiday lets)… and then the Green, stretching in a serene square bounded on three sides by Georgian houses and exquisite gardens, and then the Cathedral itself sits in medieval splendor, its spire reaching far into the sky. How far? I’ll tell you… it’s a long, long walk.
But we did it! We booked a tour of the Tower with one of the Cathedral guides, and I may tell you that as soon as our eyes met, I felt a deep and appreciative kinship. His name was Alastair, and he took to our little American party straightaway. Americans, I can tell you from long experience of both being one and observing them in and out of captivity, put to shame any other nationality when it comes to getting the most out of a tour guide. We ask questions! And right away it was clear that this was no ordinary guide, armed with a few facts and Health and Safety warnings about pregnant women not being allowed to climb the Tower.
“Why did the workers bother putting so much of themselves into this Church?” I asked, trying to imagine them working endless hours with no electricity or proper equipment, sanding marble pillars, carving limestone, killing themselves. “Ah, yes, that is a crucial question,” Alastair jumped in at once, his eyes sparkling as he warmed to his theme. “Their lives were nasty, brutish and short, spent in darkness and filth in lonely little cabins. Their children died, they themselves had a life expectancy of between 25 and 35 years… how important it must have been to think that there was another life to come, a much better one, and this place was the stepping stone to that better life…”
We climbed the hundreds of steps up a winding stair barely wide enough to accommodate us one at a time, the worn stone steps barely deep enough for our feet, Avery and me with our combination of agoraphobia and claustrophobia. I swear I could feel the tower swaying in the breeze! We stopped for breath in the clock chamber, and in the bell chamber, while Alastair pointed out medieval ironwork, ancient rooflines, and the water pipes climbing all the way from the ground. So many towers simply burned down.
DING DONG, DING DONG!
Avery and I had heart attacks. We had not been expecting the chime! Alastair smiled indulgently at us and led the way, at the top of the inner tower, to the standing area outside, looking FAR below us to the green below, and we could see our Wardrobe! Simply stunning, and stunningly frightening. But we did it. “I am standing here imagining the tower just toppling over,” Avery moaned, and I completely agreed. It felt very insubstantial, and VERY high up.
Back down, so much less frightening than going up. And worth the trip! We chatted more with Alastair, asking question after question, and he knew far more than we could even think to ask. Finally at the bottom, he asked if we had seen the Magna Carta yet, and upon hearing no, strolled over to the desk to ask if he could lead us through the exhibition. How intriguing to think that the Charter that the Pilgrim fathers were so keen to protect was their own copy of the great Magna Carta, ensuring a swift and speedy trial to all free men.
The document itself was strangely diminished: tiny and impossible to read, even if one read Latin. So small, to have accomplished so much.
The feeling of religion, of the place of the church in life, both medieval and present, was all around us. A ghostly organist practiced in the moonlit evenings, alone in the giant Cathedral. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” Avery chuckled, “if he broke into the theme from ‘The Phantom of the Opera’?” Late at night, after a roast chicken and couscous, I said, “Listen! Bells…” and sure enough we could hear ringing. We wandered into the sleeping village and followed the sound, and there, magically, was a church, on bell-ringing practice night. Avery cowered in the graveyard, sure she saw an open grave just waiting to welcome her, and bats flew overhead as I stood in bliss, listening to the chimes, imagining Lord Peter Wimsey in that greatest of all crime novels, “The Nine Tailors,” ringing away on a snowy Christmas Eve… heaven!
“Go in and ask to meet them!” John and his mother urged. “Just introduce yourself and see if they will show you around,” but I was too shy.
Our days were so splendidly quiet and peaceful: we devoted ourselves to one of the many puzzles we accomplished over the week: you simply MUST order a puzzle from the Wentworth Company: all wooden pieces, and a few whimsical among them shaped like the subject of the puzzle! So a puzzle about a garden included pieces shaped like tiny spades, flower blossoms, garden hoses. How peaceful the afternoons were, John’s mom hovering with one of her inevitable cups of coffee, Avery with a slice of apple cake, me with a glass of sparkling water, fighting over “that’s my piece!” John napped or worked on the computer, John’s mom tried to get through “Wolf Hall” by Hilary Mantel, Avery curled up with Sherlock Holmes, I puttered in the kitchen. Simple peace.
The night of the tower tour, we decided to spring for dinner out, and ended up, after mature consultations with the house Logbook and previous visitors’ reports, at Anokaa, a fusion Indian restaurant right in the heart of Salisbury (which is a completely charming town in an of itself, although our loyalty was to the Cathedral Close). Starve yourself for the day and be prepared to be overwhelmed by Anokaa, its inventive menu, the charming and generous waiters… crispy lamb’s liver with a chickpea pancake! Lentils smothered in garlic, spinach and okra, chicken in unusual sauces, the crunchiest papadum, the softest naan. Avery went traditional and ordered a creamy chicken korma, and the scent of delicate coconut milk wafted over us all.
And guess who was there as well? Alastair! With his family. I quickly succumbed to one of my usual impulses, and invited him to dinner the next night, and to my joy he accepted, just on his own because his wife would be away that evening. Glorious! More time to ask him questions.
He turned up precisely on time, with a gift for us: a glorious picture book of the Cathedral, its history, its floods and famines, great tombstones and inscriptions. How lovely. We sat down to dinner, talking nineteen to the dozen, and John’s mother said gently, “Why not ask Alastair if he knows anyone at that church in town, someone you could ask questions about the bells?”
A moment’s silence. Then he said, “Stay right here,” and went to fetch his phone. He demonstrated its ringtone: handbells! “I am a ringer at that church,” he said, “and let me make one phone call…” And then he was on the phone to the head of the ringers, explaining that he had a friend he’d like to bring by in the morning. To hear their ringing before services!
And guess what his favorite book in the world is? “The Nine Tailors.” “It was read aloud to us as schoolboys,” he reminisced, “and those were wonderful evenings, working out the change-ringing in the plot, imagining ourselves as Lord Peter…” He spent the rest of the dinner working out changes for me on a scrap of paper, explaining everything so that I understood, finally, after years of reading that novel in puzzlement.
So the next morning found me in the bell chamber, sitting quiet as a mouse on a bench along the wall, listening to the ancient calls I’ve read about so often… “Treble’s going, treble’s gone…” and reading tablets on the walls about great peals they’ve rung, and the instructions for the changes in Kent Treble Bob. Just like in the book, I kept thinking, and their pulls down, the rhythmical flight of the ropes, the men’s (and one woman’s!) faces as they looked to each other to know when to pull their ropes. The half hour flew by as I watched and listened. Then they all smiled indulgently at me, tied up their ropes and went on their ways, joking about how he who rings the treble bell does so only because it’s all the poor man’s capable of, bringing up the rear, making fun of each other’s accents, lots of inside English jokes that I would have to live there a hundred years to understand. But, oh, I was in heaven trying!
Alastair unlocked the door to the belfry, and one of the men rang the treble bell alone, so I could hear it, and feel the swaying of the wooden structure holding it up, and that’s just with ONE BELL ringing! Imagine during an entire peal, how powerful the sound is.
Well, that was the magic of Alastair Lack, whose guidance through the Cathedral you must ask for should you get there. Thank you, Alastair, for making one of my dreams come true.
And Stourhead House! This bridge forms part of its gorgeous landscape, used in the 2005 “Pride and Prejudice,” so we made our pilgrimage to it, having a lovely picnic in the grounds, and then making our way along what we came to think of as the Stourhead Death March, an unbelievably LONG walk round hill and dale till we finally came to the house, panting and puffing. And it was a yawn, except for the Music Room, where as you see, “Pianists are welcome to play.” It was a moment of a child’s lifetime, at least for the adoring adults surrounding her. She sat right up at the Steinway (our piano will never sound the same, now) and played one of the themes from the score of “Pride and Prejudice,” the elegant, simple sounds ringing against the carved ceilings and ancient paintings. When she finished, the notes drifted away and all the tourists and tour guides in the room applauded. How I missed John’s dad at that moment. He would have beamed with pride at his granddaughter, in a moment of supreme dignity and elegance.
More on Wiltshire next… think New Forest. Think… PONIES.