England: A Personal History & Travelogue (Part I)

While thinking about a spring trip--and Xavier's last free flight before he turned two-- Christian and I decided to revisit England, a place where we both have some history but where neither of us have been in many years or together.

Christian has a British Passport in addition to his Canadian one.  His parents both grew up in England and moved to Canada together soon after they wed.  Christian was born in Vancouver, but his family returned to England when he was six months old and lived in Oxford until he was four.  He must have had the sweetest British accent as a little boy!  The family then moved to Toronto, but Christian would often visit his grandparents back in England and has many fond memories of walking in Dartmoor, playing at the seaside and eating English chocolate, which he insists is much better than North American chocolate.  Christian’s mother’s family, the Peels, were landed gentry and they are listed in Burke’s Peerage – I looked them up in that thick historical tome and their family motto is "Industria."  Christian's maternal grandfather was born on an estate called Trenant Park where, at one point, he kept a pet lion in the garden.  And Christian’s father has researched his English family line back to the 1600’s which I wrote about recently here.  Anyway, both sides of my husband's English family go back a long, long way.  Here is a painting from 1827 of his Auntie Julia, also known as Lady Peel.

Christian and I stumbled upon Julia in the Frick Museum in New York one afternoon a few years back.  I was drawn to this beautiful portrait (I love portraiture) and when I read the title and details I called Christian over to see it.  I asked him, “Could this possibly be one of your ancestors?”  Indeed she is.  Giddy with the discovery, we bought prints in the gift shop for Christian's mother, sister and for us.  She now lives among us and watches regally from her place on our fireplace mantle.  I chat with her sometimes. 

As for me, when I finished university I had a history degree and no clear idea what to do with it. So I followed in my older brother’s path, applied for a 6-month BUNAC work visa and then packed myself off to London.  With no other real work experience other than waitressing, I found a job on Portabello Road at the neighborhood bottle shop called Oddbins Wine Shoppe Extraordinaire.  While I didn’t make much money, I received an excellent education in wine and drank quite a bit of rather fine champagne after-hours with my manager and coworkers.  I lived on smoked salmon sandwiches on buttered brown bread from Marks & Spencer and ate them in Hyde Park.  Because I was there from November-May when it rains incessantly, most of my free time was spent in the National Gallery and the Portrait Gallery where I became best friends with Mr. and Mrs. Andrews:

For part of this time I lived part with Hilary and Robert Swift and their daughter Moxie in West Ealing.  Hilary is the sister of a former boss of mine and they generously took me in for my first six weeks while I sorted myself out with a job and a shared flat.  Robert is a lawyer who would come home from work and listen to opera and read in his study.  Hilary hosted weekly Sunday night gourmet feasts where anywhere from 6-18 people might show up for seven course meals including port and cheese.  I liked how they lived and took mental notes. Culturally, that six-month stint was a rich if sometimes lonely time for me.  And now, looking over my bookshelves I realize I’ve been infused with British Art and Literature my whole life. 

A few favorites from childhood:

Paddington Bear by Michael Bond
Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne
Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (I especially loved "How the Elephant got his Trunk)
Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis (which I read straight through while in bed with the chicken pox)

And a few of my favorites as an adult:

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome (a new favorite children's book recommended by our British friend Alicia, first read on this trip) 
Orlando by Virginia Wolf
In the Pursuit of Love by Nancy Mitford
Vile Bodies and Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
Anything and everything written by P.D. Wodehouse
Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
And Then There Were None and Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie
Emma by Jane Austen
Othello and Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare

For this trip, I was excited to go back to England and walk into some of the scenes from these books, from my memory and from my imagination.  We wanted to explore the countryside outside of London, which I had seen but little.  We also wanted to do a fair bit of walking, as all of England is a criss-cross of public foot paths, and we planned to find accommodation on farms and in country inns, preferably ones above cozy pubs.  We booked our flights on points, rented a car and set off with no itinerary other than to head north towards Yorkshire...

No comments:

Post a Comment