A Week in Sussex Prior to Crossing to NYC on the QM2

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Istanbul – Heathrow – Felpham, West Sussex

The adventure begins. During our week in England, we’ll be staying with Joan Aubrey-Jones, a woman eight-some-years-young. This will be a challenging day. We each are lugging two suitcases in addition to our backpacks.

The airport is its usual irritating self. Kay had checked us in online yesterday, meaning that all we had to do with our luggage was to drop it at a designated gate. However, we have to wait in a queue for more than 45 minutes until that gate opens.

At Heathrow, we move through the recently expanded terminal quickly enough and are met at the exit by our friend Joan and a taxi driver named Mark, a gentle giant with the largest barrel chest I’ve ever seen. He may be 50 years old and spends a lot of time at the gym. His arms are heavily tattooed and his manner warm and friendly.

At Joan’s house in Felpham I drag our four cases upstairs to a spare children’s room where we can spread out our things.

Thursday, August 16, 201

Felpham — Roman Palace – Chichester

I awoke very early and went downstairs to the sitting room to read. My current reading, Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, is lovely and quite an easy read compared to some of the post-modern novels I’ve been pursuing lately.

Excavated Roman Palace

Just outside of Chichester is an ancient site called the Roman Palace. In fact, it is the scant remains of an enormous structure built in the 1st century by the Romans for a client king who ruled this part of Western Sussex and protected the Roman camps from invasion.

The palace ruins, buried under a meter of soil for hundreds of years, were discovered only in 1960 when a utility company was digging a trench and uncovered an ancient floor mosaic.

Fishbourne Roman Palace

Today, 50 years later, the site is a highly developed complex with a protective building built over what was once the palace’s north wing.

There is a museum containing artifacts and interpretive panels. There are also guides, a museum shop, and a small auditorium showing a video that uses computer-generated imagery to illustrate what the palace looked like in its grandest days.

Before leaving and heading into nearby Chichester, we ate delicious sandwiches on what is locally called Bloomer Bread. The absolutely fresh brown bread used in these sandwiches is what makes them so tasty. My sandwich was filled with prawns and mayonnaise, Kay’s with Coronation Chicken.

I drove Joan’s Honda into Chichester following her directions. She has lived in this neighborhood for 55 years and knows the town’s geography like the back of her hand.

Chichester Market Cross

We walked from the lot to the cathedral, our ultimate destination, passing by the medieval Market Cross that marks the intersection of the town’s two main streets. Chichester began as a Roman settlement and later developed into an important market town. The Cross was built to shelter the merchants in times of inclement weather.

Chichester, because of its attractions, is a lively place, especially in good weather. Its medieval elements are mostly masked by Georgian architecture.

Chichester Cathedral Nave

The cathedral, where we spent more than three hours, is magnificent. Consecrated in 1105, it has been developed over the centuries and added to even in modern times. Its mixture of art and architecture is arresting. Here are some striking features:

  • A detached, 15th-century bell tower stands next to the church.
  • A soaring interior of both Gothic and Romanesque elements.
  • A long nave and side aisles. Over the transept, a tall spire built to replace one that collapsed in 1861.
  • Above and in front of the choir stalls, a stunning, modern tapestry symbolizing the Trinity to whom the cathedral is dedicated.
Chichester Cathedral Chagall Window
  • A window by Marc Chagall illustrating the 150th Psalm.

Late in the afternoon Kay and I explored the extensive Palace Gardens, so colorful at this time of year after so much rain. There’s nothing like a great English garden. I’ve taken many pictures today.

The three of us spent the evening at Chichester’s Festival Theater, taking in a performance of Kiss Me Kate, a play we had never before seen done on the stage. After a long, slow beginning, I had my doubts, but by the time the Shakespearean elements kicked in, I was fully engaged. Cole Porter’s famous songs are terrific. Why Can’t You Behave, Too Darn Hot, and Brush Up Your Shakespeare are only three of the most fun. And there was so much wonderful dancing. We sat quite close to the theater’s thrust stage, in the third row with a good view of everything. The key roles were sung powerfully. I was acutely aware of the disparity between the language of Shakespeare and the modern dialogue, which sounded flat next to the former.

I drove the car home in the dark closely directed by Joan. It’s always strange for a while when I have to drive on the left-hand side of the road, and English roads with their roundabouts and tightly controlled speed limits are not always easy. I am finding it easier to adapt to left-hand driving this time than I did during our last visit to Britain.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Felpham – Sissinghurst Castle – Canterbury

This was a strange day in that we seemed to spend most of it on the road. Joan navigated while I drove. I think there must not be a straight road anywhere in Britain. At one point we couldn’t find the right road out of a place called East Grinstead to Tunbridge Wells and spent a half hour taking different roads that always returned us to our starting place.

Sissinghurst Castle

We finally arrived hungry at Sissinghurst Castle about 3:30 in the afternoon. After a quick sandwich at the coffee shop we split up and explored the famous gardens on our own. Sissinghurst Castle is a bit of a misnomer since there is no castle per se.

Sissinghurst Castle

There are twin medieval towers and some other venerable buildings, but what really draws the crowds are the gardens that were designed and planted by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson in the 1930s and 1940s. Kay had long wanted to visit them.

Castle Gardens

Of the several ‘garden rooms’ there is a white garden that is especially striking. Kay says she has never seen so many types of flowers new to her.

Sackville-West and Nicholson were writers associated with the Bloomsbury Group. As we climbed the 78 steps of one tower, we could look into a room that had been Sackville-West’s study. It is filled with books, glass objects and a large oil painting of a man riding what looked like a bull.

At the end of the afternoon we drove a further hour and a half to the city of Canterbury where Joan had booked rooms for us in the Canterbury Cathedral Lodge, a modern conference and study center set next to the cathedral itself within the precincts.

I had difficulty paying to park the car at a distant computerized parking meter and really needed a shower and a drink by the time I had got back to the hotel.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Canterbury – Rye – Felpham

Another fascinating, exhausting day.

Breakfast at the Lodge was more than adequate. Besides cereal, fruit, and juices, there was a full English breakfast served buffet style. There were baked beans from the can, of course, the way the English like them, and brown sauce as a condiment. Interestingly, Joan says that putting brown sauce on baked beans is not an English custom, yet the evidence I’ve seen would contradict that. Perhaps Joan’s upper middle-class upbringing didn’t allow for brown sauce.

Canterbury Cathedral

We spent a marvelous morning in and around the cathedral. Besides being the earliest and greatest of the English cathedrals, it is one of the largest and most splendid. Known the world over as the destination of Chaucer’s pilgrims, it is infamous among Christians for the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket.

Canterbury Cathedral

Becket infuriated King Henry II by siding with the Pope against him. In a moment of fury, the king is said to have shouted, “Will no one rid me of this priest?” This led four of the king’s knights to murder the archbishop in the cathedral on December 29th, 1170.

The exact spot where the murder took place is marked today with a stone containing only the name THOMAS. On the wall above is a modern steel sculpture with two stylized swords. The shadows of these swords on the wall behind them make a total of four, the number that struck Becket.

Canterbury Cathedral Nave

Shortly after his death a number of miracles were attributed to the slain archbishop and a shrine was created to him in the nave of the church. It became one of the important pilgrimage sites in Christendom. Centuries later, when Henry VIII disestablished the Catholic Church in England, he made sure to destroy Becket’s shrine, trying to erase all memory of him. After all, Becket was a churchman who defied a king. Today, a single burning candle marks the site of the vanished shrine, and Becket is instead enshrined in memory.

Canterbury Cathedral’s Crown Chapel Altar

For us, one of the most moving sights in the cathedral is the Crown Chapel, dedicated to the Martyrs of Our Time. The pages of a book beside the chapel name and describe some of these martyrs, one of whom is the Reverend Martin Luther King. In the chapel is a modern altar whose beautiful frontal incorporates a quotation from T.S. Elliot’s play, Murder in the Cathedral.

Rye’s Cinque Ports Arms

From Canterbury we drove to Rye. We were ravenous by then and ate a delicious Ploughman’s Lunch at a pub called the Cinque Ports Arms. Our plates contained thick slices of Stilton and English Cheddar along with some delicious ham and salad. Kay and I washed this down with pints of lager while Joan drank cider.

Lamb House

Our purpose in Rye was to visit Lamb House, the home of author Henry James for 18 years until his death. The National Trust now owns it and opens it on certain days to the public The downstairs rooms have photos and portraits of James at different stages of his life along with a few books from his library.

Lamb House & Garden

It is the walled garden at Lamb House, though, that was the real centerpiece of the visit. It has been preserved as it was in James’ time and filled with lush, late-summer efflorescence.

Yesterday and today have been very hot, the first hot days of the summer according to Joan, and we’ve suffered a bit from the heat. I’ve been thirsty all day. The drive back to Felpham looking directly into the setting sun was a trial.

Monday, August 19, 2012

Felpham – Chichester – Felpham

I left the house at 6:30 this morning for a run along the promenade by the sea. I’ve gotten out of the habit of running out of doors and plan to resume it on this long trip. At that hour the air was cool and invigorating.

Joan’s House and Garden

Today, until evening, we stayed around the house getting ready to make our departure and board the Queen Mary 2 tomorrow.

This evening at Chichester’s second theater, the Minerva, we attended a performance of Alan Ayckbourn’s trilogy of one acts entitled Absurd Person Singular. These are essentially comedies but interspersed with dark tones, especially in the final play. The performances were first rate; the ensemble was directed by the author.

The evening was a perfect finale to a week of exceptional sightseeing, intellectual stimulation and gustatory highlights, a fitting prelude to what was to be another experience of a lifetime, crossing the North Atlantic on what is arguably the world’s greatest remaining ocean liner, the Queen Mary 2. Stay tuned.