Sunday, July 31, 2011

England 2011: Bryher on Bryher

Hell Bay, Bryher

Wednesday, July 20

Another wonderful day...Bryher is producing a unique mellowing peaceful effect. It rained heavily all night and in the morning, though Jan assured me it would clear up by afternoon (which it did), so there was no reason to rush out early anywhere. After a gigantic leisurely breakfast (this time I had excellent Cornish smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, with fresh croissant, Brie and Stilton and strawberries; oh my), we relaxed in the lounge, computing and reading. It gradually grew lighter, so in the afternoon we ventured eagerly out. First we climbed Gweal Hill, and then decided to continue on the track to Hell Bay itself. So we tromped along the spectacular coastline path. A little hard for me as my knee was protesting after all the walking it did the day before; but it was exhilarating despite (or because of) occasional slight misting, and we walked far out on the Hell Bay headland. It’s often the scene of famously huge smashing waves, but was peaceful today.

Trail to Hell Bay

Approaching Hell Bay

Hell Bay

Looking out from Hell Bay

Back at the hotel the sun came out fully, lighting up the islands and sea, so after a little rest and reading I went out again, and walked all the way round the Great Pond by the hotel. Very soft gentle walking, on grass and spongy machair – absolutely beautiful.

Beach near Gweal Hill on the way back

When I got back we sat in the pretty lounge and enjoyed the hors d'oeuvres provided before dinner. Dinner is always a stellar event in the lovely dining room gazing out at the idyllic view, water and islands. I had grilled mackerel for starter, then a sublime duck. Dessert was brownie, ice cream and cherries. And THEN you have tea or coffee and petits fours! Such stuffing as goes on here, but it’s made viable by the energetic walking all day, or so I tell myself.

Great Pond, looking toward Hell Bay Hotel

Tomorrow we have the happy perplexity of too many places to choose among...could go to St. Agnes, a beautiful island where I’ve stayed before, with moorland and ruins; or there's a trip to an uninhabited island, Samson which I've never seen, and always wanted to visit but never managed to accomplish, as the boats don’t visit it often. Or there’s a motorboat trip around the islands to see seals and puffins, so we’re spoilt for choice!

Back in the hotel lounge, which contains the art collection owned by the Darrien-Smiths

Lounge terrace facing Great Pond and Gweal Hill

I spent the evening reading the writer Bryher’s memoir, The Heart to Artemis: A Writer’s Memoir, which seemed eminently suitable for a visit to Bryher itself.  Born in 1894 (died 1983), Bryher, born Annie Winifred Ellerman, took the name of her favorite island.  "As one would," said the friend who recommended the book, not realizing that I myself am named Winifred, after my grandmother!  Well, yes, I changed my name, too, to my middle name.  As one would.  Though after I wrote her biography I wished I could change back, in tribute...but it was a bit late!

She (or he, as she preferred, but I'll stick with she) wrote in invigoratingly vital prose about her repressively Victorian upbringing, her rebellion only lifting during the family’s trips out of England, to France, Italy and Egypt, which she rapturously enjoyed.  I was completely absorbed in the narrative, until about halfway through it had a sad falling off.  Bryher, who hated her conventional upbringing with its backbone of religion and codes of behavior, found a new religion in Freudian psychiatry, and became what can only be called tiresome about it. And her account of life in bohemian circles in Paris in the 1920s ought to have been at least as evocative as the description of childhood, but it devolved into annoyingly heavy name-dropping of all the famous personages she knew (admittedly, they ranged from Joyce to Hemingway).

The author Bryher

I found her oddly and disappointingly disingenuous, considering the book was written in 1960 and she was supposedly a free spirit; but here is a famous lesbian who looked like Radclyffe Hall, was the lover of the poetess H.D., yet there's no insight into this important aspect of her life, nor does she mention (I had to find the information elsewhere) that the basis for her free spirit life was that she was the heiress of a shipowner father John Ellerman who, when he died, was the richest Englishman who ever lived! Not that she didn’t use her privilege well…Bryher was one of the founders of Sylvia Beach’s famous bookstore, Shakespeare and Company, financially backed many artists and filmmakers, practiced a fine poetic and historical novelist career herself, and during the war famously made her home in Switzerland a receiving station for Jews escaping the Nazis. A life well lived…but somewhat skewed autobiographical writing, especially marred by the worship of Freudian analysis. Most disappointing of all from my viewpoint is that even though she took the name of her favorite Scilly island, she hardly ever mentions the place. Still, it was an interesting choice for island reading, and I had an eerie feeling, sitting in the Hell Bay lounge, occasionally looking up at the scenes the author must have loved a century ago, that I was almost certainly not the first person to read Bryher on Bryher.

Gweal Hill and Gweal from Samson Hill, Bryher
Painting by David Rust, at the Tresco Gallery

Cromwell's Castle to Hangman Island and on past Bryher
Painting by David Rust, at the Tresco Gallery

Friday, July 29, 2011

England 2011: The glories of Tresco

Tresco Abbey

Quite a journey to get here! Woke up at the pretty Victorian hotel overlooking the harbor in Penzance, to a rainy day. Enjoyed an excellent English breakfast - poached egg, English bacon, "hogback" sausage, black pudding, haddock, beans, and brown toast, butter and honey - despite Jan pointing out that given the notorious choppiness of the crossing on the Scillonian, it might end up more out than in. We hauled our suitcases down the quay to the boat. 

The Scillonian

"In the morning of Saturday, the twenty-seventh of March, 1852, I stood upon the old Quay, Penzance. In my place, a Roman would have abandoned the enterprise. The Iron Duke would have gone on." - Henry John Whitfeld

Approaching the Scilly Isles

The Scillonian is a big flat boat, and even though the crossing was somewhat rough, the rocking wasn't really enough to be a bother.  The sun gleamed out once or twice, and we sat out on the deck, having a lovely restful time and talking of Jane Austen.  However, when we arrived on St. Mary's, the largest of the Scilly islands, it started really raining hard. And the boat for Bryher which ought to have met us, couldn't come until 3:30, due to tides (it was then noon). Never mind, we left our bags, walked into the town, and had excellent hot potato leek soup, tea and a most frangible, delicious Victorian sponge cake at a nice tea shop, the Kavorna. Then we went to the museum, always fun to visit, one of my favorites with its extensive historical exhibits of the hundreds of shipwrecks in the history of the Scillies, plus quaint old displays of island life, birds and flowers.  I bought some daffodil-and-narcissus post cards by a local artist and a first edition copy of What Katy Did Next for a pound.

Then we returned to the quay. The boat finally turned up at 4, in a heavy downpour. The small boat was way overcrowded with people, and knocked about a bit alarmingly, but the journey was short and we were on beautiful Bryher by 4:30.  Surprisingly, nobody met us at the quay, but a pair of efficient retired schoolteacher ladies also going to the hotel called and got the truck to come, and so we were at the hotel in a trice. And oh, it is lovely - redecorated, posher than my last visit there (probably ten years ago), but still the beautiful, peaceful place I remembered. Jan’s room was a veritable two-storey suite, and my room with its huge king sized bed and inviting patio looking out at ocean and hills, was simply gorgeous, and so, so peaceful! Internet is only in the lounge, which is just right, as it limits one’s obsessive usage and allows you to actually enjoy the island.  Phones get no signal, except on top of nearby Gweal Hill (literally). And there are no cars on most of the islands, only a necessary truck or two, which contributes to the blessed peace.

My room at the Hell Bay Hotel

My patio

In the early evening the sun came gleaming out and I took a brisk hour's walk before dinner, climbing up Gweal, the little mountain near the hotel, and remembering how I used to do that morning and night on previous visits…and how much stiffer the climb seemed now! The view over Bryher was stunning, and then I came down and had dinner with Jan in the lovely dining room.  The views from the window are beautiful too, and the food was superb – I had roast guinea hen and was, as Tom Bertram said about Dr. Grant, “plied with good things,” before resting in my fleecy cloud of a bed.

Climbing Gweal Hill, looking back at the hotel

View from the top, looking out at Gweal Island


Full English breakfast at 8, in the pretty dining room looking out at the hills and water, with a constantly changing array of colors - so wild and fresh and beautiful, it makes you almost want to run outside. Very good food, English bacon, Cumberland sausage, little black mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, fried egg, blood pudding, toast. Then we went down to the quay for a 9:45 boat to Tresco. Skies were grey but it didn't rain.  Only a 5 minute ride, then we were on Tresco and walked up to the Abbey gardens. Much better than I remembered - gorgeous terraces with ever more fabulous flowers rising up to a little barbarian chapel with a wrecked ship's figurehead, the God of the Thames. After reveling in dahlias and palms, Chinese pheasants and exotic blooms, we repaired to the cafe for tea and ice cream, after which we decided to try to walk all the way around the island.

Flowers in the Tresco gardens

Chinese pheasants - very showy boy, dull girl

Loved this little fellow!

God of the Thames, figurehead from a wreck

Leaving Tresco Gardens, we headed for the wild side of the island, walking on the rugged, heathery trail to Cromwell's castle and climbing to King Charles's ruined fort up on the moor above it, both very picturesque. We’d been told about Piper’s Cave, where people put candles by the side of its underground pond, lighting the place up magically, but we trying to climb down there on a damp day would have been just too much. But we did accomplish walking around the island, with its wildness and beautiful beaches, and stopped in at the charming art and glassware gallery near the quay, getting back just in time for the 4:30 boat back. We must have walked 5 miles briskly, and I was sore, being out of shape, plus the pounding on arthritic knee. So we planned on staying on beautiful Bryher tomorrow, for a (relative) rest day.

Walking toward the old Cromwell fort

Climbing up toward the ruined King Charles fort

Looking back down at the castle

After the walk I had a hot bath and cup of tea in my glorious room, did internet, and then another lovely dinner. The food is terrific here! Today's meal was foie gras followed by tender lamb, and a nice berry dessert. Then I sank into my giant luxury king size bed with divinely soft duvets and sheets...I so feel that I'm in some kind of Heaven, I'm only reminded that it isn't one, by there not being any cats. 

Tresco beach

Typical Tresco cottage

Back on Bryher, the Hell Bay Hotel lounge

Bryher, 1849

There's quite an art collection at the hotel, owned by the proprietary landowning family, the Dorrien-Smiths. This is one of the oldest paintings ever done in the Scilly Isles, and it's of Bryher, painted by the islands' doctor, J.G. Moyle, of Bryher, in 1849.  You can see little carts, and imagine the primitive way of life.  In a book called Scilly and its Legends by Henry John Whitfeld, I found mention of Moyle: 

"My friend, Mr. J. G. Moyle, the resident medical man here, must pardon me if he is the unlucky exception to my general rule of mentioning no names. His great talent, as an artist, is so well known to his friends, that any praise of mine would be superfluous. But as an act of gratitude, I must say that he has presented me with a work of his, which I value as much for the kindness of the gift, and for its intrinsic worth, as for the associations it recalls. It is an oil-painting of Tresco Abbey, taken at sunset. The building, and the landscape round, are bathed in the purple haze of twilight, while its soft glow is caught and fixed upon the canvas, with a spirit, and a dreamy poetical beauty, the effect of which it is hardly possible to describe."
I'd like to see that one - wonder what happened to it!  And I was amused to read Whitfeld's description of his journey to Scilly, which was certainly extremely adventurous in those days.  His account of leaving Land's End and pulling out to sea, though written in flowery Victorian language, exactly conveys the feeling of what it is like, to this day.

Approaching St. Mary, a view not much different than Whitfield would have seen in 1852

"A person by my side inquired, when the packet would sail for Scilly? The reply was, 'Tomorrow morning, should wind and weather permit.' 'It is not, then,' said I, 'a steamer?' 'No, sir, it is a sailing boat, that goes with the mails, twice a week from Penzance.' So there was actually, within the British dominions, a place, not only without a railway, but also without a steam packet...I am already, thought I, in a land where a man who builds a wall is called a 'hedger,' and into which 'Punch' never penetrates; but I am now about to venture into a pays barbare, a still wilder spot, into a spot fabulous and unexplored, the dwellers of which recently petitioned for a communication with England once in six weeks, and to which the lady of the chaplain went in full persuasion that she would have to milk her own cow, and to perform all the usual little domestic offices entailed upon emigrants in the Australian bush, or amid the backwoods of Canada. There was a delightful vagueness and uncertainty in the future..."

"St. Mary's is a low dark speck...scarcely visible to the naked eye"

"We passed in turns Mousehole, famous for the Spanish blood, and beauty, of its women; and Boscowen Carn, giving a name and title to the house of Falmouth; and then came the Lands'-End; and then the everlasting deep, with its broad unwrinkled brow. The tremendous power of ocean slumbered like a child. One thing living only was in sight. It was the back fin of a shark, that played around our bows. At last it dashed away for Penberth Cove, and we were alone upon the waves....We ought now to be at St. Mary's, and St. Mary's is a low dark speck on the larboard bow, scarcely visible to the naked eye. The passengers gathered together, and told tales of passages extending over many days, and the hardships thereby entailed upon unwary travelers, as the vessel carries no provisions....It was a trip beyond steamers, with a vengeance!"  

Shipwreck off Land's End, 17th century


England 2011: An easeful entry

Osterley Park

Friday July 15, 2011

I’m always anxious before flying, but this was one of the smoothest flights ever. An hour shorter because of tail winds, with nary a bump. Air New Zealand’s the best airline I’ve ever flown on – the planes have been redesigned with relatively large seats even in coach, so comfortable. Sat in emergency exit row with nice young English medical researcher working in New Zealand, who encouraged me to try New Zealand films. I watched four entire movies (oddly much more of a distracting diversion from fear-of-flying than reading is for me), and only one, An Education, wasn’t from NZ. That’s the one about the teenage Oxford-bound girl seduced by an older man; I thought it was rather overrated and unconvincing, but at least it kept the attention. The NZ movies were much more alive, particularly Boy, a glowing, feeling story about a Maori boy who idolizes his criminal father. There was also one about a Maori Jesus-like madman, which sounds awful but was sweet, and then a charmer about a Chinese girl secretly marrying a white NZ boy and her family’s disapproval (My Secret Wedding). Didn’t sleep a wink on the flight, but was quite well entertained.

Buddleia in Osterley Park

As the flight got in an hour early, my friend Ron hadn't arrived yet. That gave me a chance to change money and use the internet, and then Ron turned up and whisked me off. Even something that may sound as ordinary as the drive to his house in Peckham Rye was great fun. It was a summery English day, with Constable clouds decorating the sky, and extra-green foliage and purple buddleia everywhere. Our route wound around south of the river, and Ron stopped to show me Osterley Park, a great house I’d never seen. Walking in the extensive park like grounds, with their pond, ducks, swans and weeping willow trees, was ecstacy after nine hours on a plane, and provided a piquantly refreshing contrast to Los Angeles.  I felt I'd been magicked into an English country estate, only 20 minutes from Heathrow and on the way into London, a sleight-of-hand conjured by Ron!

Water-lilies at Osterley Park

Jet-lagged at Osterley Park

Ron and Helena live in a lovely big high-ceilinged Victorian house that opens onto a picturesquely overgrown garden, and we sat outside relaxing in the long golden English afternoon. I was introduced to the cats, whom I’ve known since their birth by email and pictures, and quickly made friends with the exquisitely pretty Tiger Lily, our Pindar’s doppelganger, and her long-legged, elegant grey son Max.


Max's beautiful young mother, Tiger Lily

I also caught a glimpse of Max’s dad, a pretty russet boy with a sadly bad leg, who lurks around the shed. While I feasted my eyes on cats and English verdure (a la Fanny Price in Mansfield Park), Helena feted me with a dazzlingly delicious home made tea, a revelation, infinitely better than you get even in the fanciest restaurants.  There were small scones, Cornish cream, and homemade jam; cucumber and ham and salmon sandwiches; and an airy, orangey, flavory Clementine cake. After that, we all needed naps, to get up strength for a beautiful dinner for a summer evening – a delicate whole salmon trout with boiled new potatoes, avocado cream sauce, zucchini, and a beautiful summer pudding. I sipped elderflower and enjoyed chatting about their English lives and my American one, as much as I could while going in and out of tyrannical waves of jet lagged sleepiness. Never was there a more easeful entry into England!

Helena's High Tea

Saturday. Slept only from 1 to 5 AM, woke up and was too excited to get back to sleep. A grey day, 60s. Breakfasted on lovely granary toast, sweet English butter, homemade marmalade and blackberry jam. Then we drove to Chawton, a couple of hours away. Ron showed me the sights along the route: Dulwich, where the actor Edward Alleyn lived and founded a school, and William Blake claimed to have seen the Prophet Ezekiel under a bush; Clapham, associated with the evangelists; Wimbledon. Soon we were out of the city and driving along grassy meadow flowery fields to Chawton. On arrival, the heavens opened and I had to pull out my flimsy little Californian umbrella. The grass was a bit muddy, but the tents kept the happy crowd dry, and the enjoyment of being at Chawton was undimmed. Examined the books for sale and the Women’s Institute cakes and handmade goods in the church, and chatted with some of the great and the good of the Jane Austen world, Patrick Stokes, Maggie Lane, Elaine Bander, Deirdre LeFaye, Maureen Stiller, Gillian Dow.

Me at Chawton

The Chawton House Library gardens

Then Jan arrived in Maureen’s car, and I was amused at my being able to welcome her, ironically, to Chawton. After the short business meeting, Jan had lunch with the committee and I picnicked in the church pews with Ron and Helena, who had packed a gorgeous curried Coronation Chicken with rice into a French picnic basket. Oddly, the lunch served by the Chawton caterer was also Coronation Chicken, but was no more like Helena’s than a lamp is like sunshine (as Emma compared her playing to Jane Fairfax’s). Helena’s was real chicken curry, while Chawton’s was more mayonnaise with a little curry in it. Then back into the tent to hear Jan’s lively talk about Mr. Darcy and the romantic role he plays in the female imagination. (The “real” Darcy, as written, is not so charming as his property and power.)

Janet Todd gives the Jane Austen Society address

Elaine Bander at Chawton House Library
Visiting scholars' quarters in the remodeled stable block at Chawton

Afterward, Jan left for London, and Elaine showed me the beautifully remodeled stable block where she and the other fortunate visiting fellows stay. The Chawton day closed with Evensong, and then we drove back, me and Helena dozing in the car. Reviving, I went for a walk with Ron who showed me Peckham Rye Common, which was uncommonly beautiful; after which we were ready for what Helena called a “light” dinner, but which was a symphony of more of her beautiful cooking: homemade gazpacho, garlic croutons, salami, mozzarella, granary bread. Played with Tiger Lily, who seemed to understand that I have a cat much like her at home, and cleverly adapted herself to behave just as Pindy does, asking for luxurious pattings of her clever, pretty little head.

Peckham Rye Common gardens

Rainbow at Peckham Rye Common


Up at 6, some sunshine, nice day. After coffee, I bid farewell to sweet Helena and sweet cats, was presented with a ravishingly pretty little glass dichroic vase, and then Ron drove me to Paddington. He was so kind – never was such kindness, as Miss Bates said, and he was very much indeed the Mr. Knightley to my Miss Bates, for he actually parked, came inside the station, helped me with my bags, waited as I got food, and helped me look for Jan, who got on the train while we weren’t looking. We had a jolly ride all the way to Penzance, which took a little over 5 hours, arriving at 4:15. Penzance cool and grey, with a lamentable weather forecast for the Scillies. We dined at the Admiral Benbow, a cozy, attractive historical pub that had been highly recommended (you know who you are!), but the food was a terrible rip-off - appetizers (crab, scallops) so miniscule that Jan, who ordered two starters, would have starved if I hadn’t shared my fish and chips. Then we walked back to the Beachfield Hotel, a classic white Victorian hotel on the promenade overlooking the sea. The rooms were overpriced (though the sea views were beautiful) and we felt rather annoyed as there turned out to be a much cheaper annex next door that they don’t tell you about while booking. Still, it was very comfortable and served its purpose, and I went to sleep with the happy sense of a trip begun, and adventures to come.

Penzance, St. Michael's Mount

Beachfield Hotel

Window view