Monday, July 30, 2007

Sissinghurst and Brighton

To commenter Curtis Faville, who felt that, in our place, he would have slid over to Sissinghurst from Great Dixter: Curtis, you read our minds. I'm just trying to keep this account in relatively readable chunks.

The day after Great Dixter, to Sissinghurst we did indeed go, where we bought a National Trust membership (paid off on the trip, in entrance fees we didn't have to pay, and it's tax deductible!) and let ourselves in past the gate. Since Sissinghurst has no special historical significance (it has a nice brick tower which I did not climb), this was more Jim's specialty than mine, but as I've said before, I'm perfectly happy to wander around gardens, hunting things that will look nice through a 300mm lens. I found several choice items; I also found an interesting thing that didn't photograph very well. They have honeybees living in the brick wall of one of the estate buildings; the library I believe. I saw the hole where they were going in and out. I didn't see anything inside the room, like a hatch, where they might get at the hive for honey, so I have to assume this is an informal arrangement on the part of the bees. I wonder how it will affect the structure.

It's not news to anyone that Sissinghurst is gorgeous, what a beautiful space just to be: meadows to wander, a moat (well, two sides of a square moat) full of ducks, ducklings, and fish; statuary, really beautiful plantings; there's a photo gallery on the Sissinghurst site linked above. We had a lovely few hours there, and then we got sidetracked. In Lamberhurst, where we were staying, there was a brown sign (meaning cultural landmark) saying "Owl House Gardens", and we found a local brochure which said the house had belonged to an "owler" - that's a wool smuggler, or was when it was illegal to take wool into or out of England without paying tax (1327 to 1824 according to Wikipedia). We set out to find Owl House Gardens, and after about 2 hours we had an intimate and detailed knowledge of all the little squiggly gray roads round and about Lamberhurst, and we still hadn't found the place. We gave up and went to visit Bayham Abbey, a beautiful abbey ruin nearby, where we were the only people in the place except for an anxious caretaker who asked us to write English Heritage and ask them not to close the place. It was amazingly peaceful, and as we were leaving (around 5 PM when they closed) the rabbits came out and sat around eating grass, very tame. Jim said that looking at the ruins at Bayham gave him a clear idea of the economic problems of the Middle Ages. (Note on Owl House Gardens: the Internet indicates that it closed in 2006, but no one has taken down the traffic signs...)

Dinner that night was in Tunbridge Wells, and was the best single meal we had on the trip. It also had the best, without exception, ice cream I have ever eaten: honeycomb ice cream, only (as far as I can tell) found in the U.K., but I had it in 2-3 other places and none of them came near this stuff. I'll probably have to spend some time in purgatory just for eating it.

The next day we went to Brighton, a day trip. Brighton built up in the late 18th and early 19th century, so it doesn't have the medieval depth of Sandwich or Rye; but it has the Royal Pavilion, and that's worth a look to any reader of those Regency romances. In fact, it's worth a look even if you don't read them, just as an incredible example of excess. This was the summer residence of the man who eventually became King George IV, but who is known to thousands of Regency readers as the Prince Regent, or sometimes just "Prinney". (The Royal Pavilion publicity does not use that term.) He was the oldest son of King George III, and spent decades waiting for his father to die of the disease that made him "mad King George". The place began as a farmhouse, and the Prince Regent, over a couple of decades and using huge amounts of borrowed money, turned it into something that really has to be seen to be believed. The onion domes on the roof are only part of it. You can get some idea from the photos on the link. This was where the Prince Regent entertained his friends in really royal style.

I was surprised to see the kitchen: for his day this was probably the most technically advanced kitchen in England; it had a huge closed stove (the Jenn-Air or Wolf of its day) at a time when many people were still cooking on the hearth, it had a warming table heated by a pipe from the closed stove, it had ventilating windows in the ceiling, and it had an automated spit-turner that could drive 5 spits at a time. All of these features were groundbreaking. I associated Prince George with fashionable frivolity rather than technical advances, but I was obviously wrong; although given that he was massively overweight, I suppose it's inevitable that the technical advances he did make had to do with food.

I was amused by the docent's comment that the Prince's architect developed a new, improved method for roofing the place, which leaked from day one. Shades of Frank Lloyd Wright, all of whose roofs seem to leak. Apparently the Royal Pavilion has to undergo continual maintenance just to keep it intact and standing; one end of it was enclosed in scaffolding. Actually, many of the large buildings we saw, including all the cathedrals except Chester, had one end enclosed in scaffolding. I suppose that's just the price of using buildings that are hundreds of years old, even if they are stone. Back to the Royal Pavilion, though: the amazing story is the Music Room (see the link for a picture). The Music Room has a domed ceiling covered with thousands of tiny gilt scales. In 1975 a fire damaged the room severely, requiring painstaking hand reconstruction of everything including all those tiny gilt scales; and in 1987 when they were almost done, the hurricane of that year dropped a stone ball from one of the minarets through the roof and into the new carpet, and they had to start over again. It looked gorgeous when we saw it. The acoustics must be amazing; it's too bad they can't just have a string quartet playing in there all the time to demonstrate it.

The other thing one must see in Brighton is Brighton pier. This is the biggest carnival-cum-fun-house you've ever seen. It's big, it's gaudy, it's got cotton candy and fortune tellers and people selling jewelry engraved with your name, and every carny game you can imagine, plus a set of rides all the way out at the end of the pier. The wind the day we were there was fit to blow your hair off; I folded up my hat and stuck it in a pocket; I noticed the pier rides did NOT include a Ferris wheel, although they did have a handsome carousel. This was one of the days we had where it didn't rain, and it was a bright, sunny, windy day, a beautiful day to visit a beach town. We had dinner in Brighton, and I keep forgetting this in my rants about the food, because it was in a "restaurant", and it wasn't pub food, and it was really quite good. So I guess we had 3 really good meals.

The day after Brighton we were due to drive to Torquay for our next stop; but we ran into a minor impediment. The minor impediment was the Tour de France: the starting stage (I believe) was scheduled to go from London to Canterbury by way of Tunbridge Wells on Sunday July 8, the very day we wanted to drive to Torquay, and all the roads in that area were to be CLOSED. Our initial plan was to take the A21 north to the M25 and then west to the M4; but as we drove around Lamberhurst the 2 days before, we kept seeing signs marking the route, and the route went right across that path. After a little planning, and consulting our trusty 1996 AA road atlas (hey, how often do they move roads?), we identified a set of A and B roads that would take us around Tunbridge (and around the Tour route) to the south and onto the motorway, so we set out Sunday morning, and thank God we were going west. These were 2 lane roads (one in each direction), and the lane going toward Tunbridge was solid cars all the way, complicated by what looked like every cycling club in East Sussex, all heading for the Tour route. And there are no bicycle lanes there, and no shoulders (verges, they call them); cyclists in the road means that the cars behind them either swing out to pass (not a good option), or wait until they leave the road. It looked like being a VERY slow day. We didn't think we'd have any problems, but we got stuck behind a guy in a camper van, who we think may have been from the continent; he was driving as if the speed limit signs were in kilometers instead of miles, and unfortunately he was going all the way to the same A motorway we were. Oh, well; it wasn't as bad as the traffic the other way.


  1. Anonymous1:24 PM

    Found this blog while looking for info on Owl house gardens, glad to hear we weren't the only people discovering the joys of the narrow roads while trying to locate the place!

  2. Anonymous9:33 AM

    Of course I'm both delighted for you guys and envious as hell, but that's not the reason for my comment. It seems appropriate in light of your trip that the featured plant this week at the Whole Foods in Winter Park, Florida is the hedera ivy.

    Back to being envious as hell.

    Anonymous David

  3. Excuse me, Anonymous David - the featured plant?? Your local Whole Foods has a featured plant? (Maybe if I did the shopping I would be less startled.) I hope that hedera ivy is a less intrusive plant in Florida than it is in California but somehow I doubt it...

    And yeah, it was a great trip (smug grin).

  4. Anonymous10:14 PM

    I can see that smug grin all the way across the continent. Don't know about its invasiveness, but we are so invaded by Brazilian pepperberries, punk trees (I don't know their proper name), water hyachinths, eel grass, and god knows what else, that a little hedera ivy probably won't even be noticed. I did uproot all the Brazilian pepper berries on the family homestead, and am in the process of establishing islands of native vegetation on the 1.6 acres. Butterflies, black snakes, and a 'possum are quite happy about it.

    Anonymous David

  5. Anonymous8:11 AM

    I meant hydrilla, not eel grass, the status of which I don't know.