English memories

England. Oh, England. I had nearly three weeks divided between Bristol and Oxford, with sightseeing tangents hither and yon. I went to sing. For a glorious, hardworking week, my choir took up residence in Bristol Cathedral. (That link will take you to a virtual tour, a far better way to get a sense of the place than my camera phone could offer.) It was a little hard to lift our voices in our modest American cathedral on Sunday morning without feeling a pang for the skyward, soaring sound and the dance of the music amongst the vaults and arches. Here we are waiting in the beautiful portico to sing our final evensong:


Nearly every day (or at least the spaces left between rigorous rehearsals) was packed with excursions to take in the wonders of Stonehenge, Salisbury, Old Sarum, Bath, Berkeley Castle. But fascinating as those places were, I most enjoyed simply walking the city of Bristol. The hotel provided us with an ideal walking map—how I do appreciate a good map!—and mine was quickly creased, ragged, and annotated with use. I fell more than a little in love as I tramped up and down the hills to Clifton Village, cutting through Brandon Hill Park—I met what must have been the same fox, or perhaps one of a pair, every evening after dark—in the wildlife refuge beneath Cabot Tower, admiring the street art, following a likely café sign through a narrow passageway into a hidden garden and coming upon an arts education center serving up good food and free wi-fi as well as the beautiful results of a recent etching workshop, watching participants in the hot air balloon festival rise and drift over the city, shooting very bad late-night pool with merry companions, sampling excellent West Country ciders, crossing the river to St. Mary Redcliff after supper on the rumor of a free concert that turned out to be an anti-war symphony with three choirs and orchestra to mark the centennial of the outbreak of World War I (the church was packed with sober faces of all ages, including a striking percentage who must have felt all the effects of war and its aftermath in a heavily bombed city during their own childhoods)…and home again afterward amongst giddy young things out for an evening’s revelry. We were made wonderfully welcome by the cathedral’s hospitality team, who served us tea every day and sent us off with the best luncheon I can remember having eaten, all home cooked, including the bread.

Once my family arrived, we made ourselves familiar with some good pubs, restaurants, and playgrounds. Mum and Dad kited off to Wales for a few days of grown-up travel; my foursome hired a comically dilapidated cargo bike, popped the kids into an unraveling wicker basket held together with spare inner tubes (don’t worry, we all brought our helmets), and pedaled off around town for adventure. Mr. G wrestled manfully with that sorry machine as it slipped its chain on every hill and refused to stay in any gear but the highest and lowest. The kids were sports, never complaining about bumping along like sardines in a tin and instead loudly singing “Yankee Doodle Dandy” wherever we went, as if we weren’t attracting attention enough. We went for a practice run and a picnic on the Clifton Downs. Jolly fell asleep slumped on his sister’s shoulder. “I don’t mind,” she said cheerfully, giving him a pat. “He’s lucky to have me, isn’t he?” We got thoroughly “sogging wet,” as Ada says, in a sudden rainstorm. (The weather, all the locals told us, was shocking.) But the next day we were back for more, venturing across the suspension bridge to Leigh Woods. Knowing all about the cargo bike’s wily ways, we intended to keep to the high ground. But we couldn’t resist a look at the grand old Ashton Court manor house, now owned by the city, so we followed directions from dog walkers and joggers and soon we were juddering down through the woods on rocky, slippery trails suited only to mountain bikes. But at the bottom we were rewarded with a glimpse of the deer herd and a cup of tea from the café. The children cavorted on the lawns. A dog snatched half my cheese and chutney sandwich when I wasn’t looking. Bristol’s jewel-bright row houses winked in the distance over the river. The sun was warm and this time the heavy-bellied clouds stayed continent. We tried not to think about the ride back up to the altitude of the suspension bridge. In the end it wasn’t necessary; as we couldn’t get back up through the special gates in the deer park with the bikes anyway, we figured we’d have to go down to the river and cross elsewhere, and in doing that we smoothly ran straight onto a cycle path that brought us to another fine playground within easy distance of the bike shop where we needed to return our steeds anyway. (A few photos from our cycling adventures went on my shiny new Instagram feed, if you’re curious.)

Even weeks later, the replay of every hour of time in that city is super saturated. Do you ever have a feeling that a place you’ve traveled isn’t done with you, that it will gently but inevitably reel you back? That’s me and Bristol.

(I didn’t even get to visit what looks like a first-rate wool shop, for instance, and you know how that’s going to chafe…)


Riding (1 of 7)

When we’re up home, as I will always call my childhood island, the thing my kids are most excited to do isn’t to play at the beach or take the ferry. Apart from seeing their grandparents, they most want to go to Charly’s and ride horses. This is where I spent a staggering percentage of my youth: in these rolling fields, in this old orchard, up in those woods. It’s no fancy riding stable, only a simple corral and a rustic shed to house the tack—if the door is latched you simply scramble in by the glassless window—and a couple of shed roofs to tie the horses under for shelter while grooming them. The barn swallows loop in and out. The paddock is fenced with branches pruned from the fruit trees and dropped from some of the big maples over many years. Here I learned how to stick on a horse and also a great deal about kindness, empathy, awareness, and balance. Charly is mostly retired and doesn’t teach many young riders now, but she has open arms and bowls full of cherries and strawberries picked from her garden for any of her pupils who find their way back with fervent little starry-eyed equestrians in tow.

Riding (3 of 7)Riding (4 of 7)

I’m chuffed at my girl’s easy way on a horse. She’s timid, or at least cautious, about physical risks, but she can’t wait to get aboard a great tall horse and trot around, keeping her head up and her back supple. No hands? No problem. And she’s attentive rather than assertive, which I like to see in a young rider.

Riding (5 of 7)

Riding (2 of 7)

Jolyon was not to be left out. His face got a little scrumply when he learned he couldn’t ride Chocolate, the pony of my first adventures, or Koprina, the fiery half-Arab mare who figures in so many of the stories the kids clamor to hear again and again. But he reconciled himself to Not Chocolate and sat proudly and independently astride.

Riding (7 of 7)

Kisses to ask her to walk on… and one for Mama, too.

Riding (6 of 7)

It’s good to circle back and savor old pleasures through new experience.