Soggy Olde England
At the risk sounding a little too Canadian, I'd like to take a few minutes to talk about one of my favorite subjects: the weather. For more than two months, I had a run of weather that all but defies credibility. It rained once. What I mean to say is that it rained on my head once. It happened in Hawaii, at Hanauma Bay, when a freak tropical spray came down, refreshing, warm and sweet to the taste. I didn't mind it one bit, although it set the locals into a panic. It has rained other times during this trip, but not once while I was outside. It rained while I was driving across I-80, it rained while on board the Crystal Symphony--but only during the night, or very briefly while were cabin-bound with Greta--and it rained in Siberia while I was on the Trans-Mongolian Railway. Every time I stepped outside, however--this is the part that defies credibility--the rain had stopped.
Then I got to England.
Well, that's not quite fair. It rained in Normandy, so much so that I spent too much time sitting in the shelter of the support van and not enough time on the actual bike. But Normandy's bad weather is all because of England. If it weren't for the dank, drizzly, verdant isle to the north, Normandy would be just like the Cote d'Azure, only with no Eurotrash.
All of which makes my present mission here in Merry Olde England seem at the very least imprudent. I am going to go hot air ballooning. Or I'm going to attempt to, at least. So far it's not looking good. This is my third day and the rain has not stopped. It has paused a handful of times, just long enough for the sun to peek out for, say, two to three minutes of sustained brightness, which is the climatological equivalent of waving a burrito in front of a starving man.
But English weather is not entirely without its advantages. Just as in Normandy the bad weather is responsible for the rich and delicious butter, in England it makes for what has to be some of this planet's prettiest countryside. And it's not just one stretch of prettiness, either. It's everywhere. The land is a patchwork of green fields hemmed in by bushy forests and tall hedges. There are theories as to why this is so. Some say it's because the countryside has been manicured and groomed by the land-owning classes for shooting birds, so that there are little patches of cover here and there alongside big tracts of open green, where men and women in tweed stand at the ready with shotguns waiting for pheasants or partridge to flap overhead. Perhaps. Others say it's because the countryside is still divided into the same irregular slices, chunks and wedges of land as it was in 1086, when the Domesday Book--a massive census, tax and land survey commissioned by our friend Guillaume le Conquérant--was written. Again, perhaps. The point is that it looks nice.
The other great thing about England--and this has nothing to do with the weather--is the driving. The roads are narrow, rolling, closed in by hedges, tall grasses and overhanging trees and fabulously winding. I am fortunate, therefore, that the hot air ballooning takes place in Cornwall. Cornwall is at the other end of the country from London, and getting there makes for quite a drive.
For my journey, I have two companions. The first is a brand new VW Golf GTI, what the English would call "a hot little hatch." The verdict: nice. It's tight, peppy, and eager to please on turns and hills. It is only the second gas-engine car I've driven this trip--the rest have all been diesels. You can feel the difference. The power band is wide, stretching from about 3,000 to 6,000 rpms, but it doesn't have nearly as much in the way of low-end torque. The truth is, I miss that torque. But I'm not complaining.
My second companion is Drew. Drew is a friend. He is also a playwright. His first play, "Someone Else's Shoes," came out in March at the Soho Theatre, and received good to excellent reviews. (Except for that woman in the Guardian. Lyn Gardner, if you're reading, you're dead to me now.) I hadn't seen Drew since 2000, the year I left England. Now he is with me, sitting in the passenger seat of a British Golf GTI, coaxing me through the roundabouts and reading the map. Thank you, Drew.
The third, and possibly final, great thing about England are the fine country hotels. We stayed at an example of the genre called Chewton Glen, which is located in the otherwise forgettable town of New Milton, not far from Bournemouth. It's a stately old house, set on a sizeable chunk of land manicured nearly to perfection. It follows the quaint British tradition of naming each room. Ours was called "The Naval Officer." Other names include: "Jacob Faithful," and "Masterman Ready." If you ask me, they all sound like nineteenth-century sexual positions.
If the hotel has a flaw it is this: Chewton Glen renovated the spa a little while ago and they went for a regular pool instead of an infinity pool. How anyone could have let this happen is beyond me.
Just off the pool is a little glass-walled house called The Orangerie. Technically it is just that, because there are two small orange trees growing there. More importantly, it's the setting of an inspired play area called the hydrotherapy pool. At each little section, there is some new and pleasure-inducing device involving bubbles or a jet of water. Like the spa at Vigilius, the Orangerie also has those enormous faucets that barf an incredible volume of water over your person. It is both funny and heartwarming to see English men and women stepping into a warm pool of water to massage themselves with bubbles. Not surprisingly, none of them were naked.
Chewton Glen should also be commended for its bar. It has dark leather couches, red suede wallpaper and some wainscoting thrown in for good measure. We spent the latter half of the afternoon in the spa, swimming lengths in the ozonated pool, then soothing ourselves with under the jets of water. Afterwards, we put on something fresh to wear and made our way to the bar, where we ordered pints of local ale, leaned back in our chairs and the friendship picked up where it had left off seven years earlier, as friendships do. Outside, it was raining.
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