Thursday had the same wonderful start as Tuesday when I arrived downstairs for my first cup of tea of the morning and was greeted by the tantalizing aroma of Julia's cooking. This time, she was preparing a savoury (I'll include the "u" in honor of the locale) tarte for our luncheon, and the smell of sauteed onions and fresh pungent greens filled the air. I watched raptly as her hands hovered over the made-from-scratch crust without the need for visual supervision (once again the two of us were talking a mile a minute) and felt envy at the way they disposed of their task with such effortless and unconscious grace.
Julia was hosting the other three members of her tennis foursome for a luncheon to celebrate the birthday of one of their company, Deborah. Hanging out with the tennis crowd fit right into my English country fantasy vacation package, so I was delighted to be included.
Whilst I sat sipping my tea, installed in the choicest spot in the kitchen, (on the little tuffet next to the miraculous AGA stove where I could be warm and cozy and watch Julia flit about) Julia handed me a small pile of freshly opened note cards that she had just retrieved from the mail slot. They were lovely hand written thank yous from the ladies of the village complimenting Julia on the success of her epic tea party and transmitting their pleasure at having met her American friend. In this, the age of electronic greeting cards and Evite invitations, I found it so quaint to actually have people hand write thank you notes and drop them off at your door rather than mailing them. Amazing! I'm telling you - I visited another world.
We took a break from the preparations to make a quick trip to the grocery store, which is always one of my very favorite places to visit when I travel, no matter where I go. I greedily snatched up a hand basket full of English comestibles, including some Fizzy Lifting Cakes, a giant bottle of Shandy and a nice big box of Quality Street chocolates for Mark. Groceries ended up being almost all of what I took home with me from my trip - I guess I'm that rare bird that actually LIKES English food.
After we returned home, Julia put the finishing touches on the meal and soon afterwards, the first guest arrived. It was Sarah, toting parcels beneath her arms containing ripe red strawberries, thick cream and a tantalizing confection she called chocolate biscuit cake, formed in the shape of a large D, for Deborah, naturally. The next arrival was Frances, very recently returned home from an extended trip to IND-ya, and who had the good sense to bring along an ice cold bottle of pink champagne in addition to her gift. The birthday girl was the last to arrive and it was only the wink of an eye before Julia had whisked tall crystal flutes filled with bubbling pink liquid in front of each one of us. A toast to the birthday girl! Yea for ladies luncheon! (Left to right: Julia, Deborah, Sarah and Frances) The unwrapping of gifts commenced: a book from Julia, an affable chicken bedecked tray from Sarah and a piece of intricately printed cloth from India from Frances. We soon became famished from all the oohing and ashing and sat ourselves down to the lovely lunch Julia had prepared. In addition to the watercress and Parmesan tart, Julia had made a salad of fresh rocket (what we call arugula here in the States, but much more creatively named in Europe) and had placed a goblet of delicately flavored lemon grass water at each place. If we had been wickeder, maybe instead we'd have quaffed tall gin and tonics and gotten ever-so-slightly drunk to aid in gossiping about local minutiae, but we opted instead to be more demur and sophisticated, the pink champagne summing up the tone of the gathering perfectly. After the chocolate biscuit cake D had been properly candled and lit, we sang a rousing chorus of "Happy Birthday" in an effort to speed things along so we could have cake and strawberries. Well, I guess you see I'm speaking for myself here. Yes, yes, happy birthday now let's get on with it and have some of that delicious looking cake!
I put away forkful after forkful of dark chocolate crumby goodness, enjoying a cup of coffee after deciding I couldn't possibly eat even one more tiny morsel of cake. We all lingered a bit over coffee to aid in reviving us from our chocolate induced torpor, but it wasn't long before the guests each set out on their separate ways, leaving Julia and I just enough time to walk the dogs down to King John's castle before sunset.
It was a bit chilly, so Julia and I bundled up before setting out on our romp with Pegs and Monty. On our way to the canal, I spied an enormous tree in a neighbor's yard that must have been at least 500 or 600 years old, every one of the limbs that branched off the main trunk like an enormous tree in its own right. It was apparently some sort of conifer as the ground was littered with delicate cones that very much resembled dun colored roses scattered about the grass.
We continued down the road a short way to a footbridge which crossed and then ran alongside a charming old canal that had serviced the area for many years but had recently fallen into disuse. I had read that the footbridge was home to a rare colony of bats, and so scrambled down the brambly bank to see if I could observe any sign of them at the shadowy mouth of the tunnel, but they appeared to be deep within, protected from the great wash of humanity by a solid metal door to discourage trespassers. The water was crystal clear and slow moving, forming a lens of sorts that allowed a clear view of all the interesting aquatic plants undulating beneath the surface. We followed the path along the canal, coming upon a family of nesting swans that the dogs were very certain they weren't interested in investigating. While seemingly very picturesque, Julia warned, an angry swan defending it's nest can be quite aggressive, leading me to the certainty that this was not something I was interested in investigating either.
It was only a short distance before we reached the ruins of Odiham castle, referred to by the locals as "King John's Castle". It was King John who commissioned the lavish castle in 1207 and in fact, for all you history buffs, it was Odiham castle where King John was lodging when he was collected and escorted to nearby Runnymeade and strongly encouraged to sign the Magna Carta by a bunch of petulant barons.
Little is left of the original structure save the mortar and napped flint walls of the huge keep area (it was already being described as a "ruin" in 1605), but a series of informative signs help the visitor envision just how the original buildings might have been constructed.
It was a lovely time to be there, the slanting golden beams of light from the setting sun illuminating select spots in the scenery, providing dramatic contrast with the proliferation of twilight shadows. The dogs weren't quite as caught up in the moment as we were, so after a quiet turn around the perimeter of the walls we followed them back up the canal path to the house, the sun a glowing orange ball sinking behind the distant horizon.
Later that evening, we ventured out to pick up Sarah (who had joined us at luncheon earlier) and take in a showing of a new film called "The Young Victoria" about the early years of Queen Victoria's reign and her relationship with Prince Albert. It certainly wasn't a great movie, but it fit in so well with all the things I'd been seeing and doing that I thoroughly enjoyed it.
It also gave the three of us a fascinating point to discuss: the movie includes an event that never actually happened - something added simply to give the narrative a little more flair. It made me think about how some tales are hard to tell because creating suspense is virtually impossible. There isn't much tension, for example, about whether Victoria and Albert are going to get together in the end or not. So, the director of "The Young Victoria" took the liberty of spicing up the content a bit by adding a scene where Albert is shot while protecting Victoria during a ride in an open carriage. Pure fiction, never happened.
So where are we supposed to draw the line story telling? I love the quote often attributed to Winston Churchill but articulated by many, "History is a tale told by the victors." It's a great reminder that all of it's pretty much just made up anyway.
Still, the inaccuracy of The Young Victoria reportedly annoyed Queen Elizabeth II following a private screening of the film. She of all people should be cautious, however - what on earth will the story be on that dreadful hat she wore in 1969 when historians muse on its hideous appearance 500 years hence?