Sunday, July 06, 2014

London: Day 6, Friday1

On the train: the girls play their weird made-up Lifesavers game.

Louise watches the countryside pass by.

Old downtown Lewes

The girls, atop Lewes castle, giving big ridiculous smiles to whoever is "really" taking the picture. (What is June doing?) Note the chalk cliffs in the distance.

Mom and I, in front of our old house. It's actually three row houses stuck together. We were the one in the middle. Somebody has done some considerable gardening since we were there, making it look decidedly quainter.

Onto the Downs. ("SHEEP in this field. Please keep DOGS under _______ CONTROL." What's the missing word? "STRICT"? Sounds about right. Polite yet disciplined.)

The wind blows Louise's hair. June assaults the rest of her.

The girls tiptoe towards the sheep.

Sarah gazes into the distance.

Mom, the sheep farmer, attempting to make the acquaintance of these two. The sheep really wanted nothing to do with us.

Our last day. It was finally, for the first time since our first day, pleasant rainless weather. We had one key item left on our trip's checklist: visiting the little town of Lewes, where my parents and I lived for a year when I was eight.2 It's about an our south of London, outside the hustle and bustle of the city, a little medieval town nestled in the South Downs, eight miles from the English Channel. (From the highest hills, one can see the sea.)

The public transport in London had proved wonderfully proficient. The train system beyond the city (in our brief experience) was a hot mess. We were to depart from Victoria Station. After a long wait in line, we purchased our tickets. It was subsequently revealed that the ticket guy had screwed up and substantially overcharged us. We wandered confusedly amongst the platforms until we found the right train and scrambled aboard. Several minutes into the journey, it was announced that at one of the junctures, the train would be splitting in two, with several of the cars going to Lewes and the rest to some other town. We had no idea what car we were in. Finally some kindly gent checked our tickets, assured us that we were in the right car, and we would indeed find our way to our destination.

Once we settled in, the journey through the countryside was charming and relaxing. The girls invented some weird game with Lifesavers, which kept them busy. About an hour outside of London, the marvelous green Downs rose before up in a steep escarpment. And then, a few minutes later, we arrived in the little town.

We strolled down the main street, lined with medieval buildings, shops, a castle further up the hill. I'd done research and found a good restaurant. We stopped for lunch (our one true "upscale" meal in England). Good stuff. (June ordered "posh fish and chips," a fancy modernistic interpretation of our regular culinary staple. Afterwards, we went to the castle. I remembered it well from my youth, not the grandest castle, but damn cool regardless, teeny spiral staircases to the top of the towers, the archers' slits, spectacular views from the top of the Downs stretching to the horizon.

And then it was time for the curious bit of the trip: visit our old flat where we'd lived. It was at the edge of town, entirely off the beaten tourist path, and getting there and back would be logistically complex. Eventually we found a kind cabbie3 who agreed to take our party up there and return an hour later to fetch us. Seeing the old house, three-plus decades later, was semi-surreal: the funky little post-war flat where I'd spent a year of my youth. (If any neighbors were watching, I'm sure we made a strange sight, standing outside of a nondescript home, posing and snapping pictures.) The neighborhood itself was unremarkable, but its one virtue was that it abutted directly upon the Downs themselves.4 After our brief stop in front of the old home, we wandered out into the great beyond.

The Downs are unique: profoundly green, nearly treeless, they seem to roll on and on forever. We hopped a fence that hadn't existed when I was young. Sheep grazed in the communal fields. We stopped at an ancient drinking hole, then roamed further, following an ancient trail. (There was a tremendous amount of sheep poop, scattered like land mines, making the roaming a careful business.) After the dense business of London, it was a gratifying lovely respite. We dallied a while. And then we retraced our (poo-laden) path back to the spot where our cabbie was to pick us up. He was briefly delayed. We were briefly concerned that we'd been stranded at the edge of nowheres-ville. But he did indeed show up, apologized, and took us back to the center of town.

We'd hoped to grab a late afternoon tea at the dainty little shop on the main street, but alas, they'd just closed. Instead, we grabbed coffee down the street (at the chain cafe called Cafe Nero, which used a squarish angular font for its signs, making it look like its name was Cafe Nerd).

And then it was time to catch the train back. Back through the countryside. Back into the city. Back to the flat. And the packing for our regrettable departure.

And as always, sleep.

1 I'm not sure why it took me so long to post about this last day. I didn't want the trip to end. Maybe I didn't want its narration to end either.

2 I will go ahead and say it: my youthful year in England was less than idyllic. My memories consist primarily of steady rain and regular fisticuffs with the xenophobic future soccer hooligans who populated my school.a
a This not to say there weren't also many wonderful, eye-opening experiences. (I saw a lot of awesome castles and other cool stuff.) But the daily routine wasn't so great.
3 The cabbie sort of fascinated me, just so archetypally what he was, a certain sort of epitome of a certain sort of working class Englishman: polite, diligent, and with an accent unlike any other.

4 This was another of the upsides of my year in England. Our house was literally at the very edge of town. I could walk the length of our long backyard, climb through the overgrown back hedge, and in an almost Narnia-esque transformation, find myself standing at the edge of miles and miles of glorious green rolling hills.


  1. Anonymous3:43 AM

    An English teacher I knew remarked that the "downs" are really "ups" :-) I do wonder where they got their name. Anybody know?

  2. Check this: "down" meaning "hill" (like "dune") is older than "down" meaning the direction. So the question is really- why doesn't "down" mean "up"?

  3. Anonymous10:52 AM

    Wonderful commentary!

  4. Further research suggests this sequence :

    'Dune' (=hill) -> 'of dune' (=off the hill) -> 'adown' (=descent) -> 'down'

    1. Glad we've got the research team on the case.