Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Featherstone Castle - Part II

As I said, we had to walk UP the HILL to get to the pub, which to 4 extremely fit people was no problem at all....well, not much anyhow. (Actually, Bob is training for the Marine Corp Marathon in Washington DC next month).

On the way I noticed this string of dead moles. This is apparently a farming tradition, hanging up dead moles. I'm not sure if it's meant to serve as a warning to other moles or a warning to horse riders that there may be holes in the grounds or perhaps there is a nationwide competition for 'murdered most moles of the month'. Anyhow, I've spared you the close up version.

British pubs are such cosy places. Most are full of dark wood and stone fireplaces and intimate little corners where you gather with your friends. The Wallace Arms was no exception.

I particularly liked their view about the smoking area...

And they turned out to be a doggy pub with a resident dog -- a greyhound, I think; whatever she was it was certain she was a runner. We all remarked on the amazing muscles she had in her shoulders. Like many of the former running dogs she was quite diffident, but clearly interested in affection. We petted her until she'd had enough and went off to a quiet corner for herself.

The (human) runners waved at us in the window on their return and I just caught them out the door as they made their way back to the castle. They will have no doubt enjoyed cleaning up in the slightly-less-than-modern facilities.

We headed back then, too, as it was getting time to rustle up some grub. I couldn't remember what all I'd volunteered to do, so I just showed up in the kitchen and got assigned to chopping vegetables. I love cooking for big groups and I love cooking on my own, but cooking as part of a group is wonderfully sociable.

I think we each paid about £6.50 for dinner and breakfast and I think we got a great deal. Our evening meal was spaghetti (with and without meat in the sauces) and a variety of salads, not to mention some of Alice's cakes.

After dinner we all sat around in one of the halls where Bill had built the fire up.

At some point I was captivated by this coat -- I kept thinking it looked like a face.

Too much wine, no doubt, or the suggestion that the castle is haunted?

That was when I decided it was time for bed...

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Featherstone Castle - Part I

Featherstone Castle is a strange place, but having just read that it is an "activity centre for the use of young people and students"...well, I understand it better now. Dave, one of the guys in our running club who is also an avid cyclist suggested it for a weekend trip around a one night stay. He described it as grand, but basic. I looked at the website and was captured as soon as I saw the pictures and read that wood was supplied for the fireplaces.

Still, we had to take sleeping bags, so I was guessing it would be cold and damp.
I was right about the latter, though the castle was relatively dry. That Saturday the heavens opened up like nothing before – well, OK it does this about once or twice a year...every few months...quite often, actually.

I thought the guys were nuts taking bikes, but that’s nothing new. Me? I took my knitting. We picked up Bob and boated along to the place. We were the first arrivals at about 3pm and set about exploring.

I had already been warned about it ‘being a rabbit warren’ – the stock British phrase for anyplace intricate – and so I just treated it like a fun house where I would deliberately get lost and of course it wasn't hard at all to misplace myself. The next day I found the floor plan for the fire escape. Truth be known, I think we would all have been toast.

Every room had 2 or 3 doors all leading to other similar rooms or rather all different sorts of rooms.
There were a few bedrooms with 2 or 3 (naked) beds, many more rooms with rows of bunk beds, several big rooms (halls) with fireplaces,

more than a few kitchens stacked with cupboards full of mismatched dishes,

staircases at every turn, some up, some down, some twisting into the dark.

Also beautiful tall stone framed windows

overlooking the turbulent South Tyne River and fields of wet sheep eating wet green grass;

a startling mix of broken junky furniture

with beautiful carved antique (or at least very old) pieces, and cupboards full of dust and oddments in strange places like the walls along the stairwells or in corners between door frames.

One of the first rooms was a good sized kitchen with a huge old stove radiating heat.
I learned that this was one of the famed Aga ranges I’ve read about for so long. I had no idea how one might cook on it, but since I wasn’t in charge of the vittles, I wasn’t worried about it.

A couple not in our group appeared in one of the halls I was exploring. He explained that he'd spent the night there 40 years ago and happened to be driving in the area and decided to show it to his girlfriend. They found the door open, and walked in...made me wonder who else might be around.

Another man brought his kids and his dog to check the place out, but he was a friend of Dave's and his dog was lovely.

They said it was a 'lurcher', something I've read about but not seen. She was smaller than I expected a lurcher to be, but with the wire-haired coat. I could go for a dog like this...

As soon as everyone arrived and chose their rooms, some of them decided to go for a run. Some of us decided to walk UP to the pub.

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

State Visit

I had such a delightful visit with Vickie, Steve and Olivia Ruth the other day. I’d invited them to lunch as I’d not yet seen the baby and she is now 2 months old. I didn’t want to just drop in on Vickie, as I’d not care for that myself. Two Rottweilers are also a good deterrent if you need help getting rid of unwanted visitors. Also, I just think it’s a good idea not to take your germs to a very new baby and any new mum probably needs time to get herself organized. (On that score, I wish her good luck; I’ve been working on that all my life and I don’t have a kid to confound the process).

I enlisted Bill’s help in tidying the place.
There wasn’t that much to do, but I hate vacuuming. Also, I’ve been knee deep in sewing and knitting so there were little messes everywhere to pick up. Bill teased me that we must be having a State Visit to agitate so much over a simple lunch.

I’d planned to have a cold chicken and pasta salad for lunch, so if the baby was fussy it wouldn’t matter that the food was cold, but on the day the weather was so wet and miserable I thought something hot was required, so it got changed to chicken and rice soup. Salad from the garden; well, the lettuce anyhow, plus chopped fruit with yoghurt. Disgustingly healthy, I know.

I think most babies are frankly quite funny looking; many are positively homely and a few are cute. I think it’s rare to see a really pretty baby – isn’t that a terrible thing to say? I couldn’t get a good picture of her, having left it late and she was beginning to tire, but when she was up and alert – and she seems especially attentive and interested in things – she was very pretty. I think it was that white suited her pale complexion and it gave her face a distinctly feminine look.

I bought a couple of tops and an outfit for her. I also made them a CD with all the Tightwad Gazettes I’ve scanned, something any new parents could find useful, I think. I am looking forward to buying baby clothes and stuff again, and probably every one of their family members is thinking the same! They may need a bigger house; or they could just Ebay half the stuff instead of tripping all over it.

Steve left to return to work and Vickie stayed on another hour or so. We had a lovely visit about everything and nothing. It seems odd to see her with a baby, she’s not stereotypically maternal, but she was absorbed by Olivia and completely patient. She even mentioned wanting to re-home Harley, the newer of the dogs, and said she could see a time when they didn’t have dogs, as Buster is up in years. Talk about an about-face! Steve seems deeply contented in a way I’ve not seen him before. I think Olivia Ruth is a real blessing to them both, something I would wish for all babies -- and parents -- but especially babies.

Christmas is Only 13 Weeks Away!

Are you a last minute shopper? I used to be; I even remember buying cartons of cigarettes to wrap and give (and see opened) on Christmas Eve, back when more people on my list smoked. I’m pleased to say they don't anymore and I wouldn’t buy them cigarettes now anyhow, but I’m also pleased to say the last minute thing isn’t usual anymore either. That’s partly because I have to ship my gifts across the Atlantic by the first week of December. I don’t always make that deadline, (and this year Royal Mail wants parcels by 20 October to guarantee delivery, which has little or no chance!) but between the distance and my downshifted lifestyle, I’m thinking seriously about Christmas presents now, largely because they will be homemade.

If you are in the least crafty and think you might be interested, I can tell you it’s a lot more fun to make presents than to drag yourself around the malls in December throwing money at it. I really get into population control mode when I'm squished between shopper -- I hate crowds like that. Besides, a handmade gift is much more unique and can be quite special.

I can’t give you any specific ideas without giving the game away – not that Bill’s kids read this blog – but the Womens Institute, a very interesting English institution, has a great book of ideas. (In fact, I just bought myself a used copy!!) For that matter, your library is probably stuffed with craft books of one kind or another:
sewing, knitting, crochet, cross-stitch, tatting, ribbon craft, woodcraft, paper mache, embroidery, you name it. Never mind the library, try the internet for ideas. The Tightwad Gazette editor suggests finding an idea that works for several people and to do mass production if possible. I remember one year making her denim pot holders and making my then-mother-in-law chuckle.

I’ve long ago abandoned the idea that my Christmas gift to someone is any more than a token of regard and affection.
I don’t expect to improve the quality of their life other than with a festive venue, plenty of good food and the pleasure of my company, though if I get the right gift I know it might give them nice thoughts of me when they use it. Opening gifts in this house is just a tradition to observe, not a life changing event. I’ve been an only child wading waist deep in the paper from my presents. I’ve had an only step-child who experienced the same. It’s not really a pretty sight; and none of us are children any more. I like to give gifts that are perhaps a small surprise or that make the recipient laugh.

If possible, like to notice and fill a small gap that perhaps that person isn’t even aware of.
Most of the people I know go out and buy what they want when they want it. If they haven’t bought it for themselves it is likely I can’t afford to, even if I knew what it was they wanted specifically. I only ask Bill for his wish list. The others get what they get.

So, lowering the bar with that, if you can find something to make that is pretty or useful or fun, I say get to it!
Christmas is only 13 weeks away.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

H & M's Wedding Party

I never did tell you about Helen & Martin’s post-wedding party, did I? It was a little over a month after we all got back from the US. They chose a jazz band and provided gambling facilities for guests, which fitted in with the fact that they got married in Vegas.

British wedding traditions are in what I think of as the Catholic direction as opposed to the Protestant mode, which makes sense, the Church of England being pretty much what we in the US call the Episcopal Church and it being very similar to Catholicism. I’m sure many would argue with me about these rough generalizations, but this isn’t meant to be about religion but about customs.

In my experience Protestant wedding ceremonies are followed by a reception where the newlyweds’ families line up to greet guests as they assemble in another room at the church. There the bride and groom force feed each other with wedding cake and punch while pictures are snapped. The guests are then fed cake and punch. Gifts may or may not be opened on the day. The guests go home for their dinner.

Catholics on the other hand seem to be more inclined to have a huge evening meal with plenty of alcoholic beverages involved. There are speeches and toasts and thoroughly embarrassing the couple is part of the tradition. Funny enough, here in Britain only the closest family and friends are invited to the wedding ceremony whilst a wider network of friends is invited to the evening party; being a tightwad I would have thought it would be the other way around.

Anyhow, as they didn't choose to have anyone but Aunt Jane and Uncle Chris at their actual wedding ceremony (and only because they happened to still be in Vegas on the day), they decided to have this party when they got back.

I hadn’t realized how hidebound I am about wedding traditions until now. I hadn’t realized how much tradition and formalities ease the way, socially. If you think about it, traditions tell you more or less know who people are, where to sit, what to wear, what to say and what is going to happen next. Without the usual customs, it is all rather free-form and figure-it-out-for-yourself, which is a bit uncomfortable. Having such fixed ideas about how things should be done did help me a little, as I found myself pushing for things like having a table at which to sit to eat and being introduced to people. It was the first time I’d ever met Bill’s ex-wife and her partner.

I love a book called Watching the English, written by sociologist Katie Fox, because it explains so much about behaviour that completely mystified me when I first came across. Imagine in the US going to a business meeting then everyone having a friendly social chat about family and holidays over tea and cookies for half an hour before getting down to the actual business of the meeting. Imagine saying good-bye to your guests and then finding that you inevitably continue the conversation with further protracted good-byes in the hallway for another half an hour until you practically push them out the front door so you can go to the loo.

Imagine standing at the bar at a wedding party, ‘them’ and ‘us’ separated only occasionally by ‘children’, talking to the kids but trying to ignore ‘them’ – for nearly an hour. This is all very normal and acceptable behaviour amongst Brits, but I couldn't cope with it very well. I thought for a while I was back in high school or something. Thankfully I needed to leave a couple of times and go back to our hotel room next door. I’d forgotten to bring my camera and then I had to go back to get fresh batteries. When I got back the second time I told Bill if he didn’t introduce me to Katie I would just introduce myself. I wouldn’t say it exactly broke the ice, but I felt better anyhow. I probably came across as the stereotypical brash American. I can live with it.

Martin’s mom, Ann, came over and introduced herself to Bill and me quite early on. We met Martin's Dad, Norman, later in the evening but I never did get a decent picture of him. I think Simon did manage to get a few.

I enjoyed trying to take pictures. It gave me something constructive to do. The couple wanted the traditional cake cutting and speeches. I was pleased Bill got to enjoy some part of being the father of the bride. (Note the very smart bolo tie purchased at an 'antique shop' in Blackwell, Oklahoma).

They didn't pose much for pictures. This, with the darkened room, made getting good photos a bit of a challenge. I just did it for fun, but Simon had the ‘official’ job and took over 350 pictures.

I was especially pleased with these I took of Simon and Sarah with their respective partners, Rhiannon and Alan. They clean up good, don’t they? Rhiannon even had on very pretty, (very) high heeled silver sandals. I'm beginning to have more appreciation for the camera (with 198-pages of instructions) Bill bought me for my birthday.

Martin hates having his picture taken and ducked my best efforts all evening. This, of course, makes it hard to get a good picture of him, so I'm not responsible for it if there aren't many. He cleans up good too, but you'll have to take my word for it. I can appreciate how he feels, as I'm not fond of having my picture taken either. In my experience, however, twenty or thirty years on you think you looked pretty darn good back then, so it's best to just smile and go with it.

Helen looked really lovely, of course. She told me the next morning it had been a long month, trying to make sure she could still fit into her dress, along with arranging all the details for the party. She was glad now it was over and I think several of us understood the feeling of being held in suspense about the impending event.

I thought it turned out pretty well. The tables were beautifully decorated by Martin’s sister. Though jazz music isn’t to my taste for dancing, but the singer had a lovely voice and they were pleasant to listen to. Everyone seemed to enjoy the roulette and whatever game the other table had on offer (I gave my play money to Bill, as I don’t really know how to gamble other than play 21 on the slot machines). The food was delicious and ample, though I was on my best behaviour and ate one plate of carefully chosen items.

And now that she doesn’t have to fit into her wedding dress anymore she can take her brother Simon’s advice and 'just let herself go’. Isn't that just what brothers are for?