Ah, HumanityAnglophiliaBooksEnglandTravel

September 5, 2010

Cake and Wales

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I am an Anglophile.  It started early in my life and was enhanced by finding an address for my Cornish relations in my great Aunt Ann’s address book after she died in the 1970’s.  I wrote to my distant cousin Hazel, then 68 years old, and we began to correspond.  Since then I have made half a dozen trips to England, met Hazel, and the next two generations of family, and have been personally escorted all over Cornwall and Devon.

My most recent trip to England was made the old fashioned way: by transatlantic crossing.  I sailed on the Queen Mary 2 from Brooklyn to Southampton.  Hazel died many years ago and the next generation, Pamela and Mervyn, had recently left not just Cornwall, but the village my family has lived in since before anyone can remember; and moved to England, settling in Somerset.  (When the Cornish cross the River Tamar into Devon, they say they are going to England.) So I went to visit them in Burnham on Sea.  For two weeks they ran me all over Somerset and environs.

I have longed to see Hay-On-Wye, The Town of Books, ever since I first read about their annual literary festival.   Pamela planned a two day excursion into Wales and Herefordshire to accommodate my desire.  It was raining when we arrived and every book in the town smelled damp.  The literary festival had ended a month earlier and the town was still exhausted.  The shop keepers in the 30 some bookshops looked like they hated the sight of tourists.

“Do you see a lot of famous people at the festival?” I asked in one shop.

“Yeah, some.” She paused. “A lot who think they are famous.”

When I travel with Pamela and Mervyn, I generally go off on my own and buzz around according to my peculiar interests while they amble about at a much slower pace and generally end up in a Marks and Spencers.  Then we meet for tea.  But on this rainy, dismal day in Hay, they were nowhere to be found when I decided I needed cake.

Hay is full of little passageways that have been promoted to streets.  I followed one of these to The Old Stables Tea Room (Hay’s Best Kept Secret, Award Winning Everything.) It was a low-ceilinged, damp little place with one side taken up by a fireplace.  Old photos, paintings, railroad timetables, telegrams, and kitchen and farm equipment hung on the walls.  Visually it was overwhelming.  Physically it was a bit challenging.  I didn’t want to drop all my damp possessions on someone’s tea while trying to read an attribution.  Only an American would want to know what absolutely everything in the place was.  I sat in an old  chair at a white clothed table, smelled the fresh flowers, and ordered a pot of muddy Welsh tea and a piece of coffee walnut cake.

The slice of cake was both overwhelming and challenging.  It came, festooned, on a charger.  Someone had gone nuts with the chocolate and walnut syrup and had done curls and swoops all over the plate, followed by a thick dusting of powdered sugar, and fancy cuts of orange and strawberries along the edges.  In the center of the plate were two thick slabs of frosting with an inch of cake in between.  A large flowering pod of some kind –a walnut?—perched atop the entire presentation.

At first I could only stare.  I would have been happy with a piece of cake on a small plate.  Maybe a paper doily.  In any case, the frosting was worth it all.  And I dried off.  They thanked me for my custom; I went away smiling, trying to work out what that meant.  I brought the pod home to Seattle and still don’t know what it is.

The surprise of the day was the Grafton Travel Lodge.  Pamela had merely been trying to find something inexpensive and she found something delightful: an exquisitely clean, minimalist hostelry with charming pub next door.  My room had a bed, with duvet and sheet, one chair, one desk, a clotheshorse, two dustbins, and a flat screen TV with seven channels.  There were three pillows, two towels, one bathmat, one tiny bar of soap, two plastic glasses, a hot water heater, two porcelain mugs, two spoons, tea and coffee bags, and a two little tubs of  Moo juice—that non-dairy stuff that, ominously, does not need to be refrigerated.

The sheets were crisp, the kettle worked superbly, and the chair was more comfortable than the ones at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.   I thought, well, what more do I really need?  It turns out that I had forgotten to pack shampoo and as horrid as the Moo juice was, there still wasn’t enough of it for my tea.

The fellow at Reception did not look like, but sounded exactly like, Hugh Grant.  I manufactured reasons to engage him in conversation just to hear his voice.  Our first conversation went like this:

“Do you happen to have any little shampoos?”

“No, so sorry, it’s how we keep costs down, you see.”

“Oh, that’s fine, I’ll manage.”

“I can give you as many of those little soaps as you could possibly want.”   They do so want to please, the British.

“Thanks, I’ll be just fine.  But do you suppose I could possibly have a couple more of those milk thingys?”  I get very polite around the British.

He brightened. “Now that I can do!”

He disappeared into a side room but came out on the back swing of the door. “I’m sorry, I don’t mean to sound patronizing, but when you said ‘a couple,’ did you mean just two or were you wanting a whole handful?”

Busted. I laughed, “Yes, actually, I was hoping for a whole handful!”

He grinned, “Yes, I thought so.  When I say ‘a couple,’ it means ‘all I can possibly get!’”

He disappeared and came back with cupped hands full.

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