(The is the sixth in a series that begins with A Night in Steerage.)
First of all, Beaulieu is pronounced “Bew-ly.” Again I had been saying it as though I was in French class. Sue said “Bew-ly” from the start.
“How did you know that?” I asked.
“That’s just the way we’d say it.”
“You mean the English?”
“It would have a Norman pronunciation.”
Beaulieu is a lot of things: a stately home, gardens, an abbey, and a motor museum among them. But I wanted to go for the spy museum. One of the houses on the estate was the “finishing school” and last port of call for the agents of the Special Operation Executive before they were dropped into occupied Europe during the Second World War. I’ve been more or less obsessed with this subject for several years and I wanted to go to Beaulieu so badly that I tried to figure out how I could do it in a day from London. It would have involved a train, a bus, and either $80 for a taxi or a seven mile bicycle ride through the New Forest on a hired bicycle. I was thrilled when Wendy and Sue said they would take me.
We looked up Beaulieu in the guide book.
“I’m not interested in the spy museum,” Wendy said.
“I’m not interested in either the spy or motor museum,” Sue said.
“I’m not interested in the motor museum,” I said.
There is something for everyone at Beaulieu. And as it turned out we all enjoyed the motor museum.
It’s a large estate and they provide a little toy monorail to get you from one end to the other. It’s a perfectly walk-able area but you don’t realize that when you look at the map. We queued up for the train and waited while six tiny cars emptied themselves of their passengers and took on about a third of the people standing in the queue. We didn’t make the cut and there was to be a fifteen minute wait. I am so amazed at the patience of the British. I was ready to walk. I was so close to the spies I could hardly stand it.
I stayed with Sue and Wendy. We were next to a family of five that included an unhappy and unapologetic whiner (or whinger) of a five year old. It was classic whining at the precise pitch of maximum irritation.
“We’re not getting in their car,” Sue said darkly.
We waited. The child whined. And waited. The child whinged. We talked about childhood games we played to pass the time in car trips.
“I spy with my little eye,” I said. “Something that begins with ‘b.’”
Sue looked around, bored. “I don’t know,” she said.
We got the giggles.
“I’m used to it,” Wendy, the headmistress, said as she placidly read her guidebook.
Amongst her other splendid qualities, Wendy also has what Sue called “teacher’s bladder.” Sue and I need to pee (or wee) every couple hours.
The monorail came round again. It squeaked and rocked and inched us along through the top of the motor museum. This operated on me like a well-targeted commercial. The motor museum might be fun after all.
At the far end we separated and I went to see the SOE exhibit. “I’ve got my gas mask right here,” I said indicating the beige colored raincoat bag that was slung over my shoulder.
Earlier when I was waxing large about the significance of the spies on this very estate, Sue had had a glazed look in her eyes. Now Wendy smiled benevolently.
I thought, “Oh god, I’m acting like someone who talks non-stop about the insides of a car or a computer or about how apps work, not noticing that the other person doesn’t give a rat’s ass about any of it.”
I decided to thrill to my private obsessive experience but to shut up about it. It was a very small exhibit but it was satisfying. All day as I walked around Beaulieu, I thought, “They were here. Christine Granville, Francis Cammaerts, Nancy Wake, Odette Sansome. They all trained here and they all left from here. In the Abbey cloisters is a plaque that reads:
“Remember before God those men and women of the European Resistance Movement who were secretly trained in Beaulieu to fight their lonely battle against Hitler’s Germany and who before entering Nazi-occupied territory here found some measure of the peace for which they fought.”
The Abbey was peaceful. There was some sort of presence there. That wasn’t just my imagination because Wendy felt it, too.
We had lunch at the Brabazon Café. It was one of those confusing buffet lines where I need to jump the queue to see everything before I can make up my mind and then I have to go back and start over. Wendy and Sue got lasagna with heaps of greens on the side, which they gave to me because though I ordered the 3-salad special, there was nothing green in any of them. There was a tasteless beetroot salad, a potato salad with mustard seeds all over the potatoes and coleslaw, which had enough dressing to give the beetroot and potatoes some flavor. Sue’s lasagna was all dried up. Wendy placidly ate her juicier lasagna, Sue kvetched about hers and I tried to imagine the machine that would shred beetroot so thin. The last mark against the Brabazon was that if they had had any decaffeinated hot drinks, we would have had to drink them in paper cups.
When we left, we headed for Burnham-on-Sea where I would trade places with Wendy. She could go home to her bed and I would stay in Pamela’s house for the next 5 days. Near Longleat, another stately home with benefits, we got stuck in a congestion of creeping cars. We inched along for over an hour. Signs along the road read: “Elton John Concert. Turn off your Sat Navs and follow directions.” (Satellite Navigators are what we call Global Positioning Systems. Much more fun to say “Sat Nav” than “GPS.”)
“What’s he doing at Longleat?” Sue asked. “This area can’t manage this kind of traffic.”
The concert had started at 6:00. At 7:30 we were still crawling. Again I was amazed at how patient Wendy was. “It’s all part of the rich tapestry of life,” she said. She says this a lot. I think it’s a coping mechanism. Sue is more like me: we complain. I would have joined her in this case but I was acutely aware that they were taking me 40 minutes out of their way home where five annoyed cats were waiting for their tea.
Wendy was finally able to turn away from the stream of cars and take a different route, one that went through Cheddar Gorge. I was delighted to see it again and to come through the whole of it. It brought back good memories of being here when Mervyn was alive and Pamela was herself and they had been so good to me.
I woke up the next morning in my old room at the house on Love Lane ready for the second week of my trip.