(This the tenth in a series that begins with A Night in Steerage.)
The day after my birthday, Sue and Wendy had appointments in Wells but I opted to stay home. I was intent on finding a footpath, if I was lucky, to Street. Or barring that, just a footpath to walk. They are everywhere in England but so far I had mostly only been down The Drain. I only got as far as a little short one off the Drain. It took me onto the main highway -two narrow lanes, no shoulders, fast cars. Across the road was a break in a hedgerow where I glimpsed sheep.
I’d been trying to get close to some sheep for two weeks. They had mostly been whizzed past me from the train or the car. I ran back home for my camera. Five minutes later and the sheep had gone. I tried to peer around the hedgerow. I wondered, how do sheep disappear in five minutes?
I carried on to the Post Office Shop where I knew that Sally, the baker of my birthday cakes, was working the morning shift and I wanted to thank her. I picked up Sue’s bread order and bought a Daily Telegraph. Back home I hunted high and low for the tin I knew the birthday cakes were in and finally found it in Sue’s bathroom.
I cut two thick slices of coffee walnut cake and put them on the Union Jack napkins that had been part of neighbor’s Marian and David’s Happy Birthday in England package. I put on the apron they had given me and went next door with the cake. I expected this would get me an invitation to tea and I wasn’t disappointed. We had a fun conversation; they both made me laugh. David said he would run me up to Castle Cary to the train when I left in two days’ time and I felt relieved to think I wouldn’t have to rely on the Nippy bus.
I wrote down their address so I could write to them and in the process I found that I had been muddling the Butleigh postal code for, I don’t know, ten years! I had always written BA6855 when it was BA68SS. Those European fives look like ss’s to me!
I got to go to Nether Stowey after all. Sue had to work in the afternoon but Wendy and I could do some touring. Sue read a description of the Coleridge Cottage out of her National Trust guide: “award winning former home of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. . .light refreshments in the tea room–”
“Tea room?” Wendy popped her head out of the kitchen.
“Tea room?” I said from the couch where I was teasing Tabsy. “Let’s go to Nether Stowey.
Sue put her National Trust card on the table by my purse. “You can use this, but you probably should say as little as possible until you get past the door because the cards aren’t transferable.”
It was a beautiful drive into the Quantock Hills. At the door I stayed behind Wendy, the headmistress, and let her do the talking. I handed over my card with my lips tightly closed. Since the ticket taker then became our guide, I was afraid to open my mouth. I could lie in my own world but not in an English one.
It turned out to be a magical experience for me. Here was the room where Coleridge wrote “Frost at Midnight” with his baby in a cradle next to him . . . probably. And in the garden was a lime tree bower. Not The Lime Tree Bower and not in the exact spot, but close enough for my imagination to go wild. In case you have no idea what I am on about, “The Lime Tree Bower My Prison” is one of my favorite Coleridge poems. It’s a poem only an English major can love but worth a look.
‘Tis well to be bereft of promis’d good,
That we may lift the soul, and contemplate
With lively joy the joys we cannot share. . .
No sound is dissonant which tells of Life.
The National Trust is tending to create hands on exhibits, which I think are marvelous. We were encouraged to touch everything, sit on chairs, and try on clothes. The only thing we weren’t allowed to do is break the glass cases and play with the authentic artifacts.
They made much of the fact that Coleridge had in a letter described the cottage as “mouse infested.” There were fabric mice, knitted mice and plastic mice in every room of the house. I began counting them for fun but stopped at 17 by the time I hit the second parlour. Children (of all ages) would love it. That’s the thinking behind the trend: to get younger people interested in the National Trust properties.
Wendy and I stopped in Glastonbury to see Pam and take her some birthday cake. This was the most lucid I had seen her. She had complete sentences and she clearly connected me with photos of Seattle and of my house.
She drank from a cup for the first time since her stroke. She held on to the cup, raised it to her mouth, sipped, and set it down shakily onto the tray-table. She did it again. The second time it was executed much more steadily. By the fourth sip, she was executing the movement and hitting the targets smoothly. It was fascinating: witnessing a brain connection leading to a new skill. I’ve gotten to see Pam four times since I’ve been here and I am so glad it worked out that way.
Sunday morning–the next day– was a wet one and it began for me when I walked up the path to see if the sheep were visible. They were. As I stood watching them the church bells began to peal. They rang and clanged and did that falling down a ladder thing they do. I stood in the wet with the sheep and the bells and thought, “Could anything be more English?!”
“You thought you were in the middle of a John Betjeman poem,” Sue said when I told her. Sue gave me the best birthday gift I could have gotten when she said, “Elena, you have an English soul.”
The three of us set off at noon for the coast of Dorset, destination West Bay and Lyme Regis. The rain wasn’t supposed to have started until 7:00 in the evening but it rained and fogged up the windows right from the start. I opined that it might be clear on the coast. Sue looked at me piteously and said, “Bless.”
When we got to West Bay, Wendy asked, “Do you want to drive through the town or get out?”
I knew in my heart what the correct answer was but I said, “Oh I want to get out. I want to see the big rock.”
The “big rock” is the Golden Cap made famous in the mini-series Broadchurch. We parked, put on our rain coats and hoods and made our way through the puddles to the harbor. The wind was fierce. I could hardly believe how good natured Sue and Wendy were. As we picked our way along Sue bumped up against me.
“You don’t have to shove me into a puddle,” I said. “It’s raining. I get it.”
The beach is made up of tiny smooth pebbles, which stings on bare feet. But the pebbles get into shoes and hurt in a different way. I went barefoot because I wanted to paddle or as Americans say, wade. My feet sank six inches into the pebbles, making movement forward a struggle. I struggled to the water’s edge.
Sue and I took photos and laughed at each other while Wendy waited at the top of the hill. Back at the car park, Sue and I made for the toilets. “I can always cock an eye–or a leg– for a place to wee,” Sue said.
We drove the ten miles west to Lyme Regis, a Georgian town often visited by Jane Austen, her characters, and Sue and Wendy. They come down for a day away quite often to go round the shops and walk the footpaths and have tea in a Wendy approved tearoom. On this Sunday it was raining so the best we could do was a restaurant called “By the Bay” with a view of the Cobb featured in The French Lieutenant’s Woman.
Back home I said a difficult goodbye to Wendy before she set off to Burnham for the night and work as usual in the morning. Sue and I stayed up talking books and literature. Tomorrow I was going to London for three days and my trip was nearing its end.