In recent months I have somehow lost my enthusiasm for keeping the log up to date and now find myself at the beginning of the new year with weeks of travel undocumented. In an attempt to catch up and get myself back into a writing frame of mind, I’m attempting a catch up log to sketch out the bare bones of the last months of 2014.
At comparatively short notice, we decide to go to Britain for a quick visit at the end of October.
Our flight out of San Francisco is delayed but we are lucky enough to get seats on a direct flight and land at Heathrow only a few hours later than planned. Unfortunately, this means hitting the M25 at rush hour on a Friday. We have a room booked in a country pub in the village of Matching Tye: chosen by Sterling for it’s quaint name and proximity to our destination for the evening, Little Hallingbury.
I haven’t seen my friend Beverley since 2003 and we spend a delightful Friday evening over a delicious meal, cooked by her husband Andrew, whilst chewing over old times and the intervening years. Saturday brings more reunions with Lyndsay and with Ray. What a delight to meet up with friends after so many years and feel immediately comfortable.
The physical absence of family and friends is a cost of emigrating that is hard to evaluate. It is only upon return to the UK that the feelings surface and it is whilst I am with people that I feel the longer term absence. I’m not aware of consciously suppressing those feelings as we travel around and live our lives, but maybe at some level I do.
By late afternoon, we’re heading west towards Cardiff to spend a couple of nights with my sister and her husband, Simon. I haven’t seen Solanna since we left to return to the US, two years ago, and although we speak regularly, it just isn’t the same. We have a wonderful time before taking off again, this time to immerse ourselves in the whole Shakespeare experience at Stratford on Avon.
Stratford on Avon needs no introduction: we’re here for the usual reasons. We have a couple of nights here and do the usual tour of the Shakespeare related buildings: the medieval church, Holy Trinity, where he was baptised and buried, and various houses associated with this most famous of writers. In spite of the persistent rain it’s a lovely small town, quiet enough at this time of year to not feel like we’re part of the cattle train.
No visit to Stratford is complete without a visit to the theatre and we have tickets for Love’s Labour’s Lost performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre. The Swan is small with a deep thrust stage surrounded on three sides by the stalls and two tiers of seating. It’s a compact space and from our seats on the front row of the lower circle we have a great view of the action. Neither of us is overly familiar with the play and although I suspect we miss some of the word play for which it is best known, we enjoy it nevertheless. This production is set just before the outbreak of World War I and the ending, with the male and female characters promising to test their love for each other by spending a year apart. has a very sombre tone as the man come onto stage in their uniforms at the end of the last scene. It’s an interesting take in this centennial year but I feel it changes the entire tone of the play, making the comedy and playfulness of the previous scenes seem somewhat trite. Maybe that itself is a reflection of how things felt back in 1914.
Ahead of leaving Stratford the following morning, we have one last stop to make: Anne Hathaway's Cottage. It's the epitome of the English cottage and garden and even the season doesn't entirely detract from this. I visited the house at the age of eleven with my aunt and uncle, Cath and Stan and my sister. Apart from its picture book appearance, the single thing that stands out in my memory is the attention drawn to the fireside settle where the young Will had reportedly wooed his love. Forty five years on and a slightly different story is being told: splinters of the alledged original settle were sold off as souvenirs by a previous owner, who had to replace the settle from time to time in order to meet demand. Another long held belief hits the dust.
The kitchen hearth in these old houses are always fascinating places. Apart from the bread oven and hanging pots there's the large spit, turned by a system of pulleys and chains which kept the meat rotating in front of the fire. The week before our visit, the chain from this spit was stolen. Not as you might imagine, under cover of darkness when the house was shut up but during opening hours whilst people staff the building, engaging with visitors. How a chain of this size was detached quietly enough not to attract attention and how it was then secreted for removal from the premises remains a mystery. What I personally find even more intriguing is the theives motivation: what did they think it might be used for, or be worth, without the rest of the spit? Are they planning to return in order to steal the rest of it?
Heading north to Manchester we detour to visit Lichfield Cathedral. The location has been the site of christian worship for thirteen hundred years and the building of the current gothic cathedral began in 1195. Our visit is prompted by Sterling who is reading a novel about the building of a cathedral from the same period and he wants to see an example of the architecture in the flesh.
It’s an incredibly imposing building, nestled in a close of tightly packed historic houses, rising up to the heavens. It is a quiet enclave, removed from the surrounding town. Looking to the top of the spires, it is easy to imagine the awe in which it must have been seen by people living at the time it was built. The sandstone of the outer walls, blackened by years of exposure, is too soft to be cleaned by sandblasting, its original appearance somewhat lost to time. Approaching the huge wooden doors of the west wall we are gazed down on by the multitude of statues: the saints, popes and martyrs captured by the stonemasons.
Stepping inside, the beautiful proportions, the perfect geometry, the sweeping arches and the sheer enormity stop us in our tracks. It is an architectural and engineering achievement that stands the test of the ages: more remarkable in light of the fact that it was designed and built in medieval times.
Leaving the past behind we arrive in Manchester for the final stop of our short trip. We’re visiting Vinny and Aileen and although it’s not long since they visited us in The States, it’s a delight to see them again. Solanna and Simon are coming up from Cardiff for the weekend and so it’s a full house and thoroughly enjoyable. As always in these situations, time flies, whether it’s a particular evening or a weekend and in no time we’re heading back towards Heathrow and our flight out.
We’ve left the camper in San Jose, not far south of the bay area and we need to stay in the vicinity for various dental appointments in the coming week. We pass the time at Coyote Lake Park just outside Gilroy, the garlic capital of the world. Whenever we come to Gilroy, we’re always amazed by the fragrance of the wondrous bulb wafting on the air and wonder if the occurrence of colds is particularly low here.
Up in the hills outside the town, the drought has taken its toll on the lake, leaving it shrunk in its basin, boat ramps stranded high and dry. Groups of deer regularly visit the evergreen oak we’re parked next to, foraging for the acorns that lie thick on the ground inspite of their best efforts. Flocks of turkeys occasionally join in before suddenly remembering that Thanksgiving is not far away and scuttling away to hide under cover of vegetation.
In Britain at this time of year, conkers are thick on the ground, dropping from the Horse Chestnut Trees. The shiny brown seeds are a much prized possession of childhood and the aftermath of a good autumnal wind is always greeted with the anticipation of finding these treasures. Some children gather them to play a traditional game where two opponents, each with a conker on a string, take turns striking the other’s conker until one breaks apart. Others collect them simply because they are beautiful when they first emerge from their thick, spiky shells.
At Coyote Park we spy what look like giant conkers lying on the ground. A little research reveals that they are the seeds from the California Buckeye otherwise known as the California horse-chestnut. While the trees themselves are much smaller than conker trees in Britain their seeds are much larger and every bit as lovely. I cannot resist gathering a few, their shiny brown skins a delight.
The park has other pleasures to offer: an extensive system of trails meandering through the open oak forest, the dry grassy hills and the early morning mists suspended over the water or tumbling in slow motion down the hillsides.
The bay area is of course the home of Google and we have to make the pilgrimage before leaving the area. The GooglePlex is a world apart. Employees cycle around on the multi-coloured Google bikes, self driving cars (with drivers) are tested on the roads and the pavements are full of geeky looking people. We’re looking for the Android statues and they take some finding having been moved from their previously high profile location to an obscure area off the beaten track. It’s worth the effort just to see Sterling’s face as he wanders about and poses for photos.
Teeth dealt with, we head to Fremont Peak State Park. We’re not sure how busy it will be and so, uncharacteristically for us, we make a reservation. We stayed at this park ten years ago and consult our database to see which campsite had worked well for us then. We are somewhat mystified on arrival: it looks nothing like we remember and the site is both too small and completely unlevel. As it transpires, the campground is deserted and so we just move. It is a little while before we realise that the sites have been remodelled and renumbered. Even so, when we do eventually track down the site we stayed on, the trees have continued growing in the intervening years and there is no longer any chance of getting online using the satellite dish. A ten year old database has limited use!
We’re excited to be heading for a previously unvisited National Park for Thanksgiving. It’s a reasonable place to undertake the not insignificant task of cooking a vegetarian version of the celebratory meal but we find Pinnacles National Park itself somewhat underwhelming. On a positive note, due to limited parking, the park runs a shuttle from the entrance up to the trailheads. Even after a couple of hikes up to the pinnacles themselves and along the valley floor, we come to the conclusion that it’s probably the first national park we’ve visited that we wouldn’t go out of our way to return to. In its defence, the peak of visitation coincides with the blooming of spring flowers and maybe that’s the time to come here to fully appreciate its beauty.
Our next stop is Bakersfield and for old times sake we stay in the rv park we frequented when we were buying the F550 and having the utility body built. It hasn’t changed very much but regrettably we’re not here at the right time of year for the almonds. Being in town we take the opportunity to seek out a local brewpub. Lengthwise has some very nice beers to offer and while the menu is pretty basic I have to restrain Sterling from having the deep fried Twinkies for pudding! (For our British readers, here’s a reference.) I of course cannot restrain myself from holding forth about “only in America” but later have to bite my tongue on reading that this culinary delight was initially invented by an Englishman. When I share this revelation, Sterling delights in pointing out that Britain is the home of fish and chips and I have to sheepishly admit to consuming said delicacy at the brewpub that night
Not far from Bakersfield is Kern River County Park and we stop here for a surprisingly pleasant week. The river flows along the edge of the campground and although it’s early December, here in southern California, the autumnal colours are still fully on display. We’re entertained by sightings of Hooded Mergansers on the water and whilst out on one of the trails, by a bobcat,: she’s meandering along in the same direction and at about the same pace as ourselves, just a hundred yards away. She seems unperturbed by our presence, occasionally stops to look at us and then continues on her way before disappearing into the undergrowth.
Late one afternoon as the light fades, we’re out walking on the paved bike trail and are attracted by bright lights in the distance. As we approach we realise this is something special: a huge parking lot is brightly lit and cars are beginning to pull in. It’s CALM, the California Living Museum and what we’re seeing is their annual Christmas Light Show. We return a couple of nights later and are not disappointed. Virtually every tree is festooned in lights, all manner of christmas themed tableaus decorate the area and there’s even a santa train to ride on. A definite case of shoe size not age and our first taste of Christmas.
We need some new cabover struts for the camper and so are headed to Lancaster, the home of all things Lance. We decide to go on the weekly factory tour and are interested to discover the major changes in design and production techniques that have been introduced. Many of the major design flaws in our 2003 model have been overcome and there are also some significant improvements. Much of the production has been automated but human error is clearly still alive and well. The kink in this pipe may not be on the scale of our famous example but it’s still evidence of a less than scrupulous attention to detail.
We stay out at Saddleback Butte State Park for a few nights and again are taught the lesson of assuming that things will be the same as they were last time we visited somewhere. In this case, the dump station is closed and fresh water due to be turned off any day. Fortunately there’s a free dump station in town and we’re able to get water with our water thief.
We take advantage of being near town and go to see Interstellar at the Imax screen. It’s a mistake. The volume is incredibly loud and the sound fidelity stunningly bad: much of the dialogue is drowned out by various background noise and completely ruins the film.
We’re planning to spend Christmas at Joshua Tree National Park and intend to spend a short while on some BLM land not far from the park in the days leading up to the holiday. While there we have a complete change of plan and buy tickets to fly to Wisconsin for a surprise visit with Sterling’s family.
Reluctant to completely give up the park, we spend a few nights at Black Rock campground before spending a couple of nights surrounded by Saguaros at White Tank County Park on the outskirts of Phoenix. We fly out on Christmas eve ahead of turning up in Wisconsin unannounced on Christmas Day. Needless to say, we’re very welcome especially as we’ve carried a pre-prepared Christmas dinner as hand luggage.
Our hopes of a white Christmas in Wisconsin are dashed, miles of brown grass stretch out in every direction. Perversely, our wish is granted at the end of the month when we return to Arizona. There’s nothing quite like a saguaro dusted in snow!