Friday, May 11, 2012

Day 33 - Groombridge, Speldhurst, Sissinghurst Castle and Bodiam Castle. Dinner at the Ginger Dog Kemptown (Brighton)

Saturday 28th April 2012
We’re doing well on the breakfasting side of things. We made an early start and are ready for a 9 am departure.  Today’s priority is exploring several places of family origin.  Harry the housebreaker was, the genealogists believe, born in Groombridge in 1816, a period for which the records are lost, however the weight of other evidence about his family is apparently such that Groombridge in the dark period is fingered as the likely location.  Coming from Groombridge is another reason for gratitude to ol’ Harry.. the first of course being that for an Australian it is extremely skite-worthy to have a convict forebear. :o) The drive from Tunbridge Wells to Groombridge is delightful and takes us through a lengthy section of woodland. Green and dim, and glistening in the rain, It’s simply a beautiful, beautiful drive. 
When we reach the village we spend some time just exploring around the streets, feeling our way to the bounds of the village marked by green, casual fields. Eventually we find our way to a church.  We drive past and double back.  By the time we pull up there are two cars out the front of the church and two ladies are talking to each other.  I alight from the car and walk towards the church and they greet me with a friendly “Do you want us?”  I explain my reason for visiting and stopping and they show a good deal of interest and explain the layout of the village.  I am in “new” Groombridge which was developed after the coming of the railway. Have I found the old village around the green?  That’s what I need given the time period that Harry Skinner’s family was resident here.  Better yet they encourage me to call a phone number they provide and see if we can get the old church opened to have a look.  Tell them we gave you their number.  I scrawl all this down on a piece of paper which I do not now have readily to hand, but if memory serves these lovely ladies are named Sue and Tessa.  Thank you both very very much!  No doubt in response to my gushing about what a beautiful village Groombridge is, Sue and Tessa explain that it’s a right drama if you need an ambulance or something because the new half of the village is in Sussex and the old part is in Kent.. emergency services are administered by county and so you tend to get an answer that you need to call the other county. I can quite imagine that is all you need when you’re anxious for medical assistance.  I take a few photos of the new church anyway.. I am a tourist first and foremost so the lack of family connection is no disincentive.. and then I mosey back to the car where Hubby waits patiently.  I’m like the cat who swallowed the canary and we set off for a bit more of an exploration of this lovely little community.  
It’s no time before we find the centre of the old village and it dispels the ignorant stereotype of the town green I’ve unwittingly been nurturing.  This town green is just a fairly small triangle of grass on a hillside bordered by streets and old buildings all round, including the Crown which I had previously noted offers rooms at a very inexpensive rate.  The whole effect is charming and I kick myself for not choosing to take the risk and stay here. On the other hand without tomtom working this place would not have been fun to find last night, so I don't beat myself up too badly. If I’m ever back this way I will certainly opt for a room at the Crown.  I phone the number I’ve been given and a mutually agreeable time is set for meeting up at the church.  Meanwhile, I have another agenda.
St John The Evangelist Church Groombridge, Kent
I’ve been doing a bit of research on potential souvenirs of the area and have identified that a wander up to Edenbridge is in order because that is the place to go for acquiring some Tunbridgeware.  It’s only about 20 mins or something to get there and by the time we have a look at the Tunbridgeware and get back that should be just about perfect.  Tomtom is duly instructed and we enjoy another completely delightful, stress free, drive through the countryside. Green and lush, with adorable houses and glorious views near and distant, a beautiful wood with understorey carpet of bluebells, what a wonderful way to spend the morning.
We have no difficulty parking in Edenbridge once we’ve found the antiques centre. It’s raining lightly but that’s no drama, and as we walk away from the car the bells are ringing on the nearby church.  On arrival at the antiques centre we go to open the door of the centre and it’s locked.  It needs to be opened from inside by the man who runs the place.  The predictable greetings ensue and “are you looking for anything in particular” and so forth and we are soon standing in front of a glass cabinet of gorgeous Tunbridgeware.  I want it all. Sigh.  Tunbridgeware was a form of marquetry produced as a souvenir of Tunbridge Wells and obviously it was marketed at the many tourists who visited the famous spa town.  It was made by assembling rods of coloured timber into pictures, then the pictures were sliced to be constructed into the gorgeous items large and small, which stand before us.  The choice is a difficult one to make. Should we go for the cute little boxes decorated top and sides in geometric patterns.  The card box?  The sweet little tape measures or needle cases? If I had a spare several thousand pounds that sewing box would be winging it’s way to Australia that is for sure.  We mull over what we’ve already got and what people might like.  Our host and his wife make some suggestions of other lovely things in the premises. A pair of georgeous silver salts shaped like shells is very tempting indeed. However in the end we decide we’ll get the card box and three of the little boxes for matches, stamps and whatever.  These items are from the late 18th century.  Hubby does his best santa claus impression and acquires for me a gorgeous larger box with a beautiful picture of Battle Abbey on the front.  We get the distinct impression that the operators are quite happy with the sale, business is pretty good at the moment with Australians enjoying a high exchange rate happily popping over and picking up some of those things that they previously could not afford.  We’re loving the exchange rate I have to tell you!  Time is pressing, but we’re finding it a struggle to get away.  Careful wrapping takes time of course and then we have a nice chat about the Antiques Roadshow.. do we watch?  Very infrequently, but love it when we see it.  Turns out the man from Edenbridge Antiques is one of the experts on the show.  Cool. :o)
Oh dear.. no way will we make it back in time. Not a huge slippage but enough.  I give our lovely keyholders a call and explain the delay and ask if we can make it 15 minutes later. No worries.  The drive back to Groombridge is as delightful as the drive out.  
When we pull up back at the church we meet up with our guide just as he is arriving.  His family have lived in Groombridge for a couple of hundred years at least and this is very evident as when we’re talking about our reasons for coming he comments. “There’s a lot of Skinners around isn’t there.”  True. Too true.  Even back a couple of hundred years ago there were quite a few Skinners around the district here, so probably no connection to the well known Skinner’s School in Tunbridge Wells.
When we enter the church of St John the Evangelist we are in for a treat.  The church was built as a celebratory memorial to the safe, and unmarried, return of the Prince of Wales from a trip to Spain where it had been envisaged he might be able to persuade the roman catholic princess to elope with him.  Seriously.. and the benefit would be…???? I’d be really p’d off if I was the Spanish King and cut out of deciding who my daughter was going to marry… bizarre… Anyway,  the idea of such a match didn’t go down real well in this part of England and so the outcome was seen as worthy of considerable thanksgiving.
From the time of it’s construction in 1625 until 1872 the church was a private chapel for the Packer family who constructed it and other worthies who owned it later. Obviously my forebears probably were never allowed to set foot in this beautiful place but this does not reduce our enjoyment of our visit.  Hubby is particularly taken with the old clock.  The clock face is dated 1792 and is one of the only remaining one handed clocks in the country, the workings are thought to be much older and from the 17th century.  We are pleased to hear the clock strike the hour during our visit.
I sign the visitors’ book which is pointed out to me and buy a leaflet about the church and a little book about the history of Groombridge.  Our guide, Mr Robson, points out photographs of his mother as a little girl and himself as a young man and member of the local cricket team which are included in the pictorial history. We have had a lovely visit to Groombridge but it’s time to move along.  With sincere thanks to Mr Robson for taking time out of his day to help us we take the opportunity provided by a break in the weather to make sure we’ve got photographs of old Groombridge. Then we’re on our way to Speldhurst.
Speldhurst is only a very short drive from Groombridge. It has a more urban feel to it and at it’s heart (the post office is the heart of a community isn’t it?) seems more urban, but still charming.  We drive around and eventually find a parking spot at the rear of the churchyard, don our raingear once more and walk up along paths lined with graves that span a wide period.  We reach a gate which doesn’t seem to go anywhere and in my as usual directionally challenged approach to life I figure “oh, what a strange churchyard, it doesn’t seem to be attached to the actual church.”  Hubby disappears back in the direction we came from.  I assume he’s heading back to the car and being the tall silent type, just figures I can read his mind.  I head off down the lane where the gate has brought me, past nicely kept backyards and into the through road, round the corner past the post office and then via a longer road to the front of the church we passed earlier.  There is a beautiful lytch gate and an apparently ancient archway of trained trees leading to the door of the church. The effect is lovely.  When I wander into old churches I always think of Bill Bryson’s comments about the thousands of bodies buried in these yards and how this has raised the earth around the church.  This process certainly seems to apply here. 
St Mary's Speldhurst
The church is open in most daylight hours and I slowly and hesitantly open the door and peer inside only to find hubby happily contemplating within.  He’s been wondering what’s kept me.  There’s a door to the church just around the corner in the churchyard where he vanished from.  He expected I would follow him.  Seems a reasonable expectation I have to say.  No accounting for idiocy really, but I did enjoy my walk around the long way and entrance in the front door and it did give me a chance to take photos from that side so it’s all good.   As readers who have followed along with us in our travels may well have deduced, my hubby needs to be a fairly unflappable, patient sort of personality and happily for me this is indeed the case.  
St Mary’s Speldhurst is apparently well known as having some very nice stained glass windows and indeed it has.  We spend some time quietly exploring the church and it surely goes without saying that it is a very quiet, calming space.
I’m happy to move along when our visit to the church is concluded and I have realized that in my zeal to get to Groombridge this morning I forgot to take us through Camden Road in Tunbridge Wells to see where Harry Skinner’s father lived with his grandson (Harry’s nephew) later in the 19th Century.  Doh. There’s nothing for it but to head back there before moving on.  The traffic is OK, but a tad tedious in places at this later time of the morning.  Parking is an issue and so is identifying the precise property passing by and not being particularly unflappable or patient, I’m over it pretty soon and decide I’ve had enough.  I get the general gist of the street. That’ll do.  The resulting photograph does a reasonable job of communicating our experience of this part of Tunbridge Wells! The family that stayed in England seem to have worked hard and improved on the situation of Harry's parents. Harry's nephew that lived in Camden Road was a tradesman.
So, where to next?  We’ve had a fabulous morning despite the weather. Now we head to the East.  Tomtom take us to Goudhurst please.  Off we go and I feel I must comment that an unexpected benefit of our English voiced navigational wiz is that she shows us how to pronounce the names of the places we’re going and this being England they are often not pronounced in the way an Australian might assume. 
It is another beautiful drive across to Goudhurst, and perhaps we don’t do Goudhurst justice but it’s a bit bigger than the gorgeous villages of this morning, or seems so to us just driving into the centre, and we’re not tempted to pull over.  It’s well and truly lunch time and I decide that I’d rather just get to Sissinghurst Castle and have some lunch.  It’s never hard to persuade hubby that it’s time to eat again. Sissinghurst Castle is well signposted and despite the weather the car park has a LOT of cars and coaches in it.  The weather is uninviting to say the least, enough to cramp my enthusiasm for photographing the approaches to attractions we visit.  We find our way to the café and settle in for a meal.  I can’t resist trying the rhubarb fool which was an education.. the rest of our food barely warrants comment.. which is just as well because I don’t remember what we had!  It served a purpose. Hopefully our patronage also raised some money towards the upkeep of the property.  That is why we tend to take the easy option of having the food at historic properties when we can.
Meal completed we head on to buy our entry ticket.  In doing so we are put through a fairly forceful sales pitch for National Trust membership.  I’m really not inclined. We’re not here much longer.. Oh but it’s reciprocal rights with the National Trust of Australia!  Hmm. Still.  I’m sure if I say yes you’re going to give me a huge and weighty members pack.. I don’t want a huge and weighty members pack.  That is not an angle I’m finding persuasive.  Faced with a continuing onslaught from our enthusiastic saleswoman I defer to Hubby.  He says just do it.  He doesn’t care if we get our money’s worth. He’s happy to just make a contribution to work of the National Trust.  Hubby’s not only unflappable and patient, he’s also generous.  He gets that from his late mother. I complete the paperwork as bidden.
As we head to the entrance to the garden I pass the weighty members pack to hubby to stow in our manbag.. Hubby is holding the line on the ownership of the manbag..  We make our way down past the gorgeous oast house.. I’m SO glad to have a good photo opportunity of an oast house as they are a feature of the countryside in these parts and it’s pretty clear that the local people love them as much as we do as they all seem to be beautifully maintained.. or left to rot so that they are no longer recognizable as oast houses… but I will continue to assume the former!
It’s been particularly challenging for the gardeners at Sissinghurst, what with the bad drought and the season and all.  Many of the gardens are not in full glory, but the bones of the garden are very good obviously and as a gardener myself it is quite something to be visiting this oh so influential garden layout. Sissinghurst is where Vita Sackville-West came up with the idea of dividing the garden into a series of "garden rooms". It seems so natural to approach garden design this way now, but at the time that Sissinghurst was developed it was novel, exciting, groundbreaking. A marvel. There are a couple of garden rooms which are particularly lovely today and I do my best to do them justice in the photographs, but it is always a challenge to do so isn’t it. There's never a substitute for strolling through  in person.  As we wander through the nut walk, using the poppy umbrella to shield the camera from the rain a bit, a woman passing in the opposite direction says with an Aussie twang… “more Australians”.  “Geez, is it that obvious?” I say in return.. she points to the umbrella.  Ah. This is the reason I don’t like the poppy umbrellas.  Sigh. I really don’t like the idea of wandering around advertising the fact that you’ve been paying respects to the war memorials, you can buy them in Canberra too.  It smacks too much of self congratulation.  No. I don’t think those brollies are going to get much use when we get home. They really were a stupid purchase.
We spend some time indoors in the library.  I have to confess to feeling a good deal of envy for Vita Sackville-West’s ability to establish such a beautiful and cosy space in the midst of such a glorious garden, both in terms of sheer talent and money.  Neither hubby or I can manage to summon the enthusiasm for climbing up the tower.  It’s time to move along.  We are delighted to note that at this rate, and with our new National Trust membership, we will have enough time for a quick look at Bodiam Castle on our way south.
More delightful countryside. My love for Tomtom growing by the minute as bicker free we journey steadfastly towards more sight seeing delights.   Again at Bodiam Castle we find that the inclement weather is doing nothing to damp the spirits of visitors.
I am surprised to find that one of the carefully preserved features of the site is a WWII pill box created to defend the castle from invasion.  It is quite a long walk to the entrance of the castle and would be even longer if you had to buy an entrance ticket first.  Not a problem for us but for someone like my mum, it would be hard going.

The castle is very atmospheric and the entrance over the moat is awesome.  At the old guard station some graffiti from 1818 is still clearly visible. Clearly guard duty leaves one with some time on one’s hands.
We note that there are no murder holes adjacent to the portcullis as we walk through to a lengthy conversation with one of the staff about Australia… another person with rellies in Australia, on this occasion a lady who lives in rural Queensland.  Our chat focuses mainly on the weather.. everyone is always apologizing to us for the weather.. and we take some pleasure in discussing how in dry years visiting Australia you see the flood markers and you can’t quite get your head around the fact that the floods come through over such vast flat areas at many metres high.  Most of the place it looks like the next best thing to a desert.  At any rate, we give our usual assurances that staying home would not have improved our weather prospects much. We’ve had nothing but rain in Australia for months since the drought has got round to breaking.  Anyway, I get sick of dry weather at home, so I am still tolerating the luxurious rain very well, and honestly the last thing we are going to do, having just come through 10 years of severe drought at home, is begrudge you rain over here when we know you need it so badly. No such thing as bad weather.. just the wrong clothes.
We clamber over Bodiam Castle, marveling at the impressive leg muscles the people back then must have had. They were short back then and the risers on the stairs up to the ramparts are enormous. I imagine some thin and fit young soldier charging up these stairs with his mail on and his bow and arrow in his claw.  The views from the highest remaining places are beautiful as we reach out with our eyes to the green, rain veiled hills all around.  As we view a steam train chugs along in the distance.  The rain is keeping the outdoor spaces quite clear of people and it’s hard not to be grateful for that when you are hunching with back to the wind to take a photo,  trying to keep the rain off the lens and the camera as dry as possible.
We explore the ruins, periodically extracting the map from my voluminous raincoat pocket.  Hmm. Here was a chapel.. and this was the kitchens close to the well.  As closing time nears, we find our way to the room where a video about the castle has been playing. Door is locked. Hmm. A staff member, who is going around seemingly locking up decides that we can go in. We won’t have time to see the whole thing, but some is better than nothing.  The video is very good and hubby in particular is enjoying it very much when the hammer falls. Time to go.  Reluctantly we make our way out. We are pleased that we did get to visit Bodiam Castle and just as pleased that the visitor facilities near the car park stay open well beyond closing time!  I find myself making a mental note to visit Hever Castle one day. I would really like to see what Mr Astor did with his castle when he restored it.
Clearly it is late in the day and any thought of proceeding down to Birling Gap is out of the question.  I’m not sorry. We did get good views of the cliffs on our way back from France and the weather is bad and getting worse and in any case we have a dinner reservation to get to.  Our day has worked out just fine.  We instruct tomtom to take us to tonight’s accommodation.  Thankyou tomtom. :o)
Even in the rain it is a joy to wander the roads of England large and small.  We are painfully aware that we are passing by some wonderful places. We are particularly regretful that we don’t have time to visit Battle Abbey.  Now we own the Tunbridge Ware with Battle Abbey on it, as predicted by the man who sold it to us, we do indeed rather want to see the real thing.  Oh well. Kent is somewhere to come back to if ever we are lucky enough.  I’m not too pained.  You can’t afford to be. Everywhere in England there is far far more to do and see than we could see even in our lifetime.  You just have to accept that.
As we arrive in Brighton the most striking and beautiful thing is the streetscapes. There is a wonderful consistency of style and I absolutely adore the way the community collectively has chosen a rainbow array of beautiful pastel colours with which to paint the lovely terraces.  It is a gorgeous confection of pretty blues, and greens, and blue greens, apricot, lemon. It’s just so very tasteful. I’ve never seen a city scape quite like it.  I love Brighton right away.  What a gorgeous town.  The coordination of colours in some streets is so lovely I find myself wondering whether there is a central body who helps to coordinate it but I expect that it is just the natural outcome of each owner looking at what else is around and choosing a colour that goes well.  They have really done a fantastic job of it.  The consistently black railings on windows and balconies adds the final touch.  The whole effect makes you feel happy, like you have really arrived in a place that is cheerful and fun. Brighton is exceeding my expectations.
We check in to Bannings at No 14 and hubby, armed with parking permits heads off to park the car where directed about 5 mins walk away.  We are assured we will not need the car in Brighton.
It’s just as well the streetscapes are cheerful as the weather is anything but.  It’s gone from bad to worse to bloody dreadful.  Howling wind and rain and it’s freezing cold.  Oh how I don’t want to walk out in that.  Even in raingear I don’t want to walk out in that.  Sigh. We have a reservation at the Ginger dog, which we have been assured is only about 15 minutes easy walking.  Our host, with razor like logic, points out that even if we cancel the Ginger Dog, we’d have to go out in it to find something to eat.  True. It’s hard to argue with that reasoning. We can call a cab I suggest. Our host is willing, but not enthusiastic.  The Ginger Dog really isn’t far.  What do you reckon? I ask Hubby.  God knows why but Hubby is keen to walk. It’s good exercise.  Sigh. Really?  He defers to me.. I defer to him.. you can see why I make my choices about where to eat and what to do ahead of time. When we’re tired we are chronically indecisive.  The deference increases in forcefulness. He insists on deferring to me and getting a cab. I insist on deferring to him and walking… we walk.  God Why?  We don our rain gear draw our hoods firmly around our faces and head out into it. The wind is almost blowing us over. The cold is piercing every layer. The rain is soaking our lower legs.  We’re so hunched to protect our faces from the howling gale that I can’t see where we are going.  Hubby has spoken to the Ginger Dog and has the directions in his mind.  Do you think that we are going to find the restaurant quickly and simply?  No? How right you are. We make the turns we believe were indicated. We’ve been walking longer than they said it should take. Oh FFS what on earth were we thinking. I TOLD you we should get a bloody cab!  Hubby is wandering off to god knows where for god knows what reason. I’ve looked in the opposite direction and spotted the restaurant.  Oi!! This way!!  We open the door and enter.  In picturing our experience, I feel you should bring to mind those scenes from old movies where the stranger opens the door and the man behind the bar looks up as a bell rings seemingly due to the howling wind and the flurry of snow that has disturbed the cosy comfort of the locals assembled around the bar.  Thank god I’m not dressed in a shawl with a mewling baby cradled to my breast.  We push the door closed and the artic wind abates. People all round go back to their conversations.
We’re sorry we’re late.. got a bit lost.. not a problem.  Oh.. it’s so WAAARRRMM in here.  You know, it’s one of the deepest pleasures in cold climates:  that moment when you enter the warm from the bitter cold. I wonder if local people take that for granted. I bet you must miss that sensation if you stay away long enough.  We settle in for dinner, after the excesses of recent weeks we are currently resolved to stick to two courses for dinner:
Hubby: Pan fried breast of guinea fowl with crushed new potatoes, chargrilled baby gem pea puree and tarragon cream sauce. £16.00
Moi: Char-Grilled Redlands Farm Rib-Eye Steak with Dripping Chips, Rocket & Parmesan Salad, Roscoff Onion & salsa verde £18.50
Hubby: Chocolate & Peanut Butter Fondant with Peanut Crumbs & Popcorn Sorbet £6.50
Moi: Mascarpone & Vanilla Cheesecake with Apple Crisp, Gooseberry Compote & Gooseberry Jelly £6.50
Everything was delicious, but I do believe I won.
We got a cab home.  A beautifully warm, dry, licensed hackney carriage home… and what a pleasure it was.  I’m glad we walked to dinner.  If not for that I would never have appreciated just how pleasurable catching a cab can be. 

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