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November 11, 2011 / annakpf11

British Blog—Full On Week One

“My candle burns at both ends; it will not last the night; but ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—it gives a lovely light!”

“First Fig,” by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892—1950)

Our first week in the UK passes quickly, days and nights far too busy for mundane details such as jet lag. Our generous hosts, Phil and Jenny, include us in their dinner plans every evening and they also invite us to accompany them into London to see their youngest son, Jo, play a gig with his band.

We descend a staircase into a low-ceilinged West End club and find the place packed with adoring fans spanning a wide age spectrum, from twenty-something hipsters to—gasp—spectators even older than we are. When “The Travelling Band” takes the stage and the music starts, everyone in the audience begins singing and dancing along to what the BBC describes as “a shimmering blend of cosmic-country-pop, understated psychedelia, vocal harmonies and nu-folk.”

Dave and I sway to the beat, drawn in by Jo’s charisma and the band’s tight musicianship. Founded six years ago in Manchester, The Travelling Band, according to The Sun, “blurs the boundaries of folk/rock, delicately intertwining sensitive lyrics with accomplished folk vocals and jangly instrumental accompaniments to form a tapestry of glittering whimsy.” All that is true. Plus, the songs click into synaptic pathways and take hold; I’ve been humming Travelling Band tunes ever since the gig. Check them out at http://thetravellingband.co.uk.

By Friday, Dave and I are ready for an quiet evening “in.” But at the last minute we learn we are expected at Tom’s place (another of Phil and Jenny’s sons; they have five in all, plus a daughter) for pizza night, a weekly event. Family ties seem to be taken seriously here, as in France, with at least at least one day out of seven reserved for gatherings en famille.

And so we find ourselves in the renovated manor house that is home to Tom, Joanna and their four delightfully ebullient daughters aged 10 to 4: Daisy, Charlotte, Lola and Ruby.

A skillet of tomatoes and garlic simmers on the Wolf range. Neat mounds of pizza dough rest under a cloth on a marble countertop. I marvel at the brickwork detail of the soaring cathedral ceiling in the sleekly remodeled kitchen/great room. Tom tosses a round of dough high in the air where it twirls and expands before landing on his fingertips. Joanna puts together a salad with one hand while opening a bottle of white wine and helping Ruby warm a cup of milk with the other. (Moms must be the most skilled multi-taskers in the universe.) The girls take turns interviewing Dave and me and we return the favor, determining who is the most ticklish and who has the reddest hair (Charlotte, on both counts). Eleven of us, including Ben, actor friend of Tom and Joanna’s and unofficial uncle to the girls, congregate around the long wooden dinner table. We sample five varieties of homemade pizza, work our way through several bottles of wine, and bask in the general loving mayhem of extended family.

Then it’s the weekend. Dave and I plot a special outing each day. Saturday, after a pub lunch, we brave dark skies and a few raindrops to stroll through woods and fields and along a footpath beside the Thames. 

We punctuate our walk with a pint in a pub, a habit that will quickly become a custom. A peaceful hour passes as we sit by the fire at the Nag’s Head, reading local papers, sipping local ale and anticipating an equally sedate evening ahead. Until Dave’s phone chimes with a text from Phil: “Impromptu Guy Fawkes party—fireworks and dinner—tonight. Will you join us?” 

Closet introverts that we are, Dave and I worry we’re incapable of rising to yet another social occasion but we accept anyway. And are glad, for the evening proves both interesting and low-key; truly enjoyable. Phil is pouring champagne into fluted glasses when we walk in the door, and eighteen friends, relatives and grandkids roam the large house. Soon the crowd assembles outside on the terrace for an impressive fireworks display—yes, it’s legal here—launched from the tennis-court sized back lawn. Adults and children brandish sparklers while rockets whistle and explode overhead. After the show, everyone migrates to Phil and Jenny’s dining room for take-out Indian food.

Sunday, undaunted by chill, blustery wind and skies threatening rain (the weather has settled into a predictable pattern of clouds and drizzle which we already know enough to ignore—otherwise we’d never venture outdoors), Dave and I tour Hughenden Manor, home to Benjamin Disraeli “the most unlikely Prime Minister” from 1848 until his death in 1881.

Next on our agenda, a picnic in the Audi, sandwiches made from sharp cheddar cheese and tomato slices on seeded wheat bread.

Then a short drive to the starting point of a 3.5 mile circular walk around Chequers, the tranquil estate gifted to the nation in 1917 as a country retreat for the serving Prime Minister.

In the few day since we’ve arrived in Buckinghamshire—“Bucks” as the locals refer to the district—rain and cooler temperatures have hastened the leaf fall, and now, after a last glorious flash of color, bare branches begin to appear.

On the way home from our Chequers walk, we detour through a green and wooded vale into the picturesque hamlet of Whiteleaf.

For a pint, of course, at the White Horse Pub.

In the evening, we light candles, prepare dinner—roasted chicken, pasta with arugula, tomato and shallots accompanied by a simple green salad—and share a meal à deux in our “granny flat” for the first time. Seems like we’ve been on-the-go since the minute our plane landed, but looking back, we wouldn’t change a single instant.

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