Monday, June 9, 2008

New Romney, 14.5.06: Speedwell and Prussian Airs

Trip drawing to a close. We spent yesterday doing a rubbing of the Ips effigies and inscriptions in the Old Romney church, then on to New Romney where we spent the night at the Romney Bay Hotel beside the sea.

Brass rubbing successful. Steve stood in one of the infamous pink pews to reach it. I assisted by holding paper straight.

As we worked, the churchwarden came in—churchwarden purissima. She was a short gray-haired lady with lovely blue eyes, sharp nose, rather florid complexion, buxomy without being stout: in other words, a replicas of thousands of other Kentishwomen.

She came into the pew, straw basket of daisies from her garden in hand, and stood right beside us, chirping away in that inimitable manner of elderly Englishwomen of a certain type and class. She told us the gallery and pews are Georgian, as are the plaques, from a period when the church must have received a donation.

It’s the historic poverty of the Marshes that has kept the church relatively untouched, she noted: e.g., the ancient primitive wood vaulting on the ceiling has never been covered, as in so many other English country churches.

I begin to realize that because this was once the seacoast—Old Romney was a port—the land is still marshy. This is what gives it that special character of being still on the oceanfront—sandy soil, sedgy plants, the cast of light and aqueous marine sky. But it also makes the church sink: hence its heavy buttresses, which Steve noticed immediately.

As we talked, her assistance came in, basket on arm—more daisies and a rose-colore clematis. More twittering and chirping. They dusted and arranged flowers and the warden then left, wishing us a good day.

Then in came a couple from Baden-Baden seeking directions to St. Mary of the Marsh church. We talked in German, they, too, coming into the pew with us. It was a series of unanticipated rencontres intimes.

I had remembered a map somewhere showing all the churches in the Romney Marsh and went to the tables with pamphlets and postcards to seek it out as Steve headed to the care for the OS map of the area.

The warden’s assistant came to help me—browner and mousier than the warden, but equally demure, with just a touch of Kentish cross-grainedness about her. She showed me a post card that had all the churches depicted on it, and I gave the kleine Karte to the couple. Steve showed them in plodding, helpful German detail precisely how to reach the church.

Assistant and I continue to talk. I admire the flowers, asking about the purple one that comes up in our garden as a weed. If I was pointing to the same plant as the one was have, its folk name in England is honesty, and its foliage is dried in winter to add a touch of silver to arrangements.

I think we call it dame’s rocket, and it definitely dies back in our hot summers. She also told me the name of the small blue flower that grows at the bottom of hedgerows, and I should have written it down, since it has gone clean out of my head. A common name from English novels and nature books, but I now can’t recall it—an occurrence more and more common.

Then on to store our luggage at New Romney and shop. We drove to Hythe, touted as a shopping mecca, but I found it frankly tawdry.

The approach to it is horrible—a high wall blocking the sea vista on one side, and a dismal coteries of trailer parks—yes, in England—ice cream and chip stands interspersed with carpet outlets—on the other. It was an English version of Daytona Beach, and seems to attract the same ilk—I suspect the same class of Cockney folks who historically came from London’s east end to pick hops and berries in Kent in summer. The folks about whom that novelist—is it Beryl Bainbridge? H.E. Bates?—has written so inimitably.

Perhaps my impression of Hythe is colored by the fact that we were called poofs by a boy shopping with his grandma, as we passed them in the street. They laughed behind our backs, never a happy experience.

We encountered them later in a thrift ship and I realized they must be Gypsies—or perhaps Spanish. She had a long plait of gray hair down her back, sharp nose, brown face, and hooded eyes. I wanted to go up to them and say something smart, but thought better of it. Gypsies have the capability to curse back volubly and expertly. I do wonder if he realizes at any level that his antennae for poofs—and predilection for rummaging for knick-knacks with granny—might point towards his own future.

I need to learn to leave such retributive tutelage to the One Who Weaves the Web. And it’s time for breakfast—but I must not fail to make a note late of last night’s supper.

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Speedwell. I think that’s the name she told me for that wildflower. Which means it’s a form of veronica? And I don’t think dame’s rocket and honesty can be the same flower. Isn’t dame’s rocket related to mustard, while honesty is the lunaria plant, the money plant?

And the dinner last night: four courses. It began with sea bass, fresh caught that day, served with onions cooked with fennel on a bed of rice and celeriac, with a thyme sauce around.

Continued to guinea fowl, served with small roasted potatoes on a bed of tomatoes, onion and perhaps more potatoes mashed. After that, crème brulée with rhubarb in a spun-sugar-and-butter basket: sprigs of red currants, gooseberries, strawberries, and blueberries, and a garnish of mint (a sprig of fennel with the fish and of parsley with the fowl).

Cheese, crackers, and walnuts followed, and we drank an Italian pinot grigio with it all.

The ambience was . . . strange. Almost all young couples being very formal and la-de-dah, but none even acknowledging anyone else. I believe the ones across from us were South African—she a sullen horse-faced blonde and he a red-haired churl who ate alternately slouched back on his tailbone or elbows propped on the table.

One couple who sat on a sofa beside us (oh, yes, drinks beforehand in a drawing room) were French. She announced as they were led to their places that she shouldn’t sit near anyone since she talks so much. At one point, she said things had better be good, because he had paid so much and promised her a good time.

The strangest couple of all were a very la-de-dah pair already in the drawing room when we sat down. She flashed a smile in which her teeth but not her eyes participated.

I believe I heard her say at one point during dinner—an announcement to the whole room—that she was Prussian. Not German, mind you: Prussian. They both spoke with those clipped vowels and staccato tempo of Brits imitating the upper crust, but who inevitably sound as if they are imitating a BBC murder mystery cast instead.

It was all extraordinary, a scene not even Evelyn Waugh could have invented. All took place in the conservatory of the old house, with candle light. I watched for the Hound of the Baskervilles to spring across Romney Marsh at any moment and reduce us to the pulp we deserved to be, such airs we were affecting.

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