Thursday, June 5, 2008

Tenterden, Kent, 12.5.06: Hobbits' Lanes and Painted Pews

Writing now from Tenterden in Kent—sleepy little country inn. It’s crawling with the kind of Brits who are perhaps afraid to venture any closer to France than the chunnel, who stay on the English side of the channel and drive across for a quick foray. Middle-class pretending to be posh. Most are old, going down with the ship, dressing for dinner, murmuring torpidly over the unexciting food after a round of taste-numbing drinks.

A horrible ugly—in all senses of the word—woman who sat directly behind Steve last night made some comment in a loud voice about keeping “the” Americans away. The remark was directed to the whole room—but conspicuously not to us.

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A rich day, and I grow weary of writing in this journal. Drove to Old Romney. St. Clement’s church there is phenomenal—the original stone altar preserved, a rare thing for England. When the Cromwellians demanded that all stone altars be removed, it was used (hidden) as a stepping stone for the porch, which is on the north side of the church, though south is usual. 

The church is low and simple inside. Crude wood vaulting. Painted pews—pink and white, the gated kind. I like them. They give the church an almost Baroque feel.

Must be controversial. A long defense of them on a curious funeral-home-fan-shaped device at the back of the church, pointing out they’re made of plain deal wood and wouldn’t be beautiful if unpainted.

Walls have Georgian sayings, bible verses of the memento-mori ilk, painted on plaques. Similar plaques either side of the altar have the creed and ten commandments.

Low porch; ribbed ceiling, simple and austere, with old unadorned wood ribbing. Outside, a beautiful churchyard surrounded on all sides by sheep pastures, from which (the churchyard, that is) the wildflowers pressed on this page come.

The brass for John Ips and wife Margaret has been removed from its place on the floor of the main aisle in front of the rood (as John Ips’ will requests his burial location to be) to the south all of the church. A guide to the church notes that the Epps family is well-represented in Kent, especially the Romney area, and has descendants in Virginia.

The area around Romney fascinating, reminiscent of the Low Countries. Flat; ditches in pastures, full of water. Sky everywhere. At one point, an amazing cast of light between gray, green, and yellow.

It’s like a world in miniature, far more manicured than Somerset or Shropshire, as if hobbits live down each laneway.

A brochure in the church advertised the studio of C.B. (Betsy) S. at M.C. near the church. We walked there, since a sign said the road was unsuitable for vehicles (though it was clearly driven on).

In front of the cottage (which was two-storied and far from cottagey) a very elderly man on a bench. Fine, warm, sunny day. We exchanged pleasantries about the weather and sheep. He was in coat and tie with the hems of his pants frayed in back from walking on them.

He asked what I was seeking. I said M.C. Blank look. I repeated it. Blank again.

Then something clicked and he said he’d been posted as sentry. His wife, the artist, was in New Romney. She’d be back shortly. Why didn’t we have a look around.

He took us into the house, a warren of damp, low-ceilinged rooms with shabby wonderful old furniture and old books—first editions of the Waverley novels and Gaskell’s life of Charlotte Bronte (to my chagrin, Steve peeked).

Room after room of paintings, mostly pastoral scenes from the area and still lifes and one droll picture of her King Charles spaniel, bug-eyed and wall-eyed. I chose one of the Romney church with a storm on the horizon and a field of sheep, and one of a field of flax for Philip and Penny.

Mr. S. doddered (quite literally) outside, looking for “them” and saying how stupid he was. He kept coming in to say, “They shan’t be a moment,” and “Perhaps I can sell you the paintings,” and then,“Won’t you sit in my room and read the papers?”

This was a door marked private and we hadn’t entered it. It was a perfect little world—more shabby furniture, more old leather-bound volumes, blotting paper, a writing pad with letter opener affixed to it by a strap, a tray with all the accoutrements needed for writing.

And then came Betsy S. and we transacted business after much to-ing and fro-ing about her upcoming exhibit. Apparently she’s not "open" till then, though the church brochure clearly says, Open every day 10-2, incl. Sundays. Which must mean something entirely different to the English . . . . (And they were truly lovely people.)

And speaking of the English, I must get something off my chest, dear reader. Have you noticed (I certainly have) that, while they’re hesitant to show almost any emotion, they have absolutely no problem demonstrating displeasure or disdain? A look I saw on the face of a woman in Chard as we approached on the sidewalk would have curdled milk.

Chard is, I’ve decided, as Geo. Washington said of Charlotte, a piddling little place. Some of the surliest people I’ve seen in England, and many ill-favored . . . .

And after Old Romney, a drive to New Romney to make arrangements for our stay there tomorrow night. Bought fish and chips and ate them by the seashore, which was misted over with haze from the warm, humid day.

And then an afternoon of shopping in Ashford, which was obliterated in the war, and is a surrealistic conglomeration of shopping malls in outré architectural styles and international centers.

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Jan Morris, Wales (NY: Penguin, 2000): “The climate of Wales is anything but preservative in a physical sense, but it is marvelously retentive metaphysically, and the mana of such old Welsh sites, their sense of life and movement, magically survives the ages” (51-2). 

“Another detectably Celtic trait is a certain sense of the dream of things, a conviction that some state of being exists, invisible but sensible, outside our own windows” (58).

“The holiest Welsh place is Dewisland, Pebidiog, a stony protrusion from the coast of Pembrokeshire which was once a spiritual hub of the whole Celtic world. Not only does the countryside there seem holy by its very nature, so ascetic but so exciting, all bare rock and heather headland falling to the wild Atlantic sea, but its associations too are intensely sanctified” (83).

“Visitors sensitive to numen, though, will hardly notice these things [i.e., the architectural details of St. David’s cathedral] but something more ethereal, a tremulous combination of light, hush and muted colour” (84).

“It was all part of a wider magic, hud in Welsh, which is really a key to life and matter itself—the sense that the divine resides in everything around us. This has powerfully affected the Welsh view of creation at least since the days of the Druids” (91).

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