Sunday, 27 November 2011
Take this Sunday, for example. The day dawned dewy and decidedly sunny. There was a nip in the air and the sky shone as if burnished, with not a cloud in the sky or a hint of rain. An ideal Sunday for the British to explode into the English countryside.
Checking to ensure that we had enough petrol (sorry, diesel) in the tank, that I'd put on the house burglar alarm, locked the front door and done up my flies, the missus removed the chocks and we were able to taxi up our road to join the great river of humanity as it motored up the M11 into the Essex countryside.
Unusually, we had a clear idea where we were going. Audley End , a delightful, if slightly over large, country house set in acres of grassland. At its prime, in the late 1800's, the place needed a village full of people to keep it running and its own market garden to keep it provisioned. Having been taken over by English Heritage, it has been restored to its former glory. Today we were going to sample a Victorian Christmas at the grand old house.
Our journey there was uneventful until we got as far as Newport. There had been signage which clearly pointed to the ancient house, but as we drove further and further into the November countryside without a hint of a venerable pile in sight we believed we'd taken a wrong turning. It didn't help that when we stopped to get our bearings the mobile refused to pick up a signal. We drove on a little further and the conviction that we were nowhere near our desired destination grew so strong that we turned around and drove back the way we came - 20 miles at least. Stopping again we discovered, via Google Maps, now fully functional, that had we only kept on going in our original direction we would have hit upon the fabled historical build.
We turned around - again - and this time confidently retraced our steps, passing Ugley Green, Quandon and Newport before espying a sign to Audley End. We arrived to be greeted by a caravan of vehicles of all shapes and sizes, queueing to enter the stately home's grounds. The delay was caused by an extremely helpful member of English Heritage's coterie explaining that Santa's Grotto was up and running and the reindeer were a joy to behold. (Let's hope they're not seconded to Stanstead airport to man the border controls on Wednesday).
One of the pleasures of a day out to a thronging attraction is the opportunity to use the ubiquitous PortaLoos scattered around the place. Climbing out of a warm car into the parky late November air triggered the inevitable crossed legs and a dash to the loo. But not before queueing up to purchase our tickets.
English Heritage clearly takes the long view. The current financial malaise is but one of many to have afflicted this Sceptred Isle over the centuries. Which may explain the price of the entry tickets and their lack of embarrassment when taking our money. We were tempted to take out a year's membership, but somber reflection came to the rescue and we stumped up the £28 for two, with a discount of £1.40 for the over 60's, and headed for the old stables where we were promised all the excitement of an 1881 Christmas extravaganza.
The queue for Santa's Grotto was such that genuine Victorian entertainment was laid on to keep the milling masses distracted from the cold and the hour long wait. Men dressed in smocks and women in funny hats passed themselves off as Victorian yokels doing ye olde worlde pastimes. It would have been slightly more believable had the "English Heritage" badges been less conspicuous, but the reindeer were real enough and extremely smelly.
Having absorbed as much early Yuletide joy as we could stomach, we made a quick tour round the house's kitchen garden; which would be a joy to behold at any other season. Today it was bare, except for rows and rows of brassicas and carrots. Even so, its tilled soil and parallel rows of late veg filled one with a sense of hard labour and dour endeavour. One thrilled at the thought of such Victorian virtue.
A brief visit to the shoppe, full of mulled this and that and various condiments was enough to confirm our suspicion that English Heritage had given most of the staff the weekend off, leaving the two or three remaining an impossible task.
By now we were getting a little peckish, so we make our way to the first queue we saw. Having had it confirmed that it indeed eventually ended up in the cafe, we pitched our tents and brewed up. Unfortunately such was the demand that by the time we reached the head of the queue most of the eatables had been eaten. But beggars cannot be choosers and we did find a chair to sit on and were out of the cold for a while.
Refreshed and provisioned we breasted the late autumn air, the contrast between a warm interior and a cold exterior again working its magic and this time the missus pootled off to the smallest room in the grand house.
After a quick tour of this mansion of many rooms, and a pleasant stroll through the grounds we were ready to join the queue of cars leaving to wend our way home.
Such are the pleasures of a late November afternoon in the English countryside.