The Grass is Always Greener Blues
Neighborhood shopping mall
“But how could you stand to leave all of this and move to Dorset?” Joyce said with amazement. “Wouldn’t you miss your easy access to all these fantastic shopping malls? You have four near your home, one is within a five-minute walk, not to mention the even more fabulous ones just a short ride over the hill to LA.”
“Sure I’d miss it,” I replied. “The shopping gene is just as strong in me as in any woman, stronger perhaps, but for every enticing mall we have, Dorset has even more intriguing attractions.”
“Really? What do we have that can compare with Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills or Century City and the Beverly Center?” She demanded.
“Well,” I said, “it’s not as glamorous or as outrageously expensive, but I’d just as soon stroll down Cheap Street in Sherborne as walk down Rodeo Drive. And Shaftsbury doesn’t have Century City’s hundred or more sumptuous shops and boutiques but it does have that million-dollar view of Gold Hill that can’t be beat any where in LA. Dorchester may not be as tantalizing to the female shopper as the Beverly Center but it has everything she really needs and it’s a delightful market town with all of the best characteristics of rural England. I marvel at all of our remarkable shopping facilities – but I’d rather be in Dorset.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “What about the LA Philharmonic Orchestra and your extraordinary Music Center? The Program we attended Sunday with Andre Previn conducting Mozart and Elgar was exceptional.”
“You have the Bournemouth Symphony and the Bournemouth Sinfonietta. Your conductor, Andrew Litton, was guest conductor over here last year. He was terrific! And I bet you don’t have the problem parking in Poole that we have at our civic center.” I replied.
Joyce, my friend from Corfe Mullen in Dorset, and I have been going round and round in our discussion about the comparative merits of our respective homelands. We both had a bad case of the grass-is-always-greener-blues. Joyce thought she would like to live in California. I was sure I’d love to live in Dorset. She had left a freezing, rainy February Dorset to spend three weeks with my husband and me in Northridge, a suburb of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley. It was a sunny 80° when she arrived at LAX and I can’t blame her for being dazzled.
It took about an hour to drive over the San Diego Freeway to Northridge and I have to admit the towering structures in Beverly Hills and Westwood did look impressive as we drove by. When we came to that part of the Sepulveda Pass where the freeway starts its decent and the whole San Fernando Valley with the Santa Susanna Mountains in the background became visible I could tell
Joyce was captivated. She said, “What do we have in Dorset that equals this?”
“Well,” I replied, “how about the view from Chedington that sweeps over Crewkerne and on to the Mendips, or the one from Bulbarrow Hill that looks out across the Blackmore Vale and over to the Quantocks and the Mendips. If you take a short walk from the summit you will find a dramatic view of Milton Abbey and you can dream about its romantic history. The San Fernando Valley has nothing to equal an abbey established in the 14th century on the site of a Saxon Church built by King Athelstan in the 10th century.
“You may be right,” she admitted. “But I’m still impressed.”
Joyce had been studying various guidebooks while still in Corfe Mullen and had learned about the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was one of the first stops on our itinerary. Her eyes stood out on stalks when she saw this beautiful Roman villa nestled in the Malibu Hills overlooking he Pacific Ocean. The assembled collection of classical art includes Van Gogh’s Blue Irises. Her Eyes grew wider. “This place is fantastic!” she said.
“Yes, it is,” I replied. “But you have the Russel-Cotes Art Gallery, Kingston Lacy, Chettle House, Athelhampton Hall and Ford Abbey as well Sherborne Castle, Corfe Castle and many more wonders to numerous to name. I think they’re even more fantastic. The Getty is not even thirty years old and no one can say that J. Paul Getty was as fascinating as Sir Walter Raleigh, Sherborne Castle’s original owner. I think his castle is much more intriguing. True, it’s not as beautiful. Its many towers and chimneys covered with that brownish stucco make it seem rather austere but the Getty can’t top the castle’s romantic link with its Elizabethan past. Raleigh built it after he acquired the estate from Elizabeth I. Don’t forget it was the flamboyant Raleigh who threw down his cloak for his queen to more easily cross a puddle and it was he who was doused with ale at Sherborne by a servant who thought he was on fire as he smoked a pipe of his newest import from the American colonies. Elizabeth exiled him to Sherborne in her fury over his marriage to Bess, her lady in waiting. Moreover, he lost the estate when James I came to power and decided to have him removed permanently. It’s easy to see why Raleigh and his Bess loved Sherborne. I would much rather wander through the twenty acres of Capability Brown’s landscaped walks than troop through the multi-billion dollar edifice created by J. Paul Getty.”
“That’s all very well,” sighed Joyce, “but you would more than likely be wandering in the rain!”
Palisades in Santa Monica
After an agreeable afternoon at the Getty, we parked by the Palisades in Santa Monica so that Joyce could walk along the famous stretch of coastline so familiar to moviegoers. “It’s really breathtaking, now don’t tell me it’s not,” she said.
“Sure it is,” I replied, “but wouldn’t you rather ramble along that beautiful stretch of coast near Abbotsbury where the coastal footpath passes the Swannery and Chesil Beach? Santa Monica doesn’t have anything like the Swannery, created six hundred years ago by Benedictine monks. Where in LA can you have the same kind of fun you can have watching the seven hundred or so elegant swans feeding on the eelgrass? They’re such a beautiful sight in the air and so elegant in the water. The fun comes in watching their crazy performance during the transition between the two. They’re so heavy, up to thirty pounds; they can’t fly without lots of wild running across the water and noisy wing beating and they look very awkward. It’s fun to walk close to the swans on their nests and see the signets. I once counted eight signets riding on one mother’s back. How can you prefer the traffic-ridden Santa Monica coast to Dorset’s enchanting shoreline?”
“OK, OK,” she said, “to each his own. But can’t you see the pretty blue sky and feel the warm sun? When I left Dorset we had just experienced weeks of dreary rain.”
The next day we explored the Farmer’s Market at Third and Fairfax in west, LA. My husband, Stan, and I went there on our first date in 1950. It was a major tourist attraction then and it still is today. That’s just the trouble. It’s always so crowded one has difficulty weaving through the intricate pattern made by hundreds of open stalls displaying gorgeous flowers, fresh produce, beautiful pasties, luscious chocolates and choice cuts of meat. Every apple or tomato sold at the Farmer’s Market is twice as red and twice as big as those sold anyplace else, just as every piece of meat is always premium quality. Mingled with the fruit and vegetable stands are stalls serving tantalizing ready to eat meals from many nations including Mexican, Chinese and Italian as well as fresh seafood and juicy cuts of tender roast beef or turkey served with all of the trimmings. There are craftsmen displaying their wares, jewelry shops with unique one-of-a kind designs and clothing boutiques with the latest fashions.
Joyce was taking it in with wide eyes. “Isn’t it exciting?” she said. “Yes, it is,” I replied. “But don’t you wish it was easier to walk through the aisles? I’d rather be in Sturminster Newton on market day. At least there I know where I could find a nice welcoming cup of coffee, or better still a Dorset Cream Tea, graciously served in the quiet garden of the Stourcastle Lodge where there would be no noisy tourists to push and shove.”
Smith Arms in Goldmanstone
Throughout Joyce’s visit we carried on this running dialogue. She would express her amazement and delight at one of our nicer amenities and I would counter with one I preferred in Dorset. When she was impressed with one of our twenty-four-hour coffee shops where we can order any item on an eight page menu at any hour of the day or night, including breakfast, I would counter with: “Yes, but doesn’t it all seem a bit plastic? Where’s the charm of your pubs with their old world gardens and delightful thatched roofs like the Shave Cross Inn in the Marshwood Vale or the tiny Smith Arms in Goldmanstone that has picnic tables on the banks of the little River Cerne where you can watch the ducks and their ducklings play on the river’s banks? None of our coffee shops or bars has a children’s playroom with toys and games. If a child becomes bored he just misbehaves right at the dinner table to the annoyance of his parents and all of the other diners.”
“Maybe so,” she said, “but if you want to have bacon and eggs at three in the afternoon, I doubt if you could find it anywhere in Dorset.”
Because I wasn’t eager to exhibit my limited cooking ability, we had dinner out almost every night, and always at a different restaurant. This was possible without traveling more than two or three miles from home, because Northridge, as well as most other Southern California communities, caters to housewives who don’t like to cook. It’s true that most of us have lovely kitchens with double ovens, dishwashers and other conveniences but we all prefer to eat out. Perhaps it’s because most have demanding day jobs outside the home. Most of our neighborhood restaurants are inexpensive and very good, if not great.
Joyce was still looking at our greener grass when she said: “You could never find this many reasonably priced places in Dorset. Our good restaurants tend to be very expensive and there’s not much in between the very up-market bistro and the fish and chip shop.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that.” I replied. My eyes too were on greener grass. “How about the Manor Hotel in West Bexington? The main dining room is a bit pricey but I had the best beef stew I’ve ever tasted in the cellar bar and as I remember it cost only £4 and the marvelous atmosphere was free. There’s oak Jacobean paneling, stone-flagged floors and cozy chintz curtains framing windows that look out over a rose garden and on to the sea. Then there’s the Fox at Ansty with its maze of nooks and crannies and fine prints on all the walls, not to mention the fascinating display of plates on the walls of the platter bar. And don’t forget the carvery at the Half Moon in Sherborne, the pub side of the Ilchester Arms in Abbotsbury, the Bell Cliff in Lyme Regis and my favorite, the Fleur de Lys in Cranborne. I admit I love the inn’s old world charm as much as the home cooked food. There’s still evidence of its original construction in the 11th century and the fireplace in the main lounge was part of the building when it was an inn in the 1600s.”
“I think you like history more than you like good food,” sniffed Joyce.
“You might be right” I said, “but in Dorset you can have both. Here the only trace of history we can come up with is evidence of the remains of a Cahuenga Indian camp and the Indians lived in Teepees and never built even one structure that could be turned into a charming restaurant today.”
“There’s no use talking to you. You don’t know when you’re well off,” said Joyce.
Joanne on campus at CSUN
When we went to visit the campus of Cal State University, Northridge, and the Financial Aid Office where I worked for twenty years before retiring in 1989 Joyce said she envied me working in such a pleasant academic environment. “And what’s wrong with Sherborne’s academic environment?” I asked. “The whole town is steeped in scholarly, academic atmosphere. Edward VI endowed Sherborne School in 1550. The town has ten other venerated schools each with its own fascinating history. Scholars in Sherborne study in a delightful medieval town with every modern advantage.” I wasn’t going to let the San Fernando Valley win any points on academic environment!
If there was one day that impressed Joyce most, it was the day we spent looking at model homes in the Porter Ranch area of the foothills just a few miles north of our house. It’s a pleasant area with most homes situated on large sites that provide views of the rolling hills. To my eyes the brown hills seemed stark, bare and desert-like, but Joyce thought they were just fine. We had been chatting away as usual as we entered the first model. It was a two-story Mediterranean with a Spanish tiled roof, four bedrooms, each with private bath, large living room, study, and a three-car garage.
I soon realized my friend, whom I had never known to be at a loss for words, was speechless. She seemed spellbound as she drifted from room to room. I was pretty impressed myself. The decorators had done a beautiful job on a well-conceived and constructed house. Top quality materials had been used throughout: stained glass windows at the head of a sweeping staircase, lush deep carpets, sunken bathtubs with spa jets, large walk-in closets, built-in floor-to-ceiling bookcases and several beautifully finished fireplaces. French doors opened to a terraced garden in full bloom. The landscapers had been busy as well as the decorators. The kitchen had every labor-saving device imaginable as well as a walk-in pantry but I think Joyce was most impressed with a little rack that folded under one of the cabinets in the work area and was designed to hold a cookbook. I was most impressed with the exquisite wallpaper chosen for the bedrooms, just the kind I’d been looking for but couldn’t find.
The asking price for this shining example of California living? $350,000.
When Joyce finally found her voice she said, “You couldn’t begin to get this much house for this price in Dorset.” I told her not to forget that what we were seeing was a sales model artfully contrived to look its very best. The buyer would have to pay considerably more to upgrade the decor to match that of the model. I remembered seeing a new development of attractive homes on Penny Street in Sturminster Newton that I would like to move into. “You can’t be serious?” She said. “Those models had only one and a half bathrooms, no closet space to speak of, tiny kitchens and room for only one car. The master bedrooms were barely 12′ by 12′ not 24′ by 24′ like these. Be reasonable!”
“I am being reasonable.” I said. If I lived in Sturminster Newton I would be in Hardy’s “valley of the little dairies” – the Blackmore Vale. Bulbarrow Hill and Hambledon Hill would be only a short distance away and I could take that marvelous walk to Fiddleford any time I wanted.
“Yes, but it wouldn’t be much fun sloshing along in the rain,” she grumbled.
Joyce assured me that one winter in Dorset would change my mind about living there. “I doubt it. I know wouldn’t like having to slosh back and forth to school in foul weather or worry about the hazards of getting to and from work. But surely, if we had a nice, cozy, warm cottage fortified with central heating and a state-of-the-art stereo, a large-screen digital color TV and tons of good books, Stan and I could tough it out until Spring.”
“But that’s just the trouble,” she said, “Spring’s often as bad as winter. You can’t even count on a warm, sunny summer! And besides, I know you couldn’t survive without your super shopping facilities and your fast food drive-ins. Why, you can even drive up to a teller when you go to your bank.”
Dorset Coast near Lulworth
“And I know if you lived in LA you would miss your beautiful, smog-free countryside with its gentle green hills, its sparkling rivers and streams, and surely you would miss Dorset’s vernacular architecture that makes ours seem sterile and characterless.”
It was clear we were facing a no-win situation. Neither of us would give an inch. For now I have to admit there are two insurmountable reasons for not moving to Dorset. The first is that even with all of my irresistible propaganda, I still haven’t convinced Stan that he prefers Dorset to Hawaii. The other is that alas, the dollar is no longer king. Until George Bush and Tony Blair can get together and sort out a more favorable rate of exchange, economic considerations will keep me in California. That is, except for my annual pilgrimages, I don’t think I can survive without those.