Up Hill and Down Hill – Dorset, England

Up Hill and Down Hill
Dorset, England

When I reentered the launderette in Sturminster Newton’s market square I was puzzled to see a young man standing with hands on hips intently watching the dryer containing my recently deposited wash. He seemed fascinated by the clothes spinning rhythmically around and around. I couldn’t believe it was because my American clothes were more intriguing than the English clothes spinning merrily in several other dryers. I watched him for awhile wondering if entertainment in this pleasant little market town was so scarce that he really considered my traveler’s wash worthy of his keen attention. Suddenly my eyes too became riveted to the revolving dryer. There, tumbling gaily among the jeans and sweatshirts, were several £20 notes!

The young man laughed and said, “Are these yours? They must be nice and clean by know.” Belatedly I remembered that my husband, Stan, had shoved the currency into his trouser pocket at Heathrow after changing dollars to pounds. That morning I had hurriedly gathered up his dirty washing along with mine and felt very much the martyr as I sacrificed a morning of rambling to tend to necessities. Obviously I hadn’t checked the pockets! But once again Dorset Magic saved the day. If this incident had occurred in LA the young man would have vanished from the launderette long before I returned and so would the £200 spinning in the dryer. Since this was Dorset I merely felt foolish as I collected my immaculate cash and folded my clothes.

We had arrived at Sturminster Newton’s Stourcastle Lodge the day before, delivered safely on the doorstep by our new friends from Melbury House, Joyce and Harold. I could see that Stan was impressed with the warm welcome we received from our hosts Ken and Jill Hookham-Bassett. I noted the approving glance that he gave our room with its soft pink and green decor and the broad smile he gave our en-suite bathroom (it’s American men, more than American women, who feel insecure without their own private bathroom). I looked through the window and was pleased to see that Cobweb, the proud looking black cat I remembered from my two previous visits, was still sunning himself on the secluded green garden below.

Stan in Stur

Stan looking less than pleased to be in Sturminster Newton

Since this Dorset trip was my idea – my finicky husband would have preferred a visit to Hawaii – I had taken great pains to ensure that everything would be as near perfect as possible. So far in Frampton and Evershot we had had incredible luck, but I was a little dubious about Sturminster Newton because we had visited briefly a few days before and Stan had commented that there didn’t seem to be much going on. No, there isn’t much going on unless the you count the bustling of Market day each Monday but that’s part of it’s charm. I hoped that Stan would see it through my eyes, but I was expecting an uphill battle.

After unpacking on that Friday morning in June, we took Joyce and Harold across the square to the little restaurant just opposite the Market Cross. There seemed to be a new owner this time but the roast beef and Yorkshire pudding were up to standard and we all enjoyed the oxtail soup. French doors opened onto a pretty garden at the back where we could see a pink climbing clematis and tubs of bright poppies. The soft Brahms Concerto playing in the background added to our contentment and put Stan in such a mellow mood that he, uncharacteristically, consented to walk with me to the old Sturminster Mill. We said good-bye to Joyce and Harold until Monday morning when they would be back to deliver us to our next stop in Chedington.

Jill’s dinner that night consisted of celery soup, chicken cooked in tarragon and mushroom sauce and Charlotte Malakoff. I still have a little trouble convincing my Californian friends that eating in England can be a delight. Most of them are under the impression that there is nothing to be had except soggy fish and chips or macaroni and cheese with limp Brussel sprouts. How foolish. Some of the best meals in my life have been eaten in Dorset. I never mind a set menu because I’ve never been disappointed. With Stan it’s another story. His tastes are not nearly as ecumenical as mine. Thank goodness he approved of Jill’s Chicken Tarragon.

There were two English couples with us that night in the dining room. As we were starting the main course we were joined by an attractive young American women on her own. She seemed very self-confident so I was surprised when I heard her talking to Jill. It seemed that she had just moved into a little thatched cottage near Lydlynch for a two week holiday with a girlfriend who was due to arrive he next day. She was unpacking when she became aware that the cottage, which minutes before had been warm and cheerful, was suddenly damp and cold. It was still warm and sunny outside and she had not started a fire but she noticed a smoky white shape in the inglenook fireplace. She didn’t hesitate but grabbed her purse and overnight bag which she hadn’t unpacked yet and fled to the nearest town: Sturminster Newton. She felt lucky to have found Stourcastle Lodge and luckier still to find that Jill had a room available and she was just in time for dinner. No way was she returning to the cottage alone, but she was sure everything would be all right when her friend arrived. Now that she was among people she felt much better and was sure she hadn’t really seen a ghost in the fireplace.

After dinner, while we were all having coffee in the sitting room, the conversation revolved around ghost stories. One of the guests was an estate agent from Bournemouth. He told of a house listed with his agency that had a priest’s hidey-hole (Stan and I were the only ones who needed to be told what a hidey-hole was). He said that the current owner was sure he had heard scraping, chipping noises coming from it. It seemed that in the old days of religious intolerance, the house had been inhabited by Catholics who, when they wanted to practice the rites of their religion, had to smuggle in a priest. The priest would retire to the hidey-hole if the King’s men arrived unexpectedly. One day the King’s men brought masons along and had them brick up the hole, knowing full well that someone was inside. The current owner was sure that the ghostly scraping and chipping noises he heard were made by a prowling phantom desperately trying to claw his way to freedom.

Each of the other guests could tell a tale of equally mysterious haunting that usually included a romantic story from centuries ago. Stan and I felt really deprived because we couldn’t contribute. People haven’t been living in the San Fernando Valley long enough for it to acquire ghosts who can compete with those in Dorset.

Maybe I was still thinking of our ghostly evening the next day when I was distracted enough to launder Stan’s £200. Fortunately for me, the Queen’s currency is sturdy enough to withstand the churning washer and the tumbling dryer. When I handed Stan the spotless stack of £20 notes he didn’t suspect a thing. I put away our clean clothes and had everything back to normal in time for us to catch the 10:45 Southern National bus to Bournemouth at the stop across from the library,

Riding buses is not Stan’s favorite thing to do. He hadn’t set foot in one for thirty years until a few days before when I made him board the coach that took us from Heathrow to Poole where we met our friends. The memory of that ride sitting next to a plump lady with an active three-year-old on her lap, was still fresh in his mind. It took a lot of persuading to convince him that he would really enjoy the sixty minute ride to Bournemouth.

Unfortunately, the larger coach and bus lines are not nearly as much fun to ride as the smaller independently operated lines that cater to villagers’ needs. Our trip to Bournemouth that morning was just another bus ride and had none of the charm that I’ve encountered on the Pearch, Darch, & Wilcox. The driver didn’t smile when we boarded, the other passengers didn’t seem to be enjoying each other’s company, and the route traveled did not seem nearly as attractive – probably because the larger lines travel at higher speeds on the traffic-ridden motorways rather than along the quiet, leafy lanes that lead to rural villages. When we arrived at the Triangle in Bournemouth, Stan was not in a mellow mood.

I had planned to lead him to the shopping areas around the Square but decided that in his current mood it would be better to go directly to the more restful Central Gardens. Luckily the sun cooperated by coming out from behind the clouds where it had been lurking all morning and the gardens were at their best. We followed the River Borne in its concrete bed and admired the fine pine trees and the velvety green turf behind its protective railing. Stan had cheered up by the time we reached the bandstand and felt very English as he tapped his feet along with the rest of the crowd – but not English enough to rent a lawn chair and sit on the grass, despite my urging.

We followed the garden path past the Pavilion and across the Promenade to the pier where we were rewarded with a lovely view of the Isle of Purbeck. There was a hot dog stand near the Pier. Stan is addicted to hot dogs and had been looking for a stand ever since we arrived in England, but somehow he didn’t like the look of the ones on offer here. He felt that they looked more like sausages than frankfurters. Since he considers himself an expert I didn’t argue. (They looked pretty good to me.)

By this time I felt he was in a good enough mood to tackle the shopping district. We retraced our steps to the Square and started with Marks & Spencer. I taught him how to say “Marks and Sparks” and told him all of my Dorset friends considered this to be the store where they got the most “value for money.” Next we found Waterstones, the lovely bookshop in the glass arcade that leads to Gervin’s Place and spent a pleasant half hour browsing. When we discovered the tearoom in the basement where we could have scones and clotted cream I knew that this was my kind of shop! We continued wandering and Stan found a secondhand bookshop where he could buy several of his paperback flying novels, the kind that always seem to have pictures of vintage airplanes engaged in dog fights on their covers. Now he was happy enough for me to chance leading him up to Commercial Road and the Laura Ashley shop I had been aiming for all along.

I left him sitting on a bench outside and emerged a short while later with two summer dresses and a white lacy blouse – I know how to take advantage of a good opportunity! I sat on the bench with him for while and watched the busy shoppers carrying their bundles and pushing their children in strollers – push chairs in England. We decided that they didn’t look much different from shoppers at home in our Northridge Mall. My fascination with England has always been with the countryside and rural villages. I find Evershot and Sydling St. Nicholas much more enchanting than Plymouth and Southampton – interesting as these cities might be. Bournemouth is lovely to visit but at no time in our wanderings was I tempted to play my wishing game of finding the cottage I would most like to live in.

We treated ourselves to ice-cream cones, then it was time to see if we could find our way back to the Triangle in time to catch the 4:45 bus back to Sturminster Newton. The ride back wasn’t any more eventful than the morning one so the pleasant glow we had experienced in Bournemouth had faded by the time we reached Stur. Oh! Oh! Dinner that night was to be roast lamb. Stan never eats lamb. Something to do with army days when that’s all his unit was fed for weeks. Fortunately, the starter and side dishes were delicious and there was wonderful apple strudel for dessert. The day had been about 50/50 up hill and down.

Things looked brighter in the morning when Jill served us our boiled eggs with her homemade bread sliced into toasted soldiers. She said she would be leaving for Child Okeford in a few minutes and invited us to go along. It was Sunday and she was going to view a collection of prints in a cottage there that was standing in for a gallery. The prints were by Sheila Sanford, the Dorset artist I have been interested in ever since my trip in 1984 when I bought a selection of her greeting cards displaying her water color versions of Gold Hill in Shaftsbury in all four seasons.

The cottage/gallery was at the foot of Hambledon Hill and Jill thought we might enjoy a ramble while she decided which print to buy for her mother’s birthday. This seemed a fine idea, although Stan was less than enthusiastic about the rambling part. I had to restrain myself from buying a dozen of the pretty prints because I could hardly resist any scene with ducks and geese in it. While Jill was making up her mind, Stan and I climbed a little way up Hambledon Hill. Not surprisingly Stan decided to rest on a flat rock while I continued on. I didn’t go as far as the Neolithic long barrow on the top, but I did climb high enough to look back and enjoy a breathtaking view of Child Okeford.

Stour River

Stour River at Fiddleford

Since Stan couldn’t claim to be tired, he had had a nice rest on his flat rock, I asked Jill to let us off at Fiddleford on the way back to Sturminster so that we could walk the rest of the way along the old deserted railroad track. We watched the swans gliding near the Fiddleford Mill for awhile then started the march back. And march was just what it was! I had anticipated a leisurely ramble pausing now and then to admire the cow parsley, red campion, and ragged robin mingled with the honeysuckle in the hedge that grew alongside the track – but no – Stan said the only way he would survive the long trek back – it was barely a mile – would be to march in cadence the way he did in the army. He was afraid if he stopped he wouldn’t be able to start again. So we trudged rigidly along and made it back in record time. Jill was amazed to see us so soon. It had really been an up hill day.

Thank goodness dinner that night met with Stan’s approval: Spatchcock – a Tudor recipe for baking chicken with a crisp coating of crumbs. Stan had a second helping, devoured three of Jill’s homemade rolls and still had room for strawberry shortcake.

Red Valerian

Red Valerian

After dinner he consented to stroll around the town. Everywhere we went we saw red valerian growing out of stone. It made an amazing display and gave character to everything it touched. I led Stan down Church Street and up Penny Street then along the footpath at the end of Gough’s Close that slopes down to the meadows beside the shimmering Stour River edged with giant water lily pads.

As he watched the water swirling around a small, willow covered island he said, “OK, you win. It’s really beautiful.” The first thing he said to Herald and Joyce when they picked us up the next morning was: “Stur is marvelous. We really enjoyed ourselves.”

For a while at least, I could coast down hill.