Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Living Abroad Matters Seven - Making Forays

A Kipper's Tale
Toby, the publican of the 14th century inn, The Brocket Arms, once the favourite drinking den of the famous writer George Bernard Shaw, suggests I try the smoked kipper for breakfast. After I devour the strong flavoured fish, he declares with a wicked glint in his eye, “This kipper will stay with you all day, like a parrot on your shoulder, repeating ‘I’m still here, I’m still here!’” He is not exaggerating. I will never eat kipper again. Once is enough, is enough, is enough!

We had hired a car and headed off Friday afternoon on the M1 beyond the ring road that circles London and constrains city dwellers to the urban jungle. Although we are only 25 miles outside the city we are surprised by how quickly we find ourselves in picturesque countryside, gliding past real working farms. Searching for the historic inn deep in Ayot Saint Lawrence we forge along narrow roads enclosed within a canopy of overhanging trees. Gentle sunshine is flickering through leafy tunnels.

At last we spot the charming historic inn and make our way inside to discover a cosy retreat, beautifully preserved, retaining traditional features of low ceilings and oak beams and a huge open fire place that you can actually sit inside on wooden benches. Nigel serves Andrew a pint of traditional ale which makes his head spin while we chat and laugh with the locals.

The Brocket Arms was originally the monastic quarters for the Norman Church until the Reformation when the Catholics were outlawed. Toby loves to scare gullible visitors with the story of a rebel priest who was tried and hanged in the Inn and now haunts the grounds. Apparently Toby can arrange for a sighting!

We have ventured into Hertfordshire to meet up with our cobber Doug Jenner, an Aussie folkie who plays fiddle with a band, regaling the dumbfounded Europeans with bush ballads, jigs and reels that they’ve never heard before! Doug, a former teacher turned successful copywriter lives in the charming little village of Kimpton with wife Julie and their two kids or Billy Lids as he prefers to call them!

We became ‘cyber buddies’ and ‘internet amigos’ through the ecademy on-line business networking club last year when I was still residing in the tropical climes of the Sunshine Coast and dripping sweat onto my keyboard as we exchanged witty repostes and silly banter while comparing notes on the folk scene and Doug’s helpful tips on life in the UK. He promised to buy Andrew and me a drink at the bar before the folk session kicked off. So here we are, finally meeting Doug in the flesh and he is just as genial and witty as his emails! And he is good for that drink too!

Tonight the resident ghost is napping while we join in the music session and delight in the angelic sounds of hammer dulcimers, accordions, fiddles and the mellow beating of bodhrams in full swing. Doug has a talent for plaintive ballads and sings a haunting rendition of Diamantina Drover. After the instruments are packed up and the muso’s drift into the night, Andrew and I stagger across the courtyard to a pretty guest room with a heavenly four-poster bed.

On Saturday we lunch with Jacqueline and Stuart, our new friends through XL and spend a delightful afternoon chatting and getting to know each other while tucking into a scrumptious lunch and basking in their warm hospitality and lovely home. They have only recently married and are glowing with love for each other, the perfect hosts.

We make our way north to a guest house on the outskirts of Oxford. Sunday morning we wander around the impressive town cradled by majestic buildings. The Midlands town is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world. Oxford University traces its roots back to the 11th century and has not just one campus but 39 hallowed halls and colleges spread throughout the town.

Week days, the streets are swarming with 20,000 students. Oxford offers Rhodes Scholarships and our esteemed former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, renowned for his drinking prowess in his student days, was an Oxford Rhodes Scholar. So we can thank Oxford for educating Hawkie and giving us a piece of colourful political history. And as you know, my convict ancestor hailed from these parts and could easily have been a distinguished academic if he wasn’t transported for theft!

Intelligent town planning is reflected in the pedestrian and bicycle friendly approach. Locals do their best to keep cars out with a Park and Ride bus system so you can amble along cobblestone laneways and enjoy the historic buildings without dodging traffic.

Andrew is striving valiantly to keep me out of the quaint little shops. He steers me to the beautiful gardens brimming with gentle English flowers and down to the tranquil River Cherwell, a tributary of the Thames. Strolling amongst the chubby ducks on the grassy banks we are aware of how blessed we are to be enjoying this peaceful part of the planet.

Sunday afternoon we are on the M1 again returning to our tiny loft in time to pack for Rome to meet up with our intrepid travelling daughter. If you are wondering if I am actually doing any work in between these jolly jaunts into the English countryside and jet-setting off to the Italian capital, I am pleased to report that I have indeed been writing furiously and systematically annoying and harassing the editors of The Times, The Telegraph, The Mail and various magazines.

Adrift in the fascinating Northern Hemisphere, I have cast out into the ocean of opportunity and all of my lines are bobbing in the water. My fisherman Dad would be proud as I patiently wait for a few nibbles, hoping to land the Big One. Fingers crossed I don’t catch a kipper.

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