In the heart of England.

We spent the last days of our world trip in London, but between Edinburgh and London, we made two stops in the middle of England. The first stop was in Stoke-On-Trent, in the Midlands, where Steve and I would reunite with his distant English relatives Jean and Peter, and the second stop was in Cambridge, just to the northeast of London, where we would be welcome by Sam and Sarah once more. Here is a little bit about our two lovely days with friends and family.

Last Thursday, we boarded the train at Edinburgh and took two connections to get to Stoke-On-Trent. Peter met us at the train station, and drove us to their home, a scant five minutes away. As we pulled into the front parking space, his wife, Jean, emerged from the house and waved us into their picture perfect, quintessentially English house. It was what I had pictured from books, movies, and stories, but exceeded even that, with all its old fashioned charm of knickknacks and figurines, elegant art and ceramics, and beautifully manicured garden.

By the kitchen, there is a small mirror hung with a set of clothesbrushes that I have read about in books but never actually seen in person. In the foyer, next to the door, is an elegant, embroidered hanging which says “Farmers Market,” handmade by Steve’s grandmother Alice. In the living room, ceramic plates decorate the top of the walls, a wooden duck stands in the process of looking over his shoulder by the fireplace, and the walls are hung with watercolors, pastels, lithographs, all in exquisite frames. The living room opens up to a small sun room, which invites one to step through and into the garden. Plain and simple, Jean and Peter have the idiosyncratically perfect picture of an English house garden. Their backyard garden is long and narrow, framed by hedgerows on both sides like their neighbors’ to the left and right as far as the eye can see. On both sides as you walk down, there are large, well-tended clumps of brilliant flowers. Most of them I can’t identify, but I saw varieties on sunflowers, calla lilies, sprays of delicate pink, hanging star blossoms of red that show dark violet petals. There are even several small trees growing between the flowers and the bushes, and underfoot, perfectly manicured, short green lawn that felt like a carpet. Beyond all of this, beyond the back hedgerow, there is an expanse of pastoral green rolling hills bisected by lines of dark green bushes and dotted with cows.

Several times while perusing their house and garden, I glanced at Steve and simply shook my head several times, too impressed with the quiet elegance of what I was seeing to coherently express it. In response, he simply nodded at me, because he knew exactly what I meant. Before dinner, our other guests arrived. In honor of our visit, Jean had pulled together a few of her siblings. Her sister Freda and brother Stuart, along with sister-in-law Val, who all live in neighboring towns and cities, had also come for dinner. To recap, Jean and her siblings are all related to Steve distantly. Jean’s grandmother had a sister who emigrated over to the US back in the day, and married into the Hart family. So they are distant cousins of a sort to Steve’s grandmother, who is a Hart by birth.

Dinner was absolutely scrumptious, with a large pasta dish, greens and vegetables, small slices of quiche, and potato wedges, not to mention large heavenly-light white dinner rolls. As a minor point of comic relief, we kept on getting “chips” and “fries” confused with each other. (What Americans think of as fries or wedges, the British call “chips” and what we think of as chips are actually what they call “crisps.” Got it? If that wasn’t bad enough, what we know as crackers are actually “biscuits” to the British, and what we know as biscuits, they know as “scones.” Phew.) We had strawberries and cream for dessert, as well as an apple tart that Freda made. I thought dinner was over after that, but then they presented the cake course (something I must add to my knowledge about England), which Val had made. One cake was coconut and lime, which was very zesty and delicious, and one was date and walnut. I sampled both, and tried a too-thin slice of the latter cake, which crumbled, and made Stuart laugh as I tried to pick it up off the plate.

Speaking of laughter, we had great conversations over dinner and also over coffee and tea afterwards. Peter and Stuart traded the best jokes between the two of them, but everyone shared in this particular type of dry British humor. It’s impossible to describe succinctly, and any jokes I retry telling here are just going to fall flat, so you’ll have to take my word for it. The stories, tall tales, and various jokes were a combination of sly, very dry, and mildly self-depreciating wit that never took itself too seriously and invited you to laugh at it too. I couldn’t help but enjoy every moment of it. And for a group of people who were somewhere between my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, they were bending over backwards to be considerate of what they thought was our early bedtime, until we confessed that we usually went to bed between midnight and one. Then they relaxed back into their seats, as it was just after 10 pm, and kept on talking for another hour and a half! We learned a great deal about their travels, and shared funny stories on all sides about travels in Croatia, England, France, and the US. We also got to admire much of Peter’s art, as I learned to my surprise and pleasure that most of the art that impressed me so much upon first view was actually Peter’s own work. He does some stunning watercolors, lovely pastels and crayon, and interestingly enough, color lithographs that had been done by hand. Peter also explained that he had worked in the ceramics industry (or what the English here call “pottery”) to create china dishes and cups and other items, which is one of the key industries in Stoke-on-Trent. This explained the beautiful plates and stunning dishware we were seeing all over their house. Several times, Peter pointed out a painting or brought out a dish and proudly commented that he had painted it or designed it when he was a teenager. It was not only beautiful, but more impressive and important to me, of very high quality.

After Stuart, Val, and Freda left in a flurry of hugs and kisses, we sat for a while longer in the living room with Jean and Peter. I confessed wistfully that I was very appreciative of their house and history. For a family that just emigrated to the US, we have so few family possessions or heirlooms. On my father’s side, they were too poor to have anything worth handing down, and on my mother’s side, there is nothing but my grandfather’s calligraphy art. I treasure it, but like many American families, we have shallow roots, being newly transplanted. Jean and Peter’s house and the warm welcome they extended represent to me the distant but solid sense of belonging and traceable origins that Steve’s family draws on. And that’s in addition to having an ancestor that signed the Declaration of Independence! (That would be John Hart, from the delegation of New Jersey.) And it makes me think back to my family, and my aunt’s family whom we stayed with in Beijing, and the way they welcomed Steve and tried to make him feel at home and adjust to everything that China meant. It’s kind of moving to look at these distantly, distantly related people and find that they can be kind in the exact same way.

We slept wonderfully, and the next morning, enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Peter and Jean downstairs. They both drove us to the train station when it was time to leave, and gave us hugs and kisses. Seldom have I enjoyed staying with folks like I did with Jean and Peter, and Steve and I left, refreshed from our visit and thoroughly grateful we had been able to see these distant relatives.

Our train took us into London, and after walking from Euston to King’s Cross, we boarded another train bound for Cambridge. We had just seen my college friend Sarah and her boyfriend Sam when they were in France, and enjoyed a weekend at Sam’s grandparents house in Montchanin. That didn’t keep us from visiting them in Cambridge, though! Both have been doing their PhDs at Cambridge, and Sam has just finished, while Sarah is writing her thesis. Both of them took some time out to welcome us.

When we arrived, it was on one of the warmest days Cambridge has or will ever see this summer, according to Sarah. Days of 80+ Fahrenheit temperatures are few and far in between, apparently. This didn’t make us feel that much better, as we sweated and hauled our luggage. We took a taxi to Sarah’s apartment on the other side of town, and had to recuperate at her place for a few hours before we ventured back out.

Sarah took us on a meandering walk through the historic center of Cambridge, over the river Cam, where many tourists and students punted, on long narrow boats with poles that plunged into the river bottom. We also caught tantalizing glimpses of all the colleges, whose establishments are typically closed to tourists; but the picturesque architecture and winding streets are for all to see. It reminded me very much of another Cambridge, which I grew up next to. Quite a few roads were not made for cars, and we could look over low walls to see sedate parks or a mossy graveyard, with tombstones leaning over or falling apart. King’s College in particular afforded the most splendid views, with the most amazing Gothic; at sunset, the turrets and stony arches were gilded the hue of honey gold, and combined with the unseasonably sunny and warm temperatures, it made for the most beautiful summer scenery. We eventually met up with Sam and made a detour to Sainsbury’s, a local grocery store for picnic supplies. Despite some incredibly strict rules regarding picture ID for alcohol sales, we managed to procure everything we needed, and after a few detours, found ourselves on a grassy, soft riverbank surrounded by trees and lightly trafficked by people.

As we started cooking sausages over a small barbecue, Sarah told us about how the surrounding riverbanks and parks lent a gentle pastoral air to the town, and made Cambridge feel far more like it was an organic part of the countryside. The park that we were picnicking in was frequented by cows as well, being good pastureland, and sure enough, later on in the evening, we did see a few cows wandering around. We watched people punt their way up and down the river, and Sarah and Sam told us a few of their own hilarious stories about punting after a few bottles of wine. The sausages we got proved to be delicious, combined with some strong mustard Sam had brought from France, and also with some Stilton, a blue cheese native to England. We stayed in the park long after sunset (which was late itself), and watched some fireworks come up as well as a bonfire near us. It seemed like all of Cambridge wanted to celebrate summer that evening! We slept well that night (Steve on a sofa, and me on an air mattress), and the next morning, we said a hasty goodbye to Sarah and boarded a bus for London.

Travel is made better when we get to see and stay with friends and relatives in these foreign lands. It makes us feel closer to the place, even if we are simply passing through, and creates better memories of not just a wonderful place but also a wonderful time. Tomorrow, I’m going to do my best to recount everything that we enjoyed in London, before moving onto our return to the US.


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