Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Wakehurst Place

One of the coolest things about Britain is the casual scattering of heritage found lying around everywhere—such as Stonehenge, the Tower of London and the leftover WWII pillboxes dotting the coastline—and some of the coolest bits of their redundant past are the old stately manor houses.

If you don’t watch Downton Abbey, manor homes were huge estates, staffed by legions of servants, surrounded by vast tracts of land cared for by armies of groundsmen and gamekeepers who kept the woods, rivers and meadows well-stocked with fish and game. These enormous estates provided employment for much of the surrounding towns and many, many residents were beholden to the landowner for their livelihood.

If you do watch Downton Abbey, then you already knew all of that.

Back in the day, I would never have been able to get a glimpse inside one of these estates; the closest I could have hoped to come (if rumors of my British ancestry are true) is while being presented to the land owner, accused of poaching his rabbits, before being taken out and hung.

These days, the majority of the surviving estates are open to the public. Thanks to the introduction of the minimum wage, plus a few other key labor laws, as well as two World Wars that greatly diminished the ranks of the working class, the upkeep required for these anachronistic monstrosities became unsustainable, leading to their wholesale destruction. Around 1,500 manor homes were destroyed in the 1900’s before someone opined, “I say, do you think we should keep a few of these to, you know, show off to the tourists?”

Some people look back on that destruction, wishing fervently that more estates could have been saved, but not me. There are plenty left; get a National Trust Handbook and have a look through it if you don’t believe me. Anywhere you go in Britain there are half a dozen stately homes within easy reach of wherever you happen to be. I say it’s a good thing they knocked the bulk of them down; if they hadn’t, where would they have put all the industrial estates, Tesco super-stores and council flats?

Anyway, there are no shortage of these homes in Sussex, and one of them—Wakehurst Place—is a favorite destination of ours. It’s a short drive away and its 500 acres of gardens, wetlands and woods are some of the most spectacular in Britain.

William Wakehurst first bought the land in 1205. Back then, it was only a 40-acre estate, but over the years the land and home were expanded. During the 1900s, Gerald Loder—later Lord Wakehurst—spent 33 years developing the gardens. He left the estate to Sir Henry Price and Sir Henry left it to the National Trust in 1963. It is now open to the public, which means I can go there whenever I wish, without the risk of being hanged.

All of this is a prelude to me telling you we went to Wakehurst Place this past Sunday, and it was a glorious, spring-like day and I want to gloat about it to my friends back in Upstate NY who are still experiencing weather like this:

Over here, we have flowers blooming and, as we wandered the trails through the gardens and woodlands, the smells of damp earth and new growth were everywhere.

It was just lovely.

Nothing says "spring" like blossoming crocus.

Except maybe a meadow of Cyclamen.

Before I forget, this is the mansion; it's such a pretty building it's hard to take a bad photo of it.

This was taken about 11:00 in the morning; the sun is not going to get much higher than that.

This is Daphne Bhalua, an extremely fragrant plant. It's scent was just heavenly.
I've installed a "scratch and sniff" app on this photo, so get close, scratch the screen and sniff.
Seriously, how many of you actually did that?

Ah, Pussy Willow! Now we're talking spring!
Don’t worry, I’ll likely have to pay for my smugness; the weather report calls for a return to the cold this week, and a chance of more snow. But at least I was able to enjoy this brief respite from winter, and get a taste of what is, hopefully, just around the corner.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Now We’re Cooking

One of the unforeseen consequences of being made redundant is that I am finally getting to grips with cooking in the UK. This came about because, as the newly delegated loafer, it fell to me to pick up the slack in the housekeeping department, which includes making dinner for my lazy-ass self and my hard-working wife.

This was her idea, and she’s a brave woman for suggesting it because my previous forays into the realm of cookery have generally ended in disaster—culinary equivalents of the Donner Party wherein, instead of being forced to eat one another, we just had to go across the street for a take-away. I’m pleased to report that my more recent efforts are becoming a bit less harrowing.

I credit this with two things, the first of which is the time I can now devote to understanding the British Measuring System. Having been a fairly keen baker in the States, I arrived on these shores with a set of American measuring cups, and my wife brought her British cooking implements into the subsequent partnership. We also have a collection of cookbooks published on either side of the Atlantic, so the first thing one needs to decide before starting a session in the kitchen is whether the cooking will be done in American or British.

Increasingly, the cooking is done in British, which means I have to get the kitchen scales out and weigh ingredients in metric. So instead of adding a nice convenient cup of flour to my dough mix (like a normal person) I have to weigh out 120 grams.

Now, that is all well and good if you know what a gram is or, more to the point, how much it weighs and what that weight might look like in flour-units. This led me—not so long ago—to measure out 100 times more flour than I needed while making white sauce. Instead of calling for half a teaspoon (which I would have immediately understood) the recipe called for 120 milligrams. So I dumped flour on the scale until the needle hit the 120 mark, not realizing those were the marks for grams, not milligrams.

The result was enough b├ęchamel sauce to keep the Welsh Guards in Chicken Cordon Bleu for a month.

Vegetarian Pork Pies:,made from scratch.
Another disadvantage I labor under is the electric stove, which—like all electric stoves—has only two settings: not hot enough and way too hot. So a bit of experimentation is required to render muffins that remain within the “tan” spectrum and keep my meatloaf from coming out of the oven still mooing (or, more recently, still whinnying and stamping its hooves).

I am, however, getting better with practice.

Made these in honor of Valentine's Day. Don't be too impressed,
they are mix-from-a-box cupcakes with aerosol icing.
The other thing that has led to an improvement in my food preparation prowess is the realization that cooking—far from being an exact science—is more of a dark art. As a programmer, I tended to think in absolutes and followed recipes to a fault, but now I understand that as long as you bung most of the ingredients into the mix in roughly the right ratio and cook the results until they stop looking raw and start looking like they are cooked, you generally end up with something palatable.

And if not, there’s always the chippie across the street.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013


The manuscript changes are in, the tweaks (over 500 of them) have been completed and the new version of Finding Rachel Davenport has been uploaded. That’s one of the upsides of the digital revolution: a book can be edited even after it has been published (though having a flexible and understanding publisher helps; I wouldn’t expect HarperCollins to pull off something like this.)

To those who volunteered to steer me safely through the reefs and shoals of British culture, I offer a huge Thank You! Your input was invaluable and I am forever indebted to you all.

I’m hoping, however, that this wasn’t a mistake; the only people who complained about the “Americanisms” were the British and, according to my publisher, they aren’t buying the book, anyway. Mostly, it’s Americans buying the book (by a margin of about 100 to 1) so fixing the book to benefit people who aren’t buying it at the expense of people who are might not have been the smartest business move. What I am hoping, obviously, is that the Brits will forgive my mutilation of their language and begin downloading copies in their thousands, and that the Americans have watched enough Downton Abbey to catch on to the changes.

At any rate, it’s done and I’m glad I did it; it is a much better book now, having received the dusting and polishing it should have had prior to publication—an omission that was entirely my fault. Lesson learned; time to move on.

As predicted, now that I am starting my third month of redundancy, it is beginning to dawn on me that I don’t have to go to work anymore. It’s a strange, mildly frightening experience that has me feeling curiously bereft; a part of my life—a rather large part—has suddenly gone away, never to return. Granted, it wasn’t a part of my life I was always happy about, but it provided a comforrting routine and helped marked the passing of the weeks; now, I only realize it is the weekend when 8 AM rolls around and my wife hasn’t left for work yet.

To combat this, and to stave off my sinking into lethargy, I have instituted a new routine that has me going to my “office” every morning, sitting down with a cup of coffee by 6 AM and getting to work. And what has helped this is that I actually have an office to go to, even if my commute is only twelve steps down the hallway.

The act of getting up every morning to the alarm (now that I’m retired I have a lie-in; the alarm goes off at 5:30 instead of 5) getting dressed (casual, no tie) and going to a room where I can shut the door, sit down at a desk (ok, it’s actually a table) gives structure to my day and a feeling of purpose and accomplishment. Also, starting at 6—even with an hour-long break for breakfast and a fiddle with Twitter—means I can finish by noon and still put in a 25-hour week. Not bad for being an out-of-work skiver.

This is the fourth “office” I have had since moving here, and it is interesting (well, to me, at least) to note the progression:

Office Number 1: Back in the days of PCs with monitors and CPUs—remember them? In the background is my auxiliary office where I sit and contemplate; I’m happy to report that office is still in operation.

Office Number 2: The front seat of the 17 bus to Brighton. In a way, this was the most efficient office; I was locked in for an hour every morning and I had nothing to do but write. I wrote four books while sitting there.

Office Number 3: When I went part-time, I set up shop at the end of the dining table. I was only there for a year and a half but I wrote one book and published another during that time.

Office Number 4: This is where I am now, with views of the car park and the comings and goings of the bin men, contractors and people with real jobs.

This current office—in an actual room with a sofa for lounging and reading and enough floor space for thoughtful pacing—is where my real career as a writer begins. If I work hard and get some breaks, perhaps my next office will look like this:

 Or not.