We have been hydraulic engineers in preparation for this trip, installing a couple of automatic plant-watering systems in the garden, so as to lighten the diligence load on our neighbour Margaret who for many years has valiantly been in to tend my green babies on all our previous trips. We weren't as efficient as we could have been in setting it all up, but you learn with practice, and got most of the precious pots linked up and then tested for timing and quantities. It seems 5 minutes of trickle, twice a day is more than enough - but she has agreed to come and check for wilted or droughted plants every other day or so. We spent more time getting the garden sorted than packing up for the holiday. I am not ashamed of this somewhat obsessional performance, because the garden has been our great creative project this year and has aroused widespread admiration: young people say they'd like to get married there, and older people have asked to come and sit in it for other rather spiritual reasons. I have even been doing a little blog about it (MyTinyGardenBlog).
We set off not long after 9.30 - all was well. I am - these days - juggling with the satnav and comparing its instructions with a different instructor on my phone, waiting for 'a signal' for both devices, staring at these mad screens and trying to find somewhere to put them (rather than balancing them on my lap), and missing the rapturous countryside as a consequence. Bah! The phone-route-planner is called Waze and is rather good, being interactive and able to warn of impending traffic jams. I think I really prefer road maps.
We think about coffee. Andrew employs his usual search method which involves gradually thinking about how he needs a pee, gradually thinking this moment could be combined with having a coffee, and gradually looking for somewhere suitable. They are not all that common in the backwoods of Kent, to be honest. The first few obviously won't do. So he drives past. We drive past several, then right through Burwash which we had chosen ahead (from the map). Nothing there, and we sail past the entrance to Kipling's house, Batemans. (National Trust. Open. With a restaurant, also open). I get stroppy. "Turn round, go back." He does. Down the lane to this idyllic English estate - we park under trees. The loo is beside the carpark. The café is inside the gates…. We cannot go in without a ticket. Membership is like hundreds of pounds, no, not that much but a lot and ours has lapsed this year. We have been members of course, but have become bored with the way the Trust do things. The pretty ladies on the gate won't let us through… but I persuade them all we want is a coffee and I promise not to look at the house. They let us through, and we saunter inside, watch the gardeners working on hands and knees, sit on the terrace on treacherous mesh-seated chairs which hold a secret supply of rainwater to make your bum wet, enjoy a coffee and a pastry each, and then dart back to the entry. The ladies in the wooden kiosk say 'We don't know how you did that. We NEVER let anyone in. How are you so persuasive?'…..
On we go, and I have the bright idea of finding (if possible) a replacement power lead for my laptop as the original has wrinkled its way into worrying non-function. I need to find one while we're in England, so the mobile phone is diverted away from satnav duties and we start to make phonecalls. Yes! There is one, at Hassocks. Somehow we lose our way, divert to Frant (how?) but eventually find a pleasant IT man in his house, who sells me his own spare cable for £15 and recommends the local place The Thatch for lunch. 'It has a thatched roof', he says. It does. It's a 30s roadhouse in the process of being re-thatched, with extravagant quantities of reed being bundled up to the hat end. Inside, quite a lot of older people are settled in and we join them, perusing the wildly extensive menu for something not-too-extravagant. All mains are £10 or more, and it claims to be home-cooked, but who knows? When it comes along, it turns out to be the kind of meal which makes you both cheerful (clean, hot, something to be grateful for), and at the same time utterly depressed. Its components are all dull. The tastes and textures are dull. The burger bun is the cheapest kind of pap. The salad has no dressing. The cheese in the filo pastry tart is completely anonymous. The vegetables have come from a microwave and have no adornment - three kinds all rammed into an oval dish, plain and over hot. It's café food at restaurant prices. I fantasise about opening a tapas bar along the road, in competition. In truth, the view of the downs through the archly faux-Tudor windows is the best thing about the meal.
We walk up to the local windmill in the hot sunshine, Andrew trying to rescue a moth from a cobweb, and greeting a cheery party of walkers when we get to the top of the hill. It's charmingly named Oldland Mill, founded in 1703, and snuggled in between some ravishingly beautiful houses and cottages. Two men are painting the mill, using a cherry-picker to get round. Its pretty cladding is gleaming brilliant white in the sun. Dr Dulux doing his thing on an ancient structure.
On we go, and chase round Southsea and Portsmouth to find a NatWest bank for Andrew who needs to cancel a lost bank-card. The satnavs argue with each other and with the road signs. We sort that out and drift into the dock. Panic!!!! Where are the passports? Not in the folder! Ah, there they are, under the seat. We wait. It seems because the boat was totally full coming in and will be totally full going back to Santander, the turnaround time is longer than usual. We sit and wait in the milky hot sunshine. Our queue neighbour in his Jaguar has a thrilling old-world Etonian accent, and Dublin number plates - I say that is where our son lives. He says 'Whereabouts?' and when I say Blackrock (which usually does the business), he trumps it with 'Howth, round the bay'. Aristo beats middle class. He kindly shows me on our roadmap the general whereabouts of a delightful palace he and his wife stayed in, in the Picos. She meanwhile is telling Andrew years ago they'd been to Santiago because he being Catholic wanted to go to mass there, but the famous swinging censer was being mended or something so it didn't happen. Quite a couple.
We get on board, our cabins are still being cleaned, so we go on deck with our little bit of luggage and sit in the sun. The British navy is on show, with a three-master (HMS Victory?) in the distance. With a sparkling water and a sangria we sit and unwind. The cabin is delightfully small (no windows). We take a stroll round the decks, head for the café. We join another couple for supper - make friends, talk about caravans and aeroplanes and social injustice. We're in bed by 10 or so, and find we may as well have been sleeping with a horse - the shuddering of the boat is like a great animal flicking its withers. Sleep is fitful, but we chug along out towards the ocean. Beneath us, there are octopus and dolphins, if they are not driven frantic by the rumble of the engines.