For us, this is the season of 70th birthday parties. Friends have been kind enough to invite us to rather special gatherings, and the first is this coming weekend in Devon. We have escaped our responsibilities and chores and are making a long weekend of it. So, although the party starts tomorrow, we left home a day early to maraud around part of the New Forest, en route.
Satnavs are marvellous, of course, giving their directions in whichever voice or accent we've selected and can be pretty reliable. But they have all the disadvantages of a tiny screen and a mind of their own. If you want to divert, or go through a particular waypoint, it's not always easy to set that up. We wanted to go via Maidstone to cut a corner. We could see the road numbers ahead of us and were led through a wonderfully downbeat part of town, a kind of townscape almost wiped out nowadays with small shops, lots of converted buildings some dating from the 18th century but all covered in diesel grime, narrow pavements, everything looking as if it's waiting to be demolished but struggling on meanwhile. Very Dickensian. The route petered out. The signage and the speed of the satnav's instructions do not really tally and we were on the wrong road in no time, heading for Hastings instead of Tunbridge. An exciting BANG happened when a passing lorry knocked the wing mirror off another lorry waiting in a traffic queue behind us. The culprit rushed off. The injured party set off in pursuit, two large vehicles heading for some kind of dustup. We tried to get back to where we should have been. The traffic lights took ages. Our new road turned out to be a building site, with Road Closed signs everywhere. This diversion cost us about 40 minutes overall.
The landscape is stunning - not quite in full summer leaf, and ash trees still denuded of any kinds of greenery, but the hedges and woods filling with brilliant pale greens and yellows, the distant views still almost intact, and birdsong flooding the air if you stop to listen. The lambs and sheep look happy and calm. The white blossoms of hawthorn and cow parsley are frothing along the roadsides. The bluebells are spread like hallucinogenic clouds through the woodlands. England in early May is just breathtakingly beautiful.
We sauntered on through the paradise land, the lanes and roads twisting and winding, the trees meeting overhead, the greenery fresh and scintillating.
Eventually the idea of coffee (and a wee) came to dominate our thoughts and we did that thing of spending a long time trying to choose where exactly to stop. Not one but two pubs with large signs outside saying 'OPEN' and 'Food served all day' turned out to be CLOSED and with nothing doing. It's irritating because you have to stop, safely, and lock up, and gather your bags and bits, and all that and really the pubs either ought to sign their true opening times more clearly or show some decent human and commercial sense and say (as the man did last week at the exemplary Fox Inn at Bucks Green near Horsham) 'We're not really open yet but if you hang on a moment yes of course we can serve you a coffee.....'.
So BOO to the pub in Langton Green, and BOO to the Gallipot at Hartfield for their inhospitality. We got to Forest Row in the end, and there was Taffel's Deli-Cafe with free parking opposite and a most excellent arty atmosphere, with free wifi and nice service and good coffee - so that we stayed on for lunch and they had £30's worth of business from us and a mention on Facebook.
The A272 is quite a characterful road, running parallel to the south coast but a way inland , and not so plagued with traffic as the coast road, leading through a succession of plump Anglo-Saxon townships now glittering with antique shops and the like, and with very pleasing acute turns and corners forcing the traffic into exquisite manoeuvres which force your mind into contemplation of times past, rather like the grimy relicts of Maidstone, only better brushed up. By the time we got to Midhurst we'd had enough of sauntering and bashed southwards towards the motorways and a speedier arrival. We were heading to Hampshire's Hythe.
This ancient place name means 'a safe harbour' and there are many of them around the coast. As far as Andrew was concerned, this one has been on his list of places to go for many years because a) it has a pier, and b) it has a railway on the pier, and c) it has a ferry service from the end which goes across the Water to Southampton. Hythe itself has been done up a bit, pavement level raised (with a Georgian doorway looking ridiculously squat), and it has a useful modern shopping centre and lots of modern housing at reasonable prices, in comparison (say) to Emsworth which we visited last September and where house prices are at millionaire level.
We got to the pier. It's brilliantly ramshackle looking, a bit chaotic and spindly to be honest, and with a wealth of posters and leaflets on hand and a slightly disgruntled man selling tickets and trying to explain the intricacies of the train timetable and the ferry timetable to idiot visitors like us. £10 bought us a return ticket all the way to Southampton by train and ferry.... and so we clambered into the tiny wooden coach with varnished slat benches, and not too long to wait before the whole caboodle set off along the pier. 700 feet to the end, clickety-clack, clickety-clack. It rocks and sways. The doors need not be shut. The sea swishes about underneath. It's ridiculous and marvellous. At the far end, there are piles of lumber and old oil tanks and sheets of rusty iron and coils of rope. People have paid to have their names inscribed into the stout teak planks, part of the fundraising which keeps the whole thing going.
Down a ramp, a small open modern boat is bobbing about - the ferry, called Jenny Ann. We go aboard, wait a bit and eventually with a great roar of the diesel engine we set off the couple of miles across the water. We saw tug boats and fast ferries for the Isle of Wight. The landscape on either side is low and flat. The sky was dull and the sea calm. At Southampton we swung round onto the berth and everyone got off.... We walked up the ramp, strolled along the quay with completely anonymous modern buildings and carparks and over to the remnants of the city's medieval walls, apparently the largest of their kind in the country. These scraps of lovely stonework incorporate an almshouse and college, a huge dovecot, a Franscican friary and various towers and a chapel. Labelling is intermittent - some boards having faded to nothing. We had 20 minutes or so to take it all in and then back to the ferry and back across the water. All calm and good fun. The trip back was much more crowded with at least 4 bicycles stacked against the simple seating and three times as many passengers. No-one was talking, either way.
We had twenty minutes to go through the New Forest then, to get to Sway and our bed for the night. The Forest looked utterly lovely with horses and foals, some cattle, deer in the woods, and blossom and fresh greenery, and not much traffic.
Sway has one truly remarkable thing. A Tower. It is 14 storeys tall, and almost pointless. Of course it has marvellous views from the top, but no lift. It is the largest structure in the world made of non-reinforced concrete, built by Lord Peterson who was a barrister in India in the 19th century and came home to spend his fortune on his estate, employing 40 people for 6 years and building cottages and houses for them too. This extraordinary thing is not in any way beautiful, looking rough and scratchy though it has tall windows up its sides and a cupola on top. It also has a whole section bearing a mass of telecommunications equipment which apparently brings in a tidy income. The first four floors are arranged as bedrooms, each with en suite bathrooms. There is a swimming pool and two fine reception rooms and other spaces. The whole thing is for sale for £2 million pounds. Quite cheap really (if you don't mind stairs). There is a much smaller puppy tower about 150 yards from the big one, maybe a practice structure. It looks like a campanile.
Our B&B is ok, with a patch of plastic grass outside the terrace (looks ok and presumably stops mud being walked into the house), and two happy Gloucester Old Spot pigs in a field being fattened up, and a distant view of the Tower. Now we are in bed, tired and happy after a pub supper along the road. I think Andrew has had a good birthday. He looked so happy on that train.