Picking up where I left off the narrative from JFK, we boarded a Virgin Atlantic jetliner, a British airline with lilting accents that caused Rachel to ponder longer than was comfortable for the stewardesses while she struggled to process the strange accents and distinct phraseology to sort out what was being asked in relation to what she heard. Rachel was asking if there was a written list of beverage choices, and they were responding with an unfamiliar British brand name of soda products, akin to saying, “we have Pepsi products”, assuming that that would cover it, while Rachel was wanting to think carefully through what flavor. Thinking that she might not understand English, they tried speaking to her in French, which only exasperated her more.
She finally took my cue and ordered our favorite, a tonic water, delivered in a tiny little 12 ounce can that was almost worth collecting.
We settled into the back of the plane about four rows from the back and launched into a demanding choice from over 50 movies and other media choices, all going their independent ways and zoning off into headphones. As we sat on the tarmac for seemingly 30 minutes of taxiing and jockeying for our turn to dispatch, I was already into Sandra Bullock and Gravity long before we took off. A lot of the effect of spatial disorientation – being tossed end-to-end in open space – was lost on the tiny screen in front of me, but the movie was brilliant and a great diversion, so comforting to get to snuggle in and just focus on a single medium after two days of spatial and auditory bombardment. Despite the roar of the plane, it was so quiet in comparison to the squeal and roar of New York City streets.
Needing to drive in the morning, I quit viewing about 10:00pm my time and got about 3 hours of decent sleep before breakfast. Approaching Heathrow near London, I continued to doze instead of turning back to media, and was certainly not alert enough to read or write or ponder.
Entering the terminal, I began snapping shots of interesting signs. I think we’ll never stop marveling at how differently things are said in England than in America. Instead of Baggage Claim, its Baggage Reclaim. An Emergency Exit is pictured with a running man, sure to cause a panic in the US.
But the funniest thing of all was the fly painted onto the ceramic of the urinal. Even when I realized it was fake, I couldn’t resist trying to pee it down the drain, a clever trick to encourage aim while rushing through the essential.
Immigration was slow and long-queued, but reclaim was fast. Our bags were already offloaded and waiting! Customs was a snap decision. With nothing to declare, we just walked right out with barely a backwards glance to see if anyone was going to question us!
We were directed to a shuttle, which wound a long way to car-rental row where we occupied three despicable hours in dull frustration as we sat in a queue starting at #60 while our ticket was #104, far too many early morning arrivals for the 15 queues that they scheduled. Having reserved with Economy Car as an agent for Europcar, we didn’t have the preferred service as if we had reserved directly with Europcar. Their quality and service was atrocious, adding one charge after another, and I don’t want to revisit that nightmare, as I blocked it all out so that I could enjoy my vacation despite the terrible service and unprofessional business ethics. Besides the rental agency, I was trying to figure out why my cell phone couldn’t find a network, very frustrating after having invested $50 in an international SIM card and unlocking my phone for international travel to no avail.
Our blue diesel Peugeot was an upgrade from a mini to an Economy, to allow for a decent little boot (trunk) that barely fits our four bags under the soft flap of the hatch. It took some time to sort out the car, note all the existing dings and damages, get familiar with the controls, argue about the lack of a manual, and it wasn’t until we were well underway that we realized that it doesn’t have a CD player, only a radio. How cheap can you get!
Getting on the motorway to Windsor wasn’t too difficult. The maps and signs were good to a certain point and we could actually see the castle across the fields, but coming out of a turnabout, we were headed in the opposite direction, and stopped to ask for directions from a young man who had windsurfing boards strapped to the roof of his car. Plenty of wind on this blustery sunny day!
We walked around Windsor’s lower village, pausing to browse and nibble and snap photos of the outside of the castle, but by now it was 2:00pm, much too late to actually tour, besides which, Rachel was finally getting drowsy and wasn’t at all in the mood for a boring castle tour, no matter how keen we might have been. Stopping at a cell phone shop, they tested my international SIM card and concluded that it was OK, so it must be my phone that never got successfully unlocked in the US, so the card won’t work.
And then began the 4 hour ramble, up and over, around and through. We took the M4 motorway east towards London, then bent south easterly on the M25 loop that circumscribes greater London. A traffic accident slowed it down, but it gave me time to get used to the car. The distances were further than predicted. Signs announcing upcoming exists and distances to destinations are few, as every exit goes somewhere with roundabouts to multiple destinations, sometimes 3 points, sometimes 4, 5, or 6!
Getting tired of impersonal wide roads with 3-4 lanes of traffic at high speed, I got off on the A24 and headed south on smaller two-lane roads past Dorking towards Horsham. Such interesting place names. So English! Somehow, we ended up north of Horley and Gatwick airport. As the roads got smaller and deviations (detours) sent us east after Gatwick airport, and we ended up heading back north towards Redhill and Reigate, so we turned towards Burstow and crossed over the M23 but found no access, so now we followed, I think, the A264, an even smaller road with little traffic and nary a straight line.
Through pleasant countryside into East Grinstead, we wound up and over, around and through from West Sussex to East Sussex, wending our way through many wonderful little pastoral towns and hamlets, sometimes getting a view over the hills and dales, sometimes immersed in a narrow defile through a slot cutting down a crack in the mountain to the bottom. Two hours turned to three, and eventually, we figured out that we were headed east again and not progressing south, so we asked directions and started working our way back west towards Crowborough in search of A26, which took a few wrong turns to find, and was only encountered southwest of town by following signs to Uckfield. Continuing on towards Lewes (Lewis) and passing through the bypass tunnel instead of the town center, we followed the Ouse (Ooze) River valley on down to the sea at Newhaven.
It was a wonderful ramble through scenic countryside, peaceful, with Rachel asleep in the back, and just the right kind of road to get used to driving on the left side. The only disadvantage, other than losing direction, was that on these narrow roads, there were no photo stop opportunities, so we have a whole afternoon of impressions clad in green with no recall. Indeed, capturing the sweeping verdure is a daunting task, as there is little contrast unless a break in the hills coincides with a turnout, which are practically non-existent. Cows and lambs are mostly hidden behind hedgerows, but the whole countryside is ideal just to ramble about in.
After unpacking at Jacky’s, and enjoying a spot of chamomile tea, we took off for an evening meal at the Sussex Ox in the village of Milton Street after driving by for a look at the Wilmington Long Man, a curious chalk outline of a tall man of ancient date that looks modern in perspective with trekking poles in his hands. This rustic pub, hidden away on a narrow one lane track bordered by tall hedges was adjacent to classic cottages with thatched roofs, and a red phone booth in the middle of nowhere. We shared our meals, a stellar Beef Liver, Steak and Ale Pie, fried Mackerel, and sliced Duck, accompanied by tasty mashed potatoes, grilled vegetables, onion rings and thick crusty breads with dipping oil. We enjoyed ourselves immensely amidst lively conversation. Sleepy after the meal, I woke up to drive us home in the dark, grateful for Jacky’s directions.