A pocketful of Rye

One of the many wonderful things about living in the UK is that if you’re not already living in a beautiful little town or village, you’re always just a short drive away from one. Mr Sunshine and I have just returned from a short break in an exceptionally beautiful part of England, and it was less than two hours’ drive away.

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Rye is an enchanting, medieval town in the historic county of Sussex. You have only to walk along its cobbled streets and through its narrow alleyways, marvel at its Tudor buildings, and soak in its charm and character to know you’re walking through a town rich in history.

At its heart is the Mermaid Inn, on the beautiful, cobbled, Mermaid Street. Once the haunt of notorious smugglers, the Inn is laden with stories and creaking floorboards. With cellars dating from 1156, the building was rebuilt in 1420. It maintains much of its original character, including crooked walls, higgledy-piggledy staircases and sloping ceilings.

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The Mermaid Inn, on Mermaid Street

We stopped for a drink in the hotel’s Giant’s Fireplace Bar, which we heard boasts the second largest open fireplace in the UK. The barman also shared with us some history of the hotel, which was frequented in the 1700s by local smugglers – most notably the Hawkhurst Gang. He also stage-whispered the whereabouts of the now-not-so-secret passageway into the bar.

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The second oldest open fireplace in the UK

A walk along Rye’s central street introduced us to a range of vintage shops, antique shops, restaurants, coffee shops, and nothing that looked typical of a UK high street. We found Thomas Peacocke’s Rye Grammar School, built in 1636, which is now home to a large store selling second-hand CDs, vinyl and DVDs.

We stepped into Edith’s House, lured by its offering of teas and scones, and it felt like we were sitting in a family home from the 1970s . The walls are papered in textured florals, the crockery and furniture are all a mish-mash of styles and colours, there are doilies on the dining and side tables, an ancient television set, and teapots and old telephones dotted around. Everything about it feels comfortable and welcoming, and the food is outstanding.

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Inside Edith’s House

We walked past the Wobbly Wardrobe, the Hatters House, Simon the Pieman (the oldest tearoom in Rye), and saw that we could buy fossils, crystals and gifts from A Pocket Full of Rye.

The Parish Church of Rye, dedicated to St Mary the Virgin and sometimes known as the ‘Cathedral of East Sussex’, is the oldest building in Rye and dates back more than 900 years. It is told that in 1377, when the town was looted and set on fire by French invaders, the church bells were carried off to France. The next year, men from Rye and the neighbouring seaside town of Winchelsea, sailed to Normandy, set fire to two towns and recovered much of what was stolen, including the church bells.

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The churchyard of the Parish of St Mary’s Church

We heard those bells at close quarters , when we visited the church at noon and climbed the 85 stairs to the top of the bell tower. The stairways, ladders and passageways are very narrow and low, with several cautions to ‘Mind your head’. I enunciated one such warning in English, and my very best French and German to Mr Sunshine, and then stepped up and bumped my own head.

From the top of the tower, the views across Rye and surrounding countryside were stunning. You can see from there the second oldest building in Rye – the Rye Castle, also known as Ypres Tower, which was built in 1249.

As you walk around the bell tower, you can see the three rivers that frame Rye, and in the distance, the sea and a glimpse of Winchelsea.

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The view from the bell tower at the Parish of St Mary’s Church
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Rye Castle – or Ypres Tower – up close and personal

When we visited Winchelsea beach in the early evening, the tide was low. The pebble beach opened out on to acres of sandy shore and it felt like the sea was miles away. (At high tide, as we saw the next day, the beach was a tenth of its low-tide length, and only pebble.)

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Winchelsea beach at low tide

As the light faded and the shadows lengthened, we watched lambs gambol and sheep graze in the green fields across the road, as the sun set beyond them.

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Rye sheep at sunset

We found great, character-filled pubs and restaurants in Rye where we enjoyed excellent fare. We explored some of the countryside around Rye, and discovered places of outstanding beauty and views that went on forever. We stumbled upon a most delightful little place in Pett, called the Tic Tockery: a bespoke hair salon, tearoom and giftshop (yes really). Overlooking rolling hills, the tearoom was filled with homemade cakes and treats and colour and character – unfortunately, we couldn’t stay as they didn’t take card payments and we had no cash on us.

And on our drive home, we found the Five Bells Inn in Brabourne in Kent. This divine little country inn not only served excellent food, using only locally sourced, sustainable, traceable and fairly traded ingredients, but it looked like this:

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The Five Bells in Brabourne

With good food, a peaceful town full of history, beauty and charm, plenty of sleep and some blue sky and spring sunshine, and surprises all along the way, I’m not sure our short break could have been any better. If you get the chance to visit Rye, go.

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

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Hello, gorgeous

Sheridan Smith is a funny, Funny Girl. We were privileged to see her last weekend in the new stage production of that name (Funny Girl, not Sheridan Smith), which finishes its run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in London Bridge this weekend. Easily one of the best and most fun shows we’ve seen.

From the moment Fanny Brice whispered, “Hello, gorgeous,” to her reflection in her dressing-room mirror, we were enthralled, entranced, entertained, moved, captivated, delighted.

Sheridan Smith, a beautiful and skilful comic actress, brings so much charm and wit to the role of Fanny, the ugly-duckling-turned-Ziegfeld-Follies-star. We laughed and cried with her as she sang and one-lined her way to stardom and into heartbreak in the arms of Darius Campbell’s smooth, debonair Nicky Arnstein.

The staging was inventive. The musical direction and all those familiar numbers sublime. Sheridan balanced comic timing with emotion, taking us from awkward squirming out of Nicky Arnstein’s advances in You Are Woman, I am Man to the passionate delivery of People and her poignant, rousing Don’t Rain on My Parade.  She carried the adoring audience – and her enthusiastic cast of singers and dancers – along on her every note.

The ambience and  intimacy of the 150-seater theatre make it an experience unlike any other. Built as a five-storey factory and warehouse for the French Menier Chocolate Company when they expanded overseas between 1865 and 1874, the building opened in 2004 in its current incarnation. According to the website:

“Throughout its history, the Menier Chocolate Factory building has been inspired by both individuality and the pursuit of quality. […] the Chocolate Factory is a stimulating environment to enjoy a high-quality and entertaining theatrical experience.”

“There’s nowhere quite like the Chocolate Factory anywhere … The bubbliest kid on the block, and one of London’s great theatre hopes.”
The Daily Telegraph

It is an extraordinary, beautiful space. It was a privilege to sit in the second row and feel involved in every song and dance routine before us. We’d seen Kyle Riabko’s astounding and beautifully crafted  What’s it all about: Bacharach re-imagined there in July last year, before it too moved to a bigger West End theatre.

A friend once ran out of superlatives as she described a new book. She eventually just said, “Don’t ever not read this book.” I feel the same way about Funny Girl, and Sheridan Smith.

Our red box is richer for these tickets, as are we for the joy of watching Funny Girl. It’s moving to the Savoy Theatre in the West End in April and, who knows, maybe Broadway next. Don’t ever not see this show. Or Sheridan Smith.

Sunshine in London signing off for today!

 

 

Back in the blogging lane

I started writing my blog about a year after we arrived in London. I started writing it for a number of reasons. It was mainly to do with catharsis. Little did I realise a new world would open up in front of me.Brighton.jpgThis week I met up with someone who follows my blog from South Africa. Sitting in a hipster little coffee shop in central London, and chatting to Jacqui from Africadayz  about why I started my blog, and hearing how it had inspired her to start hers, I realised how pivotal my blog had been to my whole London experience. It kept me sane, it kept me focused, it kept me hopeful and it kept me connected at a time when things could so easily have been so different.

I was job hunting at the time. The process was soul-destroying. It took so much of my time, with little if any return, and it was challenging to feel upbeat about making that the focus of my every day. With encouragement from friends across the world, I investigated starting a blog. I thought it would balance the tedium of seeking employment in the Big Smoke. And I hoped it would be fun.

I had no idea – and I still don’t – where it would lead. I just knew, on a gut level, that I needed to write.

I chose to call my blog ‘Sunshine in London’ for reasons you can read here. I remember the trepidation with which I pressed ‘publish’ for the first time ever. It was August 2010, and I was nervous as all heck to put my writing out in the public domain. It was the first of what became daily posts about my London adventure. I write about life in London, about job hunting, about being an outsider in the Big Smoke, about our now overflowing red box, and about everything that makes me laugh.

The process of writing a blog has been almost life-changing for me. I find I look at the world slightly differently, I’m constantly fine-tuning my observation skills and, while reading the outstanding, often exquisite, work of a community of writers I’ve grown to know and love, I know I’m learning from the best. Every day  brings the opportunity to read great work, and to sharpen my skills.

My now dear friend, Wendy, from Herding Cats in Hammond River, was the first ‘stranger’ to visit my blog and comment on a post I’d written. I remember how excited I felt that someone – who lived in Canada – had paid my blog a visit, and had liked what I’d written enough to comment. She and I would visit each other’s blogs every day and I loved discovering with her how much we had in common. I’ve not met Wendy in person yet, but I know that one day we will. We’re already friends.

Through meeting Wendy, I found other equally fabulous bloggers and connected with them. As my blog world grew, organically, I soon found myself part of a community of like-minded people from across the globe. I loved it. It gave meaning to my days, I read excellent and honest writing, and I laughed and cried with an outstanding bunch of human beings.

I’ve loved the sense of belonging I’ve felt. In many ways I’ve felt validated in my writing, and in my perspective on life. I had no idea writing a blog would do that for me.

One snowy day in December 2010, I went out for the morning and spotted someone cutting her finger nails, at my local bus stop. It got me thinking of all the strange and weird sights I’d seen on public transport. When I got home I wrote a characteristically light-hearted post about what I called ‘public displays of toiletry’ (PDTs). This throwaway post – Please don’t do THAT in Public – got Freshly Pressed and attracted the attention of about 5,500 readers and hundreds of commenters over the next few days. I was flabberghasted. I was also thrilled and slightly unnerved by this unexpected attention.

I’ve also discovered just how discoverable your online writing can be. As lovers of live music, Mr Sunshine and I go to many concerts and I write about them. One post reviewing a Van Morrison gig not only got picked up by a Van Morrison fanzine, but the chap I’d sat next to read it too! Equally, a blog about a Paolo Nutini concert got picked up by one of his fanzines too.

I found more new friends and blog followers after that. I have since met – in real life – two other fellow bloggers from North America: Renee from Life in the Boomer Lane  and Caitlin from Broadside. It was amazing to meet them and, as I did with my new friend last week, discover that friendship in cyberspace can easily translate into real life. I have a few other blog buddies I’ve connected with on social media too.

One of the most moving blog moments for me involved a post about language, and about sounding forrin here in London. In the post – So this is where I learnt to speak funny – I mentioned my Zimbabwean high school teachers, one of whom (Mr K) I reminisced about with affection. Through schoolfriends in Australia and Canada, I got in touch with Mr K’s wife in Cape Town, who read the post to an ailing-and-in-hospital Mr K. She told me it made him laugh. It was only a short while later that he passed away.

I did find a job after my seemingly endless hunt. That was five years ago. My blog took a back seat for a good part of those years, and I’m just starting to get myself back in the blog writing lane. My book is ever brewing in my belly, I have a constant desire to get better at writing, and I value the nurturing connection my blog writing has given me to a world of talented and remarkable people. What better motivation could there be?

Sunshine signing off for today!

 

 

 

 

 

Observations of a nosy commuter

There is a curmudgeonly cleaner who works in the train station I travel through in my daily commute. I think he really hates his job. Every single minute of it.

He reminds me of a landscape gardener I met a few years ago. She told me she absolutely loved working with plants every day.

“Plants are amazing. I mean, I quite like people, but I don’t think I could eat a whole one.”

I think the cleaner could do without commuters all together. He usually stands at the top of the stairs, leans on his broom and glares at us. Every single morning. Around Christmas time, he yelled a Christmas carol sarcastically at us:

“Jingle bells, Batman smells, Robin’s f***ing gone away…”

I guess he wished we were all Robin.

Angry-singing-shouting in the mornings aside, my evening commutes during the festive season offered plenty of silly-season observations. I like to call the late trains the ‘smelly food trains’. It seems the more alcohol you consume, the smellier the food you have to eat. And it follows that the funnier you think you are, the louder you have to laugh.

On a late journey home, I got on a tube in the middle of an office Christmas party. I ended up standing between co-workers singing Christmas carols loudly and badly, testing out their stand-up comedy and cheering everyone who got on or off the tube.

When I got cheered off the tube, I saw a herd of people dressed as ‘Wally’, and looking desperate not to be asked yet again, “Where’s Wally?” A group of elves danced with a busker, while a couple sat on the platform, gripped in deep and intense conversation over a fun pack of fast food. Another guy sat on his own, chuckling away to himself.

I walked through the station behind a guy who had a length of toilet paper stuck to the bottom of his shoe, and passed a number of random sad Santas seated around the station. A red-cheeked guy clutched his polystyrene cup of coffee like it was the holy grail, and looked like he was about to weep.

I boarded my train and sat opposite a guy who had walked on to the train, chatting on his phone with his eyes completely shut. Another next to me had spilt curry all down the front of his shirt, and a young woman was marching down the platform looking for a good seat with ‘no riffraff’.

On a more recent late train, we watched a woman sitting near us try to rouse her partner from a deep, alcohol-induced sleep. Each time she spoke to him, he stirred and responded with, “Egngchchlgkljg.”

She pinched his nose, she tapped his face, she punched his leg. He continued to sleep and make no sense. Occasionally he’d stir enough to tell her to go away. Or words to that effect.

Eventually she succeeded in getting him to his feet. As he stood, he spotted us. He wobbled over to us and apologised for ‘being rude’, before being frog-marched off the train by his long-suffering partner.

I wonder if he works as a cleaner?

Sunshine signing off for today.

In step with today

I don’t know what it is about some days. It’s like they get stuck under my shoe, and no matter how I try, I can’t shake them loose. With every step I tramp awkwardly and feel, for the most part, a little off balance.

I had such a day today.  To say it was frustrating is like saying that Madonna is quite rich. At midday, I decided to try and walk it off. My plan was to take my lunch and go and eat it down by the River Thames.

Having bought my lunch, I walked along a lovely piazza lined by restaurants. I got distracted by a small band setting themselves up in the shade of a leafy plain tree. I sat down in that same shade, and waited to see what would happen next. And the band began to play.

Adam was the lead singer and guitarist; a kind of curly-haired Leonard Cohen. Leonard Cohen on Prozac; slow and poetic, but not as depressing as he could be. He was joined by a violinist and double bass player, and together they played some really interesting, original music.

Soon after I sat down, a young woman sitting next to me lit herself a rolled “cigarette”. I use the word loosely. She took a drag, stood up and put the rollie down where she’d been sitting and disappeared. I watched her disappear out of view, and wondered if I was part of a social experiment. I thought maybe someone was about to come and have a second drag of it, but no. About five minutes later, the young woman returned with a coffee in her hand. Of course.

Next, I saw another young woman, dressed in a bright yellow, lycra, polka dot body suit. She walked past, not without some sniggering from the construction workers sitting near me.  As I looked around for a camera – surely a candid camera moment? – I saw another young woman emerge from the opposite direction on an old-fashioned bicycle with a basket in the front. She had a scarf wrapped around her head and knotted on top, like an old-fashioned washerwoman. She stopped her bike for a short while and stood and watched and listened. She then rode off, with her furry toy penguin strapped in as a pillion passenger.

Adam continued to pour his heart out into the piazza, to very little attention from the lunching majority walking by, or sitting chatting at the local restaurants. After one lively-ish song, a friend of Adam’s shouted out that his last song had sounded “quite happy”. Adam apologised.

Oh, and a chalkboard next to the small wooden stage from which Adam and band played held a stern warning: “No stage diving”.

I sat a bit longer and soaked everything in. I looked at the beautiful late-autumn-sunny London day. The sky was blue, the sun was streaming through the green leaves of the trees, and what I was experiencing could not have been happening anywhere but London. The city that does random, bizarre, funny, unique like no place I’ve known before. I found sunshine in my otherwise grey day, and I remembered the joy of a city such as this.

I walked back to my office. Funny, there was no longer anything under my shoe.

Sunshine signing off for today!