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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Act like no-one’s watching

A few weeks ago, I dreamt I’d lost my enthusiasm. It was a nightmare – I just couldn’t find it anywhere. It was such a relief to wake up and realise it was just a dream. Just as well – I needed it in buckets for my upcoming red box experience: a comedy improv workshop.

It was with a mixture of excitement and terror that I’d booked my place on a comedy improv workshop in central London. It represented everything I love and fear – spontaneity and showmanship – and it would mean taking a huge step out of my comfort zone. Love overcame fear, and I decided to go for it. I’m so glad I did; an afternoon in a chilly venue under the arches in central London, with a bunch of like-minded and hilarious people, has to rank among the most outstanding experiences I’ve ever had. It’s difficult to capture just how much fun it was, but let me try.

I had checked out ahead of time exactly where to go, and got to the venue nervous and early. I arrived at the same time as Sophie, who looked as tentative and nervous as I felt. Turned out she was a professionally-trained actor and singer, who was using this experience to get her confidence back to give acting another go. No, that didn’t intimidate me at all. We stepped into the interesting theatrical space – in the foyer of which was a caravan, of course – and met the delightful and uber-friendly workshop facilitator, Fiona. She noted our names and encouraged us to relax and have fun. My nerves must have been visible.

By 1pm there were 12 of us of different ages, ethnicities, accents and backgrounds, standing in a circle ready to begin our afternoon of improv. We were invited to introduce ourselves by saying what our names were and whether or not we’d done improv before. We offered no surnames, no job titles, no home towns, no qualifications; this stood us all on equal ground (kind of – Sophie and I were the only improv rookies) – and there was no place for assumptions, judgments or expectations. Equipped only with enthusiasm, it was easy to imagine leaving my inhibitions at the door. I had to act like no-one was watching, and I was amped.

Fiona introduced our afternoon of character-focused improv, and started us off with a warm-up exercise, which involved several bunny-related gesticulations, pointing at others, and dancing a kind of reggae move around our neighbours. A drinking game for the sober, if you will. It required co-ordination and offered bags of laughter.

Round two – a zombie-style game of ‘catch’ – saw my being the first asked to play a zombie. I had to lumber around the room in my ‘flavour of zombie’ in an attempt to catch someone. Once someone had been caught, we all had to dance around the captive and stage-whisper, ‘Watcher, watcher, watcher’, and the captive would have to nominate the next zombie. Fun! Spooky, but fun!

Back in the circle, we took it in turns to say something for everyone else to mimic. That was hilarious, and everybody had a good go at it. We then had a time of walking around the room adopting, in turn, unusual ways of walking, different ways of engaging with each other, ignoring each other, nodding at each other, leading with a body part such as a chin, or a bent knee or whatever took our fancy. It was really funny. Just when I’d adopted a walk that involved my right arm hanging over my head, Fiona told us all to freeze so she could interview one of us. In a version of musical statues, this continued – we walked around until told to freeze, and Fiona interviewed all of us one by one. My favourite characters included a guy walking around holding on to his trouser legs, shaking his trousers incessantly and moving from foot to foot. Turns out he had mice in his trousers, and he was on his way to the pet shop to sell them. Why were they in his trousers? He didn’t have a bag to put them in. As he spoke, some mice travelled from one leg to the other, and he became increasingly on edge. So funny!

Rhemy was another favourite. She was walking through a park in the posh part of town and, with her big teeth and bigger smile, she talked of how busy she was and how amazing her job was and how crazy her life was. She told of speaking loads of languages; when she was pressed to say which languages, she said, “All of them.” She said ‘yah’ a lot; she was fully the posh girl. Sue was walking completely bent over – her interview revealed she was a contortionist who’d put her back out trying out new moves in her bedroom.

Back in the circle, we took it in turns to hold ‘the gracious goat’ with a sense of whatever emotion we fancied. As one person held ‘the gracious goat’ and announced it, the people on either side had to announce this with some reverence, and the people on either side of those had to go down on one knee and, with a flourish, say, “Isn’t it exciting/confusing/boring/disgusting that s/he has the gracious goat?”

After a comfort break, we re-convened in an area of the room set out theatre-style with four chairs on the ‘stage’.  Cue the ‘creature comforts’ segment, Aardman-style. We all sat in the audience section, and four of us at a time had to sit in the chairs on the stage. Once on the front seats, we had to sit with our heads bent over our knees and pull funny faces. Fiona would say, “Pull a funny face. And another. And another.” After doing this several times, Fiona would say, “Now, sit up.” We had to sit up with the face we’d just pulled and hold that face for the duration of a series of interviews. She interviewed each of us in turn, and we each had to be that person with that face. This was brilliant and so so funny.

Stu sat up with a taut face and eyes stuck, staring heavenward. He talked of his failures at finding a suitable date, and about his forthcoming date with someone he’d met online. He was worried about how he’d ever manage eye contact. Jim sat up with mouth downturned and proceeded to talk as one without teeth about his grandson’s upcoming wedding, and how attracted he was to his young, Polish carer. “If I was 30 years younger, I’d have a go at Anastasia.”

Our final exercise of the day followed with groups of four, again, sitting on the chairs at the front. We had to adopt a common way of sitting, by copying each other and finally settling on a style. We then had to have a conversation among ourselves that we felt fitted with that way of sitting. Our group settled into a relaxed style, slouching and leaning far back on our chairs. Jim began to talk as a member of a London working-man’s club, smoking his rolled cigarette and discussing the merits of Tarantino as a film director. The conversation that ensued was hilarious, outrageous and incredibly great fun to be part of.

Fiona thanked us all for taking part in the workshop and invited us to come back again any time. We all said goodbye to each other; I picked up my bag and my inhibitions and stepped back into the chilly London afternoon, once again myself. After the amazing freedom of playing, pretending, acting out loud, laughing hysterically and showing off for a whole afternoon with a bunch of strangers, I’m not sure I’ll ever be quite the same again.  I had peeped at another version of me, and I quite liked it.

Sunshine signing off for today!

Loco-commotion

It’s been a weird winter in London. The highest rainfall since records began has added yet another reason why public transport hasn’t been running on time. Any day now, London commuters will be revolting. Well, perhaps even more so than they are right now.

A tube strike earlier last month threw London into chaos for 48 hours. Commuting commotion aside, the sight of the city’s mayor’s bad haircut and the union boss’ embarrassing sunburn, along with their public spat, were enough to send Londoners scuttling up North. Lengthy talks averted a second planned strike, which I fear will happen sometime soon anyway.

I commute by train into central London every week day. My journey, which should take 25 minutes from the edge of Greater London, usually takes at least 40 minutes. I have now heard – I think – every reason under the chilly British sun why the trains run late. My trainline announcer is always polite and apologetic that the ‘Oh. Eight. Oh. Seven.  Service. To. London.’ is running late, and offers an excuse which can range from signal failure to overhead line problems, late running engineering works, planned engineering works, the train behind us has broken down, lightning strikes, tube strikes, trees on the tracks, snow, flooding, a person taken ill, no staff available at the station, the doors won’t close, the train ahead has broken down, the train ahead has been delayed, a person was taken ill, trains are being regulated, the wrong kind of snow has fallen, leaves on the tracks, it’s too hot so the trains have to run slowly, an animal on the track, a trespasser on the track, and, my personal favourite ‘an earlier disruptive passenger’. To that last excuse, I always wonder ‘earlier than whom’?

So, while the train runs slowly into or out of my working day, I’ll often while away the time eavesdropping. Sometimes I’ll read my book but it’s often far more entertaining to listen to what’s going on around me. The other evening I sat near two loud young guys in suits who had had one fizzy drink too many before boarding the train. Not only had the alcohol loosened their tongues and their ties, but it also caused their gelled hair to droop ever so slightly. They seemed not to hear each other so yelled their conversation. After some screamed banter, they decided to compare the quality of sound of their respective earphones and that meant they had to yell even louder.

“Try these noise cancellation earphones!”

“What?”

“These are ****in’ amazin’, bruv. They block out all the noise!”

“Wha’? I can’t hear you cos a’ these noise cancellation earphones.”

Listening to ‘awesome choons’, they then ran through the specs of each set of earphones – seemingly for the benefit of commuters on all eight coaches chugging eastwards. They left the train a few stations before mine, still shouting “Wha’?” at each other after every sentence.

The other evening I got on the train and sat near a tattooed and multiply-pierced young man who was engaged in conversation with anyone who would listen. A young guy and his girlfriend sat opposite him, and he noted the guy’s footwear.

“Nice trainers, bruv. You just been for a run, yeah? No? You look like you just been for a run, wearing them clothes and then them trainers, yeah?”

“I haven’t been for a run, mate. I work in a trainers store.”

“Wha’? You work in a trainers store. I bet them ones was expensive. You there with your daughter, ‘n all.”

“She’s not my daughter, she’s my girlfriend.”

“Yeah right.”

Pause.

“So where do you and your daughter come from, bruv?”

“Windsor.”

“Wha’ – Windsor on Thames?”

“Yes.”

“Yeah? Or as we like to call it these days, Windsor in Thames. Yeah?”

He then proceeded to talk about all the places across London that could conceivably have drowned under the current rainfall and give them the suffix ‘in Thames’. He then looked at the guy to his left and asked, “So where do you live, ‘n all?”

“Chadwell Heath,” he said.

“Chadwell Heath, yeah?”

After thinking for a bit, he said, “Well, you can’t really make no joke about Chadwell Heath, now canya?”

He then looked to me and nodded, “Y’all right, young lady? Yeah?”

I nodded, and passed the baton on to my neighbour who said, “Yeah, I’m all right. And I don’t have no name.”

Mr Chatty-man moved on to the subject of supper.

“Yeah, gonna get me some chicken nuggets with chips and curry sauce. Me, I like me chips like I like me women: spi-cy. I bet you like spicy food, till you can’t feel your lips no more, yeah?” he asked the Asian guy opposite him, who politely begged to differ.

This was a good time to change tack.

“Heard about the guy who bought twelve tubs of Tippex? Big mistake.”

He delved further into his repertoire of jokes before asking his giggling neighbour what the time was, as he realised, “I should’ve taken me antibiotics hours ago.”

When the train pulled into his station, he stood up to leave and said fond goodbyes to anyone who would offer him eye contact. Most of us were cringeing and squirming in our seats, some of us were giggling and all of us were just plain looking elsewhere.

“Heard about the earlier disruptive passenger, bruv?”

“Wha’?”

Sunshine signing off for today!

Disco fever at the London Sevens

Record crowds of more than 100,000 over two days. Sixteen teams from around the world. Two series’ cup finals. Two streakers and far too many men wearing floral sundresses. It could only be the 2012 London Sevens rugby series at Twickenham.

Twickenham in the sunshine

We were there last weekend to witness it all. Nestled in the north stand in weak sunshine on a chilly May weekend, it was difficult at first to know where to focus our attention. The rugby was fantastic, but the spectacle that is the London Sevens was hard to resist. Every series has a colourful theme; this year’s was ‘70s disco fever’.

Play that funky music, white boy

I have come to realise that English fans of rugby sevens love to dress up. Most keep to the theme but many seem to keep a fancy-dress outfit at home to suit all occasions. Take the two guys dressed as nuns. They must have thought, “What can we wear for a 70s disco fever theme? I know; our habits. Ace.”

To make it even better, one of the nuns carried a scarecrow with him, who interviewed people as they walked around the stadium on Saturday afternoon. Seventies disco? Bang on.

As we watched the pool games on Saturday, we also saw a team of dancing penguins, a Roman gladiator, two men in kilts, cowboys, doctors, tigers, Eeyores, leprechauns, beachballs, someone wearing a T-shirt that said I heart Will Young and an over-abundance of men dressed in pretty frocks.

Tigers and penguins dance down the aisles
As I said, way too many men in floral sundresses

The rugby continued regardless, with league leaders New Zealand, Fiji, England and Samoa showing their brilliance. Sadly for us, the South African team felt the loss of their injured star players and barely glimmered in front of an unforgiving crowd. I have noticed that English fans support England, the underdog, and any other country that is not Australia or France.

Naturally biased, fans filled the stands each time the England team came on to play, and the players were heralded on to the field by flag-bearing disco dancers. Equally, after each England game, fans poured out of the stadium. In the England v Australia game, the announcers welcomed each of the English players by name and then, almost begrudgingly added, “And Australia”. For each England try, the fans jumped to their feet, swung their forearms up and down to the annoying tune of ‘do-do-do-do’ – looking around as if to say ‘Did you see that? Did you just see that?’

The dying strains of the victory ‘arm shuffle’

When Australia played Portugal, it was clear the home fans would support their European brothers. Australia stood no chance. When one Aussie player broke the line and sprinted for the try line, in the midst booing from around the stadium someone behind us shouted, “No-one likes you!”

Those who kept on-brand with the 70s disco fever theme included the entire cast of Anchorman, complete with a microphone-carrying Ron Burgundy. We saw the Village People everywhere, as well as Kiss, an abundance of large colourful Afro wigs, Saturday Night Fever suits, John McEnroe look-alikes and plenty of headbands, scarves, platform shoes, chest hair, wide lapels and shiny, large-collared shirts.

Mid-afternoon saw a man dressed as a chicken evade security and run an entire lap of the field. When he got to the poles in front of us, he did a forward somersault on the grass before handing himself over to the stadium’s security personnel who tackled him to the ground. Three of them escorted him off the field.

Later in the afternoon, two men broke through security to run along the top of the western stand. One of them was dressed as a banana and the other had taken his kit off entirely. Security personnel closed in on them before running at them and tackling them both to the ground before walking them out of the stadium.

Saturday’s train journey home was epic. We shuffled on to a crowded train in the middle of loud, rowdy and worryingly wobbly fans, including a young woman pushing crisps into her mouth with unfocused concentration. A group of energetic youngsters decided to have a ‘burpy’ competition on the train. They cleared as much space as they could in the standing area and cheered each other on as they dropped to the ground to do press-ups followed by squats and wobbly jumps to their feet.

This soon became difficult, so the competition turned to pole-dancing. Game candidates jumped on to the poles and success was measured according to the number of times they swung around the pole before hitting the ground. Some managed five, others slid roundly to the floor immediately. Three young men dressed as boy scouts strong-armed their way through the crowds to the train’s exits. Banter ensued. The competition organiser told one of them, “You’re the reason I never wanted to be a scout.” The scout retorted with, “Well, with an attitude like that, you’ll never get your pole-dancing badge.”

Sunday’s crowd was subdued. The rugby became serious and hopes of winning cups, shields, bowls and plates were dashed or kept alive. As teams were knocked out, they each did a gracious and well-received lap of honour around the field. Fans clambered for autographs and photographs and the rugby heroes cheerfully obliged. I did notice some players taking off their shorts or socks and handing them over to adoring fans. Seriously.

The sun sank lower in the sky and the play-offs continued in earnest. We had the bonus of watching the final of the Women’s Sevens series between England and Netherlands. It was an excellent match won convincingly by the home side.

The England women’s team warms up ahead of series’ victory

During half-time in one of the last matches, a female streaker broke through security and ran the length of the field. She, too, stopped in front of the poles and did a cartwheel, to the roaring amusement of the crowd. She walked towards the inevitably approaching security personnel and raised her hands, before side-stepping and running away from them. She was hotly pursued and carefully tackled to the ground before being blanketed in a couple of high-visibility jackets and escorted roughly off the field.

Fiji met Samoa in the cup final and provided one of the most outstanding games of rugby I’ve ever witnessed. Two sides of strong, fast and skilful players entertained the crowd with speedy action, numerous tries and a popular win for a world-class Fiji.

The tired crowd left the stadium and headed, with jaded banter, to a less crowded station than the evening before. We stepped over fake sideburns and moustaches abandoned on the road, and walked alongside a 70s-suited punter who sang flatly as he downed his beer, “Down, down, down, down into my belly!” All around us were filthy bell-bottomed trousers, floppy Afro wigs, faded Smurfs, and floral sundresses tucked into trousers. It was clear the London Sevens of 2012 had come to an end.

Sunshine signing off for today!