Friday 8 August, 5:45 a.m., Eastbourne
I’m sitting in a big white bathrobe waiting for water to boil. In our room are tea and biscuits. I’m sitting by the open window, looking out over the coastal road, the boardwalk, the beach, and the English Channel. Shades of white and grey with the tiniest hints of blue and green. The sky is thick with a blanket of clouds. The sun has just risen, but you wouldn’t know it but for everything’s soft light. We’re staying in a third floor room in Eastbourne’s Sea Beach House Hotel. We hope to go for our first run of our trip this morning and then we’ll experience our first English breakfast.
A short run west along the boardwalk with the white cliffs looming ahead of us, past the recently burned pier (arson, probably) and along endless lengths of immaculate English garden. This town is lovely. The grey, chilly day doubles the nostalgia for me.
As we climbed the hill out of Eastbourne toward Beachy Head, the BBC radio station served up an orchestral setting of the Parry hymn, Jerusalem, no holds barred. We felt like we were listening to the gushing soundtrack to our own movie.
We love the sound the waves make as they crash over the large pebbles and pull them back into themselves – not like the quiet of sand, but like the noise of a maraca or shaker makes.
We climbed down to the beach at the base of the cliffs beside Birling Gap. The white stones left chalk on our shoes.
Friday, August 8 was one of our more relaxing days, though it was punctuated with a couple pretty crazy moments. I began to wake to the sound of the surf as soon as dawn began, so when I finally got out of bed at 5:45 I felt like I’d slept in. I sat reading and enjoying a cup of tea and the morning air through our open window while Mike slept in properly, then went down to the water’s edge awhile. When Mike was up we went for what ended up being the only run of our trip. Though all our walking left us constantly sore and itching for some good, cleansing exercise, we were too tired every day to use our feet for anything besides. We should’ve saved some space and left our running shoes behind!
Our first English breakfast was a treat. We filled our bellies full, planning to make it last us till dinner in Salisbury. After checking out and sitting a few more minutes on the shore we drove out of town, back up the hill toward the cliffs. That was the hilarious moment the BBC blasted the most over-the-top, epic arrangement of the hymn “Jerusalem” you’ll ever here. Sheep in front of us, the channel behind us, climbing out of a sleepy English town on a densely cloudy, almost rainy, chilly morning. We laughed. Very funny, England, we see you.
It is impossible to capture in a photograph the angle and height of the cliffs at Beachy Head. The tallest cliffs in England, they rise over 500 feet above sea level. Astonishing, standing at their feet by the water and looking up. The white stone is chalk. It marked up our shoes and our hands, surprisingly porous and fragile. Little horizontal lines are visible in the cliff edge: thin layers of black rock punctuating the chalk. We parked at the visitor center at Birling Gap where a staircase (thank you, Rick Steves) takes you down to the shore. Once more on the road, we anticipated two or three hours of pleasant coastal and countryside driving would have us in Salisbury by mid-afternoon, and we even thought we might stop in Chichester or Winchester or both to wander their cathedrals for a few minutes. We drove right along the coast until we were west of Brighton. (Not a town I would ever want to visit! We decided it was the Orlando of England in all the worst ways.)
After Brighton it was only a few more minutes to Arundel, where we parked by the massive cathedral and walked down a steep hill towards the town center and castle gates. We were still contemplating paying entry to see the castle, but mostly we were looking for bathrooms. This was our first crazy moment of the day, and one of the most unnerving of our whole trip: Now in England for over 24 hours we still had no local currency. We discovered that all the bathrooms required coins for entry so found an ATM where our credit card (remember the expired debit card) was refused. Great. No way of getting cash? Now we were really starting to worry, only a third of the way into our travels.
Ignoring our need for a bathroom and satisfying ourselves with peek at the outside of the castle (entry was quite expensive) we trudged back up the hill to move on to Salisbury where we could sort out the currency problem. It’d taken us well over two hours to get to Arundel from Birling Gap because of very heavy traffic, not only in the scenic coastal route we chose through the heart of Brighton, but on the major motorways. Clearly a Friday in August is not the quickest time to be navigating the roads of southern England. The whole population sinks to the bottom of the island to celebrate the “warmth” of summer. There were some big festivals going on that weekend, too, making everything worse. So we put together a patchwork route using our atlas, avoiding the major motorways and probably saving ourselves time. We waved at Chichester Cathedral as we passed it, then prepared to wave again at Winchester.
That was our second crazy moment. By now starting to feel nervous about arriving in Salisbury in time for 5:30 Evensong, we were in beast mode. But our tourist’s ignorance got the better of us as we realized that what looked on the map to be the most direct route through the city actually took us into the heart of its historic center (which by now we were realizing always meant narrow cobbled roads closed to traffic). We saw the cathedral all right, several times as we backed up and turned around and tried to find our way out of the jumble of a summer Friday afternoon in a destination village. Once out of pedestrian-land we were still in deep trouble, making several more crazy circles as we learned the hard way how to read England’s more confusing street signs. It took us an hour to pass through that little town, and now it was down to the wire. Salisbury by the GPS was only 15-20 more minutes away, but we had no confidence we’d get there in the hour we had left. Our hearts began to sink a little.
We arrived in Salisbury with frayed nerves just before 5:00 p.m. It was raining. I hopped out of the car at our Inn while Mike went to find parking. The innkeeper gave me a very quick introduction and pointed me in the right direction to find the cathedral, looking a little doubtful as he affirmed my hopeful statement that we could make it to Evensong after bringing in our bags and parking. Parking, apparently was only in designated lots during business hours. He gave me a map marked with the closest one and as fast as we could we were on our way. Of course when we got there we realized it was cash only. So we hoped for the best and parked illegally on a city street, hoping that in the 40 minutes before 6:00 p.m. when meters would be no longer enforced, no one would notice. We ran through the drizzling rain to Salisbury and were gratified to find we still had three or four minutes to spare. We felt pretty pleased with ourselves when we returned to our car and found no ticket.
Evensong was sublime – our first of nine in ten days. The service was sung in plainchant and our hearts just sank into its beauty, both familiar and strange at the same time, a rite we know well thanks to our training and interests but have never engaged in thanks to our denominational affiliations and geographical misfortune. Afterwards, to our amusement, we ran into (almost literally) a friend from home who we were to meet up with in London on Monday. He and his wife had taken a day trip down to Salisbury from a nearby relative’s house to hear Evensong, too.
Evensong ended and, our car now legally parked, we recognized the chill and exhaustion and ravenous hunger that were left in the wake of all the adrenaline that had propelled us to that point. One of our best culinary decisions of the trip turned out to be the heeding of our hotelier’s advice. As he’d sent me off with a map he’d made a quick X at what he said were the “good” pubs in town. A few hours later as we talked with him we found out that in his former life he’d been quite a sophisticated chef. I’m glad we followed his suggestion, since the food we ate was marvelous. We settled on Ox Row Inn, on the large main square in Salisbury. After getting past the awkwardness of discovering the British custom of seating yourselves and ordering your food at the bar (at least then you don’t have to tip!) we settled in for comfort food and a few drinks to warm us up, damp and chilly as we were from the rain, which kept pounding out the open door just a few feet away from us. Nice to look at with an Irish coffee in hand.
Salisbury was hard-earned for us and we felt the cozy comfort of being “home” for the night. We turned in after dinner, recognizing that there wasn’t much to see of Salisbury on a cold, rainy night. Our hotel, however, was plenty to enjoy. Relatively spacious, refined, so comfortable. We were at the top of the staircase with Salisbury’s amazing spire framed in our attic window.
But we were still one step away from real relaxation: First on our agenda was to figure out why the ATM rejected our credit card. Before we got very far we made an even more horrifying discovery: our passports were nowhere to be found. I raced downstairs to call the Eastbourne hotel, hoping against hope they were safe with them and we hadn’t been the victims of theft. Mike had a memory of having put them in a drawer in our room for safe-keeping, and a very vague memory of having retrieved them as we’d packed that morning. Very vague, indeed! The innkeeper went up to investigate and you can imagine my relief to hear his words: “I’m holding two American passports in my hand!” Meanwhile, upstairs, Mike had discovered that our Chase Visa came with a $500 cash advance limit, and we’d so far taken about $480, which meant our attempts to withdraw even just 20 pounds had failed. The remainder of the trip we felt thankful for the travel advice we’d read: “Take a couple credit cards with you so you have a back-up.” We were uneasy with every visit to an ATM, too, wondering if our Wells Fargo Visa, though we hadn’t seen any evidence on their website, would also have a cash advance limit.
11:10 p.m. Salisbury, St. Ann’s House
Our drive west was long but beautiful and pleasant, punctuated by a stroll around Arundel and into the outskirts of the castle we’d hoped to see yesterday. It was quite a sight from the road as we approached! We wound through country roads and impossible town centers (worst of all, Winchester) and saw three large cathedrals before arriving in Salisbury just in time to park illegally and dash into Evensong there. We were lucky and got no ticket. Rain and cold had set in and we retreated to a bar restaurant for a warm, hearty dinner and drinks and then to our hotel. We retired early for a night of reading in bed, after sorting out the discovery that we’ve left our passports behind in Eastbourne. Salisbury seems lovely and we hope to explore it more tomorrow by sunlight. We feel like we are on a honeymoon.