Yesterday I treated myself to a mini-holiday, and it was fantastic from start to finish. I caught a train from London Victoria station to the small town of Lewes (pronounced Lewis), population about 20,000, set in the valley of the River Ouse an hour south of London. Lewes is not particularly famous, although it does have a castle and gorgeous old city streets winding up and down the hillsides of the river valley. At the bottom, along the Ouse, is the center of the city, a pedestrianized cobblestone zone that’s home to my chosen breakfast stop: Bill’s Produce Store.
Bill’s is about as close as Lewes gets to fame; it is a regional institution, in the same way that, say, Rudy’s or Buc-ee’s are Texas institutions. Half produce store and half restaurant, the walls of Bill’s are stocked with its jams, marmalades, and special lines of juice:
But I wasn’t there for marmalade; I was there for this:
And lo! It was terrific. The whole experience was lovely, really, from being seated at a glorified picnic table to reading the scattered chalkboards advertising specials like duck confit to hearing the woman next to me telling her daughter, “This used to be a Tesco, when I was younger,” (kid’s reaction: “Whooooaaaa!”) to Francesca, the smilingest, loveliest waitress I have had since moving to England. Francesca was justly curious about why an American would be randomly wandering around Lewes.
The reason was: to hike along the South Downs. The South Downs are a stretch of gently rolling hills, gently rolling big hills, running through about 150 miles of lush green countryside and sheep pastures along the southern coast of England. Fortified with Bill’s breakfast, I set off to walk through 14.5 km (9 miles) of the downs, beginning with the gigantic hill which towers over the eastern part of Lewes: Mount Caburn.
Mount Caburn is a lush green color, even in early March. The summit of the hill, moreover, is an old Iron Age fort; you can still see the earthworks the locals used to defend it.
As for the summit: well, it’s good for only two things.
I spent a few minutes watching the parasailers, including one who landed against a barbed-wire fence (he was fine; the sail wasn’t), before descending the hill to the tiny village of Glynde. This is one of those stereotypical cute villages with little lanes and cottages and things that look like they will be flowers in a few months. From there it was on, down one of those sunken tree-lined country lanes I’ve always dreamed of walking down, to Firle, another village, this time populated by a bunch of people getting horses out of trailers and donning superb horse-riding costumes.
They went one way, I went another, and I passed through Firle, getting slightly lost and wandering into the church cemetery before finding the right road. This led very steeply indeed up to the peak of the South Downs, an intimidatingly high ridgeline. On the way up, I ran into some more hikers and spectacular views, noticed that it was starting to get tragically cloudy, and heard an extremely loud (but distant) gunshot.
The top of the downs is a very windy place. I imagine it would be more appealing in the true spring, rather than Saturday, which was “a random winter day that was nice enough to be 55 degrees.” It would also have been much more appealing had the sunshine from the morning stuck around. As it was, the clouds limited visibility to about five miles and made things within that radius look bleached. So mostly the downs were just really windy and abstractly impressive, apart from the fact that I ran into the troop of horsemen again (minus the midget horse), met up with some sheep…
…ran into a couple of guys flying their gigantic remote-controlled aeroplanes…
…and hey, what’s this?
Then it was all about descending back to the extremely small village of Southease, with a train station so tiny it didn’t even sell tickets or actually have employees. I got a train back to Lewes and wandered to something I’d seen earlier: a bookstore going out of business. They were having a 75% off sale on everything, which means that for just under 8 pounds ($12.43), I acquired the following things:
– The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson. Now a George Clooney movie which my buddy Kait Chura gave 5 stars.
– Cox’s Fragmenta. A collection of weird newspaper clippings from the 1700s, edited by an alumnus of my grad program.
– A leather-bound pocket Bible with one of those little bookmark ribbons and a hard slipcase. It’s the New Revised Standard Version, “Anglicized.”
– Texts From Last Night: The Book. I’m secretly delighted this shared a shopping bag with the Bible.
– Sexually, I’m More of a Switzerland. A collection of the most glorious personal ads to appear in the London Review of Books. If that sounds like a boring read, consider:
“I am Mr Right! You are Miss Distinct Possibility. Your parents are Mr and Mrs Obscenely Rich. Your uncle is Mr Expert Tax Lawyer. Your cousin is Ms Spare Apartment on a Caribbean Hideaway That She Rarely Uses. Your brother is Mr Can Fix You Up a Fake Passport for a Small Fee.”
“Woman, 36, would like to meet man who doesn’t try to high-five her after sex.”
Oh, what a wonderful book!
Anyway, for an extremely early dinner I went to an Italian place called Famiglia Lazzati. It’s really a family: I saw a menu item called “Pasta Mauro” and then heard a waiter saying, “Has Mauro come in yet?” Mauro turned out to be a real Italian. My meal turned out to be this:
The bread was disappointing (the menu definitely said bread with done-up olive oil, but I had to ask for the olive oil and they just brought a cup of straight oil, no salt or pepper etc.). The sea bass was cooked to perfection–touch it with your fork and it fell apart–although the pasta was just nice, and in hindsight I kind of wish I’d ordered a pizza. Still, it was all worth it because the waiter asked if I was a local. Maybe he was flattering me.
Having packed in a full day by 5:30 pm, I nevertheless persisted! It was time to hop on the train back to London, spend the trip reading stuff for class, and then catch a concert at Wigmore Hall. The Pavel Haas Quartet–whom I’ve now seen five times!–are probably my favorite string quartet around, although I’ll leave that for another blog post. It was a lovely musical evening, especially followed up with this:
I chowed down standing in the Bond Street tube station, because for some reason the Underground PA system was playing Beethoven’s Fifth. The ticket guy told me, “Yeah, after a certain point at night, they turn on classical music. No royalties.”
My waffle craving satisfied, I was ready to call it a day. It had been a great mini-vacation; now, back to sleep and then back to work. Sometimes, you just have to take a whole day off and go have an adventure.