England, late April, 2003
Our coach departed bright and early Friday morning for our day trip down to Sussex. Our first stop was Charleston House, a comfortable but not enormous stone farmhouse that was once the country seat of the Bloomsbury Group (Virginia and Leonard Woolf, Vanessa and Clive Bell, Duncan Grant, Lytton Strachey, John Maynard Keynes, etc., etc., etc.). I was quite charmed with the place—I could have done without the artsy-craftsy do-it-yourself decorating style (clearly these were the people who started the arts-and-crafts movement that was to be so wonderfully ridiculed in the respective masterworks of Kingsley Amis and Stella Gibbons), but it was quite cozy, with a lovely garden and pond. (The gardens of England had become beautiful once again—there seems to be a sort of lull in the middle of spring when the daffodils are already withered but not much else is blooming yet; by late April, however, the tulips and forget-me-nots are finally in bloom.) And the tour guide told us lots of interesting gossip about the incredibly tempestuous love lives of the members of the Bloomsbury Group. My favorite story was about how David Garnet, the man Duncan Grant was hopelessly in love with, ended up marrying Grant’s illegitimate daughter by Vanessa Bell, who, despite being married to Clive Bell, was as hopelessly in love with Grant as Grant was with Garnet. If you’ve managed to follow that last sentence, you won’t be surprised to hear that the marriage was a source of considerable chagrin to all concerned.
From Charleston House, we proceeded on to Brighton. I was starving by the time we got there, so I went straight into an adorable little teashop called the Mock Turtle and introduced myself to the wonders of cream teas. Now I have often disparaged English cuisine, but here's one instance where they've got it right. First I was brought a pot of freshly brewed tea with all of the accoutrements: a little strainer to pour the tea through because the tea leaves were loose in the pot, a jug of hot water (presumably to dilute the tea if it got too strong), a bowl of sugar cubes with tongs to pick them up, and, of course, a jug of cream (so much better for tea than milk). Once I figured out what everything was for, I made myself a lovely cup of tea (the teacup and saucer were Blue Willow, which I loved) and sipped it while I waited for the rest to come. In due time, it arrived, and I was immediately in heaven: two scones right out of the oven; fresh strawberry jam; and, best of all, gooey clotted cream that soaked deep into the scones, infusing them with flavor. I'll never be fully satisfied with butter again—they brought some, but I didn't use it. Oh cream tea, how I love you . . . I'm getting hungry just thinking about it.
After that, I went on a tour of the Royal Pavilion. What was it like, you ask? Three words: un fricking believable. It was built in the late 18th and early 19th century as a stately pleasure-dome for the Prince of Wales (later Prince Regent, then King George IV), to which he could escape to freely indulge his huge appetite for debauchery, far away from London and the disapproving eye of his father (at least until said father, George III, went mad). The outside of the Pavilion was Indian in inspiration, with onion domes and the like; the inside was decorated in the faux-Oriental style known as "chinoiserie." But merely to say this is to give no idea of the jaw-dropping splendor of the place. It was not terribly big, but very inch of it was covered in bright, shiny, beautiful, exotic, staggeringly expensive decoration. Walls, chandeliers, carpets, furniture, fireplaces, curtains, knick-knacks—everything was gaudily embellished. I'm not going to try and describe it any further—you'll just have to see it for yourselves, which I would highly recommend you do whenever you get the ghost of a chance. After the tour, during which I was treated to a whole new round of gossip about the incredibly tempestuous love life of the Prince Regent, I wandered around the building for hours, never getting bored though I visited the same rooms over and over: for the Royal Pavilion is the opposite of boring. My taste in most things is fairly simple, but man, that's one splendiferous mansion I think I could reconcile myself to living in.