Thursday, October 29, 2009


... of the Third Annual UK/US Meeting - Southeast Chapter

No, this isn’t another “24 Hours” post, though if you haven’t posted yours yet, there’s still time.

These are the minutes of the annual meeting of the UK/US Forum members, southeast chapter, more informally known as me, Howard and Molly getting together for a couple of pints. My wife has attended in the past, as has Mrs. Howard and an occasional guest, but the three of us form the core group. And so, finding myself without adult supervision on a weekend in mid-October, I decided to nip over to Lewes for another meeting at the Dorset.

Lewes is a fetching, mid-sized town with a castle, a bustling main street and a river running through its center. It’s friendly, negotiable and has so many landmarks it is impossible to get lost.

I got lost.

Somehow, I missed the castle and the river and ended up walking out of town on the opposite side from where I wanted to be. I eventually had to ask directions from a woman in a Volvo who was kind enough to direct me back toward Lewes’ town center and the Dorset pub.

Lewes. A lovely town, but easy to get lost in. If you're clueless.

One day, I will discover the secret of travelling around Britain without getting lost.

I still managed to arrive at the meeting bang on time and, after order was called (two pints of Harvey’s and a lemonade), we got down to the business at hand. (Once you reach a certain age and imbibe a certain number of drinks, this business generally centers around the appalling state of the young people today; I won’t bore you with details.) Later in the afternoon, however, when the pub suddenly filled with people dressed as cavalry officers, WWI soldiers and smugglers with their trademark striped shirts, discussion turned toward the upcoming Guy Fawkes festivities. And before events became too blurry to recall anything, I learned a thing or two about the Bonfire Night.

Society members in waiting

The first thing I learned was that the guys in the striped shirts were supposed to be smugglers. Prior to this, I was unaware that smugglers had a uniform and that it consisted of a striped shirt. (Good thing I never applied for a job as a smuggler; I would have failed the interview the second I walked through the door wearing a charcoal grey suit and maroon tie.) I also learned that dressing up is a big part of the bonfire celebration, which mirrors our Halloween tradition nicely, though they leave the ritual shake-down of the neighbors to the Americans.

There are, it turns out, a number of Bonfire Societies in Lewes, alone, and Bonfire Society chapters in nearly every town in Sussex (and, for all I know, Britain). In fact, there are so many Bonfire Societies, that they begin having bonfires as early as August. This allows each society to put on a bonfire and invite all the other bonfire societies in the area to the party, which having them all on the same night would preclude. For reasons that I don’t recall, Lewes is the Big Daddy of bonfires and the actual 5th of November Bonfire Night is always held in Lewes and, from all accounts, it is a thing to behold.

A Bonfire Society in action.

If you like a party and don’t mind being in the center of a crowd of about 75 thousand, torch-wielding people, I recommend you go there; it will be an experience you will never forget. If, on the other hand, you shy away from that sort of thing, you’ll have to settle for talking about it in a pub with people who live there, like I do.

When it appeared that the beer garden and pub could not hold any more ersatz smugglers and cavalry officer, they suddenly disappeared.

“The bus must’ve arrived,” Howard explained. “They’re going over to the bonfire in Hastings tonight.”

From there, my meeting notes get a little wooly. The only thing I am certain of is that I managed to find my way back to the train station, and negotiate two connections on my return journey, without getting lost.

I think I’ve finally uncovered the secret of travelling around Britain.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

24 Hours: Horsham

My Friend Marsha wrote a book. (Okay, she’s not really my friend, but as a fellow expat from the Americas – when I say it that way I can include Canadians – and fellow writer, I feel like we’ve connected on a deeper than “exchanged-a-few-emails” level.) It’s called “24 Hours: London” and it goes through a diurnal cycle, listing what you can do, where you can go and how you can entertain yourself during that particular hour (e.g. naked disco dancing at 22:00 -- ).

To help her launch it, I thought I do a tribute post, in the best, “I know a good idea when I steal one” tradition:

24 Hours: Horsham – the Baby Boomer Edition

05:00: What are you doing up? Nothing is open. Go back to bed!

06:00: There’s still nothing open, but the kettle is on. Make yourself some toast and oatmeal.

07:00: Costa Coffee will be open in a while if you want a frothy coffee and a breakfast muffin. McDonalds and Starbucks will be open, too, but don’t go there, not unless you’re happy to feed the American corporate giants.

08:00: A nice morning stroll along the Causeway to St. Mary’s churchyard. Nothing stirs a bit of joie de vivre like spending half an hour or so communing with dead people.

09:00: Time to queue up outside the Royal Mail office with the pensioners. Or you can queue up outside of Waterstones and vie for a seat at the Santa Fe café.

10:00: Swan Walk Mall is in full swing now; time to do your bit to help Britain out of the recession.

11:00: Elevenses at the Black Olive. Try their bacon butty, it is to die for.

12:00: Have a walk around the Forum and admire the sundial, dedicated by her Majesty the Queen. While standing next to it, ask passers-by if they have the time and tell them that the sundial is broken and is stuck on 6:37 PM.

13:00: Wander through picturesque Horsham park; you can linger by the bandstand and have a light lunch at the Café in the Park or sit on a bench to watch the children in the playground.

14:00: Uh oh! Here comes PCSO Davenport. Someone has complained about a pervert sitting on a park bench leering at the children; time to move on.

15:00: There is still time to pick up a bale of toilet paper and a sack of crisps at Poundland. Bring lots of change.

16:00: Have a browse through Beales and stop off at Café Nova on the first floor, just to admire the look of exquisite boredom on the faces of the waitresses and marvel at how long it can take a coffee shop to produce a cup of coffee.

17:00: Five o’clock; time to roll up the sidewalks. If you haven’t bought it yet, it’s too late now.

18:00: You have your pick of restaurants on East Street—Horsham’s own Restaurant Row; from the plain to the posh, it’s there. And if you’re really feeling the pinch, you can find a bargain dinner at the chippie, Panda House Chinese Take-away or the KFC on the Bishopric. Dine early and you’ll beat the rush.

19:00: Just enough time for a quiet pint at the Stout House.

20:00: Thanks to the Nanny State, it’s back home for a Bolivar and brandy on the balcony.

21:00: If you have Freeview you can get channel Fiver and watch CSI, CSI, CSI, …

22:00: …and CSI…

23:00: A nice cup of tea and a good book in bed.

24:00: A comfy pillow and a warm duvet.

01:00: You may find you’ll need to get up for a wee about now.

02:00 – 04:00: What do you care? You should be asleep like a normal person!

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Grace Darling

To me, one of the best, unexpected side-effects of living in Britain is that memories from my youth are often confronted with their reality here. And while reality can sometimes be disappointing, it is always a thrill to find myself walking down Drury Lane (where, if anyone had any sense they would open a pub called “The Muffin Man”) or playing “Pooh Sticks” on the actual Pooh bridge in the original Hundred Acre Wood, or standing on the bank of the river where Virginia Wolfe drowned herself.

Great Britain, it seems, figured large in my early life, which was likely due in equal parts to my grandfather having been born there and the fact that, until very recently, they ruled the greater part of the planet. In fact, I can’t think of any other country I might have moved to that played a more prominent role in my upbringing, with the possible exception of Israel (“Is that the REAL Sea of Galilee? Can I walk on it?”)

Accordingly, while we were on holiday in Craster, we took a jaunt up the coast to Bamburg where I came face-to-face with that quintessential heroine, Grace Darling.

I knew of this courageous, northern maiden from a song on the Limelighter’s Through Children’s Eyes album, which happened to be in my family’s meagre record collection and which I played nearly continuously from the age of 6 to about 13 when I took up cow-tipping (we didn’t have cable TV or Game Boys back then; you found your amusements where you could).

The specific song from the album was entitled, appropriately enough, “Grace Darling” and was a humorous, audience participation song about a young girl who braves a storm to rescue nine drowning sailors over the objections of her cowardly father. The song held a particular fascination for me because, despite the overtly humorous presentation, my mother told me it was true, which fired my imagination. At least until I took up cow-tipping.

Fast forward, um, a number of years. I’m in Bamburg, and there is Grace Darling, the original, the one and only. Not surprisingly, the truth of her story varies somewhat from the humorous song of my youth, but I was still pleased to meet her:

Grace Darling was born in Bamburg and, at a very young age, moved to the Longstone Lighthouse with her family. At 4 Am on the 7th of September, 1838, the Forfarshire—a 150-ton steamship—sank after crashing into the rocks offshore. At 7 AM Grace, who was 22 at the time, spotted nine survivors clinging to the rocks. She and her father then set out to rescue them.

If there was any truth to the idea that Mr. Darling was anything less than daring, it was probably due to his reluctance to put his daughter at risk. As it was, they both set out and rowed through the gale, reaching the men about an hour later. They took five of them back and then her father and two of the survivors rowed back out for the remaining four.

Although it wasn’t quite the single-handed rescue that modern myth espouses, it was enough to capture the admiration of a (one must suppose) fairly bored nation. Offers of gifts, money, proposals of marriage and opportunities to take her story on the road and perform it for audiences in London poured in. But Grace, a modest and shy girl, turned them all down, refusing to prostitute herself and her story. She continued to live with her family at the lighthouse and died four years later of tuberculosis.

The Grace Darling Memorial; notice the oar at her side.

Maybe she should have taken her chances with the road show.

Seems they made a prostitute out of her after all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Tour; a Reminiscence

The Tour is over, so now it’s time to sit back, relax, pour myself a big glass of Pinot Noir and reminisce about those halcyon days of travelling the world.

I have to say, The Tour was one of the best ideas I stole from people who are smarter and better at marketing than I am; it’s cheap, simple and has the potential to introduce you to a much wider audience. And it might have actually worked if I had kept in mind that it was supposed to be a promotional tour. As it happened, I met so many great people and began having such a good time that I became caught up in the adventure and usually forgot to mention the book.

Still, it was very worthwhile, and as I sit here sipping my noir, I can look back on some memorable moments and interesting tour statistics:

- Visits: 26
- Furthest: this was a tie between Suzer and Vicki Gray, both in Australia
- Closest: Marsha, from London
- Most Memorable: sitting on Wendy’s porch drinking mint juleps
- Most Fun: going on an outing with Jen and her Girl Guides
- Most Relaxing: this is a tie between Andy Mont in Tenerife, Paul Allen in Catalunya and Debs in Murcia; I love sitting in the sun drinking beer
- Most Exotic: being hosted by an Azeri (Scary Azeri) in London
- Most Hectic: visiting Kat and her family on the USAF Base in Suffolk
- Most Ironic: posting a virtual tour post while actually being in the place I claimed to be (Brainard, NY)
- Second Most Ironic: visiting Northumberland, then going home and posting from Bizzywig’s blog as if I were in Northumberland
- Most Amazing Coincidence: posting about an unsung fingerprint expert on Brit Fancy’s blog and finding out she was the great-great-granddaughter of the man I wrote about
- Biggest Shock: showing up at Mickey’s place in Massachusetts, prepared for a bloke weekend of drinking beer and catching some American football on the tube, only to discover Mickey is not a guy but an attractive woman

It is also worthy of note that, of the 26 people who hosted me, 23 one of them were woman. I don’t know quite what to make of that, but it sure was nice.

And one final Tour statistic:
- Books sold: 3

C’mon people, you’re not keeping your end up!

Seriously, thanks again to everyone involved for making this a success. Now I’ll have to look around for another good idea to steal.

Thanks and Good-bye from

Michael Harling is the author of
“Postcards From Across the Pond – dispatches from an accidental expat”
“Laugh out loud funny regardless of which side of the pond you call home. Bill Bryson move over, there’s a new American expat in town with a keen sense of humor.”
-- Jeff Yeager, author of “The Ultimate Cheapskate”

Buy the Book:
Follow the Tour:
Visit the Home Page:

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Craster, the Castle and Beyond

Like many of the towns and villages in this coastal corner of the Northeast, Craster has a castle. And a golf course. As near as I can tell, both are the “must have” features of any successful municipality and, thanks to an uncharacteristically sunny day, we explored both on a wander along the Coastal Path.

Every town I have ever been in has three guys who seem to be paid by the Council to hang around to add local color and enhance the atmosphere. These are the guys who do this in Craster.

Craster’s castle dominates the town but sits a comfortable distance away, separated from everyday village life—and busloads of tourists—by a kissing gate and a picturesque expanse of sheep pasture. It’s a lovely stroll and, with the sun shining and the surf pounding and the sheep staring, it’s not hard to imagine yourself transported in time to the castle’s heyday, making your crepuscular commute with the rest of the villagers to muck out the horse stalls, scrape the fish-guts off the scullery floor for the preparing of the communal fish stew, or to work in the English Heritage Gift Shop.

Dunstanburg castle, a bit of a “fixer-upper.”

As castles go, Dunstanburgh is a bit of a "fixer-upper." It also isn't very old; it was not begun until 1313 and, while impressive in its day, it was never very important. The reason for its construction was mainly to keep up with the Joneses (in this case, the Joneses being the King) and by the 1500's was already being described as a ruin. Frankly, there isn’t a lot to see, but it’s only £3.50 to get in (free for English Heritage or National Trust members), the grounds are expansive and the views are stunning. And there’s a gift shop.

Just beyond Dunstanburg Castle is Dunstanburg Golf Course, which the locals have kept in much better nick over the years. Apparently people in this area place more importance on hitting little balls with big sticks than on providing comfort and wealth for the local Earl. Or maybe they were just so chuffed at that the course was opened to the public after the king foreclosed on the castle that they adopted it as their own.

Protective as they are about it, they were not successful in keeping the Coastal Path out and a trek along The Path includes a walk through the course, minus balls, of course. Another intrusion they had to acquiesce to was the insertion of coastal defenses during WWII, though it must have grated on them to have to spoil their lovely golf course with Pill boxes just for the sake of national security.

Dunstanburgh golf couse, where the bunkers are real bunkers.

Craster itself is a picturesque, tiny and isolated village, accessed by a single, dead-end road, consisting of a small network of streets lined with tightly packed houses, a single pub, restaurant, castle and the looming presence of the sea. When you walk the dark and deserted streets in the evening, you can imagine this secluded and vulnerable community to be a place where pirates operate (as proved by my last post) and where whispers of unspeakable crimes are investigated by the sole, stalwart constable or an aged spinster cum amateur detective.

Craster, splendid isolation or a hot bed of foul play?

All in all a pleasant place and a great location for a quiet getaway; just be sure to lock your doors.

Sure sign of quality lodgings: wooden hanger without anti-theft devices.