Everybody knows what an English house party in the country is like, but if you want to really know, read on.
Now East Suffolk is a couple of hours from London by train, car and dogcart, as it were -- indeed, Lord Bridges warned guests they must get off at Wyckham Market in the absolute center of a pasture -- but once you get there, it's only 25 minutes to "Great House," their place in the ancient village of Orford.
You are asked to come Friday and return late Sunday, or it may be the early hours of Monday.
There would be Lord and Lady Bridges, two of their sons, Mark and Nick, Mark's wife, Angela, and two of their young friends who were on fire to get on to Glyndebourne to hear Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro". They kept looking at their watches, the opera kids, and went racing off, so they did not complete the full and correct drill the rest of us engaged in.
There was also Pat Squire from Leningrad, an American whose husband is the American consul general there.
Lord Bridges, a career diplomat who works in Whitehall, the government complex of London, is into economics and North Sea oil and energy and so forth, but apart from that is one of those superbly well-informed men who make you wonder if Eton and Oxford are not the best system, after all.
He formerly was stationed at the British Embassy in Washington, which is how I knew him and his wife, Rachel, and there is no reason I can think of why they should ask me down on their country place.
I did once give them some potentilla bushes, which I had grubbed up as unsatisfactory. Lady Bridges is fond of potentillas, and was distressed I was pitching them out, so she came by and picked up the terminal specimens and, I suppose, (for she is a good gardner like her husband) revived them.
Anyhow, there we all were, though I only got there late Saturday, for some are gluttons for labor and often deny themselves the simple pleasures that others enjoy.
"But you simply must get here early," said Lady Bridges. "The weather may be fine and we shall have a picnic on the ness."
Who knows what a picnic on the ness involves, but readiness is all. And Lord Bridges said "Great House" was at the end of the world and we should all have a rollicking good time crawling among brambles, so be sure to bring along some pretty wooly clothes if I had them. Rags, in other words, and as it happened I have plenty such.
Bridges fetched me at the station and said the glorious tree I was admiring was an elder, rather a nasty weed, you know. He drove a natty little car called a Rover.
"But not a Land Rover?" I asked. Not the sort of thing you go to Baluchistan in, to collect cactus.
"A Rover," he said, "but not a Land Rover. It's the car you use in England to collect cactus."
Mark is newly married, and still young enough to enjoy mucking about with boats, getting them ready, and since it gave him such pleasure, we let him do it.
We used our time more constructively, admiring the late 18th-century house, with maybe eight or 10 bedrooms and a charming garden of two acres, stuffed with delphinium, roses, cistus and the usual English garden flowers as well as some ornamental zucchini, potatoes, leeks and raspberries all covered with nets against the birds, so many raspberries that nobody even ate any except Americans, for research purposes.
"Have you leek plants?" Bridges asked when we stopped once by a farm that sold seedling plants.
"Tom, we already have plenty of leeks," said Rachel, and I sensed she was not quite so fond of them as he.
Leeks are, of course, strongly identified with Wales, the prince of which is newly married, so I was delighted to be doing this particular story, so utterly identified with Wales. You see the close connection with the royal wedding.
We piled into the boat, all nine of us, once Mark had had the pleasure of getting it all ready. There had been great preparations salad-wise, and plenty of things for kebabs, and some ouzo for Rachel (and anybody else who liked it, though she is such an admirer of various Greek dishes: The English, you notice, are forever liking things from Greece, the Mediterranean, the tropics) and wine and coffee for the less venturesome.
We chugged along an inlet for about an hour. Up this very piece of water the Danes once raided, sacking the Saxon villages hereabouts. And in the Middle Ages the village of Orford, now with a mere hundred or so houses, almost all of them suggesting picture books, was a bustling and important port.
King Henry II built Orford Castle here to command this entry into England from the low countries. The castle is the oldest in all England, for which precise documentation exists, and was built from 1165 on.
It made an impressive ornament on the horizon as we motored gradually along the water. Along the shore were great ribbons of lavender sea thrift in full flower, and you could see wild broccoli, wild peas (which the Saxons and all other hungry folk of this region have eaten when there was nothing better) and fragrant tufts of a plant like wormwood.
We beached, as men have done here immemorially, and anchored the boat. We allowed Mark to leap into the water to do the necessary tasks, since he so enjoys that sort of thing, and we allowed Rachel to get on with the cooking since she is a great cook.
It turned out, after half an hour or so, that the reason some of us were not finding any firewood at all was that none exists on the wave-lapped shore, but only up higher. Possibly we had been chatting along and not noticed this. In any case, Tom is terribly good at finding wood.
Far in the distance, as we roasted, or at least ate (why not let Mark roast them, he enjoys it so) hot dogs, which I prefer to call Saxon sausages, we could see installations that were important in World War II. It was in this part of the world that radar was developed. People did not know what the strange apparatus was that they suddenly saw along the coast.
We spoke of that war, some men no longer living. How very odd, the faint sun streaming long shafts through gray clouds to make the most lovely light on the gray water. And we still living. The air clean, the pebbles of the beach smooth, the fire gone to coals and the ancient perfume of roasting food. Surely Odysseus and his crew ate identical Saxon sausages and roast tomatoes just like these to give them strength when sore at heart.
Mark and Nick were allowed to ready the boat and we rode back in the dark. Rachel once or twice flashed the torch to indicate the channel, which is tricky, and Tom answered questions once or twice, but mainly we sat silent, snug in our windbreakers with the wind all round and the water bright with phosphorescence where the bow cut the sea.
The Saxons, the Danes, who else has seen the same lights in this water, and how many successors will do so? Above, the stars came out.
"What have you done with Orion?" demanded an American. But in these northern latitudes, Orion and his great hound Sirius are not yet brilliant in the sky. Arcturus is steadier and not so rich a yellow as with us in Washington. The great bear, Charlemagne's wain, Aldeberan, the ones with Greek or Arabic or medieval or biblical associations, all were displayed as if on a planetarium dome or for Adam's first inspection.
We got to bed, allowing Mark and Nick to do their thing with the motor, gas tank, etc., toward 1 in the morning.
Church was at 8. Five of us got there. Mark and Nick, who had played the night through with the boat, did not get there at all, for the young are like that -- pleasure bent; but the rest of us were in our right places.
The village church, with its square tower, its old bells, its rood screen, the stone of the ribbed vaulting of the arches eroded away here and there, had only five men and a dozen women in it. One of them was a woman of perhaps 90, supported on each side by two younger people.
"We shall be a while," one of them said. But what is there to hurry about. The woman ascended the steps of the chancel and somehow knelt for the wine. Her eyes seemed failed and she had no vigor, except perhaps of spirit, yet there was nothing sad about it. With her as with all, the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
We sat or stood or knelt, content with the rhythm of life.
"And on earth peace," the canticle went, and one realized the thing was nearly done.
Lunch was glorious of course. We ate in the kitchen. There was only the slightest interval between breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner, bedtime snack; and Rachel -- for a peeress can skin a broad bean, pure'e a gooseberry, roast a lamb (sprigged with rosemary from the kitchen garden) as well as anybody -- had the pleasure of doing it all, though she could never have accomplished so much without valuable suggestions from the rest of us as we sat about. I myself carried a bucket of garbage a good 50 feet, since one wishes to do one's bit.
While Tom and Rachel amused themselves about the house -- Rachel is awfully good at ironing both shirts and sheets and did so for much of the afternoon -- Pat and I examined Orford Castle, climbing right to the top of the tower with customary American energy.
"The view is quite good from this terrace," said Pat, "and I wonder if we need to climb all the way up."
"Of course we need to climb all the way up," I said. "They will ask us questions. They will know."
Later we took a brisk six-mile walk. The Bridges think it is good for one. And it is, of course, up to a point. We tramped, at about eight miles an hour, down avenues of limes, through sandy heaths, along marshes full of moorhens and snipes. There are hides, what we call blinds, in which one may sit and peer out at the water birds. A man had brought his yellow Labrador to see them.
"A cat might enjoy it more," Tom said. We marched down fields, through cow parsley and Aaron's beard and long-purples and barley full of scarlet poppies.
I believe that every few minutes we changed from blue jeans to dark suits and clean shirts. Not on this marathon, of course, but during the weekend. We visited village gardens. We saw Mrs. Barron's clematis. It is thought she has the outstanding plant of "perle d'azur" in all England. She is furious with Mr. Fiske, the celebrated grower of clematis, for recommending a purple one, "etoile violette," to her.
"Imagine," she cried, pointing to it as to a pile of slugs.
"But it is very beautiful," someone said.
You might as well have said a trash can is gorgeous, but she never batted an eye. (She will remark on the bizarre taste of Americans for the next decade.)
"In another climate," no doubt she said. "In another soil."
It was very late when we drove back to London.
"It's always late. You think 7 o'clock, but it's midnight," said Rachel. She picked sweet peas to take back to their London flat. She got out jars of marmalade and strawberries to give Pat. She delivered by hand a note to someone in the village. She cut some flowers for people who had none. She ironed the last sheet, washed the last dish.
Tom bolted the last window of the old house. Turned the lights off in the apricot drawing room, leaving the ancestral portaits in darkness. Obviously, you wouldn't go off leaving them in a blaze of electric lights. All the same, it seemed terrible.
The ancient lady with the family heraldic devices above her lace cap. The other lady portrayed at the pipe organ in the manner of St. Cecilia. The naughty-looking lady of the 18th century who looked Viennese and up to no good at all. All dark now.
We heard the new. We stopped for gas. (Twice the price of ours.) We played symphonies on the car's tape deck. And a Bach suite. We were caught in a traffic snarl. We made an illegal U-turn eventually.
We passed the tower of London. We passed along the embankment. We passed the dome of St. Paul's. We passed the centuries, we pased some memories deeper thay any emotion and we entered Chelsea and we were home.
"What a rollicking weekend," Rachel said. The lady of the chopping board, the lady of the iron.
The poppies in the grain, the lark in a burst of song, the tottering old girl at the altar, the youngsters tugging the boat, the steps of the castle keep, and old Mrs. Barron outraged at the purple flowers, the cold sea and the shingle beach and Arcturus on fire and the yellow dog patiently looking at the crested grebe because his master thought he should. Good night, good night.