Monday, 4 June 2012

Solitary holiday

Colourful rhododendrons
Park in Royal Tunbridge Wells
I have been on what I have been calling my Solitary Holiday. I have gone away, on my own, to stay in a small rented apartment in Royal Tunbridge Wells, which is in Kent.

Of course I found the apartment on the Internet, and you can never tell what you're going to get in reality, but it is a lovely living space with almost everything one could want, the main exceptions being a cereal bowl and a sieve. They'd even stocked the fridge with milk, bread, biscuits and a bottle of wine ready for my arrival. I put the bread and biscuits out of harm's way, but kept the bottle of wine for emergencies.

I'd selected Internet access as essential with the booking, which is why you have been getting these blog posts, but I'd also brought books to read, a couple of jigsaws, some DVDs, podcasts, books and music on my iPod, and there was the town to explore - another Royal town to compare with Royal Leamington Spa. I'd planned the food to be fairly spartan in the flat so that there was little temptation to indulge (hence the hiding of the bread and biscuits), but planned to eat out at lunchtimes.

The weather at the start of the week was warm and beautiful, perfect for wandering through the town finding out what it's got to offer. I had a few specifics on my shopping list, including buying tops for work, socks and a pair of shorts if I could find one. Luckily, there are charity shops here too! And BHS and M&S, although this season's fashions are really not to my taste. But most importantly, I checked out Kitsu Sushi and Noodle Bar, and fortunately it was as good as the Interwebs had led me to believe. I planned my tourism around being able to go there most lunchtimes.

Monday was a hot day, so after I'd got back and prepared my salad for supper (but before I'd eaten it), I thought it would be a good time for a shower. The information folder told me it was a combi boiler and should provide hot water after a brief delay, but I'd stood in the shower for some time and there was no sign of heat. I phoned the number for the agent/caretaker who told me that the actual owner lived upstairs; I called at the upstairs door and she thought the pressure might have dropped and went to adjust the boiler. A few minutes later she turned up at the door with a bucket, and to cut a long story short I had no hot water that night but the plumber would be coming the next day. This seemed to fit the description of 'emergency', so I cracked open the wine...

The next day I walked into town again, finished all the clothes shopping that I was prepared to undertake in one holiday (hooray for M&S and charity shops), and paid another visit to Kitsu for lunch. The plumber did indeed turn up while I was at home in the afternoon - Keith, a very nice man, who reported serious damage in the boiler department, to the extent that the whole boiler needed to be replaced, but he would do his best to install one this week. This week! There were rats already nesting in my hair and it was only day 2! I haven't had to wash my hair in the sink since, well, I can't even remember. This seemed like another emergency, but I held back on the wine a) because it was only 3 o'clock in the afternoon, and b) because I was due to go out in the evening.

At a rough estimate, Royal Tunbridge Wells is three or four times bigger than Royal Leamington Spa, and I discovered that it gained its Royal status from King Edward VII in 1909 (Leamington got in first: Queen Victoria, in 1838). It has all the right sort of shops, a mix of big high street names and small eclectic boutiques, as many charity shops as I needed, and enough restaurants of many types (although the only one to see my custom is likely to be the above-mentioned Kitsu). There is an indoor mall, outdoor pedestrianised streets, and a quirky old town area with history, called the Pantiles. You can look it up if you want to know more, but I have to say it is very attractive in the sunshine of an unseasonably warm May day.

The Museum and Art Gallery are housed in the same building as the Library. I didn't manage to stop myself going into the library, but came to my senses very soon and headed upstairs. The Art Gallery was closed while an exhibition was being prepared, but I had a good look around the Museum. It wasn't very big (only four rooms), but had the usual excellent collection of random objects associated with the town, including hop cultivation, cricket ball manufacture, a particular type of biscuit that used to be made here, and an interesting display and explanation of Tunbridge Ware, which is a cross between marquetry and wooden mosaic. One of the highlights of this room was a stuffed dog in a decorated cabinet.

Other random objects included two cases of toy dolls, a small room with the usual stuffed animals (I am repeatedly astonished at the tiny size of the weasel every time I see one), some bits of Roman pottery, old glass bottles, a huge doll's house and a massive rocking horse. None of this came close to the majesty of the stuffed dog, who is called Minnie, and who the attendant told me has her own Facebook page. Nothing says 'Having a lovely time, wish you were here' like sending your loved ones a postcard of a dead dog. So I bought a postcard, and sent it to Lola II and Mr M.

Wednesday evening - the TV refused to accept that BBC1 existed, although Radio 4 was still there. Thursday morning, and I was woken by my phone ringing - it was Keith the plumber on his way. Apparently, the lady upstairs has now gone away on holiday, and there had been some discussion about the keys and how to get them, but it would be all right because I would be there to let him in. I had a nice chat with Keith while we were waiting for Dave the engineer, and mentioned my TV problem, and he told me that it might be because of analogue to digital switchover happening this week. He had thought I was a long-term tenant, and became a good deal more sympathetic to my plight when he realised I'm only here for a week, of which I would have been without hot water for about half the time, and now the telly's on the blink.

I left Keith and Dave to do their worst, and headed into town for the advertised Guided Tour run by the town's tourist office. When I got there, the staff apologised and told me that the tour would be running late, because the Earl and Countess of Wessex were visiting, as part of the Queen's 60th Jubilee 'Meet the Subjects' initiative. This meant that instead of sitting on a sunny park bench reading the book I'd brought with me until the tour started, I was able to watch the preparations for the Royal Visit, including the doling out of flags to everyone, the assembling of four sets of excitable schoolchildren, and the activity of some enormous suited security types who occasionally talked into their sleeves. Then I started to wonder if I'd got the right Royals - was it Edward and Sophie, or had I confused my Royals and it would be one of the others?

It was Edward and Sophie all right, although I wouldn't have recognised the Countess if I'd passed her on the street. She reminded me of Eva Peron (in her looks; I don't have any other criteria to judge her). Anyway, they did their job nicely, stopping to talk to the children and anyone who had a baby or a dog or a disability or all three. Rather them than me - it looked very tedious indeed. The Guided Tour eventually started once the furore had died down, but our guide was a little flustered, having just met the eminent personages, and even more flustered when she realised that the route of the tour was going to be disrupted by the personages being in the church she was supposed to be showing us.

The Chalybeate (iron-bearing) Spring that started the whole town's development was 'discovered' in 1606, much earlier than Leamington's which was only in 1784 (although Leamington as a settlement is much older, being mentioned in the Domesday Book. But I digress). We weren't allowed to taste the water due to drought conditions, but the costumed Dipper and the Town Crier were in attendance, although that might just have been because of the Royal Visitation. The tour was interesting and took about an hour, and when it was over I went back to find Dave still hard at work, but he assured me that all would be well by the end of the day, which it was. So on Thursday I had my first shower since Sunday.

On Friday I decided to get out of town for a while, so I drove over to Sissinghurst Castle, which isn't really a castle, it's the former home of Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson, where they lived from 1930 to the end of their lives in the 1960's. It now belongs to the National Trust, and the main attraction is the garden, which is huge, and separated into different areas with characters of their own. There's also a tower that you are allowed to climb to get a great view. The weather was very hot and oppressive, although it didn't actually rain. I took a million photos - well, that's an exaggeration, it was probably no more than half a million.

Saturday, my last day, and I was looking forward to the Farmers' Market, what with Kent being the Garden of England and everything. It was rubbish. We have more stalls in Leamington Spa, which doesn't have an agricultural paradise on its doorstep. There were no more than two stalls selling fruit and veg, one with meat, one with cake, one with chocolate and the rest were jewellery, hats and trinkets. So I had a nice chat to the chocolate man, bought a cake and went home (via my lunchtime sushi spot).

It rained for the first time on Sunday, all the way home. I had planned to return via the falconry centre, but after watching one sodden display where the birds were about as miserable as the audience, I decided to pack it in. And so endeth the Solitary Holiday.

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