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West Wycombe Park – Sense and Sensibility (1811)

I’m off to visit West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire – stately home of the Dashwood family.

Why West Wycombe Park? Because it’s where they filmed the opening sequence of the classic 1986 fantasy movie Labyrinth. Fellow Labyrinth fans will know that’s the scene where Sarah (Jennifer Connelly) runs across a little flint bridge beside a lake, and starts reading lines from her book, The Labyrinth – watched by an owl/Goblin King (David Bowie).

I first spotted the lake in the background of a scene in another movie (The Importance of Being Earnest) which had the location listed in the end credits. The house appears in a lot of period drama, from Downton Abbey to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I’ve been meaning to visit for ages, but the house is only open June to August – and then only Thursday to Sunday – but only between 2 – 6 in the afternoon.

And as I rely on public transport – let’s see, bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus-bus – it’s going to take a few hours. It’s not quite “Through dangers untold, and hardships unnumbered” – but it’s worth bringing a book, I think.

The surname Dashwood rings a bell – of course, the Dashwood sisters in Sense and Sensibility! Jane Austen accompanies me to the station.

Sense and Sensibility was her first published book. Like Pride and Prejudice, it starts with worries about what will happen when an estate is entailed away. As observation, it’s fun – I love the bit at the beginning where Mr Dashwood lets his wife Fanny persuade him to reduce his generosity to his stepmother – from three thousand pounds, to helping her move out. The widowed Mrs Dashwood and her three daughters – Elinor (the one with the sense), Marianne (the one with overly emotional sensibility) and Margaret (the one who is too young to get a suitor – or even much dialogue of her own!) – move into a cottage near a distant relative, where various romantic threads begin tangling.

Elinor has a thing for Fanny’s brother Edward – but he’s already engaged to Lucy. Marianne falls for the artistic and obviously dodgy Willoughby – because the laws of romantic novels state that you have to fall for anyone who helps you when you sprain your ankle – ignoring her devoted admirer Colonel Brandon because she thinks that at 35 he’s far too old for love. Personally I’d be more concerned by the fact that he falls in love virtually as soon as he sees her, because she reminds him of someone else – his first love (a fallen woman) – would you want to be loved like that?

The time flies by. For once I make all my connections, and arrive at the park before the gates are even open. I ask the National Trust lady at the entrance if she knows where the little flint bridge is. She doesn’t even know that Labyrinth was filmed here – and there’s a lot of park to search. The house is set in 42 acres of grounds, with several bridges, and lots of ornamental temples (installed by the second Baronet after a grand tour of Europe). Luckily it’s perfect weather for wandering.

I turn left down Broad Walk, past Britannia Pillar, then turn right when I reach the lake and carry on until I come to a stream. I see an owl’s feather on the grass – a sign I’m heading the right way?

There it is!

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Thirty years later, some things have changed. Ivy and bindweed are taking over one end of the bridge, and as it’s high summer there’s a lot of pondweed growing in the stream – but it’s unmistakably the same place. I resist the urge to run across it, spouting lines from the film – but I do take a lot of photos.

There’s no obelisk for an owl to perch on, no bench for Sarah’s dog (they were just set dressing). The clock tower isn’t there either – that must have been shot in America, as was the sequence immediately after the scene by the bridge. But there is a family of swans on the lake. I wonder if they’re descendants of the swans you can spot in Labyrinth, and I start to imagine an elderly swan grandfather boasting to bored baby cygnets about the time he once starred in a film with Jennifer Connelly.

The lake itself is said by some to have been designed like a swan – lake as body, river as neck, two streams for legs. Was it deliberately included in the film as a reference to the ballet Swan Lake, which also features a villain (Rothbart) who’s an owl – with ballet dancer’s tights? Probably just coincidence. When you’ve watched a film as often as I’ve watched Labyrinth, it does get inside your head.

And that’s why I’m here. To mark the film’s thirtieth anniversary, I’ve written a sequence of poems telling the story of Labyrinth in fifty-five sonnets. I sit down on the grass under a tree and, like Sarah, begin to read aloud from my little leather book…

It takes me an hour. This has been a poignant year for Labyrinth fans, but reading these poems, in this location – I feel quite ridiculously happy.

By now the park is starting to get busy. I start up the grass slope toward the ochre north front of the house. Built in the early 18th century, it’s about a hundred years older than Sense and Sensibility.

The impoverished Dashwood sisters would have been envious of a house like this (although, their home described in the book as ‘But a cottage’ has two sitting rooms, four bedrooms, two attic rooms, offices, and a garden – I think I’m envious of them).

Although the property is now owned by the National Trust, the real Dashwood family still lives here. It’s quite odd to visit a stately home where the portraits are recent, and there are family photos. The ground floor is open to the public, so I take the tour.

The hallway is unusual, in that it’s painted to look like a Roman villa – painted ceiling and  walls that look like marble, with frescoes up the staircase, and statues of Roman emperors.

Around the house we go – big tapestries, painted ceilings, lots of marble paintings, elaborate chimney pieces, silk-lined walls. But it’s the antique chairs that stick in my memory – to stop people sitting on them, each seat has a spiky dried teasel – with a piece of ribbon tied around it to make it look more like a decorative feature, and less like a threat.

After looking at the house, I go back to the bridge. One of the swans is standing on the grass, gleaming in the sunlight. Swans look so beautiful when they’re out on the water, but a lot more imposing close up. More people are there now, and another girl is posing for a photo on the bridge. I’m glad I arrived early enough to read my poems aloud without a baffled audience.

If I miss the bus there won’t be another one for two hours, and although West Wycombe village is pretty, I don’t want to be stuck there on a Sunday afternoon – between the pubs and the traditional sweet shop, I would eat far too much (I recommend the crème brûlée fudge). But I don’t want to leave…

And then a bird swoops across the lake. It’s not an owl (that would be too perfect) but a red kite – one of Britain’s most beautiful birds of prey. It makes a couple of lazy turns over the lake, then soars off over the trees.

Today’s not going to get any better than this. Time to head home.

On the way out the National Trust lady asks me if I found the bridge. She said two other  people today asked her about it as well – probably the girl I saw posing on the bridge – and definitely the guy who was taking pictures of his special edition Labyrinth DVD!

Back I go – bus-bus-train-tube-tube-tube-train-bus. And back into the book.

Marianne is brutally dumped by Willoughby, and becomes physically ill. Brandon reveals that Willoughby had also seduced his ward (possibly he should have mentioned that sooner). But Willoughby, concerned for Marianne, visits Elinor and tells her that although he has had to marry for money, he did really love Marianne.

Marianne gradually recovers, and starts to appreciate the devoted Colonel Brandon, eventually marrying him.
Edward’s mother finds out about Lucy, and demands that he break up with her. He refuses, so she disinherits him in favour of his brother Robert. Lucy then shamelessly marries Robert instead – leaving Edward free to marry Elinor.

It’s not Pride and Prejudice. It’s well observed, and funny in places, but it’s not really romantic (although, Jane Austen’s books are not as romantic as the films which are made of them). Jane Austen had clearly improved as a writer by her next book – just look at how well the characters of the five Bennet sisters are developed, compared to Margaret Dashwood, who might as well not be in this book.

I kept thinking Elinor was going to end up with Colonel Brandon, as they seem to spend more time talking to each other than anyone else. Marianne eventually wants to be more like Elinor, but Elinor seems too good to be true – making up excuses for Edward, putting up with Lucy – wanting to forgive Willoughby?!

And Marianne just seems to settle for Colonel Brandon at the end. I think that the way their relationship develops – stated in text, rather than revealed through dialogue – means it loses something. I kept mentally contrasting it with how well the way Charlotte’s marriage of convenience with Mr Collins is drawn in just a few sentences in Pride and Prejudice

On the way over here, I thought Marianne was a bit of an idiot, but you know what? Spending six hours travelling to recite commemorative poetry in the setting for a work of fiction – Marianne would totally get that.

 
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Posted by on September 30, 2016 in Books, England, United Kingdom & Ireland

 

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Cullercoats – Limerick Nation: The UK in Verse

One of my poems has been included in an anthology by Iron Press. I’m quite chuffed by this, as their Haiku Hundred was the very first book of haiku I bought. I’ve been asked to read at the book launch at the Eclectic Iron Festival, which is in Cullercoats, Northumberland – basically, head north until you reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, then head east until you reach the North Sea. It’s quite a distance, so instead of going for the day, I decide to go by coach, stay in Newcastle and have a weekend of it – slower than the train, but cheaper and less hassle. Well, that’s the plan…

My lift to the coach station falls through at the last minute, so I have to race out for a bus at 8am. Foolishly, I skip coffee…

My first coach is late. However the driver seems confident we’ll make up the time, and catch the connecting coach in London. But there are roadworks. Lots and lots of roadworks. Despite having an hour in hand, we miss the coach by ten minutes. At Victoria, I join a long queue of cranky people who’ve also missed connections due to roadworks, and get booked onto the next coach to Newcastle – which isn’t for another three hours. I consider having a coffee, but it’s the hottest day of the year so far, and it’s absolutely sweltering in the coach station. I ring the hotel to confirm my reservation (as now I should be arriving at 11pm). The place is too packed with people for me to sit and read comfortably, but somehow I find myself working on a poem, and three hours pass surprisingly quickly.

The second coach also struggles with roadworks. I’m struggling too – with caffeine withdrawal – but we’re running so late that by the time we stop for a break, the coffee shop at the station has closed. I get out to stretch my legs, and find myself swaying slightly, trying to adjust from the motion of the coach.

By the time we reach Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it’s after midnight. The taxi rank by the coach station is deserted, except for a large rat. It looks at me dismissively before scampering off behind a nightclub. But this sort of thing happens to me a lot, so when I rang the hotel earlier I asked for the number of a cab company. Soon, I’m on my way to the hotel.

Unfortunately when I try to check in it turns out there’s been a glitch with the hotel booking system, and it’s completely full – of hen nights, if the drunk lady in the bar clutching a giant inflatable penis is anything to go by…

The receptionist is clearly having a chaotic evening, but asks me to take a seat in the bar while they arrange something with a nearby hotel for me and the other people who are also room-less. When I’m offered a drink, even I’m surprised how quickly I say “Coffee! Sweet, sweet caffeine!”

By the time a taxi drops me off at hotel number 2, I’m really tired – I’ve been travelling for 17 hours, and I’m still in the same country! I black out as soon as my head hits the pillow.

Next morning I have a swift breakfast in hotel number 2 (nice hotel, incredibly bitter coffee), then go back to hotel number 1 to see what’s happening with my room. They tell me check-in is at 2pm. I point out that I really need a room, as I’m supposed to be at Cullercoats for 3pm, and it’s going to take me at least half an hour to get there – plus, I’d really like to get changed first. They agree to let me have the first room that becomes available.

So – back to hotel number 2! Check out, lug my stuff to hotel number 1, and wait in the bar, again. I’m not expecting there to be a lot of early risers, but it’s 11:30 before I can finally check in.

I change quickly, then head back down to the lobby, and ask where the nearest Metro station is. “Well, first you have to get to the city centre…” I am, of course, in Newcastle Gateshead – the wrong side of the river Tyne. Never trust Expedia SuperSaver’s definition of city centre…

I ask them to call me a cab, and I go back to wait in the bar – for what seems like quite a while. I go back to reception to check, and they say that the cab came, but someone else took it, so they’ve called another. Back to the bar I go. By now, the hen night crowd is leaving – to be replaced by an incoming crowd wearing stag night T-shirts! Are there a lot of weddings in Newcastle this weekend? Does this hotel offer some kind of special rate if you book an entire floor? Am I still asleep on the coach, dreaming the whole thing?

I check again on the status of my cab, to be told the second one was also poached by someone else, so they’ve ordered a third. By now I’ve had enough of the bar so I go outside, determined to grab the next vehicle that arrives. It turns out to be a 12-seater booked for a hen night – luckily I don’t have to hijack it, as my cab is immediately behind it.

Into the cab – and into more roadworks. Apparently there are five major projects taking place in Newcastle at the moment – great news for the infrastructure long-term, a pain in the derriere right now. After crawling for a while, the driver asks where I need to go to, then offers to drive me all the way to Cullercoats. It’ll be quicker than driving into the city centre, then getting the Metro out again. I agree, and we head off, leaving the city and its roadworks behind.

Finally – Cullercoats! It’s a fishing village, with picturesque ruins, sandy beach and rocky shore, cottages with old rowing boats filled with flowers in their gardens.
In Victorian times it became very popular with day-trippers and artists, including American artist Winslow Homer.

It’s a sunny day, but it’s breezy walking along the sea front above the beach. I usually wear something long and flowing for readings, and my skirt has decided it’s time for a Marilyn Monroe impression (I apologise to any Cullercoats residents who got an inadvertent eyeful!)

I make my way to the venue for the book launch – a  fisherman’s mission, easily the prettiest place I’ve ever read in. I’m surprised how many people there have a ukulele with them, but it turns out there’ll be a band playing before and after the readings.

The book, Limerick Nation, contains limericks from all around the country, and one of the rules was that the last word of the first line had to be a part of your postal address – so no cheating! Readers have been organised geographically, so it’s interesting hearing how accents change as we read from north to south and back up again. It’s fun – the venue is full and we get a lot of laughs from the audience.

Afterwards I go to the book fair – a community centre that’s been taken over for the day by independent publishers. I’ve never seen so many lovely little poetry books in one place before, and I want to take all of them home with me, but I restrain myself and just buy what I can fit in my handbag. Luckily, books of haiku tend to be tiny.

Elsewhere, live bands are playing in the garden of a house on the sea front. Cyclists are trying to compose haiku about a bike ride. A writer is sitting out on the rocks trying to compose a poem before the tide comes in. This festival even has its own specially brewed pale ale – but I manage to catch the last train back into Newcastle.

I’m back again the next day – this time wearing more practical shoes and jeans, so I can walk on the sand,  gathering sea glass, watching swallows. I attend another launch, for two poetry books – this time in a lifeboat station, again with musical accompaniment (guitar). I particularly like the readings from The She Chronicles (poems about women from history).

On the sea front, there’s an ice-cream parlour selling some unusual flavours, like Horlicks with Maltesers, and Turkish Delight. I can’t choose, so have both –  both delicious, but eating them together does taste a little peculiar.

In the evening there’s a talk by Ann Cleeves – author of the series of novels televised as ‘Shetland’ and ‘Vera’ – a very interesting lady. Someone else beats me to it asking her what she thought of the casting of Douglas Henshall (good, but blond) as Jimmy Perez (dark, and of Spanish descent). She said there are going to be eight Shetland books in total, so that’s a few more to look forward to. This time the accompaniment is a traditional Shetland fiddler, with a beautiful instrument.

Easily the best literary festival I’ve been to – I wish I’d seen more of it, including the play about fracking – but next time I’ll go by train, not coach! As I leave Newcastle, I catch sight of that massive sculpture, the Angel of the North. I hope it will watch over my journey home…

 

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