Thursday, September 6, 2007

23 June: Whatever You Do, Don't Go to Hastings

Happy Birthday to me! Yup, I turned 32 at precisely 1:06 this afternoon. I think it rather fitting that I celebrate my birthday by stepping onto British soil for the first time in my life – something I have looked forward to for at least a couple of decades…ever since I read the epic Arthurian tale The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley and instantly fell in love with all things Medieval.

We were up at 6:30 a.m. and enjoyed the nice breakfast buffet (7 Euro each, but not a bad deal, with croissants, ham, cheese, yogurt, juice, and coffee). We packed up and checked out at 7:45 a.m., wading through a huge tour group of Americans and Brits who were waiting to board their bus. It was pouring rain again, but we made good time to Calais, arriving in almost exactly four hours, just as I had estimated. We stopped for gas about 100 km from Calais, then had to follow a crazy detour for the entrance to the EuroTunnel which required going way past the off-ramp, which was closed, and doubling back on the autoroute for several kilometers.

We finally approached the imposing line of gates but had to wait forever in what is supposed to be the efficient self-check-in line (for passengers with pre-purchased tickets) because someone in front of us was having trouble with the machine. When we finally got our turn, it was a breeze – just put in your credit card to identify your reservation, confirm your info, grab the paper hanger to put on your rearview mirror, and off you go! We were scheduled for the 13:50 train but we were early and were able to get on the 13:20 train for no extra charge. We followed the signs, expecting to see what they call the “terminal building” where we could stop and use the restroom, but instead found ourselves winding through a maze of lanes that ended at the passport control booth. Apparently there is now officially a little chunk of English land in France and vice versa, so they can handle border security before you actually get on the train. We drove up to a window on the passenger side and I handed our passports to the British immigration officer. He asked me how long we would be in the U.K. and I said two weeks. Then he asked where we live, and I said, “Well, right now we live in Stuttgart.” He didn’t bat an eye but said, in that quintessentially British way, “And why is that?” as if he couldn’t imagine why a couple of Americans would possibly want to live in Germany. I almost laughed but managed to say with a straight face, “My husband here works for DaimlerChrysler.” Apparently that was an acceptable explanation, as he waved us through.

We found ourselves heading through another maze of lanes, and before we knew it we were in the line to get onto the train. So much for our potty break! We drove down a long ramp towards the train (photo, right), which looked a bit like a long silver double-decker bus, except with smaller windows, being pulled by a high-speed train locomotive. The platform is exactly even with the bottom level of the train, so you literally drive right on board. We didn’t see how you drive onto the upper level, as they weren’t loading cars on top; apparently the EuroTunnel has not been as popular as anticipated (probably because it’s so darn expensive!) and the trains are rarely, if ever, full. We drove forward through several compartments before coming to a stop. Each compartment holds three or four cars front to back. You are instructed to put on your parking brake, and standing between cars while the train is underway is forbidden, in the unlikely event that a car rolls or the train comes to a screeching halt. A woman came through and shut a set of metal doors that roll down between the carriages. I wanted to get some stuff out of the trunk for our lunch but we started moving before I had the chance, so we just sat back to enjoy the ride.

The 30-minute trip went by in a flash and, aside from being much bumpier than I expected, was quite uneventful. You can’t see a thing out the windows and you never even get a glimpse of the Channel because the stations on either end are quite a ways inland. (We met some Americans in Edinburgh who were talking about going from London to Calais just to say they had been on the EuroTunnel. John told them they would be better off saving their money, driving their car into their garage, closing the door, having a couple of people shake the car from side to side for half an hour, then driving out.)

John had volunteered to be the first guinea pig to drive on the wrong side of the road. (Honestly he just didn’t want to navigate, because he gets carsick when he has to read maps.) As we set out onto the motorway we passed a little sign that reminded us to drive on the left, fahren links in German. It was still quite early in the afternoon so we decided to take the scenic route along the southern coast of England rather than heading towards London on the motorway and then cutting south as our directions told us to do. It was a terribly odd feeling for everything to be backwards – on and off ramps switched, the left lane being the fast lane, etc. We headed through lush farmland and pastures filled with fluffy white sheep. (Oh the sheep! Little did we know how many sheep we were going to see on this trip.) The road was narrow and twisty, sometimes flanked on either side by high hedge rows, occasionally making ninety-degree turns as we skirted a field or pasture. John was happy. We drove through the picturesque towns of Rye and Wichelsea, full of quaint stone cottages and tiny gardens overflowing with early summer blooms.

We decided to stop at William the Conqueror’s castle at Hastings. We found the town to be much as it is described in Fodor’s – a “run-down resort town” with a rather depressing stretch of gravelly beach and a long row of tacky souvenir shops and greasy restaurants along the waterfront. We had a little trouble figuring out where to park and wound our way through the old town for ten minutes before making it back to the shore and a big public carpark. Unfortunately the parking machine only took change and all we had were paper pound notes that I had gotten at Commerzbank in Stuttgart, so I ran across the street to break a bill by buying a crappy $3 ice cream cone. I came back and put £3 ($6) in the machine for three hours of parking. (I would grow to despise the pre-paid parking lots in England, as you have to guess beforehand how long you think you will be gone.) We ate our lunch of crackers and cheese at a picnic table on the beach, but it was incredibly windy so it was hard to enjoy the sunny weather. Then we headed out in search of a route up to the castle, which looked to be no more than a smattering of ruined walls perched on a rocky cliff overlooking the town (photo, right).

We found “Castle Hill Road,” which sounded promising, but there were no signs to speak of for the castle until we were almost at the top of the hill. Then we found the narrow dirt track to the castle completely blocked by service vehicles, so we went around the long way and came out on an open field on top of the cliff with a view out over Hastings (photo, right) and the castle ruins. Getting into the castle itself (or what little remains of it) would have cost us $15 so we turned back and just looked at the ruins from afar. We couldn't believe how run-down the entire site was - this was William the Conqueror's fortress for goodness' sake! I hardly expected a reconstructed castle, but the whole place was dingy and littered with trash. From our vantage point we could see a large amusement complex along the shore, complete with go-kart track, trampolines, mini-golf course, and carnival rides. We followed a sign leading back down the hill to the old town, only to find ourselves walking down a narrow concrete staircase that stank of urine and rotting garbage. We saw the word “poopie” graffitied in green letters on the wall, which pretty much described our impression of Hastings. At the bottom we came across a guy stumbling up the stairs who insisted that he had not had too much to drink, then we walked through a dark, unpleasant passageway that emptied us out on a street lined with video game parlors and a casino. It was all so gross; we just wanted to get out of there.

We made our way back to the car park and went out to sit on the pebbly beach for a little while. It was so windy that we could feel the sea spray on our faces even from fifty feet away. Around 3:45, having used less than two hours of our parking allotment, we got back in the car and set the navi for Lancing, a small college town near Chichester. Our hotel, the Sussex Pad (which I had found with great difficulty because all of the hotels in the vicinity of the Goodwood Festival of Speed were apparently booked months ago) was the only hotel listed in the navi for Lancing. We plugged in the address and happily left Hastings behind.

Take it from us: if you are ever in southeastern England, you can give Hastings a pass.

It was about an hour’s drive through more rolling green countryside, skirting Brighton, to Lancing. I spotted the Sussex Pad Hotel just off to the right side of the A27 and we had no trouble getting there. John had done really well so far – he only started drifting over to the curb once! The Sussex Pad is a perfectly acceptable two-star hotel; We checked in and found our room, the “Moet Chandon” (all the rooms are named after Champagnes) to be traditionally and comfortably furnished, with an aging but serviceable bathroom. We hung out for a while, watching episodes of “The Weakest Link” and England’s very popular “Quiz Show” on the telly.

We went down to dinner at about 7:45 and were pleasantly surprised by the quality of the hotel's dining room and its menu. It was my birthday, after all, so we decided to celebrate. For starters, John had Scottish smoked salmon and I had a crab salad with crème frâiche, cucumber, and walnut dressing. Then we both had langoustine ravioli with steamed spinach and a pepper sauce. For dessert, John had chocolate bread pudding with molten banana filling and malt ice cream and I had a trio of crème brulées (ginger, orange, and pistachio). Everything was uniformly tasty. After dinner we settled our hotel bill, since we would be leaving early in the morning, then headed out the door intending to take a short walk. A guy who had been sitting at the bar saw us leaving and asked if we needed anything. We told him we thought we would walk to the nearby Lancing College chapel but he said the path was closed at night. He pointed out a mown trail that we could take behind the hotel to get a nice view of the chapel. The path took us past the hotel’s helicopter landing pad (there was even a helicopter parked there, probably some rich car aficionado attending tomorrow’s show) and, at the top of a grassy hill, the promised view of the elegant Gothic chapel, all lit up against the night sky, was quite stunning.

We have a big day tomorrow: the much-anticipated Race Day at the Goodwood Festival of Speed, one of the most famous car shows in the world.

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