Regime change

by Mrs J

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Harold Nicholson’s writing desk in the gardens of Sissinghurst, Kent.

I am flying solo, bound for Britain, my second trip home alone in four years. Last February’s visit was to help my sister prepare for her wedding, this time I am looking at schools for our return posting.

Firstly though, I head to Yorkshire, to my best friend who I have not seen in two years.

Like the trainspotters at Leeds station, I find myself recording every detail of my journey into the heart of ‘God’s own country‘. From the gaggle of boys splashing in the river and waving at our carriages, to passengers exchanging ‘ey-ups’, to the Victorian waiting room at Shipley with its original fire place and curved wooden benches, I take it all in like a complete tourist.

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The station’s cafe, ‘Just The Ticket’, serves bacon rolls, tea cake and hot chocolate.

While the weathered Yorkshire stone buildings, pub grub and canal boats are quintessentially British, weather-wise I could be back in America’s Deep South. Temperatures in England top 30˚ for five consecutive days.

Predictably, the air conditioning on my train up from London is not working. It is still not working two days later when I head back south… My carefully curated travel ‘capsule wardrobe’ works around jeans, cowboy boots and a faux red leather jacket; an indication that a heatwave hotter than Georgia, was unexpected

I soldier on.

In my jeans.

I enjoy the small changes in regime: English honey on toast for breakfast, a constant supply of hot tea and – most notably – adult company during the day.

After a tearful farewell to my best friend, I meet up with my father in Lincolnshire. He will be my chauffeur and surveillant for the next three days; as a school governor he has done his homework on Special Educational Needs compliance for his grandson. Together we visit a perplexing array of seven schools.

My dad is a ‘shirt, tie and jacket’ kind of gentleman. I support his over-dressed-code with my own, apparently en vogue, ‘modest‘ ensemble. Monday is so hot our hotel’s fuse box to bursts into flames…

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SOLD OUT! Demand for ice cream outstrips supply at this motorway service station.

 

Wednesday is warmest June day since 1976. I remember that summer well: the fields turned to bare cracked earth and the ladybirds turned to humans for succor… None of the schools we visit have a hot weather dress code – an oversight highlighted in the national press by a cohort of boys in Devon, who swap their trousers for skirts in a protest against their school’s ‘no shorts’ policy.

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These allotments bring back memories of playing with my sister on dad’s allotment in the 70s.

I spend the last three days of my trip with my parents in Kent. They have their own regime and I synchronise without too much effort: newspapers at breakfast, left-overs and salad at lunchtime, ‘meat and two veg’ at dinner, and the News at Ten

I stock up on Marks and Spencer underwear, attend the funeral of an old friend’s father, and enjoy a day out with my folks at Sissinghurst – former home of Vita Sackville-West and now a National Trust property. Here, one can indulge in pure Englishness: crumbling Tudor brickwork, a boat house on a moat, rambling roses, Irish linen tea towels and local fudge in the gift shop, and pots of tea in the shade of Kentish oast houses.

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Sissinghurst’s famous garden makes this one of my favourite National Trust properties.

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It is all in the detail: colour-coded canes; wonky sign; a wall of plant labels.

All too soon it is time to leave one home for another. Over the next 24 hours I experience several moments of utter confusion over which continent I am on…

London has endured a turbulent few months, but the unique spirit of Londoners – epitomised by The Blitz – is still palpable amongst the capital’s ever-diversifying population. ‘Thank you‘ to the stranger who stopped to help me with my heavy suitcase as I head to Heathrow airport…

Stateside, I breeze through border control in the Diplomat queue and am soon greeted Mr J, plus two happy children with four limbs apiece. There has been a quiet revolution in my absence: their day now starts with some yoga stretches, and includes chores and strictly enforced literacy and numeracy sessions, broken up with basketball breaks. My son shoots five hoops on our neighbour’s drive!

As a military spouse, regime change is ever present. The sense of impermanence never really goes away; it drives us to make the most of the roots we put down, and to be mentally and physically prepared to uproot at short notice. If this summer’s trip is a taste of the regime change to come it simply confirms – despite the battles ahead for decent schools and housing – that it will be good to be heading home.

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Oast houses were used to dry hops for beer making; few Kentish ‘hop gardens’ remain.

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