It was Christmastime and I was twenty-one. It was also the first time I’d traveled anywhere by myself, let alone internationally. A childhood chum had extended an invitation for me to visit while she was on break from university in London and when you’re twenty-one anything is possible.
With visions of A Christmas Carol dancing in my head, I stepped onto a plane with a passport, hiking boots, and a backpack — my suitcase got lost in Iceland en route, but that’s another story — and set off on the trip of a lifetime.
Once my plane landed at Heathrow, I tried to contact my friend but the number she’d given me was busy, or so I thought. I hung up and tried again. After repeating this process myriad times she finally answered, breathless from dashing down three flights of stairs every time the communal phone in her dorm lobby rang. Apparently ‘busy signals’ in the U.S. and British phone-rings at that time sounded remarkably similar. We laughed at my naivety and chalked it up to live and learn. The adventure had begun.
During the following week I did everything I’d ever dreamed or read about… toured the Tower of London, ogled the Crown Jewels, rode red double-decker buses, sipped High Tea at Harrods, whisked about on The Tube, traveled on trains, dined at a pub in Exeter where I had my first taste of Devonshire clotted cream (sigh…), hiked to Stonehenge, marveled at the Minster and made a side trip to Edinburgh, including an accidental foray over the Firth of Forth and back with bagpipes in the background.
Basking in history centuries older than the country I’d left days before obviously made a lasting impression on me.
We were scheduled to arrive at our host family’s home the afternoon of Christmas Eve, but our train went missing (never did find out an explanation for that) and after waiting what seemed hours, a replacement provided by BritRail chugged into the station — an antique collection of cars attached to an engine reminiscent of “The Wild, Wild West.” Settling onto the leather-covered bench seats opposite three distinguished-looking gentlemen, my friend and I chattered excitedly while our compartment mates did their utmost to ignore us by immersing themselves in their newspapers.
Ten minutes from our destination, I reached into my coat pocket and discovered a sprig of mistletoe I’d tucked away during an entertaining evening at a club in Exeter a few nights prior. Nudging my friend, I nodded at the sprig covertly hidden in my hand; she followed suit and palmed her mistletoe. Grinning at the prospect of a surprise attack, we waited for the train to come to a stop.
When the compartment doors opened, we sprang from our seats, held our respective mistletoe over the gentlemen’s heads, and planted a good-natured kiss on their cheeks. The previous disdain they had displayed toward “giggly tourists” quickly dissolved into surprised smiles, and as I stepped onto the platform I was tickled to hear one of them exclaim: “By jove, my luck has changed!”
Following a harrowing car ride to our host’s home (apparently there was no speed limit and our young escort seemed to relish that fact), we drove under a brick-walled arch toward a quaint two-story cottage. I can only describe it as transplanted out of a fairy tale. Gables. Ivy-covered walls. A formal garden around back. Leaded-glass windows. Wisps of smoke curling upward from tall chimneys perched above a slate roof.
Inside we were welcomed warmly — like family — followed by an invitation to gather in the the study for cocktails. For some reason, sherry came to mind. Alhough I’d never tasted a drop in my life, it seemed like the befitting beverage for such an historic occasion and our host was happy to oblige. Strolling to a closet adjacent to the hearth, he swung open the heavy door to reveal Waterford crystal goblets and decanters lining the shelves, with rows of wine bottles in the recesses. Then he invited us to be seated in the wingback chairs surrounding the fireplace to get acquainted.
I don’t know which thrills me more — experiencing it or remembering it.
Our Christmas Day celebration included champagne and wine (before, during, and after dinner) followed by additional fireside glasses of sherry. Merriment was a high priority and imbibing was part of the deal. Who was I to question English hospitality? When you’re twenty-one…
Dinner was a formal affair (thank heavens I packed one “dressy” outfit in my backpack) and the antique crystal, china, and silver gleaming in the glow of candles on the linen-covered table was absolutely lovely. Each dish was carried in from the kitchen with great fanfare, one at a time, with hearty appreciation expressed to the cook amidst oohs and ahhs. Roast turkey. Chestnut stuffing. Mashed potatoes and gravy. Chutney. Plum pudding. I felt like I was a guest at the Cratchit’s and I can still “taste” every dish.
Our hosts were mindful that my friend and I were having our first Christmas away from home and, following dinner, they thoughtfully surprised us with gifts to open as their family opened theirs. Although my paperweight and trinket box are a lil’ worse for wear (three decades later), they’ve found a permanent place in my home — and heart.
But, the event that stands out in my mind is Boxing Day December 26th — the British extension of Christmas replete with brunch, hors d’oeuvres, tasty leftovers — and yes, more cocktails. That aside, Boxing Day is best known for its benevolence — a time to bless the less fortunate — and y’all know how I feel about giving.
In the next week or so, I’ll be sharing appetizer recipes from my English hosts, along with my first-ever attempt at “flaming” a plum pudding (it’s been steeping for weeks — have your fire extinguishers at the ready!), plus thoughts from a another benevolent-minded author.
Merry Christmas, sweet friends. And God bless us, every one.
Enjoying the joy of memories,
Have you been away from home during the holidays? What do you remember most?