Sunday, April 6, 2008

Ripley, Surrey, England

In reading Rosemary Sutcliff's Blue Remembered Hills, (recently released in pocket book format by Slightly Foxed), I discover that she had a lot of family in the tiny village of Ripley in Surrey. Indeed, it would appear that for a number of generations, her various uncles and grandfathers were consecutively the village doctor.

This caught my attention because Ripley is a charming and ancient little village near the town in which my parents and older sister and her family live and I have been driving through it for most my life, on the way to somewhere. I first knew Ripley in the mid-sixties when it was not all that far removed from the remote staging station of its origins. Ripley lies on the old route between London and Portsmouth and was famous as an overnighting station for travellers and naval officers. Indeed, there are a handful of extant inn's and pubs (of course) including one (The Talbot Inn) that purportedly served as a trysting spot for Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton. You can still see the arch through which the carriages would have been driven to deliver the guests for the evening and can still dine in a restaurant in the Inn. As a six year old, it was fascinating to imagine myself occupying the same space where that famous hero Lord Nelson once trod.

The other thing that fascinated my young self was the narrowness of the roads. Given that these were laid out in the 15th century or earlier, it was not too surprising that they might not be well suited to the dimensions of modern cars. In particular, the road from Woking into Ripley ended in a T-intersection and a stretch a couple of hundred yards which theoretically served two-way traffic on a road clearly capable of handling only a single car width (two horses, yes - two cars, no) at a time. You always had to peer down the road and make sure no one was turning into it before venturing along. Occasionally someone did turn in just as you were halfway down and then both parties would have to mount the narrow sidewalks on either side and slow to a crawl to squeeze by one another. And if one car was outsized at all, such as an SUV, well that's what the reverse gear was for. No child could stay bored driving through Ripley.

A number of years ago my in-laws were visiting in England for some family occasion and lodged in one of the old inn's in Ripley. It was a good introduction for them to the ancient and often informal ways of England. The particular inn in which they were booked also had a bar and restaurant on the ground level and then a small handful of rooms upstairs. As it happened, they were the only guests that evening. They checked in and unpacked in their rooms, getting familiar with the narrow stairs, the non-standard shaped windows, the fact that there were three or four different shaped electrical sockets, each requiring their own configuration of pins, the smell of five hundred years of polish on oak floors, etc.

What most surprised them though, was waking the next morning. They woke, prepared for the day and then ventured forth from their room; only to discover that not only were they the only guests that night but that in fact there was no on-site staffing of the inn. The whole building was empty and dark. They made their way down the uneven, narrow stairs, feeling for light switches as they went. They finally found their way through the darkened bar and located a door in the back which they could unlock. Slightly unnerved by this unorthodox way of running an inn, they emerged into the beautiful crisp summer sun, beaming down on Ripley in a quintessentially English summer day. Welcome to England and English ways!

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