Chapter 18 Garden Party
One morning as we set out for school, the van refused to slow down at the corner where we had to turn, and I realized that I had no brakes. Backing up slowly, I tried again and this time the van turned appropriately and we proceeded to the nearest service station in first gear, assisted by the hand brake. The attendant explained that it probably needed new brakes and they had no time to do anything for several days.
"Could you check the brake fluid?"
"No, because if your brakes are faulty and we have sent you off without testing properly, we could be liable."
"Then sell me some fluid and I'll do it myself."
"If you must, but don't do it on our forecourt."
Ten minutes later, with David's help, we had brakes again, but needless to say I exercised extreme caution and made good use of the gears.
The following Saturday we went to Canterbury to the 'Beetle' garage where I had bought the van. It was an hour's drive, but the proprietor was good to me and we enjoyed looking at Canterbury while we waited. Margaret came with us this time, and we showed her some of our favourite spots. To me it is the most intriguing town in Britain, as most of the treasured monuments were obligingly missed by Hitler's bombs, while a lot of the crowded slum areas and uninteresting shops which cluttered the centre were cleared. In rebuilding their city, the architects have capitalized on its many assets and preserved its atmosphere. The whole of the centre is a pedestrian plaza; a peaceful scenic walk has been created along the river. The walls around the original Roman town have become an elevated walkway, giving grand views of the buildings, representing every era since Roman times.
It doesn't matter which street you walk down there is something interesting and unusual to see... a solid Tudor House, with its upper storey overhanging a narrow cobbled lane, heraldic designs over doorways, Roman mosaic floors, a huge emblazoned doorway, and of course the magnificent cathedral itself which dominates the whole town. The cathedral never failed to move me; even the children were impressed by its grandeur and serene atmosphere. On every visit to Canterbury we wandered through the cathedral, the cloisters, the secluded memorial garden or the adjacent King's school. I loved going there.
"This is the oldest public school in the country," I explained to Margaret. "It is attached to the cathedral because at one time only monks were educated. These must be the Norman steps I've read about."
"What does 'Norman' mean?" asked Jacqueline.
"It means the time after William the Conqueror, who came in 1066. Canterbury was built by the Romans a long time before that, on the road between Dover and London, and it has been an important town ever since, especially after it became a religious centre and Pilgrims started coming to worship or be healed."
"They said in that souvenir shop it was 'Norman'."
"Yes, apparently a shop was built there in Norman times, and the cellar of it still remains. The house on top is Tudor. The knights who murdered Thomas a Becket in the cathedral are said to have met there."
I had some shopping to do, as I was going to a Royal Garden Party the following Friday. With our invitations had come explicit instructions as to 'what thou shalt wear' and 'what thou shalt do' (both gloves to be worn).
It all seemed rather officious, but still not an invitation to be refused. The teachers at Thamesview all assured me they had never had any opportunities to meet Royalty and were curious to know all about it, so even if I had hesitated they would have urged me to go. The children were disappointed that they were not included, but once they had got used to the ultimatum 'not possible', they were enthusiastic on my behalf. I would see the exchange teachers from home as well as several hundred others from all parts of the world.
Peter had something important on at school... important to him... was it his flute lesson? He had a serious crush on his young music teacher, and objected when I said we would be leaving for London early on Friday morning.
"I could catch the train after school," he argued. "I know where to go as well as you do. What would I do in London while you're at the party?"
"You could all go to a museum."
"I'm getting sick of museums."
Finally we agreed. On Friday Peter went to school, and the rest of us set our to find a camping ground in London, from where we caught a train to the city. Jacqueline and David were going to the Science museum, a suggestion from my headmistress, which turned out to be an inspiration. Having delivered them to the museum, I returned to the Buckingham Palace area. The affair was to be held at nearby Lancaster House. Walking through Green Park, it was astonishing to see dozens of 'garden party' hats all 'heading' in the same direction. Some belonged to an era when the owners would have been delivered to the door in a horse drawn carriage. Some were expensive and elaborate, others told of care and ingenuity on the part of the wearer to create suitable headgear at minimum cost. I had disregarded the accepted style, and had chosen a white head hugging beret type, which I could wear, while travelling. My dress was yellow with white dots, nylon organza, bright and summery.
From the outside, the building was not imposing, but the interior made me feel immediately that such occasions are essential, if only for the purpose of making use of these facilities. I wished I had worn a feminine hat, to feel more in keeping with the atmosphere. The grand foyer was dominated by a huge marble staircase, and a magnificent chandelier. There was some jet, highly polished, and enough gilding to give an opulent but not elaborate appearance. It was truly elegant.
In the gardens we met and chatted with our friends and were introduced to other visiting teachers by the London members. Bruce in a dark suit and Jenny looked striking with her auburn hair and an elegant dress. Maisie wore a floral dress and her hat had a matching decoration. She had brought spare material from Australia, being very astute.
"I only had to buy a plain hat to put it on," she explained.
"I've just met a Jamaican couple who had to send their toddler home to Grandma, because they couldn't get any accommodation... and a girl from France who hardly speaks a word of English."
"Oh look, there is Her Majesty, and of course, the corgis."
"Are those men escorting the Queen Mum, or the dogs?"
The Queen Mother
Silence fell as our hostess, dressed in an apricot ensemble, walked slowly down the steps and across the lawn to a shady tree. The dogs were let off their leads and some of the visitors tried to pet them, but they were indifferent and expert in avoiding attention. We stood in lines, Australians first because of our privileged position in the alphabet, wearing our nametags in the approved spot on the left. An official read our labels and introduced us. We bowed or curtsied, said 'how do you do?' and shook hands (wearing both gloves), very daintily, and moved on.
The food we ate and the cups we drank from were also dainty, in keeping with the occasion... tiny squares of sandwich and miniature iced cakes. We made up for the size by disposing of large numbers.
"Isn't the Queen Mother just marvellous, when you think she must be in her seventies. She has said how do you do to four hundred people. She really is very charming."
Peter was waiting at the Underground as arranged. The train from Maidstone had not arrived at the terminal we had thought, but he had made enquiries and found his way, he told me casually. We caught the tube to South Kensington, and collected the other two from the front of the Science Museum, which had by now closed. They were wildly enthusiastic about their afternoon, and on the way back to the camping area, told Peter;
"You should just see the huge pendulum about four storeys high. It was super."
The next morning we drove from the camping area at Abbey Wood to Greenwich, a suburb on the Thames, where we explored the old observatory, and stood with one foot east and one foot west of Greenwich, looked at ancient telescopes, almanacs, Captain Cook's chronometers and charts.
The 'Cutty Sark' and the 'Gypsy Moth' are in dry docks nearby and can be thoroughly explored. While the children climbed all over the 'Cutty Sark' I thought of my great great grandfather and his shipbuilding. William Yabsley always captained his ships on their first voyages, and as I strolled around, I could see him at the helm or in the captain's quarters.
The Maritime Museum was full of interest, and we explored until we were exhausted. A train took us to Piccadilly, where we arrived just in time to witness a drama. A young woman's bag was snatched, and she stood and screamed so piercingly and so purposefully that traffic halted. Those around her were alarmed but confused. A man across the road ahead of the scene had been able to draw conclusions from what he saw, and he dashed over the road, and cut off the would-be thief, a lad of about fifteen. Every woman clutched her handbag a little tighter.
From Piccadilly we walked to the Houses of Parliament, now too footsore to enjoy anything. I always underestimated how far it was from one place to another. They weren't far on the map, how could the distance inflate like that?
"Let's go home," begged the children.
"We'll go on a boat down the Thames. You can see some of the landmarks on the way, and we can catch a train from Tower Bridge back to Greenwich.
The Tower of London
Back at school the next day, Mrs Tamsett asked me if I would tell the children about the garden party.
"Would you mind? I will understand if you don't like to speak in front of such a sea of faces."
"Oh, I don't mind that. I'm used to it from home. I've often taken assemblies."
"The children will be fascinated because of your accent."
I told them about the marble staircase, the chandelier, the shiny black stone and the gold decorations, the Queen Mother's corgis, the tiny cakes and sandwiches. They were entranced. It was good to feel their interest, three hundred pairs of eyes focused on my face. When first I had experienced this kind of attention, it was quite embarrassing, a young teacher lacking confidence, but realizing the need to gain and keep the attention of the class... calling for everyone to listen and then finding the ensuing silence rather disconcerting... especially the time I got hiccups!