Woburn is a lovely little town. We're meeting with colleagues in the U.K. and this trip is too brief. I wish I have more time here.
Our partners take us to dinner at The Birch at Woburn, located on Newport Road. They assure us it is one of the best restaurants in the area. They aren't wrong. It's a small, family owned restaurant that is at once rustic and elegant in layout and decor. It's unpretentious and inviting, as is the food. The chef has great ingredients and makes the best of them. I order the Bacon and Stilton risotto (unable to resist) and the evening's special fish: Grilled Monkfish. I am not disappointed. The chef provides further proof of my sister's assertion on my last trip that British cooking can be superlative, when cooked simply and well, devoid of unnecessary sauces and culinary obfuscation.
Greg steps away briefly to take a phone call. Being the good friend that I am, I order dessert for him: an Espresso Kahlua torte. Naturally, it is important to do a quality assurance check. By the time he gets back, half the cake is gone. But I can genuinely assure him the cake isn't poisoned.
It’s dark, only five-thirty, when my colleague David and I set out for our walk. I slept four hours last night; it was all I needed. I’m still on East Coast time so it isn’t much different from taking a nap; I fly home to Hubby in a few hours so a walk through the estate of Woburn Abbey suits me. David likes waking early and exercising. Never mind that he's on Pacific Standard time. He still gets up at five and walks two miles. He'd be repellent if he weren’t such a nice guy. Greg and Chip think we are nuts. I already knew that about myself.
I am wearing the ugliest pair of sneakers ever. Having forgotten my own and without access to a pair of wellies in which to traipse the countryside, the hotel managed to find a battered pair of paint encrusted trainers in the lost and found. Personally, I think these were lost on purpose. They are too big for my feet, a good three sizes bigger. My flat loafers are slipped inside; it's a tight fit. I think it will do. So what if I look like ridiculous? Last night in the bar when I tried them on over my heeled shoes, David, coming in late and unaware of the slip-on situation, paused, a little shocked. When informed of the shoe-over-shoe scenario, he said relieved, "When I walked in I had to tell myself, 'David, don't react, but man she has big feet!'" I am five feet tall. The shoes extend four inches past my toes. Covered in bright blue paint, they look like clown shoes.
We set out together and at first the shoes -- both sets -- hold together. Then, a half mile down the road, the inevitable: unaccustomed to having feet twice their normal length, my body rebels; the heels begin to scrape and I know the mother and father of all blisters are being formed. We pause briefly to allow me to discard the outer shells. The loafers will get ruined but better to damage shoes than heels. Without the blue boats weighing them down, my feet soar and I'm keeping up a good clip with David.
We are on the grounds of Woburn Abbey, the ancestral seat of the Dukes of Bedford. Fourteen generations of the Russell family have lived here. Can you imagine inhabiting the same family home, even an absolutely palatial one, for so long? The Russells have owned and walked and ridden along these rolling hills for centuries, each generation leaving a ghostly imprint on the place for the next.
I wonder if the first wife of the fourth Duke of Bedford traversed this same course? She was the favorite granddaughter of the formidable Sarah, Duchess of Marlborough, wife of the hero of Blenheim. Sarah schemed to marry her off to Frederick, Prince of Wales, and the marriage nearly came to fruition before his alarmed father extracted the Prince. The young lady was titled, rich and the daughter of the Earl of Sunderland. Her name was Lady Diana Spencer. And like her distant relation of the twentieth century, she died young, only twenty-five when tuberculosis claimed her.
Can landscapes have theme music? If they did, this wintry landscape would best be served by the second movement of Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor -- my constant companion these last few weeks. The melancholy stillness is broken when a rabbit suddenly streaks in front of us --
"Look at that bunny go!" I exclaim.
"Actually, that's a deer," David says. "Remember I was making fun of their small deer at the meeting yesterday?"
"Yeah, the rodents of unusual size."
It turns out that the little deer is one of nine breeds who lives on the estate. We crest a hill as dawn breaks and we pause. Up ahead are six of the biggest stags I have ever seen in my life, about fifteen feet away (but don't take my word for it since I'm terrible with gauging distances). They're beautiful -- tufted chests, graceful, majestic.
"Wow." It's all I can think of to say.
"Yeah. I felt like eating humble pie after I made fun of their rodent deer."
Further up the road we see another gathering of stags. They don't pay us much heed as we round a large tree and head back. The blue clown shoes are where we left them.
Every time I come to this country, I fall a little more desperately in love with it.