An invitation to the West Country was not one I could refuse. My hostess lives in a charming town in Somerset, dividing her time between London and the country, very much as the gentry used to do for centuries.
After a hot spell in London, it was lovely to arrive in a cooler clime. I was quite content to do little or nothing, especially as the pub down the road has real Somerset cider. Cider is my tipple of choice in British pubs; I used to be able to down Mexican beer with a lime stuck in it; I even briefly thought I had acquired a taste for British bitter. Not at all. Cider is what I drink when I go pub-crawling.
I hardly feel any effect after a pint of cider, though after two pints, as Miss Carol King cogently put it, “I feel the earth move under my feet,” at least slightly. My “local” has two ciders on draught, but my draught cider of choice has the glorious name of “Orchard Pig Reveller.” What is not to love? Orchards? Pigs? Revelling? “Orchard Pig Reveller” is light and crisp. And alcoholic. And splendid!
(By the way, I love the way the British seem thrilled to death when offered a drink, even a cup of tea: “Splendid! Thank you!” On the other hand, they minimize less pleasant things with understatement “I was not best pleased.”)
British pubs are almost always much nicer than American bars. For one thing, patrons can bring their dogs in with them. I find I like dogs at least as much as I like many people, and finding them in a pub seems very comfortable. Generally, that is. Unless they snap, which most are too well bred even to consider. The dogs, I mean.
As the many viewers of Downton Abbey can tell you in greater detail than I, the gentry and the aristocracy used to divide time between their country houses and their townhouses. In England, they were often in London for “the Season,” which acted as a time for parties and also for matchmaking. Before the present Queen discontinued Evening Courts early in her reign, debutantes were presented at Court. At the top of the stairs in my hostess’s country place, there is a black-and-white photograph of her grandmother dressed for her presentation, in what looked to me like a wedding dress with “Prince of Wales” plumes in her hair and a large bouquet. I assume these important events in a debutante’s calendar were discontinued as being too elitist, though very recently I read an article in The Telegraph bemoaning their loss. Apparently “the Season” isn’t the same without Evening Courts. While I very much doubt the Lord Chamberlain would ever issue me an invitation “at Her Majesty’s Command,” I think it is sad to deprive some of a pleasure because not everybody can join in, though I fear “not everybody can join in” is partly the point. At least I shall be spared the Prince of Wales plumes!
We got to Somerton to see the Butter Cross, an arcaded octagon for selling butter, I believe and St Michael’s Church. It is a lovely place, full of stone houses, flowery gardens, and lots of bees. And birds, like martins, starlings, sparrows, owls, and the ubiquitous pigeons. (James Thurber once pointed out that not even a pigeon in a top hat could cause much stir.)
There was another reason to shop in Somerton. My hostess, knowing me all too well, knew a dressmaker’s shop that also did splendid waistcoats for men. Now I live in Florida and no more considered bringing waistcoats to a hot state than I would drink Guinness and Grape. But what waistcoats! Beautifully hand made, and they will even make them to measure. (I have ordered a bespoke cummerbund with a brocade of gold dragons on red silk in order to épater le Glyndebourgeosie.) I came out with three waistcoats: black and gold silk for dinner, gray silk for evening or daytime, and green moleskin for my herringbone sports jacket. I learned that, except for tartans, one does not match the direction of the pattern on the pockets, in order to show them off! And these pockets are actual pockets, not some deceptive trim. Ever since the Prince Regent, I understand that one does not button the last button on a waistcoat. That is rather a pity, for all the buttons are magnificently self- covered, and I would hate not to show them all. Still, tradition is tradition.
I am a great admirer of all sorts of craft, especially done well. Mother made her own clothes; she was an excellent seamstress – a brilliant tailor, actually, as she made elegant sports jackets for Dad and me. By making her own clothes, she knew what suited her and everything fitted beautifully. She could also get really fine fabrics. Many years ago, while Mother was still able to sew, I would go to Liberty’s to buy silk for her, about which I knew nothing. I would stand about three feet in front of the rolls of silk and unfocus, until, I imagine, some sort of bell rang in the back: “Unattended Male in the Shop.” The clerks would swarm around me, catechizing me as to her height and her color, and I eventually came away with something for her to use. It seemed to work. When she had to give up sewing as she aged, she still dressed elegantly, ordering clothes from shops like Pendleton Woolen Mills, but I still remember how elegant she always was.
So my present to myself from England is three waistcoats; I also ordered a bespoke cummerbund. The shop is run by a talented mother and daughter; if you cannot visit the shop, look them up online: www.waistcoatsunlimited.co.uk. They ship to the States. (After gorging myself on shipboard, I need really do need “waistcoats unlimited.”)