One of my favorite meals when I come to England is lamb shank or leg of lamb. Lamb shank is common in pubs so I was hopeful it was on the menu Thursday night, but alas it was not. Nevertheless the salmon was excellent as I mentioned previously. Earlier my cousin John from Whitchurch in Shropshire called to get our Christmas meal requests at the Dodington Hotel; surely a lamb dish would be on the menu. No luck once again, although a repeat call here in Warwickshire requested a second choice since the menu had changed. Aha! Roasted lamb shoulder was on the menu so Lynda ordered two. Not knowing about this future event, however, Susan surprised me with a lovely lamb shoulder meal on Friday last. She must have seen the sorrow in my eyes from successive disappointments.
Friday and Saturday were mostly time for relaxation and preparing for the next stage of our trip to the Midlands – the Birmingham area and Shropshire to the north. Saturday night Susan and Robert had a dinner party for four friends. It was another lovely meal prepared by Susan, and, once again, we were issued silly headwear. It is interesting to note the emphasis on good food here in England, not considered a culinary heartland. As I mentioned previously with regard to British pubs, the quality of dining in England has made dramatic strides during the past 40 years, much to our delight.
On Sunday morning Robert graciously drove us back to Gatwick Airport to pick up our rental car for the remainder of our stay. Since we will have the car for nearly two months, the on-duty manager made a gallant effort to get us a low mileage vehicle. It seems that the current recession has caused the Hertz fleet to age and, consequently, maintenance problems to rise. They have not been able to sell their older cars because car sales are down dramatically. Thanks to her efforts we got a late model Ford diesel; an upgrade from what I had reserved.
By 10:30AM we were on the motorway en route to Mows Hill Farm B&B, just south of Birmingham in Warwickshire. Mows Hill is part of the large estate of the well-known industrial and political Muntz family of Birmingham into which my great great aunt Agnes Soady married in 1867. Mows Hill is an operating beef farm with two guest rooms and is owned by Edward and Lynda Muntz, newfound cousins of mine. We decided it would be special to meet more English relatives while I seek additional information about my grandfather’s family.
The drive from Gatwick was only two and one-half hours, so we checked-in and got a dining recommendation from Lynda for Sunday lunch, traditionally the day’s main meal. Here comes more food information! After brief hellos and putting the luggage in our lovely second-floor room we drove the three miles to the Bluebell Pub/Restaurant in the nearest town of consequence, Henley In Arden. By now it was after 2PM and we were quite hungry so we chose the three-course special. We both had butternut squash soup with ginger, and a delicious chicken entrée. For dessert Lynda had crème brulee and I had mince pie with Christmas pudding ice cream in keeping with the season in Britain. What a start for our stay in the Midlands!
After such a delightful (and filling) dining experience we spent the remainder of Sunday relaxing at Mows Hill. I even took a nap, if you can believe that. Lynda concentrated on the book Susan had loaned her – “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini, author of “The Kite Runner.” It is a compelling contemporary story about women in Afghanistan. So moving it was that Lynda completed the nearly 400 pages in just a couple of days. I will begin reading it this weekend.
In keeping with the “fine dining” theme of this trip we started yesterday with Lynda’s lavish breakfast – fresh-baked bread, fresh-squeezed orange juice, cereal with berries, poached eggs with English bacon and sausage, sautéed mushrooms, grilled tomatoes, and tea/coffee. As you can imagine this spread kept us satisfied until an early dinner at an Italian restaurant in Henley. I won’t bore you with the details.
After breakfast we drove into Birmingham in search of two residences where my great grandparents lived in the late 1800s. If the buildings still existed I wanted to take a photograph. There was a third address I had found but a Google search indicated that it was now an office building. The two addresses were in the Edgbaston District on the south side of the city; one reason we chose to stay at nearby Mows Hill.
Although I am quite experienced driving in Britain – left side of the road, left-hand manual shift, etc – it is easy to miss a turn (or two), particularly in a big city with lots of traffic. Nevertheless, after some moments of feeling lost and frustrated, we managed to find each of the Edgbaston addresses only to learn that my quest was in vain. Neither address produced residential structures circa 1890. Oh well, I tried!
My second quest for the day was much more reassuring, to visit the preparatory high school (Bromsgrove School) my grandfather attended in 1893-1898. As I probably reported at an earlier date I had confirmed his attendance via email and made arrangements for our visit. Although our appointment was for 1:30PM we arrived about an hour early, since we weren’t ready to use the allotted hour for lunch. We had a hot chocolate while waiting for Rachel, the Assistant Headmaster to return from lunch.
Bromsgrove is currently a K-12 coed boarding and day school with about 1300 students representing 30 or more countries, a far cry from the 1890s, my grandfather’s era. In his day it was a four-year boarding school for less than 100 boys, costing five pounds a term. Boarding fees for the Senior School – VI Form are now nearly 8000 pounds for each of three terms or about $36,000 a year.
Rachel graciously showed us around the campus, emphasizing the handful of buildings that have survived the 100-plus years since Robert William Soady was a student. I have a photograph of my grandfather (probably in 1897) with his rugby teammates. One of the highlights for me was seeing the side of the old chapel where that photo was taken. It was one of those moments that make tracing your family history so intoxicating.
Sorrowfully, my grandfather died prematurely at age 64 when I was nine, yet he had a major influence on me. I have many fond memories of our times together, particularly at our cottage in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania. Visiting his school in England provides another important memory. As tears come to my eyes I will close for this time.