London-St Bees: Sat 15 August 1998

All we had to do was collect 7 people starting from 4 different places in 3 different countries on 2 different continents and have them arrive simultaneously at Terminal 4 at 8am Saturday morning. We made it.

My brother Chris is there with the van, and with him are the two boys who flew in the day before. They've already dealt with two serious snafus: first, the company from which Chris had rented the van failed to have it ready for him; second, Marty's friend from the US, (who'd been visiting him in Austria) had been delivered to Departures to catch his return flight to the US, complete with everything he needed except his ticket. Not an auspicious start, but if those are the only problems we get, we'll be lucky indeed. Packing the van was a breeze: with two seats for each person and extra room at the back, we were packed and on the road at 8:01.

I got the princess seat, and Chris and I try to catch up on news, shouting above the deafening roar of the van. Most of the others give in to sleep for at least part of the journey. For 5 hours we drive towards the diametrically opposite corner of England. I'm becoming a stranger in my own land: driving on the left seems a little weird; I forget to look left when crossing the street; the license plates look enormous; I don't recognize half the models of the cars that stream past us on the highway.

As we closed in on our destination we found we were also following signs for the National Sheepdog Trials. Since we were going to drive right past, we stopped instead. Another interesting culture difference. There are tents around the field selling food and providing other services, but there are no parking fees, no tickets, no advertisers. The announcer simply relays the names of the next shepherd and dog, and they walk without ceremony out into the field in front of us. At least the shepherd walks. The dog streaks off in a wide arc to the crest of the field two hundred yards off. A flock of eight sheep has appeared over the horizon. The shepherd whistles and the dog drops like a stone. A pause, another whistle and he moves further back. As the sheep start to trot down the hill, the dog follows along behind, tacking this way and that, every move controlled by the whistling shepherd.

The sheep come all the way down the hill, and then are driven through a series of obstacles. In theory, the last act should be to separate the two sheep wearing red ribbons around their necks, but the judge walks out into the field and quietly lets the shepherd know that he's out of time. That's all there is to it.

Then on to St Bees, the head of the walk. It's a straggle of Victorian houses, and ours, perfectly, is 50 yards from the beach. Having found the place on the Internet, this was more luck than judgment, but as proof that fact is stranger than fiction, the son of the owners lives less than half a mile away from us here in Massachusetts.

Dinner is in our first pub. There are two big hits: they don't mind the younger folk drinking alcohol, and they serve great chips (steak fries) Only one other place is even going to get close. That, coupled with their no-smoking dining room ensures that we'll return the following night for more of the same.