I spent four happy years in England at RAF Upper-Heyford.
If there is such a thing as an “ideal” English village, the nearby village of Upper-Heyford belongs on the list of candidates.
Located 12 miles north of Oxford and 12 miles south of Banbury, Upper-Heyford is the prototypical English village: quiet, slow moving, subdued and of course, friendly.
Picture a tiny shop with a post office at its back, moss-covered stone houses, small farms with carefully tended fields laid out in tight geometric patterns, hedgerows, weathered stone barns, pigs wandering about, wagons piled high with hay — even the occasional antique steam-operated piece of farm machinery.
And rain, of course.
Oh, yes! Rain!
The odd thing about England is not that it rains all the time, which it does, but that it manages to rain all the time without accumulating a great deal of precipitation.
At times it rains all day and all night without a break. The skies are gray as you drive to work, gray as you splash back home, gray as you eat supper, gray as you dog-paddle to bed.
The roads are wet. The grass is wet. Your car is wet. Your house is wet. You’re wet. The whole world is wet.
But the level in the rain gauge stays stubbornly near the bottom. Despite days and days of endless drizzle, the accumulation is very modest, roughly 22 inches a year in London, which is about 60 miles southeast of Upper-Heyford.
By comparison, New London, in Connecticut, where I grew up, gets 44 inches of rain, just about twice as much. And it hardly seems to rain at all.
Most days are beautiful and sunny.
So why all the rainy, misty days in England?
Well, for one thing, most people think that when you fly from New York to London you travel more or less due east. Not so. You actually travel almost due northeast, and when you disembark at Heathrow Airport you are standing at the same high northern latitude as the frozen, heavily timbered wilderness of Labrador.
If it weren’t for the Gulf Stream carrying all that nice warm water across the Atlantic, London — and most of Europe — would be very cold indeed. But while all that warm, moist air has the effect of heating up the British Isles, it also turns them into expanses of moist green cloaked by seemingly endless drizzle.
I tell you, I can understand why Stonehenge points toward the summer solstice. There are times in England when you see the sun so rarely you need some kind of guidepost to show you where it is.
In truth, it doesn’t rain in England. The air just turns to a thin soup, which slowly descends upon the land, turning man, beast and plant alike into slowly liquefying lumps of green.
Something that may surprise you if you fly over for a visit is the length of the day. Be smart, go in summer if you want to see a lot. In summer, sunrise comes at 4 in the morning, and sunset at 10 at night. You may not get to see either of them through the clouds, but a summer’s day is a tourist’s bargain.
Don’t go in winter. Daytime starts at 8 and ends at 4.
I will never forget the summer of 1971. It was truly a great year. I traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany for nine weeks that year, doing my little job — teaching others how to teach.
Europe was magnificent, especially Germany! The sun came out. And stayed out. Day after day. Week after week. With an occasional rainy day to keep things just perfect.
If you do a little checking, you’ll find that 1971 was a great wine year. You should have seen the grapes growing on sun-drenched east-facing slopes in Germany. You could almost see them getting larger and juicier by the minute.
When I got back to England I was startled by the change I found. Sunlight was a regular part of each day. Lolly’s sinuses had cleared. The mud on my little Corvair had dried up and begun to flake off. The mold on my shoes in the closet was dead. I could see all the way across the fields behind my on-base house.
It was glorious!
My two kids were pre-teens. They and the rest of the kids in our on-base neighborhood spent every afternoon outside, running all over the place in bright sunlight, throwing balls, hitting balls, kicking balls, doing anything and everything you can do with a ball except barbecuing one and eating it.
At least I don’t think they barbecued one.
Lolly and I spent a lot of time down in London with our relatives that summer, actually seeing London for the first time instead of just imagining what it looked like beneath the mist.
The thermometer stood at the mid-80s. While Lolly and her sister Betty haunted the shops, I haunted the museums, for the first time daring to venture forth without a raincoat.
One sunny afternoon, having toured part of the 18 acres of the magnificent Victoria and Albert museum, I discovered a second story gallery that crossed from one arm of the museum to the other. Benches had been provided and I sat down and basked in sunlight streaming through tall stained glass windows, some of them rescued from churches bombed out during WWII.
Never in my life have I seen anything more beautiful. The whole gallery blazed with light. Stained glass figures came alive. The air glowed, turning the people seated on the benches into figures in a Renoir painting. Faces glowed. Clothes became radiant swaths of color. Anything that moved became a kaleidoscope.
When we got home from London after that visit, Lolly and I drove into Bicester, a nearby town, to shop for fresh fruit. I stood around as Lolly picked out vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh watercress and such. A little English housewife, in her 50s I would guess, stood beside her doing the same thing.
Lolly turned and smiled. “What do you think of this weather?”
A deep frown crossed a pale face.
“Yes, isn’t it terrible! If it doesn’t rain soon I shall have to water my roses.”
That summer, as temperatures soared into the upper 80s, people dropped dead all over England. Headlines in the newspapers screamed of a deadly heat wave. The entire nation simmered.
Meanwhile us dumb old Yanks wandered about with broad grins, wondering if our newly acquired gills would wither and drop off.