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I spent a few days in the south of England in July. I went there with my husband Marcel and three children, Honor, Paddy and Liv, to celebrate the wedding of Marcel’s sister, Monique, to her boyfriend of nearly twenty years, Mark. We knew that with two teenagers in our midst – Honor is 16 and Paddy was 14 at the time, while Liv had just turned 12 – there may be some strongly-expressed opinions about what we’d do and where we’d go over the few days away, but we were looking forward to our trip very much. We would be celebrating a very happy occasion.
This is page 1 of my brand-new sketchbook, a Handbook Journal, which I was inspired to buy after seeing Marc Holmes’ and Shari Blaukopf’s beautiful work during our workshop in Galway a fortnight earlier. Each to his own, as they say – while it’s a beautiful product, I found the watercolour paint a bit slippery on the paper: the colour wasn’t embraced by the paper. You can see how the paint doesn’t change from the initial stroke, doesn’t settle and become absorbed, in the way that it might.
But the act of sketching certainly took the edge off my in-flight nerves. You can see Liv beside me, stuck into her book. She, like me, was in the “zone”.
“We’re the Zone Sisters,” she said.
Here’s Marcel waiting for his bags at the carousel in Gatwick Airport. Blue ink for the background, grey for the foreground. With this kind of sketch, I always remember the advice of Quentin Blake: try to show which leg the weight is on.
Once on our long drive south to Kent, I was desperate to sketch, but didn’t really fancy the hire car as a subject. Marcel hates to be drawn, but suffered me to draw his shirt. That did the trick nicely – soon I was happily focusing on checks and lines and all sorts of patterns.
We arrived into Rye, East Sussex, in the evening and, delighted with our lodgings, headed across the road to find something to eat. We are a very volatile family (well, two people are, but that’s all you need to make the whole thing volatile), so I’m happy to report that we had a very peaceful meal in The Ship, in Rye. Great food too but nothing beats Galway mussels, in my biased opinion. The rude man on the wall is a poster of Johnny Cash. Very bad manners towards innocent holidaymakers.
Early the next morning, I sketched our lodgings, the Old Borough Arms in Rye. I was bent on getting some urban sketches in before the wedding, and so I left the family snoozing and went off to sit in the street. Many people passed by on foot, particularly people walking their dogs, but no one addressed me. This is very unusual, but my husband says it’s down to overcrowding in Britain – that everyone is conscious of everyone else’s space.
The bedroom windows of all of my family can be seen here, in a row above the name of the hotel. I started the sketch with the name – “Old Borough Arms” – and worked my way in a spiral around it, with no planning or rough pencil work. It results in a wobbly sketch but it’s much more fun to do. Both the street adjacent to the hotel, Mermaid Street, and the area at the bottom of the steps of the hotel are cobbled with very rounded flint cobbles, looking for all the world like hard boiled eggs made of stone. Very tricky to walk on!
It’s hard to get a volatile family together in peace for long enough to eat breakfast, but we managed to sit together nicely in the Mermaid Street Café, to the side of the hotel..for a while. Soon my eldest, Honor, started the usual rude-teenager stuff and I found that sketching was the perfect way to keep things calm. It meant I had no desire to make a sharp retort, and had no need to suppress the urge to give her a good spanking – I just focused in on the sketch.
We spent the day in the wonderful company of Marcel’s brothers and their respective wives and families, and later on we curled up on my mother-in-law Erika’s sofa to watch a movie. Since we first met, Erika and I have got on like a house on fire (save a few New Year’s Eves of excess and outrageous comments on both our parts), and I always love to see her. I have known her for nearly twenty years and it has been a privilege. Here she is in her special chair, watching Skyfall with me and the children, at full volume, of course. Every time I try to draw her she starts to gurn and while I know it’s not done on purpose, it makes drawing her mouth very difficult.
The wedding was the next day. As a treat, I had booked myself and my two girls into the hairdressers to have our hair done. The nearest one I could find, just three minutes’ walk from our hotel, was called The Rye Retreat. We were pampered by a team of young men and women in black, and the place was hopping.
“Are you always this busy?” I asked.
“It’s wedding season,” said the hairdresser, and I congratulated myself for having the foresight to book an appointment well in advance – most unlike me to be that organised.
Part of the deal was that you were invited to enjoy a relaxing massage before having your hair washed. I asked Honor afterwards if she had availed of it – her nerves were in shreds, due to the self-imposed pressure to look her absolute best at the wedding – and if she had found it relaxing.
“Yes,” she said, “for the duration of the massage. The second it was over I was stressed again.”
Here we are, in various states of readiness. Two brave young women are trying to fix Honor’s little mint green, artistically-feathered hat onto her lovely blonde locks, while Liv sits serene and happy on the right, her long blonde hair set off with a most delicate hair clip of white roses:
At last we set off. Honor was looking stunning in a pine green lace dress and very high mint green suede platform shoes to match her little hat, but she was in a pickle.
“Mum! I need to take your arm!” she said as we reached the bottom of the steps. “I can’t handle this terrain!” The flinty cobbles had her hobbled.
I must look into getting some of those cobbles to pave the area around my house – that’ll keep her at home. But although I wanted to laugh at her plight, I kept quiet and kept her calm, and helped her to walk in her absurd shoes. Who needs a Bridezilla? My daughter was Guestzilla.
(Now, if only I could get my hands on those cobbles, and market them…think of the fortune I’d make.)
The wedding took place at midday in Tenterden Town Hall, which was as pretty as you can imagine, decked out in hanging baskets of flowers and set out with white chairs. The wedding itself was a touching affair: despite the many years that Monique and Mark have been together, seeing them make a commitment in public offered everything we all love about weddings. The reception was held in the beautiful, enormous garden of the bride and groom. Their house was built in the seventeenth century – brand new by the standards of that part of the world.
After a wonderful meal, lots of Pimm’s and chatting with my extended family and Monique and Mark’s lovely friends, I took to the dance floor, which is what one always does at an Irish wedding, drink or no drink. There I met Ross, who was a guest at Monique and Mark’s wedding. He was a charming young man and he and his mother were absolutely enchanted with the concept of sketching anything on the spot. Needless to say, I offered to draw him…
Earlier in the day, I had told Marcel that seeing as it was his sister who was getting married, he could drink, and I would drive. But I forgot that I had said this, and drank away merrily. When it was time to go, Marcel reminded me of this and to my horror I realised that I would have to drive a huge jeep for the first time along country roads, in a country where I had never driven before, at night. Luckily, all that dancing had precluded further drinking, and besides I’m not a huge drinker anyway. My fears were unfounded and the journey home was easy.
I was grateful for my relative abstention, as the next morning I was up with the larks – albeit the lazy ones – to sketch on the impossibly steep, hazardously-cobbled Mermaid Street that ran alongside our hotel. I climbed up the crazy cobbled street and sat on some steps of a house called The House With Two Front Doors, guessing which steps looked the less used. A man came out of the other door and offered me a cup of tea, which I accepted gratefully, as I was very thirsty. He re-emerged a few minutes later with a chunky mug in blue and white stripes.
“The cup has “Eleanor” written on it,” he said. “You look like an Eleanor.”
It seems Marcel was right – people aren’t unfriendly at all, they just don’t want to intrude on your space. Marcel happens to be British but I lived in the UK for years before our meeting, and I have always found Brits to be incredibly kind and warm, and very generous. Still, I wish they’d stop and look at my sketches, but that’s just because I’m needy.
Another house was called The Old Hospital – that’s it on the left – and you can see The House Opposite on the right. Many houses had “Rebuilt in 1420” written on them, so that you were under no illusion as to the vintage of the building you were looking at. The Telegraph has voted Mermaid Street one of Britain’s five most beautiful streets….in a country of beautiful streets. I was very lucky to sketch there, and to have it all to myself in the early hours.
Another breakfast, but this time Honor had to stay at home and nurse her nerves, so it was just me, Marcel, Paddy and Liv. The wedding was over and Honor’s adrenaline had sapped away. There was a lovely vibe in this place, like an ancient apothecary, with antique glass bottles displayed in their glory on every surface.
All too soon it was over. Honor and I travelled home alone, as Marcel and the other two children were driving home in a newly-acquired car: dear Erika had realised she was no longer comfortable on the roads and so had kindly given her beautiful little car to Marcel. Honor wasn’t talking to me – I had slighted her in some way, can’t for the life of me remember what I’d done – and the flight was delayed by hours, so that left a lot of room for sketching. Here’s one, of Gatwick Airport.
Once more on a plane, once more trying to calm my nerves. I was very cramped so I drew what I could see…this was drawn in utter desperation.
You know, I love a family holiday under any circumstances. Bringing teenagers away with you isn’t always straightforward but with a robust sense of humour and your better half at your side you can laugh at the worst excesses of bad behaviour.