Tuesday, April 8, 2014

MMMBop bonding and new friends

From left: Chrissie, John and me at Chatsworth Park.
Thomas G. Long once said that "We show hospitality to strangers not merely because they need it, but because we need it, too." My host visit this past weekend was one of the best experiences I've had while abroad in England, if not the best, and my hosts left a huge impact on me. I am so thankful for their hospitality and kindness. We had a great weekend filled with adventures and I feel like we got to know each other pretty well. I can't wait to tell you all about it!

I knew that I would have trouble remembering the names and locations of all of the places we went to, so a special thank you to John for emailing me a rough itinerary of what we did!

Back in January, right after orientation, I applied for a Host UK visit. Arcadia (my study abroad program) pays the application fee so all I would need to pay for would be the travel expenses once I was assigned a host family. I thought that it would be so much fun to get out of London and meet new people. Sometime in January I was assigned to stay with the Easoms in early April. We exchanged emails from time to time and I was really happy that they seemed so nice. I found out that Chrissie is a huge Hanson fan through those exchanges and that made me even more excited to meet them. I have loved Hanson since I was a baby! No one else usually knows who they are when I mention them so it was a nice surprise to find out that I'd be staying with other fans. April seemed really far away so I kept that in the back of my mind as I traveled around Europe and finished school assignments. When I realized how quickly it was coming up, I couldn't believe it!
On Friday, I woke up around 7AM and got ready, which didn't take too long since I had laid out my clothes and packed my bag the night before. I headed out and grabbed a light breakfast for the train and picked up some flowers for them at the Sainsbury's outside of Euston Station.

My train was due to depart London Euston at 9:46AM and I was there around 9:15AM so I sat down and ate my apple tart and grapes to pass the time. Eventually they announced my train's platform and I headed up to the second car. I sat near a window and felt relieved that it wasn't too crowded. I put my bag up above me and picked out some music to listen to.

The train ride was a little less than two and a half hours long. I thought that it went by pretty quickly and the population dwindled in my car about halfway there. When they announced the next stop was Stoke-on-Trent, I put on my jacket and grabbed my bag off of the shelf. I was a little nervous to be honest.

John and Chrissie's house in Clayton, Newcastle-under-Lyme.
As the train rolled to a stop, I saw John and Chrissie standing on the platform right near where my car stopped. I waved and Chrissie waved back. As soon as the doors opened I approached them and handed Chrissie the bouquet of flowers and the card I made them. They were really friendly right from the start and the drive from the station to their house was really pleasant and interesting. John told me a lot about the area and how Stoke-on-Trent is a city made up of six towns (Tunstall, Burslem, Hanley, Stoke, Fenton and Longton). These towns are also known as the potteries because they are famous for their pottery factories. They live in Clayton, Newcastle-under-Lyme which is nearby. Newcastle is a medieval market town. 

My first impression of the area was that it reminded me a lot of Poughkeepsie. It's beautiful but run down and the abandoned old factories look kind of dreary and lonesome against the gray sky. In between all of the older buildings were little shops and take-out restaurants. It seemed like a nice little area to live near. I think it is the perfect balance of town and country.

When we arrived at their house I was really excited to see inside. The outside is beautiful and they told me that their house was built in the 1930's and that they're one of the only houses in the neighborhood with the original stained glass windows left. I noticed them right away and they really add character to the house, especially when most of the houses in the neighborhood look the same.

Another object that jumped out at me right away was their prop mailbox from Narnia. It had "Mr. Tumnus" written on it! How cool is that? I think that was another hint to me that I would really like these people.

We entered the house and went into the living room. The first thing I noticed was the cabinet straight ahead of me with all of Chrissie's Hanson DVDs and CDs inside. I saw her Hanson sock monkey as well and then when I examined the room a little more I saw framed photos of the band near the couches. I really liked how neat and clean the room was. It smelt nice and the way it was decorated was very simple and elegant. I loved seeing their bookshelves stacked to the top with John's science fiction novels. They have a little table near the stained glass picture window and on the opposite side of the room were doors leading to the sun room. I really liked the white fireplace as well and the decor was so pretty. It seemed like a very English home to me but it also felt familiar and relaxing. 

I went upstairs with Chrissie to put my stuff down in my room and when she opened the door I was so excited to see a Hanson pillow sitting on my bed. The room itself was so cozy and neat and the big double bed was a nice sight after sleeping in a single all semester. I really liked the butterflies on the pillows because they reminded me of Peggy, who always loved butterflies. 

Next to my room on the right was the bathroom which had a shower, a bathtub, a toilet and a sink. It was really clean and nicely decorated just like the rest of the house. The hallway is pretty short and narrow and it leads to Chrissie and John's room and the little study.

Chrissie showed me more of her Hanson memorabilia in the study and she told me how she started liking them in 2000. She got to interview them for the fan club in 2005 I believe and she's seen and met them many times. I was so excited to hear all about her experiences with the band because I've loved them for as long as I can remember. It was a great thing to bond over.

We had a light lunch which consisted of oat cakes filled with tomato and cheese (yummy!), coleslaw and some other goodies. I also enjoyed a cup of tea while Chrissie prepared the meal. John showed me the Alumni magazine he works on for Keele University. I was really impressed by the content and the design of it and I admire him for writing so much of it because of their small staff size.

After lunch we headed to town and parked at Morrison's. John went to get his new glasses while Chrissie and I walked around the shopping area. It reminded me of Church Street so much and I loved seeing the flowers which were brightly colored and in planters all over the place. We saw a statue of Queen Victoria in a garden and we also walked past one of the oldest buildings in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It was built in the 1600's. That's so old! Chrissie showed me the church they used to go to sometimes and it was really neat to see all of the grave markers that lined the wall of the car park (parking lot). There were graves from the 1700's and earlier which was really fascinating. I enjoyed the yellow daffodils in the little grassy area above the car park as well.

When we met back up with John we headed back towards the car and Chrissie grabbed some strawberries from a farm stand. We went back to their house and watched Hanson's "Re-Made in America" about the making of their latest album, Anthem. I really enjoyed seeing their creative process and it was nerve-wracking to see them bickering. I would never want them to break up or give up their music. I also enjoyed unwinding in such a comfy home because I haven't been in one since December. It's definitely hard not to miss the feeling of being in a house, so I appreciated the down time.

After John got back from dropping their niece off at the train station, we headed back out to see Keele University, where John works. Chrissie insisted that I ride shotgun all weekend so I had nice views out of the car window. John was really informative about all of the places we visited and I liked hearing about the history in the area. I felt bad responding with "oh wow" and "that's amazing" so often but I didn't know how to convey my interest besides just listening and taking it all in.

Keele is absolutely gorgeous and so very green. The university occupies
620 acres of rural land and it is the largest main campus university in the UK. There are close to 10,000 students there which is a lot bigger than St. Michael's but smaller than the University of Westminster which has over 23,000 students (yikes!). 

The campus was pretty empty because most universities in the UK went on their month-long break last week. We drove around a bit and then arrived at Keele Hall, which is a 19th-century mansion house that serves as the university's conference center. It was really gorgeous and the car park was cobblestone or something like it which I really liked. I'll never get tired of cobblestone. 

Keele Hall
There was a wedding going on and little white lanterns and flower petals lined the stairs into the hall at one entrance. We went into the other and peered into the rooms without disturbing the reception that was going on in the ballroom. John showed me hidden doorways behind bookcases and explained that the mirror in the ballroom has a window behind it. 

We went outside and took some pictures near the fountain and then walked down the path, away from the house and towards the little lake. I thought that it was very reminiscent of Hogwarts because when reading the books as a child I had always imagined the grounds by the lake to look like that. There were hundreds of yellow daffodils covering the green grass and the water looked murky. The ground was muddy but not too bad and it seemed fitting for a place that gets a substantial amount of rain. There were some students sitting underneath two large trees and another tree nearer to the house reminded me of the womping willow. John told me that in the '70s some students sun bathed in that area without any clothes on and when one of them went to get ice cream nearby, the young girl working called the police and it was a huge scandal. I thought that was pretty hilarious.

As we walked back towards the car I thought about how lovely it would be to go to school somewhere like Keele because the grounds are just so beautiful and expansive. I would be out exploring all of the time. I know that my St. Mike's friends would love it too because it's much bigger and better than Gilbrook. 

After our trip to Keele, we drove to Wrinehill, Chesire for dinner. We ate at a pub called The Hand and Trumpet and I ordered a hamburger and chips (fries). It was delicious and I enjoyed the half pint that John ordered for me as well. We had some lovely conversation while we ate and I was pleased with the atmostphere in the place as well.

After dinner we went to a pub called the Mainwaring Arms in Whitmore, Staffordshire. It's a really old and traditional pub and it was pretty busy because it is a restaurant as well. We sat at a table in the corner by the fireplace until the party who had reserved it came, so we weren't there for a long time. Despite it being a quick stop, it was the perfect amount of time to finish another half pint and talk a bit more before heading home.

When we arrived back at the house, I changed into my pajamas and joined John and Chrissie for some television in the living room. We watched a few British shows (all comedies) and I thought they were all pretty funny. I do think that it'd be more enjoyable to watch them with full knowledge of British culture and who's who in society. I was a little lost at points but I enjoyed it all the same. I didn't tell them but I was especially pleased that they had lit candles. That's something I've missed a ton since being abroad.

I slept really well and woke up around 8AM. After I was all dressed and ready, I headed downstairs for breakfast. John was sitting in a chair in the sun room listening to music and Chrissie was in the living room. She started fixing up breakfast right away and I sat with John while we waited. We had some cereal which was a combination of different seeds and I added in some of the strawberries that Chrissie had purchased the day before. I also had some toast and orange juice. 

Sun room.
I picked out some Hanson CDs and we set off for a day of sightseeing and road tripping. We drove through beautiful farm land and I saw a lot of stone walls that John explained were pretty ancient. It was incredible to think about how long it must have taken them to build them all by hand, stone-by-stone. I loved seeing all of the sheep grazing in the fields and the foggy sky didn't put a damper on my mood. We couldn't see as far out as they had hoped but I still saw some beautiful landscapes.  We passed through Leek (Queen of the Staffordshire Moorlands) and the rocky crags of the Roaches, where we saw the Winking Man rock. When you drive past it from a certain direction, it appears that the hole in the rock formation that juts out is opening and closing, hence the name "winking man."

We drove through the Peak District until we got to Buxton, which is an old Roman spa town in Derbyshire. It is also the highest town in England. While we were there we saw the Pavilion Gardens and Conservatory, the Opera House, the Old Hall Hotel where Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned and we walked around inside of a little shopping center. It was really quaint and despite the rainy weather, I really enjoyed walking through the town. We even saw an older man filling up two huge gallon containers with well water. We also laughed when we read a poem about a fish in the conservatory that flipped over on its back and swam upside down for a year before dying. It was sad but the poem was pretty funny. 

After our stop in Buxton, we drove to Bakewell and crossed over a medieval bridge to get to the car park. The sidewalks lining the bridge were really narrow and there were triangular spaces jutting out to the side because people would need a place to step into when sheep were being herded across. We parked the car and walked around a bit before eating an authentic Bakewell Tart in the Original Bakewell Pudding Shop. I wasn't sure what to expect when Chrissie and John described the famous Bakewell Pudding to me. Pudding is much different in America. In England it is more of a pie or pastry.
"Bakewell Pudding is an English dessert commonly consisting of a flaky pastry base with a layer of sieved jam, topped with an egg and almond paste filling. There are numerous variations and several bakeries each claim to hold the original recipe. The pudding originates from the Derbyshire town of Bakewell." (Wikipedia)
I wasn't sure whether to have it with custard or creme so naturally, I had both. It was absolutely delicious! It was so warm and flaky and the filling is to die for. I really liked it and I enjoyed my hot chocolate as well. It was nice to try something new and authentic to England. My company was great as well! With every stop we made, John, Chrissie and I got to know more about one another. 

After we finished up our delicious Bakewell Pudding, we drove to Chatsworth Park. We parked by the house (more like mansion) and I was super excited to get out and walk around because sheep were roaming everywhere! There were a ton just walking through the car park. A few got spooked and ran off really quickly. They left one behind and it didn't see where they went so it was making sad noises and running in a panic. I felt bad for it!

"Chatsworth House is a stately home in Derbyshire, England. It is in the Derbyshire Dales, about 3.5 miles (5.6 km) north-east of Bakewell and 9 miles (14 km) west of Chesterfield (SK260700). It is the seat of the Duke of Devonshire and has been home to the Cavendish family since 1549. Standing on the east bank of the River Derwent, Chatsworth looks across to the low hills that divide the Derwent and Wye valleys. The house, set in expansive parkland and backed by wooded, rocky hills rising to heather moorland, contains a unique collection of priceless paintings, furniture, Old Master drawings, Neoclassical sculptures, books and other artefacts. Chatsworth has been selected as the United Kingdom's favourite country house several times. (Wikipedia)."
We approached the house and bought tickets to go in. I thought that the sign on the side of the building that said "Dead Slow, Hoot" was really funny. It basically means to drive at an extremely low speed and honk your horn if you're in that area. We spent an hour or so walking through the house which was so much fun. I really like visiting places like that. It reminded me of the Vanderbilt Estate times a million. It was so much bigger and its rooms were filled with beautiful artwork and interesting displays.

Fun Fact: Chatsworth was used as Mr. Darcy's home in the movie
Pride and Prejudice (2005). 

My favorite part was seeing one of the large rooms set up the way it was during WWII when the Penrhos College (Wales) occupied the grounds. The college of girls had to relocate to the grounds of Chatsworth because of the bombings. It was so haunting to see the video footage of them and the way their beds were set up.

We exited the house and gift shop and walked around the gardens for a little while. It was so beautiful that I can't even put it into words without sounding really redundant because of my other descriptions of beautiful places. It was so green and vast. The indoor garden was really pretty and smelt heavenly. We saw little streams and mossy piles of boulders. We walked through patches of trees and across little bridges. Daffodils and other flowers surrounded us everywhere we went. We finally emerged near the entrance to a maze. We had so much fun walking through it! I kept thinking about the movie Labyrinth (1986) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. We kept joking that the hedges were going to come to life and drag us under so we'd need to shoot up our wand flares. We finally found the center and posed for a picture before making our way out. It was a lot of fun!

We walked back to the house, used the restrooms and then headed to the car. We drove for awhile and at that point in the day we had switched Hanson albums from Middle of Nowhere (1997) to Anthem (2013). It was really interesting listening to their first album and then their last album because they have really matured as a band and as people. There are still audible similarities in their style and soul which was also interesting to hear.
John and I at Arbor Low.

Next we stopped at Arbor Low, a neolithic stone circle about 6,000 years old. It was very similar to Stonehenge, but the stones were tipped over and sunken into the ground a bit. I enjoyed walking through the field to get there and the views we had from the circle. The walk back was nice too because the cat from the neighboring farm kept rubbing up against my legs.

When we got back to the house we relaxed while Chrissie made dinner, and after we ate our sausages and sweet potatoes we got ready to go to a play. I wore my black dress with creme colored polka dots, tights and my black boots and I freshened up a bit. My boots had gotten really muddy during the day so John polished them for me when we got back. They're so shiny now and I can't stop wearing them! 

Once we were all ready to go, we headed to the Victoria Theatre, a purpose built theatre-in-the-round nearby and saw the play "Hobson's Choice." It was hilarious and really well performed. We were in the front row and I really liked seeing a show performed in a round theatre. It was the first time I'd seen anything like that. I also loved the storyline and it's actually an old movie if anyone fancies looking it up. The main character was named Maggie which I thought was great. I asked John and Chrissie what the word bumptious meant after the first act and now it's one of my favorite words to say.
Bumptious: (adjective) irritatingly self-assertive.
After the show we went back to the house and I went right to bed. I was so tired! It was nice to get such a good night's sleep twice in a row.

On Sunday morning I slept until a little after 8AM and got all packed up for my evening departure. When I went downstairs, John called to me from the sun room and said that he had a surprise for me. I filled up my glass of water and went into the room. He showed me a little piece of paper that he had scribbled an address on and said that he'd found the location of the bakery that Harry Styles used to work at in Holmes Chapel, Chesire, which was only about half an hour away. I was so excited and flattered that he took the time to look that up. It was on my bucket list of things to see while in England so I'm really grateful that I got to check that off. 

Right after John told me that, Chrissie came into the room and handed me a little black pouch. She told me that she had it for a long time and didn't know what to do with it. She said that she finally decided that I would give it a good home and she wanted me to have what was inside. I opened up the pouch and inside was a little Hanson charm. She told me that I could put it on a necklace and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude and love. I don't think I've ever met such genuine people before and I felt so lucky to be there with them. Sunday mornings in London usually consist of me sleeping in and then eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich alone while I watch Netflix and plan my week. Sitting there in their beautiful sun room, watching the birds come and go from the bird feeder and having great conversation with those lovely people made me feel overwhelmingly happy and blessed. 

 I picked out two more Hanson albums and we headed for Holmes Chapel to see the W. Mandeville Bakery. We got there pretty quickly and the town was really quiet and desolate. It was a Sunday morning so everything was closed and the occasional jogger or car would pass by as we walked towards the bakery. We peered inside and saw some pictures of Harry hanging on the walls. I took some pictures outside and a woman walking her dog laughed at us a little. I can't blame her! It must be strange for the people in that small town to see fans come by and take pictures with a bakery that's been there for years. Oh well, I was pleased to have seen it. 

We drove through the town and turned onto a small cul-de-sac to see what the houses looked like. There were some posts online that made it sound like Harry may have lived on that street but we didn't know which number. It was a nice little area within walking distance of the bakery. The whole town was very neat and quaint. I can't really imagine Harry Styles growing up there after all of the glitz and glamour he's probably used to now, but I also appreciated the beauty of the place. It seemed like a great town to raise a family in. It's on the commuter belt to Manchester and John said that it's quite posh. I could see that because the houses were considerably larger and had a little more land to sit on. 

Little Moreton Hall
After we left Holmes Chapel, we made a brief stop at Little Moreton Hall near Congleton, Cheshire. In John's words, "Built to make a big impression, Little Moreton Hall was constructed as a timbered manor house with a moat, the earliest part of the house was begun around 1504-1508 and the last addition was completed in 1610." It was a crooked old house on a large patch of land. It stood out against the green grass and the warped look of the levels made me think of Harry Potter again. It could have been a wizard's house. It reminded me of the burrow.

We didn't tour the building but we were allowed into the courtyard to glance around and take a few pictures. It was so neat to see the place and some employees dressed in old clothing came out into the courtyard while we were standing there. I also loved that the land was occupied by ducks and sheep. All of the baby lambs were black, which Chrissie and I found really interesting. 

From there we journeyed up a hill to Mow Cop, which is a folly on the edge of the hills overlooking the Cheshire plain. It just looks like the ruins of an old tower but it had the most gorgeous views over five counties. We could see the famous radio-telescope dish of Jodrell Bank, as well as fields and houses leading all the way to the Welsh Hills. I really enjoyed that little excursion!

Finally, we went to Burleigh Pottery, a preserved Victorian Pottery in Burslem, to see their hand-crafted pottery in fine earthenware. We met a nice security guard who had just made himself a cup of tea. He graciously stopped and told us about the entire process of making a mug at the pottery. It was so interesting! I thought that it sounded like a lot of work just to make a mug but they're really beautifully crafted I guess it's worth it in the end. They're doing a lot of work to the area where the pottery is and to the pottery itself. They're improving the area for tourism and it reminded me of Poughkeepsie and Wappingers again. It looks really rundown but they're working hard to improve and preserve it. I loved seeing all of the patterns and designs of the pottery they made there in the factory shop. John and Chrissie bought me a little mug which I will cherish forever! I hope that I can keep it safe on my journey back to America in a few weeks.

After our little stop at the pottery and the Trent and Mersey Canal, we had lunch at the Orange Tree in Newcastle-under-Lyme. It was a very modern place that reminded me of the Double-O Grill a lot. I ordered Lemon Herb Chicken which came on a huge skewer with peppers and zucchini. There was a little side salad on the plate as well as a cup of chips. It was so yummy! I followed up that delicious meal with some chocolate truffles and raspberry dipping sauce. 

Once we got back to the house, we watched some of Hanson's Middle of Nowhere Acoustic (2007) DVD and relaxed for a couple of hours. Chrissie told me more about the Facebook page she contributes to called Mmmboptastic. It was so interesting to compare and talk about our Hanson journeys and I can't wait to see a show with her one day. 

We got talking again and before I knew it, it was time to go to the train station. I was so sad to leave but I knew that I had made forever friends and that our connection would be a lasting one. They brought me to the train station and waited with me on the platform. I waved and blew a kiss to them as my train left the station.

Out of all of the experiences I've had this past semester abroad, that was most enriching one. I went into it hoping for the best and feeling a little nervous, and I came out of it with two new amazing friends and some great memories. I don't know how I'll ever thank them enough for taking me into their home and showing me around. They are truly fantastic, loving, compassionate, patient and fun people who I hope will come to visit me in New York sometime soon! Their son, Nathan, lives in NYC so maybe we can all meet up sometime. I would love to introduce them to my family. I know that John would love to see the Hudson Valley because he's really interested in the American Civil War and my dad could take him to see West Point. I'm excited just thinking about it!

It was a lovely, life-changing experience and I am so happy I signed up for it.

Now for a week of paper writing, last minute shopping, spending time with friends and planning for my South of France/Italy trip next week. I can't wait to explore more and enjoy some nice weather. Only a little more than three weeks until I'll be back in good ol' America.

See you soon love bugs!

xx Sheila

(PS: It took me the entire length of The Hobbit soundtrack to write this.)


  1. Wonderful, wonderful blog about your fantastic experience. I really enjoyed reading it!

  2. You made me cry reading it! It was such an excellent time together - and yes, we would love to be friends... and we' ll come and see you in New York when we next visit Nathan and Lyndsey