Friday, January 14, 2011

Unexpected Pleasures : : Anne McAllister

A few years ago I met a man on the internet.

It isn't as sinister as it sounds. I was doing genealogical research and had posted a query about my husband's family in Australia. A year or so later, out of the blue, I had an email from a man in England who was writing to see if the family I was looking for was also the family he was looking for.

Turned out they had the same not-very-common last name but were not, in fact, related.

We exchanged an interesting set of emails, determined that we were not connected, and I expected that that would be the end of it.

It wasn't. He was retired, at something of a loose end, had, as a result, just removed a several hundred year old hedge from his property with his Volvo and a winch, and was looking for something else to occupy his time.

Did I have any loose ends I wanted tied up, he wondered. Any families in the UK I couldn't track down. He'd be happy to take a look for them. Otherwise, I got the feeling, the rest of the hedges had better watch out.

Well, I did have some loose ends, as you do if you've done genealogy for any length of time. There are ALWAYS brick walls.

So I gave him the name of a cottage in a little village in Cornwall and said I was trying to find out where it was. I wasn't having much success. Did he want to try?

Did he?! Oh, yes.

Within days he emailed me with an approximate location -- and a list of three local people I should contact who could tell me more about the cottages and the area. "Call them," he said. "That's what I did."

So I did. And I've since done more than that. I've visited the area myself. I have spent a few days with the people he found for me -- and one of them introduced me to a cousin who was born in the cottage I was seeking.

Unexpected pleasures, all of them.

So the next time I went to England, I emailed him and said, Could I take you out to lunch?

He said no.


No. I was a visitor in his country. He'd take me.

The day we went out was an absolute pleasure -- an exquisite luncheon and an afternoon spent in the gardens of Gravetye Manor.

Built in 1598, it is a stunning Elizabethan manor house set amid some 35 acres of amazing gardens surrounded by hundreds of acres of forest.

As we drove in, two deer leapt across the road right in front of us. I realized then it was going to be an amazing day.

The manor's gardens, its greatest claim to fame, are a memorial to William Robinson, one of England's greatest gardeners and a proponent of the "natural" garden. He bought Gravetye Manor in 1884 and developed and maintained them until his death in 1935. After years of neglect, the house and gardens were purchased by a hotelier, Peter Herbert, who set about restoring them.

He did a magnificent job. I could have wandered in those gardens for days. I could have sat in the beautifully appointed -- but equally warm and welcoming -- public rooms for even longer. Every time now that I am in need of an English manor house -- or an Irish manor house for that matter -- Gravetye Manor pops into my head.

There are doubtless bigger, more lavish, exquisite places in England. But it is the standard against which I measure them all. And because I had such a wonderful day there - because it was so unexpected and so delightful, as well as proof of the way serendipity can bring people together -- Gravetye Manor remains my favorite.

I'm looking at unexpected events now, trying to work out the starting point of a new book. Gravetye manor seems like a good place to begin.

Tell me about your most unexpected pleasures. I'll get my unexpectedly useful golden retrievers, Mitch and Micah, to pick a winner from those who comment, and I'll send the winner a copy of my upcoming book, Hired By Her Husband. The husband in question is George Savas, my single-minded physicist, who turned out to be an unexpectedly sexy hero.

You never know, do you?


Laney4 said...

There are so many unexpected pleasures in life. Today, for example, one could look at the piles of snow and think, "Ugh! Shovelling!" However, when you go outside to do said shovelling, it is indeed a beautiful day out; the wind isn't howling, the wind chill is minimal, and the neighbours are all out enjoying the respite!

Kaelee said...

What a beautiful place. I love gardens.

When we travel we usually research things ahead of time if we are going any distance so unexpected doesn't happen as often as anticipation does.

However when we are just out for a drive on the backroads we have a ten foot rule. Every so often we stop the car and take a good look around. Often you can find a wildflower or two. Driving down a gravel road one day we found an old stone school. It was still in good repair and used as a community center. There wasn't another building in sight. As we were taking a picture of the school a meadow lark landed on a nearby fence post and sang for us. We have learned that in order to really enjoy ourselves we have to "stop and smell the roses".

ev said...

For the most part, I love unexpected things. We plan trips and try to set a schedule, but they usually go out the window.

After our youngest moved to the CA for college, I drove her car out to her and spent 12 days on the road doing what I pleased, stopping when I wanted. I did plan the hotels and the cities and friends to visit but that was about it.

On the way across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel, I stopped at the rest stop in the pouring rain and fog. All of a sudden I saw an outline in the fog. It was the conning tower of a sub headed home. I snapped a quick pic thru the window and by the time I got out of the car to take another it was shrouded in the fog. The pic I did take was really neat. I had lots of those moments during my trip.

The orangutan at the San Diego Zoo playing peekaboo with a burlap bag. Merekats at the Albuquerque zoo standing and watching the watchers. The surprised look on the Border Patrol guys seeing a NY State License plate that far away. (And he was cute too!)

I love surprises. And the best laid plans always go to hell anyway, don't they?

Anne McAllister said...

Laney, you are sooo right about the shoveling. The prospect is almost always dire, but the reality can often be quite the opposite. I am right there with you (and I bet you wish I was -- wielding my shovel!)

Anne McAllister said...

Kaelee, What a great rule! I love it. The only time I really felt I needed to be totally 'organized' was when we were taking our family to Europe when the kids were young. One of my sons when he was in college was saying he liked being spontaneous, and I agreed, but then I reminded him that getting stuck on a street corner in Munich with a bunch of little kids because we hadn't thought to get a reservation in case we might "see something we liked better" was not a great idea. But we had a lot of spontaneous bits between the nights in real beds! The old stone school you found sounds wonderful -- and the meadowlark was a real bonus! Thanks!

Anne McAllister said...

Ev, What a fantastic trip. You will have so many wonderful memories. And I'm so glad you got the snapshot before the sub went back into the fog again. That's one of the things I love about my digital camera is it's small enough that I can tuck it in my purse or pocket and take great photos of unexpected things.

Sounds like you have some grat snapshots -- as well as memories! Thanks for sharing a few of them!

Kirsten said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anne McAllister said...

Kirsten, What a great service those birds did you -- and your hydrangea! That was an unexpected pleasure indeed. And getting to see them was undoubtedly another. Thanks!

Estella said...

My unexpected pleasures are watching the birds and wildlife in my yard. I live in town and yet we still get deer in the yard.

Nas Dean said...

Hi Anne,

I loved reading about your unexpected pleasure. The photos are so lovely. It's so great that you had a chance to visit such a beautiful place.

No unexpected pleasures worth sharing recently in my life.

Anne McAllister said...

Estella, I am right with you on the wildlife in the yard watching. We feed birds from our front porch. Consequently we get all the local birds, squirrels, rabbits, moles, voles and other sundry creatures turning up regularly. We have come to recognize particular ones -- like the squirrel who must have had a run-in with a hawk or a lawnmower, considering the lack of fur he has on one side of his body. And seeing a rabbit on the front porch was certainly unexpected. But he was right there with the birds, chomping away.

It's particularly nice because you don't have to go anywhere to have the joy of it -- the pleasure comes right to you!

Anne McAllister said...

Nas, yes, it is a beautiful place. It's quite close to Gatwick airport, too, and yet it seems thousands of miles away from the hustle of contemporary life.

I should think there would be lots of unexpected pleasures where you live -- like the weather and the scenery -- but maybe you expect them, so they aren't astonishing to you. Right now, in the middle of a midwest winter, I'd like a few days in a tropical paradise!

Linda Henderson said...

Some years ago we were doing some genealogy research and lo and behold this gentleman contacts us from Las Vegas and we find out he is a distant relative and he has pictures we've been looking for. He scaned all of them onto a disk for us and sent them on to my sister. It was such a wonderful surprise. I got to see pictures of ancestors that I had never seen before. In return we sent him some that he didn't have. It was a very fortunate turn of events.

Anne McAllister said...

Linda, I had a similar experience and I still get goose bumps when I think about it. I had never met one of my grandfathers. Never even see a picture of him. And then, about 10 years ago I was able to contact a distant cousin whose g-grandmother was my g-grandfather's older sister.

She said she had a picture of "Lee's boys," but she didn't know which was which. Did I know? Well, I knew who "Lee's boys" were -- and I said that if I saw the picture, I was quite sure I could identify which was which.

So she scanned the photo and sent me a copy attached to an email. It was the days of the s.l.o.w. internet connection and I got to see this attachment appear on my computer literally pixel by pixel. And I will never forget the moment the second oldest boy's face became complete and I said, "That's him. That's where my dad got his ears." Still gives me the chills.

Both of us have had serendipitous experiences in that regard. Thanks for sharing!

Anne McAllister said...

Micah and Mitch, my unexpectedly useful golden retrievers, have chosen you to receive a copy of Hired by her Husband! Please send me your snail address at anne.mcallister(at) and I'll get it right out to you.

Thanks everyone for your comments on unexpected pleasures. I really enjoyed reading them. It brought me some extra pleasure yesterday.