Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thunking Writerly Thots

Some while ago I joined a writers' website called Authonomy. It's hosted by Harper Collins and the premise is that aspiring writers post their manuscripts for critique by their fellow writers. Those few that get enough backing (read, become popular) are awarded with a visit to the HC editor's desk, for review. The rest try valiantly to learn from their peers and continue honing their writing and story-pitching skills.

It seems like a pretty good system: one gets live feedback from actual human beings, learns to take and give good critique, and hopefully benefits from hearing about the flaws and strengths of their work. I've just gotten active over there in the last two or three weeks, and it's interesting.

But there's a side of it that I find frankly ... weird. Mind, I have yet to post a manuscript there, though I plan to by or at the first of the year. But amidst the drive to reach the Editors' Desk and climb the ratings chart, there is a culture of self-promotion that I don't think I'll ever find personally comfortable. People pounce on each other with read requests and/or offers of read-swaps like a convention of door-to-door salesmen. I'm not sure how anybody even finds me, amongst the hundreds of members there, but they do, and almost daily I receive requests to read and back someone's book.

Which is fine, but sometimes it's so out of the blue, I just ... don't know what to say. Why me? What makes this person think I would make a good reader for their topic of choice? Another quandary is that I'm apparently a picky reader. Sometimes the writing is perfectly fine, but the story just doesn't grab me. Sometimes the story might be okay ... but the author and punctuation are not friends. (Do they have a volunteer proofreader's pool, there?) And sometimes the writing, the story, everything, is just ... not something I would look at for three seconds in a book store.

Suddenly I have vast and growing sympathy for what agents and publishers must experience. The worry here is that, on Authonomy, I have to consider that I'm going to want my book read and critiqued, so I can't be too much of a snob, or nobody will give me the time of day!

Oy. I don't know if I'm clever enough to play the game, over there. But I'll do my best, and try to be fair and kind, and if I really can't get my teeth into someone's book, I hope they'll forgive me if I decline to read. I feel I would rather say a polite and kindly, "No, thank you," than try to read and end up blathering some response that would help them not at all.

Well, that's half an hour I'll never see again. Back to working on my long pitch for my book. The end of the year is only days away ...

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Once More to the Dogs

It's very rarely indeed, that we can point to any single person and say, "That person changed my life."

Oddly enough, only tonight it dawns on me, I know two such persons. Those people are my sheepdog trainer/instructor, Sandy Moore, and her good blue dog, "Mister."

My hubby and I moved into this area just over ten years ago, from a ranch in San Diego County. I'd had one winter's sheepdog lessons with my dog, Della, through a trainer down there, and I wanted to continue my training. So, I asked around to see if any stockdog trainer existed in the Carson Valley. This led me to Sandy - and to her constant companion, Mister.

Mister was one of Heaven's fortuitous accidents, a chance breeding between a Belgian Sheepdog and an Australian Shepherd. He was an only pup, and he chose Sandy just as much as Sandy chose him. When I met him, Mister was about 3 years old, a tall, confident, handsome rascal with an intelligent face and bright, wise eyes. Over the years, I got used to pulling into the yard and having him appear at my truck door, wanting to know who I'd brought and if I had any spare cookies. He was a constant fixture on every lesson day, and probably knew us all by name.

Mister was, in all the best ways, the lord of the manor. There on the ranch where Sandy trained, Mister was her hired hand. Sorting sheep, offering backup to inexperienced young dogs, standing patiently at the gate while Sandy worked with her students, he seemed for all the world as if he were supervising affairs. In his mind, he probably was.

The Blue Dog made an indelible impact not only on his human friends, but also sometimes on their dogs. Mister taught my boy, Jesse, his social graces: how to hang out and chill, how to wait one's turn. He also influenced Jesse in unexpected ways. All on his own, without my teaching, Jesse learned from Mister how to bring sheep out of a heavily crowded pen by crawling in under them. Jesse also learned from Mister the peculiar knack of shouldering sheep, particularly lambs, to get them moving, rather than using his teeth.

As a stock dog, Mister was amazing. I've seen with my own eyes how he could grab an uncooperative sheep and, without drawing blood, just slam the darned thing to the ground. When the sheep got up, Mister would simply stand there, watching, and sure enough, the sheep would do as Mister wanted. I've seen him go after a cow with every fang bared, and I've seen him nudging wobbly little lambs along, ever so gently. He was Sandy's partner, her friend and right hand, and more faithful than any human could be.

As Mister grew older, often he and my Jesse would stand at a fence together, quietly watching others work and undoubtedly exchanging notes. Thanks to Sandy, training and working my sheepdogs became my great passion. Thanks to Mister, Jesse became a true gentleman of a dog. Together, Sandy and Mister helped shape a very large part of my life, and I cannot imagine my world without their influence in it.

Sadly, I must now imagine a world without Mister in it. Last Tuesday, that grand old man, that good old Blue Dog, went on ahead to fields that our feet cannot yet tread. I've said enough farewells, in this past year, to know well the grief of losing a canine friend. But Mister was something extraordinary, a personage whose like but seldom comes along. He left his paw prints large in so many lives and so many hearts, but no one will mourn him as deeply as Sandy. My circle of friends is diminished by one, and while I know he is at last free of pain and weakness and the infirmities of age ... I'll miss him.

I'll miss him.

I leave the final words for Mister's passing in the form of a quote from Sandy herself:
"He seemed neither old nor young. The character of his strength lay in his eyes. They looked as old as the hills and as young as the wild. I never tired of looking at them."
~ John Muir

Mister -- Born: March 17, 1996 -- Passed: Dec 1, 2009

Good night, old friend.


Wednesday, July 29, 2009

I Measure My Life in Dog Years

In 1983, I met the man I would one day marry. In 1984, we got our first dog.

We acquired Cub as an 8-week-old puppy, while visiting a friend who was Animal Control officer in the tiny town of Bridgeport, CA. He got a call someone found a dog at the dump, but it turned out to be a fat, healthy Australian shepherd pup - with a tail. When the pup cried in her kennel, I took her in my lap where she fell right to asleep. When it came time to leave, our friend said, "Well, you three better go on home."

Cub became our constant companion for the next eleven years. She was beautiful to behold, black and tan with a blue merle collar around her neck, copper on her cheeks and eyebrows, and a glorious plume for a tail. Yet however eye-catching her appearance, (and people often remarked) it was her spirit that shined the most. As a puppy, Cub was silly, happy, and playful. As an adult, she was silly, happy and filled with the joy of life. She could put timid dogs at ease, soothe dominant dogs' anxieties, and she greeted everyone she ever met with a beaming, loose-tongued smile.

This beautiful girl accompanied us on countless miles while we rode cattle ranges and mountain trails. She had almost no skills as a herding dog, but she was a splendid trail dog, tireless and wise, and she did have one great skill. Cub could bark a herd of cows out of a willow thicket like nobody's business, and she wouldn't quit until the last one came out.

We honestly had no idea how extraordinary she was, as a physical type. We thought it normal to ride 15 to 40 miles a day and Cub would not only keep up, but she would almost double the mileage. Yet when we brought her in for vet checks, the vets would sometimes call in their assistants to admire Cub's iron-hard musculature, or the rawhide toughness of her feet. She was just our dog, our partner and pal, who loved playing stick and chasing balls, going swimming, pouncing after fish in the streams, and following the wild trails with us.

In all, Cub lived the perfect dog's life. She never knew a chain, rarely felt a leash, and lived a life of near-total canine freedom on the cattle ranges and amongst the peaks. We lost Cub to illness in October of 1995, and our vet wept with us, as he administered his final mercy.

We got our next dog the following year, ostensibly as a companion for Nikki, the spaniel-border collie rescue we'd acquired along the way, who fell into depression after Cub's passing. Born on St. Patrick's Day, 1996, Della was a Border Collie-Aussie mix from a rancher friend's breeding. Della proved to be a worthy successor to Cub, a delightful personality full of bounce, happiness, and playfulness and she absolutely lived to be with us. She was not much of a working dog, either, but who cared? Della filled our lives with joy and laughter.

However, poor Nikki never recovered from the loss of her mate, and refused to have a thing to do with Della. So, we bought Dolly from the same breeder in 1997, a puppy for our puppy.

Though full sisters, Dolly was Della's opposite in almost every way. The only things they really had in common were parents, pointed ears, and black-and-white coats. Dolly was serious, oh, so serious, and had a poker face, to boot. Oh, she'd play and chase sticks and loved a game of tug-of-war, but she did these things with a powerful sense of competition. Dolly ruled the back of the pickup truck and when strangers came to our gate, she'd stand off and eye them with a cool lupine stare that could mean anything or nothing at all.

As with Cub, Della and Dolly were our companions of the trail, logging innumerable miles in the Sierra Nevada Mountains and on ranches in southern Cali and Nevada. They proved a good team on cattle, a one-two punch that convinced most cows to get a move on, and together, they bolstered each other's confidence. Dolly was tough as an old used boot, one time colliding with Della at full speed, whilst they both went after the same cow. Dolly hit her sister hard enough to crack one shoulder blade, and she tumbled on impact, but came up screaming - mad as hell and trying to catch and eat that cow on only three legs. Dolly healed up just fine, though, and continued on her butch and stoic career.

Della retired herself from herding at about age 8, just lying down in an arena one day when Dolly brought in a group of sheep. Della only worked to please us, not because it was her calling in life, and she thought it much better to stay home and play pampered house pet.

However, our lifestyle changed and we only cowboyed or packed mules part time, and the sisters settled gracefully into retirement. We lost Dolly on December 8, 2008, a victim of lymphoma. The doctors gave her 2-3 months to live. The tough old thing stuck it out for almost 5.

Nor can we forget Rose, my first purebred Border Collie. She was born on Easter Sunday, April 12, 1998, from a nice pair of working dogs owned by our good friend, Chris Rigali. We were packing mules in the Sierras in those days, so Rose kind of grew up like a canine Tom Sawyer, playing with our older dogs, chasing squeaky critters, and rolling in whatever stinky stuff she could find. By six months old, she was going up the trail with us, a little black coyote slinking among the rock slides and flying across the alpine meadows.

I found a sheepdog trainer here in Gardnerville when Rose was about 10 months, but ... I had me a bit of trouble. Our sweet, fluffy, mild-mannered Rose turned out to be a Tasmanian devil on sheep: driven, direct, independent, hard-willed and way too much dog for me. My trainer did the best she could, but I simply lacked the skills to manage a dog as tough and headstrong as Rose. Then at about age 3 and a half, she had a fall, injured her hip - and X-rays revealed she had severe hip dysplasia. She'd held herself together this far by little more than muscle tone and willpower.

Our vet performed a femoral ostectomy, but Rose never recovered to 100%. Eventually, I had to concede that my tough little girl's career as a sheepdog was essentially over. It broke my heart, and I've never shed the idea that somehow, I failed her. I should have been more careful; I should have known something was wrong before she got hurt. But Rose lived out her days as our beloved friend, as quiet and gentle at home as she was hell on wheels with sheep.

We lost Rose to cancer just this June, four months after Dolly.

Now ... we look at one more loss. Tomorrow at 4:00 p.m., we send our sweet, cute, funny little Della beyond the Rainbow Bridge. That's easier to say than that we're hauling her down to be killed. I don't know if it's three deaths so close together, or if it's the fact she's the eldest of the three, but this time is so much harder.

Della is terminally ill. They first diagnosed her with a raging bladder infection, which we treated with medication and she seemed to recover. But within 4 days of finishing her meds, she began a steep decline, and stronger medications have done nothing at all. She's stopped eating, she's lost weight, she's weak, she sleeps 23 hours out of 24, and most of all, our loving little Velcro dog, who yips insistently if we shut her out of our sight, wants nothing but to be left alone. Last night, we brought Della upstairs to bed, but when we started turning out the lights, she just walked outside, went downstairs and spent the night out sleeping under the juniper bush that's become her den.

It's time. She's tired, she's sick, all that sparkle and joy is gone, and she's done. But I'm not ready, even if she is.

Oh, I still have Jesse, my brilliant Border Collie partner, who came to us as a rescue eight years ago and inadvertently filled the void Rose's lameness created. He turned 10 in February and while he's a bit slower these days, he still loves and lives to work sheep. We still have Scruffy, Tye's corgi-border collie rescue who, now at age 9, is pretty much Tye's shadow. Plus, I've young Nick, my gifted, beautiful border boy in whom I've placed such hopes. Further, I've put in for a pup, a full sister to Nick, whom I hope to get in early fall.

But when it comes to Della, I want to grab and hold her and weep into the fragrance of her fur, crying, "Not yet! Don't leave! Don't go!"

This time, for whatever reason, I'm not at all prepared to say goodbye. Maybe it's the history, the miles and the years. Maybe it's that we have loved her so well and so long. There will always be dogs in our life. Since Cub fell asleep in my lap twenty-five years ago, we can't imagine it any other way.

However, Kipling was not wrong when he wrote this verse, which I will leave with you:

We've sorrow enough in the natural way,
When it comes to burying Christian clay.
Our loves are not given, but only lent,
At compound interest of cent per cent.
Though it is not always the case, I believe,
That the longer we've kept 'em, the more do we grieve:
For, when debts are payable, right or wrong,
A short-term loan is as bad as a long--
So why in--Heaven (before we are there)
Should we give our hearts to a dog to tear?


Della - 17 March 1996 - 30 July 2009


Monday, July 20, 2009

Killing Your Poodles

The thing about writing is this.

I love to write. I've always written. Voices, images, scenes and words have always whirled in my brain. Dialogue and characters tumble from my fingers, and when the Muse is really talking, I can barely do anything without a pen at hand. I'll have post-it notes stuck everywhere, I'll get up to scribble in the middle of the night, I'll be fumbling at stoplights with scraps of paper pinned to the steering wheel, trying to capture a thought before the light changes.

Sometimes I've even doodled on a pad on the truck seat beside me, whilst whizzing along at 60 miles per hour. But we won't talk about that. ;-)

Two things, however, often trip me up. Perseverance ... and editing. It's the latter I'm wrestling, now.

Editing is an evil necessity of writing, and one that can be hard to do. The initial phase is pretty much lumberjack work for me: get in there with an ax and chainsaw, and whack off large chunks of extraneous prose. That's not so hard, especially since I learned the trick of keeping an "Outtake File." If I have a scene or chunk of dialogue that's too precious to delete, I simply cut/paste it into a document in the Outtake File, where it can die a peaceful death by neglect.

The hard part, though ... is gearing up with the flashlight and SWAT gear to hunt down the other billionty excess words. This is the part that hurts. This is where I go after all those lovely, lovely turns of phrase and grind them into dust. This is where virtually everything that ends in "ly" goes spiraling into the dark, where commas cringe beneath the glare of spotlights to see if they're fraternizing with two many adjectives, where whole sentences whimper at knife point for fear of being found substandard and thereby marked for extinction.

I'm killing my poodles. And it sucks. Plus it's also friggin' tedious.

But it's necessary, because as anyone can tell, brevity ain't my strong point, and I never use one word where three or four will suffice. Funny thing is, when I started my current novel manuscript - at least two years ago - I initially prided myself at writing fast paced, sparing prose. Ha. That didn't last long. So, here I am, sharpening the knife once more.

Do I have a point to all this? No, not really. But I feel better for having vented/whined and slaughtered a few metaphors, and now I can get back to editing. Yeah, I really do have aspirations of becoming a published novelist one day, but I'm pretty sure there's faint chance of that, so long as my writing remains on my hard drive. ;-)

Okay, putting the infrared goggles back on. Wish me luck, I'm goin' in. ;-)
Cheers ~


Saturday, June 13, 2009

Looking Back ... an introspective

Twenty years ago, northern Nevada came out of one of the coldest winters on record. Temps hit well below zero (-40 to -50) a foot of snow never melted, and barely an automobile ran that couldn't tolerate a cold start. At one point, the National Guard air-lifted hay to herds stranded on the Idaho range. That year, 1989, hubby and I worked for a million acre cow outfit, the IL Ranch in Elko County, Nevada. It was a bitter winter but spring came on like glory, with grass growing to the horses' knees, pools of lupines blooming on the hills, and the perfume of wild chokecherries filled the canyons as we rode.

1989 was also the year a remarkable TV mini-series aired: "Lonesome Dove." I remember the boys in the bunkhouse huddled each evening around that grainy little TV they had, and they'd debate the authenticity of every scene, every buckle and bullet, over meals in the cookhouse where I presided. Come spring, the chuck wagon rolled out, the cattle were moved to summer range, and hubby and I were stationed in an itty bitty camp trailer out in the middle of nowhere, bearing responsibility for a thousand yearling heifers.

We were younger then, and wild, and we had all the great, open range to claim as our own. Ranch headquarters was 70 miles from town, and if we rode anywhere out there, we went at a spanking trot. When we hit town, it was with all bells ringing, and oh, good lord, the hangovers. I loved that big country with all my soul, and if I'd tipped over dead one day whilst sitting horseback atop some windy ridge, I wouldn't have regretted it, nor lacked for a single thing.

Those were simpler days, and it's not just nostalgia that makes it so. Everything we owned fit in Tye's 1972 Ford F-250, which we fitted with a cabover camper shell and dubbed the "Ford Closet", and in my '73 Buick Skylark sedan. Put studded mud-n-snow tires on that Buick, and she'd claw her way up roads some pickups couldn't manage. We made about $750 a month, near as I can recall. I know we never made more than $15,000 a year. Didn't need much more than that. After all, if we had food, gas, pizza money, a little horse jewelry, and every so often a bottle of whiskey and a new cinch or saddle blanket, we were pretty well set. Sometimes we'd find a twenty dollar bill in our wallets that we'd forgotten we had, and that would actually be worth something.

It was hard life, a good life, the best life, but really a not much of a living. Somewhere along the line, times changed and so did we. I'll be 47 years old, this July. Back then, I never even considered whether I'd be here to say that. Neither Tye nor I can take the hits or falls like we used to, but most of all ... there just wasn't any money in it. Hubby is like a chameleon, able to put on lives like some folks change hats: he's been a marine, a cop, a cowboy, a cook, a miner, a mule packer and a private eye. He led and I followed to the changes in our lives, and now winters on the open range are things of the past.

But I still cling with fierce devotion to the things that make me feel settled inside, including a few good friends and a little piece of rented ground where I can plant a garden, keep some chickens, train my dogs, and not have too many neighbors. I've never learned Tye's tolerance for towns and folks and bustle, but even he needs to come home to peace and quiet. We both still own our saddles. Won't ever sell 'em. We still dust 'em off sometimes and go day-work for local outfits, moving cows or packing mules. We're older and more cautious and more thoughtful than we used to be, but ...

... It doesn't leave you, that country. All it takes is an old song or the scent of rain on the sagebrush, and we're back. Back twenty years to a day when we were pretty much poor all the time, but when we could sit up there on our handmade saddles, and revel in the sort of benign arrogance that belongs only to those who make a living on horseback. Hard to be humble when you see the world from a vantage point ten feet tall.

I don't know that I'd want to go back, or any chances to do anything over. But I'm glad we were there. I'm glad that part of life was ours. I'm glad we can one day sit, old and bent and gray, and look at photo albums of a place and time that might one day be gone, that has already changed, and we can remember our places in it.

It's a good feeling. Now I'm going back upstairs to watch "Lonesome Dove," and to remember where I come from and where my roots will always cling. Blessings to you all, those whom I call Friends. You are part of my peace. :-)
Cheers ~

G. M. Atwater


Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Nick - good boy

This is what I love about my border collies. They are beautiful just by the nature of their being.

That is Nick, my pup from Geri Byrnes' Annie & Dan, taken April 26, '09. Here Nick is not quite one year old. Someday, if I get my act together, he's gonna be one helluva dog.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Life's That Way - a Book Review

LIFE'S THAT WAY - A Memoir, by Jim Beaver

Book Review

I confess to having some trouble figuring out how to write this review. Not because the book isn't remarkable - it is - but because I did not want to cheapen its import with a casual splash of words. This book means something to me. As a cancer survivor, I found it means more than I can easily express.

"Life's That Way" is, foremost of all, a love story and a testament to the human spirit. Jim Beaver does not portray his wife as a flawless woman, nor paint himself as a perfect man. Rather he says, look, we're all kinda screwy, but that's just a little dust on the furniture. Loving someone, that's what truly counts.

Jim's writing style is of such candid feeling that it gives the book a rare grace and readability. The immediacy of the narrative, however, is what struck me most. Presented here are emails and messages in present tense, things that happened now, today, not five years ago. Today Jim talked to Cecily's doctor, today Cecily got her MRI results, today Maddie asked why Daddy was cwying. I think this is what makes the book's reality so poignant.

It is why I read each entry on Cecily's illness as if following the battle of a friend, so immersed in the story that I forgot this is already done. It is certainly why, when Jim wrote of her death in the terse language of the utterly bereaved, I had to walk away. I had to put the book down and go wrap my mind around the finality of Cecily's loss, despite knowing that she is these five years gone.

When I resumed reading, it was an amazing voyage. Sometimes I felt like an invisible voyeur, that I shouldn't know this much about another's pain. But lest you think this is a tale of unremitting sadness, know this: it is not.

What shines throughout is the fierceness of Hope. Every time the darkness falls, every time tears hit like a monsoon storm, Jim picks himself up and goes on. Every step of Cecily's illness, Jim's hope burned unceasing. He speaks with awe of the support of friends, and does not concede the fight for an instant. Even in his darkest days, he reminds us that we're all just human beings. Contrary to the movies, we do not suffer nobly and sometimes we're just plain petty. But it's okay, because if you love, really love someone, you can make the little stuff just not matter.

After Cecily's death, Jim is a man at Ground Zero of heartache, the smoke and ash of his dreams all around him. But as his brother-friend, Tom Allard reminds him, "Life's that way." Not in tones of fatalism or inevitability, but as a form of direction: Life's that way. Go. Find it. It's still out there.

And it is. Where Jim finds life is an ongoing saga of little, everyday miracles. Maddie's growth and development. Friends who help. Family who cares. Gifts of chance and gifts of love, deeds of caring and deeds of practicality, (a theater troupe helps Jim move into his and Cecily's new home) and random acts of kindness from so many loving hearts. Somewhere along the line, it dawned on me that Jim and Maddie are two of the most blessed people on earth.

Life's that way. It's not in a casket or a picture frame draped in black. Life's in the hearts of loved ones, in the eyes of Jim's little girl, in the words he wrote so faithfully, chronicling his journey through the Valley of Shadow. In this book, Jim Beaver unflinchingly bares his humanity for all of us to see, and from this, I take a very important lesson. We need not be so strong we never break. We need not be so brave we never weep. We need not aspire to such perfect selflessness that we must condemn our moments of human frailty.

If we must suffer, if we must grieve ... just remember. Life's that way - there, where love resides.

~ G. M. Atwater


Saturday, March 7, 2009

Part 10 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SUNDAY JAN 25 - This morning was again rather grey, but birdsong rang from the garden, and I opened the bedroom window for a little time to enjoy it. After a perfectly delicious shower (the one American habit I miss, as the English seem to prefer baths) I begged off a cup of morning tea to take a walk.

I should have worn my rubber boots, but even so, I found the walk a delight. To stride up little lanes and spy the odd thatched roof, and walk among damp fields of winter grass where sheep watched me pass in mild curiosity - ah lovely. It was so good to stretch the muscles and get the heart working, to feel my body waking up and becoming part of the moment. Several times, I stopped to simply be, and think very deliberately, "I am walking in ENGLAND."

I should have liked to keep walking, until the blood sang in my limbs and the damp air pinched my cheeks, walked on to new meadows and bird-song woods ... but breakfast waited.

Dot fixed us a lovely traditional breakfast, fried egg, toast, sausage, bacon, and tomato, together with tea and juice. There can just never be anything to equal the warmth and goodness of a home cooked meal, especially when one is so far from home. Then Sylvia and I bundled into Steve's car and off we went to tour the local countryside. Bless his heart, Steve drove as seems the habit of *all* British males - hurtling headlong whether the road has four lanes or one!

I was also mindful yet again of the British habit of having no shoulders on the roads and lots of hedgerows: it makes roadside photography very difficult, and I regretted missed chances to capture beautiful scenes on camera. Nonetheless, Steve went literally the extra mile to show us local delights.

We were in horse country here, the English equivalent of Kentucky, and it's green, rolling, and sweet to see. Every so often, we passed signs to big farms announcing them as the "Such and Such Stud," and saw handsome barns and neat paddocks beyond the gates. Steve took us first, though, to the Uffington White Horse, an ancient glyph of white, chalky clay shaped by unknown hands centuries ago, into to the stylized shape of a horse.

Sylvia opted to stay in the car, and I soon found out why. Besides the stinging wind that whips off the moor, there is the fact that Steve, a former jockey, marches like a Royal Marine! Only my pride kept me in time with his stiff pace, and even then, I fudged a quick rest stop halfway up to take a photo and catch my breath, and peruse the local sheep.

Once on top, Steve and I stepped off the brow of the hill to walk the site and marvel how the ancients could conceive of a work visible only by air, and bearing little resemblance to any sensible form, up close. Then we climbed up to the mounded remains of Uffington Castle, an old Bronze Age hill fort, now little more than low dykes and a shallow moat, surrounding a surprisingly wide green. I could imagine a considerable village up here, with a spectacular view of the countryside spread below and all the approaches. At the bottom of the hill, a lesser mound held its own mysteries.

(Ed. Note: the lesser hill I later learned was reputed to be the spot on which St. George slew the Dragon, as nothing will grow on its flat, sandy crown.)

The walk down was more leisurely, but I still managed to miss my footing in the slick clay mud - twice. *sigh*

Back in the car park, an unexpected sight awaited us: druids, offloading their families from their cars. No, I mean really, complete with beards and braids, cloaks and staffs, and silver Celtic jewelry.

I don't know either. ;-)

Steve, being the incorrigible rascal that he is, was only too glad to negotiate a photo of me with the foremost bearded chap.

After that, we toodled on to the old market town of Marlborough: brick buildings facing each other across a broad, broad street. There Steve took us to the Polly Tea Rooms for coffee and a bite to eat. It was a charming little café with low ceilings, a comfy clientele, and a wonderful choice of sweets in a glass case by the door, luring everyone who entered. On Steve's advice, I had a very nice cup of coffee and a scone with buttery cream. Not butter: cream made to the consistency of softened butter. YUM!!!

After that lovely break, we walked a bit along the main street - the Green Dragon Inn sounded particularly hobbity - before getting back in the car and moving on.

More winding lanes brought us to a pair of stone gateposts labeled the Savernake Forest. The sign further said that this privately owned wood is the oldest forest in England. (Wikipedia notes that Savernake has remained in unbroken private possession by the same family line since 1066, over a thousand years.) Certainly it looked like a place untouched by tourism or anything but careful forestry.

We drove quite some while through these quiet roads, the road gently hilly but straight as a rule. Steve stopped for me once, where a man was setting off to walk in the woods with his three little terriers. The silent, sleepy forest little noted any of us, tucked in for its winter sleep in a bed of russet leaves. Here and there as we drove I spied great, magnificent oaks, their burly boles twisted by time into fantastic, ent-like shapes. I should have liked to stop and photograph just one, but I didn't want to impose over much on Steve's good graces as host/guide.

But the adventure did not end there! Steve then took us to yet another site not on the tourist map, Littlecote Manor. Steve's wife, Dot, had done the entire flower arrangements for their daughter's wedding there, and so Steve new the place very well. Apparently part of it acts as a hotel of sorts, guests staying for the most part in the old buildings, but a couple of suites were noted on signage within the great house. We saw several very old folks shuffling about the grounds, and the hall must be let for things like weddings, but this was a place of old money.

With Steve's instructions to just walk straight in, walk we did. He led us unerringly through the door and to the great hall, with its dark paneled wainscoting, ivory-painted walls, and ornately plastered ceiling. Priceless relics hung on the walls, swords, helms, padded gambesons, huge original oil paintings of the old family, and a genuine suit of armor. (Seemed fit for a small chap!) Not a museum, not a display, just the heirlooms of the house.

Upstairs, Steve showed us the one sign of outside guests: a Victorian room made up with the wax mannequins of a man, a midwife, and a babe in arms. Legend tells of a woman who came to this house to give birth to an illegitimate child. She was sent away and the child murdered, and the midwife led away in blindfolds and sworn to secrecy. The midwife's ghost is said to still haunt the room, grieving for the babe she could not save.

Just a few steps on and we came to a balcony overlooking the family chapel. Floor tiles and handsome harlequin patterns suggested a distant, grander day. Then up more steps and passageways, and we come to yet another grand room. It is lined on one wall with dark wainscoting, a fireplace, and paintings dating back to the days of male wigs and knee britches, and on the other side with bright windows. The room is wholly empty under the eyes of the dead relatives, but it fairly whispers with the footsteps and voices of a far more genteel age. A small plaque notes the room dates to the 1500s. One can only presume the entire great house dates to that time or sooner.

So grand a place, and by our gentle subterfuge, it was our private wonderland to explore.

By then we got word that Sylvia's son Dan had arrived at the house, and so my great adventure turned towards its close. I can't even describe my feelings as I bid farewell, to Sylvia wending her way back to Sheffield alone, and to Steve and Dot who welcomed me with such magnificent kindness. I was ready to head back home, but I'd seen and done so much that I kind of didn't know how to end. "Goodbye" seemed at once too much and too little.

But the words were said, and I plunked down in Dan's little car - by now getting in the "wrong" side had become second nature - and off we went into the waning day, northbound once more.

Yet still one, last, wholly unexpected delight remained: Stonehenge. Yep, Dan took it upon himself to detour there, (getting only slightly lost along the way) putting us on-site about 45 minutes before closing. Even now, with the highway not that far away and a quiet, steady flow of tourists circling its flanks, Stonehenge remains a living marvel.

For one thing, the structure is *huge!* The standing stones are massive as if rooted in the bones of the earth, and I've no clue how they got those heavy lintels up there. But really, it's just the sheer *fact* of the place. Here, thousands of years ago, people gathered in body and spirit to celebrate profound things in their world. This is almost holy ground, and certainly a touchtone for human progress whose creators never could have imagined the world in which their great masterpiece would one day stand.

Most of all, though, I simply walked around these great standing stones and then stood, whilst the thin winter sun sank westward, and I said aloud, (to Dan's gentle amusement,) "I am standing at Stonehenge." There is magic in simply being able to say that.

On a humorous note, early in our walk, I was speaking to Dan, and a woman with a babe and hubby in tow stopped me and cried in a broad Southern accent, "Oh, my gosh, where are you from?" I said "Reno, Nevada," and she positively *squealed* and grabbed me in a mushy-bosomed hug, exclaiming how she hasn't spoken to an American in weeks. Her husband works in the UK and they live there, now, and I guess the dear girl was a little homesick. ;-)

For my part, I heard two or three American accents around Stonehenge, and realized they were the first I'd heard in ten days! My initial reaction was to think, "Good grief, do we really sound like *that?*? Hee!

Thus ended my great adventure. Dan discovered he'd misplaced his cell phone (it later turned up back at Steve and Dot's,) but other than that, the drive home into the darkening January night proved uneventful.

Back in London, Dan and his wife and kids offered the perfect comedown to my escapades, allowing me to relax in the midst of family as if I were one of their own. The sprogs were adorable, Anita was sweet and welcoming, and it just felt good to sit and chat and listen to the boys' chatter, whilst the earth turned in its bed of stars.

~ *~

MONDAY JAN 26 - Up early, a walk through suburban London to catch the Tube with Dan, and I was back at the airport and ready to head home. One bummer about Heathrow - there is NO food for sale once you pass through security, other than maybe a machine with candy bars. Poo.

But we boarded on time and I sat in my window seat, watching England slip past, ever faster, and drop away below. Chequered fields were flecked with clouds, then northward the clouds grew heavier, a blanket of white wool far below. A break in the clouds showed me the north of England, and I'm positive we flew over Cumbria, for I felt certain I saw Derwentwater and the snowy crowns of Blencartha and Skiddaw. Northward still, until the clouds broke again and I saw fingers of stony land splayed into the North Sea, as we passed over the Outer Hebrides. I spied at least one mite-sized dot of a town far below, and I wondered who the hardy people were, that lived on those barren rocks amidst the sea.

At traveling elevations, we leveled off in the thin light of a northern morning sun, out across the cloud-blanketed ocean, over Iceland, and finally over Greenland's frigid expanse. It was truly amazing to look out the windows into the long, thin rays of an arctic sun, and to see the weird mosaic of ice flows and turquoise water that marked the icy sprawl of lower Baffin Bay. Huge mountains jutted from perennially frozen fjords, behemoths that looked just a few plane-lengths below us. It was a land that seldom sees thaw, a vast wilderness, a pale, cold, deadly place of seldom sun. I'd only ever seen anything like it on TV, but it was all mine, now, from 38,000 feet.

I got up to walk and stretch somewhere over Hudson Bay, its broad waters glazed with heavy ice as the midnight sun rose, the snow painted pale and cold, long shadows splayed from ridges far below. On we flew until the sun shines on tundra, snow and ice and what looks like a thousand frozen lakes. In time, a few roads began to stripe amongst pristine white squares of farmland, and a great river wended its way in ribbons of motionless ice, a snowy town straddling its bank amidst the wilderness.

And so the snowy earth turned below, now prairie, now the Rocky Mountains, now the stubbled hills of Idaho, until at last the green of California slid beneath our wings. Ere long, San Francisco bay spread green-blue and shining below us, and the plane swung wide over the Golden Gate Bridge, the pilot pointing out the view.

Nothing left now but the final short leg home, and I got off the plane to the strange solitude of being alone amongst teeming crowds. However, I carried with me not only my luggage, but the memories of an extraordinary, wonderful, absolutely amazing trip to a land that has lingered in my imagination since I don't know when.

Thank you, my English friends and family, for making this trip-of-a-lifetime not only possible, but a thing of true magic.

~ Erin aka Gloria



Part 9 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SATURDAY JAN 24 - Monday morning dawned rather grey, but the day soon cleared to dazzling sunshine. I abandoned the idea of going to watch a Nursery sheepdog trial (dogs under the age of 3 years) mainly because it worked out as impractical use of my last fully free day in the UK. What with the drive to and from Huddersfield, not to mention making poor Sylvia stand around and be bored! ;-)

Instead, we opted to go by way of south Wales to Sylvia's brother's place in Berkshire. The drive towards Wales took us on the M5 motorway through gentle, mostly flat farmlands. The sky positively beamed a soft, sunny English blue. To westward, we could just see humped up hills in southern Wales, like the spine of a green, sleeping dragon.

The countryside became a little hillier as we went, but no less rural when we grossed into Gloustershire. Very rural and agricultural and lovely. For a time we drove through forests, which Sylvia told me were part of the Forest of Dean. ("Supernatural" fans take note, hee!) Then out again towards Ross, and we took the A40 through rolling hills and farms and forests and hamlets.

The climate going south was notably more temperate, the fields blushing a brighter green and even a shrub or small tree here and there showing a faint white hint of bloom. We crossed into Wales just before the town of Monmouth, and right away there were bilingual signs for schools and towns.

We turned off there on a two-lane road of forest and a deep valley clove by a sizable river, the River Wye, and long pastures with sheep. The gorge narrowed and we stopped at a tiny inn called The Bell, I believe, in the wee itty hamlet of Redbrook. Braw lads in uniform played soccer on the green, while at the inn door, an older gent coming out greeted Sylvia in Welsh - then chided her for replying in English. Hee!

Inside the tiny taproom, we found the cook had gone home but the bar owner said he'd make us sandwiches. We waited and were entertained by a cute, begging little black terrier (and his ruddy-cheeked master) and the very handsome, dark-eyed boy minding the bar. (Orlando Bloom don't have nothin' on the Welsh lads, no sir!)

The dark-eyed boy was shyly attentive in his service, bringing us coffee and napkins (serviettes, to the UK), and assuring us our meal would be up. I rather began to wonder about that, but evidently at considerable effort, the bar owner came out with nice sandwiches for us. They were ... a trifle odd, I thought. Sylvia got a cheese sandwich, which turned out to be sliced white cheese with *chutney* of all things - they call it "relish" - and I got a tuna sandwich which was the FISHIEST tuna I've ever etten! Maybe they grow 'em fishier in the North Atlantic?

Anyhow, we shared our sandwiches, I ate under the unblinking gaze of the pathetic little terrier (who was clearly as much a regular there as his master), and thus passed our lunch stop on the road. Feeding the terrier my bread crusts, with his master's approval, we set out once more.

On we drove up winding, wooded roads, amongst steep hills and scattered farms which perched in various nooks and vales above the River Wye. A lovely, lovely country and I once again regretted the utter lack of space to pull OFF those narrow roads to take photos. We finally came to the village of Tintern, which tucked itself hard against stern hills and appeared to owe its vigor entirely to the jewel at its heart - Tintern Abbey.

Dating back to the 1100's, this magnificent ruin manages to accommodate the footfalls of who knows how many tourists each year, and yet retain all its graceful serenity. In the deeps of January, there were but a few other people roving the grounds, but not so many as to get in each other's way or detract from the awe-some hush of the place. Like us, those few folks were quiet and contemplative in their explorations.

Having seen York Minster's vibrant, living majesty, it was much easier for me to imagine Tintern Abbey when its bare stones were clad in plaster and paint, and in the trappings of service to God. The grand arches lift soaring towards a ceiling now made only of blue Welsh sky, and great pillars prop up only memories. Flitting about the ruins and roosting in its nooks and crannies were white doves, unlike any we'd seen elsewhere.

We walked for quite a little while among the crumbling walls and various pathways, reading the placard signs that told the purpose and history of the rooms. One side of each placard was English, the other Welsh. In the south transept lay what seemed to be three very old gravestones, flat to the earth and much too worn for reading, one marked with an ornate Celtic knot pattern. The largest and most complete appeared to have writing, but as noted, it was extremely worn and probably in Latin, to boot. Did these once lay imbedded in a polished floor, like the tombs in the floor of York Minster?

A most magical and curious thing happened when I stepped into the east transept. When I entered the "room," open but for pillars and arches to all the rest of the church, I looked up in a sudden sense of tremendous awe - the single word that popped into my head: "holy." Then a curious, chill "zing" shot right up the backs of my calves and tingled the back of my neck. It was an odd but not at all frightening sensation.

When I called Sylvia back to snap a photo of me there, vague tingles remained. She told me she felt something upon her first visit, so maybe it's something one experiences that first time. No sooner had we done and turned to go on, then Sylvia stopped - she later said to take the mickey out of me about ghosts! - and got an amusedly startled look on her face. She said SOMEthing had just tapped the back of her head!

But there were no raindrops or dripping water of any kind. Maybe it's not just a first time, after all....

(I later learned this was the place of the High Alter, the holy of holies in that old church. It is further marked by another flat gravestone, this etched in a Celtic Tree of Life.) (Ed. Note: I've been unable to learn anything about those stones, nor find them explained in any online site about Tintern Abbey.)

After a final pass around the sprawling grounds, with the chill of evening settling in our bones, we turned towards the exit. I just had time to peruse the gift shop ere they closed the site for the night. As we left, the silvery tinkling of a small bell somewhere on the grounds summoned any laggards - much as bells must have summoned the brothers to devotions those centuries ago.

Back on the road, we swiftly departed sweet, fey Wales and crossed a long bridge back into Gloustershire. We reached Sylvia's brother's place in Berkshire just at dark.

I must say that Steve and Dot have a lovely home, the first single-storey house I'd seen, which in England they call "bungalows." Elegantly and beautifully appointed, I feared it would be far too nice for this country girl - until that is, I met Minnow the Cornish Rex cat, who presided by the hearth, followed later the two great black Alsatian dogs, Shadow and Tia. They came in with the mud of the fields still clinging to their fur, and they smelled deliciously of damp dog and endless affection. I couldn’t help feeling at home, even in a house so nice, when dog hair formed a part of daily life.

Steve and Dot proved wonderful and welcoming hosts, and Sylvia and I each had our own rooms, sharing a handsome private bath. Once we had settled in, they first treated us to glasses of welcoming champagne, and a leisurely sit by the fire. There I stared in amazement at Britain's bizarre tastes in reality TV: some kind of "iron man" (or woman) type competition, wherein contestants had to circumvent all sorts of wacky obstacles, including racing up a greasy slope whilst 55 gallon drums rolled down on them, getting spun dizzy on a Tilt-a-Whirl before navigating a series of unsteady mini-islands, and my favorite - trying to leap from point to point on gigantic rubber balls suspended over a pool, where a miss meant the contestant got BOUNCED through the air and into the water just like a human cartoon character. I almost hurt myself laughing ... *g*

Then they took us out to dinner at a local Indian eatery - a rather posh but friendly place, (Dot and Steve were clearly regulars) and the food was absolutely excellent, the service stellar. I wish I recalled the name of the restaurant, but I would recommend it to anyone with a taste for fine Indian cuisine and good service.

It seemed a shame to let such a nice evening end, but it had been along day of many miles. Home again, we chatted over the last of the bottle of dinner wine until bedtime.

~ * ~



Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Part 8 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

FRIDAY JAN 23 - Another grey, drizzly morning, but I took a bath and we headed off towards York. We parked at a park & ride just outside the city, and caught a bus to the city center. A wise move, as I later realize upon seeing York's streets.

The first thing I noticed was the *flooding* on the river, water creeping right up from the wharfs into the lower streets, drowning lampposts and café signs. But, nobody seemed concerned, so presumably this is an ancient and common occurrence.

York is ... an amazing city, crowded tightly about its narrow, twisting streets, centuries of living packed together, and its people teem in ceaseless currents of industry and commerce. Bricks and stone and cobbled streets form its urban canyons, and busses, taxis, delivery vans and autos hurtle along the narrow thoroughfares bare inches from buildings that have stood since days when only the rumble of wagons and clop of hooves made the soundtrack of city life.

There are many streets, however, that are far too narrow for automobiles, and much of the old downtown is accessed only by foot or bicycle. Most famous of these is the Shambles, a cramped canyon of a street paved in brick and shadowed by medieval buildings whose upper stories protrude over the street below, until they almost lean together. Once a street of butchers and such, and not much changed since early times, today the shops sell goods to entice tourists, from chocolates to china to silly British souvenirs. It's intriguing to imagine that the bustle of commerce has not changed in centuries, even if the wares sold, have.

The ruling queen of old York, however, is indisputably the majestic York Minster. Becky and I didn't go inside Westminster last Saturday, so I can't speak for what's inside, but from the minute Sylvia and I stepped into York Minster, I was struck with awe.

In a word, York Minster is the single most magnificent and beautiful thing I have ever seen made by human hands. The first name in their roster of bishops and archbishops is dated 314. A Caesar was crowned here, a Christian rule. And sarcophagi of noble families and clerics line the walls, while headstones pave the floors. The soaring ceiling arches act as frames for magnificent stained glass windows, one of the largest, the two-storey East Window, presently covered up for restoration, due to the ancient glass and lead sagging of its own weight.

Every splendid, gorgeous inch of the place, from carved stone to gilt trim to slender columns that lifted towards the vaulted ceilings ever so high ahead, lifted the eye towards the seat of the Divine. There simply are not words to describe the sheer sense of peace and holy grandeur that fills this mighty minster. Every inch of artistry in this place is a prayer, a paean, a memorial. The occasional sounds of distant chimes or bells lent to the ambiance, and in one area, a woman in full vestments led a small, brief service.

The Deans and Chapter House chamber added unexpected whimsy, being a circular domed chamber of marvelous acoustics, with stone seats along the walls and scores of small, fanciful faces adorning each pillar. Every face was individual and distinct, and in come cases humorous or grotesque.

At last stepping outside to a somewhat jarring return to the 21st century, we turned to secular history. From York Minster we first admired a Roman column, found some years back when the minster underwent renovations. I found that more than a little boggling to contemplate: I rested my hand on a great pillar of stone carved about two thousand years ago. And here it stood for tourists to pet and snap photos of. (Alas, no photo for me, as I couldn't find a place to stand far enough back and fit it in the frame!)

Then we walked down the narrow ways until passing Clifford Tower, a 1300's mote and bailey castle standing high atop its green mound amidst a parking lot. Past it, we went to the York Castle Museum, set in what was apparently a legal and judicial complex at one time. The cells that once housed the highwayman Dick Turpin were located in its basement. Rather than castle history per se, however, the museum offered an overview of area history in general, from early times to the Beatles, with interesting displays of things diverse as kitchen evolution, weaponry, WWII, early vacuum cleaners, a soldier's experience in Cromwell's war, and local crafts and skills as set up in faux shops in the old debtors' prison.

Having done the proper tourist things one does in grand old York, we hopped back on the bus. This finished our tour of York by taking us past long sections of the old York City walls, all carefully restored and quite impressive. Once home, we freshened up, relaxed a bit, had supper, and then prepared to meet "the girls" for their weekly Friday night out.

Now this was something completely different - from my long immersion in England's dead past, now I found myself amidst its boisterous and very lively present. The three gals we were going to meet, including Sylvia's pal, Jean, were old friends of hers, and for those familiar with Sylvia's customary English reserve, you'll be amused to know it remains intact, even when she's in the company of hometown friends with a wineglass in her hand! *g* One of the ladies had her husband pick Sylvia and I up and deliver us to the pub, before going back for the other ladies.

Now, when I say "pub" here, forget about quaint old common rooms with a fire on the hearth - this was a modern place filled with the hard-working folk of Sheffield. The faces around me were as cheerfully ordinary as they come, working class to a fault, and I had to focus to follow the rapid-fire accents around me. After a couple pints there - (I drank half-pints only, as I knew I could not keep up with these ladies) - we moved across the street to an even louder, rowdier joint. Here a DJ shouted incomprehensible accompaniment to his highly eclectic collection of music, and a younger set mingled and shouted and danced. Most of the kids were college age, if barely, with a few more mature folks in the mix. The atmosphere was dynamic and LOUD, and I guess even half pints have their affect, as I joined Sylvia and the girls in dancing when the DJ shifted to 60's rock.

I must say a hilarious high (or is it low?) point of the night was when Jean commandeered a nice looking young man to dance with her. Jean is a bit of a pistol, to say the least, so it really surprised me not at all to see her jiving with this tall, handsome guy half her age. What DID surprise me was when the cops marched into the pub, and made their way straight towards us! They stepped in all business and reflective vests, neatly cutting out Jean's fella from the throng, and the look on poor Jean's face was priceless, as she abruptly did her best to turn completely invisible. The police whisked her dance partner away, and then the rest of us promptly *howled!* Poor Jean - she had picked probably the best looking, most clean-cut bloke in the place, and the gendarmerie came and carried him away. ;-)

(We never did hear what he'd done, but we wondered if maybe he had been smoking marijuana out back or something, and someone called it in.)

Anyhow, we stayed and danced and laughed until about midnight, and then went out to hail a cab and let the Indian driver ferry us home. A good night, good times!

~ * ~



Part 7 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

THURSDAY, Jan 22 - We awoke to chucking down rain after a stormy night (interesting to listen to shipping weather on the drive home last night) but after a stop at the shops, we braved the yuk and headed out for Derbyshire. We followed part of the route we'd done to Cousin Paul's in Staffordshire, but up atop the moors, we turned off into the Peaks National Park area.

Again England showed me a new face, as the rain gave way to frigid damp winds and fat, restless clouds. Sylvia stopped here and there for me to hop out in the damp chill and snap photos: brown moors, steep rolling hills, and scattered sheep. One place boasted a stand of white birch and hazy views of farmlands. Surprise View, they called it, though one must have had to hike into the heath to find anything surprising.

Down we rolled into pretty valleys whose round crowns were clad in brown heather, wending our way towards Castleton. This was a quaint little village that appeared little changed, in 200+ years, owing its name to ruined Peveril Castle high above the town. Castleton itself is wedged tightly along its little twisting streets, and high hills rise all around.

We stopped for lunch at the cozy Castle Inn, built circa 1600. Fires burned on open hearths and hand hews beams held up the ceilings, while tall windows let in the watery sunlight. I joined Sylvia in a bowl of something mysteriously called Scotch Broth, which turned out to be a hearty soup of lamb, potatoes, barley and vegetables, wonderfully tasty and filling. The bread seemed homemade, and in all it made the perfect lunch for a chilly, blustery day.

We drove on through and up around Speedwell Caverns and up the narrow green gorge of Wimers Pass to take in the view. At the bottom, I got out to photograph sheep perched grazing on nearly perpendicular side hills. Sylvia informed me the actual cavern tour involved underground and boats, which sounded not at all appealing in January, so we gave that a pass.

Back in Castleton, we parked and braved the windy climb up to the ruins of Peveril Castle. The little visitor center at its foot was heated almost to boiling, due warming of the sharp, damp wind on top. But we trudged and panted our way up to spectacular views of the surrounding countryside and the little town below. The location of the castle formed an almost perfect defensive site, with plunging slopes guarding three sides, while a gully cut across the narrow ridge that offered wagon access from the rear. The castle held a commanding pose silhouetted above the town, but so far as we could learn, nobody every had any interest in attacking Peveril, and so its defenses remained untested. Abandoned in the 1600's, the castle's greatest enemy had been naught but time.

Sylvia shivered gallantly while I drank my fill of the gorgeous panoramic view, now that the sun finally came out. This was the England of the picture books, high moors and quaint villages, stone walls and green fields, and somewhere in the hills overlooking the Hope Valley apparently lay a Bronze Age fort. Then we came down the same steep path we'd climbed, and made one final pass through a jewelry shop full of beautiful pieces of the local Blue John stone before moving on.

Leaving Castleton towards Chesterfield, we found ourselves in broad, green grazing lands whose wide pastures were framed in the ubiquitous stone walls. Here is a very vigorously agricultural area, with sheep, cows, big rounded plastic-wrapped hay bales, and the occasional sign advertising someone's potatoes. A broad and hilly, open county that pleased the eye.

The road and terrain dropped off abruptly towards Eyam, a village crammed among hills and sudden cliffs. This tiny mining town is of fame as the village that quarantined itself in the Plague of 1665-66. The Church of St. Lawrence stands at the heart of this distinction, housing rolls of the plague victims and memorials to those who ministered to them.

High on the walls of the sanctuary are the remains of medieval artwork, fragments of scripture and figures of obscure meaning. The church itself was open and empty, a place of vast peace and stillness. It is sobering to stand there and imagine the ancient tragedy of this place, and humbling to know its people's faith remains unflagging. How the walls and high ceiling must ring when the choir and congregation sing.

Outside again, we briefly walked among the churchyard stones, generations of names and stones right up to the walls of the church itself. Only a few plague victims were buried here, the rest having been laid to rest by their own families in gardens and fields, that the contagion might not spread more than it did. Sometimes whole families died, to be buried by a sole survivor.

The day wearing older, we went on, wending our way past farms and fields towards home.

We ended the day with a yummy shepherd's pie of Sylvia's own making, a visit from one of her pals, Jean, and a couple glasses of wine. Another fine adventure complete. :-)

~ * ~


More to come ...

Monday, February 23, 2009

Part 6 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

WEDNESDAY, JAN 21 - The morning was thick and grey with rain, and wet snow clung to the shrouded hills, but I went for a short walk into the tiny village of Grasmere. Rather than go very far into the town proper, I took a turn on a woodland path beside the river. As I passed a gate in a wall of ivy, a gentleman came out in his boots, coat and cap with a tumult of furiously happy spaniels. There might have been three, but they were vigorous as thirty, and he apologized kindly for their racket, ere striding off into the woods with his furry little pack. I would have kept walking, enjoying the exercise pulling at my muscles, but Sylvia waited on me for breakfast, and in fact stood in the inn's doorway watching for my return.

We found the dining room considerably more populated than last night, and they offered a continental breakfast as well as traditional fare. We both had the full English breakfast: fried eggs, sausage, bacon, fried tomato, fried mushroom, toast with jam, and black pudding. All but the black pudding was very nice, the black pudding .... not so much. It had an unpleasantly smoky aftertaste and just made me squeamish. Sylvia didn't even try and likes it not at all.

So there you have it, friends! I did encounter one weird food that I could not eat, in England. ;-)

Then we packed up and paid up, as I'd made an appointment to drop in and visit renowned border collie breeder and trainer, Derek Scrimgeour. Derek and his dog Laddie placed 1st in the English Nationals for 2009, and with his bitch, Fleece, placed 5th, and I met him at a sheepdog training clinic he held in northern California a year and a half ago. A friend of mine recently bought a pup from him and had it shipped to the US, and through her communications with him, they were made aware of my trip and extended a very generous welcome.

Derek had said between 10:30 ad 11:00 in the morning would be a good time to come up, as he had to do this morning was feed sheep. Ah, the best laid plans ...

Off we drove, straight away into rain and mixed snow, and ruggedly wild valleys. A wet dusting of snow frosted the hills, and by Thirlmere, Sylvia stopped and let me snap a few photos, while she stayed snug in the car. I spoke to a pair of older Scotsmen even madder than me, for they were cheerfully heading out for a hike, backpacks and all.

We reached Keswick (pronounced "Kezzick") about 10:30 and *tried* following Derek's careful instructions. However, we somehow *missed* the 15-foot tall War Memorial in the middle of an intersection, which formed a major landmark for us, and we wound up noodling off out of town. There we turned back to a petrol station for directions. The girl at the counter very concisely gave them - and we got none of it, this time wandering off up some hilly neighborhood, whereupon we came down and parked in front of the Twa Dogs Inn. (Which was closed.) We called for help, and Helen, bless her, guided us by phone and stayed on the lane until we were at the lane to their farm. The most interesting part of the directions was the "go about two or two and a half miles until you think you're lost!"

But in reality, from then on, there was no way to get lost, just a narrow, single track that clung for life to a great, STEEP wooded hillside. I now know why the English have Land Rovers. I don't think Derek has one, but he should. My friend Sylvia's poor little car was soon liberally coated in mud made of numerous organic substances, after crawling up the lane towards the farm. It wound and climbed and clung for about two miles, before looping back along an even steeper slope and crossing a swift stream.

There, perched on a green hillside amongst bare trees and angled loops of stone wall stood the old stone house of Lonscale Farm. Where we parked is hard by the barn, the house itself tucked away behind. It's a magnificent, gorgeous setting, tucked close at Blencartha's mighty flanks. Steep, barren hillsides soar up to caps of snow and a clear stream tumbles down the valley. It is visually exhilarating and uplifting to the soul. Derek himself noted that he never takes this place for granted.

Inside, the stone farmhouse's plastered walls were painted a warm, butter yellow, which Helen has decorated with blue-patterned dishes (the type escapes me now) and several of her paintings. It is a thoroughly English and thoroughly cozy old kitchen, with a heavy trestle table, a cast iron stove, and high ceilings - against which several pairs of trousers hung overhead to dry. The house is, Helen guesses from a date on a windowsill, circa 1816.

Sylvia and I were treated to tea and biscuits (cookies, to us Americans) courtesy of Helen, and we settled in for a very nice visit. I was nervous about this visit, having met Derek only on one instance at that sheepdog clinic a year and a half ago. But he and Helen were lovely, warm hosts and we felt quite at home. There was a blond girl and a strapping Scottish boy who apparently work for them, and they wandered in and out like family. Also, there were three little Westie terriers who waddled about the house, belonging to their daughter, Rachel, and one very large, very brazen cat. Derek and Helen took delight in telling how the cat haunted the crew from One Man and His Dog, when they were up to film on the farm a year or two back!

At a pause in the friendly gabbing, Derek looked to me, and almost at once, I asked if we'll see any dogs at the same moment he asks if we should go see dogs. Hee! Not hard to figure who has the Border Collie Disease, when Derek and I donned coats and hats to go out, while Sylvia and Helen very sensibly stayed indoors.

Derek meanwhile seemed quietly delighted to show off some of his dogs. We walked by kennels and into a steel barn while he rattled off the various parentages and relationships of dogs and pups we passed. Then from a corner pen, he released the Crown Prince of the Killiebrae kennels, Laddie. Laddie had no time for me, rocketing out of his kennel like a guided missile the instant Derek opened the door, because Laddie knew there was Work To Do.

In sturdy Laddie, the 2009 English Nationals Champion, I saw a dog that hurled himself into his job with an absolute joy of going. He was just stupendous to watch. He is a big, solid but not at all coarse dog, just a mass of muscle, sinew and power. Derek sent him hurtling up the paddock - his training field sits at about a 45-degree angle - and worked him with whistles this way and that, like guiding a radio controlled fighter jet. Everything Laddie did was pure power - even his stops seem to hum with energy in his stillness, like a muscle car rumbling at a stoplight.

In Fleece - she who was 5th at the English Nationals, and who is aunt to my pup, Nick - I saw a more graceful sort of power, as befits a lady of quality. She is of Derek's bloodlines, but bred by a woman in the US (same as bred my pup, Nick) and he and Helen joked about going to American to buy one of his own dogs. Derek spoke how he initially thought Fleece was too soft, and even contemplated selling her. But then "she just came on," and now you couldn't buy her.

Last to run was Zack, an import from ... either Norway or Netherlands, I forget which! He was a big youngster who flaunted his stuff with skill and boundless youthful exuberance. Amazingly, the sun came out to banish the rain and snow, so I got a few good photos in, as well.

So, Derek and I pottered about in the rain for half an hour or more, and I think he enjoyed his dogs as much as I did. He later commented that we had the Border Collie Disease for sure, if we'd stand out in the rain to watch dogs work! Hee! And for a little while, I completely forgot I was anybody's guest. :-)

Our visit at last at an end, we bid farewell and made our way back down through the potholes and mud to Keswick. There we followed Helen's directions (bless her once again!) to a theater and café down at Derwentwater's shore. But we found it closed, apparently undergoing renovations. I did take a moment to take in Derwentwater, its surface grey and cold under restless dark clouds. The wind off the water was utterly frigid and a few raindrops spattered, prompting me to bid the local Canadian geese a hasty farewell and make my way back to the car.

From there we toodled around the ubiquitous narrow, winding lanes seeking the way to Castlerigg Stone Circle, since I could hardly consider my UK trip complete without at least one stone circle. We found the place almost without knowing we'd found it, very little in the way of "You're Here!" to mark the fact we'd arrived. But we parked in a little turnout at the edge of some farmer's stone wall, and there it stood. An uneven circle of stones rather like a fossilized dragon's teeth jutting from the green gums of the earth. Sylvia walked up with me, despite the blustery cold dampness, because she said one had to come all the way up and enter the circle, before leaving.

Then she retired to the car's warmth and left me to soak in the moody ambiance of the place. It was easy to see why the ancients chose this side, with its stunning 360-degree view of surrounding snowcapped peaks. Heavy-bellied, shifting clouds and pallid beams of sun created an ever-changing vista of light. Mercifully, the spatters of rain stopped, and I put up my umbrella - which might have become a casualty of the slashing gusts - to splash around the sodden hilltop. The damp stillness was broken only gently by the passage of several people out hiking local footpaths: the English do so love their walks, regardless of the weather.

I spent quite a little while up there simply being, breathing, looking, and admiring the stark beauty that is Cumbria. Time is a thin fabric in this country, its layers never all that far from reach. Finally, I figured I'd tempted pneumonia or at least a head cold long enough, and bid the ancient hilltop farewell.

Failing to spot a pub on our way out of Keswick, we went on up the road a couple miles to the wee village of Threlkeld. There, at the Horse & Farrier Inn, we had a very nice and very hearty English lunch. I had a smoked salmon sandwich - open-faced - and Sylvia had the cheese, which was shredded cheese, also open-faced. The *bread* the sandwiches were on was hearty, home made, and HUGE, one sandwich easily big enough for two if not three of us. Needless to say, we could not finish our meals, but we didn't go away hungry, and I had a truly delicious dark ale to go with it.

After that, we were back on the road and heading towards Sheffield once more. I should very much like to see this wild, fey region again, and I'll pray one day I will.

~ * ~



Sunday, February 22, 2009

Part 5 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

TUESDAY, JAN 20 - Today, we awoke to frost and ice under sunny skies. Amidst the unexpected chill, we packed to head for the Lakes District. I think Sylvia considered driving over the Yorkshire moors, but we could see snow on top and instead took to the motorways.

Much like our US freeways and interstates, the motorways slice firmly through England, whisking us north up the M1 through industrial areas, farmlands and towns, all three crowded far more closely together than I'm used to seeing in the American West. We eventually turned off onto lesser A roads that twisted and turned through pastures, plowed fields and houses. We came abruptly into Huddlesfield, a sprawling industrial city that continues the English tradition of juxtaposing the modern and very old.

The A roads lift us into neighborhoods of Dickens-onian looking brownstone houses and then dump us onto the M60 amidst snowy high moors, towards Manchester. Then down again to rather typical freeway scenery, the least interesting of any drive yet.

When we got into western Lincolnshire on the M6, the countryside again became more rural, with small farms, fat sheep, stone houses, hedgerows, and stands of barren trees. The grass of the pastures was still green despite the winter chill. Finally, somewhere not far westward was the cold Irish Sea, and further, the Isle of Man. The sun dimmed somewhat behind a soft sea haze.

Crossing into Cumbria, we were greeted by the sight of sheep on the low hills, mixed flocks of heavy wool and uncertain lineage. We rolled into the town of Kendal at last, which apparently flourished in the 1400's - 1600's as a textile center. It's a quaint town with narrow, bendy streets crowded closely by little shops.

We walked around the noble Kendall Parish Church, whose origins date to the Domesday Roles, 106-summat. The present magnificent building, with its peaked arches and ornate rose window, dates to the town's heyday in the 1500's-ish. At the Abbot's Hall coffee shop, tucked snuggly next to the Abbot's Hall Art Gallery, we stopped for sweets and a lovely cup of coffee. Though the textile trade is history, Kendall remains a considerable town, bustling and busy on its narrow streets, and thick with handsome old stone buildings.

Out of Kendall, we headed west, and the country is instantly filled with little farms and many small flocks of sheep. Each farm is chequered with little walled pastures, the stone walls clambering determinedly across the landscape, however gentle or steep. At a BP petrol station not far out, a tiny Chrysler/Jeep/Dodge dealership has wedged its glass self incongruously between the station and an old guest house. The country turns rugged as we near the lakes, and there are still more sheep: white with black faces, white with white faces, and even one flock of black sheep with white faces, and a couple that seemed all colors at once.

Windemere town is crammed tightly on its hills and winding streets, the cold, snowy crowns of the fells dimly visible in the distant haze across the lake. The town is quite touristy, boats and outdoorsy pursuits advertise at every turn, whilst the masts of sailboats rock on the grey chop of Windmere itself.

Here Sylvia stopped outside a little information centre to check the map, and I hopped out to buy postcards, and also ended up with a toy dog and a couple toy sheep!

On we went, thick, barren woods at the bottom of the lake through which we followed a narrow, windy road, the steep hillsides dotted with houses, shops, and a couple quaint hotels perched here and there. The place undoubtedly crawls with tourists in the summer, as I noted caravan parks, as well. But for now, it was grey and wintry and cold.

We stopped briefly at Fell Foot parking area for quick snapshots of sheep and a view across the bottom of Windemere. Then we drove on, passing the Lakeside & Haverwaithe Steam Railroad station, a picturesque 1890's building of an unexpectedly golden blond stone.

Then, possibly because it's tradition for our lot, we missed the turnoff to Coniston Water and the 5084 highway, and wound up out on the peninsula at Ulverton, among tidal flat farms and a seaside town. We missed the turn again on the return lap, but reversed course once more on a wee lane, and got it right as the rain came in.

North we drove along Coniston Water and then towards Amblesby, and the countryside became rainy, rugged, dark and wild, the narrow road tightly bound by high stone walls and tall hedges. The terrain is hilly and craggy, the spill of sodden green pastures doted with rather feral-looking grey sheep, and stone walls march and loop across the fields. Here and there, the occasional spirited stream leapt down from craggy stone faces, and each farmhouse wedged between woods and stony hillside bore its name at the front gate. Sylvia stopped on one nameless lane to let me snap some pictures, ere I dove back into the car to escape the returning drizzle.

Darkness settled slowly as we neared Amblesby amidst a steady grey rain. We reached the Swan Inn at Grasmere at nearly dark, and checked in to a quiet inn. It is a lovely place in its serene, country-gentry way, and unlike anything I've seen in American hotels, our room actually had two twin beds, rather than our traditional doubles/queens. The magnificently huge showerhead in the bathroom, however, promised a special treat for me.

In the meantime, however, Sylvia and I relaxed a bit, freshened up, and went downstairs for supper. There was almost no one in the quietly elegant dining room, and we had the full attention of our very proper young waiter. He might have been straight from Central Casting, I thought, being handsome, slender, soft-spoken and oh, so proper. Sylvia warned me about the habit of some posh restaurants to have the waiter place your napkin in your lap, for you. And a good thing she did, else I might have leapt out of my skin when he daintily whisked the white linen to rest across my thights.

Dinner was as pretty to look at as it was tasty to eat. Sylvia had plaice, a sort of white fish I'd never heard of, while I had the lamb, thick with sage and other spices, and served over mashed carrots, a turnip and cooked carrots. I'd feared a meal so pretty that it failed to fill the stomach, but the helpings were ample and I'd love to revisit that lamb right now!

For dessert, we opted to share a special Lakes District treat: sticky toffee pudding. This is a heavy, cake-like pudding soaked in caramelized syrup, and served with a dollop of ice cream. We wondered if the succulent heaviness was due to suet, but I later learned the prime ingredient was dates! Whatever goes in it, it was absolute heaven for the palate. Oddly, the taste and texture reminded me of something I'd eaten in my childhood, but I've yet to recollect what it was.

Then, fed to satiation, we had a nightcap in the bar and chatted with the lady bartender. Finally, we turned in for a good night's sleep.

~ * ~



Saturday, February 21, 2009

Part 4 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

MONDAY, JAN 19 - Morning was damp and thoroughly English, an earlier rain giving way to sullen drizzle occasionally shot through with sodden snowflakes. We went first to the shops for boots for Sylvia, and sundries are we headed off for the day's adventure.

Our first stop set us in pre-history, Cresswell Crags, a Neolithic site of caves, water and water fowl, including mallards and a very cheeky young swan. I called to the swan as I would a pet goose, and darned if the rascal didn't swim right up and clamber onto the bank in front of me! He promptly began hissing and posturing, and in case you didn't know, swans are BIG. Sylvia backed away, traitorous thing, but I held my ground and made myself look big, figuring if I tried to flee, he'd bash me with those big wings and pinch me with his beak. Luckily, he didn't really mean his threat, and settled down to pretend he was only there to preen his feathers. Brat.

We also saw pheasant, as well, first one sneaking about in the shrubbery, but then two of them on the footpath, one down and seemingly dead, whist another stood over and prodded at it. I thought it a mated pair until we got closer and discovered they were both males. The healthy one vanished into the grass, but the downed one was still breathing, so I moved the poor thing off the path to shelter. No idea what might have happened, as we heard no fight and they hadn't been there when we walked past the first time. One of nature's little mysteries, I guess.

Anyhow, we wandered around the lake and read the signs, which detailed early life in the caves as told by fossil records including spotted hyenas and stone tools. A quiet and pleasant place that gave me a window to a different part of history.

Back on the road, we continued our way, stopping by St. Mary's Norton Cuckley Church in Nottinghamshire. It was the classic old church with the square Norman bell tower and a graveyard of (to my eye) oversized and very old headstones. Amongst the stones grazed several small black sheep, who eyed me with a bland yellow stare.

The area here became very rural, a gentle country of fallow fields, bare hedgerows and naked woods, mixed with odd evergreens, perhaps fir and pine, and some silver birch. We passed little villages along the way, and the woods grew thicker as we neared Sherwood Forest proper. Then we turned into the car park and made our first stop the little café, where I treated myself to that good old English favorite - beans on toast. I can say that it is quite tasty and entirely filling.

Sherwood itself is a forest asleep, its bare limbs standing still against a changing sky. But little birds flitted and twittered sweetly among the branches, and in the parking lot at the center, fat wood pigeons flapped about their pigeon business. The pamphlet says there are over 1500 oaks aged over 500 years, but the forest seemed mainly of white birch and lesser trees, punctuated randomly by the fat, gnarled boles of aged oaks.

It is a lovely, peaceful place, only a few people out, and most of those walked dogs of various sorts - including an older man with a little black mutt and a very busy border collie. I got its attention briefly for a pet, before it returned to frolicking and busily working its little friend. The sun peeked out just moments before we spied the storied Major Oak, where legend says once Robin Hood took refuge from the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham's men. It is truly a giant among its kind. Even bare of leaves, its enormous bole and thick, gnarled limbs exude timeless serenity. It's fortunate that forward-thinking souls saw fit to prop up its massive spread of branches.

The tree itself is lightly fenced off to protect its root structure from trampling feet, just a little split-rail fence and good English manners all that keeps tourists at bay. Sylvia and I took turns snapping pictures of each other, and then we continued our nature walk. If the weather were not so cold and dicey, I would have wished for more time to walk further, and stretch my legs on this storied piece of earth.

Once back at the car, we took a detour into nearby Erwinstowe, where we chanced on a church founded in 633 AD, the current building begun in 1175. A sign out front proclaims that this is where Robin Hood and Maid Marian were rumored to have been married. Its classic churchyard fascinated me, the earliest legible gravestones dated 1703 and 1713. Clearly there were older graves somewhere, but those markers were centuries lost. Again I reflect on the sheer antiquity of this land, coming as I do from a place where no white man's structure dates so far back in time.

By then the rain showers were kicking up again, so we headed for the car. Thereafter we followed time-honored tradition (at least for us) and got ... not lost, but rather turned around in an effort to find the right road towards Bolsover Castle. I was no help, even with the road atlas in my lap! That I find a disorienting thing: with only fitful glimpses of the sun and no real landmarks, in this country I can rarely tell north from south. ;-)

But we finally sorted ourselves out and found the place just at sunset. We weren't sure what to expect - ruins? - but instead found what looked like a large, rambling manor house amidst several acres of lawn. They had closed at 4 p.m., and we were half past, so we just looked and left. Only as we drove out of town and looked back did we see its true face: an enormous castle perched on a hill sternly overlooking the town, its walls and battlements bathed rose-hued by the light of the setting sun.

With that farewell to the day's explorations, we headed on home to Sheffield.

~ * ~



Friday, February 20, 2009

Part 3 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SUNDAY, JAN 18 - Again I woke up about 8 a.m,, after staying up rather late last night with chit-chat, wine, and whiskey-filled chocolates. This morning, Sylvia treated me to a delicious real English breakfast: fried egg (no over easy or over medium, just fried) bacon, sausage, fried mashed potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and tea and toast. Made with my almost-5-pound bread, thankyouverymuch. ;-)

Thus fortified, we headed off towards my cousin Paul's place in Stoke-on-Trent. I wasn't sure why UK Mapquest said it should take over an hour to go 38 miles, but I soon found out. It was a lovely drive up into the dales and moors into Derbyshire's hills, woods, and villages. But the roads are all very narrow, not an inch of shoulder or verge on either side, and the towns and villages crowd right up against the pavement, no room for even a twitch of the wheel. Nonetheless, English drivers rocket along in mad, merry unconcern, as if in a dance with which all are long familiar.

The road at one point followed a narrow, craggy gorge up through to Buxton, a noble old spa town, and broke out atop moorlands and broad, plunging hills studded with sheep, stone walls, and plastic-wrapped round bales of hay. From the road, we paused to admire an enormous manor house called Chatsworth, which sits nestled among pastures and hills and little woods. Sylvia said the place is wonderfully grand to tour, when it's open, and from the road it actually makes Buckingham palace look rather shabby.

Passing into Staffordshire, the land gradually gentled and we went through the big town of Leek, which stood anchored more firmly in the 21st century. Out again we flew, town and country as ever closely and abruptly mingled, now sheep pasture, now parking lot, now farm, now housing tract and farmland again. Big woolly sheep grazed here and there on the hillsides and in wee green plots. I saw a good many people walking with dogs of all types, even an aged border collie on a leash.

Shortly we came into Stoke, a sprawling, modern, and not terribly interesting metropolis. I found it a bit comforting to imagine that "urban boring" is a universal building style. ;-)

Cousin Paul, however, lives out in Bignal End, an area at once tidy and attractive. We had a bit of confusion over telephone directions, but he found us and guided us in.

He and Lynn have a lovely little townhouse, sided o one side by his daughter and her family, and on the other by his brother, who is ill. The English, I realized, build UP, no such thing as a single-storey home, and they build with clever economy of space. Paul's house is quite lovely and cozy, and I hope they didn't go to too much trouble for my arrival.

They sat us down directly for a proper English tea, complete with nice cups and a porcelain teapot in a cozy, all on a serving tray. Paul poured for us, tea with milk and sugar, very tasty, and I felt entirely tasty. Truly a delightful interlude after the drive, and a wonderful gesture. For Paul, it seems, there is no such thing as strangers in his house. ;-)

Then, while Lynn carried on with making supper, Paul bundled us into his zippy little Ford Fiesta, and took us hurtling about the little lanes and hamlets of his district. The English don't seem to bother with one-way roads, and if the lane narrows to a single track, or cars parked on one shoulder or the other (often with one wheel on the lawn or sidewalk) then opposing oncoming drivers seem to magically discern who should yield the right-of-way and who should come on. Then they immediately take off rocketing along again until the next encounter or lane change. It's rather unnerving for an American, but both Sylvia and Paul kept a firm control of the wheel. I decided it was best not to think about it, too much. ;-)

Anyhow, off we went, dashing about country and hamlet. At the Scot Hay Cricket Club, we pulled off and got out amidst watery sunlight and a *frigid* damp breeze, to look across the fields towards Wales and I think Lincolnshire. Off again, we looped madly along little lanes who's only change in 900 years seems to have been the advent of pavement. At Bartholomley, Paul stopped at a 900 year old Norman church, where we walked among mossy gravestones, a good many laid flat as paving stones all around the church. There he showed us a grave dated to the early 1700's which he said might be a pirate, complete with engraved skull and crossbones.

Inside the church, (which was unlocked) the reverent hush invited reflection beneath the high, shadowed arch of its ceiling. A stained glass window and two great, aged oil paintings of Moses and Aaron adorned the wall framing the doorway.

I should have liked to explore at greater leisure, but Paul probably feared his lady wife's wrath if we came back late for supper. So we hopped back in the car and on our way.

And what a dinner it was! I wish I'd been bold enough to photograph the table, with the lovely settings and candlesticks and good china. Silvia and I were seated and treated to an excellent English dinner: roast beef, steamed veggies, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding and brown gravy, with wine and/or water freshened with slices of lemon and lime. Then, after we'd digested a while, we moved to the front room for coffee and a pudding made of a hot apple-berry crumble served with warm English custard on top - absolutely heavenly!

With such splendid fare and cheerful company - Paul is as animated as his wife is composed - it was hard to find a point to say goodnight. Thankfully Paul drove as guide to get us out of the maze of lanes to the motorway, which would get us to the M1 and home.

Back at Sylvia's, we mucked with computers to secure and watch a good download of "Supernatural," then nattered until we realized - ACK! - it was nearly midnight.

~ * ~



Thursday, February 19, 2009

Part 2 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SATURDAY, JAN 17 - I had a good night's sleep, woke up briefly in the early AM but went back to sleep and didn't wake up until about 8 a.m. After yesterday's gallivanting, I took a lazy morning with Becky, having toast and tea and lying about the house, relaxing. I met the lady of the house and her grown daughter, who'd brought her two cute kids, and we had a lovely chat around the kitchen table. What other vacation plan could see me so delightfully immersed right into the culture I'd come to visit?

My friend Sylvia's son, Dan, came to fetch me just past noon, and I was glad Becky came along for the ride. The plan was to meet Sylvia out at Warwick Castle, but we directly got stuck in M40 traffic going north. After inching for what seemed ages, we finally got moving about 1:20, the sun already westering at an alarming rate. Sylvia called and told us she was already there, and we never did see what the jam was.

One little treat in traffic was a Red Kite which flew low over the highway, a splendid looking fellow. Becky said it's only fairly recently that the kites were reintroduced to an estate in the area, and I watched broad wings carry him from view. With traffic finally moving under graying skies, we went north into rolling hills, soft fields, and brown, sleeping little woods. Here and there I spied little flocks of sheep, some white faced, some black-faced.

And then we came to Warwick Castle! (Properly pronounced, "Warrick.") Alas, Becky could not stay on to enjoy the adventure with Sylvia and me, so I bid her farewell with regret, and Dan took her back to London. Then, Sylvia and I set forth on the rest of my adventure.

This is the castle imagined in every tale of Camelot, or any story of knights and princes and kings. Built first by order of William the Conqueror in 1068, the original keep was a wooden stockade high atop a mound overlooking the River. The stone towers standing there now probably date to the early 1300s, as do the rest of the towers and walls.

It's a brilliantly realized trick of touristy glitz and genuine, accessible history. Inside the grounds there's a shop disguised as a medieval tournament tent, but the Castle itself is a stunning tribute to preservation and restoration.

Here are no cold and hollow walls with the rain seeping in. Rather one enters by way of the stable, smithy and armory, where INCREDIBLE wax figures in each room look so real you expect them to move or blink. They even have a wax horse downstairs by the smithy, all decked out in his armor and saddle - and somehow they made it SMELL like horse! I really don't want to imagine a mad scientist trying to concoct artificial horse smell, but there it is. ;-) In one room, the Earl of Warwick rallies his men - to piped-in music and stirring voice-over. Cheesy, a bit, but still fun. In another room the women gather and tell tales, and the walls are washed in white lime, hung with banners, and the floors are laid with rugs, the whole creating a warm and cozy feel.

We move subtly on in time, room by room, reaching Victorian grandeur seen only on the Titanic, velvet wallpaper, opulent woodwork, and more incredible wax figures of men and women, lords and ladies. There is the Great Hall with is weapons and armor and art, the wall walk and its towers and interminable steps.

The dungeon Sylvia said we simply must see, though it was not obvious to find. But we asked direction and down the stairs, we went, and I'll tell you now that dungeon was truly creepy, and terribly grim and dismal. There are marks carved in the walls by prisoners centuries ago, crosses and letters and marks that may have been someone's means of marking a calendar, or just something to do in an existence without meaning. There's one place where some educated chap actually carved a whole paragraph about when he was incarcerated and stuff, but they have it covered up by a board now for preservation, and have his words painted in transcription on the board.

The worst of all is the oubliette. It is a dark little hole about the size and shape of a very cramped coffin in one corner, accessed by an iron grate. There they'd have to stuff someone in head or feet first, (it's flat, not straight up and down) and I doubt he could ever even turn around. It's nightmarish to even imagine. Very sobering place, with the evidence of very real human suffering right there to see.

Outside was much more cheerful, as we took a walk around the walls. They have iron rails to keep tourists from falling over the side, and little narrow twisty stairs, though they've resurfaced most of the stone steps within recent memory. There are a few sets of stairs we were not allowed on, where you could see the original wear, and they're so worn and slick it's a good thing people don't use them, now. The view of the castle and village from up there was awesome, and I took a couple pictures of the village church, a square-towered Norman-looking thing, while looking through the arrow notches in the wall, giving the image a sort of keyhole affect.

Warwick was quiet during our visit, handfuls of people about but doing their own things, and I thoroughly immersed myself in the experience. It's amazing to walk these grounds and think of the sheer centuries involved, the generations of lives lived, from William to King Edward to now, in this place where history yet lives. I imagine in the summers it gets a good deal more garish and touristy, but for me, today was absolutely perfect.

Then with the sun setting and that damp English chill setting in, Sylvia and I loaded up and headed off for her little place in Sheffield.

~ * ~