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.

~ * ~



Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Part 1 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

THURSDAY, JANUARY 15, 2009 - I boarded a wee little sports car of a plane at Reno at 9:15, and takeoff was on time. Presumably due to the plane's small size, we flew a very low flight path over the Sierra Nevadas, maybe 18,000 feet. Lake Tahoe hung momentarily at eye-level before we ascended to level flight and turned east over the lake. Such a beautiful, clear sunny day!

The short flight finished with a leisurely sweep over the Oakland Bridge and back, to zoom in over the water to landing. I had a bewildering moment trying to make sense of the boarding gates, for my connecting flight. (As a side note to my "Supernatural" obsession, the Stanford University shop reminded me of Sam Winchester, who in the show briefly went to Stanford. Hey, I can see LOTR or SPN anywhere, LOL!)

Boarding was on time, and I found myself on the BIGGEST damn plane I've ever been on, a Boeing 777. One could stuff two of the little puddle jumpers I got here in, inside. I got settled and we took off into a brilliant, sunny day.

And it was a looooooooooong flight. 10 hours in the air, utterly uneventful and the big plane rode as steady as a rock. Turbulence in that big thing felt like nothing more than brushing the rumble-bars on the side of the highway. But I got uncomfortable sitting for so long, until my legs felt like they were *crawling* and I had to get up and walk a bit. I strolled around the cabin for maybe 20 minutes, and returned to my seat feeling better. Somewhere over the Midwest they fed us something that vaguely resembled meatloaf, corn and mashed potatoes.

My seatmate being disinclined to engage with strangers, I finally took a couple Tylenol PM to stave off the inevitable airplane headache, set my watch to London time, and managed a 5 or 6-hour nap.

~ * ~

FRIDAY, JAN 16 - The plane woke up about 5 am, London time, people stirring and starting to talk. I could just see broken clouds below in the pre-dawn darkness, possibly the Plymouth area. In between clouds, I saw veils of jeweled lights spread on the dark land below. The stewardesses (or whatever they're called nowadays) fed us a somewhat odd breakfast of cold turkey sandwiches and chips. Crisps, now that we're in the UK. The flight's landing was slightly delayed due to low clouds, and we touched down in the dark @ 7:30 a.m.

I slid through customs without a hitch, but when I went for my luggage ... it never came. I watched everyone pick up their bags and leave, and when the flight from Chicago started unloading, I realized I had a problem.

There is no lonelier feeling than standing alone in a foreign airport, knowing your CLOTHES are missing! Nor did my cell phone work here, so I couldn't call Becky to tell me I had been delayed. Tired and staving off the urge to panic, I informed the guys in baggage claim of my plight, and asked when I should start to panic. "Now would be a good time," the gentleman said, with classic droll English humor.

But they set to work and told me that my bag was shown as loaded at San Francisco - so I worried, what if someone took mine by mistake? My stomach sank at the thought of my belongings lost somewhere in England, never to be seen again ... Some twenty minutes later, they found my suitcase in a carrier for reloading to some other plane! ACK!

Thus, I made my way out in a trans-Atlantic has, and to my immense relief found Becky waiting - anxiously. A friendly, familiar face at last!

She presented me with my Oyster Card - a pass for UK busses and trains - and we caught the Tube. It took us on a rocket-speed hurtle through tunnels and back yards until we got off near her place in Acton. There she rooms in a charming, narrow brick row house, and there I dropped my gear and freshened up.

Then we hopped back on the Tube, with Becky as my intrepid guide, and we were off to London! I must here salute Becky's planning and enthusiasm, as she took me on such a marvelous whirlwind of sights and sounds. London is a city of wonderful contrsts, 700-to-900 year old buildings next to modern edifices of glass and steel. Everything else is brick and stone, more brick than I've ever seen.

Between busses (via my Oyster Card), walking, and more walking, we saw, in no particular order: Trafalgar Square, Nelson's Column, the National Art Gallery, Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Admiralty Arch, St. James' Park (and its numerous water fowl and birds), the Horse Guards, the Queen Mum's residence at Clarence House, Westminster Abby, a chunk of Roman wall, and the Burroughs Farmers Market. At the latter, I saw soooooooooo many yummy things for sale, breads and cheeses and jams and pickles and olives and fruit and even a dessert stall. Becky and I shared a simply huge brownie, and still could only eat half of our halves.

I also bought a small loaf of fresh baked bread, which was itself an interesting little experience. I gave the chap a 5-pound note, which he put in his apron with thanks ... and then he looked away. The sign right on the table priced the bead at 1 pound, and I waited a long beat, then another. Then I said, "Didn't I give you a fiver?" To which he replied nonchalantly, "Oh, yes," and gave me my proper change. Clever little git.

And on we went. Adventures even included running to jump on a moving double-decker bus - just like in the movies! Becky leapt nimbly aboard, but I found myself dashing to catch up, Becky holding out her hand to me - but I made it. We scampered up top and there took in the view of London's narrow inner city streets. The architecture, the buildings, the sheer reality that I was *here*, it was almost too much to take in. But take it in, I did, with delight. We even saw, but did not tour, the Tower of London, which I had foolishly pictured as a single structure. I did not realize it was a huge, sprawling complex with every brick and wall still intact, a monument to ages and monarchs past. I could not but help, however, pondering the sad mystery of the two little Princes in the Tower.

Last but not least, Becky, bless her dear generous heart, bought us tickets to ride the London Eye. For those not in the know, it is a ginormous great Ferris wheel with little glass observation decks for cars, fitting maybe 20 people each. The thing *moves* at a snail's pace, so it takes about half an hour to go around, and you enter and exit the cars without it ever stopping. But the views of London are simply wonderful, and we got up there just in time to watch the sun set and see London come aglow with city lights.

Our campaign of tourism thus complete, we got back on the Tube, put up our weary, throbbing feet, and headed back to Becky's. As a final treat to a glorious day, Becky took me for dinner at St. George & The Dragon, a pub who's list of landlords looks like a pedigree back to the early 1700's. The dining room in the back was entirely too bright and spacious, but seat in within the pub proper was just right: dark wood paneling, low ceilings, and a coal fire on the grate. We ate a rather spendy but no less tasty dinner, and sat a while to reflect on the day's adventures.

Becky, if I haven't said so, you made this day an experience to remember! Thank you SO much for planning such a terrific expedition. I would rather have walked than done it any other way, as I could not have otherwise felt so perfectly *there*, present in every awesome moment. :-)

~ * ~