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.

~ * ~



1 comment:

Arwen said...

I was there in summer and it was almost an attraction parc, there were so many children's activities and such. I found it way too touristy to really get into the feel of it, sadly. In the Netherlands castles like that tend to be state-subsidised so don't really need to make money in the same way.
One thing I wouldn't have wanted to miss was the trebuchet! When I was there they did a demonstration, and it was truly awe-inspiring... Shame that you didn't get to see that work.

I didn't know you could go into the dungeon, kind of sorry to have missed that, even though it does sound grim.