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.

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