Wednesday, February 25, 2009

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. :-)

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More to come ...

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