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!

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