Saturday, March 7, 2009

Part 10 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SUNDAY JAN 25 - This morning was again rather grey, but birdsong rang from the garden, and I opened the bedroom window for a little time to enjoy it. After a perfectly delicious shower (the one American habit I miss, as the English seem to prefer baths) I begged off a cup of morning tea to take a walk.

I should have worn my rubber boots, but even so, I found the walk a delight. To stride up little lanes and spy the odd thatched roof, and walk among damp fields of winter grass where sheep watched me pass in mild curiosity - ah lovely. It was so good to stretch the muscles and get the heart working, to feel my body waking up and becoming part of the moment. Several times, I stopped to simply be, and think very deliberately, "I am walking in ENGLAND."

I should have liked to keep walking, until the blood sang in my limbs and the damp air pinched my cheeks, walked on to new meadows and bird-song woods ... but breakfast waited.

Dot fixed us a lovely traditional breakfast, fried egg, toast, sausage, bacon, and tomato, together with tea and juice. There can just never be anything to equal the warmth and goodness of a home cooked meal, especially when one is so far from home. Then Sylvia and I bundled into Steve's car and off we went to tour the local countryside. Bless his heart, Steve drove as seems the habit of *all* British males - hurtling headlong whether the road has four lanes or one!

I was also mindful yet again of the British habit of having no shoulders on the roads and lots of hedgerows: it makes roadside photography very difficult, and I regretted missed chances to capture beautiful scenes on camera. Nonetheless, Steve went literally the extra mile to show us local delights.

We were in horse country here, the English equivalent of Kentucky, and it's green, rolling, and sweet to see. Every so often, we passed signs to big farms announcing them as the "Such and Such Stud," and saw handsome barns and neat paddocks beyond the gates. Steve took us first, though, to the Uffington White Horse, an ancient glyph of white, chalky clay shaped by unknown hands centuries ago, into to the stylized shape of a horse.

Sylvia opted to stay in the car, and I soon found out why. Besides the stinging wind that whips off the moor, there is the fact that Steve, a former jockey, marches like a Royal Marine! Only my pride kept me in time with his stiff pace, and even then, I fudged a quick rest stop halfway up to take a photo and catch my breath, and peruse the local sheep.

Once on top, Steve and I stepped off the brow of the hill to walk the site and marvel how the ancients could conceive of a work visible only by air, and bearing little resemblance to any sensible form, up close. Then we climbed up to the mounded remains of Uffington Castle, an old Bronze Age hill fort, now little more than low dykes and a shallow moat, surrounding a surprisingly wide green. I could imagine a considerable village up here, with a spectacular view of the countryside spread below and all the approaches. At the bottom of the hill, a lesser mound held its own mysteries.

(Ed. Note: the lesser hill I later learned was reputed to be the spot on which St. George slew the Dragon, as nothing will grow on its flat, sandy crown.)

The walk down was more leisurely, but I still managed to miss my footing in the slick clay mud - twice. *sigh*

Back in the car park, an unexpected sight awaited us: druids, offloading their families from their cars. No, I mean really, complete with beards and braids, cloaks and staffs, and silver Celtic jewelry.

I don't know either. ;-)

Steve, being the incorrigible rascal that he is, was only too glad to negotiate a photo of me with the foremost bearded chap.

After that, we toodled on to the old market town of Marlborough: brick buildings facing each other across a broad, broad street. There Steve took us to the Polly Tea Rooms for coffee and a bite to eat. It was a charming little café with low ceilings, a comfy clientele, and a wonderful choice of sweets in a glass case by the door, luring everyone who entered. On Steve's advice, I had a very nice cup of coffee and a scone with buttery cream. Not butter: cream made to the consistency of softened butter. YUM!!!

After that lovely break, we walked a bit along the main street - the Green Dragon Inn sounded particularly hobbity - before getting back in the car and moving on.

More winding lanes brought us to a pair of stone gateposts labeled the Savernake Forest. The sign further said that this privately owned wood is the oldest forest in England. (Wikipedia notes that Savernake has remained in unbroken private possession by the same family line since 1066, over a thousand years.) Certainly it looked like a place untouched by tourism or anything but careful forestry.

We drove quite some while through these quiet roads, the road gently hilly but straight as a rule. Steve stopped for me once, where a man was setting off to walk in the woods with his three little terriers. The silent, sleepy forest little noted any of us, tucked in for its winter sleep in a bed of russet leaves. Here and there as we drove I spied great, magnificent oaks, their burly boles twisted by time into fantastic, ent-like shapes. I should have liked to stop and photograph just one, but I didn't want to impose over much on Steve's good graces as host/guide.

But the adventure did not end there! Steve then took us to yet another site not on the tourist map, Littlecote Manor. Steve's wife, Dot, had done the entire flower arrangements for their daughter's wedding there, and so Steve new the place very well. Apparently part of it acts as a hotel of sorts, guests staying for the most part in the old buildings, but a couple of suites were noted on signage within the great house. We saw several very old folks shuffling about the grounds, and the hall must be let for things like weddings, but this was a place of old money.

With Steve's instructions to just walk straight in, walk we did. He led us unerringly through the door and to the great hall, with its dark paneled wainscoting, ivory-painted walls, and ornately plastered ceiling. Priceless relics hung on the walls, swords, helms, padded gambesons, huge original oil paintings of the old family, and a genuine suit of armor. (Seemed fit for a small chap!) Not a museum, not a display, just the heirlooms of the house.

Upstairs, Steve showed us the one sign of outside guests: a Victorian room made up with the wax mannequins of a man, a midwife, and a babe in arms. Legend tells of a woman who came to this house to give birth to an illegitimate child. She was sent away and the child murdered, and the midwife led away in blindfolds and sworn to secrecy. The midwife's ghost is said to still haunt the room, grieving for the babe she could not save.

Just a few steps on and we came to a balcony overlooking the family chapel. Floor tiles and handsome harlequin patterns suggested a distant, grander day. Then up more steps and passageways, and we come to yet another grand room. It is lined on one wall with dark wainscoting, a fireplace, and paintings dating back to the days of male wigs and knee britches, and on the other side with bright windows. The room is wholly empty under the eyes of the dead relatives, but it fairly whispers with the footsteps and voices of a far more genteel age. A small plaque notes the room dates to the 1500s. One can only presume the entire great house dates to that time or sooner.

So grand a place, and by our gentle subterfuge, it was our private wonderland to explore.

By then we got word that Sylvia's son Dan had arrived at the house, and so my great adventure turned towards its close. I can't even describe my feelings as I bid farewell, to Sylvia wending her way back to Sheffield alone, and to Steve and Dot who welcomed me with such magnificent kindness. I was ready to head back home, but I'd seen and done so much that I kind of didn't know how to end. "Goodbye" seemed at once too much and too little.

But the words were said, and I plunked down in Dan's little car - by now getting in the "wrong" side had become second nature - and off we went into the waning day, northbound once more.

Yet still one, last, wholly unexpected delight remained: Stonehenge. Yep, Dan took it upon himself to detour there, (getting only slightly lost along the way) putting us on-site about 45 minutes before closing. Even now, with the highway not that far away and a quiet, steady flow of tourists circling its flanks, Stonehenge remains a living marvel.

For one thing, the structure is *huge!* The standing stones are massive as if rooted in the bones of the earth, and I've no clue how they got those heavy lintels up there. But really, it's just the sheer *fact* of the place. Here, thousands of years ago, people gathered in body and spirit to celebrate profound things in their world. This is almost holy ground, and certainly a touchtone for human progress whose creators never could have imagined the world in which their great masterpiece would one day stand.

Most of all, though, I simply walked around these great standing stones and then stood, whilst the thin winter sun sank westward, and I said aloud, (to Dan's gentle amusement,) "I am standing at Stonehenge." There is magic in simply being able to say that.

On a humorous note, early in our walk, I was speaking to Dan, and a woman with a babe and hubby in tow stopped me and cried in a broad Southern accent, "Oh, my gosh, where are you from?" I said "Reno, Nevada," and she positively *squealed* and grabbed me in a mushy-bosomed hug, exclaiming how she hasn't spoken to an American in weeks. Her husband works in the UK and they live there, now, and I guess the dear girl was a little homesick. ;-)

For my part, I heard two or three American accents around Stonehenge, and realized they were the first I'd heard in ten days! My initial reaction was to think, "Good grief, do we really sound like *that?*? Hee!

Thus ended my great adventure. Dan discovered he'd misplaced his cell phone (it later turned up back at Steve and Dot's,) but other than that, the drive home into the darkening January night proved uneventful.

Back in London, Dan and his wife and kids offered the perfect comedown to my escapades, allowing me to relax in the midst of family as if I were one of their own. The sprogs were adorable, Anita was sweet and welcoming, and it just felt good to sit and chat and listen to the boys' chatter, whilst the earth turned in its bed of stars.

~ *~

MONDAY JAN 26 - Up early, a walk through suburban London to catch the Tube with Dan, and I was back at the airport and ready to head home. One bummer about Heathrow - there is NO food for sale once you pass through security, other than maybe a machine with candy bars. Poo.

But we boarded on time and I sat in my window seat, watching England slip past, ever faster, and drop away below. Chequered fields were flecked with clouds, then northward the clouds grew heavier, a blanket of white wool far below. A break in the clouds showed me the north of England, and I'm positive we flew over Cumbria, for I felt certain I saw Derwentwater and the snowy crowns of Blencartha and Skiddaw. Northward still, until the clouds broke again and I saw fingers of stony land splayed into the North Sea, as we passed over the Outer Hebrides. I spied at least one mite-sized dot of a town far below, and I wondered who the hardy people were, that lived on those barren rocks amidst the sea.

At traveling elevations, we leveled off in the thin light of a northern morning sun, out across the cloud-blanketed ocean, over Iceland, and finally over Greenland's frigid expanse. It was truly amazing to look out the windows into the long, thin rays of an arctic sun, and to see the weird mosaic of ice flows and turquoise water that marked the icy sprawl of lower Baffin Bay. Huge mountains jutted from perennially frozen fjords, behemoths that looked just a few plane-lengths below us. It was a land that seldom sees thaw, a vast wilderness, a pale, cold, deadly place of seldom sun. I'd only ever seen anything like it on TV, but it was all mine, now, from 38,000 feet.

I got up to walk and stretch somewhere over Hudson Bay, its broad waters glazed with heavy ice as the midnight sun rose, the snow painted pale and cold, long shadows splayed from ridges far below. On we flew until the sun shines on tundra, snow and ice and what looks like a thousand frozen lakes. In time, a few roads began to stripe amongst pristine white squares of farmland, and a great river wended its way in ribbons of motionless ice, a snowy town straddling its bank amidst the wilderness.

And so the snowy earth turned below, now prairie, now the Rocky Mountains, now the stubbled hills of Idaho, until at last the green of California slid beneath our wings. Ere long, San Francisco bay spread green-blue and shining below us, and the plane swung wide over the Golden Gate Bridge, the pilot pointing out the view.

Nothing left now but the final short leg home, and I got off the plane to the strange solitude of being alone amongst teeming crowds. However, I carried with me not only my luggage, but the memories of an extraordinary, wonderful, absolutely amazing trip to a land that has lingered in my imagination since I don't know when.

Thank you, my English friends and family, for making this trip-of-a-lifetime not only possible, but a thing of true magic.

~ Erin aka Gloria



Part 9 - There and Back Again - A Hobbit's Trip to England

SATURDAY JAN 24 - Monday morning dawned rather grey, but the day soon cleared to dazzling sunshine. I abandoned the idea of going to watch a Nursery sheepdog trial (dogs under the age of 3 years) mainly because it worked out as impractical use of my last fully free day in the UK. What with the drive to and from Huddersfield, not to mention making poor Sylvia stand around and be bored! ;-)

Instead, we opted to go by way of south Wales to Sylvia's brother's place in Berkshire. The drive towards Wales took us on the M5 motorway through gentle, mostly flat farmlands. The sky positively beamed a soft, sunny English blue. To westward, we could just see humped up hills in southern Wales, like the spine of a green, sleeping dragon.

The countryside became a little hillier as we went, but no less rural when we grossed into Gloustershire. Very rural and agricultural and lovely. For a time we drove through forests, which Sylvia told me were part of the Forest of Dean. ("Supernatural" fans take note, hee!) Then out again towards Ross, and we took the A40 through rolling hills and farms and forests and hamlets.

The climate going south was notably more temperate, the fields blushing a brighter green and even a shrub or small tree here and there showing a faint white hint of bloom. We crossed into Wales just before the town of Monmouth, and right away there were bilingual signs for schools and towns.

We turned off there on a two-lane road of forest and a deep valley clove by a sizable river, the River Wye, and long pastures with sheep. The gorge narrowed and we stopped at a tiny inn called The Bell, I believe, in the wee itty hamlet of Redbrook. Braw lads in uniform played soccer on the green, while at the inn door, an older gent coming out greeted Sylvia in Welsh - then chided her for replying in English. Hee!

Inside the tiny taproom, we found the cook had gone home but the bar owner said he'd make us sandwiches. We waited and were entertained by a cute, begging little black terrier (and his ruddy-cheeked master) and the very handsome, dark-eyed boy minding the bar. (Orlando Bloom don't have nothin' on the Welsh lads, no sir!)

The dark-eyed boy was shyly attentive in his service, bringing us coffee and napkins (serviettes, to the UK), and assuring us our meal would be up. I rather began to wonder about that, but evidently at considerable effort, the bar owner came out with nice sandwiches for us. They were ... a trifle odd, I thought. Sylvia got a cheese sandwich, which turned out to be sliced white cheese with *chutney* of all things - they call it "relish" - and I got a tuna sandwich which was the FISHIEST tuna I've ever etten! Maybe they grow 'em fishier in the North Atlantic?

Anyhow, we shared our sandwiches, I ate under the unblinking gaze of the pathetic little terrier (who was clearly as much a regular there as his master), and thus passed our lunch stop on the road. Feeding the terrier my bread crusts, with his master's approval, we set out once more.

On we drove up winding, wooded roads, amongst steep hills and scattered farms which perched in various nooks and vales above the River Wye. A lovely, lovely country and I once again regretted the utter lack of space to pull OFF those narrow roads to take photos. We finally came to the village of Tintern, which tucked itself hard against stern hills and appeared to owe its vigor entirely to the jewel at its heart - Tintern Abbey.

Dating back to the 1100's, this magnificent ruin manages to accommodate the footfalls of who knows how many tourists each year, and yet retain all its graceful serenity. In the deeps of January, there were but a few other people roving the grounds, but not so many as to get in each other's way or detract from the awe-some hush of the place. Like us, those few folks were quiet and contemplative in their explorations.

Having seen York Minster's vibrant, living majesty, it was much easier for me to imagine Tintern Abbey when its bare stones were clad in plaster and paint, and in the trappings of service to God. The grand arches lift soaring towards a ceiling now made only of blue Welsh sky, and great pillars prop up only memories. Flitting about the ruins and roosting in its nooks and crannies were white doves, unlike any we'd seen elsewhere.

We walked for quite a little while among the crumbling walls and various pathways, reading the placard signs that told the purpose and history of the rooms. One side of each placard was English, the other Welsh. In the south transept lay what seemed to be three very old gravestones, flat to the earth and much too worn for reading, one marked with an ornate Celtic knot pattern. The largest and most complete appeared to have writing, but as noted, it was extremely worn and probably in Latin, to boot. Did these once lay imbedded in a polished floor, like the tombs in the floor of York Minster?

A most magical and curious thing happened when I stepped into the east transept. When I entered the "room," open but for pillars and arches to all the rest of the church, I looked up in a sudden sense of tremendous awe - the single word that popped into my head: "holy." Then a curious, chill "zing" shot right up the backs of my calves and tingled the back of my neck. It was an odd but not at all frightening sensation.

When I called Sylvia back to snap a photo of me there, vague tingles remained. She told me she felt something upon her first visit, so maybe it's something one experiences that first time. No sooner had we done and turned to go on, then Sylvia stopped - she later said to take the mickey out of me about ghosts! - and got an amusedly startled look on her face. She said SOMEthing had just tapped the back of her head!

But there were no raindrops or dripping water of any kind. Maybe it's not just a first time, after all....

(I later learned this was the place of the High Alter, the holy of holies in that old church. It is further marked by another flat gravestone, this etched in a Celtic Tree of Life.) (Ed. Note: I've been unable to learn anything about those stones, nor find them explained in any online site about Tintern Abbey.)

After a final pass around the sprawling grounds, with the chill of evening settling in our bones, we turned towards the exit. I just had time to peruse the gift shop ere they closed the site for the night. As we left, the silvery tinkling of a small bell somewhere on the grounds summoned any laggards - much as bells must have summoned the brothers to devotions those centuries ago.

Back on the road, we swiftly departed sweet, fey Wales and crossed a long bridge back into Gloustershire. We reached Sylvia's brother's place in Berkshire just at dark.

I must say that Steve and Dot have a lovely home, the first single-storey house I'd seen, which in England they call "bungalows." Elegantly and beautifully appointed, I feared it would be far too nice for this country girl - until that is, I met Minnow the Cornish Rex cat, who presided by the hearth, followed later the two great black Alsatian dogs, Shadow and Tia. They came in with the mud of the fields still clinging to their fur, and they smelled deliciously of damp dog and endless affection. I couldn’t help feeling at home, even in a house so nice, when dog hair formed a part of daily life.

Steve and Dot proved wonderful and welcoming hosts, and Sylvia and I each had our own rooms, sharing a handsome private bath. Once we had settled in, they first treated us to glasses of welcoming champagne, and a leisurely sit by the fire. There I stared in amazement at Britain's bizarre tastes in reality TV: some kind of "iron man" (or woman) type competition, wherein contestants had to circumvent all sorts of wacky obstacles, including racing up a greasy slope whilst 55 gallon drums rolled down on them, getting spun dizzy on a Tilt-a-Whirl before navigating a series of unsteady mini-islands, and my favorite - trying to leap from point to point on gigantic rubber balls suspended over a pool, where a miss meant the contestant got BOUNCED through the air and into the water just like a human cartoon character. I almost hurt myself laughing ... *g*

Then they took us out to dinner at a local Indian eatery - a rather posh but friendly place, (Dot and Steve were clearly regulars) and the food was absolutely excellent, the service stellar. I wish I recalled the name of the restaurant, but I would recommend it to anyone with a taste for fine Indian cuisine and good service.

It seemed a shame to let such a nice evening end, but it had been along day of many miles. Home again, we chatted over the last of the bottle of dinner wine until bedtime.

~ * ~