Saturday, March 7, 2009

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.

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