When driving in England (on the ‘wrong’ side of the road), it pays to be alert, lest a lumbering beast (or dragon) suddenly trots out in front of your car. Continue Reading →
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Where has the time gone? I don’t know about you (however, if you leave comments I WILL know about you), but I spent considerable time futzing with slow wifi on all of our recent travels and, ultimately gave up on the idea of ‘timely blogging’. What you’re reading now is ‘untimely blogging’, which, hopefully, doesn’t carry the same semantic burden as ‘untimely death’. Only the good (blogs) die young. This one’s still going. Continue Reading →
For the past 8 days, we’ve been hugging the North Sea coast in England. With its balmy breezes and calm waters, the North Sea is …(Oh. Wait. That’s the Caribbean Sea). With it’s fierce, cold winds and turbulent waters, the North Sea is the perfect vacation getaway … for the English. I’ve come to this conclusion because of the many, many resort villages perched along this permanently furious body of water. Continue Reading →
While dusting off my blog in preparation for tonight’s departure for Roger’s “Birthday Which Must Not Be Named” celebration in Germany, I found this unpublished blog post. Continue Reading →
(This column was published in the Rapid City Journal on June 13, 2010. Some of the photos have changed.)
We were just off the transatlantic flight, feeling tired, disheveled and not a little grumpy. All we wanted to do was collect our rental car and drive to our cottage for a shower and a little nap. Without killing each other. Our mood miraculously transformed the second we tuned into BBC Radio and heard tomorrow’s weather forecast: “sunny, bright and warm with periods of rain, clouds and cold”. Where else but England??
We’ve returned to one of our very favorite travel destinations, this time with the goal of exploring counties and shires that we hadn’t done justice to in the past.
Our first week would be spent in Somerset, in western England; a hilly and charming area known for it’s remarkable archaeology. It’s here that you’ll find the ancient stone circle of Stonehenge and England’s first spa – the bubbling pools of water transformed by the Romans into elegant baths, now to be found in the city of Bath. Cheddar cheese also hails from this area; the skeleton of a 9,000-year-old man (likely felled by high cholesterol) can be found in the Cheddar Gorge caves.
We’re staying in a historic cottage* once owned by Oxford University in the medieval hamlet of Hinton St. George – a one-street village dominated by a pub and a mom and pop grocery with the charming moniker of “Personal Services Store”. Beyond the national newspapers, free-range eggs and homemade marmalade, it was hard to discern exactly what personal services they were in the business of providing. We were hoping they’d offer to drive us around for a day, or pick up the dry cleaning, take out the trash, but, alas, no.
We made a beeline for Salisbury, home to one of England’s grander cathedrals. We are drawn back to this city time and again for two reasons: the ancient cathedral and Shah Jihan, one of the best Indian restaurants in the UK. The cathedral, which was begun in 1200 and built in 38 years, has been undergoing refurbishment for the past 35 years. This is the first time we’d seen it without a shroud of scaffolding and it does look brand, spanking new. As only something that’s nearly 800 years old can.
Inside the cathedral is an original of the Magna Carta along with the oldest working clock in Europe (dating from 1386) and a dollhouse sized model of the cathedral under construction. If you’ve ever wondered how these feats of architecture were achieved when the only forms of power were muscle, wind and water, read Ken Follett’s book “The Pillars of the Earth” and then come to Salisbury. Even armed with information, you will be awed.
On another one of the sunny, warm, cold, rainy days, we strolled the “Coast Walk”, a path that literally runs along the southwestern coast of England. On one side of you: England, green and lush. On the other: the English Channel, blue and vast. Look straight south and you’ll see (if you have incredible distance vision) Spain, Morocco, the Ivory Coast and, ultimately, Antarctica. The mind boggles.
If walking is what you like to do, England will more than satisfy. There are public walking paths everywhere (through farmer’s fields, castle grounds, national parks) as well as coast to coast through the North Country. We wondered why we seemed to be the only couple heading west while the rest of walking England was headed east only to find that walkers ‘in the know’ always stroll west to east to take advantage of the prevailing winds. The eastern end of England must be getting very crowded indeed.
Touring gardens of note is a very popular pastime in England and you can spend hours and a small fortune at this pursuit. I recommend investing in The Good Gardens Guide the second you step off the plane to help whittle down your choices, if gardens are your passion. You will quickly become conversant with the major influencers in historic English gardens (Capability Brown, Gertrude Jekyll, Sir Edward Lutyens among others) as well as the endless variety of flora that grows in this fertile soil. Even if gardens aren’t your ‘thing’, you owe it to yourself to experience one or two of the jaw-dropping landscapes such as at Stourhead, Chatsworth or Blenheim Palace, home to the young Winston Churchill.
Our personal favorite is a compact jewel in Holt, a village in Wiltshire near the fairy-tale town of Bradford on Avon. Like many gardens, the grounds are open to the public (for a fee) while the residence is inhabited and not open to prying eyes. I can never help but wonder about the families inside these grand palaces; do they cower inside all day, peeking through the drapes, while waves of strangers tramp around their ancestral lands? At closing, do they throw off their lap robes, put down their cold cups of tea and venture outside, alone, to ‘tut-tut’ about the condition of the lawn or to celebrate the beauty that they no longer have to pay for?
Another thing to do nearly the moment you step on English soil is to invest in a membership with The National Trust or English Heritage. (This is more applicable if you’re traveling outside London in the English countryside, which I strongly urge you to do.) These two organizations are the conservators for nearly all of England’s historical sites, from prehistoric stone circles to castles to famous battlegrounds and ruined abbeys. Admission prices are individually rather steep; a membership gives you access to all of these sites for one reasonable price.
Next: Lolling around in the Lake District
*Cottages are again rented from Rural Retreats. Their website is a vacation by itself: www.ruralretreats.co.uk
For more info about historic sites, visit: www.nationaltrust.org.uk. And www.english-heritage.org.uk. The National Trust also rents 360 outstanding and historical cottages: www.nationaltrustcottages.co.uk.
(published May 24, 2009 in the Rapid City Journal)
“[T]o the Pennine man, the moors are as sacred in their nakedness as the prairies are to the American… their very bareness seems to answer to something in his nature.”
Well, something not requiring a bison, apparently.
We’re in the Yorkshire Dales, (the Pennines), another bucolic, overly scenic English landscape – in the north of the country. If you come in May, as we did, pack your woolies for you will assuredly be cold. Don’t let the occasionally sunny, springy, lamb-dotted Dales fool you; this is also the land of stark heathered moors, gale force winds, dark manor houses and diabolical characters such as Heathcliff. (You remember the Bronte sisters and their novels: “Wuthering Heights”, “Jane Eyre” and “Is It Always This Wet and Windswept Here?”) We’re staying in the tiny, nearly perpendicular village of Haworth: a charming town if you like grey. It’s home to the Bronte Parsonage, where the family enjoyed the lifestyles of the mid-1800’s. Between the ever-blowing wind, the piercing cold and the nearly vertical, cobbled streets, I understand why those sisters stayed at home near the fire and penned endless tales.
This countryside is awash in ruined abbeys and haunted castles. Their ghostly silhouettes, shrouded in fog, tell stories of religious rebellions and monks run amok. Well, actually, there’s usually a very chatty guide at each ruin and he will tell you those stories and more and make murder, mayhem and deprivation sound quite charming.
Leading you to believe, for instance, that bathing only 4 times per year, having your blood let to the point of unconsciousness and eating the same 2 foods for weeks at a time could be character building, if not downright fun! Being taken prisoner and kept in one of these lonely fortresses could be the highlight of one’s year (See: Mary, Queen of Scots.)
Speaking of chatty guides, we love the English; they’re delightful to converse with, their regional accents are lyrical although, at times, confounding; the ‘stiff-upper-lip’ stereotype rings true but is undercut with a mischievous torrent of humor. How else to explain villages with names like Blubberhouses, Gigglesworth, Roger Studley (we’d like to know more about him!) and Dirt Pot. Not to mention menu items such as Bubble and Squeak, or Bangers and Mash. (And despite what you’ve heard, English food is seriously delicious. Our bathroom scale tells us so.) Next week: On to the continent!
(added note: we were intrigued by the two-storey ‘necessarium’ at Fountains Abbey. We’ll leave it up to you to determine what that building housed!)
(published May 17, 2009 in the Rapid City Journal)
We’ve rented a cottage in The Cotswolds, the gentlelest range of green hills upon which ever grazed a lamb. It’s hard to let spring showers hamper life in a daily fairy tale – our little abode is known as “Chesil Mews” (the name alone drips charm) and is in the centre (sic) of Chipping Campden, a medieval market town. Through an ancient door between Smith’s, the local butcher, and the Malvern Strollers Shop (no, not baby buggies – hikers!), our cottage snuggles just behind the high street of the village, nestled among lilacs and ivy but nowhere near reality.
Villages in The Cotswolds are built of the local limestone – a buttery, honey- colored stone that has “the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering upon them” (JB Priestly).
The majestic stone for St. Paul’s Cathedral in London was quarried here and you can’t trip over a sheep without standing awestruck at some wisteria covered, thatch-roofed pile (as buildings are affectionately known in the UK) that makes you want to immediately sell all your worldly goods and settle yourself into one of these cozy, golden cottages. If you don’t see us in the Black Hills this fall, you’ll know where to find us – keeping the fireplace stoked and the teakettle burbling.
Trying to blend into a tiny English village is challenging (those darn flat vowels give us away every time we open our mouths); and while the community is very hospitable, outsiders are kept at a bit of a distance. Nonetheless, we felt very much at home our first evening here as we settled into the Lygon Arms pub for a ‘pint and a pie’ while a large and rather boisterous group of cowboys and Indians (in full regalia) piled in after us. We, amused, mentioned that we were from South Dakota and that we really DO have cowboys and native Americans there. Our invitation to the costumed birthday party to visit and experience ‘the real thing’ was met with enthusiasm (and many English-accented cheers). Cheers!
Note: The finest collection of cottages, follies and manor homes can be rented through Rural Retreats. www.ruralretreats.co.uk. Just paging through their website is the stuff of dreams.
(published May 10 in the Rapid City Journal)
Being seasoned travelers, the first thing we do in London (after the obligatory hotel check-in, money exchange, and adoration of the English accent) is head to the shops. If you want a report on Big Ben, Parliament, The Queen or Gordon Blair, you’ll have to come to England and write one yourself; our highlights are the trio of Oxford, Jermyn and Bond Streets – the holy trinity of London shopping.
We head first to Geo. F. Trumper & Sons, spouse’s favorite men’s grooming emporium. The shop is the size of an American closet, yet there are 6 sales clerks ready to attend to the gentleman’s every stray hair or colorful odor. The English upper class can be readily found here, identifiable by their hounds, their carefully tousled “just back from the hunt” hair and their attitude of “please do get out of my way, unimportant person”. It’s very crowded.
Next, we trot over to Fortnum & Mason, which is to food and unnecessary personal accessories what WalMart is to discounts. It’s like going to your favorite grocery store and finding that they’ve opened a Saks Fifth Avenue in aisle 7. The store, unchanged since the days of Alexander the Great, has suddenly decided to remodel (although ‘sudden’ in England implies a decade of passing time). The results are roomier and much less jumbled, but there is no longer the ever present mass of humanity feverishly snatching up jars of Rose Petal Jam, forcing you to think they’ll run out before you get yours (even though you’ve never eaten it before and find it a very strange idea)
And then there’s Harrod’s. The Temple of Wretched Excess. If you don’t need it and can’t afford it, you’ll find it at Harrod’s. We visit the hallowed memorial to Princess Di and Dodi Fayed. We titter outside the ‘luxury restrooms’, where for a mere $2.00 you can use the loo (don’t forget to tip the attendant) and we stand slack-jawed in front of displays of fresh fruit where bananas are $14.00 per pound and an apple can be had for $5.00. Fruit salad or a bank bailout, anyone?
(This is a column that I wrote that hadn’t seen the light of publication… til now.)
Much of London is undiscovered. Not in the “Send in the explorers!” sense, but in the “tourists rarely go there” sense. After seeing Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, the Changing of the Guard and rubbing elbows (literally) with thousands of your fellow tourists, you may find yourself longing for less populous environs. That’s when you head to the London ‘suburb’ (it was in the 1600’s) of Clerkenwell.
Clerkenwell is home to the Clerk’s Well (London pre-plumbing, clearly) where, in the Middle Ages, clerks performed annual mystery plays based on biblical themes. Infuriating the Actor’s Union, surely. The wells, in outlying London, were gathering places even when some office workers weren’t re-enacting the Great Flood. From the 1500’s, radicals gravitated to Clerkenwell Green until, in the 20th century, the duo of Stalin and Lenin could be found meeting at a nearby pub. Discussing a passion play of another sort, entirely, I assume.
Clerkenwell Green is also where Dicken’s characters Fagin and the Artful Dodger teach Oliver to pickpocket. A short walk from the Green is Charles Dicken’s home, where your pocket is picked by a kindly volunteer manning the entrance. But the price of admission is worth it, even if you’re not a fan of Dickens’ work. His house remains much as it was during the later years of his life and it’s fascinating to read his correspondence and peek into the closets of one of Britain’s literary giants.
Before you head back into town, make a short detour to Clink Street, the original site of the first prison to detain women. It’s also the origin of the phrase “in the clink”. In 1760, the prison was described as a ‘very dismal hole where debtors are sometimes confined’ as opposed to the luxury prisons of today where many creditors should be held.
This is a “recent” suburban remodel. Completed in 1899.
- Chicago Humanities Festival
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