We saw so much – it was hard to select photos for the stories. Here are a few more of my faves.
We saw so much – it was hard to select photos for the stories. Here are a few more of my faves.
Agatha Christie, the famous English mystery writer, created a sensation when she disappeared in 1926. Her car was found hanging off a cliff and an enormous manhunt ensued. Eleven days later she was recognized – she’d been staying in a nice hotel in Harrogate, Yorkshire, under an assumed name. The BBC says it was “just like a plot from one of her own books.” Undoubtedly Monsieur Hercule Poirot would have found her in no time. Read more here.
I thought of Agatha when we arrived in Harrogate, wondering if she was just a little amused by all the hullabaloo going on around her. On the last day of our English adventure, we are joining my auntie and uncle at the Harrogate Flower Show. The show is packed – every building is crammed with gardening fans who’ve come to look at champion veggies and flowers. Agatha would have no trouble getting lost in this crowd. The winning onion set a world record at 18 pounds. The onion master also won for a 119 pound marrow! Check it out: http://www.flowershow.org.uk/.
All the signs tell us not to touch these agricultural amazons, but it’s hard not to reach out, just to reassure ourselves that they truly are real. Among the flowers, the dahlias are the show stoppers. With curly petals and brazen colors, they are lined up like Radio City Rockettes, perfect in their gorgeousness.
I cannot stop taking photos. Finally, all three of my companions are staring pointedly at me and I head for the door, glad for digital cameras and endless clicks of the shutter.
We walk through the biting Yorkshire wind to the bus and tuck ourselves in to watch the lovely countryside on the ride back. Soon we’ll be on the plane, filled with memories, our heads nodding through the hours and time zones, back to Oregon.
Yorkshire was the home county of the Bronte sisters – those damsels of the dark and windswept moors. Charlotte, Emily and Ann were born in the early 1800s and all were gifted writers who are still widely read today. Tragically, all three sisters and their brother died of tuberculosis; Emily and Ann were gone at about 30 years of age. Charlotte was almost 40 when she died in 1855 and was the most famous of the three in her day. For my part, I’m rather taken with tortured, brooding characters, so I’m thinking about Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, Emily’s novel, as we ride the bus over the heathery moors of north Yorkshire. We are not going to make it to their home village of Haworth, but the grey skies and blowing wind bending the scrubby bushes helps me understand the inspiration for Gothic tales of love and revenge!
The bus takes us through a delightful little village where a flock of sheep are wandering across the road near a picturesque train station. Goathland, I learn later, was the setting for Heartbeat, a popular drama about a rural police officer that ran for 17 years on British television. My better half films the sheep scattering as a tiny car races up the road, seemingly oblivious to their wooly presence. Clearly, this has happened before!
We arrive on the north Yorkshire coast at Whitby, one of seemingly endless charming villages and towns in England. We came here to see the imposing ruins of Whitby Abbey, built on a hill overlooking the town. Next to it stands St. Mary’s Church, still in operation, whose windows are lit red by the setting summer sun, appearing to be burning eyes. Bram Stoker stayed in Whitby, saw the windows, and wrote them into his novel Dracula. And the rest is, um, history.
We walk up the 199 stairs to the church and the abbey ruins. An abbey has stood here since the 800s, but several were laid waste before the final building was caught up in Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries and was stripped and sold off in the 1500s. We cannot stop taking pictures of the stone skeleton, once a place of power and worship, now home for starlings.
Down the stairs we walk through more uneven cobblestone streets and then out on the pier to see the Atlantic waves pouring through the breakwater. We are good and tired by the time we step back on the double decker for a two-hour ride back to York and our final day in England.
And by the way … the title of this post comes from Edward Bulwer-Lytton, a Victorian writer fond of overwrought phrasing. There is a hilarious writing contest inspired by this author and you can learn more about it at www.bulwer-lytton.com. For my Canadian friends and family, you’ll find this article amusing: http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2008/aug/19/2. One last piece of writer’s trivia: Bulwer-Lytton was a great friend of Charles Dickens, so much so that Dickens named his 10th child – you guessed it – Edward Bulwer Lytton Dickens.
After a day in Needingworth at my auntie and uncle’s home, we head north to York. We take the fast train and are tucked among business people traveling further north to Edinburgh in Scotland. In little more than an hour, we hop off the train and head to our B&B.
Our first evening here we attend Evensong, a worship tradition of the Anglican church that I’ve always liked, at the majestic York Minster. This gothic cathedral has been around for centuries and dominates the landscape in the old walled city of York. At Evensong, the choir’s collective voice soars into the great realms of the ceiling, accompanied by the pipe organ’s unique sound. We reflect on Psalm 59 – here is an excerpt:
As for me, I will sing of thy power, and will praise thy mercy betimes in the morning: for thou has been my defence and refuge in the day of my trouble. Unto thee, O my strength, will I sing: for thou, O God, art my refuge, and my merciful God.
The literary beauty of reverence is present. I read in the prayer book that Evensong – evening prayer – is largely unchanged since the mid-1500s. I think about all the voices that have harmonized in this vast building during the centuries and my heart is moved by this celebration of creative song.
We have a video clip of the bells of the minster ringing at dusk that is fabulous – I hope to be able to post it.
The roots of the University of Cambridge reach back to the 1200s when a group of scholars left Oxford due to conflicts with townspeople there. Nowadays there are 31 colleges in Cambridge that operate independently but all degrees are conferred by the university. The website has loads of fascinating historical information: http://www.cam.ac.uk/colleges/.
So many accomplished writers have studied at Cambridge: John Milton, John Fletcher, John Harvard, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, William Wordsworth, Sylvia Plath and more. I am thrilled to be walking on the grounds.
We visit King’s College and are duly impressed by the cathedral’s architecture and truly amazing organ, which features large angels on either side grasping imposing trumpets. Historical plaques trace the building’s history with kings who helped pay for construction and the colorful stained glass windows. In medieval times the royals kept themselves busy imprisoning each other and deposing and frequently killing off heirs to the throne. Richard III seems particularly bloodthirsty, but was he really? When the Tudors (the last two Henrys through to Elizabeth I) took the throne they embarked on a propaganda campaign to blacken Richard’s reputation and turn public favor toward the already-dead Henry VI. This went on for about 100 years and culminated, according to the University of Cambridge, in Shakespeare’s plays Henry VI and Richard III, in which Richard is an arch-villain and Henry VI is glamorized as a hero.
Outside the grass is lush and green. We are amused by many small signs telling visitors to keep off the grass and other signs announcing that masters may walk on the grass. Walking down to the River Cam, we see the famous punts filled with tourists moving slowly up and down the stream. The scene truly looks like a postcard. I think about the university’s website that says a bridge has been in this area since at least 875. Wow.
I wish I could stay longer but I want to visit another auntie who is now in a nursing home. We walk into her room and as she turns toward me, I see my father’s face and then my sister’s eyes. Even though she is physically frail and struggles with short-term memory, her spirit is strong and she perks up during our visit. She does not let go of my hand for a long time. She cared for my sister and me when we were very little and her heart goes back to that time, remembering how we looked, describing my sister as a little angel, so pretty, so sweet. I am touched by the depth of her love. We drink tea and I tell her she looks really good. She asks me to keep writing and I promise that I will, as I have through the years. I blow her a kiss as we leave.
It’s all part of his effort to experience full cultural immersion via cuisine. This has led to his discovery that, in England, not all puddings are dessert. At a York bed and breakfast he got quite edgy in his selections, sampling Black Pudding for breakfast. The ingredients are pretty simple: pig’s blood and herbs. (Aagh!) He took a couple of courageous bites as I looked on in disgust.
That adventure makes an earlier choice of kippers – salty smoked fish – and eggs for breakfast seem almost mundane. He ate the entire serving as I tried to concentrate on my porridge (oatmeal).
We notice that baked beans and/or mushy peas (just as they sound) seem to be available with pretty much anything, up to and including lasagna. Umm, lasagna and baked beans? And, everywhere in England, the ubiquitous chips (French fries) are available. They are very good and quite addictive. In the end, we don’t really have to worry about strange flavors because anything and everything is washed down with cups and cups of tea.
My better half has video footage of tea shop display windows with their array of sweet cakes and other goodies. It’s a love story in the making, or should I say baking.
All I could do was laugh and take the picture!
The medieval city of Rye is not far from Hastings so we hop on a double decker bus and head for the top floor. An old gentleman gets on at the next stop with an accordion slung across his back and a border collie in tow. It continues to be hot and as the bus fills with travelers we are glad that all the windows are open. We are charmed when the elderly gent breaks out the accordion and gives everyone a keyboard rendition of the song Summertime followed by a few other classic tunes. I appreciate the distraction because the bus is moving quickly down a very narrow lane, and I keep flinching as we pass roadside houses by mere inches. My line of sight has me looking directly into people’s rooms. Who would want a bunch of faces in a bus flashing by their living room every hour?
Off we get in Rye and find narrow sidewalks lined with compact old – really old – buildings. Some have signs saying they were renovated in the 1400s. (!) The streets in the medieval section of town are, of course, narrow and frequently are made of rocks set in some type of cement or concrete. Real, bumpy rocks that are difficult to walk on. Even in my sensible shoes I have to work at keeping my balance. Locals in dress shoes zip by, demonstrating their rock-walking abilities. Cars drive on these streets, with a whumpa-whumpa-whumpa sound that must make tire companies smile contentedly.
Up a hill and around a corner we see a sign marking the birthplace of John Fletcher, who entered this world in 1579. I don’t know much about this playwright, who was a contemporary of Shakespeare. According to the Francis Bacon Research Trust, he is thought to have collaborated with Shakespeare on Henry VIII and The Two Noble Kinsman. He was best known in his day for comedy, his most famous play being Knight of the Burning Pestle, which he wrote in collaboration with Francis Beaumont. Luminarian.org says that Fletcher probably was involved in writing about 42 plays, with a style that is “fast-moving, well-constructed and, in the case of the comedies, still funny.” I remember reading at the Globe Theater in London that Fletcher was more popular than Shakespeare for at least 100 years. Any writer who is still funny after 500 years is worth reading! I mentally add this playwright to my must-read list.
Tomorrow we head to Cambridgeshire to visit with more aunts and cousins – this time on my father’s side of the family – and enjoy a trip to learned Cambridge.
I knock on the door and when it opens, I see a pair of eyes so similar to mine that I am a bit startled. My maternal cousin Hope, with whom I have corresponded for 30 years since we last saw each other, is welcoming us into her home. She lives in Hove, a town right next door to Brighton. It is compact, as all English towns seem to be, and has been her home for many years. We exchange stories, and I listen to family history that fills in some blanks and provides some surprises. She is the child of my late grandfather’s brother and tells me that most of the siblings were musical, the patriarch played several instruments and his wife worked in the theater as a “dresser” (costuming, I think) and also sold antiques on the side. This is amazing to me, as my grandfather did not demonstrate any interests along these lines. He was a rather good writer and perhaps this has passed to me.
I think about my other maternal cousin, Karen, whom I met for the first time in London earlier on our trip. She shared photos and stories of my late grandmother’s family. In Karen’s family photo albums, I see the face of a boy of about eight – the same face that is in a locket I’ve brought with me to England in hopes of learning his identity and that of a toddler girl in a companion photo. The locket was among my grandmother’s things after she passed away. I discover that they were grandma’s siblings, their names were Billy and Pat and they died shortly after the photos were taken. Billy is fair haired with a sweet smile and reminds me of Karen. Pat has a head of dark curls and for years I thought she was my grandmother. I think that Grandma must have felt those losses deeply to have kept the locket all of her long life. Another sister, Hilda, died as a young adult. Other photos show dark-haired men and women in their prime, my great aunts and uncles before their metamorphosis into elderly people filled with memories and stories. I can see that in their youth they were somewhat bohemian, unafraid to be unusual and unconcerned about social norms of the day. Karen tells me about her creative life – she paints, sings and writes. Streams of creativity and independence flowing through my DNA.
The vines of life and death are weaving through our travels and we feel the tug of our personal histories around our hearts. We are nurturing our family trees, giving them deeper roots and, hopefully, richer dimensions for the future.
We look out the window at the English Channel – clear proof that we’ve arrived at the south coast town of Hastings. People don’t walk quite as fast here and are not so often dressed in suits. We’ve come to search for my better half’s ancestor and for me to reunite with another cousin after 30 years of corresponding across a continent and the Atlantic. Our bed and breakfast window allows us a bird’s eye view of the seashore and promenade, where we see locals strolling, walking their dogs and riding their bikes in the warm sun.
Ruins are everywhere in this country and, as we walk on the promenade, we look up to see what is left of a castle tower on a hill in the distance. It, of course, is ancient and overlooks the 20-some miles of sea between England and France, where so many battles and invasions have taken place during centuries past. I am surprised to learn that the battle of 1066, often referred to as the Battle of Hastings – or locally simply as The Conquest – actually took place some miles inland at a place called, not surprisingly, Battle. It is in this area that my husband’s great-great-great grandfather, William Davis, lived, worked and died.
My better half has done yeoman’s work researching William’s whereabouts and after a search of the first census in the area, learns that William was buried in the parish church of a little hamlet called Whatlington, near Battle. We take a cab and are glad we did because the driver, a local, can barely find the church even with his knowledge and a GPS system. Finally, down a road barely wide enough for one vehicle, we see a small wooden sign for the church at the foot of a lane leading up a small hill. The cab driver asks us more than once if we are in the right place and we assure him that we are. We hop out and read a posting that explains the church is closed due to a fire in 2010. We also learn that a church has stood in this location since before The Conquest. Walking up the small lane, we meet a neighbor, a gardener and a church warden (deacon). Not bad for a closed church! My husband explains his quest to the warden, who is kind enough to take us inside the current church building, which was constructed in the Middle Ages and renovated during Victorian times. (!) It is so moving to see a lovely old building being carefully restored with period materials, right down to the lime plaster on the ceiling, which is mixed with horsehair. (!)
Outside, the church is surrounded by graves. Many have not weathered the years in legible condition. One section houses stones that date from the mid-1800s. William died in 1843 at the age of 66 and we think he is buried in this section, but cannot see his name or initials on any of the legible stones. It still is very meaningful to walk through the churchyard, thinking about this ancestor, whose son emigrated to America and began a branch of the family that continues and thrives today. We look out over pastures and feel a cool breeze waft by. No one is in a hurry here. On the way out, my better half meets a neighbor who knows a member of the parish who has a map and history of the graveyard. This is a terrific lead and we’ll follow up to see if we can confirm William’s resting place, here in a quiet corner of England, surrounded by layers of history.
Our senses are saturated, our minds filled with information. We’ve only scratched the surface in London but our visit has come to a close. There will be more blogs about our experiences in this ancient yet so modern city. The British Library deserves its own post – we saw a special exhibition entitled Writing Britain (www.bl.uk/writingbritain) and then encountered the incredibly amazing Treasures of the British Library. To use an English term, we were gobsmacked by this priceless collection of books, manuscripts and unique historical documents.
I am thinking again about Westminster Abbey – the remains of so many royals lay within its walls. It’s not commonly known that some were accomplished writers of literature. Queen Elizabeth I wrote many of her own speeches, did poetic translations of the Psalms, translations from Latin and Greek, and some of her own poems. One poem, “On Monsieur’s Departure,” is thought to either have been written about the end of marriage negotiations with a French duke or about a favorite earl. Either way, the poem captures the anguish of a heart broken. Here’s an excerpt:
Some gentler passion slide into my mind/For I am soft and made of melting snow/Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind./Let me or float or sink, be high or low/Or let me live with some more sweet content/Or die and so forget what love ere meant.
She never did marry, shrewd ruler and politician that she was. But one must read this poem of a grieving heart without rose-colored lenses. Elizabeth also wrote a poem about her cousin Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland, which was not at all affectionate and dubbed her “the daughter of debate.” (See “The Doubt of Future Foes,” which addresses Mary as a “foe” pursuing the English throne.) Later, Elizabeth imprisoned her cousin Mary for some years – in that handy neighborhood Tower of London – and ultimately had her executed.
In one of those delightfully dark ironies of life, since Elizabeth left no heirs, after her death it was Mary’s son James who ascended the throne. Both Elizabeth and Mary are buried in Westminster Abbey. Death truly is the great equalizer.
Farewell London, thee of drama, intrigue, betrayal and triumph. We are off to the south coast to try and find the grave of my better half’s ancestor.