Archive for February, 2012

“Cold be hand and heart and bone,

and cold be sleep under stone:

never mare to wake on stony bed,

never, till the Sun fails and the Moon is dead.

In the black wind the stars shall die,

and still on gold here let them lie,

till the dark lord lifts his hand

over dead sea and withered land.”

–J.R.R. Tolkien, The Barrow-Wights’ song, The Fellowship of the Ring

With that dire bit of verse in mind, we planned out a trip over to the edge of Gloucestershire to the Wiltshire area to see some archaeologically significant spots that were very considerately arranged in a cluster around Avebury, Bear researched and saw that we could get down to Stonehenge and Woodhenge as well, so we decided to make the theme to see the major stone circles,  monoliths and of the West Midlands. Or, really old dead stuff.

Since it had been so successful the week before, I downloaded some songs and made another mix for the trip to surprise Bear with. The lead off song was David Bowie’s “Life on Mars” because we’ve been watching the BBC version of the show of the same name all this week. We had watched it a few years ago on recommendation from my friend Karen and really loved it. We had gotten up to the final episode the night before, but are saving that to watch when we get back from the day trip. That show truly has the truest, bravest, most affecting ending of any show I’ve ever watched. The rest of the disc was devoted to fun, clubby stuff which is very much at odds with the theme of the day. I probably should’ve gone with Clannad and Loreena McKennitt, but I had just discovered Scissor Sisters this week on YouTube and was feeling sort of retro 70s dancey what not.
We got up at 5 and on the way quickly, which is definitely recommended for day trips to historical sites because so many of them close down around 4 p.m. Bear cleverly planned a lot of the stops to be to outdoor sites which have more flexible hours do we could make the most of the day.
When we first got to Stonehenge, a private group was there actually inside the stone ring, so we went off to find Woodhenge first. It had bee discovered back in the 1930’s through the use of aerial photography to study the variations in the land and soil coloration. They had lots of little colored concrete posts to show where the timbers were set up originally.

Aerial photography of the Woodhenge site

Central grave at Woodhenge with concrete posts to represent the timbers

We wandered down towards Salisbury and saw the Old Sarum castle that William the Conqueror had set up. It wasn’t open, but you can see an awful lot from the outside of these older sites…especially if all the walls have fallen down.

Moat and earthworks

We met two nice ladies out for their morning hike with about eighteen dogs. While we chatted, one of them leaned over and exclaimed to one of the dogs, “Oh you bad thing have you been carrying that?” and straightened up with an egg in her hand. She explained that her friend kept chickens over the ridge and this dog liked to steal the eggs. My face must have been priceless because the women immediately cracked up and admitted it was a sleight of hand joke–the egg had been up her sleeve and they had picked up the eggs earlier on the walk. Bear has accused me of being gullible, but I’ve seen animals carry all kinds of things around, so who was I to say?

Egg Thief, King of Sarum

Stonehenge had reopened by then and we went back to make the circuit and it was nice to get there before the buses arrived and the major tourist crowds. It’s a little wrong but I don’t think of myself as a tourist at all and I even laugh a little when I spot people out with maps and guidebooks. I’m sure that will bite me someday.
We headed 20 miles up north to visit Avebury which has an unusually large complex of barrows, mounds and stone circles. It’s sort of like the Sedona, Arizona of England. Silbury Hill was really hard to miss on the way into town. They haven’t determined exactly what its purpose was, but it didn’t have the kinds of burials and grave goods that were expected when it was excavated in 3 phases with tunnel shafts into the chalk mound.

Silbury Hill

From there we hiked up the hill to the West Kennet Long Barrow that was my favorite site of the day. The barrow is a stone chambered burial mound that’s the most complex in England and it was in use for nearly 2000 years with the remains of over 40 people (adult men and women, children and babies) were found there.

West Kennet Long Barrow

The structure is open to the public and we were able to go inside the chambers which didn’t feel quite as strange as I had thought it would. Someone had set some candles by one of the chambers and I wondered what had been done those thousands of years ago to honor the dead.

Barrow opening

Side burial chamber

Furthest and largest chamber

I've read Tolkien--stay away from the Barrow-downs.

We hiked back down and went over to a nearby circle called The Sanctuary which had been constructed of timber and stone and frankly I thought from the reconstruction diagram that it would’ve been really striking.

The Sanctuary

Sanctuary reconstruction

It was across from the Overton Hill which was another burial mound. All of these were within sight of Silbury Hill and the West Kennet Long Barrow which led me to wonder just what had been chosen and special about these particular hills to have been used for these massive undertakings.

Barrows on Overton Hill

We drove up the West Kennet Avenue that was lined with pairs of stones leading to the Avebury Circle. Many of the stones had fallen over and were buried, but found and excavated back in the 1930s and set up again as they would have appeared.

Pairs of stones in the West Kennet Avenue

One thing that concerned me was the good news that the parking was free to English Historical Society members…but we didn’t have a parking sticker. I decided to risk it by shoving the handbook onto the dash in hopes it would serve as a sticker and then asking a worker if that was OK. He assured me very kindly that they weren’t checking that day so we would be fine (but I still like my solution).

Necessity--the Mother of Invention

The Avebury site is over 420 meters across, which fairly dwarfs every other stone circle. In fact, the roads and buildings in the town itself had grown up within the circle itself do you actually drive through the middle of the site to get to park and then hike around it.

Panoramic of a portion of the Avebury Circle

The site is actually a larger circle with two other circles within it. The track of what is now the modern roads can be seen quartering the circle.

There was a museum also on the grounds dedicated to Alexander Keillor, the Englishman who had bought all the land in the earlier part of the 20th century and undertaken to excavate and reconstruct the stones, unburied them asserting them up again in their proper places.

The manor's barn which belonged to Alexander Keiller has been converted to the museum

So many of the excavation photos had his wife in them also and they were obviously very much in love as they worked together. Yes, I’m a sap about that for some reason even though I don’t particularly like romantic comedies or books or shows that focus on relationships. I do however like people to find each other and be happy, so a big shout out to Denise Brown and Steve Stiegler and congratulations on their engagement. About damn time.
We had a quick lunch at the cafe, The Circle, of goat cheese and roasted red pepper paninis and Bear had a slice of lemon cake that he completely ate before I could have a bite. Ahem. We met a really nice chemistry teacher from a nearby boarding academy who had biked up to the manor to take the tour there. It turned out that he was from Ridley Scott’s hometown and told us to never go there because it was a dangerous dump that looked exactly like the night urban scenes in Bladerunner, so now Bear really wants to go there. The teacher, Stan, also told us to go to York and Durham and that those were really nice, so we’ll definitely head that way before long.
He also told us a horrifying story about his own bank, since we were telling him about getting set up in the UK, that had for an administrative reason decided to cancel his book of checks but never told him, so when he tried to write a check out of the book he was hauled in front of the bank officials and told that they could arrest him for trying to commit fraud, but when he got them to admit that they were the ones who had canceled the check and never told him, they claimed he should have been paying closer attention. That pretty much confirmed it — I will be having as little to do with banking in this country as is humanly possible.
Then Bear had a surprise that he had researched for me and we went on a expedition to find some of the Wiltshire white horses. These are horse figures cut into the green turf of the nearby hills so that the white chalk shows through and you can see the figure from miles away.

Westbury White Horse

We had some directions that a times were a little imprecise, but we saw 4 of the horses and had a really great tour of the countryside. Dieter took us safely all over Wiltshire and down some country lanes, which were actually not the narrowest we’ve ever driven on.
I promise, Mom, we were not remotely going as fast as it looks like we were in that video.
While we drove around, I did some research on the iPad and read a lot about the Beaker Culture that is theorized to have been connected with the stone circles and all about their grave rituals and grave goods. That rambling tour included an unplanned trip through the town of Pewsey which had some historical connection to Alfred the Great.

Alfred the Great, downtown Pewsey

On the way home we passed a sign to Windsor Castle and Legoland at the same exit. I thought that was quite a mix and then we came around the corner and saw the huge bulk of the castle leap out at us.

Bear: I’m thinking that’s Windsor Castle.
Me:  That or Legoland has really taken off.
Because we had planned well with a 5 am start, we got home in time to watch the final episode of Life on Mars which was a really cool way to end the day since it had started with that David Bowie song. (And for the record, Bear, not that you read these or anything else I’ll ever write, but if it were me then I would make the same choice Sam did if you were Annie, from here to the Railway Arms.)

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I needed to head down to meet our attorneys in London to finish the registration of the company’s branch office here in the UK, so I learned a little about how the train system works. We have a good station right here in St. Neots, so we parked there for the day and went straight in to King’s Cross. I also learned about what they call off-peak rates, which basically means that if here to travel at a time other than rush hour, you get a big break on the price. This meant working in the morning and delaying on the train after 9 a.m. and having to come back during the next off peak window (and yes, the savings are significant, especially on just one salary at the moment).
Because I got caught up in a client problem, we just missed the train we had wanted after a valiant run for it. I wasn’t quite well enough to make a good dash and I was pretty shaky for a while and coughing. Then I made the mistake at the train station of asking Bear how I looked. I had actually put a little thought into my appearance (for once) since we would be meeting official attorneys and everything. The only thing I had forgotten was that Bear is always utterly honest. “You look terrible,” he said and hugged me. “Ready?” Well, no, not now! But the truth is, he was right. I’ve been sick for nearly a month and while it was getting a lot better, it’s rebounded on me and it’s back in my chest. If you remember the show Night Court, then you remember Selma the bailiff. Ok, it’s not quite that bad but I’m coughing up things that are a color I don’t think exists in the Crayola spectrum. Having worked 3 twelve hour days in a row after last week of nearly 70 hours wasn’t helping, so the train ride in was going to be a nice chance to rest.
I had always suspected that a Kindle would be great for use on mass transit and I have to say that was true. I had bought the smallest, lightest version at Christmas and loaded it up but hadn’t had much chance with work to read anything. The train is really fast so I still didn’t have much chance! We were in London in about 50 minutes, but they do have some during peak hours that take about 30 minute because they skip stops.
The attorneys’ office was very close by so we chose to walk instead of trying to take the Tube. The weather was really beautiful, no need for a jacket, and we saw some nice buildings along the way.

Hotels over here look like monuments.

The attorneys were very nice and helpful, getting all the documents together and spending time talking with me about our future plans and things they could help us research in advance if needed. There are quite a few things to think about when getting started in a new country, like “hey, if we hire more employees and they work from their own homes, what about liability and workman’s comp? How do taxes work, who contributes what, is a pension mandatory, and how does that whole health care thing work?” (Turns out that health care thing is just magic. It just works. Well, that and lots and lots of taxes.)
We still had some time to kill before our return ticket window, so they very nicely gave us a Xerox of a map that showed us how to get back to from their office going by way of the British Museum and the British Library which were literally just a few blocks away. We had tea at the museum and we saw the man who was the host back in August when we first went to the museum.

Tea for Two at the British Museum

He was really nice, so I called him over and told him I was sure he saw thousands of people every week, but that he had helped us that summer when we came to the Museum and we had moved back now and had joined the Museum and were official Friends. He was very wry and gracious and said, “Oh, did you move just for me?” and we said, well, yes, of course, and it’s so good to see you! He was very pleased that we had joined the Museum and he hoped he would see us a lot more. We even got an extra pot of tea for that. 🙂

Interior of the British Museum

But the big stop was the British Library which is practically spitting distance from the train station and we were still in peak hour rates so we headed on there and got tickets to see the Illuminated Manuscript exhibit which was closing in another week or two. You couldn’t take pictures, but they have an App that you can download with all the images so that will be my memory of a hundred gorgeous gilt inlaid manuscripts from the 1100s onward.

Manuscript of Edward III (from the web)

Plaza at the British Library

We also got to see the Sir John Ritblat Gallery which included an original of Canterbury Tales, Piers Ploughman, the Cuthbert Gospel, Handel’s Messiah, Jane Eyre, Jane Austen’s writing desk, a Gutenberg Bible, a Shakespeare folio, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, letters from Queen Elizabeth to James VI after his mother Mary Queen of Scots was executed, handwritten lyrics by the Beatles for “Help”, “Yesterday”, and others, plus Bede’s historical works. There was supposed to be a Beowulf (the Cotton Vitellus) manuscript, but I didn’t see it on display so I’ll settle for listening again to Seamus Heaney’s reading of his new translation.

The King's Library which forms the core of the library collection, stored in glass stacks in the midst of the reading rooms, galleries and cafe

There was time for a quick dinner at Nando’s, the Portuguese-African restaurant chain that had some famous hot peri-peri sauce. Bear affirms that yes, it is hot indeed.
On the way to the station, I spotted some women out with babies, which brings up an important point. People on this island are breeding like rabbits. They rightly make a big point of recycling and conservation but seem to have missed the idea that having babies pop up like mushrooms all over the place is also having an effect on the situation. I have seen more baby carriages in six weeks than I probably have in the last six years. These two ladies were a great example of what you can see with their babies completely encased, safe and out for the day.

Rabbits, Fibonnaci -- look it up, folks!

Everyone knows about the flowered suitcase

In the train station, things can be a little confusing because the platforms can change unexpectedly, so imagine my delight when we wound up leaving from King’s Cross Platform 9. I went looking for 9 3/4 but nothing was to be seen, so I had to settle for 9b. I sort of tapped against the barrier but nothing happened. I’m going with the idea that my cold medication was blocking any magical powers I might have.

No sign of 9 3/4...

Bear ensured that I got a seat for the trip back and I dozed off a little bit on him because the day had really taken a toll. It was really amazing to see the manuscripts and so nice to finally meet the attorneys who had helped me out as we were in process with getting everything set up, but I didn’t have the energy reserves for very much, so I was glad to get home and to bed.

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Little Mercies

In a week where you’re suddenly getting sicker again and working more than ever, it’s the little things that help you get by and survive. Little things–well, actually big things–like the fact that Waitrose delivers to your door and the nice man actually seems excited to see you.

Do you know the Waitrose Man?

And then he just brings in bin after bin of all your lovely groceries and they all stack up and you just feel a lot better about life.

Like an angel, he's even standing in a beam of light.

Knowing that you have plenty of herbal tea in the midst of a coughing fit makes things go much more easily.

Herbal tea, check--electric kettle, check--favorite Cat-and-the-Fiddle mug, check...

Having a good grocery store on hand lets you do things like whip up vegetable fajitas (fake steak strips courtesy of Quorn), which Bear is really good at. We’re a little wary of anything Mexican related over here as it doesn’t seem to be a cuisine that anyone has a good handle on yet.

Red and yellow bell pepper plus red onion and garlic are the essential base of a good fajita.

Being sick has been hampered a lot by my inability to understand the thermostat system and the steam/boiler radiator system that controls the heading. Bear has a better grasp of the whole thing than I do and he created this graphic for me and I was really touched with how patient he was about it. I had concocted a very elaborate system for remembering which button was which, such as “the name of the button on the top right is Walt and it controls the hot water heater, just like Walt on Breaking Bad is always getting into hot water” and “the name for the top middle button is Marge and it controls the 3rd floor heating, just like Marge Simpson’s hair is really tall”.

True Love

So that was essentially the story of the week. I worked about 60 hours, I was sick, I got worse, and yet in the midst of it, I was greatly loved.

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(Warning–no idea why the hard returns aren’t working in this post so some paragraphs aren’t set off. I would try harder to fix it but I’m sick and loopy on Day-Quil.)
A little background again on our trek up to Nottingham. I’ve been a general fan of any kind of historical adventure for as long as I can remember and Robin Hood moved to the front of the pack back in the late 1990s. I wound up writing a draft of a re-interpretation of the legend before gradually succumbing to the stress of having to work an increasing number of hours and being married to a really nice guy, whose chief hobby seems to be asking me what I want to go do. As in, not writing.
So getting to go see the site of everything that I wrote about was going to be both very exciting and also a little weird, and I wasn’t sure what effect it would have on me in the end.
We made a resolution to get on the road early, so we got some pastries (pain au chocolat) at Waitrose that we could bake and eat home with tea which turned out really nicely and for a much better price too. Juliet wasn’t terribly pleased with us leaving and watched from the stairs with a forlorn look.
Bear had scored enormous husband points by downloading and burning a disc of mp3 talks from the Nottingham city site all about the history of Robin Hood so we could listen on the drive. I was interested to hear what they had to say no matter what, and I was really pleasantly surprised at how comprehensive the talks were and what a good understanding they had of the textual evolution f the legend and how the characters changed from medieval times through Elizabethan times and into the modern interpretations. They even cited some ballads I hadn’t read as closely and they made me want to go back to the original texts as soon as I got home.
There was however a little conflict over Bear’s misunderstanding and he believed the narrator said that Robin Hood had robbed a “corrupt ‘(chip)munk” instead of that he robbed a “corrupt monk” which is just silly.
Our first stop was in Trent to see the Newark castle on the banks of the Trent. The remaining walls are mostly a facade but a very impressive one at that. The grounds weren’t open yet but I got a good view form across the river Trent.

Newark Castle on Trent

This was the site of some action from the book I wrote, so that was really cool to see. I had a line drawing of the ruins that I used as an illustration but to see the real thing was pretty special.

The only representation I had to work from for a long time, pre-Internet.

We drove further north to Sherwood and got to the forest just after opening. I mean, not that the forest isn’t open all the time but the car park does have limits. We hiked through the forest and I was really amazed at how open it is in places. That’s mostly because I’ve lived most of my life in north Florida which makes even primitive forest look old. You literally can’t move more than two feet in any direction so the idea of running through the woods is just ridiculous. I watched the first few seasons of The X Files and thought that alone was a mystery worth solving–how in the world did they run through the woods like that?

Not an ankle-twisting vine in sight

Most of Sherwood has been deforested which is sad but not atypical of the old growth forests, like the great forest that used to cover much of Europe (I think the Black Forest is the most notable remnant of that). We saw lots of interesting trees and I took a ludicrous number of pictures. The idea percolating in the back of my mind was this: I know and freely admit that I am a dreadful writer when it comes to scene and description. I’m far too interested in dialogue, action, plot, things like that to be a really effective descriptive writer.

Bear walking into a dense clump of fir.

So I was probably lying to myself when I thought that I could take all these pictures of trees, grass, songbirds and everything under the sun, literally, and go back and add details that would really improve the quality of the writing; still, we tell ourselves these little deceits to be through a times, so I happily clicked away and Bear humored me.

I have no idea — I’m hoping my Dad will read this and tell me what it is. (Yes, I know Google exists.)

The Major Oak was really impressive, even for me and I’ve seen a lot of really big impressive oak trees in my time. They estimate that the Major Oak is 1150 years old and it’s still growing, which gives me hope somehow for the rest of us.

Major Oak, Minor Offender

We managed to find our way back, despite Bear’s attempt to get off the bridle path and into a little trouble. Our next stop was Creswell Crags, which we need to revisit later because the tour we wanted wasn’t open, but it was still really neat.

I had no idea they were living in England now…and had changed the spelling.

It’s a set of caves in the limestone gorge by Creswell and they found Ice Age cave drawings there as well as fossils, hyena dens and even a wolf tooth from over 80000 years ago.

The Crags on the Darbyshire side of the formation

One of the caves was supposed to have been used by Robin Hood at one point and that brought me back again to the idea of doing a lot more writing because I had two very key scenes set in caves, and I really didn’t do the best job of getting into the cave atmosphere, much less mentioning that some of them had been inhabited in prehistoric times or had freaking cave art. I’d like to blame the fact that I didn’t have too much access to the Internet then (it was dial-up and slow as molasses) and was too impatient.

The crags and caves on the Nottinghamshire side

But we didn’t get to see the art so well definitely be back for that and to pick up a few more points of interest, like the Thieves Wood and St. Mary’s Church where supposedly Robin Hood and Maid Marian were married.
We headed from there over to Rufford Abbey which is an old Cistercian Monastery that was later converted into a private estate with some gorgeous gardens.

From the second floor of the remaining building

My little niggling idea about going back and doing some writing came back again because one the major characters was a Cistercian monk, and yet again I’d completely flubbed the research part. I have a short attention span for that sort of thing, which you think would’ve kept me from undertaking a historical adventure novel in the first place but apparently I’m just not that bright, which was the original problem.

Monks still present at the abbey…well, Bears in Barbour jackets with hoods at any rate

I bought a little book on the abbey and the Cistercian order, tucking it away against the day when I do some more editing.

Remaining window from the original abbey structure before additions were made to convert it to a manor.

That we found the abbey at all was something of a miracle because Martha our sat nav had done an unusually bad job of getting us there actually, she did a fine job but she took us straight across a golf course to do it, that would be funny, except the exact same thing had happened this summer when we were in England and drive up to St. Andrews and went to the old course and blithely drove out on the golf cart track right through a golf game.
We actually got a bit of rain which we really haven’t so far but Bear was prepared. He had treated the windshield with Rain X earlier and now it all beaded up instantly. “Look,” he said. “The windshield is hydrophobic now.” I laughed because it was really funny but it turns out that this is the actual term that the Rain X corporation has chosen to employ.
Packed up and headed down to Nottingham then so we would have enough time at the castle. Something to know about England–they close everything earlier than you would think. If you’re not there by 3:30 then it’s closing with or without you. I’d also gotten one line drawings of the castle before and used then as a book reference, so it was very cool to see the gatehouse myself and walk up the hill.

Exterior castle wall, some stonework from the original

It’s a very impressive bit of strategic planning in that the castle is up on a sandstone outcropping on a hill in command of everything in the city below. William the Conqueror charged through back in the 1060s and put up a number of fortifications of which Nottingham was one and it grew into a castle proper with stone work and all the accessories over the next 150 years.

The sandstone base had been carved into tunnels and natural crags used to advantage.

We saw the grounds and what was left of the original structure, most of which was demolished during the Civil War in the 1600s. Bear got chilled at one point and needed some food, so I saw a little more of the cafe than rest of the grounds, but we got into the cave tour and went under the castle to see the dungeon remnant and the passages carved out of the sandstone that came out at the foot of the castle.

Sandstone wall of the cave tunnels to Mortimer’s Hole under Nottingham Castle

Much of Nottingham has caves underneath and some of them go back to prehistoric times. I confess, there came that idea again to go back and write more because I had talked about the caves and tunnels in the book about the sandstone caved and passages, but didn’t have any real idea how to write about them effectively. Now I’ve put my hands on the walls, climbed up and down and felt the air, so I’m wondering.

Cave tunnel

While on the tour, our guide Phil made some offhand remarks that weren’t meant to be as funny as they were, such as “Isabel was a French woman he married so she became…his French wife.” Also we passed a very nice looking door set into the stonework and he remarked, “And that’s pretty but useless. It doesn’t lead anywhere. The duke had it put in because it was just something you did then.”

The door to nowhere

I had an unusually quick thinking moment and said loud enough to hear, “I have one of those too. It’s called a bachelor’s degree.” The guys at the back of the tour near me really laughed and I got a rare Bear approval (he doesn’t usually think I’m that funny).
We headed over to Ye Old Trip to Jerusalem, a pub carved out of the sandstone across the way from the castle. I had also set a scene from the book there (and yes, got much of it completely wrong–we have a theme here) and we were going to have a drink, but it was utterly crowded with standing room only, so we headed back out and found a group of girls all dressed in Robin Hood costume headed over to the statue outside the castle. They were taking pictures and another fellow offered to help and then he wound up getting into the pictures himself. I never did pick up on what the occasion was, but they were all having a very nice time.

Absolutely no idea what the girls were up to

We headed back out to find Wollaton Hall which is a huge estate nearby. The main house is also being used in the filming of The Dark Knight Rises, the third Batman film in the Christopher Nolan trilogy, so that will be fun to see this summer and know we saw the house first here.

Just imagine Christian Bale sauntering out on the balcony.

The estate also has huge gardens and a deer park. Now, that may strike you as an odd turn of phrase, but I assure you that a deer park is just that. It’s a giant park with herds of deer and they really don’t give a flip about you. They do however care if your dog harasses the deer and there’s a sign that lets you know that such a dog is liable to be shot. To put a funnier spin on it, observe this YouTube video which was filmed at Richmond Park. If I had a dog, I would name if Fenton.

Deer. They don’t care.

We were pretty hungry and wound up at a terrific Indian spot called Spices that let us in early and treated us really nicely–papadom with chutney, peshwari naan, mushroom byrani, chicken tandoori, lassis and mint chocolate ice cream for dessert. Totally worth eating in every other day this week.
So that leaves me pondering on if I should try to do something again with the book, just for my own enjoyment, or to just accept the grim reality of the volume of work load i have right now and that my free time will be spent on day trips like these, which are arguably once in a lifetime opportunities. But at the very least, it was nice to finally walk in Sherwood, see the caves and the castle and understand a bit more what my characters would have seen and experienced.

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Because life really is funny and needs to be shared, we bring you the first installment of “Things that make you go Hmmmmm…”

Foods are often given unintentionally off-putting names, like the popular brand Mr. Brain’s which includes a line of pork faggots.

In response to that age-old joke, do they call them English muffins in England? The answer is no, that would be ridiculous.

Uncle Ben is alive and well in the Indian food market

Interesting names are given to the concept of allergen-free foods — “Free From” — which makes you wonder exactly what they were in servitude to before.

Harrison Ford is selling cars

And those dinky little Ford hatchbacks, by the way, are nearly twice as much as the Mercedes we drive now.

We take parking very seriously here. You pay for it nearly everywhere, if you’re lucky enough to find it at all. That’s why seeing that it’s available is just thrilling and worth a photo, especially if they’re going to refund your cost.

On the other hand, there’s no change given at the pay and display meters. You giveth, and they taketh away.

The Lidl store, which is sort of like if Tuesday Morning branched out into groceries. There was candy, booze and underwear, all on the same shelf and without much way of knowing which cost what.

Apparently the English are crazy for lakes and even go in for waterskiing schools. In my day, they just tied you on to the rope and you hung on for dear life.

There are pheasants everywhere. They’re like chickens over here. Bear has repeatedly threatened to get out of the car and just pop one to take home for dinner.

Trust me. There's pheasants there. (Click to blow up and then squint some more.)


Our washing machine sounds exactly like the segment around the 1:45 minute mark in “We Found Love in a Hopeless Place” by Rihanna.

Rihanna's clothes washer/dryer combo

Rihanna’s video–and with all the money she made off that, she can afford to have someone do her laundry for her.

Bear: That was a really big building.

Me: Yeah. I think it may be an inn or something.

Bear: It’s where they perform the satanic rituals on lost motorists.

On a serious note, in the midst of the utter chaos that is trying to get proper banking, a house, Internet and a phone…health care is utterly sane, rational and simple. I’m sure that all of their energy has gone into this one goal which explains why so much else is a little convoluted. But still, if I had to choose, my Bear’s health comes first and I’m very grateful for this, regardless of all the other things I laugh at.

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Thinking it best to put all things before God, especially the way that some details had been going lately, on Sunday we braved the snow and ice to get to church and then stopped on the way back to investigate some snowy woods and buildings around Drayton.

No idea which church, but it's pretty

For the week though, there wasn’t much to say beyond work. Got into a bad loop of being assigned things that needed people who wouldn’t be in the office for hours after I was supposed to leave, so I worked 17 hours Monday alone and it got worse as the week went on.

In the midst of this came more international banking drama, reimbursements, the realization we were holding many thousands of dollars in reimbursements still, money wasn’t where it was supposed to be, and Bear nearly threw up over the balcony railing because we were in a lot more debt than he realized. (Juliet looked on sympathetically as if to say, “I know, that happened to me too the last time I nibbled a plant. Which one did you try?”)

It’s one thing to have a come to Jesus session about finances and quite another when you can’t even get your bank to agree that you belong to them. We had at least managed to get an international account approved, but now when I tried to access it I had to deal with some very literal people who still somehow managed to misinterpret my completely accurate answers to their security questions. Finally, “Will” heard Bear in the background encouraging me that yes, I had given the correct answer, and he informed me that my password had been compromised and needed to be re-set. I restrained myself from saying something like, “It’s the same password I use for everything, he’s known it for years, and and if you think his emotional support was compromising to my security, then you should hang out here more often and you’d see some stuff that would really terrify you.”

I restrained myself.

Thursday I decided I had to leave work on time because I was already at about 60 hours for the week and I was starting to feel really edgy and unsettled. Bear decided that we would run around town a little and that I would practice driving. He also decided, without warning me, that he would be doing the instructing in the persona of Gruff Sgt. Bear and push me out of the nest. While well intentioned, this was very ill-timed and resulted in my pulling over behind the St. Neots train station and falling apart in tears while trying to explain that I really did want to learn how to drive on the other side of the road, but today I was just too tired and overworked and I’d had to work right through Valentine’s so we couldn’t do anything and I had seen a picture of my godson that day whom I didn’t get to see before we left for England and in the picture I could see the wallpaper there in the dining room that we had talked about so often and I missed the wallpaper and my friends and Athens and how I was hungry and hadn’t slept enough and how Bear really should’ve been nicer to me when I asked him to check the to the left for me when I was pulling out instead of saying “I don’t know if there’s anyone coming, you tell me!” (In the final analysis, Bear has decided to blame the wallpaper for all of this.)

So we switched and he drove me to town and I cheered up and went to the bank to deposit all the money I’d been ‘munking up. This process (‘munking up) is simple: go to an ATM, use your American debit card to get cash, then walk inside the Lloyds and deposit it into your UK account. It’s utterly stupid but when you’re stuck and no one will let you transfer the normal way, you’re stuck, and we had to get enough in the account to cover the first month’s rent which would be withdrawn in a few days. I had no faith whatsoever that the banks would transfer everything the way they said they would, so I had started this a few days ago, hitting the maximum limit each day, just to be safe. Yes, I admit, utterly stupid but I had no other choice.

We also went by the Little Paxton pharmacy which is like stepping back in time to the 1950s, and given the maze of streets you have to navigate it might as well be in a time warp. I kept expecting to hear snatches of song from Brigadoon.

GPS screen of Little Paxton. Keep thinking I should roll out a ball of twine to find our way back out of the maze whenever we head into Little Paxton.

What’s so amazing to me is that given all the complexities of banking, their health care system is very easy to navigate, sane and reasonable. I hear so often that England has a dangerous health care system, you don’t get the care you need, it’s socialized medicine, and all of this may eventually be my experience, but for now it’s been nothing but simple, kind, helpful and easy to use. The pharmacist even explained to Bear how he can get his medications declared under some condition and then they’ll all be refunded to him for life since they’re ones he needs for life.

Back on the Dark Side of Banking though, on Friday, I was finally able to confirm that a transfer had gone through from our personal American emergency fund and so tried to set up what they call a standing order for the rent, which is like a regular debit to pay a bill. The problem was that they wouldn’t let me do it online because I had just registered my phone number in my profile and it takes 7 days to take effect (seriously?) and so I needed to call them to do this. I called and they registered me for telephone banking and then said they would mail me my ID. I could call back when I received it and then they could help me on the phone. Seriously. So I had to march in to the branch in person and they set this up in a matter of 2 minutes and were incredibly polite about it. But still.

To relieve the stress and celebrate having finally set this process up, we stopped by a coffee and cupcake shop which is next to the bank.

That chocolate twig on the side is called a flake. Bear didn't like it.

Also we went to the Paxton Pitts Nature Preserve and walked the Heron Trail for a while to work off a little stress and because I hadn’t really been outside in five days.

Heron not to scale

Kept having the urge to whisper "The Wicker Man, the Wicker Man!" when we spotted this fencing. Bear didn't like that -- he still gets scared when he thinks about that movie.

We’ll head back to explore more with more time because it was getting dark, but it looked like a really nice place. I was mostly just glad to be out of work for the week and to have survived it relatively intact. We had big plans for the weekend though…my long-awaited trip to Nottingham and Sherwood Forest!

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For a little background, I am a huge Ellis Peters (Edith Pargeter) fan, particularly of the Brother Cadfael mystery series which I started reading as a teenager back in the late 1980s. I had listened to them all on audio book several times as well after reading them, plus I watched all 13 of the Derek Jacobi filmed adaptations on video. I also read some of her other work, particularly the George Felse series which had some really remarkable insights into human nature (thinking particularly of the ending of Death and the Joyful Woman).

In addition to liking the time period of the 12th century and the English setting, I always enjoyed Peters’ underlying good faith in human nature although she wasn’t naive and she never skirted around the evil in the world and the complex areas in between (The Sanctuary Sparrow). It charmed me that she usually had a pair or two of star-crossed lovers in each mystery and generally things worked out well (so long as one of them wasn’t really the killer).

I remember distinctly in the winter of 1993 when I wasn’t doing very well to put it mildly and I had just made it to the Christmas break in library school. I was exhausted but nothing seemed to make me feel any better or more rested. I went to the public library, my first real break in months, and I found a copy of The Hermit of Eyton Forest on audio, read by Stephen Thorne. I also had a new jigsaw puzzle and I knew somehow that if I could just take a day or two to listen to this book and do this puzzle in peace and quiet that everything would be OK again. Peace washed over me in the library, but it was more than that. It was the feeling you get when you’ve been lost and are starting to get scared but then you spot  road sign you recognize and suddenly it’s OK because you can find your way home again. (in fact, things actually got worse after that, but they did improve in the end and I’ve always ascribed at least a part of that to Ellis Peters for some reason.)

So here we were, headed into Shrewsbury in the West Midlands, which was the site of all the Brother Cadfael mystery novels, to see the abbey where he had lived as a Benedictine Monk, and then visit the castle and see the town and walk the historic roads. I was ludicrously excited and so was Bear since he had watched the movies with me. He had found four driving maps to the area which took you through the countryside to see the surrounding towns also that had played a role in the books and let you see the River Severn and the surrounding countryside plus some puzzled sheep.

"'s not Tuesday, is it? Cars only come on Tuesdays."

On the way, we detoured to the Iron Bridge site which is in the World Heritage UNESCO listings. The bridge was forged in the 1779 and is set in a pretty stunning manner over a river that fuels the power plant in the gorge.

Iron Bridge

River Severn in the Iron Bridge Gorge

The town is fairly small but with several museums devoted to the bridge and the iron works.

They'll let anyone have a visa these days.

Checking for friends and relatives who need bail.

We headed into the first loop of one of the driving trails and it took us along the sites from The Hermit of Eyton Forest and we stopped at Buildwas Abbey along the way.

Buildwas Abbey

It wasn’t open but that never exactly stopped Bear.

We headed on to Much Wenlock which had a Cluniac priory and a nice audio tour. Belonging to the English Historical Society is a lot of fun because you just whip the card out and everything is free, and what’s even more fun is the surprise and then approval on the faces of the workers when they hear your accent but then you have the card.

Interior area of Much Wenlock Abbey

Fairly large remaining wall of the Cluniac Abbey

While the monks had nothing to do with these topiaries, I do think this one looks like a little 'munk

And there's a bear to go with the 'munk

We had spotted something earlier, a very strange little creature called a Wenlock. It turned out to be the Olympic mascot and it looked suitably unidentifiable so there was no way whatsoever to be offended by it. We asked the girl at the priory what a Wenlock was and she explained that Wenlock the village was the site of where the modern Olympics had evolved through the efforts of Dr. William Penney Brookes, so when it came time to pick the mascot for the 2012 London Olympics, they named the little oddball Wenlock.

Wenlock and Mandeville, Olympic mascots

We followed the rest of the driving trail which brought us back to Wroxeter, the remains of a Roman town.

Excavated foundations of the public bath

Looking across at the remaining wall of the bath

It was pretty chilly by then, so Bear pulled out the balaclava which makes him look like a terrorist but it does keep him warm and you can shove the audio guide speaker into it.

Terrorist Tourist

We also got to tour the experimental archaeological reconstruction of a Roman townhouse which the BBC was building on the other side of what had been Watling Street, the remnants of which are still under the modern road. I had first read about Watling Street while researching a book on Robin Hood and I knew that the street had run through Nottinghamshire back in the 12th century, but I had no idea how ancient it was.

From the Roman townhouse

By the way, God bless the English Historical Society people for selling hot drinks in the shop and also having biscuits on sale so we could do a makeshift tea because there was too much to waste time on lunch.

We headed into Shrewsbury itself to see the abbey and got great parking. (I lit a candle in the abbey, not for parking although that was a miracle, but for someone I love very much and I learned later that they had a significant moment that week which is a wonderful step in the right direction for someone who deserves it very much.)

The abbey is formally known as the Abbey of St. Peter and St. Paul, and it was the site of the Benedictine monastery that Brother Cadfael belonged to back in the mid-12th century. Much of the monastery from that period has been knocked down, but the main nave still stands. We met some nice abbey guides who seemed interested tat we knew some of the background and they took us around while I bought a guide to Shrewsbury through the events of the Brother Cadfael books

The finished end of the nave (half the original length of the church)

And the western end with a little more of the original stonework

Most importantly, I got to see the stained glass window that had been dedicated to St. Benedict in memory of Ellis Peters and her writing. I realize this makes me sound like an enormous nerd, but she meant a lot to me and when she died in 1995, I felt like I’d lost a friend. It meant a lot to me to see the city where she spent much of her life and the church she wrote about.

St. Benedict's window

The pane showing the dedication to Edith Pargeter

We took the guidebook that I bought at the abbey and went on the walking routes all over the market town to see sites that were mentioned in the Cadfael books so we had fun tracking those down. We walked all over Shrewsbury, to the English bridge and through the abbey gardens, and through the market and high street and found that it’s a really bustling little town with a lot of nice architecture and an interesting feel to it.

English Bridge

Abbey Gardens

View down one of the many climbing roads, busy with people on a Saturday.

We finally made it up to the castle which was closed for a private function. (Not exactly sure how that works.). I did however get to see Laura’s Tower and took a picture for her!

I can't believe she never mentioned this to me...

Me and Laura('s Tower)

We ate at an Italian place off of High Street and walked all over to see St. Chad’s church on the way back to the abbey and our car. My Chad may not think he’s a saint but I’d nominate him anyway.

Old St. Chad's, as opposed to the new St. Chad that I work with

We drove down to the church of St. Giles which was also the site of a leper colony feature din the books (The Leper of St. Giles and some others) and then went on a second driving trail that took us through the Welsh Marches and into Wales itself.

I would’ve taken more pictures but it’s really hard to pull over when there’s less than a single lane to drive on to begin with! We saw the Chirk aqueduct and then went down the Ceirog valley and through some tiny villages, taking a lot of wrong turns, until we made it back.

(I didn't take this--it was getting to dusk when we made it towards Wales, but it really was that beautiful.)

It was a little stunning that all of that took less than 12 hours even including the drive over. It was a really special day since I’d wanted to see Shrewsbury for over 20 years. I have to confess that I’ve never read the final Brother Cadfael book, Brother Cadfael’s Penance, because it came out just before the author died. In a way, I just didn’t want the story to end and I’d read that she wrapped everything up, as if she knew she was nearing the end of her life. I suppose I need to get it out now and finally say goodbye myself, but I know I’ll see her someday and be able to tell her then how much her work meant to me.

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