Archive for the ‘Abbeys’ Category

This week has been the end (mostly) of a very long saga of accounting issues stretching back to April. Apparently getting yourself set up the first time for a tax cycle in the UK is a lot more complex than you might imagine, but it all got filed on Thursday. We may still have one more thing to dispute later on if HMRC (the UK version of the IRS) decides to press it, but that might not come up. I cannot stress enough the cumulative building stress that I was under and the relief that I felt when we got the final email from the accountants saying everything was filed and, by the way, Merry Christmas.

One thing to know though, before skipping along to the travelogue, is that I do not recover instantly from stress. While in no way does this compare with the experience of an Iraqi vet, in the same way that you can’t expect a returning soldier to simply kick their heels up and pop open a cold one because they’re out of the trenches now, neither can I go frolicking through the fields with daffodils and kittens. I tried to explain this to Bear, between unpredictable emotional outbursts, and it went something like this:

Bear: But it’s OK, why are you crying? It’s over!

Me: <sniff> Why did Tom Hanks break down at the end of Captain Phillips once the Navy SEALs rescued him and he was finally safe?

Bear: Because he wanted another Oscar?

I had somewhat calmed down by Saturday thanks to two trips to the movies to see Frozen and The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug, and Bear planned a trip up to York to see some spots we had missed. I really like York a lot and was trying to look forward to it and ended up napping most of the way until we arrived.

Byland Abbey is a really extensive Cistercian abbey in the Yorkshire moors that, like many, has fallen into ruins thanks to Henry VIII, but what’s left is still impressive.

Unusual rose window at the end, an influence of Gothic architecture

Unusual rose window at the end, an influence of Gothic architecture


Ammonite fossils are commonly found in Yorkshire and we found this one in the stones used for the building

Ammonite fossils are commonly found in Yorkshire and we found this one in the stones used for the building

The window was fairly whole until the late 1800s when the circular frame collapsed.

The window was fairly whole until the late 1800s when the circular frame collapsed.

We had tried to find Helmsley Castle last year when we first came to Yorkshire but it’s oddly located off the main square with absolutely not one single sign pointing to it. Given how freaking large the complex is, that’s pretty amazing.

Helmsley Castle

Helmsley Castle

Leona would be very disappointed in the state of the moat

Leona would be very disappointed in the state of the moat

Bridge over one of the two moats

Bridge over one of the two moats

Museum inside

Museum inside

Monks still active today!

Monks still active today!

The East Tower

The East Tower

View of the Helmsley town from the castle hill

View of the Helmsley town from the castle hill

We talked to the guys at Helmsley about the Jorvik Center in York which we haven’t been to and we’re on the fence about it. It looks kinda cheesy in some of the pictures and we have a firm rule against mannequins, but reputable people keep telling us it was a good experience (including an archaeologist at Creswell Crags who sounded exactly like Jane Horrocks, which is a little terrifying). The guys said it was a little dated but that the collections were really good so we think we’ll break down and do it.

Around the corner from the castle, there was an amazing bakery (Auntie Anne’s Bakery) that had won some awards and we picked up scones and some cranberry cookies with tea. Scones are generally very dry and even hard, but these were light and beautifully fluffy, almost like Southern biscuits. I nearly cried.

To get to the next site, we took the off road through the moors and on some single track roads which led to some really nice scenic spots while eating scones and cookies and getting crumbs basically everywhere.



The next stop, Mount Grace Priory, was a two in one with a manor house from the 1800s that was part of an abbey that was still accessible. The driving force behind the house was a man named Lowthian Bell who was a follower of the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement started by William Morris, and much of the house was decorated/designed through Morris’ company.

The house portion

The house portion

Admittedly, not the best lit photo of the priory ruins

Admittedly, not the best lit photo of the priory ruins

Honest to God English holly (no sign of ivy)

Honest to God English holly (no sign of ivy)

Bell also built a recreation of a monk’s cell as it would have been for the Carthusian monks who founded the abbey. There weren’t many Carthusian houses in England as the order were hermits, which is not to say that they were ascetics. The restoration/recreation of the cell was really nice and comfortable and each one had its own latrine and running water in addition to private chambers and being part of a cloistered area with its own tiny gardens.

Madonna and Child

Madonna and Child

This sculpture is of a Madonna but in a very different pose. The plaque contained a statement from the artist detailing his vision of her as strong and determined, offering up her child, the Christ, up to heaven even as she received him, and it’s interesting to see how her posture forms a cross. It was supposed to combine the nativity, the annunciation and the crucifixion all in one.

We headed in to York and had dinner at the best restaurant in York (IMHO), La Rustique, which is an amazing French place with actual French waitstaff. I know this not only because of the accent but because of how nice they are to us. Go for the set menu of starter, entree and dessert for just 15 pounds and you get amazing food, like Bear’s seafood linguini.

Seafood linguini

Seafood linguini

We made a good stab at visiting Howden Minster on the way back south but it was already pitch black by then (which happens at 4:30 p.m. now) and while we found it, it was so dark I nearly twisted my ankle just walking through the graveyard. Cue the spooky music, it would’ve been a perfect setting for a horror movie. (I’ve seen pictures online though and it’s absolutely amazing so we’re not claiming that one yet until we go back by daylight.)

I was still really tired from the week and, frankly, the last eight months since the accounting stuff started in April, so we have a deal that tomorrow I’m going to go to the movies all day courtesy of the Cineworld Unlimited card. We’re on track to get a Cineworld theater of our own in St. Neots in mid-February, just about two months from now. Since the project has undergone some bizarre setbacks so far, including being built 88 cm off the blueprints which resulted in a woman who shall not be named protesting that it was too close to her house and getting the entire structure torn down so they had to start over again, I’m not making plans just yet, but I am excited. However, this week the News Crier had a story about how a worker at the site was crushed between an earth mover and a wall (I guess he didn’t see it coming?) and has serious injuries to his pelvis (not a good area in general), so who knows what that will mean for the opening. My co-worker Sheila says that after all my anxious monitoring of the progress that they should let me cut the ribbon. I don’t know about all that, but I certainly plan to be there for it.


Read Full Post »

We’re going to very cautiously try some limited blogging. The reasons this has fallen off are numerous:

1) too busy
2) exhausted
3) writing about the traveling that makes me exhausted makes me even more exhausted and cranky as well
4) I lost the use of my regular camera back in March and I really dislike the substitutes I’m working with. An iPod and a cell phone aren’t the same thing and I despise spending an hour doing nothing but re-sizing photos to upload to a website with limited space.

What we’ve been up to since June:

  • a week in the Lake and Peak District
  • trip to Ireland
  • Bear played tour guide with friends from America for about 3 weeks
  • college friends from America came for about two weeks
  • long Birthday weekend on the Jurassic Coast
  • went to London several times including a show (We Will Rock You)
  • a week in Cornwall
  • family from American came for 10 days which included 4 days in Paris

Geez, I got tired just typing that.

Bear kindly made breakfast and wisely brought a Diet Coke along as well. I was dragging after a kind of long work week but it had ended really well and we went to see Catching Fire on Friday night for our Nando’s date. (The movie was really excellent, btw.)


He had picked out some sites around Shropshire that we hadn’t hit on previous trips and it’s easy to talk me into going to Shrewsbury. First, we went to Wall to see the Roman site of an encampment that had been an outpost there. It was a wall. As in, you find the Roman baths in Bath and the wall in…Wall.



On the way back to the car pack, I spotted a library in a phone booth. Really.


Then we made a quick stop at the White Lady Priory which is like a related site to the bigger Boscobel House.


When Charles II made an ill advised attempt in 1551 to reclaim his throne (his father Charles I having been executed in 1549 during the English Civil War, thanks Cromwell), he lost big at the Battle of Worcester and had to hide out before escaping back to France.


The first place he hid was at the White Ladies Priory and then moved over to Boscobel House which was owned by a family of Catholic sympathizers. (It seems not very many people liked Cromwell as he canceled Christmas, literally). Fortunately, for Charles II to blend in, the Penderel family were all very tall as he was.


We signed up for the tour of the house after some confusion about when it started. They said 11:30, I checked my watch and said, Oh, 5 minutes, great, and they said, no, 47 minutes. Turns out, that’s precisely how long the tour takes. Not sure why they thought¬† the duration was what I meant, but there you go–welcome to England.



We also got to see the famous Royal Oak which Charles II hid in for a day as a part of his escape attempt while the soldiers and dogs were searching for him below. The oak has suffered recently, having been struck by lightning in 2000, so Prince Charles came back to help plant a sapling from an acorn of the original oak and it’s growing well.

Royal Oak

Royal Oak

After a snack and some drinks, we headed over to Lilleshall Abbey another Augustinian abbey where Bear climbed to the top of a tower without telling me and scared the crap out of me.

Lillehall Abbey

Lilleshall Abbey

Bear in the tower, all is clear

Bear in the tower, all is clear

View from the tower

View from the tower

Moreton Corbet Castle was next, and it did deserve the castle title at one point although it looked more like a decimated manor house.

The most interesting thing at the castle

The most interesting thing at the castle

We stopped by Haughmond Abbey which is completely sealed at this time of year, but that didn’t stop us from going to Buildwas Abbey (also in Shropshire) so we’re getting credit for that one.

At that point, food seemed like a good idea so we headed into Shrewsbury which is a surprisingly good place to find food. However, you also have to pay for parking and all I had was a paper ten pound note which won’t help you when you have to go to pay and display.

A note about Pay and Display. That’s the term for putting money in a meter, getting a paper ticket, putting it on your dash, then inevitably having a misunderstanding and getting a ticket later. If I were crazy enough to permanently move to this country, I would open a strip club and call it Pay and Display. I’m so serious. The girls would dress like cops and meter maids. You think I’m joking.

We were turned away from several restaurants at 3 p.m., places with several open tables, and finally got tired or walking around and feeling cold and hungry. The last waiter was nice about it and said it was because the kitchen was slammed with simultaneous orders, but I wasn’t very impressed with their management. He was being cheerful and laughing, but said, “Well, there’s a McDonald’s one street over” which sort of snapped something and I said, “We’ve been here two years and haven’t eaten in one yet so I think we’ll keep holding on.” Just because you’re American doesn’t mean you want to eat at McDonald’s.

We wound up at the Loch Fyne Seafood Grill which seemed delighted to see us, promised “there would be room at the inn” and found a window table right away.

However, we did have a small revelation, besides that you just have to keep walking and asking and asking to find anywhere to eat. Like British drivers who do not move over when you’re trying to merge on to the highway, British diners do not believe it’s their responsibility to scoot their chairs up to let you through to your adjoining table, even when the hostess is there and asking them to do so. The woman in question simply stared at me uncomprehending and didn’t budge. We’re just lucky I could go on tip toe and squeeze behind her and then she still stared at me like she had no idea what I was up to. Bear’s theory is that when you’re from a tiny island, then you don’t have much space but you really feel protective and want to retain it. We’ve had this happen also in Waitrose when people simply block entire aisles with their carts and look at you like you’re the crazy one for trying to ease by them.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be able to catch up with the backlog of photos or that I want to since it makes me tired just to look at, but at least here’s proof that we’re not dead. ūüôā

Read Full Post »

After our spontaneous expedition to IKEA the night before with Elaine, we kept to our plans to get up early and head out to explore some spots below Oxford that had prehistoric and archaeological significance, which I admit are my favorite kind.

For some reason I woke up humming several recurring bars from “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”, which isn’t quite as strange as it sounds since a) I was raised on a fair amount of Joan Baez folk music and b) we had been talking about race relations and the Old South last night with Elaine at Nandos. I couldn’t shake it though and kept humming them so I finally cracked out the iPad and played it through the stereo, which led to a brief but spirited discussion of if the original version by The Band was better because at least they sounded like they could be Civil War vets. (I come squarely down on the side of Baez’s superior, soaring soprano.)

I also found an original version of “Diamonds and Rust” as well as a duet recorded in the 90s of Baez singing with Mary Chapin Carpenter. You never know what’s lurking in your iPad. Somehow that discussion led to debating what the most distinctive bass line in rock music is and Bear sort of lost that one (he said Eric Clapton’s “The Badge”) to me (Fleetwood Mac’s “The Chain”) because he couldn’t hum his choice, but he could hum “The Chain”, so obviously “The Chain” was the most distinctive.

We found the Roman amphitheatre in Cirencester very easily thanks to Uma the sat nav and there was a Scout troop nearby with a nice little car park. Since it was 8 a.m., no one was there. Why? Because the English are not so fond of early rising as I have discovered. They don’t even like to keep the stores open particularly long. Our local coffee shops (Costa and Cafe Nero, very respectable chains) close at 6 o’clock sharp. Stores close at 6 too. Even Waitrose doesn’t really like to stay open. Gas stations/garages aren’t open in the morning, so if you’re going on an expedition, best fuel up the day before because it could be 8 a.m. or 9 before you find an open gas station.

At any rate, the amphitheatre itself is just the earthworks now, but it was the second largest in England at one time, capable of holding 8,000.

8,000 people -- Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights, Roman style

Bear did not however re-enact his “Are you not entertained?” speech which he did in the Chester arena.


Next we headed to the Rodmarton Long Barrow, which Bear was a little unsure of locating at first. “I took satellite photos,” he said grimly. “We’ll see.” This never bodes well, but on this occasion there was actually a clear sign out by the roadway, which is something of a novelty with things like barrows and neolithic sites.

This will be going in my Blair Witch portfolio.

This will be going in my Blair Witch portfolio.

What a novel thought--putting a sign out by the road so you know there's something hiding in the field.

What a novel thought–putting a sign out by the road so you know there’s something hiding in the field.

Last year, Bear had surprised me on one of our excursions by locating some of the famous white horse chalk carvings in the hills through Wiltshire and he drove us by several of them which you can see from quite a distance. They’re really striking, very beautiful and unusual. The banners of the Rohirrim in The Lord of the Rings have an emblem very similar to the Wiltshire horses, which I can’t think is an accident.


Today we went to the Uffington White Horse which is one of the largest and most famous of the cut chalk carvings. It’s believed to be over 3,000 years old.

(aerial view...I'm not that tall)

(aerial view…I’m not that tall)

We were allowed to drive most of the way up to the  carving, which was fortunate since it was lightly snowing that day, and then we hiked the remainder.

I was standing right by the eye! I was standing RIGHT BY THE EYE!!!!

I was standing right by the eye! I was standing RIGHT BY THE EYE!!!!

Traditionally, every seven years during a fair held on White Horse Hill, they would scour and touch up the horse by repairing the chalk filled pits, but it needs more frequent attention now. (Bear helped by removing some trash from part of what I think was the horse’s mane).

Two other sites were connected to the Uffington Horse, so we hiked a little further up and visited Uffington Castle, which is an Iron Age hill fort that was built on the remnants of a Bronze Age fort. The Romans occupied it at one point (isn’t that just like them?) and left some artifacts as well.

See that concrete post? See those sheep all pointed towards it?

See that concrete post? See those sheep all pointed towards it? That’s how it works with these prehistoric religious sites. The rabbits run the stone circles like at the Ring of Brodgar and the sheep run the square/rectangular stuff, like Maeshowe.

Down the edge of White Horse Hill, which is part of the edge of the Berkshire Downs, you can see Dragon Hill which is the site according to legend where St. George battled and slew the dragon. The leveled off cap is chalk white and no grass grows there, which is where the dragon’s blood spilled.

Dragon Hill

Dragon Hill below the lines of the White Horse — that little bald spot is where the dragon’s blood spilled when George slew the dragon.

There was some minor confusion about how to reach Wayland’s Smithy, the next site which was less than a mile away, since we kept seeing signs that said the Ridgeway was closed to motor traffic, but Bear still managed to get us very close.

As it turned out, Wayland’s Smithy was a very popular site and we saw no less than 14 people either there, on their way back form or on their way going to the smithy. The site is a relatively famous long barrow, built just a few centuries after the one at West Kennet by Avebury which we had visited last year. While there, I overheard a man telling his son that the legend was that you would bring your horse and some money and leave the horse tied up at the Smithy, and that when you returned the next day, the money would be gone and your horse would be shoed courtesy of the Saxon god Wayland.

Blair Witch comes to the Berkshires.

Blair Witch comes to the Berkshires.

When they called it a "long barrow", they weren't kidding.

When they called it a “long barrow”, they weren’t kidding.

On the way to Donnington Castle, I looked up this mysterious Ridgeway which turned out to be extremely interesting. It’s sort of like a prehistoric Appalachian Trail that used to connect the southern coast in Dorset to the Wash area in Norfolk and peoples would migrate along the route and traders used it as well. It runs past some of the most important Bronze Age sacred sites in England, including Avebury, the White Horse and Wayland’s Smithy.

Donnington Castle is most demolished at this point (thanks, Civil War!), but the gatehouse is still standing and very impressive.

Donnington Castle

Donnington Castle

Walking up the hill took a little effort on the heels of White Horse Hill, so I decided that it could count for one of my cardio sessions for the week.

View over Donnington

View over Donnington

Secretly, we've decided we're French (the food, the food) so I got the hat to prove it.

Secretly, we’ve decided we’re French (the food, the food) so I got the hat to prove it. Yes, that’s snow flakes on my glasses.

Bear had planned a stop at a Roman site next, in keeping with the predominantly pre-BC theme of the day. It was a little confusing though as nothing at Silchester seemed to be above ground.

Seriously--there used to be a gigantic Roman town there, but it was abandoned and not re-purposed into a new town. It's all under there. Somewhere.

Seriously–there used to be a gigantic Roman town there, but it was abandoned and not re-purposed into a new town. It’s all under there. Somewhere.

There has been excavation there ongoing since the 1890s though it was a little hard to tell exactly what they had found, and since it was still steadily snowing, we decided that was fine and went on to lunch.

This is where the excavation is taking place. Just not right now.

This is where the excavation is taking place. Just not right now.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to park on Festival Way in Basingstoke, but it’s an experience to be experienced. So to speak. I for one am all for plentiful parking, something that England is sorely in need of, and this place has it in spades. The trick is actually finding your way out of the parking garage. Eventually we fought our way through Debenhams (shoot me if I ever have to work in a department store) and found the Nandos only to learn it was a 20 minute wait for a table. There was a tapas restaurant next door and although I generally am not a fan of Spanish culture, life, fashion, cinema, etc, I do really really really like tapas. (Put olives, cheese and tomatoes in anything and I’m yours.) So I dropped about twice the usual amount but it was for a really good cause!

All kinds of tapas goodness--a Spanish frittata, vegetarian cassoulet, some sort of roasted chicken thighs for Bear, roasted garlic mayo, red pepper sauce...

All kinds of tapas goodness–a Spanish frittata, vegetarian cassoulet, some sort of roasted chicken thighs for Bear, roasted garlic mayo, red pepper sauce…

We had no idea where the car park ticket payment machine was, so we decided to follow some young women with children, but as it turned out they didn’t know either and had been planning to follow us. Thankfully we figured this out in the elevator on the way to the car before we blindly chased our tails. (It’s in parking area C, btw.)

On to Farnham Castle where Bear learned several things, primarily that he was really, really cold. I said it was his own fault for having continued to lose weight and all that essential insulation. We also learned that Farnham Castle has been around since pre-Norman Invasion times and managed to stay in the middle of things but not get completely knocked over, which is a little difficult to pull off. Elizabeth I came and stayed at Farnham for an extended period, possibly to avoid an assassination threat, which right there makes you pretty special as a castle.

All really civilized castles need a good garden to go with them.

All really civilized castles need a good garden to go with them.

the inner keep, of which there were several apparently (some destroyed and others rebuilt on the same foundation)

The interior of the keep, of which there were several apparently (some destroyed and others rebuilt on the same foundation)

Waverley Abbey was nearby, so we managed to squeeze in one more for the day, thus setting a personal best record for most number of English Heritage sites in a single day.

I kind of want this in my backyard. It's not enough that I have a river, now I want a bridge.

I kind of want this in my backyard. It’s not enough that I have a river, now I want a bridge.

The abbey was the first Cistercian abbey founded in England in 1128 and is settled on a really beautiful little stretch of flat pastureland, currently maintained by some placid looking, very large cows. Waverly House (no idea what it is) is located opposite a canal/stream.

Waverley House

Waverley House

Apparently Sir Walter Scott used Waverley Abbey as the inspiration for his novel Waverley, however when I got back to the car and looked it up on Wikipedia, I found that Wikipedia itself disputed this and mentioned that the sign at the entrance had it wrong. Sir Walter Scott probably named his hero after the brand of pen he used to write the novel and not a random abbey.

We'll say he's there for scale and not that he wandered into the picture.

We’ll say he’s there for scale and not that he wandered into the picture.

Gorgeous tree.

Gorgeous tree

If the trunk were teeth though, it would need braces.

If the trunk were teeth though, it would need braces.

But even more interesting to the geek in me was learning that the Waverley Abbey site had been used as a location for the film 28 Days Later for a scene.

Jim (Cillian Murphy, Scarecross from The Dark Knight) and Selene (Naomie Harris, the new MIss Moneypenny from Skyfall) walking in front of the exact same tree.

Jim (Cillian Murphy, Scarecrow from The Dark Knight) and Selene (Naomie Harris, the new Miss Moneypenny from Skyfall) walking in front of the exact same tree.

Since we had brought that movie with us from America, we quickly made  a dealРto pull it out as soon as we got home, put in our 10 pins on the English Heritage map, then put dinner on the table and watch a really fine action-horror movie, one that marked the mainstream breakthrough of the post-apocalyptic zombie survival scenario (followed by the equally awesome 28 Weeks Later). And then I promptly discovered that the movie I actually had was 28 Days with Sandra Bullock, and not 28 Days Later with Cillian Murphy. (My copy is actually somewhere in my storage shed in America.) Sigh.

7 hours, 311 miles, 10 sits, a whole lotta fun

7 hours, 311 miles, 41.5 mpg, 10 sites, a whole lotta fun

Read Full Post »

Having for some reason stayed up half the night, 6 a.m. wake up came a little too early for me, but Juliet was on hand to help encourage me out of bed, to let her out in the garden and provide a handful of treats.

Bear had planned the whole day and mapped out some hard to find spots up around South Yorkshire. Our first stop was at a vanished medieval village, a spot which had fallen out of the historical record around 1700.

Gainsthorp Deserted Village

Gainsthorp Medieval Village

The village was rediscovered from the air in 1925 and at this page you can see a nice aerial photo of the outline of where some of the buildings were before the village was “eaten up with time, poverty and pasturage”.

Long shadows over the vanished village

Long shadows over the vanished village

Bear had planned everything for the trip, so he had everything dialed up in the GPS and it was sort of an unusual for me to just sit back and be surprised as we went.

Mattersey Priory plaque

Mattersey Priory plaque

Mattersey Abbey walls

Mattersey Abbey walls

Grindstone wheel

Grindstone wheel

Bear had been a little apprehensive about some of the sites as being off the beaten track but he found the next one without any trouble either: Roche Abbey. It technically wasn’t open until April, but the grounds were fenced off with low wire so you could still see everything and get great pictures without needing to enter. I was really surprised and taken with this little place — kind of like a mini Rievaulx Abbey.

Bear in some kind of undercroft at Roche Abbey

Bear in some kind of undercroft at Roche Abbey

The abbey grounds were laid out in the Roche Valley, a really nice little piece of lane nestled in between some low crags with a stream/river running along. There was a public footpath too that seemed pretty popular based on the number of hikers with dogs who went by in the brief time we were there.
IMG_0971 IMG_0974

The vegetation around the cliffs is protected as a Special Scientific Site of Interest.

The vegetation around the cliffs is protected as a Special Scientific Site of Interest.

A little stream flows directly through the abbey grounds and foundations

A little stream flows directly through the abbey grounds and foundations

Bear was so taken with the little river that he made a video with a news report on everything we’d seen that day:

Panorama of the Roche Abbey grounds

Panorama of the Roche Abbey grounds (click to see enlargement)

By the path leading around the back edge of the abbey, there was a gate dedicated to a member of the local running club who had obviously passed away fairly recently.

By the path leading around the back edge of the abbey, there was a gate dedicated to a member of the local running club who had obviously passed away fairly recently.

Bear was getting hungry so we headed to Monk Bretton Priory next which was on the way to lunch at Nando’s.


Some of the walls were still in pretty good shape.

Some of the walls were still in pretty good shape.

According to the documentation, Monk Bretton Priory was originally a Cluniac priory and the site has some of the best preserved monastic drainage in England. Since I was suffering from an oncoming sinus infection/cold attack at the time, I pointed out that I was in fact a very well preserved example of munk-tastic drainage. (I did not get a laugh.)

Monastic drainage--not to be confused with munktastic drainage

Monastic drainage–not to be confused with munk-tastic drainage

I sort of expected some crows to start flapping and giving portents of the end of the world.

I sort of expected some crows to start flapping and giving portents of the end of the world.

The Nando’s…well, my beanie burger was excellent, Bear’s chicken was burned and when he asked for another thigh, they were really, really nice about it…andbrought him a breast. But they were so nice about it that he didn’t say anything.

We had tried to see Conisburgh Castle once before, but I made the mistake of trying to have lunch in Sheffield (the wrong part of Sheffield) and it took nearly an hour just to get there and we had to miss the castle. I’d promised we would get back and so we did.

The keep of Conisburgh Castle

The keep of Conisburgh Castle–unusual in that it’s a Norman castle and round, which they’re always square otherwise

the keep as it overlooks the town from the high hill--imagine looking up at this every day

The keep as it overlooks the town from the high hill–imagine looking up at this every day

The power was out at the keep and we couldn't go inside, but this is what it looked like back in the day, with the full curtain wall intact

The power was out at the keep and we couldn’t go inside, but this is what it looked like back in the day, with the full curtain wall intact

We met two really nice workers there and chatted with them for a while about their favorite properties (the girl said she really liked Richmond Castle which we’ve been to) and the guy told us a very interesting story about how not only was the castle featured in Ivanhoe, but when King Harald (before the Battle of Hastings) had to go up to York to repel an invading Viking force and then race back down south to fight the Norman invasion, had stopped to rest his men here at Conisbrough. Following the battle, William the Conqueror (who could call himself that finally), sent his man William de Warrene to oversee the area, given that the area was sympathetic and supportive to the now dead Saxon king and they feared a Northern revolt could be organized there — hence, Conisbrough was built to keep an eye on things.

St. Peter's Church, circa 740 AD (a wooden church had been on the site from 540 AD)

St. Peter’s Church, circa 740 AD (a wooden church had been on the site from 540 AD)

There was one last stop for the day, back in Gainsborough, but we were a little late for the winter closing times (no entry after 3:30). Apparently, English people are like the opposite of trolls. It’s darkness that turns them into stone–must be under cover before dark! But the exterior of the hall was really interesting, as were some of the surrounding buildings, so I counted it as a win for the photos if nothing else.


Gainsborough Old Hall

The other side of the hall...really, nothing like the first side

The other side of the hall…really, nothing like the first side

The public library across the street

The public library across the street

Because of Bear’s efficiency at navigating (didn’t get lost once!), we actually made it home in time for Juliet to have a little time outside in the garden, which makes a perfect day.

Read Full Post »

One thing to know about the English is that on the whole they do not go in for early rising. Why, I have no idea, but it’s patently obvious both in the opening hours of their national treasures (even Stonehenge, clearly visible for miles away isn’t “open” until 9:30 a.m.) and in their personal habits. Canterbury Cathedral, open at the shocking hour of 9 a.m., perhaps because it is part of a UNESCO World Heritage site and thus not beholden to the benevolent dictatorship of English Heritage, was practically deserted when we arrived. After finding parking–yes, parking!–we were guided to walk around through the winding medieval streets that circle the cathedral precincts, past genuinely quaint tea shops, outdoor gear outfitters and even a Starbucks which had the good grace not to re-do the decor of the quasi-ancient hotel it had taken over.

We entered through the same cathedral gate that pilgrims have been entering for hundreds of years and were directed across the grounds to the cathedral proper where very nice docents kept trying to give us leaflets. After the third attempt, I started taking extras because it seemed that there might be some kind of prize they were vying for, to be the one who gave away the most leaflets and I could always wad them up to make cat toys for Juliet.

Front gate, the main city entrance

The exterior of the (south?) end of the nave

Bear for scale, looking toward the other end with the Trinity Chapel at the furthest end

Interior of the nave


I light a candle and say a prayer at nearly every cathedral we visit. I don’t know if it will ever be fully answered but I’ll let you know if it is.

We found the site of the little chapel-ish area on the side where Thomas a’Becket had been murdered by the knights of Henry II (“Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest?”) and took some extra minutes to stay and talk about watching Becket for the first time and how sad it had been for Henry II to create a situation in which Beckett was put at odds with his old friend and ultimately the conflict led to his death. I don’t imagine it was also as crystal clear as the movie made it and politics inevitably muddies things, but Thomas’ devotion always seemed very clear, as well as Henry’s remorse afterwards.

The site of Becket’s murder (love the sculpture)

We also wandered the crypt for a while, getting lost in the crypt vaults, and stopping by the crypt treasury. Bear said that looking at all the silver communion chalices reminded him of the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where they were all looking at the mass of treasure and the Nazi seized on the most elaborate bejeweled cup and said that surely this must be the Holy Grail when in fact it was the simply wooden cup that was the least attractive of them all (because the point was never supposed to be about the glitzy shiny).

First attestation in history of Disney’s heroine Belle (stained glass at Canterbury Cathedral) — OK, I think it’s one of the more recent windows, but *still*.

Yes, I took that. My silly little digital camera does pretty well when the subject is unreasonably pretty.

The site where the shrine to Thomas a’Becket was until Henry VIII dissolved it along with everything else. (I grow increasingly irritated with Henry the more I visit things that are in ruins because he couldn’t balance his checkbook and decided to pilfer from everyone else to make ends meet).

Site of the former shrine

Trinity Chapel

Upward shot of the roof

Canterbury Cloister

The crowds were starting to build up by the time we were done and wandered back to the little square in front of the cathedral. Bear had spotted a tea shop and I was all too ready for a snack, so we ducked in and were seated up on the second storey with a really nice view down over the square where musicians were playing an people queued up to get into the cathedral (because apparently they were done sleeping in now).

Tea overlooking the cathedral entrance

The crowds queuing up at the cathedral gate while we had tea

We hopped over to St. Augustine’s Abbey after that which was practically around the corner and the site of the monastery founded by Augustine when he was sent as a missionary by the Pope to the people’s of England. The king of the region, Ethelberht, was married to a Christian woman and they allowed the monastery to be built and funded it.

Ruins of the abbey walls with the missionary school standing beyond

Tombs of ancient kings of Anglia and Wessex, buried outside the city walls according to tradition

As there wasn’t parking readily available at Walmer Castle and Gardens, Bear pulled us onto the grass under a tree. (I think sometimes that he spent so much time in Texas that he simply feels land should be expansive and available for any purpose.) When we went inside, they had a woman at the entrance to specifically ask you where you had parked so after a little hemming and hawing and defining (though Bear did stop short of saying “it depends on what your definition of the word “is” is”), he had to go back to move the car while I poked around the gift shop.

When he returned, he looked shaken and there was blood on his pants. “Did you see that?” he whispered. I had to admit that no, I had not seen whatever had happened to bring him to this state or else I would have run out of the gift shop in an utter panic to be by his side. I’m not in a habit of standing by, browsing through guidebooks, while my beloved is undergoing serious bodily injury.

“There was this little old lady,” he said, and I wondered why it always had to be a little old lady. “She was trying to get to the entrance and this little kid had a scooter and somehow they got mixed up and she just faceplanted on the pavement in front of me. She broke her nose and her glasses shattered and the metal of the frame drove into her nose up to the bone.”

I don’t blanch easily–I was raised by a taxidermist and you just have to get over certain things–but I must’ve gone stark white. Fortunately for the little old lady, who turned out to be a great-grandmother out for the day with family, ¬†Bear is extremely good in personal emergencies and helped stop the bleeding and got everyone calmed down and even rustled up some ice for her nose. (If nothing else, Americans know what to do with ice.) “I think I called her love,” he said mildly. “Was that right?” Yes, I said, that was the perfect thing to do. I wasn’t as certain about getting the blood out of his pants, but it was all for a very good cause.

“So that’s what took you so long to move the car?” I asked.

“Hell no,” he said. “That officious little harpy was walking next to me when it happened and as soon as she saw blood, she took off for the hills. She said she was going to get help but I certainly didn’t see anything that looked like a doctor. I didn’t move the damn car. It can sit out in the field all night for all I care.”

That excitement done, we checked out the house that had been built in to the castle and we weren’t allowed to take photos, but nevertheless I dug these up on the Internet.

Wellington bedroom (the Wellington’s bedroom)

The Duke of Wellington (the first one who apparently is still referred to as the Duke of Wellington) spent the end of his life in the castle. Apparently even after he left military service, the Duke preferred to sleep in a camp bed and they had it on display there along with other memorabilia.

On the roof, well…

Who needs Safetouch Security when you can just use cannons?

Outside in the gardens…I’m not certain how to describe it. It seemed like a strange combination of flower beds, open lawns, and an orchard or two. It was like a string of little gardens put together, sort of like a series of experiments.

A nice long reflecting pool with garden

The apple and pear orchard was very nice and the apples were for sale in the gift shop also, but I think the nose breaking incident happened before I had a chance to check them out.

And what garden is complete without a cat?

(No, I didn’t take any–have we learned nothing from Eve?)

A mile up the road, Deal Castle had also been constructed by Henry VIII as a part of the coastal defenses against the possible invasion from Catholic Spain and France. (That’s what you get when you divorce the aunt of the Emperor of Spain and a symbol of the beloved Catholic faith of France.)

Again with the cannonery!

It was a bit more modern in feel with the cannonery up on the bastions looking out over the ocean.

A chapel in Deal Castle, all around the theme of remembrance for fallen soldiers. The poppy (red flower, dark center) is the symbol of remembrance, used from the time of World War I forward.

After Deal Castle, we visited Richborough Roman fort which was one of the Saxon Shore defensive forts, much like Caister on Sea up in Norfolk. The fort may have been founded as part of the first Roman invasions, although that site isn’t clearly documented.

After the first military buildings, the area grew into a fairly large town but the military presence came back in the third century when pirate raiding along the Saxon Shore increased.

Ruined walls of the fortified area and the excavated remains of the triple defensive moats

Bear looking out from the high ridge, wind in his fur.

Time for a quick lunch ($5 if you can guess where we went) and then back up the road a bit to see St. Augustine’s Cross which we had overshot to get lunch.

Finding the cross was a bit of a miracle because it was in a field off a small road, the kind of site that we usually miss and have to troll around for hours to find, but Bear happened to be looking back over his right shoulder and spotted it right off the bat.

St. Augustine’s Cross

The cross was erected in the 1800s to mark the site where St. Augustine was reported to have given his first sermon on English soil to King Ecgbert.

We had one more stop to make, up on the top of the Kentish coastline, opposite Essex at the tiny town of Reculver. A Roman fort had been converted to a Saxon monastery and later a church with some imposing towers.

Reculver Towers

The towers are even now used as navigational markers for ships in the water beyond.

It was nearly a daily record (7 major sites) and our first extended expedition into Kent, plus we still had time to head back and let Juliet out to play in the garden for a few hours.

Read Full Post »

Eventually it had to happen and the great work rhythm ¬†of the last two months hit a snag, probably because of the Labor Day holiday Monday that I worked through which started a bit of a downward slide in my overall attitude. I alone am to blame for that, although I may or may not have named a few particular clients in my hourly prayers for patience, peace and sanity. (It’s possible.) I am grateful though for a great work team who kept me laughing and by Friday I felt back to an even keel.

I had wanted to plan a big trip to north Yorkshire before the weather turned cold (it got a little nippy this week in the mornings) and when I showed Bear some of the photos online he went on point like a bear who just strolled past the Lazy Bee Honey Factory. Given the distance, we planned a 6 a.m. departure with a cooler of food and plans for a picnic snack on the grounds of Rievaulx Abbey, about halfway through the itinerary.

Bear checking the cooler in a lay by off the A1 highway for a refill on drinks

For the drive, I had managed to get a decent copy of an audio book version of George R.R. Martin’s A Storm of Swords which will be the basis for the upcoming Season 3 of Game of Thrones. The book itself is wacky long (over 1200 pages and the paperback in some countries had to be split into two) and I had started it about a year ago but stopped for the strange reason that I was enjoying it too much. I like to pace myself on things and GRRM is only on book 5 out of 7 for the overall A Song of Ice and Fire series, and that’s taken him 16 years so far I think, so I was trying to make it last, but Bear keeps asking me questions about the characters and I get tired of repeating I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know. Bear sort of gets a pass on this one though because usually he just doesn’t remember that he’s asked before or that you’ve already told him you’ve never read the third book, even if you said that just two sentences ago. He simply does not remember. I have no idea where it goes but it’s pretty amazing.

This is hilarious to me — J.K. Rowling has a valid point since she really does make some hard choices for a children’s author and kills off characters. But no one, absolutely no one, kills off beloved characters like George R.R. Martin. Do not get attached to anyone in his books.

Once we started listening, all frustrations were forgotten because it’s an extremely absorbing story and the miles flew by. The road took us up through the North Yorkshire National Park and I got my first view of the purple heather over the moors.

Purple heather on the north Yorkshire moors

As I was climbing through the heather I had a small moment of revelation. Cars here often have a sign in the back window or on the hatchback–a big block capital letter L which stands for Learner. It’s not quite as scary as seeing “Student Driver” on top of a car in America since those are nearly inevitably teenagers who haven’t got much grasp on how to safely go about things. Here, a Learner can be anyone, including reasonably experienced, smart adults who just haven’t gotten around to getting a license yet. (J.K. Rowling never got her license, so it can apparently happen to anyone.)

This really sums up everything. Everything.

There in the heather was a magic car sign — L is for Learner. When it comes to this country, I need to wear this sign on the front of my shirt just so people will know to steer clear if I’m tackling anything complex like getting a top up on the mobile phone or ordering a drink.

We got to Whitby before the abbey opened and drove through the harbor town and walked along the pier.

Across the harbor

View out of the harbor toward the fishing pier

Beach towards the West Cliff at Whitby

The town has a feeling similar to a New England boardwalk town with game arcades, carousels, tattoo shops, ice cream cotton candy, and a psychic’s booth.

Fishing from the lower level

Not to miss the Dracula connection to Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey is located on top of the headland cliff overlooking the harbor and sea, which had served as inspiration for Bram Stoker when writing Dracula.

Whitby Abbey on the headland

Also, I was embarrassed that I didn’t realize Caedmon was connected to the original Anglo-Saxon double monastery which was on the site before it was destroyed by Vikings and later rebuilt as you see it here.

In my Anglo-Saxon literature class at UGA, we translated Caedmon’s surviving poetic work, “Caedmon’s Hymn”.

nu scylun hergan   hefaenricaes uard
metudæs maecti   end his modgidanc
uerc uuldurfadur   swe he uundra gihwaes
eci dryctin   or astelidæ
he aerist scop   aelda barnum
heben til hrofe   haleg scepen.
tha middungeard   moncynnæs uard
eci dryctin   æfter tiadæ
firum foldu   frea allmectig
Now [we] must honour the guardian of heaven, the might of the architect, and his purpose, the work of the father of glory ‚ÄĒ as he, the eternal lord, established the beginning of wonders; he first created for the children of men heaven as a roof, the holy creator Then the guardian of mankind, the eternal lord, afterwards appointed the middle earth, the lands for men, the Lord almighty. [From Wikipedia]

Whitby Abbey

Whitby Abbey

We had gotten up so early that the hunger was kicking in so we split a scone from the Whitby tea shop. I’ve been working out a lot more to get rid of the accumulated scones since we got here, but splitting a scone was certainly an improvement over every other tea shop trip.

We drove down the coastline to Scarborough which Bear informed me is noted for having a really big fair every year. For that, I managed to find a copy of “Scarborough Fair” on my mp3, a more traditional arrangement by Mediaeval Baebes (yes, I went there, I said that) until he admitted it had been a really bad joke. The song however is no joke and this is a more authentic arrangement than what you usually get.

There was a pretty stiff hike up the hill from the closest parking to get into Castle Scarborough which is located on the flat headland overlooking the water. It’s an amazing naturally defensible spot that has signs of habitation for thousands of years. (I enjoyed some of the prehistoric artifacts like a bronze Age axe head and some flint tools.)

The walk up the hill to Richmond Castle — not suitable for attacking armies

We walked around the headland and watched the sea kayakers down in the water and the people bodysurfing and playing on the beaches. There was bungee jumping too, which Bear said he would never ever be doing. I love my spine too much to try it either, so we’re agreed in that.

The crane visible in the center was for the bungee jumping

This structure known as St. Mary’s Church is built on the ruins of an old Roman signal tower

We drove along the beach edge below and this is the look back up the cliff to the headland where Castle Scarborough is. Definitely not practical to scale and attack.

We tried to find Helmsley Castle on the way to the next stop but instead stumbled on a really nice little town square with a monument to a major landowner. Never did find the castle, but if we park and walk and try, then I say we get credit for the effort.

It was just two more miles on to the big stop for the day, which was Rievaulx Abbey. I had been drooling over pictures of it online for several months since we met some Yorkshire natives at Lindisfarne Priory who told us we really needed to visit if we ever had the chance. I had also been planning a campaign to try to convince Bear to have a small picnic. There is something of a history to this that is important to understand:

Our one stab at a picnic was on the weekend of July the 4th, 2001, a few weeks before we got married. It was not what one would call an unmitigated success. The food was good, perhaps the best sandwiches I’ve ever made: rosemary-crusted ham with smoked gruyere and honeycup mustard on rye bread. There were chips and drinks and we tried to sit outside to eat under an oak tree on the grounds at the Southwood office complex and that lasted about nine minutes. You would think that having lived in Florida for most of my life I would have remembered that July really wasn’t the best time to attempt a picnic.

I may have been done with my sandwich (but I don’t think so) when I noticed that Bear had packed up and was looking at the car with all the anxiousness of a 4 year old who had to go to the bathroom. Fine, this would be a good excuse to prove that I would be an understanding wife. “Would you like to go for a drive?” I suggested. “For a little bit?”

Two hours and 103 miles later we were in Steinhatchee, my first and last trip to that outstanding little example of coastal Florida, part oyster bar, part death trap. By the time we made it back to town, Bear had sufficiently calmed down. We have not since attempted a picnic.

I laid my trap very carefully and packed flawlessly: black grapes, pitted olives, hummus with carrots, clementines, crushed ice for drinks, bottled Coke, Diet Coke, iced tea, blueberry snack bars, and a small wheel of wine-washed cheese (no idea what that means but it was very cleverly packed in a little wooden box…and it was on sale). Top it off with a picnic blanket,, a beautiful cool day and shade trees overlooking the abbey and we are now batting .500 for picnics.

I’m not going to screw this up with too much commentary–it was the most beautiful abbey I’ve ever seen, which is saying something since we were just at Whitby that morning.

Rievaulx Abbey (the presbytery)

Column in the nave

Bear in the photo for scale (he’s very talented at wandering into the shot)

It felt somehow like wandering around Rivendell (minus the elves of course and the river is sort of out of sight)

Bear was making noises about going to Nandos but it was only 3:30 and I had a few more castles on the list so we agreed to try for Castle Richmond at least. We parked in another really nice town center/square and walked over every cobblestone God ever created in order to reach the castle.

The curtain wall of Castle Richmond with the open area that runs down to the cliff edge above the river.

Much like Scarborough, Castle Richmond is on a bluff headland overlooking a river, making use of the natural protection of the high bluff walls.

The right edge of the castle, the town next to it and the river just over the edge

The castle’s exhibition contained some very sobering information about how 16 Quaker conscientious objectors had been kept prisoner in the castle during WWI for refusing any kind of military service. By 1916 they were sent forcibly to a military base in France where to refuse an order would mean a death sentence–they refused, were sentenced to death, but commuted to to 10 years in prison just before they were executed. 10 of them died in prison, others had mental breakdowns and never seemed to recover. The history of the CO has been complicated and I understand there could be the concern that some would claim they were COs when really they wanted to avoid service altogether for reasons of personal comfort or fear. In no way did these 16 fall into that category and it’s very sad what came of them.

Not exactly topiary, but close enough for Bear.

The castle also had some unexpectedly nice gardens that reminded me of The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Bear however started winking one index finger at me and squeaking “Red Rum, Red Rum!” There’s nothing like invoking The Shining in the middle of a topiary-ish garden to pretty much shatter the mood.

Bear was not particularly happy with me for climbing up on a bit of wall to take that photo of the river with the bridge in the upper quarter. I swear, I was at least two feet from the edge of anything, but suddenly I felt a hand seize a huge swath of my shirt, close into a fist and I was stuck. (I don’t think it occurred to him that this might startle me and make me fall forward.)

We realized we would get home pretty late and Juliet would be furious with us for having her locked up all day, so we agreed it was time to fill up the tank and head back south and find a Nandos for dinner along the way. While the food, as always, hit the spot, it was one of the more unfortunate Nandos stops — the ice machine was limping and my order nearly went badly awry.

Me: I’d like a half chicken, lemon and herb
Cashier: OK, but how much chicken? Quarter, half, whole?
Me: Half chicken, lemon herb
Cashier: What spice?
Me: Lemon herb. And a beanie burger, mango lime.
Cashier: Beanie burger, right. What spice?
Me: Mango lime. And pineapple slice. <I know it sounds odd, but Ray Kroc was right, a pineapple slice is perfect on some grilled sandwiches>

The order arrives perfectly and my pineapple slice is in its own little dish. Every other of the dozens of times, it’s been on the burger, like it says on the menu, like it should be. Every now and then I think that Asberger’s Syndrome is far more undiagnosed in the restaurant industry than anyone realizes.

And as it turned out, Juliet wasn’t as angry as I’d feared; in fact, she curled up on my chest once we were in bed and purred madly. I really think she missed me and was genuinely worried we weren’t coming back.

Bear with our Baby Juliet, out in the garden

Read Full Post »