Posts Tagged ‘castle’

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.


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Bear had concerns that I would be able to make it up in time for our early departure, which seems very odd to me. I start work every day at 6 a.m. so getting up all of 20 minutes earlier than usual is hardly what I would call cause for concern. Nevertheless, three alarms were set, warnings were given and all went like clockwork. Juliet even got a little outside time in the garden, which she chose to spend huddled despondently on the sidewalk leading to the gate, AKA “the Path of Righteousness”.

Bear had planned the trip, so it was a surprise for me as we went westward through Coventry and Birmingham (most famous, to me at least, as the town where J.R.R. Tolkien grew up).  Along the way, I learned all kinds of interesting things from Bear, most of which need to be fact checked. 1) The Romans were like the Oakland Raiders compared to the other tribes which were like high school football teams (sounds true). 2) Nicky Minaj is either Bahamian or Panamanian (she’s from Trinidad). 3) Alicia Keys played an assassin a movie and had a much larger butt back then (she did play an assassin in Smokin’ Aces but I’m not in a position to evaluate her butt).

You want to tell her that her butt is too big?

You want to tell her that her butt is too big?

The highlight of the drive was my discovering that Bear had switched our thermoses by accident and he spent 30 minutes drinking my tea before I sipped out of my own thermos and found it was a giant mocha coffee (not what I had in mind). “I thought there wasn’t enough sweetener,” he said in a perplexed tone. How in the world you can’t tell the difference between Lady Grey tea and a Nescafe mochachino is beyond me.

Our first stop was at a remote stone circle, Mitchell’s Fold Stone Circle, southwest of Shrewsbury, just a few miles east of the Welsh border. We had to go off-road a little which might sound difficult to do in a Mercedes. It is.

I don't always go off-road, but when I do, I do it in a Mercedes E-320 sedan with positronic supershift.

I don’t always go off-road, but when I do, I do it in a Mercedes E-320 sedan with positronic supershift.

The sheep farm had some nice roads in place though so we got fairly close before having to park and hoof it up the last hill crest.

For some reason this reminds me of the "One Tin Soldier" song

For some reason this reminds me of the “One Tin Soldier” song

But it doesn't really hold up when there are a few other stones still left.

But it doesn’t really hold up when there are a few other stones still left.

We also spotted a man on an ATV herding sheep, which is something like herding cats but with more wool involved.

Next was Clun Castle on the Welsh Borderlands. It’s unusual because the keep, build in the 1200s, is set into the side of the earthworks mound actually instead of sitting on the crest.

The car park was by a nice little river which formed part of the natural moat.

The car park was by a nice little river which formed part of the natural moat.

The hill is surrounded by a natural moat made out of a good sized stream and you have to hike up a fairly steep rocky path to come up and actually see the remnants of the castle.


Clun Castle was constructed just before 1300 and went into disuse sometime in the early 1500s. For once this had nothing to do with Henry VIII.

Don't worry, you're safe -- his jeans look like they're pulled up from here.

Don’t worry, you’re safe — his jeans look like they’re pulled up from here.

The best part of climbing around the ruins though was the fact that Bear’s jeans are completely falling off him and he could only make it about 200 yards before they would work down to mid-thigh (once making it to his knees). OK, not everyone will find that as interesting as I do.

Looking out onto the Welsh borderlands

Looking out onto the Welsh borderlands

The second best part of Clun Castle was a 24 hour public toilet. You simply cannot take anything for granted in England. I travel with a roll of toilet paper just in case we have to make a dive behind a hedge row. (These are often referred to as privet hedges which makes me wonder if there’s a connection to the term privvy. But then, as my professor Jared Klein was fond of saying, “Etymology is the science where the vowels count for nothing and the consonants for very little.”)

We had been to the area before when retracing a lot of the action from the Brother Cadfael books, which I adore. John likes them too, having seen the TV movie adaptations with Derek Jacoby, but has trouble remembering things and keeps referring to him as Brother Cadbury.

Note: Clun Castle is not related to the Cluniac monks or, sadly, to George Clooney.

Stokesay Castle was next , which is really more of a fortified manor house, but had some great historical information and was very well set up and presented.

Not sure who picked the color for the gatehouse. I'm sure it's authentic.

Not sure who picked the color for the gatehouse. I’m sure it’s authentic.

After some discussion in the car park about whether or not we were actually supposed to pay or not (as it turns out, you pay and get refunded at the ticket office).


The interior of the great hall complete with window seats, an octagonal hearth stone.


Upper solar with windows to peer down into the great hall to keep an eye on the festivities.

Back in the gift shop, I spotted some books from the Horrible Histories series. Recently, the author Terry Deary made some unfortunate remarks in The Guardian about libraries and that there was no longer any need for them, they were irrelevant, and his logic stemmed from the fact that he makes only 6 p per book and that fee is capped off eventually when it lends through a library versus 30 p with no cap when the book sells. His exact quote was that libraries “have been around too long” and are “no longer relevant”. “If I sold the book I’d get 30p per book. I get six grand, and I should be getting £180,000.”

And even more terrifying, the authors opinions about libraries and historians.

And even more terrifying, the authors opinions about libraries and historians.

Or. Or, Mr. Deary, today’s kids could all go on a torrent and just rip it for free off the ‘net. I’m sure they know how.

And then Dr. Marc Morris, an author who is an actual historian and knows his stuff, got involved.

Dear Terry DearyI’ve just started reading your book, Stormin’ Normans. I’m only up to page 10, I’m afraid, but then I’m a slow reader.You describe the site of William the Conqueror’s first battle, Val-es-Dunes, as being ‘on the Norman border with France’. It’s actually just outside Caen, nowhere near the French border.

You say that William died a year after 1085, i.e. 1086. He actually died in 1087.You say that Henry I’s only son died in 1119. The correct date is 1120.You say that William’s queen, Matilda, was only 127cm tall. This is a modern myth caused by misreporting. The French archaeologists who examined her partial remains actually concluded she was 152cm (about 5’).

You say William was buried in a cathedral he founded in Caen. There is no cathedral in Caen. William founded an abbey.

I’ll get back to you again when I’ve finished the rest of the book. But in the meantime, I can’t help wondering: do you think you should have spent more time in the library?

best wishes
Dr Marc Morris

Thank you, Dr. Morris. In case anyone is wondering, Terry Deary has posted some follow up remarks which only dug the hole that much deeper.

“I don’t see poor people in libraries, I see middle class people with their arms stuffed like looters.”

Wow. Apparently he hasn’t been to the Leroy Collins Leon County Public Library anytime since 1993. But then he was quoted in 2010 as saying that historians are “nearly as seedy and devious as politicians” so maybe he didn’t want to be mistaken for one by going to a library to do research?

That’s a shame — I had been planning on giving a set of his books to my godson for his birthday, so that’s 60 p per book that Mr. Deary will not be seeing, although I doubt he’s losing sleep over it.

But not to let that put a damper on the day, I left the gift shop unencumbered and we headed on to the second half of the day. To be continued…

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I’ve been very busy with international travel to Europe and Asia this month (not quite as exciting as that sounds), so I’m behind on current events, but in the mean time here’s another installment in that popular series of things that just make you pause and scratch your head for a moment. The common theme here is that these are all situations I’ve stumbled across while frequenting public bathrooms around the United Kingdom.

This nifty little unit can be found in the bathroom at Portchester Castle (or rather, in the public car park bathroom). It’s a 3-in-1 unit where you can wash your hands, get soap and activate a dryer all at one station. Provided you can make it work. Which I couldn’t.

A notice found on the inside of a bathroom stall door, just in case your Mom wasn’t there to remind you.

In the bathroom near the city wall and Roman amphitheater in Chester — I have no idea what that low square basin with a grate on it is for–maybe to scrape and wash boots?

Just a word to the proprietors of the Tomb of the Eagles in the Orkney Islands — if your bathroom has low lighting and you also use pink toilet paper for some reason known only to God, then unsuspecting women will think they are hemorrhaging from every orifice. Thank you.

Someone really, really wanted that toilet to flush (the button was crushed so badly that you could only see tiny pieces of the mechanism) — duly noted though, this was somewhere in Corsica.

The women’s toilets, symbolically speaking — Creswell Crags

In the bathroom at the Priory, a pub in downtown St. Neots. It’s a curling iron you can feed with coins. I swear, I have never once been out for dinner, or what have you, and thought, “Wow, my hair just isn’t as bouncy as it ought to be. I sure hope there’s a curling iron around here somewhere.”

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When our friends arrived from Switzerland, as a first quick introduction to England, we took Katja, Dimitri and the girls over to Aldeburgh by the sea to eat fish and chips on the beach and look at the shops.

Happily perched on the sea wall at Aldeburgh, diving in to fish and chips

Houses and cottages along the beach

Bear supervising the girls at the waterside (Moira, Madison, Joy)

A little peace and quiet for Katja and Dimitri to polish off some of the chips

This fine fellow washed up before he could be turned into fish and chips.

Picking out custom ice cream flavors from the 30 choices at Ive’s with nothing artificial (I went with chocolate brownie and Devon toffee).

30 wonderful flavors…

Enjoying cones outside on High Street in the sunshine

Following that, since we were near Framlingham Castle and the famous Topsy Turvy tour, we headed over there to give the girls their first sight of an English castle.

The mere at Framlingham

The house build inside the castle walls much later on, as there is no keep structure (which you learn if you take the Topsy Turvy tour!)

The field beyond the castle walls (opposite the mere side) where we had previously spotted some girls rehearsing their dance routine to “Fame”. They weren’t expecting Bear to start wildly cheering them from the castle walls when they finished.

Back home in time for a late pizza dinner with cheese, crackers and grapes for snacks with Orangina for everyone before a big day to follow — Dover Castle and the Battle of Hastings!

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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 — 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

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We had a very nice sleep in since Bear said the expedition today wouldn’t take us quite as far afield.  I was still on a bit of a buzz from going to see Brave for our Friday date to the Cineworld, and while it may not be the very ultimate favorite Pixar movie for the hardcore Disney crowd, it is quite possibly my favorite since The Lion King. Yes, I loved Ratatouille a lot and have even been told that I bear a strong resemblance to Eve from WALL-E, but Brave will be re-watched more in our house. I admit I have personal reasons for this (Scotland, female archers, a great voice cast and a really, really strong bear theme), but that’s fine–I make no apologies. I loved it, laughed myself silly at the bear parts, and thought that Kevin McKidd delivering lines in the Doric dialect was the funniest thing since…well, since Billy Connolly. A must on the buy list for Munk and Bear.

Today we would be going in a very different direction from Scotland though as Bear pointed us towards Essex, a county just to the east of London. We wound up in a traffic slow down on the M25, the ring road around London (AKA the Perimeter of Atlanta or the Beltway of Washington) which didn’t make much sense until I realized two things: 1) It’s a bank holiday this weekend which means that no one works on Monday (it’s not just for banks!), and 2) the Paralympics are starting in three days. Ta da!

Our first stop was at Hadleigh Castle, not surprisingly in Hadleigh. It was raining at that point, one of the few times we’ve been rained on during a Saturday expedition, and we had a half mile hike so I had to pull out the umbrella and try to take photos without fogging the lens. (East Anglia is actually one of the driest regions of England so we get far less rain that we did back in Florida and it’s usually of the gentle, misting variety, which has made it somewhat laughable when people ask us how we’re liking all the rain. Um, it would be great –we’re still waiting for it!

A nice grim, foggy vista overlooking the Thames estuary

The castle was built up by Edward III following the War of the Roses. It overlooks a tributary of the Thames which was just becoming visible in the daylight as the fog lifted.

There used to be a lot more to it. Really.

Putting a castle on a bluff overlooking a river is a great idea for defensive purposes (something like the Gregory House on the bluff at Torreya State Park in Florida). Unfortunately, what they neglected to do was a soil sample survey so they didn’t realize that the castle was built on unstable clay which led to the whole place falling apart in pretty short order.

Smokestacks and industrial sites just visible across water as the fog lifts.

We went a little further south then to Upnor Castle which had served as a kind of fortified gun battery on the River Medway. I didn’t know much about the mid 1600s, but apparently the Dutch and the English were in a running spat at the time and while they were trying to finalize a truce negotiation, the Dutch were still secretly preparing an attack fleet to sail up the Medway, and in fact they did just that. There was a battle on the river right in front of Upnor Castle and I’m sorry to say that the English did not come out on top.

Quaint little street through the town leading to Upnor Castle

The paned/leaded glass windows were really nice — not sure why two of them were plastered up

Upnor Castle…from the back down by the water bastion

The castle was used to store gunpowder and other artillery related items up until 1984.

Yes, those are mannequins. Pretending to load gunpowder barrels in the middle of the seating arrangement for a wedding. They didn’t remove the mannequins. Not. Sure. About. That.

And they also host weddings, so I’m not sure if you can say that we crashed this one or not because the guests hadn’t arrived yet, but I did move a few things. I won’t lie.

A drawing was found on a wall of the outline of a sailing ship and given the historical details it’s been dated to prior 1700. (See below for the full reconstruction of the drawing)

Reconstructed outline of the ship

View of the waterfront from the fort’s second floor.

It was lunchtime after that and we overcame the fact that the smartphone is utterly dumb and refused to tell us our current location or make the Nando’s locator app work. I’m really not sure why people use smartphones because the experience has pretty much been nothing but utter frustration for us (Samsung Galaxy). Rarely works for anything GPS/location related and that’s the whole point of it, at least for our purposes. But we actually found a Nando’s that had lots of parking.


It was located in a complex called “Dickens World”. At first I just thought it was sort of a joke or didn’t mean what I thought it did.

Oh, how wrong I was. Dickens World is an actual entertainment complex/theme area based on the works of Charles Dickens with a large number of restaurants and shopping outlets built around it. What kinds of things you ask? Peggotty’s Boathouse from David Copperfield, Dotheboy’s Hall, the miserable school from Nicholas Nickelby and…

The Great Expectations Boat Ride Experience

We played it safe and stuck to Nando’s. I mean, who wants to go to the Haunted Bleak House or the Oliver Twist and Twirl Teacups? (I made those up, by the way, but who knows what terrible puns lay behind the glass doors of the ticketing office?) Fair disclosure: I didn’t go in and it could be a perfectly fine, wonderful and inspiring attraction.

After lunch, we headed over to Rochester Castle and managed to officially crash another wedding photo session. They were all gathered out in the castle bailey, that nice grassy area inside the walls so I went ahead and snapped a few shots since I was in theirs somewhere.

Wedding #17

There was also an exhibition going on by a juggling/circus company of some kind which was a lot of fun. I have to confess. I learned how to juggle when I was younger and really enjoy it though I haven’t done anything regularly in years. They had lots of extra equipment and Bear patiently waited while I pulled out every trick I still knew how to do and several which failed badly.

Jugglers World — personally, cooler than Dickens World

The castle itself had a very tall but somewhat narrow keep. You could climb up all the way to the roof and even walk around the interior corridors looking down into the great hall and nearly to the basement.

Rochester Castle

View overlooking the river from the castle grounds

Looking down on the multi-storey great hall

Bear is not terribly fond of things that are much taller than a storey or two so we got the gist of it and went over to the cathedral next door. At which point we ran into another wedding photo session!

Wedding #18

I was afraid we wouldn’t get into the cathedral at this point because apparently they were having some kind of express lane service today where you walked in and they stamped you married and chucked you out again.

Rochester Cathedral

Not the case though as we found the Rochester Cathedral to be open and have a very nice interior, well-preserved and bright.

Front face of Rochester Cathedral

Evensong service was on at the time so we couldn’t go to that end of the church, but we toured the rest of the transept.

Organ and stone sculptures

We also went down into the crypt where they still have a chapel (and air fresheners too, but I couldn’t get a shot of those for the lighting).

The crypt chapel

Out in the rose garden, we saw one of the priests carrying out the incense swinger/hanger/thing (I’m so precise–yes, I know Google exists) and she dumped the ashes out into the roses and mixed them in with the dirt, so I expect the roses will be smelling especially nice this year.

The Friar of the Roses

Looking pretty good for this season

The cathedral gardens and cloister

On the drive out, we actually had to stop to let another wedding party cross the street. They’re literally leaping out in front of you these days. I told Bear that I have never understood why people ever got married in the summer.

Bear: Well, the nice weather.
Me: No, it’s horrible! It’s hot, there’s mosquitoes, torrential rainstorms every afternoon, humidity.
Bear: That’s Florida.
Me: Well, yes.
Bear: There’s a lot more to the world than Florida, Munk.

I think I hit him with some English Heritage brochures after that until I felt better. We drove to Temple Manor which isn’t open for viewing, but we get credit because we found it and did everything we could, darn it.

The search for the next site, the Old Soar Manor, was a tribute to attentiveness and good signage because without those magic brown English Heritage signs we never would’ve managed it. The manor is tucked away in such a remote lane off of another lane, split from two other lanes, that it’s a miracle the owners themselves could ever find it.

The road just doesn’t scream “Hey, Old Soar Manor is at the end of me, just stick with it!”

I got really excited once we got into the site and started exploring because I happen to be working on some scenes right now in a book which are set in a manor house very much like this one. I had gotten more of the details right than usual (so much of my writing reads like some kind of alternative universe in which I just make up everything willy-nilly) which was heartening and I also learned a few things that I can sprinkle in.

For example, the solar at a manor often has a window on the north side. Doesn’t that feel more interesting to know about a room?

A corbel: sure, I used the word corbel but had no idea what one looked like (it’s for holding candles, torches and helpful things)

Bear got big points for picking this one out even though he wasn’t sure we would be able to find it.

Not exactly sure, but this thing was planted in a duck pond and looked sort of like a beachhouse for ducks.

We tried to find a few other sites after that (Leonard’s Tower and Milton Chantry) but bad signage and the bad, awful, non-working smart phone was no help whatsoever so we happily called it a day and routed home around London, managing to dodge the worst traffic delays by virtue of Bear’s amazing navigational abilities.

At one of the service plazas on the way back they had a mini-Waitrose which let us do a little last second shopping so we actually had fresh groceries for dinner when we walked in the door. Pretty clever of Mr. John Lewis (owner of the Waitrose corp). He definitely has my vote when it comes to the groceries.

It was only after we got home that we heard the news reports that people in a caravan park had spotted an escaped lion in the Essex area near where we were all day. This led to a lengthy search by police complete with helicopters. Subsequent news reports clarified that the lion was in all likelihood a very large Maine Coon cat named Teddy Bear.

Teddy Bear, at home and out in the field where he was photographed by caravan park people

Teddy on the prowl — I can see where the confusion started

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We had guests in from America who arrived on my birthday, so in addition to getting a very kind yet unexpected (the best kind!) card from Elaine and Jon, our St. Neots friends, we headed off with Doug and Ryan to the Priory to get them some food and to drive a little around the town. Juliet seemed happy to have the company but unsure as to what she was supposed to do with them.

Ryan and Doug Kirk, geared up and ready to head to Scotland for the next leg of their trip

In the morning, we took Doug and Ryan off to the train station for their big day in London and we headed up to Nottinghamshire for my official birthday day out. First, we headed to Creswell Crags but made such good time that we stopped off at the Sherwood Forest Craft Centre on the way. It’s housed in a converted stables and coach house so that all the different artists (stonework, wood carving, stained glass, painting, etc) have shops and workshops around the edges, where stalls would’ve been I think, and then the open center hall is used for an open market display with a glass roof. In keeping with my insane love of pretty rocks, I found a fossil/mineral store and bought a polished green stone to remind me of Sherwood.

Heading on to Creswell Crags, we signed up for the Rock Art Cave Tour and killed a little time in the excellent tea shop there.

Not pictured: a really tasty scone

I also noticed they had some homemade cheese and chorizo scones and I remarked that it was an interesting combination which sounded really tasty. The cafe guy running the till perked up and went on about the recipe, how good the chorizo was and how you got a bit of paprika on the aftertaste and how it was his idea, so I complimented him on it again. (Compliments are free and cost nothing to give but they can mean so much to someone. I find people who don’t compliment to usually be stingy in all areas of their lives.)

We met up with Emma our tour guide by the giant stuffed prehistoric hyena and she got us fitted out with white hard hats and off on the walk to the caves. She immediately said for us to let her know if her accent was hard to understand and she’d repeat anything. I did have the heart to tell her that I understood her perfectly because she sounded exactly like Jane Horrocks who plays Bubble on Absolutely Fabulous (and also was the voice of Babs in Chicken Run). It was eerie–see below and then just imagine the same woman using terms like “archaeological significance” and “prehistoric reconstruction”.

Hike along the crag rift to reach the caves

Because we were on the official tour, we got to go in past the locked iron bar gate and up onto the platform into the cave. The platform was added at some point to bring you back up to where the floor of the cave was in prehistoric times, before explorers in the Victorian era used dynamite to blow out the floor of the cave several yards down in a search for what they considered to be “the interesting stuff”. I’m not sure I can forgive them for this one.

Our guide Emma did a great job of giving us the whole history of the cave and how in 2003 a team of scientists had come to study the caves in Creswell Crags for any signs of cave art and did eventually find a couple of pieces in the caves on the right side of the rift. They knew from other evidence that only the caves on the right had been inhabited so didn’t think it worthwhile to examine the caves on the left, but the director encouraged them to check it out so they went into the Church Hole cave and didn’t see anything (all the carvings are on the ceiling and since the Victorians had kindly lowered the floor by about 10 feet, it was nigh on impossible to see anything). But one of them crawled up on a ledge and was contorting around which apparently made a very funny sight so his friends took a picture of him to laugh at later, but when they developed the film they saw the famous deer carving on the cave wall beside their friend. (They canceled their plans to go on to Wales and started studying these caves instead and now Creswell has been verified as the sight of the only cave art in Britain and also the northernmost cave art in the world.)

Detail of the head of the deer/ibex/goat carving

Lines drawn to help show the carving lines (we got the benefit of this with Emma’s green pointy pen)

Emma took us around the cave and we studied about six or seven individual carvings. With each one she helped highlight the lines of the carvings with her “pointy pen” (a green laser pointer) and discussed the different interpretations of the carvings.

The full carving of the deer/ibex/goat/something (black lines highlight the carving lines)

Some carvings are much more open to interpretations than others, so we worked up from the clearest to the most speculative, a carving in the very back of the cave which has been interpreted as a possible connection to Venus of Brassempouy. There were also some lines which might or might not have been carvings and one little girl had pointed out that since they were done in the very back of the cave, perhaps that was the practice area and it was all a mistake, but if you got better you could make carvings up at the front. (I don’t think they’d ever allow me to hold a chisel if they knew how badly I draw.)

Ibis/crane (if you look at it that way up) with the narrow curved bill at the left of the screen, then the dome of the head with an eye and a long neck

Full depth of the cave (other carvings are in the back)

On the way out, Emma showed us a newly discovered cave opening at ground level just to the right of Church Hole cave, but it’s not being excavated at the moment due to the potential instability of the area and they don’t want to risk damage to the existing cave structure.

The cave opening is back filled currently

As we walked back up along the waterway to the main exhibit area, it was clear why this was such an attractive area for prehistoric man because the rift would be sheltered from winds and there’s an extensive water supply which also attracted game and waterfowl. Emma also showed us some of the swans, including a mother with two mostly grown cygnets who had stayed around from the previous season. They were as big as their mother but without the fully orange-ish beak coloring and they seemed very content to stay with Mom.

They were also having an Ice Age Olympics day for the kids out on the open field, including a spear toss at the model of a mammoth and a ring toss game to try to hook a ring on some antlers as well as something called hyena hurdling that unfortunately no one was doing at the moment because I think that would’ve been really funny to watch.

Some kind of combination of East Anglian Quoits and a reindeer ring toss

We went through the proper exhibit which had some very interesting artifacts, including a hyena skull found in one of the caves as well as a cave bear skull and a lot of stone tools and bone artifacts.

One of the earliest known carvings of a human form, on bone.

The gift shop had a lot of very interesting fossils and carvings and Bear showed an interest in a white marbley carving of a polar bear (I wanted the small one, he wanted the larger more expensive one. This is the story of my life.) I settled for a book about walks and hikes in Nottinghamshire with a lot of historical notes about Robin Hood legends which was ironic as I had been on the verge of a somewhat unfortunate discussion with Bear in the tea shop earlier which touched on some Robin Hood related things but fortunately Jesus somehow managed to shut my mouth before I said aloud what was in my head and heart. It took a few hours for me to remember something that I had learned years ago — it’s insanity to do the same things over and over yet expect different results, whether you’re dealing with work, family or spouses. I was in the restroom of  a gas station on the side of A1 by the time it came back to me which was just as well for the amount of cursing that ensued. The up shot is that I’m formulating a new plan, something less insane and less doomed to repeat the past. It may take a while, I can be a little slow sometimes.  [Note from the future: in the week since I wrote that, the plan seems to be having a good outcome and I need to give God the majority of the credit for that because a lot of it seems to be coming from Bear himself without anything on my part.]

We went to grab lunch at Nando’s up above Sheffield (I had researched and found one with a car park) and then went on to Bolsover Castle. I’d read that the town was like a step back in time and it seemed that way, although when we arrived they were about to hold a wedding in the castle and the place was looking fairly modern.

View of the countryside from Bolsover

Beautiful picnic tree with a little family of hobbits under it

The indoor riding school decked out for the wedding

Wedding guest looking out at the countryside

We went past the indoor riding school (apparently William Cavendish, a major family figure, was mad about horses) where the wedding was and went on to the area known as the Little Castle which was remarkably well-preserved. They’ve spent a lot on the restoration, even down to studying and re-creating the original color tones in the ceiling paint.

The Little Castle flying the English Heritage flag.

Fantastically detailed stone fireplaces with the black stone taken from local quarries

The original structure dates back to medieval times, but a lot of restoration and work went into it leading up to the 1600s and at that point the family had built up quite a plush little weekend retreat of sorts.

And equally detailed woodwork, all re-finished to period standard.

William Cavendish was an important royalist figure, being friends with James I and Charles I, then fighting as a general during the English Civil War on the side of the monarchy.

Sorry for the tilt, but I was stupidly trying to listen to the audio guide (pinched between my shoulder and ear) while trying to take pictures at the same time.

He went into exile abroad and missed getting beheaded, but linked up again with Charles II (who was also wisely in exile and who had been Cavendish’s pupil), so when the Restoration came, Cavendish got nearly all his land and property back. Not a bad deal!

Interior of the cupola

The bread ovens (fire below in the two holes, then bake in the three ovens above)

By then the wedding was over and we inadvertently blundered through the reception area, complete with tuxedoed string quartet playing Pachabel Canon in D, so somewhere out there we’re in some wedding photos, as they’re in my photos. I have a feeling that this won’t be the last time this happens. [Note from the future: ohhhh, how prophetic…]

The wedding party, from the vantage of one of the garden rooms embedded in the very thick, formidable wall running around the Little Castle enclave

I routed us to go back through Newark on Trent to see Castle Newark which we had stopped at once before but it was too early that day to get into the castle garden. Most of the castle was knocked down in the course of the English Civil War, which is second only to Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries for destroying nice historical buildings. Without them and the Victorian Cave Destroyers, this would’ve been an even more interesting island, if that’s possible.

Portion of Newark Castle from the castle gardens

Exterior of the curtain wall from the riverbank

My interest in the castle was personal as I’d set some scenes from a book there, although it was in the structure prior to the curtain wall that’s still intact now, so on the one hand it did me no good to go and see it because all my descriptions would then be utterly inaccurate, but on the other hand it cheered me up and it’s always fun to see the river.

A drawing of Newark Castle that I kept on my bulletin board above my computer for nearly a year while I wrote a novel reinterpreting the Robin Hood legend. I found it in some obscure book buried in the Strozier Library at FSU.

All in all, it was a terrific birthday weekend and I have a feeling that the day is going to lead to a really good and much improved year.

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