Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Bloggo Piccolo: A Day Trip to Winchester

In this post I am going to reference two works of art that will strike some of you, dear readers, as going from the sublime to the ridiculous. I leave it to your own judgement to decide which is sublime, which ridiculous, as we know that "ART" varies wildly from one person's taste to another's.

My first work of art is a pop tune (and I'll need my Rudy Vallee megaphone to do it justice):

"Winchester Cathedral,
you're bringin' me do-own
you stood there and watched as
my baby left town..."

No, that is not the reason I decided to visit a country town an hour's train ride west southwest of London, although I'll admit that the reason is slightly more complicated than it might seem. For indeed my prime reason to tour the country town of Winchester WAS its cathedral. Not that I'd ever been brought down by it. In my sordid past it took much less than an imposing medieval structure to bring me down, certainly as far as women are concerned! A stupid phrase, a seemingly innocent discovery, a slight misunderstanding were enough to start any relationship of mine tumbling. Which is why I retired from that field of battle many years ago.

But the cathedral at Winchester, 
Winchester Cathedral
while not as stunning, at least from a glimpse at its exterior, as those in York or Durham, two examples that I discussed in earlier postings, is historically important, and as another old rock tune goes "You can't tell a book by lookin' at its cover." That is NOT the second work of art I was referring to (thank God). Dottore Gianni is planning to keep you in suspense for a wee bit regarding numero due. I think you'll be able to tell from a photo or two that the interior is a stunner.

But first some history. Winchester was a very important city in the old days...and I mean very old days. Like York, Colchester and London, Winchester, then named Venta Belgaum, was an important city in the days of the ancient Roman empire, and similar to the others it entered a period of decline when the Romans left. But beginning in the late seventh century Winchester became the capital city of the area of England known as Wessex. 

Alfred the Great in Winchester
It remained the capital during the reign of the great Anglo-Saon King Alfred the Great, who was buried at Winchester; and even became capital of England itself until well after the Norman Conquest. It was here that William the Conqueror's book of records called The Domesday Book, was written, and it was here that William had a cathedral built just adjacent to an older church, as he did in many of the cities he now ruled over. Castles and cathedrals! The former built to display the temporal power of the new Norman rulers and to protect them from local uprisings; the latter built in the Norman, elsewhere Romanesque, style to demonstrate the spiritual power of god in general and the church in particular, and also to keep the locals looking up at heaven rather than looking around and brooding on their miserable lives.

After a time London, with its powerful position on the mighty River Thames, displaced Winchester as capital, and Winchester nestled down into a quiet country town whose mostly well-healed residents seem to enjoy, from my brief peek at the place, quite the idyllic existence.

Back to the cathedral, in fact to the interior of the cathedral, which like the old rock song and much older adage about a book and its cover, struck me as quite stunning. Before I let you enter, however, have a look above at the photo of the exterior. While it is for the most part well done -
West front of the cathedral
I like the simple but elegant west front, from where tourists and congregation enter the cathedral. It seems to me to be missing one vital element. It looks as if someone just decided to stop work on the building at some point, leaving a generally lovely structure with a squat little excuse for a tower. Rather than featuring a tall, powerful focal point, as you will see demonstrated at Durham, for example, whose cathedral was built at roughly the same time, I at least am left wondering, "Where's the rest of it?"

The interior, however, boasts the longest nave of any cathedral in Europe.
The nave of the cathedral

And it shows! In fact it soars! Not literally so tall as those in some gothic cathedrals, the nave of Winchester seems gigantic, because of its length, because of the beauty of its ribbed vaults, but also in contrast to its comparably puny-looking exterior. I visited on a beautiful sunny day, which lit the clerestory brilliantly, and that only increased the effect. 

The white walls of the nave turn dark (you can see the change at the far end of the photo just above) in the quire or choir, the oldest substantially unaltered quire of any English cathedral, whose walls abound with wood carvings of foliage and beasts. Beyond the quire  lies the great altar, and beyond that the east end houses a small Lady Chapel and two still smaller chapels, one on each side of it. In the east end there are graves of several early bishops of the cathedral, and throughout you can find graves of early English kings, including Canute.

Taken from the cathedral's quire, another look down the great
nave of Winchester Cathedral
More recently the novelist Jane Austen was buried here, and her simple stone in the floor of the north side of the nave has been embellished by a memorial on the wall of the nave, above which is a stained glass window in her honor, very nicely done in my opinion. But!

There are also panels near her grave that tell "the Jane Austen Story." You can't blame the cathedral for capitalizing on a very famous permanent tenant, but even though I'm a great fan of Austen's writing, it seems to me that telling her story, or at least the way the powers that be in the cathedral chose to tell her story, is one of the few tacky aspects to a place I otherwise greatly admired. Sell a booklet in the cathedral shop, place the story next to the cathedral cafe, but allow her stone, the memorial and the window to honor her in the cathedral's otherwise non-commercial nave.

Outside the cathedral, and I mean JUST outside the cathedral, the Winchester Christmas Market had opened less than 24 hours of my arrival, and on midday Friday it was a-bustle! 
In the shadow of the cathedral,
stalls of the Winchester Christmas Market
Much smaller, and a good bit less cheesy (though cheese was for sale in at least one stall) than Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park, the Winchester market also featured stalls of candy and chocolate, an ice-skating rink, upscale and downscale Christmas gifts, and food stalls which ranged from popcorn to full pork or turkey dinners. In fact as I first approached the cathedral I was surprised to see crowds bustling towards it. Instead of going into the cathedral, for workship or for tourism, hordes of people were heading, some of them rather rudely charging, straight for the nearby market, entered just to the right of the cathedral's west front.

After the cathedral the town itself was charming, though perhaps not so unique and packed with pleasures as the pedestrian zones in York or Brighton. In the high street there was a farmers' market, alongside stands of knick-knacks and antiques and warm things to wear. 
Farm market on Winchester's High Street

I doubt that sales of the last were going well, as we were blessed with another unusually balmy day for late November, in fact rather than being desperate for a wool scarf or socks I was wishing I had a lighter jacket on. I nearly bought some carrots, red and yellow peppers, and raspberries, as the prices were much more friendly than those in London groceries, but I didn't want to lug bags around the rest of the day, so I just strolled and nosed around the stalls, and had lunch in the shadow of the statue of Alfred the Great in a restaurant called Alfie's. 

What's it all about? Alfie's!
Not, as I first thought, named for the Michael Caine movie, but for that early king of England! I'm not sure the great Alfred would approve, although there is something endearing about so diminutive a nickname for a famous monarch. 

At Alfie's I decided on their homemade shepherd's pie, which along with most of the other "mains" was priced at a very inexpensive £6.25, washed down with a pint of a local brewery's best bitter -- and it fact the "best" was very good, in fact -- yum! In fact the whole meal turned out to be very good indeed, but I admit to being more than a bit amused by the side order that came automatically with that and just about every main dish, including lasagna: chips! 

My meal at Alfie's
A shepherd's pie consists of ground meat, in this case lamb, in gravy with a few carrots and LOTS of mashed potatoes. Adding a side of chips to this seemed to me to over-potato the meal just the least wee little bit. In the U.S. we have more than our fair share of weight problems, but the Brits are catching up -- and if they continue to serve food in this manner they may just surpass us. I had the choice of a second side as well, but rather than mashed peas, another favorite side dish here, more healthy than the combo of mashed potatoes and chips, but of a consistency that I can't quite get my fork or spoon around, I chose a salad. The young woman who took my order looked at me as if I was quite a peculiar fellow when I asked for the salad -- perhaps she'd have preferred me to add an order of hash-browns?

So! the town of Winchester, quite nice, but nothing all that special for the tourist, though it would be very nice to live there. The cathedral WAS worth the trip, but I found one added pleasure, the tiny but beautiful River Itchen, which for me really made the journey worth while.
The River Itchen
Located just outside the Roman, later medieval walls of the city, where once upon a time it served as a moat, the River Itchen is a very narrow, very clear stream of water, along which the good citizens of Winchester have placed a wide and pleasant walking path, and I found myself itchin' (roll of snare drum) to have a walk down its bank.
The river and the path alongside it
I had read that the brilliant doomed young Romantic poet, John Keats, composed his last great poem, "To Autumn" after a walk along the banks of this river, and while Keats took his walk on a mid-September day, whereas I strolled through on a day in very late autumn, I could almost instantly sense the river's inspiration for him. The poem begins:

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun..."

Lovely, but I was more taken with the first lines of the third and last stanza:

"Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too..."

Keats died only a few years after this, in his mid-20s. I, who have lived a long and often happy life, though with no accomplishments to my name that even approach this single poem of a twenty year old youth, at times find myself feeling autumnal, on occasion in a somewhat depressing way, but more frequently in a merely wistful, perhaps slightly "triste" manner. Where ARE the songs of spring? Well, I see them around me daily in the faces, attitudes and aspirations of my students. So I remain very aware of the songs of spring. My music is necessarily of a different kind, but no less lovely, I think. Ah...yes.

And there you have that promised second reference to a work of art. I hope it was worth the wait, and I hope you can guess which I consider sublime, which ridiculous.

The medieval city walls near Wolvesey Castle
AlI should end on that note, but I seldom know when to stop, so I'm going to throw caution to the winds and tell you that Winchester holds one other rather odd but not uninteresting spot to visit. Two ruined castles can be visited in Winchester. 
All I could see of Wolvesey Castle
One, Wolvesey, built in the twelfth century and home to many bishops of Winchester, was more a palace than castle, and alas could not be visited on my trip, as it is closed for winter, 

The other is Winchester Castle, and almost nothing remains of it but its Great Hall, which I saw on the way out of the old city as I headed back to the train station. It's easy to find as it sits next to Westgate, one of the medieval entrances to the city and still standing strong, if a bit incongruous at a busy modern street crossing. 
The Great Hall, on the left, and remains of
Winchester Castle
The Great Hall houses a great round table, which has long been dubbed King Arthur's Round Table, and which has been here for approximately 600 years.

Of course it's not Arthur's Round Table, as the man behind the legend lived before this castle was built. The table is displayed on the wall of the hall, and one book I read while looking up information for this post noted that it looked like a giant wheel of fortune. Forgive me if to me it looks more like a dart board for giants. Whatever it looks like, as you might imagine in the shop adjacent there are all sorts of variations on it for sale: the coaster, the serving tray, the mouse pad. Why not, after all? I nearly bought a souvenir there myself, but the price tags kept me sane.

After that I easily found Winchester's small but tidy rail station 
and almost immediately caught a train back to london, tuning out my noisy Friday afternoon fellow travelers with Bach's Orchstral Suites -- and that, in a rather substantial nutshell, is the story of my day in Winchester!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bloggo Piccolo: ICLC walk in Greenwich

Next Stop, Greenwich Village was a film about which I remember nothing but the title. I seem to remember enjoying it, but the content, alas, eludes me. However, one of my favorite days out in London is to what I call the ORIGINAL Greenwich Village"
Greenwich - the main drag
Greenwich! Known for the Old Royal Naval College, the National Maritime Museum, and the Royal Observatory, the Queen's House, a great market, the Cutty Sark (until it burned, though I understand it is being reconstructed), and most of all its pleasantly almost rural feel whilst still in Zone 2 of the London Underground. I first encountered it in fall 2005, on a Classic Walk of London, took visitors there myself on occasion, and on Saturday very much enjoyed Bill's walk!

We started at the Canary Wharf tube station. 
The futuristic Canary Wharf tube station
This itself is something to see, along with the large mall next to it and the docks areas surrounding it. From there we took the DLR to a stop near the north bank of the River Thames, from which we had a perfect if a bit sun-washed view of the Old Royal Naval College across the river.  After a chat about Greenwich, Bill took us UNDER the Thames, through a pedestrian tunnel -- great fun if a bit eerie.

We emerged in Greenwich, very near the site on which the beautiful Cutty Sark sailing ship used to stand. Actually it's still there, but under wraps, as it was closed for preservation work in 2006 and a fire destroyed much of it in 2007.  It is being painstakingly restored and is due to re-open in Spring 2012 -- as I've discovered with much of London -- under wraps, but scheduled to re-open just before the Olympics! 
The Cutty Sark when I saw it in Fall 2005
Nannie is on the masthead
It's worth chatting a bit about the ship. The Cutty Sark is the last of the tea clipper ships that sailed to the far east to fetch tea back to the English, who developed a craving for it that lasts to this day. The such last voyage occurred in 1877, but the Cutty Sark sailed on for many years after, until in 1954 it was placed on display in Greenwich.  The name, in archaic Scottish, means short nightdress, and comes from a famous poem by Robert Burns, called Tam O'Shanter."  Poor unsuspecting Tam happens to be out on a horse ride one night, when he spies a coven of witches and warlocks dancing around a fire -- the youngest and prettiest witch, Nannie, who happens to be wearing a short nightdress, catches Tam's attention and he shouts "Weel done, cutty sark!' This proves an almost deadly blunder, as Nannie tears after him and nearly catches him before he crosses the river -- witches, as any schoolboy knows, cannot pass over water. She DID grab his horse's tail and yanked it off the poor mare -- but Tam escaped.

The Greenwich Market
Our next stop was the colorful Greenwich Market, which features delicious food from all over the world - soups and stews bubbling in front of you as you enter - and all sorts of different crafts. We spent about 20 minutes shopping around in the market, right in the center of town, then headed off towards The Old Royal Naval College. 
The Old Royal Naval College from across the Thames
The area that now goes by that name began as a palace, an important one, in which for example Henry VIII was born and where he spent much of his time while married to his first two wives. He also had two navy shipyards built in the area during his reign thus the early  and continuing association with the navy. 

Later, during the era of the first Stuart monarchs, Inigo Jones designed and built the Queen's House, some slight distance from the palace itself.
The Queen's House
designed by Inigo Jones
I was told by a tour guide in fall 2005 when I first visited (and when I took the photo on the right) that the reason for this separation was so that James I could entertain his male friends in the palace while his queen could do...well, whatever she wanted in her own house!  But I've not been able to corroborate it, in fact from what I now understand James's wife Anne died before the house was ever finished. So much for believing in tour guides. I repeat the probably erroneous remark only because of its salacious content. 

By the time of the reign of William and Mary, in the late seventeenth century, that couple preferred the palace at Kensington, and at Mary's command a hospital, the Royal Naval Hospital, was built in its place. Christopher Wren was responsible, and his assistant was Nicholas Hawksmoor -- two fine architects, and it shows in the finished product. In 1873 the former hospital became the Royal Naval College, remained that until 1998, and it remains a college today, part of the University of Greenwich, with some space used for the Trinity College of Music.

The Painted Hall
The two showcases of the Hospital/College are the Painted Hall and the Chapel. The Painted Hall is literally that. James Thornhill painted ceiling and walls, including columns that seem to have depth to them but that instead are painted in the trompe de l'oeil style. It was designed as a dining hall for for the hospital, but the patients and retired seamen who stayed there proved too numerous to be fitted in the Hall.

The Chapel of St Peter and St Paul
Opposite the Painted Hall is the Chapel of St Peter and St Paul, another beautifully designed space, executed in Greek Revival style. It is open to the public daily, but also holds regular religious services. If I remember correctly, many years ago Kiri Te Kanawa sang a Christmas concert either in the Chapel or in the Painted Hall, which I saw on television and recorded, a recording sadly long lost. There was snow on the ground and the setting matched Te Kanawa's voice for beauty.

From there we trudged up the hill to The Royal Observatory, just in time to see the daily ceremony at 1 pm, when a red ball mounted on a pole rises (you have to take my word that it's rising in the photo below -- for all you know it may be dropping)

reaches the top,

then drops. 

When it hits the bottom, it is exactly 1 pm, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT). In days gone by, when the drop began in 1833, this ritual had a practical purpose for the ships in the Thames and for anyone in the area who wanted or needed to know -- you could literally set your watch or clock by it. But not everyone at that time could afford clocks or watches. Now the drop is an event to help celebrate that we are indeed at the Prime Meridian of the World: Longitude 0 degrees.

The Royal Observatory features the exact line of this prime meridian laid out on the ground:

And one can bestride it and feel for one brief shining moment like a master of the universe! I did, and it felt great:

It's actually a fascinating place, and well worth the visit. I'd been to Greenwich at least two or three times before this, and had never made the climb -- glad I did!

Oh, and the view from the observatory isn't bad either...

A view from the top - in the foreground the Queen's House and Royal Naval College;
in the distance Canary Wharf, part of the "new" London.
I for one am very glad they separated the new from the old!

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Bloggo Piccolo: A Day in Brighton

I just learned something I had not known about one of my favorite plays, The Importance of Being Earnest, by Oscar Wilde. Those theatre buffs among you will know that Ernest (in town) or Jack (in the country), Worthing has not lost his parents. Instead they seem to have lost him. When Lady Bracknell grills him, he explains that he was found in a handbag ("a handbag!?") in the cloakroom at Victoria Station, by a kind old gentleman who named him Worthing because he had a first class ticket to Worthing in his pocket at the time. The exchange, which occurs because Jack/Ernest wants to marry Lady Bracknell's daughter Gwendolyn, ends in one of the wittiest lines Wilde ever wrote, when Lady B quashes his hopes : "You can hardly imagine that I and Lord Bracknell would dream of allowing our only daughter -- a girl brought up with the utmost care -- to marry into a cloakroom, and form an alliance with a parcel. Good morning, Mr. Worthing!" During the conversation that went before, Ernest/Jack reveals that Worthing is a seaside resort, and on the Brighton Line. What I did not know is that in late nineteenth century Victoria Station consisted of two separate terminus stations, one not very nice, the other, which included the Brighton Line, much more posh and fashionable than the first. 

Beyond that bit about Brighton I knew nothing more about the town except that it is a seaside resort, and that its chief features included a great long pier 

and a wretchedly excessive Pavilion.

Imagine my surprise then as I discovered the other pleasures of the town, which lie primarily in "The Lanes," a network of tiny roads along which now lie some of the most intriguing shops and unique restaurants I have seen. 

The other great pleasure for me was that my personal tour guide through the lanes was alum Bridgett Ane (BA) Lawrence, with whom I've kept in touch and seen on several occasions since her graduation.

It wasn't all a private tour, The trip to Brighton was a one-day excursion planned by the London Center, and Bill Sheasgreen led it well. We left London from Victoria Station, still shuttling people from the huge capital to the charming seaside resort, where we were met by BA, but it was Bill who started us out with a stroll through the Lanes. 
In this fun shot, BA and DJ
clown in her yoga studio

BA took us up to the very impressive Bikram Yoga center that she owns, runs, and actively teaches in, and a few of the students indicated that they might well return for a class before the semester ends. Then Bill led us from the Lanes to the sea. It was a cloudy, somewhat blustery day, and the channel was a bit choppy, but the students took to the beach delightedly. One of them said that she had been living for months on an island, and had never until now been to its coast.

From the pebble-filled shore we walked to the pier, a wonderfully tacky place, with fairly usual arcades, amusement park rides, and places to eat. Very little of it was open for business on a pretty but brisk November day, and a weekday at that. But the students seemed to enjoy it and I certainly did. 
Group shot on the beach, pier in background
Our next stop was to the Pavilion, an extravagant pleasure palace built for the Prince of Wales in the late eighteenth century. 
Students outside the Royal Pavilion

When Dottore Gianni first cast eyes on it his  initial impression was that it must have been modeled in part on the Taj Mahal, indeed it seems that primary architect John Nash was inspired somewhat by India, somewhat by the vogue for "chinoiserie" rampant in the 18th century -- the Orient constructed by people who had never seen the Orient. This fantasia on the "oriental" world that will strike some as a lovely dream, and others as a scary nightmare, some as exquisite, others as ridiculously tacky.  No photos are allowed inside, but if you happen to be in London you too might desire such a day trip -- you can easily take in the beach and pier, The Royal Pavilion and the Brighton Lanes from mid-morning until late afternoon as we did.

BA and DJ at The Basketmakers Arms
After the Pavilion I had BA to myself for a while, and she took me through The Lanes via the Theatre Royal to a wonderful little pub called the Basketmakers Arms. The food was excellent as was the local ale -- we had the amusingly called Buttcombe Bitter -- but the neatest thing about the place was on its walls. These are literally packed with vintage signs, photos and other bric a brac, including a wide variety of little tins which, when opened, will frequently reveal a message written by a previous customer. You're welcome to leave your own message as well, and if I hadn't been so taken with BA's conversation I would have done so. But we were busy catching up and I'm not sure what I'd have written anyway - whatever takes your fancy! Next time...

After lunch we strolled through more of The Lanes, and had a very nice cuppa tea, sitting outside on a day that had turned not sunny but wonderfully mild. Some students bumped into us there and had a short chat with us as well, and then BA took me back to the train station and I caught the 4:19 back to London.

No "Worthing" on this journey, and the Brighton Line is not what you'd call an up-scale service today, but the city, the sea, the lanes, even the crazy pavilion in Brighton are not to be missed.

One last note about the theatrical aspect of the Brighton Line, that only the best and brightest of theatre buffs will know: Dottore Gianni played Jack Worthing once many years ago -- and he was very good!

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Bloggo Trentesimo: York, la terza e ultima parte: The rest of Saturday and finally Sunday in York

After my return from Durham to York I did very little for the rest of the day, besides writing and preparing photos for the blog – could have published it by now, but of course I have no access to internet. I went out for an aimless walk, first to the old center, decorated for Christmas,
York lights up for Christmas
then to the street called The Shambles, the oldest street in town, where in the middle ages butchers plied their trade; 
The Shambles
finally in search of dinner. I walked for too long a time and looked at too many places. Finally decided on the Pizza Express, nicely situated on the river, but once in found it so hot and uncomfortable that I left immediately. After a bit more searching and encountering the rowdy youth of York, most of them smashed, I decided that I wasn’t all that hungry and stopped at the Sainsbury’s where I bought a mixed salad, a fruit salad, a mini-bottle of wine, some cheese and bread, and swinger that I am (Sinatra put it well in a song called “Saturday Night is the Loneliest Night of the Week” except that I never remember a Saturday night "when my sweetie and I used to dance cheek to cheek") had dinner in my room, listening to good jazz. It was the healthiest meal I have had on the trip! I even avoided the slight urge to get myself downstairs to the bar and have a pint as a nightcap. It had been a long day and I had a good night’s sleep.

Saturday had been a beautiful day. Sunday was not. I was the first one down to breakfast, again, had another feast, went back up to the room to write for a bit, then headed out into a drizzle unlike that encountered in the U.S. It seems almost nothing, the drops are like micro-drops compared to the average U.S. drops of drizzle (how’s this for a scientific explanation?) and yet it soaks. 
The River Ouse, with rowers
I walked along the river for a while, then headed back into town, where I was lucky enough to catch the beginning of the Remembrance Day Parade; 
Remembrance Day Parade

York’s veterans taking part in a march through some of the nicest sections of town. Then at 11 am, while I was haggling with a guy in the open air market about the price of Harris Tweed jackets, a moment of silence from the entire city. They take 11 November very seriously here. England was hit very hard, literally as well as figuratively, by both world wars and has lost many young people since in more recent wars in which they allied themselves with us.

Then I wandered, shopping for a bit but resisting the urge to buy. I was not hungry enough for lunch so I decided, drizzle or not, to attack the rest of the town’s medieval walls. While I did not quite finish them completely I had a good walk, and many others seemed to be doing the same. It really wasn’t all that bad in the mist and drizzle, and once again I got my exercise for the day. 
Walking the city walls on a drizzly, misty day
I had some cheese and bread left over from Saturday night (that loneliest night of the week), so returned to the hotel and finished it, wrote a bit, bought a few gifties for the staff at the London Center, then headed back to The Three-Legged Mare. I won’t repeat that story, for you should remember it from my fast-forward in the blog on Durham – one word should suffice – Micklegate!

Oh! But I DO have one story to tell about the Three-Legged Mare. I was about halfway through my Micklegate, when I saw a guy outside wearing very interesting bright multicolored pants (obviously a musician) wheeling a piano down the street (definitely a musician), and stopping in front of the bar. He brought a chair in, went back outside, got someone on the street’s attention, the two of them lifted the piano and he rolled it to the back of the pub. This was not an electric piano, granted also not a baby grand, but an old stand-up – a substantial instrument not usually known for portability. When he emerged from the back of the pub he smiled at me, I smiled at him, and he left. And absolutely no one else thought a thing of it, or at least no one seemed to, as none of them even looked up!

Were they ALL drinking Micklegate? Or was it my own private fantasy? Elwood P Dowd is friends with Harvey, a Puka (for those of you who don’t know the play, Harvey is the title character, a six foot tall white rabbit, and no one can see him but Elwood), so I could well have just experienced my own private version of Harvey. After all, I’ve played Elwood, very well I might add, and if I do say it myself -- after all, who will if I don't? Who knows? Maybe the musician could be named Harvey! Probably he’s playing there tonight – at least I’d HOPE that’s the reason. I’m thinking of heading back there after dinner, but I worry that I might find him there, playing the hell out of the piano, and that I am the only one who even notices.

I am now back in my room, having finished my tea and cake, and awaiting my 5:30 pm dinner reservation. Thirty-two minutes to go, but who besides me is counting?

Back for my last post (unless something eventful happens, which is highly doubtful). I had a delicious pork roast with gravy, dressing mashed potatoes, vegetables, washed down by an ale – too stuffed for dessert. Had a walk after dinner, yes, to the Three-Legged Mare! 
The Three-Legged Mare and the Minster
And sure enough, when I approached, the sound of piano music filled the air – but not in the pub! I peeked in, saw only a few people sitting around drinking, and walked on, towards the music. 
The piano man at the Minster

It was THE piano all right, but sitting at it was a much older man, playing sweet music, medleys of old tunes, not brilliantly but well enough, outside, just in front of the Minster. The man with the brightly colored pants was not a musician after all, but a techie; the pub the temporary storage place for the piano, delivered about 100 yards away, for the Three-Legged Mare is but a stone’s throw from the great Minster. An old man, playing in the dark for as far as I could see, no one but me. I tipped him, he thanked me, I thanked him, and on that lovely note, I strolled back to the hotel.

There I did some more work, tried to find something interesting to watch on television, which, because of Remembrance Day was featuring old war films (The Great Escape, for example – a great movie, but how many times now have I seen it?), finally found a news show, then decided to head downstairs for one last pint and crisps. To my great surprise the joint was jumpin’ at 8 pm of a Sunday evening. I sat at the bar and chatted with the rather cool young woman who had checked me in on Friday – a horsewoman, used to teach riding.

As we were talking two women some years older than I headed to the bar for a last drink. I had chatted with them briefly earlier in the weekend, at dinner on Friday night. At that time I felt a bit like I was in a version of Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, as they were at one, I nearby at another, and a third couple, completely silent, were at a third, along with at least fifteen empty tables. A quiet night at the inn. The two of them giggled when I ordered a large glass of wine and we joked briefly about how I’d never get up for breakfast after that one, but I noticed they were putting it away as well. I couldn’t tell how much older than I they were, but they were talking about dating young boys in the war, so they could have been in their early eighties. To continue my theattical analogy, they might have been Aunt Abby and Aunt Martha in Arsenic and Old Lace. They were feisty.

I’ve frequently noticed on my travels two older English women traveling together – widows perhaps – or Gertrude Stein along with Alice B? – ready to charge forward every morning – tough old birds. We started chatting at the bar again last night, as I noticed one of them had ordered a lemonade. I thought, “How quaint,” but then I heard her companion, who was doing the ordering, ask what kind of whiskey she wanted in it – lemonade laced with Famous Grouse!

We jabbered about this, that and the other – they’d been friends for fifty-one years, one from the north of England, another from the south, and occasionally they would meet in the middle for a reunion. And then I said good night, secretly wishing it was the attractive young equestrienne to whom I was bidding adieu. I did wave good-night to her from a distance, but as I was climbing the stairs I realized that I may have blown it! The two older women were ripe for my fantasy plan – marry an old British woman and become a permanent resident! I’d missed my chance! Particularly when the one who'd ordered the "lemonade" said to me, "I never see the need for ice in a drink, just waters it down." An old woman after my own heart! 

And on that only slightly rueful and more than a little tongue-in-cheek note, I end my notes on my topsy-turvy weekend in York and Durham.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Bloggo Trentesimo: York, la seconda parte: Durham day trip

I must begin with a confession. While Dottore Gianni the experienced traveler was writing the last sentences of the last post he was also missing his train to Durham! I’d convinced myself that it left at 10 am (which IS the time my train leaves for London on Monday), but at about 8:58 when I checked my ticket I saw that my train left at… 8:58!
York Rail Station

After a bit of pounding my head against the wall I told myself that, no matter what, I really should get to Durham. I rushed to the rail station and obtained a ticket in minutes, for a train that left in minutes, at 9:33. Granted I lost the great deal that I’d got with my senior rail card fare, but because of the senior rail card I paid only 14 pounds for the ticket (would have been 21 pounds if I paid as an adult) – so I lost some money, but it was certainly worth the extra expense, as Durham proved quite a delight!

Durham is about 45 minutes north of York by train, on the way there is a shift in geography. The Durham Rail Station sits on an elevated piece of land that looks down over the city, and across to Durham Castle and the great Durham Cathedral. 
Durham Castle and Cathedral
from just below the rail station

The path from the station to the city is very well marked, and meanders down several sets of steps, that I realized I’d have to climb again when I was set to leave. There were also buses, sorry – coaches, but having finally got to Durham I was ready for an adventure, and a good walk.

As one descends into the city he, (I, Dottore Gianni in this case), becomes quickly and clearly aware that he will have to walk up again to the cathedral and castle. But that walk is made very pleasant by the bridge spanning the River Wear high above it and the old town area through which the route lies. This route is of course filled with shops, many of the same chains that one sees in most English urban areas, along with other local shops and many cafes and restaurants and pubs as well as the chains like Pizza Express, Café Rouge, etc.

I approached the central square, called Market Square, from below it. 
Market Square, Durham

Upon entering found myself thinking I might be in a Tuscan hill town in Italia (Dottore Gianni’s spiritual home) rather than in a British city centre. It’s a square of some size, with an equestrian statue in the middle and a sort of slant to the roadway that reminded me a tad of Arezzo, one of my favorite cities in Tuscany. I almost expected to look to my left upon entering and find the colonnade built in Arezzo by Vasari. But of course Durham is not an Italian Renaissance town and I shook off the theory that I’d closed my eyes and suddenly landed elsewhere in Europe.

The central statue is that of a man named Charles William Vane Tempest Stewart,
 the third Marquess of Londonderry (a lot of name!). I was curious to see what he had to do with Durham. In my research I discovered that "Tempest" was a soldier of some note, fighting in the Napoleonic wars, an ambassador to Vienna and St Petersburg, but I had to dig for the Durham connection. It seems he married a woman of wealth and property from Durham and is known principally in the area for building a coal port so that the city could compete in trade with its rivals/ Then I found this:

"The sculptor of Londonderry was Signor Raphael Monte did not, as is aften thought commit suicide owing to the discovery of a flaw in his creation by a blind beggar man. Legend has it that Monti boasted that no one could find a flaw with his statue until one day a blind man pointed out that the horse had no tongue by feeling inside its mouth The legend -- is a legend."  Does anyone else find that tale a tad amusing?

In any case, true to the name of the square, a farm market, along with stalls of odds and ends surrounds the statue, and I strolled through it quickly to have a look. There is a very large indoor market as well, which I just peeped into, but I was not there to shop (though I could not resist stopping into my favorite chain clothing store, Edinburgh Woollen Mills (it’s wool and it’s cheap), which was having a sale and yes from which I bought two items – AFTER my pilgrimage to Durham Cathedral.

Just above Market Square one can choose to walk downward again to another and I assumed more modern part of town or up. So upward I strode, for of course that way lay the cathedral. The road was arranged on a sort of curve so that the climb was not as difficult as I’d first imagined. And there, after a walk along very narrow walkways and cobbled lanes, the cathedral stood, or rather towered. The castle next to it is of some size, but seems dwarfed by the solid mass of this great Norman (elsewhere in Europe it would be called Romanesque) structure. It overwhelmed me from a distance when I got a quick glimpse of it on my first rail journey to Edinburgh back in the fall of 1999, it had continued to overwhelm from the rail station and all the way through Durham as I walked towards it, and once I was on ground level to that on which it was built the cathedral did not disappoint. 
Durham Cathedral
from the very edge of the Place Green

I’m not good with measurements, and I’d have been helped by accurate models placed side by side of the many cathedrals I’ve seen on my travels through Europe, but Durham Cathedral, founded in 1093, is without question a colossus. Part of its powerful effect on me comes from my having seen more European cathedrals built a bit later, during the Gothic phase of construction, which, through flying buttresses created a sense of airiness and height (as if reaching towards heaven) that solid Norman/Romanesqe cathedrals like Durham lacked. But what Norman cathedrals lack in lightness they more than make up for in sturdy mass, creating to my mind the effect of the powerful force of the Church on earth more than an airy aspiration towards God above. And this is the largest Norman cathedral (i.e. in the U.K.) of them all, and one of the most massive that can be found anywhere in Europe.

One would generally enter a cathedral from the west, where the two matching smaller towers of the church are situated, but they look out over the chasm through which the River Wear runs below. Instead one enters through the North Door smaller than one might expect, but here the interesting history of Durham Cathedral begins. My attention was drawn to a monumental knocker, in the shape of a rather frightening face, called the Sanctuary Knocker. 

Sanctuary knocker,
Durham Cathedral
In the medieval era anyone who had committed some serious offence or other could knock and be admitted and protected from outside authorities for up to 37 days, at which time they had to stand trial or leave the country by the nearest port. I immediately envisioned Quasimodo, crying “Sanctuary!” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. On that dramatic note (or scream) one enters a building as startling in its interior as in its outside. Friendly greeters chatted with me, explaining the places to see, also reminding visitors that this is one of the few cathedrals that remains free to visit, all the while encouraging, and rightly so, a donation.

Lady Chapel, Durham Cathedral

I chose to head first into the Galilee or Lady Chapel, near the entrance, at the western edge of the cathedral. I’d seen Lady Chapels before, but not usually in this location. I’d always thought they were chapels devoted to the Virgin Mary, and perhaps they are, but the cathedral brochure explained that for many years this was a Benedictine monastery as well, until 1539, and during those years the Lady Chapel was the only area in which women could worship. So! “There’s a double meaning in that…” The chapel was added in 1189. It’s a lovely little place, and was the first indication on my visit of the excellent modern art which stands side by side with the early work. An lovely abstract statue of the Annunciation by Josef Pyrz, a Polish sculptor working in Paris, stands in the middle of the chapel. It was here that I was politely but sternly reminded that I was not allowed to take photos in the cathedral. I’d not seen a sign to this effect or I’d not have tried, but obeyed from that moment on. Otherwise I might have been struck by lightning, God’s fire!

It was too bad about the no photo policy, for I don’t have words fine enough to describe the interior. A great nave, with a much higher and more elegant ceiling than I’d have imagined, looked towards the quire (Choir), where a chorus was rehearsing for what seemed to be quite a concert for which technical elements were being set up. So I was able to hear the organ and a wonderful group of voices that made the visit even more impressive than if it had been a silent one. While the stained glass windows along the nave were destroyed during the Protestant Reformation in the early sixteenth century, many were replaced with new stained glass in the Victorian era and others were replaced in the 1950s, one of them as a memorial to the Royal Air Force.

Behind the quire was as usual the great altar, and just behind that the tomb of and memorial to St Cuthbert, the greatest saint of the north, bishop of Lindisfarne (holy island). He died in 687 and an Anglo-Saxon shrine was built to house his body. The shrine became a place of pilgrimage in the middle ages, and to an extent remains one now.

Another very important body is buried in Durham Cathedral: that of the Venerable Bede, the scholar who wrote the first history of England. He died in 735 and his bones were brought to the cathedral in 1022. The shrine to the Venerable Bede is in the Lady Chapel, and I was just about to photograph it until I was warned not to. (gentle hand-slap)
Cloisters, Durham Cathedral
scenes for Harry Potter films shot here

I visited the cloisters next, an area from which I could snap a few photos, also an area that houses the restaurant that was once the wine cellar of the monks. I looked at the menu, but then decided that I could make the climb to the tower – 325 steps up, and as one of the docents reminded me, just as many down. They had a set of beads and when anyone went up to the tower they moved a bead over. He explained that once an elderly couple had climbed to the top and sat down to look at the views. They fell asleep and very fortunately for them awakened during Evensong. Had they not they would have spent the night aloft, with no one in the cathedral realizing it. Thus the beads!
View from Tower, Durham Cathedral
castle etc spread out below
I have said this before, will probably say it again: I can walk forever on a flat but make me climb and I huff and I puff and I sweat and I sweat! I did so on this occasion but made it to the top and was rewarded with terrific views, which my point and shoot camera style will not adequately capture. But I loved it, had my aerobic workout for the day, and when I returned to the nave they pushed my bead back into the correct column.
View from Tower, Durham Cathedral

For my reward I treated myself to lunch at the restaurant. I find myself still wishing I’d gone for the beef stew, which looked absolutely delicious, but I settled for a wonderful lentil vegetable soup and a sandwich (£3.50 for the lot!). The pint of Durham Ale brewed specially for the cathedral: St Cuthbert Special Pale Ale 6.5% alcohol. This is a religion I could believe in! In fact the alcohol content is just a tad higher than the pint I had an hour ago at my favorite pub in York, and maybe in the world, The Three-Legged Mare. I usually go for the 4.2% Yorkshire Terrier, but this afternoon I had need of the Micklegate which weighs in at 6.1% -- that and a pack of crisps (potato chips) with sea salt and I was…well, ready for whatever the rest of the day might bring upon me, which fortunately is not much! I’m now sobering up with tea and an afternoon cake that seems laced with whiskey, after which I will stumble back down the stairs to the restaurant to have the Sunday roast – will I choose lamb, roast beef, pork or gammon (what the hell is gammon, anyway?)? But more of that after I’ve et it!

But back, distractedly, to Durham. After lunch I had had my fill of food, and of the cathedral, though I probably could have whiled away more time at one of the most interesting of the many cathedrals I have spent time in. 
The river below the cathedral
So I strolled down to the banks of the river, looked in at the college housed in cathedral grounds, then made my way back to the old town to make a purchase or two (it ended up being both) at The Edinburgh Woollen Mills – a flannel shirt and a sweater, both on very good sales, both needed to fill out my sparse winter wardrobe. I strolled around a tad longer, wishing for a moment that I’d chosen to spend a night or two there -- what a great day trip! But knew I had chosen well in York, if not wisely in my hotel, and climbing back to the train station – after the 325 steps to the top of the cathedral tower it was simple – caught my train back to York, listening to Haydn on the way.