The Cotswolds

 

The Cotswolds are perhaps one of the most delightful areas of England. Filled with rolling green vistas, grazing sheep, fields of lavender, and quaint farmhouses the area is picture postcard delightful. We left the highway and journeyed down narrow lanes that were often devoid of traffic save for ourselves. We traveled slowly and almost aimlessly, enjoying whatever came our way, and stopping often to soak in the beauty.

The landscape was awash with wild flowers of every sort that captured our fancy and our interest. We seemed to stop every few miles to take more photos of what we saw. Along the way we encountered a trio of horses who immediately came over to greet my sister-in-law Allison when she called them to the fence that kept them corralled. They we beautiful animals and quite friendly as well. They enjoyed a snack of apples from the bag of fruit that we had brought along. It was such a delightful moment that we might have tarried much longer but we wanted to see as much of this lovely area as possible before the sun set.

Soon enough we came upon a little town called Stow on the Wold. It was a sheep shearing day but we never quite found the place where that was being done. Instead we wandered into the little town where we came upon a sweet antique shop that was filled with quite remarkable items. I found yet another piece of Willow Ware for my collection, a large platter for serving perhaps a Sunday roast. There were also some sweet framed sets of embroidered birds. My sister-in-law Becky and I liked them so much that I purchased four and she bought the remaining four along with a gorgeous antique tea set. I also found a child’s teapot for my niece, a trinket box for my granddaughter and a small dish for my daughter. Our men folk were rolling their eyes and wondering how we were going  to get all of the things into our suitcases and onto the plane for our return trip, but I already had a plan.

We had searched high and low for a tea towel or other such memento of baby Archie’s birth all to no avail when suddenly we found exactly what we wanted inside a toy shop that featured some of the most unique items that I had seen anywhere. I was also drawn to a little black sheep ornament that I decided to buy for the travel tree that I decorate each Christmas. It reminded me of the peacefulness of this part of England, but also of the hilarity of our conversations inside the car as we laughed our way down impossibly narrow roadways.

Sooner that we might have liked we left Stow on the Wold and continued our drive toward Chipping Campden, a small market town in the Gloustershire district of the Cotswolds. We were quite taken by the cottages with thatched roofs that seemed to be everywhere. Sweet English gardens stood in front of them making them seem to be right out of a fairytale. We wondered who the folks were who were lucky enough to enjoy living in such a picturesque place. It felt as though each new scene was more breathtaking than the next.

Before leaving the back roads we purchased some lavender products and walked through another quaint town but all too soon we were back on the main highway heading toward the hotel where we planned to stay the night in Cheltenham. We were quite excited to find that the Malmaison was a boutique inn that had fused old architecture with modern decor. It was far more lovely than we had imagined when we had made our reservations months before.

For some reason we were all craving Chinese food and we found a five star Cantonese restaurant not far from where we were staying. It featured a lovely setting that felt more like a perfect spot for a high tea with its chintz chairs, starched white table clothes, and delicate English china. Happily the food was scrumptious and the service was even better. We left quite satisfied and drove around town for a bit just to see what it was like.

We were quite tired from the day’s journey so we retired and slept peacefully in our beautifully appointed rooms. We rose early and ate breakfast at the hotel. We enjoyed eggs benedict, hot tea, and an assortment of rolls and jams. It was all quite yummy which ended up being fortunate because it would be many hours before we ate again. We were off and running toward Bath where we hoped to see the Roman structures built around the natural hot springs of the city.

Somehow we all agreed that we really wanted to spend more time in the Cotswolds just hiking and maybe even sitting on a porch taking in the views. It seemed too soon to be leaving such a spectacular area and somehow we secretly pledged ourselves that we might one day return until then we would have to be satisfied with our photographs and the sweet memories that filled our heads.

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A Road Less Travelled

Robin Hood's Bay

We had planned our trip to England so that we might make the most of every minute of every day. After all, we might never be able to return again, so we did not want to waste time. Nonetheless we had left some leeway with our road trip to York, so when two different people from the area insisted that we travel to Robin Hood’s Bay before returning to the big city we thought it would be a nice diversion. We had little idea how impressive and memorable our little side trip would be.

Robin Hood’s Bay is an old fishing town and historically the site of smugglers and who knows what sort of mischief. It is just a bit more than an hour northeast of London sitting on waters that lead into the North Sea. These days it is a sleepy little place filled with tourists, retired folk, and those who have opted for a quieter way of living. Every inch of the town was filled with flowers and interesting buildings on the day that we visited. The people were open and enthusiastic about welcoming us to their little town so we felt right at home from the start.

We easily found a public car park and began a stroll through a different and lovely way of life. We first encountered a group of older folk playing a game of bowls on a lovely village green. We weren’t quite sure of the rules of the game, but it was fun to watch for a time. Because the lure of adventure was calling we soon continued with our exploration, walking leisurely past beautifully manicured homes and sweet inns were people sat enjoying the glory of a perfectly beautiful day.

Soon we reached a point where the shoreline was surrounded by imposing cliffs and the view appeared to stretch all the way to Norway which we learned was about five hundred miles away as the crow flies. It was quiet and breathtaking there, and we felt compelled to just stand in awe of the striking landscape. Of course we took multiple photos while we contemplated the grandeur of the spot and as we stood frozen in awe my own mind raced to thoughts of the people who had come ashore from places far away as well as those who may have launched their boats in search of fish or some grand excitement. I felt as though I might be willing to stay in that place for the remainder of my days simply enjoying the bounty of nature and the largess of the people in a quiet yet exhilarating respite from the craziness of the world.

We continued our exploration on a pathway that led to inviting little shops and eateries. One place in particular caught our attention. It was a store called Bertie’s that featured unique woolen clothing. The items for sale were quite different from anything we had seen and they were both stunning and reasonably priced. We learned from the proprietor that the styles were all based on the nautical history of the town. The sweaters featured a knit pattern created specifically for the area. In olden times when sailors were lost at sea it was often difficult to identify them after they had been in the water for a time. Their bodies would become bloated and unrecognizable. To be certain that they would be respectfully returned home the women began creating different weaves for different places. The clothing would immediately identify from whence a lost soul had originally come. Then it was a fairly easy matter to determine who the person was.

My sister-in-law Becky and I were particularly taken by the sweaters made of British wool and we decided to each purchase one. She chose an olive green and I wanted one done in burgundy. It had grown quite chilly outside so we decided to wear our lovely new garments while we continued to walk through the town. With her tiny figure and her long dark hair and sunglasses she was exceptionally stunning. 

We strolled all the way to the end of a pathway that meandered through the village where once again met up with the water. What had been a comfortable downhill journey became a bit more difficult when we trudged back up the hill as the day began to draw to a close. At the top of the rise we saw a little eatery boasting that it served the best fish and chips served anywhere. We were unable to resist the delicious aroma wafting in the air and we were famished, so we each procured an order and sat at a picnic table overlooking the enchanting views. The food was indeed as good as advertised and we wolfed it down through animated conversation and lots of laughs. 

We finished our visit by speaking with a resident who had come to Robin Hood’s Bay to live with his son. He was quite an interesting man and we might have tarried longer to hear his story but it was growing late and we knew that our return trip to London would take us almost five hours. It was time to say goodbye to Robin Hood’s Bay even though we hated to leave.

As we rode in the dark we spoke of a dream of one day returning to one of the inns and securing a seaside view. It sounded quite delightful to simply sit for a week or so relaxing and enjoying the landscape. We each carried the image in our minds and reveled in the joy that we had shared on our serendipitous side trip. Our road less travelled had been one of the highlights of the trip and we knew that we would never surely never forget how wonderful it had been.

They Live On

York Minister is a glorious example of medieval craftsmanship and mankind’s efforts to glorify the religious experience through great feats of art and engineering. It is also one of the most remarkable repositories of stained glass windows which tell stories of the past and provide a look into the humorous nature of humans. Located in the city of York north of London it is a grand architectural marvel that is alive with the tales of the people who built it. In its pillars, massive windows and fanned ceilings are quirky little jewels of commentary about the way things once were. It has withstood wars, fires and the erosion of time, but still stands as a voice of determination to overcome life’s setbacks and vagaries.

Our tour of York Minster was hosted by a lovely woman who had once been a teacher but is now retired and spending her time as a volunteer in the church where she worships. She was as interesting a character as the building itself with her distinctive northern England accent and her teacher like attention to interesting details. She delighted us with insights into what York Minster meant to the people who built it and the parishioners who worship there today.

York Minster is even more massive than Westminster Abbey. Over time one section after another was added to the original plan creating a space filled with chapels and archways beyond the main worship area. The medieval workers left their own quirky messages to the future in the shape of monkeys, political jokes, dragons and other features that speak of a different time.

The church began as a Catholic edifice that included statues and homages to the Virgin Mary that were later destroyed by protestants who believed such icons to be sacrilegious. Only one small image of Mary remains, somehow left unnoticed by those intent on removing any signs of such reverence. It has the typical structure of such churches with a high altar separated from the area for worshipers by the choir section that was being renovated at the time of our visit. Much of the stained glass has been taken apart, cleaned and reinforced with modern methods that alleviate the dark black lead that distracts from the lightness of the colored glass. The cost of such projects runs into the hundreds of millions of dollars and the upkeep of the grand building is a constant effort to insure that the ravages of time do not cause the building to deteriorate.

York Minster has had a number of devastating fires and the caretakers of the building have a keen understanding of how to rebuild after such disasters. At the present time they are offering their expertise on such matters to those charged with repairing Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Our guide assured us that it will indeed be possible to rebuild the damaged areas of Notre Dame, but she is convinced that it will take far longer than the four years that has been set as a goal for the project. She noted that the process of renovating an historical treasure must by its very nature be painstakingly careful and slow to insure that everything is done properly.

York Minster has only one saint that pilgrims of old came to see. His is an interesting story born from a need to attract visitors and with them monetary offerings to take care of the expense of keeping up the grand structure. Way back in time there was a bridge over a nearby river that collapsed sending a crowd of people in the water. When it was discovered that none of the victims of the disaster died the incident was deemed a miracle and the thinking was that a local cleric was surely the reason for this wonderful outcome and so he was declared a saint. Thus York Minster had its own patron saint and the pilgrims began to come. Other than that the crypt in the basement is the eternal resting place of the remains of mostly local dignitaries and heroes who were not familiar to me.

Perhaps the most touching moment of the tour of York Minster came when my husband Mike revealed that he had recorded the voice of our guide because she sounded so much like his Granny. I had never met the woman who held such a special place in his heart. She had died while he was still in high school. Nonetheless I had heard so much about her bubbly personality and her kindness to everyone who was acquainted with her. I had learned of her journey to Texas from Newcastle England when she was only eight years old. I knew that she had been proud of her English roots and had never again seen her homeland. She enjoyed afternoon tea and prepared roast beef and Yorkshire pudding on Sundays. She was a devout Episcopalian who wore lovely dresses, stockings, hats and gloves for her weekly shopping trips to downtown Houston. Mike adored her as did all of her many friends and family members. Her legacy lived long after she had died at a rather young age. What I had never realized is that she had retained her English accent even after years of living in Texas. It was a special treat to now have a better idea of how she sounded when she spoke and to truly understand how important her English roots had been.

For Mike the trip to England was a kind of pilgrimage in its own right. He felt his Granny’s spirit everywhere that we traveled and he liked to think that she was smiling down on him as he thought, “Granny here I am at last!” Now I too have a better idea of who this remarkable woman had been and of the history of people from my own background as well. I sensed their struggles and their determination throughout the passage of time and into the present. I know that their sacrifices and hard work have led to my own good fortune, and I somehow hear the voices of all of the people who came before me. I have a better feel for the hopes and dreams that are so present in the things that they built and the customs that they developed. Now I believe that they live on and always will.

The White Rose of York

The Shambles

York is about a four hour drive north of London by car or two hours by train. It has a history as long and important as London, and was home to three kings. The House of York was a branch of the Plantagenets, represented by a white rose. The dynasty was troubled by war and ended with the death of Richard III and the rise of the Tudors. It was once a bustling city of great power lined with shops and industry. The Romans had a settlement there, and much of the wall that they built still stands. It is a unique place well worth the effort in getting there.

We set out for York on a Tuesday morning and arrived by early afternoon. Brother Pat was so adept at driving on the highways by then that we were rather carefree on the journey, spending most of our time enjoying the the landscape which became more and more magnificent the farther north we traveled.

We had rented a flat for the night in York that housed all six of us. It boasted a full kitchen, three large bedrooms, two baths and a living area all for less than two hundred pounds a day. It was clean and modern and within walking distance of all of the major attractions. We all agreed that we had done well in finding it even though we were generally unfamiliar with the area, relying only on photos to give us an idea of what we were getting.

Since we had tickets to visit York Minster, a magnificent medieval church, the following day we headed to the old town area known as the Shambles. Some say that it’s ancient cobbled streets lined with quaint shops were the inspiration for Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories. The hooks where butchers once hung their meat still hand over the walkways, and the tiny stores are filled with all sorts of interesting delights.

At the edge of the old town area was an open market place where vendors sold baked goods, antiques, jewelry, crafts, and even fresh meat. I came upon some Willow Ware dishes that included teacups, plates, a pitcher and a bowl. They were exactly like the traditional ones that I collect save for a different hue of blue. I was quite taken by them and knew that I had to purchase them when the seller offered the entire set to me for only twenty two pounds. It was a real bargain.

As she bubble wrapped each dish for me we spoke of York and the things to do there. Then she mentioned that if we had time we should definitely take a short side trip to a place called Robin Hood’s Bay that was just east of the area on the North Sea. She explained that she always took visitors there because it is a unique and beautiful place. By the time I was ready to leave with my purchases she had convinced me that we needed to find a way to include the town as one of our destinations.

We spent the rest of the afternoon visiting Christmas stores, sampling fudge, sipping on tea, eating ice cream, and laughing in magic shops. I purchased several art prints of both York Minster and the Shambles to go with the pictures from other cities that I have gathered over the years. I felt as though I really was in another world in another place and time until we eventually found our way back onto modern streets.

We decided to cook some spaghetti for dinner, so we purchased some fresh ground beef, known as crumbly beef in England, from the open market meat vendor, some fresh loaves of bread from a little bakery, and the rest of our food from a tiny grocery store. We walked back to our flat enjoying the beautiful weather and the flowers that seemed to be blooming everywhere.

It was a very pleasant stroll even with our heavy parcels. By then we had grown accustomed to walking  several miles each day, and the views in York were particularly enchanting. I saw trees, bushes and flowers unlike any that I have ever known and we all stopped often to snap images of the loveliness that was so bountiful.

We spent the evening enjoying a great meal made by my brother Pat. His skills in firefighting and driving are only outdone by his abilities as a chef. We ate his home cooked meal with gusto and then we played games and laughed and joked until late into the night. It is amazing how relaxed we had become and how much we had adapted to a slower way of life. It felt as though we had landed in a happy little bubble where there were no problems, and no bad feelings. Everything and everyone seemed as quaint as the programs on PBS that feature little villages where folks are friendly and life unfolds at a slower pace.

Of course we understood that real England is no doubt different from vacation England. We had set aside all of our worries and cares for a time, but indeed they must exist for those who live there. Still, it was nice to be free from any sort of concerns and to just live fully and happily in the  moment. Best of all was the opportunity to spend so much time with my brothers and sister-in-laws. There is something quite magical about sharing a trip with people that I love. The memories will now and forever bring a smile to my face.

We retired that evening feeling quite content but also excited about visiting the magnificent church that so dominates York. We were also more than curious about what we might find if we actually decided to travel to Robin Hood’s Bay.

A Town by a River

Kings College Chapel

Some time back when I was teaching in South Houston I mentioned to my students that Duke University would be an excellent choice for college. A young man laughed hilariously and corrected me as though he thought I was showing great ignorance, “Mrs. Burnett, Duke isn’t a college! It’s a basketball team!”

Of course I was stunned by his lack of knowledge, but I suppose that each of us sometimes demonstrates ignorance about certain things. I got my own comeuppance when visiting the town of Cambridge, England. For most of my life I had thought that the place known as Cambridge was just the land where a prestigious university stood, rather than a center of work and home for regular people. I had little idea that there was a Cam river across which a bridge was built that may have given the place its name. It wasn’t until I was watching Granchester on PBS that I realized how little I actually knew about the city of Cambridge, England.

On the second day of our great road trip adventures we headed to Cambridge. It’s quaintness and the friendliness of its citizens struck us almost immediately as we attempted to operate a parking meter. A kindly meter man approached and showed us how we might get a refund on the money we had already put into the machine. Instead he suggested that we go closer to the center of town where we would have unlimited time to park without having to worry about feeding the meter again and again. It ends up that he was originally from Poland but had chosen Cambridge as his home many years earlier when he had become a huge fan of the place and a source of great information.

With his advice in mind we set out in search of the city center noting the rolling green parks, the quaint homes, and the general neatness of Cambridge. As we walked down the main street we had a real sense of the people who lived and worked there, as well as the pride they had for their town. Soon we were in the heart of the university itself with its many colleges and buildings dating from medieval times. The architecture was striking, but we wanted more than anything to see Kings College with its chapel built during the reign of Henry VII with its distinctive architecture known as Tudor Vertical.

We had first heard about this remarkable creation from the Rice University professor who lead our class on the Tudor kings and queens this past spring. He had shown us images of the kinds of cathedrals that were typical during the time and then flashed a photo of the Kings College Chapel with a comment that the people who first saw it must have been awed by the light afforded by the long tall windows. Somehow we knew from that moment that we would have to see the place with our own eyes.

For the time being, however, we were hungry because it was long past lunchtime so we found a place that offered a wonderful luncheon menu at a remarkable price. I suppose that we are more accustomed to living in the fourth largest city in the United States than in a small town like Cambridge. We assumed that everything would be open at least until dark but soon learned how wrong we were when we attempted to gain entry to the Kings College Chapel. Our way was blocked by a woman who insisted that it was closed to tourists for the remainder of the afternoon to prepare for Evensong at 5:00. Not to be deterred from seeing this wonder, I inquired as to whether or not we might be allowed to participate in Evensong and to my delight learned that it was open to the public.

We spent the next couple of hours wandering through quaint shops, perusing the open market stalls, sampling fudge, and walking along the Cam River. Guides were using long poles to move boats along the tree lined water as people lounged on pillows while enjoying the view. We saw the Mathematics Bridge, a marvel of both art and science as well as many other chapels and interesting buildings. By five we were first in line for Evensong and waited expectantly for our chance to enter Kings College Chapel.

In the interim we met a wonderful man who explained that many of the places were closed to the public that week because students were busy taking exams. He also mentioned that if we wanted to just view the chapel without participating in the full Evensong gathering we would be able to sit in the back and leave quietly whenever we were done.

Kings College

Soon we were witnessing the magnificent chapel that was even more awe inspiring in person than in pictures. We had been cautioned not to take photographs and to respect the prayerful intent of the occasion but we nonetheless snuck a shot or two without bringing notice to our infractions.

The ceremony itself was outstanding. The choir was composed of students and the inclusion of female voices added a resonance to the singing that head been missing in the music of Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was a quite lovely experience that provided a moment to meditate on both the constancy of tradition and the inevitable changes of life.

I thought of the incredible people who had lived and worked at Cambridge University, giants like Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking. I wondered at the history of the college and the town itself. I felt a sense of ease and peace, closing my eyes to feel the flow of the river that had seen so much genius and so many instances of humanity. Once again the voices of history entered my head and blended with the sonorousness of the choir. It was glorious.

It was dark by the time we had returned to London. We were much calmer about my brother Pat’s driving and we felt quite content. We had walked in the shadow of giants and now also knew that Cambridge was more than we had ever thought it to be. In life there are both constants and variables and we had seen them both.

Punting on the Cam