Week 1 England Chronicles: Days 1-7

Index:
Day 1-2: York, Horsehouse
Day 3: A Farm Visit
Day 4: Spennithorne & Middleham Castle
Day 5: Hawes
Day 6: Settle to Carlisle Railway
Day 7: Ripon Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, & A Sheepdog Demonstration

Day 1-2: York, Horsehouse
I’m sitting in a stone farmhouse in the Yorkshire Dales, sheep grazing in the fields and the Cover River running past. That’s all I can say right now – a teaser. My computer has decided to enforce its privacy, blocking me out. More later …

Later it is:

I have finally convinced my computer to ease off on its privacy issues, sharing Windows access with me. I still have not convinced it that wi-fi is a good idea, however, so although I write this on Saturday evening, it won’t be posted until I either figure out what will entice this Toughbook to relax and share with others, or borrow my cousin’s computer.

As I said, I’m sitting in a stone farmhouse that we’ve rented for a week, sheep grazing in the fields surrounding and a river running past. The house has stone floors, low beamed ceilings, two-foot thick walls, casement windows, and looks like it once had a ten foot wide kitchen hearth. While the hearth has been remodeled into a counter/stove area, built-in stone slab shelves that separate the kitchen and dining room look original. Stone steps up to the bedrooms are worn from foot traffic over the years. The property has a variety of stone outbuildings and barns as well. A funny little arched stone bridge over the Cover River must be crossed to reach the property, the only piece of the farm track on which we didn’t threaten to take off pieces of the undercarriage of the van we’ve rented when we first drove in.

To get this far I took a subway from Heathrow airport to Kings Cross, where I caught a train to York. Instead of saying Exit, signs in English train and tube stations say Way Out. Maybe you have to have experienced the late 60s-early 70s to find that mildly amusing. Or seriously jet-lagged … Having eked out less than two hours of sleep on the plane, I drifted off to sleep on the train. Announcements of delays periodically woke me. First we experienced a “switching problem” in the Kings Cross tunnel, then what I misunderstood as “trains passing on the tracks” at Haworth. Trains passing on the tracks … this is a problem? Isn’t that what they’re supposed to do … ?! Those Pakistani accents get me every time: trespassers on the tracks. That only took me about half an hour to decipher.

The delays catalyzed snorts and eye rolling from the natives around me. I remember reading (in Bryson? Kate Moss?) of a train delayed by “leaves on the track.” The public reportedly rolled their eyes and pointed out that leaves are all over the tracks as a matter of course. The train officials qualified the statement by saying that these were a special kind of leaf. This does invite the imagination to run off the rails (so to speak!): could they have been staggeringly large mutant leaves, weighing as much as, say, a ton apiece? Kryptonite leaves? Leaves in absolutely stupendous numbers piled high by unseen forces, threatening to engulf the entire train should one try to pass? The switching problem and trespassers seemed a bit dull in comparison.

Before meeting up with my cousins, I stayed at the four-star Royal York hotel next to the rail station in York, an indulgent convenience. In an effort to minimize jet lag by staying awake until nine pm or so, I dumped my bags then wandered through and around the old section of York for a few hours. It’s a lovely old walled town built on the River Ouse, most of the wall still standing. Until the Industrial Revolution, York was the second busiest city in England, a guidebook told me. It’s got a colorful history that I won’t recount here because I don’t remember the details – it includes bloody and commercially/culturally interesting things having to do with the Normans, the Vikings and some kings. I’m sure you can Wiki it yourselves … jet lag is a terrible, evil, insidious thing that I’m going to use as my excuse for being to f’ing lazy to paw through my bags for the guidebook right now.

I wandered the old narrow stone streets and alleys, original buildings in places jutting out overhead. The York Minster was closing by the time I ran across it, so I contented myself with circumnavigating the cathedral, admiring the broad green lawns and looking from the outside at the Medieval stained glass windows in the massive cathedral. The cathedral has, per guidebook, more intact Medieval stained glass than anywhere else in England.

Somewhere behind the Minster area I ran across a plaque in a wall describing a man named Berwicke who was deaf and … I want to say blind, but that would be outrageous, so I’ll say dumb, who did something amazing in describing a star, perhaps Arctos, which provided the foundation of our understanding and describing of the universe. Quite a grand conclusion, though you’ll notice I’m a bit sketchy on the detail – I’m often muddle-headed in remembering facts. It’s a small miracle that I remembered the man’s name. Feeling the information was enchanting for its obscure grandiosity, I looked for the plaque again this morning in order to get those facts straight, but was unable to locate it. It occurs to me now that perhaps I should have asked one of the men who offered me assistance when I was looking at a map on a street corner.

That anyone volunteered me assistance, as the two passersby did, startled me. In my experience, the English are unlikely to open an interaction without some better excuse than someone looking lost. I ran across other friendly manners in York that took me by surprise. When I entered the fish and chip restaurant, two waiters called out a cheery hiya, and three obviously local passersby smiled and nodded to me on the street early this morning. It’s not only, too, that these people were openly and cheerfully friendly; they all seemed to have an amused and inviting twinkle in their eye, as if asking me to share a joke. Any Brits out there have a theory on this oddly un-English behavior? I was charmed by it.

In any case, after stuffing myself with fish and chips and tripping over one too many paving stones last evening, I fumbled my way back to the hotel. I’m not sure how women here deal with the paving stones and cobblestones in high heels, but they don’t stint on fashion for the sake of it. At Kings Cross station I saw a woman who seemed to have come up with an unusual solution. She caught my eye because she was using a cane, and having once used a cane myself, I’m always curious to compare my injuries to others (I know, this is a strange admission but true nonetheless). As I watched this woman walk toward me, it became clear that she had no limp and showed no sign of any sort of injury at all. She was young and fashionably thin, with chicly coiffed hair, a stylish blouse, short-short black mini skirt, black tights … and four inch high platform shoes. If I were walking around an English city in four inch platforms, I’d want a cane too! Cobblestone or paving stone sidewalks and streets insist that one pay attention or risk being sent sprawling. While imagining the potential drama of that possibility (remember her mini-skirt), the cane seemed a reasonable precaution. I noticed that an awful lot of other women strutting through the station were wearing stilettos. Ludicrous. No matter how coordinated and adept one is, that’s just asking for trouble. Why don’t more English women use a cane? A very practical solution, and an eye-catching accessory.

(As an aside, it is possible that the cane wasn’t a fashion accessory to match the platform shoes. I know that one can look perfectly normal on the outside yet be working hard to maintain that look – fellow explosion-victim (I’ll call him) Joe and I have talked about it. We do our best to look normal so as not to stand out, but in certain circumstances that can require some serious concentration. Oddly enough, then when we really can’t do something well or for very long, people hint that they think we’re slacking or scamming to get out of something. This girl may have had something affecting her balance or perhaps had restricted vision, for which the cane would have helped. One would have to wonder, though, about some issue like that combined with four inch platform heels – !)

I joked about hedgehogs in my opening blog post, and have already found my first one. Happily I didn’t meet it at eye level after tumbling down a cliff. We startled each other in the formal garden of the Royal York hotel after I’d returned from rambling the city. I strolled down the grassy lane at dusk and he leaped out at me.

Ok, he scuttled out from under a bush on my blind side. Groggily jet lagged, I leaned to the right and, alertly alarmed, he jumped to the left then bustled his butt under a different bush. After he’d disappeared I wandered back to the room to collapse, feeling that to be a fine end to a long day.

 

My cousins retrieved me from the hotel around noon today, Saturday, and we drove northwest to this lovely little valley in the north Yorkshire Dales, three year old Leecy chattering and singing all the way. We saw more than one hedgehog on the narrow road that brought us up the valley, but they were all smushed. So were a lot of bunnies, of which there were so many my cousin Sarah accurately used the word carnage to describe the sight. Traffic must not be making a significant inroad into the population of bunnies or pheasant, though – they’re almost as thick in the fields as sheep.

The stars are out, the air is chill, and everyone else is fast asleep so on that cheery note of carnage and overpopulation, I’ll sign off for the evening…

Day 3: A Farm Visit

While riffling through the local paper my aunt noticed an announcement that a nearby organic farm was offering apple pressing services today, available to anyone bringing their own apples. We didn’t really have enough apples to make it worthwhile for ourselves but thought it would be an interesting low-key outing. Cousin Sara co-owns a fruit farm in California, and we all come from a ranching/farm family so we came to this choice with some informed interest.

Other visitors were working on their apples when we arrived at the farm. Around back of the extensive stone barns/workshops, apples were being washed in a bin then fed into a small hopper to be ground into mush. The hopper spit the mush out into a wheelbarrow, which when full was rolled a few feet over to the press. There someone spread about two inches of the apple mush onto one sixteen inch square screen at a time, stacking the screens as they were filled. When he had a stack about one foot tall, the top plate was laid and the press screwed down tight. Fresh apple juice poured out from the bottom into a five gallon bucket, and when that was full they transferred the juice to gallon containers. We were offered a sample, which was delicious – tart and flavorful.

As we watched the people work, we chatted with the owner of the operation, Rachel, who offered to take us on a tour of the farm. She and three others lease the small acreage from a landowner who holds 3000 acres in total. Besides the farmland being let to these four people, some of the barns at the farm are let as workshops. Currently they house a motorcycle maker, a rail maintenance service company, a conveyor belt/food packaging systems manufacturer, an artist, and a few others.

Rachel led us first up a hill, past grazing geese and sheep, to visit a sow rooting around within an electric fence enclosure. The pig, named Kerplunk, had thoroughly plowed its quarter acre in a mere three weeks, rooting for – well, roots. Kerplunk lolled happily in the torn up area while Rachel scratched her belly. Plunkie’s latest batch of piglets were living up the hill in their own enclosure. One of the piglets had inherited its mothers’ love of belly-scratching; as soon as Sara and her daughter Aurelia bent down to eye level, it laid on its back looking at the potential scratcher with some longing. It worked.

Across the hill from the pigs we toured through a one acre horseshoe-shaped garden planted with fruits, herbs, and other varied plants that attract bees and insects of use to the plant ecosystem. The garden is planned using an intensive farming system that’s apparently well-known in the organic farming field, the title of which I don’t remember (another lost fact, sorry – get used to it). There are plum, apple, pear, apricot, kiwi, grape, and other fruit trees and vines, with an understory of raspberries, strawberries, gooseberries, nasturtium, and innumerable other edible plants and herbs. That understory keeps out weeds and invader species, and presumably provides a balanced nutritional system for each other as well as the soil. Rachel and her partners are planting this horseshoe garden in one year increments, having begun four years ago. The section planted first is now dense and rich, while the newest one is hardly begun.

From here we walked through woods down a hill and crossed the road to pass through the landlord’s gardens. His gardens are formal vegetable gardens, the vegetables planted in rows (huge cabbages, artichokes, etc) with herbaceous borders. Thick rafts of colorful flowers grew along the walks. A large pond lay just outside the stone pergola that surrounded the garden, with one snow-white swan floating on it. The whole scene was beautifully placid, and reeked of ease, privilege, and money. (I desperately wanted to get to a shop to buy a lottery ticket …)

Passing through the gate, back outside the stone walls of the privileged, we checked out the chickens before wandering back down to the apple pressing. Nearby the press were pallets of stacked slate stone, some three feet wide by four or five feet long. Rachel explained that the owner’s land includes about ten farms, all of which have stone houses and barns like the farm we were on; the fences, buildings and roofs require periodic maintenance, so the pallets of stone are kept for repairs. The largest flat roof stones are used nearest the bottom edges of a roof, progressively smaller ones laid up to the roof peak. She claimed that they were laid this way for aesthetic reasons, but I have to wonder … when you’re hefting huge slabs of stone around on a rooftop, are you really concerned with the subtleties of design, or are you laying the biggest slabs closest to the bottom edge of the roof – closest to where those godawfully heavy slabs are being handed to you? Get real! I think that you dump those puppies down at the bottom as fast as you can and carry the small ones farther up the roof, then modestly and off-handedly suggest to people that you did it that way because it’s aesthetically pleasing.

After our farm tour, we drove down the road to a nice pub where we ate the things we’d just seen alive and growing, pork roast, turkey and an assortment of vegetables, while seated in a stone room that echoed the nearly unbearable din of screaming children. Nice to know Americans are not alone in raising publicly ill-behaved children. Our own little three year old Aurelia was unusually quiet amid the maelstrom, completely outdone.

After stocking up on provisions in the town of Ripon, we drove back to our little idyllic retreat on the River Cover. Sara and I took a slow walk (one eyed walking can be treacherous!) down the hill and across a footbridge, startling pheasants and bunnies along the way. Up the hill on the other side of the river we explored the tiny village of Horsehouse, ending up poking around the graves in the churchyard and talking about ghosts. Sara recently caught one in a photograph at Alcatraz, and we wondered if perhaps we couldn’t find an English ghost in one of the abbeys or castles we’ve got on the itinerary.

The wind is up, and it’s grown chilly after a few days of unusually warm sunny weather. Everyone is tired, so tomorrow we plan to stick close to home, visiting the nearby town of Spinnethorpe. Some of our ancestors, the FitzRannulfs or FitzRandolphs, lived there in the 12th Century, moving to Derbyshire possibly in the 1500s, then to Massachusetts Bay in perhaps the 1640s. I don’t imagine we’ll find any physical trace of them, but it will be interesting to see the lay of the land and imagine what their lives might have been like.

Day 4: Spennithorne & Middleham Castle

We woke to a drizzly, misty day today. After a lazy morning lounging around the fire, we loaded into the van and drove to the nearby village of Spennithorne to poke around the church that sits next to the Fitz Randolph manor house. Our Fitz Randolph genetic tie is pretty far back in time, a Fitz Randolph woman we think having married a J– man (J– being our mothers’ side of the family), but Barack Obama is distantly related to us through this branch so that lent a bit of (wholly imaginary) glamour to today’s enterprise.

The Spennithorne church is thought to have been built on the site of an Anglo Saxon church, and certainly there was a church here by the time of the Norman Conquest. The Domesday Book mentions the Spennithorne Church by name. By 1096 the Norman lords were ruling and the Manor here was in the possession of Ribald (jaunty name…) who was brother of a powerful and wealthy count of Richmond. The FitzRandolphs were descended from a younger son of Ribald’s wife’s family, Ranulf de Glanville, who was Henry II’s chief justiciar. It’s assumed that the Spennithorne Church was built by the FitzRandolphs.

We spent some time wandering around through the gravestones and checking out the many carved faces and gargoyles on the exterior of the church. Each face was unique, and quite a number of them were women’s faces, which struck us as unusual. We didn’t find any familiar names on the gravestones, big surprise. With some help from the church guidebook we did find a stone carved by Saxons that was used as a building stone, incorporated into the north wall of the church. Though quite weathered, the structure of the designs are still discernible.

Inside we found the Medieval altar tomb of Sir Ralph Fitzrandolph, decorated with his shield design as well as others to whom he was related by marriage. That was located next to a Medieval stone altar with five incised crosses in the surface, representing the five wounds of Christ. Behind the entrance is a deteriorated wall painting of what we thought was probably St Michael, the name of the church. The printed guide, however, told us it was a painting of Father Time; it may originally have been St Michael or St Christopher, renamed during the time of the Dissolution or Restoration when references to saints became less than attractive.

On the way back to the house we decided to stop at the ruin of Middleham Castle in the town of Middleham. The FitzRandolphs largely lived at the castle, according to the Spennithorne church guidebook. Wandering through the ruins, all of us agreed that although impressive for the size and the amount of effort expended to build, life within a castle must have been really unpleasant: damp, cold and awfully stinky. I poked around inside the extensive ruins and climbed up a circular flight of stairs built beside the half ruined original stone steps to get a bird’s eye view of the ruins and surrounding countryside while little Aurelia commanded the others remain with her while she petted some horses they’d found behind the castle.

The battlements offered a commanding view of the Eden Valley, a broad and lovely east-west trending valley backed by the high ridges of upland. Stone fences appeared as dark lines delineating impossibly green fields dotted with white sheep. Small stands of trees stood between some fields, and lined the valleys feeding into the Eden Valley. This landscape is peacefully beautiful in its long vistas when a high point is reached, and it’s intimate in its short views, rolling over hills and into pockets of lowland or small valleys, between stone hedgerows and green fields then into thick woods. All the fields here are emerald green, many with streams running through them, or with lovely small ponds and seeps. It’s incredibly beautiful country. If it looked so lovely in the 1600s when our ancestors packed up and rode off across the sea to America, I have to question their intelligence … of course, there were a lot of miners in the family; perhaps an accumulation of heavy metals caused some brain damage?

We didn’t stay too long at the castle because cousin Lisby was anxious to get home to cook a full meal on the Aga stove – a novelty that’s providing endless entertainment. Sara and Lisby actually chose this house and the one we’ll stay in next week on the basis of their having Agas. Traveling with people who like to cook is a lucky break for me, since I’m lazy enough to live on nuts and oat cakes … (… speaking of brain damage! Ever tried an oat cake? Some desribe the flavor as similar to cardboard coated with dust. I like them. Go figure.)

Day 5: Hawes

Today started out damp and windy, but the sun peeked out periodically and the temperatures were comfortable. We decided to drive to a nearby market town to visit a rope museum. We are easily entertained!

The drive to Hawes took us past the local gallops, where area racehorses work each morning. They sit atop a ridge with a beautiful view into the Eden Valley to the north. At least a mile long and a few hundred yards wide, they’re perfectly smooth and impossibly green.

Yesterday we discovered that one of the small villages we drive through each day is the main race horse town of the north. (You’d have thought all the horse crossing signs along the road might have clued us in … hel-lo …) We’d wondered at this village always being much livelier than the other villages, with all sorts of activity in the streets. One day it was an ambulance, the next some horses being ridden through, later that day a carpenter had his saw set up in one lane of the narrow street. Now we suppose the activity to be related to the horse business. The people we drive past in the horse racing village are invariably friendly, every one of them waving and smiling as we pass, which still causes us no end of amusement since we just don’t expect to encounter that sort of familiarity in England. In any case, now that we’ve located the gallops, we’d like to make a valiant attempt to get out of bed early enough one morning to go watch them run.

The rope museum was a disappointment, if that can be said of a rope museum (!). From the descriptions we’d read we had expected that people would be making rope by hand. Instead all the works were automated, with very little information about what we were looking at through the plexiglass. All of us being familiar with the Industrial Revolution, a lot of small strings being fed into machines that spit out rope didn’t really tell us anything we hadn’t imagined on our own. The Dale Countryside Museum was more interesting even to me, whose attention span in museums is about equal to a squirrel on speed. Displays offered a brief (yay!) yet engaging history of the area from pre-Celtic civilization up through present time. Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Danes, Vikings … the Dales have been a busy and generally productive area. Just how productive and in what particular ways, I’m sorry to say, are details that you’ll have to wiki because I’ve already lost them. (If there’s not something appalling or odd in a fact, I’m afraid it just gets lost in the general mess of my mind. Let’s pretend that being blown up, with resultant concussion and hole in the skull, is the reason for that … see? There are advantages to having been blown up! I used to have to be more creative with my excuses for mental laziness …)

Having exhausted ourselves on museums, we headed into the center of town for a pub lunch and a vegetable shopping spree. I overheard what struck me as a hilariously British bit of conversation between two men at the pub that bears repeating:

“I’d have liked the chili better – not that I didn’t like it, I did! It was quite good. I’m just saying that what I’d change – not that it needed changing, of course, but if I were asked I’d perhaps like it a bit spicier although it was quite good as is.”

Reply: “Yes, it was quite good.”

-!-

It’s simply impossible to imagine two American men having that conversation.

We’d intended to buy meat in Hawes, but somehow missed the butcher so on the way home we stopped in another village to purchase two chickens, a huge rib roast, a few pounds of pork chops, and a few pounds of minced pork. What’s the point of having the Aga cooker if we can’t experiment with it on a variety of foods? None at all, of course… I imagine that after we’d walked out of that butcher’s shop, the young butcher allowed himself a satisfied grin and a muttered “Ka-ching, ka-ching!” as he closed the till.

Tomorrow: a train trip on the Settle to Carlisle railroad …

Day 6: Settle to Carlisle Railway

Any influence of the family’s English heritage should perhaps have been thoroughly erased by a couple hundred years in the US, but even generations removed our family members retain what appear to be British quirks: foremost a sense of humor that’s considered odd and often astonishingly mean to many Americans; a tendency to deflect compliments with self-denigration (a strange modesty rule, I guess); a willingness to laugh at just about anything (including ourselves) with an abandon that often makes earnest Americans squirm; a knack for happily, sometimes ruthlessly, chopping at anyone with pretentions (again, including ourselves); and a keen love of words and word play. We have not, however, retained the habit of thanking someone endlessly during simple transactions. Every monetary transaction I perform here threatens to send me into a fit of giggles:

I say, “Five return tickets to Carlisle please.”

“Yes thanks,” the conductor replies.

“Thanks,” I murmur automatically. I hand him the money (after fumbling around sorting through coins…).

“Thanks,” he says taking it, causing me to automatically thank him back for something.

He hands me the ticket …

“Thank you,” he says.

I thank him.

He says thank you one more time – and I pray he’ll walk away. If he moves too slowly I’m sure another will pop out, whereupon I’ll automatically spit another out myself.

At the York hotel the night I arrived, I stepped into a small old elevator with two other people already inside. Even before I walked in, the man inside said, “Sorry! Excuse us,” moving over against the wall as far as he could although there was a good six or eight square feet of floor space open and I’m quite thin, fitting easily in less than two square feet. “It’s fine, plenty of room,” I told him, smiling my assurances. “Tight fit, sorry,” he replied with a nervous grin, still tugging at his luggage to get it closer to the wall. “No worries, really,” I assured him, begging for the doors to open quickly on the second floor – how long could this go back and forth!? I was afraid I was going to burst out laughing.

When I lived in Madrid many years ago the Spaniards would roll their eyes at us, complaining that all our American ‘sorry’s’, ‘pleases’ and ‘thank you’s’ were tedious … I begin to see their point and wonder about their level of irritation with the English – could be off the charts. I’m still finding it an entertaining and sort of endearingly weird social trait but can see that it might become onerous, since it sets off this domino effect – a torrential cascade of sorry, please, thank you – that feels ominously awkward to escape without leaving some unintended offense (… and god forbid THAT happen!).

*

We arrived at the small station at Garsdale in good time, waiting only ten minutes or so for the Settle to Carlisle train after having to park on one side of the tracks, walk back to the road, down a hill, under a viaduct and back upslope to get to the correct side of the tracks.

The train stations along this route are all built in the same style: small stone buildings with wood details that make them look Scandinavian-gingerbread to me. The wood is painted shiny red, a bold and cheerful contrast to the dark stone. They were built in the Victorian era, actually, without any known Viking influence.

The views from the train were beautiful: hilly fields of saturated green, dotted with sheep or cows, stone country houses, and compact little towns of stone. We were generally following the Eden Valley, the land generally dropping down from the tracks to the river valley, then rising again to high grassy upland ridges. It took a little over an hour to reach Carlisle. It had been cold and rainy when we left the house, but Carlisle was sunny with temperatures comfortably in the low 60s F.

In Carlisle we walked from the station through town on a pedestrian street to reach the Carlisle castle. The castle is set back from the road and up on a hill, more wildly green grass sloping up to the dark stone outer walls. The battlements are all still standing. Inside the castle are various governmental buildings that look 18th Century, and the castle keep with various interpretive displays on each floor.

We ate a picnic when we first arrived, leaving only about an hour before we needed to be back at the station to catch the 2:00 train home (three-year old Aurelia is mad about trains, so the point of this excursion was the train ride, Carlisle being a footnote). We climbed the battlements for the views, and I ran up the winding interior stairway to take a look at some carvings in the stone walls of the prison room on the second floor. I visited this castle in 2007, so I had my priorities lined out for the short half hour we had to look around.

The carvings are generally advertised as having been done by inmates of the small prison room. They’re all located near the door though, so a more likely explanation is that the guards, bored out of their heads, took to doodling on the wall. Some of the figures are quite intricate and accomplished. There are crests, bas-relief horses, human figures in both static tableaux and active scenes, and – my personal favorite – what looks like a rabbit peeking out of a top hat. Five minutes studying the carvings and snapping a few pictures, and I was trotting back down the stairs.

We retraced our route to the station and queued for the train. Fifteen minutes later we were settled into our seats, falling asleep. We’re not all that energetic a group, being old, crippled, or three years old. We’re all a fair match for each other so it works out well.

A fire is lit, we’ve stuffed ourselves on pork and bean stew, and night is falling now. Tomorrow we’ll visit the cathedral at Ripon, and Fountain Abbey …

Day 7: Ripon Cathedral, Fountains Abbey, & A Sheepdog Demonstration

Some of us have just returned from watching a sheepdog demonstration on a farm near Hawes, while others stayed home to take naps. I went along to see the sheepdogs, as I love to watch a good dog work a herd. I lived in Wyoming for a few years, where sheep are still worked with dogs; and I lived in southeast Oregon for a number of years, where descendents of Basque sheepherders still own vast ranches. Occasionally while I was out walking transects I’d run across dogs working a herd, and each summer at the county fairs I would hunt down the sheepdog demonstrations. If you haven’t seen sheepdog demos, I would recommend searching one out as the dogs really are fun to watch.

When we arrived at the farm, the ex-farmer (now sheep trial competitor and dog trainer) was telling a good sized crowd about farming in the area. He told us that ten years ago there were a lot more sheep in the Dales, before the hoof and mouth disease business hit and the economy tanked, decimating first the herds, then the prices. Farmers are building the herds back up now but are not yet at the levels they once were. The prices they get for their goods are the same as they were twenty-five years ago, so all farming in the area is heavily subsidized. Dairy farms lose 3p on every liter of milk, and where once sheep farmers sold sheared fleece, that’s no longer economical: it costs £1 to shear a sheep, and the fleece sells for 10p. Farmers just burn the fleece now. (The smell of that must be memorable.) They also have a sort of CPA scheme, the details of which I can’t remember (pesky economic facts …), but it pays the same whether sheep are in a field or not, so many fields are empty, left to return to bracken and thistle.

While the farmer talked to us, five working dogs waited tied up along the rock fence: Sam, Roy, Max, Black, and Glen. They were antsy to get off their leads to work. The farmer first let two of the dogs off lead and sent them in opposite directions toward the far end of the field by a roundabout route, following the fences, getting the sheep moving toward the middle of the field, then, when the dogs met at the end of the field, gathering them and pushing them down through the center of the field toward us.

The farmer used a few voice commands when the dogs were close to him, otherwise whistles directed them to the left or right, or stopped them in their tracks. When he had the herd in front of him, he used the dogs to split six sheep out of the herd and move the herd out through a gate. The six remaining were herded through a series of fences by different dogs so we could see how keen one dog was, and how another was not quite quick enough in responding to direction. Black was especially good, following directions immediately, stopping “on a sixpence,” as the farmer put it. He demonstrated how he can give three different dogs each separate sets of directions at once while they’re working, so one will go left, one right, and one will catch strays.

The dogs are really quite amazing, and fun to watch when sneaking up on the sheep, creeping along the ground with their eyes glued to their quarry. During competitive sheep dog trials the owners have to send a dog half a mile out, beyond sight, to fetch a herd. When the dog reaches that herd the person has to redirect the dog to leave that herd to go fetch another that’s half mile in a different direction. I assume the person with the whistle has to time that redirection, since the whole drama is completed while dog and owner are unable to see each other.

We were surprised to find such a large crowd watching the demo with us: there must have been least a hundred people. Many had brought their dogs, which was amazing to us, since nearly all American dogs are far too poorly trained to have handled watching other dogs chasing sheep around a field. Of the twenty or so dogs that were there, only one barked and it was a single small yip. One dog growled at another, and the owners immediately controlled them. The sheep herding dogs ran right through the crowd a couple of times, right past the noses of other dogs, and they all just sat and watched the working dogs work.

Dogs are allowed almost everywhere here. They’re welcome in many pubs, some village grocery stores, and the outdoor markets. They’re allowed in the heritage parks – the castles, gardens and abbey ruins. They’re always on lead, and always well-behaved. I’m used to the western US, where dogs generally run loose and rarely follow orders; they bark like maniacs at anything that moves, chase trucks, cars and bicycles and often pedestrians. In town they often run around in packs. They’re obnoxious. No wonder they’re not allowed in many public places in the US. I’m so impressed with the dogs here, and look forward to running into one just about anywhere.

*

This morning we drove to the nearby town of Ripon to visit the cathedral. This one was established by St Wilfred, who was an influential teacher of St Cudda, who is an ancestor of this family of cousins that I’m traveling with (etymologically related to their last name, but I won’t bore you with the technical details … ), making the cathedral of particular interest to Lisby. She researches ancestors and their surrounding history, using them in fiction books that she writes.

A cathedral was first built on this site in the 7th Century, although most of what’s now in place was built in the 12th Century. The current congregation appears to be a lively and creative one. An extensive art show was hung, one piece being a full-size human figure cutout covered with shiny cd’s. This was delightfully placed in perfectly weird juxtaposition to a carved stone knight reclining atop a crypt – ! One chapel had some shiny metal twirly sculptural thingies that look like modern oversized Christmas decorations, identified in the guidebook as “controversial” depictions of the Holy Spirit. A vaguely cubist stained glass window has been installed above another chapel, and the pews have been replaced by individual Scandinavian-style chairs. Uncle Rick and I were amused by some of the money-raising schemes, one of which was a sort of lottery that one can buy into at £10/month with the chance at £20-50 winnings from monthly drawings. For your convenience, you can have the £10 cost automatically withdrawn from your checking account each month.

Before leaving we walked all around the outside of the cathedral. At one of the side doors I watched an old woman furtively stuff a bag of trash into the church rubbish bin. When she saw me watching her, she looked sheepish and headed for the cathedral door, but she only walked inside the doorway, then turned and walked back out and down the steps, heading for the gates. This is the second time I’ve innocently interrupted someone dumping rubbish in someone else’s bins – I found an embarrassed man dumping four bags of magazines in a dumpster in back of a pub one day (before you ask what I was doing at the back of a pub, I was aimlessly wandering around while smoking a cigarette). So some people don’t want to pay for trash service in England either!

After muddling our way through narrow streets to get out of the town of Ripon, we visited the most popular heritage site in England, Fountains Abbey. It sits in a beautiful narrow wooded valley. The abbey is a ruin now, walls half standing and the rosy gold sandstone blocks beautifully weathered, but it was once the largest abbey in England. And the place is enormous, the church still grand and imposing even in ruins. The complex was built by Benedictine monks in the early 1100s, and adopted by the Cistercians shortly thereafter. Within a hundred years it was the wealthiest Cistercian abbey in England. It was sold during the Dissolution, and some of its stone used to build Fountains Hall, which still stands nearby.

We spent about an hour wandering through the ruins of the church, then chose to leave in order to make it to the sheepdog demonstration. We could have spent a whole day at the abbey, it’s so extensive – and we’d have thoroughly enjoyed spending a whole day there as it was deeply peaceful.

On the way out Lynn bought a cup of elderflower ice cream. We don’t know if this is made with the flowers of an elderberry tree, or -? Could that be? The initial flavor is of a mild tart berry, quickly giving way to the flavor of a delicately sweet flower. The final flavor is rich cream. The ice cream is made at a creamery that we’ve passed three or four times along the road to Ripon, so it seemed appropriate to take the time to taste one of their products (!).

On the way home we passed a house that’s getting a new slate roof. Having passed the house three times in the past four days, we’ve become interested in the progress of the three men working on it. They’re now three-quarters of the way finished, making good progress. And they’re doing it properly, placing large slates near the bottom, progressively smaller slates as they near the roofline. Very aesthetically pleasing (right!). I tried to see how they’re securing the stones in place, but it was impossible to see from the road.

Now the cooking members of the family have whipped up a pork loaf that’s baking in the Aga. We’re snacking on beans and crackers, sipping wine in front of a nice fire in the fireplace. We have to eat to stay awake … and I still have rehab exercises to do. After pork loaf I wonder if I’ll have the dedication. Hm.

Tomorrow we’ll drag our butts out of bed at 6am to watch the racehorses on the gallops, then visit Bolton castle in the Ure valley…

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