Week 2 England Chronicles: Days 8-13

Index:
Day 8: The Gallops & Bolton Castle
Day 9: Brough & Augill Castle
Day 10: Nenthead Near Alston
Day 11: Birdoswalk & Yearle Mill House
Day 12: Roger & Chillingham Castle
Day 13: Lidnesfarne & Pudding
Day 14: Heatherslaw to Etal RR & Duddo Stone Circle

Day 8: The Gallops & Bolton Castle

Aunt Ellen, Sara, Aurelia and I woke at 6am, groggily pulled on warm clothes, and drove over to the gallops on the moor above Carlton, dodging young bunnies and pheasants on the road. Two horses were at the gallops when we arrived, but they were being loaded into a horse van, finished for the morning. The horse van was literally what we would call a panel van, cab and horse stall being one vehicle. We’ve seen quite a lot of livestock trailers, but always with sheep in them, never horses. In any case, the long strip of green was empty but for two grazing deer.

The gallops above Middleham are larger, so we drove there to see if anyone was working those. As we cruised in circles trying to figure out where we could pull over for a few minutes, some horses came walking up the road, and others soon followed. The roads are a few hundred yards from the gallops so our views of the running horses were from a distance. That was disappointing, but we could hear their running hoofs beating the ground, and the riders were dramatically skylined so it was worth going. A dozen or so horses made a five or six long loops, running up the moor and walking back down.

After breakfast we spent the morning doing laundry and other chores. After lunch we drove to Bolton Castle in the Eden Valley. We’ve been seeing the castle from the south side of the valley on our way to and from Hawes when we visited the market there, and caught the Settle to Carlisle train from a station just a few miles beyond Hawes, and then again yesterday when we drove to the sheepdog demo. From across the valley the castle stands out, being the largest structure around and pale ochre. The farmhouses and village buildings seem to be of darker stone, but I’m sure that’s due to lichens growing on the stone.

Speaking of lichens (pronounced “litch-ens” here), yesterday the sheep man told us that after one bad snowstorm atop the moors he was missing about one hundred sheep. He and his brother armed themselves with a long pole and brought one of the dogs, who was particularly good at smelling out sheep, to search for them. Sheep will bunch together in sheltered spots when a storm hits, eventually climbing atop each other, smothering each other, and/or being drifted over with snow. With the help of the dog and by using the long stick to poke down through the snow to feel whether they hit hard ground or soft bodies, they found most of the sheep. On the twenty-first day they uncovered the last sheep, alive, wedged between two rocks. It had licked all the lichen off the rocks and eaten its own wool. Shortly after they rescued her, she gave birth to a healthy lamb.

Unwilling to lick the stones of fences and farmhouses, I don’t know for sure that the darker stone of farmhouses and fences is a result of lichen, but it seems so.

Bolton Castle was built by the Lord Chancellor of William II in 1379, and its claim to fame is that Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned here for six months in 1568. It’s a large defensive structure, with commanding views of Eden Valley. The great room and some chambers have been restored, including the bedroom of Mary – apparently they didn’t toss her in the dungeon. The interior castle walls have been plastered, a few pieces of carved wood furniture installed, and simple tapestries have been hung. Formal gardens have been planted again at the back of the castle. Grape vines and vegetables were growing, as well as banks of flowers and a labyrinth of hedges. The castle appears to be run by some local group, so our heritage passes didn’t get us in. After paying to wander around the castle, they wanted another £1 apiece to enter the gardens and we were all feeling too cheap to fork it over. -!-

Chickens were running loose on the grounds of the castle, providing for at least half an hour of amusement after we’d toured the castle. Aurelia, alternately cooing and shouting, tried unsuccessfully to pet them or feed them grass.

We’ll be moving on to Augill Castle tomorrow for two nights, and Monday we’ll move to a rental house in Wooler, Northumbria.

Day 9: Brough & Augill Castle

We’ve driven the winding little road into Hindlethwaite Hall (the grand name of our rented house) for the last time, happily for Lisby who has had quite enough of it. The secondary roads here are very narrow, running as they do between rock fences and hedges that have been in place since long before the automobile. They’re paved single lanes, for the most part. Even with the small cars and trucks that are driven here, meeting another vehicle head-on can be hair-raising for the faint of heart. Some of the drivers whip around at what strikes our drivers as kamikaze speeds when popping around a corner thirty yards in front of you. Motorbikes seem to use the roads as speedways, going so fast that they nearly lay their bikes down at the curves. Wide spots are available at intervals, and at times there’s enough of a verge to get two wheels onto it in order to let someone pass, but it may mean backing up a bit if you’ve just passed one.

Drivers here, though speed demons, do seem to be alert to what they’re doing and quick to respond to the road and other drivers, unlike drivers in the States who are so often busy talking or texting on their cell phones, putting on makeup in the rearview mirror, eating lunch, playing with the super-computerized GPS controls, reading their mail, or otherwise engaged in amusements that have nothing to do with steering a quarter ton of metal down the road.

I may be the only one in our car who wasn’t white knuckling the dashboard at least a few times when we drove in and out of the valley each day. Maybe I rode in too many PSD vehicles in Iraq; it will probably take some scraping sounds and sparks before my adrenaline kicks in. A pile of sand on the verge, or a piece of trash in a parking lot still suggests IED material, however, and can make me perk up, so I don’t pretend to be firmly grounded in pragmatic realism. Something between white knuckles and casual indifference might be considered more reasonable or healthy.

(Stray trash seems to be rare in the English landscape, by the way – an attractive difference from American highways with the varying densities of fast food wrappings and pop cans.)

We’ve come north and west only a short distance from the Hindlethwaite house to Brough, but took a roundabout route in order to pass through the town of Richmond on the way. We wanted to visit the Richmond Castle.

We ate leftover chicken sandwiches on the vast green lawn inside the castle, then wandered through the ruins. An early version of a castle was first built at Richmond by the Normans in the 1070s, and the current castle retained many of the features of that original. The great hall is the oldest Norman great hall in England. The great court overlooks a dramatic cliff to the river below. I climbed immediately to the battlements for a fantastic view across the countryside, and a fun (snoopy) view down into people’s back gardens with their garden sheds, small construction projects, and cats or dogs lounging on the stone patios.

From there we drove straight on to Augill Castle, about a mile away from the village of Brough (pronounced like curtly spoken “ruff” with a “b” at the start and a British accent shifting the “u” sound to some in-between vowel that’s impossible for me to describe). We’d arrived early and no one answered the locked castle door when we rang, so we drove to the village for tea, and to locate my B&B so we wouldn’t have to search for it later in the dark. The cousins are staying at Augill Castle tonight, while I’m in a nearby B&B. I’ll join them for dinner tonight at the castle, and tomorrow night I’ll have a room there. When I made my reservations the castle hadn’t any rooms left for tonight.

Late evening:

We’ve become accustomed to eating supper at about 6pm, and are generally all tucked in bed by nine. This didn’t work well with the dinner schedule for the castle tonight, as they serve at 8:30. At five we were quite hungry, so pulled out our leftovers for snacks on the lawn, most of us verbally worrying over the three and a half hours to go and anticipating difficulty sleeping from a full meal just before going to sleep. Personally, I can eat any time (and as often as I find food in front of me!) but a three year old changes the dynamics of everything! In the end with the help of some wine, a wood train set, and magazines advertising £1-5,000,000 estates we kept ourselves amused.

Dinner is served at one huge table seating twenty-one guests, with white linen, candelabra, the whole castle ambiance. I was seated next to a garrulous man from Suffolk. He’s is “one of the country’s experts” in sound in the oceans – “well, not that expert;” he (predictably) hedged, “there are quite a lot of others more expert, scientists and such of course, but I’ve done quite a lot of work with the government and military and such …” (So very English! Translation: he’s one of the country’s leading experts in his field). He studies and consults on how sound travels and effects of animals and other sounds in water, from what I gathered, including everything from whales and dolphins to military sonar. He was a very animated and interesting dinner companion.

My B&B in Brough is a stone house down a narrow alley next to the river. The river runs between back walls of homes and gardens. The Brough castle, now a ruin, was originally a Roman fort. The town was strategic for being located on the south side of a pass over the Pennines, and the border between Roman territory and Scotland was nearby for about one hundred years. The fort was expanded into a castle in, I think, the 10th Century but it might have been the 13th Century (facts – pah!), and the owner tried to establish a town next to the castle at that time. Instead, the town grew about a mile away where it still stands. It’s really a long, narrow town along one broad high street, with one small grocery, two pubs and quite a few small B&Bs – perhaps a lot of walkers, as there are public footpaths in all directions, the Pennines being quite scenic.

Brough used to be a market center for the area. It’s still considered a market town but holds market only one day a month. A small interpretive sign in town (where I cribbed all these pesky facts) said that in the 1800s it had busy markets twice a week, with great herds of cattle and geese being driven in to sell. The feet of the geese were dipped in tar and coated with sand to protect them on the long drives. This strikes me as more than a little odd, as I assume the tar had to be hot in order to coat the geese feet, which more or less defeats the purpose of protecting their feet, does it not? Hm. Very mysterious.

It’s very late so I’ll leave you with the puzzle of the geese feet dipped in tar and sand while I totter off to bed.

Day 10: Nenthead Near Alston

I woke early, so I took a walk around Brough before breakfast. The town is only about half a mile long, with a good number of buildings empty along the high street, although the houses just off it along narrow alleys and footpaths are alive with flower boxes and gardens. A river that flows through town is small enough to call a creek, water flowing over a bed of stones, back garden walls demarcating its bed.

After a full English breakfast, I thought I’d best walk back to Augill castle instead of waiting for Lisby or Sara to drive down to pick me up. The full English breakfast is really a working farmers meal: bacon (we’d call it fried ham), sausages, eggs, fried tomatoes, toast and cereal. The short distance to the castle, even with a rather heavy pack, made only a small dent in the calories, I’m sure. The walk took me first down about a quarter mile of highway before I turned off onto a narrow country road that meandered between pastures of sheep and cows. The land here, like the Horsehouse area, is rolling hills and higher ridges in the distance, with trees dotted around throughout the green fields. It’s very peaceful and scenic, and the air was crisp and cool – perfect for a walk. Within half an hour I was at the castle, which is nestled against a low hillside not far from the river. The walk was an excellent way to start the day.

Augill Castle is a miniature castle built by a rich man in the 1840s. He wanted a castle without all the inconveniences of a castle, so it’s got central heating, running water and internet access (ha ha). We had to assure Aurelia that it also has a roof, as we’ve been visiting so many ruined castles. Apparently this castle was close to losing its roof before the present owners rescued it; the structure was unlived in for a good number of years prior to the purchase. The London transplants fixed it up, and opened the award winning B&B.

The castle is charming, with richly furnished private rooms upstairs, and a spacious ground floor including an entry lounge, sitting room, music room, bar, and large dining room. Outdoors are café tables scattered around the terraced front garden, which we’ve been making use of because we’ve had astonishingly fine weather since arriving. Today was another sunny one with puffy cumulous clouds floating benignly over the countryside.

Soon after I’d arrived at the castle, we piled into the van to drive about forty-five minutes north to Nenthead, or “Nenthead Near Alston” as our great-grandmother always called it. Her parents came from this town. Lisby decided to stay at the castle to do some delinquent work (judging some essays for something) but the rest of us were keen.

Nenthead is high up atop the Pennines, reached by a winding road offering fantastic views to the south and west. Motorcycles were thick on the roads, buzzing past us, laying down on the corners. I’m sure it’s a fun place to ride, but it looked hair-raising. Signs posted periodically warned that over twenty riders have died on the road in the past year. We also passed a lot of bicyclists laboring up the grade, some of which had race numbers pinned to their backs. With bicycles or motorbikes as a choice, I’d have to take the motorbike I guess. The cyclists looked miserable! Well, as long as I didn’t have to wear a goofy matching leather suit: so many of the motorcycle riders wear white suits with various racing stripes down the sides of them in colors that match their bikes. We giggle every time we see them, as it looks totally dorky to our aesthetic sensibilities.

But I digress … I meant to describe the landscape. Where the lowlands are scenic in a green and rich sort of way, the high moors are a spacious, more stark beauty reminiscent of western South Dakota, southeastern Oregon, eastern Montana or eastern Colorado. It’s a broadly rolling land, grassy with rock outcrops and trees only in the occasional watered valley or draw. There’s more grass here than in the western States, though, and thick stands of low bracken (ferns) and what I guess might be heather. Being a family originally based in South Dakota, we thought the landscape was striking, familiar, comfortable and quite beautiful.

Nenthead is the highest village in England (not in Britain), and built around lead and silver mining. Our great-great-grandparents were from Nenthead, as I said, so we have a personal interest in the history – which, like most mining towns, is pretty grim up to a certain point. The mines guaranteed that mine workers died early from black lung, and their families lived with air and water polluted by arsenic, lead and other nasty things. Sometime in the 1800s, however, Nenthead caught the attention of a couple of Quaker women who organized some notable improvements to working conditions as well as establishing one of the first free libraries in England, and starting some very good schools. There seems to have been a great deal of emphasis on community entertainment and education going on in the village. Most of the population was Methodist, so drinking was frowned upon – the pub had to be subsidized by the mining company to stay open (that has got to be a first in England!).

The mine fell on hard times in the second half of the 1800s (I think I have that right), about the time our families, the Harveys and Thompsons, migrated to the States. While touring a museum at the mine, we found a Thompson listed on a reproduction of a list of disbursements made to poor people, but we don’t know if that was a Thompson related to us – we’ll have to do some research.

After wandering through the above-ground part of the mine, studying the water wheels and chutes and grim remaining piles of slag, we headed for a pub in nearby Alston to cheer up. As it was Sunday, the pub had a roast ready with all the trimmings, which Uncle Rick cheerfully ordered with bitters. The rest of us opted for steak and leek dumplings with chips (french fries), cabbage, carrots and squash. Now we know where Gramma got her recipe for some minced meat dish that we remember eating (and liking) but didn’t know had a name. The meat in the steak and leek pie tasted exactly like that dish by Gramma. We made total pigs of ourselves. We waddled back to the van a very contented group of people quickly growing fat off this land.

 

Tomorrow we’ll drive north to Wooler, where we’ve rented another house for a week.

Day 11: Birdoswald & Yearle Mill House

Last night we skipped the elaborate and social castle dinner, opting for a (large) pub meal in Brough, then to bed at what we consider a reasonable hour: a conservative 9pm. The beds at the castle are enormous and fluffy. I slept like a rock for the first time since arriving.

After breakfast we stuffed the van full of luggage, wedged Uncle Rick into the far back seat, jumped in ourselves, and slammed the doors quickly before anything could bounce out.

After an hour on narrow winding roads, we stopped at Lanercost Priory for scones (more food!) and a wander through the priory ruins. Lanercost was founded in 1166 by King Henry II. It functioned as a priory for almost four hundred years, until Henry VIII sparked off the Dissolution. Thomas Dacre converted some of the buildings, then, into personal dwellings, while the rest was left to go to ruin. In 1740 the nave was restored, and it is still a parish church.

I skipped the church, confining myself to the ruins. Some tombs were still in place under the skeletal arches. One was broken open, exposing the interior (no one was in it) which had the stone carved in such a way as to create a narrower place for the neck and a round spot for the head. Hm. I couldn’t explain why, but this struck me as a more than a little creepy, though I’m not easily creeped out. I guess I imagine some servant-type stuffing the dead body in the space, cussing as he finds that the dead dude’s neck is too long, so having to sort of squish the head down and cram it into the small oval opening in the stone … it’s all quite vivid to me …

Fortified with scones and some snack foods found in the priory shop, we drove north to Hadrian’s Wall, then east to follow its snaking path across the hills. Much of the wall is just a bump on the landscape, I’m told, grown over with grass. Here along the western reaches of the wall, however, it’s still visible as a ruin, standing a meter or more high. It was originally about four meters high and almost as thick.

We stopped at Birdoswald to tour the Roman fort ruins, which was mildly interesting. Two years ago I visited Chesters and Vindolanda, both sites that I found more interesting for their lovely settings and the state of the ruins. They seem to be (in memory anyway) more complex sites and had things that I found particularly interesting like heated baths. What was fun at Birdoswald was an archeological dig that’s taking place about a quarter mile away on a boggy bluff above the River Irthing. Newcastle University is digging a graveyard that they believe will date back to the Roman period. They’ve used a backhoe to scrape the top 30+cm off an area that must be about 10 x 50+m, since the field was plowed in the early 1950s and that top layer would therefore have been severely disturbed. A student stopped his work to explain to us that they’re now digging squares within that expanse, exposing cremation burials (over 20 were flagged) and the cobbled surface of what they suspect may be a Roman cart track.

The weather has turned on us – strong blustery winds kicked up while we were at the arche site. This stands as a good example of why I’ve never had much interest in working on digs: it’s either 120F in the shade, or 40F with nasty winds and rain. To voluntarily hunker down in an airless dusty oven or frigid muddy pit for ten hours a day, I’d have to take a harder knock to the head than I did with the IED. I used to walk all day in any weather, however (it paid better!).

The house we’ve rented for the week, Yearle Mill, is (as its name suggests) an old mill, with some of the machinery still in place on the ground floor, and millstones in one bedroom on the second floor (first floor to Europeans). The house has two staircases, six bedrooms and four bathrooms all tucked down confusing hallways in a maze that’s been fun to try to figure out. The bedroom I’ve chosen is on the third floor (second floor to Euros), with low rafters that I’m sure to knock my head against. With any luck I’ll hit the right side of my head, the side with damaged nerves, so I won’t feel it – or better yet, smack between my eyes. Titanium is tough stuff.

The owners of this house, Roger and Elizabeth, live in a house behind this one. They stopped by this evening to be sure that we knew where everything was and were comfortably settled. As we chatted about various things, we discovered that Roger is an archeologist, and is very interested in and knowledgeable about Anglo Saxon history of the 7th Century, which is Lisby’s current obsession. Besides writing, Lisby has a PhD in linguistics, with an emphasis on cultural linguistics, and she’s applied that to an independent study of 7th Century ecclesiastical history of the Anglo-Saxons. She and Roger immediately began tossing around obscure place names and histories of Saxon kings and word etymologies. It turns out Roger and Elizabeth recently bought an important archeological site, Yeavering, which is where Lisby thinks St Cudda’s family ran a goods distribution sort of business in the 7th Century. Finding these connections is a delightful surprise. We’ve made a date for coffee tomorrow morning to go more deeply into the archeological/ linguistic/ historical interests.

I’m writing this while lounging in a spacious sitting room on the third floor of this rambling house. I have my choice of three couches or one of about six chairs. There’s a nice woodstove and a television, but no internet access which is why this is posting is delayed …

Day 12: Roger & Chillingham Castle

This morning after breakfast Lisby and I walked through the garden gate to Roger and Elizabeth’s house to peruse Roger’s library of early Saxon/Northumbria books, and take a look at his artifacts from Yeavering. Roger is very animated and intent. He has an unruly shock of grey hair that somehow exaggerates the impression of intensity in the passion for whatever subject he’s discussing. As soon as we’d been greeted, he led us around the house pointing out treasures: ancient clay pots, replicas of ancient blown glass vases, a 2000 year old Roman mosaic mounted in the bedroom, and an original 1850s range set into the fireplace, still in use. “There’s a 40,000 year old axe head in the back stairwell of the house you’re staying in,” he told us. Sheesh! After a whirlwind tour we retired to his library with cups of tea. There he began pulling books out, one after another, offering succinct one sentence synopses of each for Lisby. She owns some of the titles, while others were new to her and quickly noted so she can look for them later in used book stores.

When he ran out of books, Roger strode off to some other part of the house, muttering to himself. He returned with some boxes and began to unwrap artifacts from Yeavering. We were shown green glass beads, shards of rough pottery, and small metal artifacts. The best was a belt buckle that looked like a corroded black mass of junky metal. He’d had it x-rayed and found that the buckle was largely intact within this shapeless blob. Sterling silver plating was discernible, and the decorative designs could still be made out. Those designs identified the buckle as having been crafted in northern France in the 600s. This is one of the few artifacts that they’ve got a good date for, so it’s a prize.

Eventually we left with a pile of books and a promise to return later in the week.

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After lunch we drove to nearby Chillingham Castle. This is a privately owned castle that’s open for touring. Appropriately named, it’s said to be haunted, being famous in ghost hunting circles. It’s been featured on Ghost Hunters and other television programs and specials. I haven’t seen the programs, but some literature at the castle indicated that at least some of these investigators have recorded ghosts or related activity.

We didn’t see any ghosts, sadly. We were all a little weirded out by the place though. Many rooms have been restored (floors and roofs were apparently falling down when the present owner bought it) and furnished with a bizarre juxtaposition of objects: photographs from a Mt Everest expedition, old musical instruments and farm equipment, knick-knacks from Africa, wooden sleds, Mayan looking stone carvings, swords in barrels, and boxes of carpentry tools and rubbish in stairwells. Ratty carpet remnants with unfinished edges are laid up stairways and through hallways. Nearly everything is dirty and colorlessly grubby. A dusty stuffed rhinoceros head sits on a windowsill, the stitching across its cheeks coming apart; barrels hold tens of beautifully carved bone handle walking sticks; rusted knives hang on walls; rickety tables support dusty collection boxes full of huge black and green bugs from Ceylon; unidentifiable dead animal heads are stacked in corners of hallways.

The dungeons were the highlight, set up with gruesomely weird displays of torture equipment, complete with skeletons in cages, mummies tied to pikes, and clothed dummies on the rack – ! We were a little dumbfounded and highly amused at the audacity of this display. It truly was a macabre scene, and so poorly lit that any false tones were well hidden. Halloween here must be a treat (sorry).

A room labeled “Museum” on the top floor (like the whole place wasn’t a museum of the oddest type) had tables with stacks of records, posters from the 1940s, metal tools of some kind, dolls and other bric-a-brac. In the back of the room were a collection of mannequins that were artfully – unintentionally it seemed – arranged near a window. They looked so alarmed and strangely animate, that of course I spent a ridiculous amount of time snapping photographs of them. Five well-worn rocking horses set in a row were equally odd, with startled expressions in still-brilliant colors of paint yet roughly chipped and scratched. I made sure to take too many photos of those as well.

I was so absorbed in the mannequins and horses, I lost track of time and had to hurry to catch up to the rest of our group, and for that reason I missed the view from the battlements. This is somewhat disturbing to me, battlements normally being my first goal in a castle … whether the photos that I got of the mannequins and horses are worth it or not I’ll leave up to my friend M–, whose taste for the bizarre in a photograph is finely tuned…

We’d hoped to see the white cattle that run wild in the wood owned by the castle inhabitants, but didn’t think some of our party could do the walking that tour required. The cattle were introduced to the area by the Normans. A herd of a few hundred were left to go feral … “feral” is a funny word to use for cattle: it conjures up a sort of Monty Python mental picture of cows with fangs and opposable thumbs. I think, rather, that their coats just got furry and their nerves went to hell around humans … in any case, the herd was left to go feral and have been living in the area for something like six or eight hundred years (I don’t have the brochure, sorry). Apparently interbreeding for so long hasn’t harmed them at all (though one has to wonder – is it the castle inhabitants assessing that? Because judging by the state of their castle they might have run a bit feral themselves and may not be the best judges of effects of inbreeding …). In any case, it’s a unique situation, and in keeping with a trend we’re developing of seeking out farms (the organic farm/apple pressing) and farm animals (working sheep dogs as well as daily discussions about sheep), we were disappointed to miss these white cows.

After downloading photographs to show each other what crackpot object we saw that the others might have missed, we spent the remainder of the afternoon recovering from this unusual outing.

A final note regarding animals: our mill house has a bat house attached to the south wall. A colony of pipistrell bats inhabits it. None of us has seen a pipistrell, so we gathered outside at dusk in hopes of seeing them come out to hunt. We may have been too late, because we didn’t spot any tonight. Roger told us that these bats are so small that four hundred of them can fit in a shoebox. This is an astonishing fact, and makes me think that they must be tiny – certainly smaller than, say, a Ceylon beetle.

 

Tomorrow we’ll be heading to Lindesfarne … the enchanted isle.

Day 13: Lindesfarne & Pudding

Periodically throughout the day we’re buzzed by military jets here at the house. They fly low enough to make conversation impossible. They seem to make Aurelia nervous, but the rest of us have taken turns running outside to try to get a glimpse of them. They’re flying less than five hundred feet off the ground, I discovered while on my cell phone outdoors, laboring to make sense of a fast-talking Brit accent. I was grateful to the pilot for giving me the legitimate excuse to say sorry? yet again.

 

Speaking of flying objects, after consulting a few different animal books lying around the house in a quest for information on pipistrell bats, we found what we were looking for in three-year old Aurelia’s book on animals. (Go figure.) Pipistrells are the most common bat in the British Isles, living everywhere but one island … I’ve forgotten which, and Aurelia has done some three-year old thing with the book. Pipistrells bodies are, in fact, significantly smaller than a Ceylon beetle: 5cm tall. Their wingspan is 20cm wide. A friend back home logically pointed out that they live on an island; they have to be small. (He is a scientist … he’s accustomed to thinking things through, I suppose.) Although bats do fold themselves up into very small packets when roosting, we remain a bit mystified as to how four hundred of these 5cm-long bats can fit in a shoebox. And who thought to stuff them in there in the first place, though that same friend of mine also pointed out that the Brits, accustomed to cramming themselves onto a small island, are the logical ones to be cramming animals into a shoebox.

After the deep satisfaction gained through tracking down that information we probably could have retired for the day, but we pressed on with our scheduled tour to Lindesfarne.

The Holy Isle has been a place of Christian pilgrimage for 1300 years, and is now a popular tourist destination. The island can only be reached at low tide via a causeway. After half an hour drive through the countryside, we joined a steady stream of cars crossing the causeway. A large number of people were walking, having left their cars on the mainland. Carrying their shoes, jackets whipping in the wind, they were wading through shallow pools. It looked like a cold slog, and we were not very tempted to go that route. We drove the two or three mile long causeway and parked just outside the village of Lindesfarne in a grassy car park. Of all the places we’ve been, we hadn’t yet encountered crowds and now we know why: everyone’s at Lindesfarne. The whole island was quite crowded with tourists.

St Aiden founded the Lindesfarne monastery in 635AD at King Oswald’s bequest. It was originally a turf and berm or wattle and daub sort of rough building, later expanded and rebuilt of stone. Beyond this I haven’t retained many historical details of the island. The Vikings attacked here in 793AD, their first incursion onto English soil; the priory was built after the Normans arrived, and was fairly wealthy in the 9th Century. There you have it. I’m sure some other interesting things happened, but I’m sorry, you won’t read about them here.

After a pub lunch, some of us hopped on a shuttle bus out to the castle which is about a mile from the village and located atop a dramatic rocky spur. The castle was built in the 16th Century to protect the harbor. Stone was filched from the by-then defunct priory to build it. The castle was manned as a garrison for three hundred years, then it was sold to Edward Hudson, founder of Country Life magazine. He converted the building to its current state. It’s since been sold a couple more times, eventually ending up in the hands of the National Trust.

The views from the battlements were fabulous, both out across the North Sea and back toward the village where fishing boats lay stranded by low tide. Otherwise, it was a small, nicely proportioned and tastefully decorated castle: elaborately carved screens and furniture, fine carpets and wall hangings, shiny copper pots and pans, unexpected red brick floors … there was nothing so exciting as dungeons with skeletons in cages, Ceylon beetles or dusty rhino heads.

 

We drove the slow roads back to Wooler in order to pass through what shows on the map as a village called “Nesbit.” The third family in our trio of cousins from the Johnson side of the family has the last name of Nesbit (our mothers are sisters: my mother G–, Aunt Ellen who’s here with us, and V– who married a Nesbitt – two t’s). What we found was not even a shadow of a village. A junction of roads was marked with a wrought iron road sign that said “Nesbit Farm.” Deciding that the sign was good enough, we snapped a photograph of it and proceeded on down the road. Within a mile we passed a cow that had a very newborn calf, which – as you might imagine by now – we all found charming and a fine way to end our daily tour.

 

*

After a brief interlude of dealing with tire problems on the van (equivalent of AAA comes right to the door – brilliant), and after eating a delicious dinner of chicken and roasted veggies, Elizabeth and Roger came over with some German pudding wines (dessert wines) and a single malt scotch.

Lisby had walked over to their house this morning to invite them for dessert, wanting to run some of her theories on Saxon history by Roger. They’d visited for awhile, then, and he’d asked her what we had planned for the day. When she told him Lindesfarne, he asked whether we were aware that there had been an explosion there yesterday. “Should we not go?” Lisby asked, somewhat taken aback by this news. “It was just some WWII ordinance they’d found that they blew,” Roger replied. “Don’t go all American about it.”

Well, she couldn’t pass up this good-natured insult without a response. “As a matter of fact,” she said laughing, “speaking of Americans and explosions, my cousin was blown up in Iraq, so some of us have some familiarity with explosions!”

With that teaser, we began the pudding wine dinner conversation with my answering questions about having been blown up. It just so happens that Roger is blind in his left eye, the retina having come detached, so as I’m effectively blind in the right eye we thought we’d make a good pair walking down the street, as long as he walks to my right. We could strategically cover each others’ blind spots.

From there an animated conversation wandered all over the place: the plot of Lisby’s current book, racial issues and immigration, DNA studies, English prime ministers, Saxon kings, hypnosis, feminism, health care, California politics, the RAF jets that fly over the house … Roger told us more about oddball Chillingham Castle. He and Elizabeth are acquainted with the owner’s aunt with whom they were neighbors when they lived on the Isle of Skye. “Oh, he’s the black sheep of the family,” the aunt told them. (No shit … ) Sir Humphrey bought Chillingham Castle for one pound (that’s the house I’m looking for!). It was unlivable, so he kept himself afloat for a few years cadging beds off friends. While he was staying at their grand houses, he sketched their fine furniture. He’d send those designs off to China to be reproduced, then sell the reproductions! “He’s a scalliwag,” Roger told us. “A likable rogue,” Elizabeth added.

 

When Roger and Elizabeth walked out the door three hours after they’d arrived we were still laughing. It’s a treat to be able to mingle with the natives, so to speak, since so often when one travels that’s not easily accomplished. And how unusual is it to have happened across people who share our rather obscure interests in archeology and early Saxon history.

 

Tomorrow Sara will instruct Roger on the proper way to trim his apple tree.

 

Now it’s long past my bedtime …

Day 14: Heatherslaw to Etal Railway & Duddo Stone Circle

In a continuing if spottily applied effort to entertain three year old Aurelia, we’ve taken to singing in the van on the way to whatever entertainment we’ve chosen for the day. Her favorite song has become Over hill, over dale, we will hit the dusty trail … This is highly entertaining for all of us when ‘Relia gets to the lines Hit ‘em high, hit ‘em low, where the hell did that one go? She often sounds honestly curious when she sings it. We all giggle – both at her little piping voice singing this (we’re such a bad influence!), and for imagining some dopey, ill-trained soldiers stopping their shooting, looking at each other with silly quizzical expressions on their faces … where the hell did that one go?

We rode another train today. This was a narrow gauge railroad between two small villages that lie within about a mile of each other: Heatherslaw and Etal. The train winds around through the countryside along the River Till, so the mile is stretched to perhaps three miles, taking about twenty-five minutes. The small cars are open sided, which was fun through the countryside. Although the line is advertised as steam powered, the odor off the engine smells suspiciously like burning oil. Hm.

The village of Etal consists of a castle ruin, a lane of houses, a pub/inn, and a post office/tea shop. The houses are picturesque bright white cottages, some with thatch roofs. We toured the castle grounds before wandering through town.

The castle was built because this was a strategic location for hundreds of years. It’s situated on what was once a major north-south route, and sits at a crossing of the River Till. Borderland disputes often played out in the vicinity. The battle of Flodden Field took place nearby in the early 1500s, which, for those of us largely ignorant of British history, was a major battle between the English and Scots. (This is amazing – I’m going to remember these facts without a cheat sheet … ) About ten thousand Scots under James IV baited the English by destroying a few towns along the northern edges of English territory. They then retired to a hill to await an English response. Twenty thousand English soldiers showed up, but instead of attacking from the south as expected, they snuck around to the north. (Twenty thousand men wearing metal breastplates and helmets, carrying spears and dragging cannon – tiptoeing stocking-footed through the woods? Well, that’s the picture painted on the imagination by the interpretive center … one has to wonder …) By rounding to the north, the English cut off the Scots’ lines of retreat.

The Scots won the first foray, but being a rather less well-disciplined group than the English (or perhaps accustomed to different rules of engagement), instead of pressing the advantage they laid off to loot the bodies. Big mistake! The English bore down and quickly wiped them out. In the two hour battle, an estimated twelve thousand men were killed, almost all of them Scots, including James IV and most of the Scots’ leading nobles.

After contemplating this appalling carnage and the pivotal and long-lasting effects it had on the shape of the political future of the two countries, we took the train back to Heatherslaw to cheer up by touring a working mill. The mill is still powered by a waterwheel, and has the original gears and equipment. They sell the flours that they grind in an attached shop. Everything was operating while we were there, white wheat flour puffing out from between grinding stones. There were sets of period costume that visitors could dress up in, so we talked Aurelia into a blue dress with white apron and hat then giggled while she played with the plastic eggs and carrots, cooking them in the pot hanging in the fireplace. What are kids good for if not to entertain the adults around them? After all, there should be some worthwhile payback for dealing with the noisy meltdowns (especially those that take place on the road in a small van with the windows closed … )

 

We dropped Uncle Rick and Aunt Ellen back at the house to relax after the mill tour, while Lisby, Sara, Aurelia and I headed toward the historic town of Berwick Upon Tweed. We never made it that far … we thought we could make a quick stop at some standing stones along the way and in the end didn’t make it any farther than that. A guide pamphlet described the stones as a one kilometer walk from the road, but it turned out to be over a mile down a farm track so it took longer than we’d anticipated.

The five stones sit atop a hill in the center of a field of golden wheat stubble. An interpretive sign nearby suggested that the stones were placed about four thousand years ago, dated through carbon found beneath one of the stones. A human bone fragment was found in the center of the circle which was carbon dated 1740-1660 BC. There were originally seven stones, two of them having been moved in the late 1800s. No details were offered for the reason or means of moving the stones (so I imagine some drunk teenagers making off with them on a slow Saturday night …). There are cups – round and deep cup-shaped dents – pecked into some of the stones, though no one is sure why the designs were done or what they might represent.

The sky today was animated by fast-moving broken clouds. Patches of bright sunlight moved across the landscape, intensifying colors and adding some drama to the countryside and the hilltop setting of the stones. It felt great to get out and walk on dirt instead of cobblestones and flagstones, and to have to long vistas of spacious farmland. The Cheviot Hills to the west were lit beautifully by the sun. Sprouting winter wheat made some of the fields around us glow an uneaerthly grasshopper green, while the stubble fields shone deep gold or a lovely silvery pale grey depending on the angle of light.

We sang on the way back to the house – yes, over hill over dale we will hit the dusty trail … It was fine end to the day.

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