Week 3 England Chronicles: Days 15-21

Index:Day 8: The Gallops & Bolton Castle
Day 15: Bamburgh Castle & The North Sea
Day 16: Hadrian’s Wall
Day 17: Loch Ness Monster & Berwick Upon Tweed
Day 18: Bede’s World
Day 19-20: Killhope Museum & A Petrified Tree
Day 21: Durham Cathedral

Day 15: Bamburgh Castle & The North Sea

Everyone was hungry for the sea today, so we packed up our windjackets and headed east. Our first stop was Bamburgh, a village on the shore of the North Sea where one of the earliest Christian churches of England was built. There’s also a massive castle dominating a spur of rock overlooking the sea, but we didn’t do any more than photograph that from the road.

The original Bamburgh church was established in 635 AD by St Aiden, who also established Lindesfarne. St Oswald, King of Northumbria, invited him and probably paid for the church. I won’t bore you with more details, because I can’t remember them. (Apparently I retain details of battles better than those of churches … go figure.) One guidebook made the story sound like it would take more mental attention than I could drum up today. Lisby has a solid base for appreciating the strategic and influential history of this church, but my own understanding is decidedly superficial. The final paragraph that I made it through in the guidebook is worth repeating here though, for its entertainment value:

The history of this Church is rather like a teacake: there is a basic substance which holds it all together and there are the currants dotted about which are the incidents, often unrelated, which give it colour and flavour.

(The source of this quote is Saint Aidan’s Church, Bamburgh and its story through 1400 years by John Bird, should anyone want to chase down this potentially amusing publication …)

After wandering around inside the church and through the graveyard we drove south along the coast, stopping at a lay-by that offered beach access. The beach was a beautiful broad expanse of sugar sand with fingers of dark rock crawling out into the sea. Scudding clouds made the sunlight constantly shift and change, lighting up a small island offshore with a white lighthouse that practically glowed. The water was a saturated midnight blue with some delicious dark aqua areas near the shore. Behind the beach were dunes with a thick grass cover. The tall grasses blowing in the wind looked like an animal’s fur pelt, silver-tipped with dark roots. Lots of dogs were playing in the sand and water, two spaniels racing around like maniacs were funny, leaping up onto the rocks and soaring back off them into the shallow pools of water.

When Aurelia was sufficiently sandy from digging holes like a dog does it, we wandered back to the van and proceeded on to the nearby village of Seahouses. Uncle Rick wanted fish and chips. This might sound like a simple request in England, but Lisby is deathly allergic to shrimp so if the fish is cooked in the same oil as shrimp, the shop has to be nixed. We did eventually find a place that had boiled fish as an alternative, and as an added bonus they had chicken nuggets for Aurelia. Whew.

After lunch we drove inland to Alnwick to visit Barter Books. Barter’s is one of the largest second hand bookshops in England, according to its advertisements. Roger told us that it was a must in Lisby’s hunt for research material. It must be something of a landmark, as people were snapping photos of each other inside, posed by Barter’s logos. I have to admit to being disappointed by the size of it, while feeling sheepishly American as I say that. I imagined something like Powell’s (Portland, Oregon), but it was a fraction of the size of Powell’s, with a reasonably small section of books on Northumberland, one small section on boats and ships, and nothing at all that I could find on the canals of England. To their credit, there was a large section of books on trains. That section had quite a few people intently browsing through it. What is it with the English and trains?

We drove home on winding roads through the countryside, enchanted as always by the sunlight on the emerald green fields and the rich autumn colors of the heather. Today we kept seeing sheep standing in long straight queues, one perfectly spaced and waiting patiently behind another in the middle of their pastures. We thought that was very strange, and tried to think of reasons they might have for doing that. The sea and wind must have worn us out, because not only were we unable to come up with any plausible explanation, we weren’t even able to dream up some entertaining implausible ones! Disappointing …

Tonight has been exciting: we’ve killed two large ugly black spiders and the evening has hardly begun. One was discovered on the dining room floor, and another was found in the salad bowl (before we put the salad in it). The spiders are more than an inch in diameter including legs (thick black shiny disgusting legs). By general consensus it’s been declared that we’re each allowed one scream per spider. Some of us aren’t using our allotment, but that unused scream, we’ve agreed, can’t be passed off to someone else because that someone would be Aurelia. She has a horrendously piercing scream that’s supposed to scare things so badly they keel over and die on the spot. Doesn’t work (it does come close with me), but that doesn’t stop her from trying.

Spiders didn’t used to bother me, but I’ve found that with only one eye working – so attendant lack of depth of field – I’m often unable to tell exactly how far away they are so nine times out of ten if I swat at them, I miss. Then they seem always to scurry toward me, and of course I can’t tell how close they’re scurrying … then I inevitably think of brown recluse spider bites and get a little flustered which causes me to jump around like an idiot. I don’t usually shriek but I’m sure it’s all very entertaining to watch. Mosquitos are even worse, and my boyfriend certainly finds those antics entertaining at home.

We saw the pipistrell bats leaving their roosts tonight. They definitely don’t look small enough to cram four hundred of themselves into a shoebox. Maybe someone cut airholes in the box before they started jamming bats in, so as the Englishman stuffed more little bat bodies in through the top of the box, bats were wiggling out the holes at the bottom of the box.

Day 16: Hadrian’s Wall

We woke early this morning in order to drive back down to Hadrian’s Wall to visit two fort sites: Chesters and Housesteads. We’d woken to perfectly clear blue skies and mild temperatures. Our weather luck is holding up surprisingly well.

In case readers are as ignorant as I am, a brief history lesson: construction of Hadrian’s Wall was initiated by Emperor Hadrian after a visit to Britain in 122 AD. The Roman Empire was in a phase of consolidating borders. Hadrian decided that the fortifications along the northern edges of Roman influence weren’t enough to keep the pesky Picts and Scots out of Britain so he strengthened his predecessor’s frontier with the wall. Garrison troops built the seventy mile long wall in six years. Milecastles were built at one (Roman) mile intervals, with two turrets between each milecastle. Forts were built right on the wall, of which Chesters and Housesteads are two. There were originally sixteen forts right along the wall, with another fourteen off the line of the wall itself.

Hadrian’s successor built his own wall one hundred miles to the north, the Antonine Wall. The Romans couldn’t hold the Antonine line so they pulled back to Hadrian’s again after twenty years.

Chesters is set alongside the Tyne River, and the base of a Roman bridge can still be seen on the opposite shore. The fort had four gates, a barracks area, a large house that presumably belonged to the commander, some structures of unknown use, baths, and some open space. The structures were constructed of dressed native stone. The remains of the walls of the structures are generally less than one meter high now. Some steps are still in place, showing deep wear, and the gate stops can still be seen as worn holes in the stone. The commander’s house had raised floors, held up by short columns, with hot air running under them: central heating! There were stoke holes where they built fires to heat the air, moving it through with ventilation or bellows. This reminded me of Pompeii, where they had similar systems.

Housesteads is located atop a long ridge, offering commanding views in all directions. The car park is down at the bottom of the slope, so we walked half mile up on a path through a sheep pasture. The top of the ridge is a gorgeous spot, but the wind must blow all the time up there. I can imagine people getting really cranky at this posting after a month or so of being buffeted about all the time. But aggression is valued in a soldier, no? Personally, had I been a Pict, I’d think I’d have picked on a different fort, one more bucolic and restful. Chesters, perhaps.

Housesteads – The Most Impressive Roman Fort in Northern Europe, the signs grandly announce – was larger than Chesters, with a bigger complex of barracks and larger storehouses. I believe this fort was used as a central base for the towers and milecastles, although, like looking something up on Wikipedia, one ought best double check that fact. The floors of the storehouse (among other buildings) were raised the way the commander’s house floor at Chesters was raised, in this case to provide better air circulation.

Some historians maintain that Hadrian’s wall was built more to keep the Britons in than to keep the northern tribes out – it split tribal lands of the Brigantes, so it wasn’t as if there was a cultural or racial divide between the north and south. Small raids on the south were probably fairly common along the wall during the first century of its existence, but I haven’t been able to find a record of any major engagements along the frontier during the life of the wall (after an admittedly feeble effort, but I did riffle through our book collection then ask Lisby, resident expert on English history … is that sufficient?).

Attacks along Hadrian’s wall did increase in size and strength through the second half of the 300s AD as Rome weakened. The wall was abandoned by Rome around 400 AD, the forts likely taken over by local hereditary groups. By 410 the Irish, Scots, Picts and Saxons were all raiding Britain, and a weakened Rome simply told the British to defend themselves.

While Lisby is delving deeply into the history of the Saxon kings through scholarly books and detailed archaeological reports, I myself depend upon the rather more elementary Horrible Histories book series to learn about English history. It’s a bit like buying Cliff Notes written by … hm … the owner of Chillingham Castle? No, though entertaining they’re not that scalliwaggish … the Monty Python writers? Perhaps they’re not quite that clever … well, you get the idea. Titles are things like Rotten Romans, Cut-Throat Celts, Vile Victorians, Vicious Vikings, Terrible Tudors, Slimy Stewarts, and Smashing Saxons. The Terry Deary/Martin Brown books are an amusing way to learn general timelines of pivotal events or movements of people, as well as reams of totally useless and bizarre facts about almost any era in British history.

We’re all feeling sorry for English school children, comparing the amount of information they have to take in during their history courses (millennia) with the paltry amount of history an American child has to absorb (a couple centuries) – and really, our history is been pathetically simplified for schoolchildren into charming and self-aggrandizing fiction: Christopher Columbus sailing the ocean blue; pilgrims and Indians with turkeys; George Washington and cherry trees, righteous freeing of the slaves, cowboys and Indians … nice! We prefer to skip our more involved cultural and political relations to European history, Scandinavians discovering the continent, the economics of the Civil War, not to mention the long and rich history of American Indians in the Americas, and the long dirty timeline of disease killing them off. At least until we get to college, where we’re then required to unlearn everything we’d been taught (… what do you mean the Pilgrims were a rather whacky sect that reasonable people nowadays would giggle about? That they would have starved if not for the help of the Indians?! That George Washington was just another grasping politico? These are our perpetually competent forefathers! Our heroes of history!) We’ve got good raw material … we really ought to invite Deary and Brown for a quick visit …

Day 17: Loch Ness Monster & Berwick Upon Tweed

Last night Aurelia wrote a letter to her dad back home. When Sara started to put it in an envelope to mail it, Aurelia started shouting, “No! No!” She shouted that that is not the way to send a letter! She explained that you have to set it outside on the ground, letting the wind pick it up and carry it to the recipient. While this seemed like a rather chancy way to get a note across the Atlantic, Aurelia insisted it’s the only way. She ran outside and set the letter on the flagstone patio.

When Aurelia came back indoors, Sara sent her up two flights of stairs to get a doll while someone ran outdoors to retrieve the letter, hiding it, then, in Aunt Ellen’s purse. When Aurelia returned we directed her attention to the empty patio, of course, completing the happy deception.

Uncle Rick was ready to get on the road by 7:00am this morning while the rest of us were still flailing around with breakfast in our rumpled pajamas (jimjams, in British English – is that one word or two?). Uncle Rick sat on the couch in the dining room tapping his toes, hat on and jacket at the ready. But just as we’d sorted ourselves out, Roger and Elizabeth (remember the owners of our rented house?) wandered over to ask Sara to give them a tutorial on how to trim fruit trees, since she owns a stone fruit farm. The property has quite a few fruit trees, some very old and some planted just last year. It was fun to follow Sara around for awhile, as I don’t know the first thing about trimming fruit trees. Cutting above knuckles, making sure branches don’t cross each other, trimming the young trees of certain fruits to create a sort of bowl at the base of branches are all second nature to Sara and she thinks everyone knows these things. Now we do. In the meantime, Uncle Rick had a longer wait than usual. The tutorial took almost two hours.

During the course of the property tour we discovered a tree thick with butterflies near the creek that runs past the mill. They were all the same type of butterfly: orange with black markings. Butterflies are covered in one of the books at the house, but we never did get around to looking them up to find out what kind they’re called.

It was noon by the time we finished the tree tour. We scratched up a lunch of crackers with cheese and some leftover pork and potato hash for lunch before taking off to search out the Loch Ness monster, or Nessie, as Aurelia fondly refers to her.

A couple of months ago Lisby made up a story for Aurelia about Nessie, and when Aurelia was told we were planning to go to Scotland she insisted that we visit her. Since Loch Ness is a fair distance from where we are (!), Lisby and Sara improvised. They chose a lake to call Loch Ness. Any random lake would have done for the purpose of their deception, but they did go so far as to choose one in Scotland. Only just! We drove to the small city of Coldstream, which sits on the border. A large park in town has a small lake (large pond) that looked on the map as if it would work well as a Loch Ness stand-in.

On the drive north Sara and Lisby began preparing Aurelia for not actually seeing Nessie by telling her that Nessie is very shy so she might not come up out of the water while we’re nearby. (Aurelia: “She’ll come out to see me! She loves me!”) As it happened, we found signs near the car park pointing to a hide, or blind, at the lake, built to use to view wildlife – what could be better for a shy Nessie! The hide made it all just that much more … well, not plausible exactly … “Didn’t you write and tell her we were coming?” Aurelia asked Sara. “Yes,” Sara told her, “but I don’t know if she got the note, and I can’t call her because she doesn’t have a cell phone.” (Modern parenting … who’d have imagined that monsters might have cell phones?)

Of course we didn’t actually see Nessie … and Aurelia was disappointed (and perhaps suspicious … hard to tell). Aunt Ellen is sure Aurelia will hate her mother and Auntie Lisby when she grows up, resenting all the lies she was told as a child. Sara said she’s willing to take that chance on the future to avoid a crying fit today. Very practical.

We ran across our own adult amusement in the park … In a number of small towns that we’ve passed through in the last two weeks, including today, we’ve noticed signs that say Beware of Elderly. In American English, this sounds both dire and absurd – we imagine hordes of elderly people swarming out of the alleys to attack us with their canes, or wild-eyed elderly with fangs and axes leaping from the bushes! Sara locks the doors when we run across these signs. The road into the Nessie lake passed by a golf course with a sign posted by the road near a green: Beware of Golfers. Yikes! Mad hordes of golfers wielding putters? Hailstorms of golfballs flung by wild-eyed men in plus-fours? Sara hit the automatic door lock, battening down the hatches. Better safe than sorry ….

When we’d satisfied the authors of the Nessie deception, we drove south (with doors safely locked) to visit the town of Berwick Upon Tweed. By the time we’d arrived, Sara and I were the only ones interested in having a look around so while the others entertained a rather cranky three-year old in a grocery car park, we climbed onto the battlements for a stroll.

Berwick is a border town, and for centuries it changed hands on a regular basis: English, Scots, English, Scots. Although this was once a prosperous Scots port, the continuous warfare ruined the economy of the area. By the second half of the 16th Century the fortifications of the city, after four or five centuries of fighting, were in poor condition (the guidebook says dreadful condition – can you hear the accent when you say it?). Elizabeth I had the fortifications rebuilt. The new design had to take artillery into account so walls weren’t rebuilt as tall as they’d been, but were made to be very thick The walls had an outer facing of ashlared stone (build a stone wall then basically cook it with bonfires, melting the stones together), then ten to twelve feet of rubble, all backing onto a thick berm of earth. The River Tweed provides protection to the south and east sides of the town, so fortifications were built only around the north and west sides. The ramparts are all still intact with paths atop them.

Sara and I walked to the nearer end of the ramparts for a grand view across the water, then turned around and started toward the other end. A church graveyard at the inner base of the ramparts caught our attention because it looked kind of creepy. When we walked down the slope to see if a gate in the wall allowed access, which it didn’t, we noticed a barred doorway that looked as if it blocked a door under the ramparts. A tunnel? A storeroom?

As we climbed back up the grassy slope to the rampart path, an old woman stopped and told us, “Don’t go down there! It’s not safe!” She directed us to go on up a hill from which there’s a beautiful view. Her accent was a little hard to understand, but she kept insistently repeating herself so we had four or five shots at the translation. Just before she turned to walk away, she added that under us lay an entrance to a bomb shelter from the war. So that’s what that gate was for …

As we walked on we did find an open gate into the church graveyard so we spent some time wandering around there. A number of headstones were dated from the 1600s, the oldest dates we’ve found in a churchyard so far. The area had a funny feel to it; Sara and I both kept spinning around, feeling that someone had come up behind us. Our palms tingled and the trees seemed menacing. We shook ourselves off like dogs when we left.

The historic (King’s Own) Coldstream Guard’s barracks sat just across a little square from the church. We mistook the building for a palace of some kind, as it was very large and grand. The structure was built in the early 18th Century and used until 1964. It houses a museum now, but we didn’t go in. Conscious of the others waiting patiently in the car park, we backtracked along the battlements to meet up with them.


The past two weeks have been constant motion, and I think we’re all wearing down, ready for a day off (Lisby and me) or ready to go home (Uncle Rick and Aunt Ellen, Sara and Aurelia). Early tomorrow morning Lisby and I will drop everyone at the Newcastle airport, visit Bede’s World in Jarrow, and find the next rented house in the village of Witton Le Wear … where we plan to hunker down for a day.

Day 18: Bede’s World

All of us were out of bed by 4am, and had the car packed (Uncle Rick truly wedged solidly in the far back seat!) by 4:30. The drive to Newcastle was pretty quiet, and we found the airport without any trouble. Uncle Rick had his suitcase rolling, hat on and jacket across his arm while Sara and Aunt Ellen were still sorting out child paraphernalia … then they were gone!

Lisby and I parked at a nearby gas (petrol) station while we tested internet access, potentially our first connection in a week. I received a weak signal that allowed me to begin a download onto the blogsite, then repeatedly cut me off. Being that I’m a very patient person (pause for general hilarity), this went on for some time before I eventually figured out that the signal must originate at the hotel next door. I hopped a fence and sat on a stump beside their parking lot, hunched over my computer in the dark, trying to download the backlog of posts. Normally I’d be happy to leave the computer and internet hassles at home, but I am having fun writing this blog so perhaps I’ll have to invest in a mobile internet device so I can avoid skulking round in hotel parking lots, skimming open wi-fi accounts.

When 7:30 rolled around we drove the dirty van to the car hire lot and traded it in for a clean and lovely little Mercedes hatchback. It is so much easier for Lisby to drive the narrow roads with a small car – she hasn’t panicked at all since we picked it up. I’m also in as a driver now, though haven’t put a hand to it yet.

The last time I drove on the left side of the road was on a visit to the mountains of New Zealand, and then only for a few days before I became fed up with my passenger scrabbling toward me across the truck seat squealing “Too close to the edge! Too close to the edge!” I guess he thought he did a better job staying off the verge because I wasn’t squealing when I peered out the window at a two or three hundred foot drop. Little did he know, I was simply too polite to tell him that he, too, was very (very) close to the edge. We’d only been together a couple of months – you know how that goes. Anyway, it takes a lot to put me in panic … we’d perhaps have been tumbling off the cliff and I’d be thinking, “Damn it – what a mess this will be to clean up …”

Well, in any case, as it’s been nine years since I drove on the left side of the road, and I only have one eye, and because Lisby is a bit more excitable than I am (what’s with these people?), it’s probably easiest that I wait to accustom myself to driving until we’re on the slower rural roads. Tomorrow, perhaps, around Witton le Wear.


We drove east through the southern suburbs of Newcastle to visit Bede’s World in Jarrow. The suburbs were rough looking to us after the country, largely industrial warehouses and storage tanks, rowhouses with broken sidewalks, and tangles of overhead powerlines and train tracks. We took a number of detours off the main route in a continuing search for a coffee shop with wi-fi — to no avail. All we found was industrial estates with occasional interludes of box stores, and an unusual and mystifying number of car washes. I suppose it makes sense to wash one’s car more often in a dirty industrial area, yet the number we saw seemed … exuberant. It reminded me of the plethora of shoe stores that I saw two years ago in the West Midlands. Shoes in the West Midlands; car washes in Newcastle suburbs … I don’t know.


Bede’s World is an interpretive park that recreates Saxon England, built near where the Jarrow monastery once stood. I know – you’re thinking of the hokey tourist trap forts in the Black Hills or Colorado, 1967, all cheesy fake log construction and white people embarrassing everyone by dressing up as Indians … erase the image! Bede’s World is very tastefully done, with an extensive and well-presented visitor’s center, animals in authentically constructed huts and wicker fenced paddocks, and well-built examples of buildings that the people lived in and used at the time. They’ve planted trees all around the twenty acres, so when those grow to full height they’ll block out the discordant powerlines and oil storage tanks looming in the background.

The animals were the most fun for me (duh). They were all accustomed to people and came right up to the fences to poke their noses out at us. The enormous pig was crossed with a native boar that’s ancestrally close to the boars that the Saxons had snuffling around their pens. The horses are a breed the Saxons used, a sturdy animal with long hair around the feet like a Percheron. They’re not large like a Percheron, only standing about 10-12 hands I’d guess. Their backs are usually about the height of my shoulder. There were also goats, sheep, ducks and geese.

The buildings were log structures with a sort of wattle and daub wall fill: whitewashed mud over sticks. Roofs were thatched. Roger (have you forgotten already – owner of the Yearle Mill house) excavated the original Thirlings site building that they used as a template for the house at Bede’s World. He told us that at Thirlings he found convincing evidence of log buttresses propping up the walls of the structure. When he took a tour of Bede’s World he asked why those buttresses hadn’t been built. The archeologist leading the tour, who was also the head honcho at Bede’s World, told him that “the archeologist who excavated Thirlings didn’t believe that the post holes were connected with this structure.” Huh!


After fortifying ourselves with a stop at the tea shop, we headed south, still (now a little desperately) scanning storefronts for a coffee shop that might have wi-fi access. Finding nothing in the smaller towns, we deliberately chose a route through the center of Durham. A university town like Durham, we thought, would be a sure bet for wi-fi. And in fact we found a wi-fi coffeeshop within a couple blocks of the car park: success! I trotted back across a beautiful stone bridge, ignoring the gorgeous views of the cathedral above on the bluff, intent on getting to the car to retrieve my computer, excited to clean out my email and get some photos posted on Facebook. Then I trotted back across the bridge lugging my (happily indestructible if obnoxiously heavy) Toughbook laptop. I sat down, turned it on … and couldn’t connect!

“Sorry,” a bored busboy told us, “it’s out of order. No, there’s no other café in town – just the university library.” How can this be?! We’re shocked. It seems that every town of any size in the States has a coffee shop with wi-fi, and we expected the same here. Who knew?! Feeling internet jinxed, we gave up on the doomed search and drove on to Witton Le Wear to meet up with three of Lisby’s writer friends at another rental house.

The route south had us worried that we’d finally found an ugly part of England. The towns looked tired and worn, with many empty storefronts and “To Let” signs on houses. Few homes or businesses had trees or flowers planted, so the streets looked grim and colorless. Buildings were made of dark red brick instead of stone, which somehow – along with the lack of flowers – made the old ones look scruffy or derelict instead of picturesque. The countryside between towns seemed flatter and more monochromatic than what we’ve become accustomed to seeing. We passed very few bright green fields and only the rare stone wall and stone farmhouse. As we neared Witton le Wear, though, near the eastern foot of the Pennines, the land started to return to hills and valleys. Towns down along the rivers were built of stone and the gardens were bright with flowers. And Witton le Wear is one of those lovely small villages of stone buildings and flower gardens, built on slopes above the River Wear.

We had the name of the rental house in Witton le Wear, Arrow Cottage, but didn’t have an address for it when we drove into town. Since it’s such a small village we figured that wouldn’t present a problem: we’d spot the cottage on a drive-through. Oh right! These English with their privacy issues outsmarted us. We drove through town four times with no luck!

Plan B: we’d ask someone. In a small village, everyone probably knows which is Arrow Cottage, right? Oh ha ha! We stopped in at the pub, and though the door stood open, no one was inside. We asked a construction man, but he wasn’t from the village and didn’t know. We asked a woman stuffing rubbish in a bin, and she pointed us to the general vicinity but wasn’t sure which house it was, really – could be one of three she thought were for let. She suggested we knock on the door of Victoria House, just over there, and they could tell us, but when I knocked no one answered. We asked another man repairing his stone fence. He disappeared to ask the lady of the house, who suggested we inquire at Victoria House up the road – had we seen it? Hm. Nearing Victoria House then, having had no luck there the first time, we asked another man working on something quite filthy out back of a row of houses if he could help – and we finally met with success. He led me to the door of Victoria house, rang the bell, and introduced me to the man who opened the door- the owner of Arrow Cottage. The owner pointed out Arrow Cottage just across the street. He went on to say that someone was over there now, but additional details were difficult to understand because he’d just shoved a large toffee in his mouth when we rang.

We drove to the front of Arrow Cottage, and guess what? The name of the cottage is on the door, but it’s imprinted on a metal plate, basically black on black, so it’s all but unreadable from the street. Clever Brits.

One of Lisby’s friends was already at the house, so the owner (wife of Toffee Mouth Man) repeated a quick tour for us. The house has four bedrooms upstairs and another in an addition off the back of the garage (mine). It has a sitting room, a snug, a large kitchen and a dining room. The back garden is terraced, with a small lawn and some picnic tables. The land slopes down immediately beyond the back fence, so we have an enchanting view into the Wear Valley from the kitchen and garden.

By the time she finished our tour, Lisby’s other two friends had shown up. They’re only here for a week or two, so they’re excited and ready to visit everything within a fifty mile radius … Lisby and I, on the other hand, are a little worn out and ready to take a day off. Which we will do tomorrow. I’ve skipped two days of rehab exercises so far, so perhaps I’ll do an extra round between naps.

(We haven’t seen a single newt, C–, I’m sorry to say … One would think, with all the animals that we’re seeing, we’d have run into one. I’ll try to keep a closer lookout for them. We did hear frogs in the evening at the Yearle Mill house but who knows what kind they were – well, you would know of course … I meant – oh, never mind …)

Day 19-20: Killhope Museum & A Petrified Tree

I have to smack my skull a few times in each new house before my body instinctively knows when to duck. In this house I’ve hit a low doorway between the kitchen and the dining room twice, the bathroom ceiling twice, and this morning I cracked my skull on the ceiling in the bedroom. Good thing they used titanium; aluminum might be all dented up, making for a funny shaped forehead. I may need some titanium in my ankles, as well, before I get home (knock on wood) because tripping down stray single steps is another hazard with my limited peripheral vision and poor depth perception. All the houses we’ve stayed in seem to be littered with little steps up or down into adjoining rooms. Moving fast helps with depth perception because things appear to move in relation to what surrounds them, giving me a focal point – driving, for instance, can be easier than walking – so maybe if I run through the house I could solve the random stair problem! Come to think of it though, that might be a real disaster for my head. Never mind …

Lisby is trying to minimize a cold, and this morning I felt as if I might have one coming on, so we chose to forego an outing to Barnard Castle (a town, not just a castle) that the other three women had planned. They’ve been getting home after dark from their excursions and we wanted something less strenuous. We drove instead into the Pennines to visit the Killhope Mining Museum. If you’ll remember, we visited Nenthead Near Alston about ten days ago; this was an approach to the same area from the east rather than the west side of the mountains.

On the way up to the top of the mountains we stopped at St Michael’s church in Stanhope to see a 250 million year old fossilized tree trunk sitting in the churchyard amongst the graves. It was found by a local near a village just a few miles west of Stanhope. I’m not sure what I’d expected to see, but given that the Rough Guide listed it as a curiosity I guess I’d hoped that it would be more than a two foot long hunk of petrified log. In fact I wasn’t disappointed. It was the bottom of a two and a half foot-diameter tree trunk and included the tops of the roots snaking out to support it. The texture of the bark was still discernible. It was dark grey and gold sandstone, kind of dull in today’s overcast light though the shape of it with the snaky roots was interesting.

The road then followed the valley above Stanhope, passing through one little village after another. Large swaths of tree plantations or heather and bracken were interspersed with bright green fields defined by stone fences. We climbed right up near the clouds, and when we reached the Killhope Museum (appropriate name for a mining area) it was drizzling.

The museum is located on a mine site, like the one we visited at Nenthead. This one had more in-depth information that really helped bring the peoples’ experiences to life. We started with an exhibit that talked about where the area miners emigrated in the late 19th Century, as mining jobs in the area became difficult to find. A map of the world was posted with tags that visitors had pinned indicating the destinations of their own ancestors who had originated in the area. We added our great grandparents to the map, since they came from nearby Nenthead. There didn’t appear to be any part of the globe that didn’t have tags on it, save the Arctic and Antarctic.

In a small exhibit hall above the emigration exhibit was a room with cases of rocks and minerals mined from the Pennines. They had beautiful examples of many crystals that miners had found. I imagine that when a miner hit a pocket of crystals it must have been magical – seen first by candlelight as it was, and the miners not having been jaded by childhood visits to museum collections, or world-travel-by-television, or high def special effects on the big screen. Many of the miners would carefully remove crystals, referred to as “bonnie bits,” from the glittering mini-grottos that they ran across and pocket them, though the minerals technically belonged to the company that they worked for and were supposed to have been reported. The miners would trade duplicates with other miners to get stones that they didn’t have in their own collections. During the long winter nights Victorian era miners would build elaborate grottos and scenes using the crystals, setting them in wood boxes, of which ten or twelve were on display in the rock and mineral room. They were beautiful and strange little scenes, every surface covered with glittering crystals, looking to me like altar pieces.

One of our shared family traits is a fascination with rocks, and Lisby and I wondered aloud today if that didn’t start with our mining ancestors. Our grandmother, not long before she died, became very upset that her father’s rock collection had been lost somewhere over the years. “The girls ought to have the rock collection,” she told Aunt Ellen over and over. Seeing these crystals, rock collections, and the crystal constructions (called spars), it seems likely that Grampa’s collection was a little bit more interesting and perhaps more valuable than any of us had imagined.

Out on the grounds of the museum was a small stone hut, apparently typical of miner’s houses in the 18th Century. It was no more than 12×16 feet, and reminiscent of western US frontier houses – very simple. Another building housed a blacksmith on the ground floor, with the mine clerk’s office and a bunkhouse room upstairs. The bunkhouse room was grim. Men who lived farther than six miles away would stay for a week at a time in the room. It measured perhaps 14 x 14ft, and had a fireplace on one wall, with three-story bunks crowded everywhere else. One of the guides told us that they also at times set planks across the interior ceiling supports for additional bunks. Three or four men slept in each bed (about 4ft wide), with a small boy sleeping cross-wise at their feet. A description of this bunkroom by a visitor in the 1870s described eight inches of dirt on the floor, with coughing and hacking and spitting inhabitants crowded in; he said that he’d rather spend eight hours in the mine than fifteen minutes in this room. Many of the men were sick from the lead and ore dust, and could often barely keep food down so they were malnourished as well while living in this squalor. Not surprisingly, a lot of men died of tuberculosis.

Some boots stood next to the bunks, typical of those the miners wore. They had thick wood soles with metal around the outside rim of the bottom. The uppers were of leather. The mine always had some water in it, and during spring melt and rainy weather the water could get more than a foot deep. The men couldn’t take the boots off to let them dry, or the leather would become so hard and misshapen that they’d never get the boots on again. They had to sleep in the wet boots, letting their body heat dry them as much as possible. So on top of the tuberculosis, lead poisoning, and black lung, their feet had trench rot. Lovely way to live!

Peat was used in the fireplace to heat the bunkhouse. They also made balls of coal dust and clay that they’d burn. The coal dust would burn out of the clay slowly, making the 3-4 inch diameter balls hot, then the clay would hold the heat, saving them peat.

Many of the miners lived within six miles of the mine, walking or riding horses to work. They were nearly all smallholders, so besides the mine salaries they were farming a bit. They probably had a few sheep, maybe a pig or cow, and a garden to feed the family.

Outdoors in the mine yard the rail tracks, sluicing structures and buildings were largely in place. A few ore cars stood on the tracks. Wheelbarrows with wooden wheels were being used by a visiting group of children who were washing ore the way children did in the 1800s. Stone walls and flagstone floors defining different areas of the above-ground mining operation were also in place: washing stations and that sort of thing. Three water wheels were working, the largest of which powered crushing and washing operations later in the century.

The whole museum was beautifully done, with a great deal of information that we hadn’t come across elsewhere.


As we drove back down the valley, the drizzle stopped and bits of sunshine popped through the clouds. Temperatures are mild again, in the low 60s F I’d guess, but autumn is visibly coming on now. Just since I arrived in England the trees have gone from summer green to losing a few yellow or red leaves as the gusty winds blow. It’s a lovely Indian summer. The cold drizzle up on the mountain was temporarily welcome though – I think the swollen spots on my head have gone down.

Day 21: Durham Cathedral

Headline today: “Girl banned from selling granny”


We had a slow start this morning. While I did rehab exercises and took a shower, everyone else slept in. After breakfast Lisby and I spent some time booking B&B’s for our trip south via the Welsh border. We’ve decided to go first to Keswick, in the Lake District, for one night in order to visit the nearby Castlerigg stone circle site. Tuesday we’ll drive south past Manchester and Liverpool to St Dieniol’s Library, which sounds interesting and may end up being a reconnaissance for Lisby. She’s interested in it for research possibilities in the future. Then we’ll move to Hay-on-Wye for one or two nights. This is a Welsh town renowned for its second hand bookstores – always a draw for members of our family. We’ll spend the next one or two nights near Avebury and Stonehenge before heading to our Cornwall house for a week.

After we’d booked two places and scoped out a couple more on the internet, we packed up our cameras and cough drops for a trip into nearby Durham. The Durham cathedral was our only real goal, though the town looks interesting and probably deserves a day or two of poking around.

The cathedral was built on the site of an early wood Saxon cathedral. The Saxon church had been built to house the remains of St Cuthbert – one of Lisby’s interests from the 7th Century. The current Norman-Romanesque cathedral was completed in the early 1100s. The pointed arches in the nave were the first pointed arches built in England, allowing them to make the vaulted ceiling significantly higher than any other English cathedral at the time. Inside, the massive pillars that support the arches have geometric designs carved into them. The designs looked Moorish to me, and in fact a guidebook later confirmed that influence (Spanish art history class pays off, three decades later!). Decorative narrow columns of polished black marble with fossils of shells and plants were set around some of the large sandstone pillars. No photographs were allowed in the cathedral, unfortunately, so I couldn’t get an image of the unusually beautiful fossil stone. The marble is described as a being from Weardale (this area of the country), though the specific location of the deposit wasn’t identified. The sandstone itself is striking as well, having deeper red swirls and whorls that look like marbled paper.

A shrine of St Cuthbert, located behind an intricately carved choir, still holds Cuthbert’s remains. A legend says that when Cuthbert’s body was exhumed to be moved here in 1104, four hundred years after he died and was buried at Lindesfarne, the corpse showed no signs of decay. One guidebook attributes the preservation of his body to the monks having laid him in sand containing salt crystals, though the people at the time naturally attributed his state to something more mystical.

I was the only one of our group interested in climbing 325 steps to the top of the cathedral tower. Climbing the steps didn’t turn out to be hellacious, but the spiral staircase was so narrow I felt as if I were nearly standing in place spinning around while I climbed. I was terribly dizzy by the time I got to the top. Some of the stone steps up the tower were so deeply worn, they’d added two and three inch-thick pads of concrete to fill them back in. I’m not sure why, but that sort of wear on stone gets me all excited – it’s as if I can actually see all those individual feet shuffling up the stairs over the centuries, each one stepping on the same area of stone, each person with their own thoughts and purpose. (I know: archeologist nerd!)

At the top of the stairs, the tower roof had chicken wire stretched across wood slat walkways. This seems to be a fairly common no-slip surface at heritage sites we’ve visited, and for some reason strikes me as especially clever. Why waste money on high-tech surfaces when you can stretch some chicken wire across a board? I also like it for its name, which – of course – makes me think of chickens, which are kind of goofy animals that are amusing to think about. When you pick up a living one it feels hollow, but when you eat one you find that they have quite a lot of meat on them. Go figure.

The tower offered gorgeous views across the whole city and beyond to the hilly countryside. Once again it was a day of sunshine with scattered clouds, so the sunlight played across rooftops and the green fields outside the city. The view was well worth the climb. It was a little difficult to take photographs, as they’d placed vertical bars in the stone window openings to keep people from falling out, but I did my best. It might have been easier had I taken the camera strap off from around my neck, but I was afraid I’d drop the camera, then, while holding it outside the bars. Aside from losing a nice camera that I recently paid a lot of money for, it could have landed on a passing curate – like flying off the cliff in a car, someone would have had to clean up that mess. Yuck.

When I’d made it back down the stairs and recovered my balance, we had a spot of tea at the cathedral café before ambling through some of the old narrow streets on our way back to the car. Some of our group stayed in town to attend Evensong at the cathedral. I opted for a nap.


Last night we found some pub quizzes online, leading to a raucous evening that confirmed our vast ignorance of British pop culture. Between the five of us (as if I actually knew anything!) we did ace the British monarchy quiz, so we quit after that one. For those who don’t know about pub quizzes, some pubs hold weekly or monthly quiz nights – sort of like a Trivial Pursuit game night. Two of our group, Alicia and Lynn, want to hunt down a pub quiz in the area, while Lisby is leery of publicly humiliating ourselves … I think it might be amusing, and a generous sacrifice on our part: what Brit wouldn’t love to watch a bunch of aging American women publicly and good-naturedly flaunt their profound ignorance, and by association flaunt the ignorance of all Americans? The only thing to beat that might be a group of French doing it …


Today I successfully ducked in all the right doorways to avoid cracking my skull open, so perhaps the bicycle helmet suggested by some of you has become unnecessary. A bit of personal trivia: thirty-three years ago today (October 1st) I dislocated and broke my little finger catching a football – American, not soccer football. Until I was blown up, that was the only bone I’d ever broken! I know … fascinating, eh? With any luck, the broken face-skull-heel-wrist bones will be the last I break in this lifetime … efficiently did them all in a lump sum instead of messing around breaking bones one at a time as some people do.


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