Week 4 England Chronicles: Days 22-28

Index:
Day 22: Escombe Church
Day 23: Inadvertent Horse Event
Day 24: Darlington & High Force
Day 25: Long Meg & Castlerigg Megalith Sites
Day 26: Bangor Is Y Coed & St Deiniol’s Library
Day 27: Hay on Wye via Wales/England Border
Day 28: Caerleon Coliseum & Lacock Abbey

Day 22: Escombe Church

We woke to a light drizzle today, the first day of moisture in a long time. Perhaps the weather can stand as an excuse for our not eating breakfast until 10am and not getting off on the latest excursion until after noon, but really I think it’s the nature of this group of women. Being an early riser, I’d probably be antsy about the pace if I didn’t have my hour of rehab exercises to get through. The past two days I feel a bit groggy from a cold, too, so meandering through the morning works out.

We kept the itinerary simple today: Escombe’s early Saxon church. It was the perfect counterpoint to the overwhelmingly grand cathedral at Durham yesterday. This is a small stone church set on a walled circular green at the center of the village of Escombe. It’s thought that the location was likely a pre-Christian (pagan) sacred site or cemetery before the church was built, and may have had a stone circle on this location back in the far reaches of time.

The church is the oldest, most complete Saxon church in England. It’s a long narrow building with a roof patterned on an upturned boat. Many of the stones appear to have been taken from the ruins of Vinovia Roman fort at nearby Binchester. One stone has bas relief designs of a Roman altar stone; another has Roman writing on it – REG VI. Regiment VI was stationed at nearby Vinovia during at least part of the three hundred year Roman occupation, proven through archeological investigations at the fort. Another stone has a narrow, deeply worn groove as if from the wheels of Roman carts; yet another is in the shape of three shallow stair steps.

The interior is very simple, with whitewashed walls and minimal decoration. At one time it was covered with frescoes, and a few traces can still be seen high up on one wall, and on the inside of an arch that separates the congregation from the altar. (That arch is thought to have been pinched from the Binchester Roman fort, too.) In front of the altar was a slab of the black fossil marble that I mentioned seeing yesterday in the Durham cathedral. This was unpolished, so it was dark grey with the fossils a dull white. The stone comes from a town called Frosterly, which we drove through on the way up to the Killhope Museum two days ago. The slab covers the tomb, but no one knows any longer who’s buried there.

The proportions of this church are very nice, and the small scale makes it feel intimate and friendly. Large cathedrals like Durham, with their extravagant richness in decoration, are certainly stunning but I think I’d prefer a weekly visit to something more along the lines of this simple church. Enough people must feel similarly, as the building has been used continuously since the 600s AD. Services are still held every Sunday morning.

 

Cousin Lisby and I made a quick trip to Bishop Auckland for provisions, then we all just lounged around the house, napping and writing. Three out of the five of us have colds, which cause us to tire quickly. If we weren’t so comfortably ensconced in a roomy house I doubt we’d be so willing to just hang around indoors, but we are – luckily!

The drizzle ended and the sun is shining through clouds now, with a light wind … a very pleasant early evening.

Day 23: Inadvertent Horse Event

I took a walk down the public footpath behind our house today, heading for Witton Castle where a horse event was taking place. There’s a wild wind blowing with gusts up to 70MPH, so the forest was roaring, upper branches blown horizontal. I like the crazy wildness of big wind, but get a little nervous with it in a forest. For months after I got out of the hospital, one of my many fears was of trees falling on the house in Rockville. This wasn’t a rational fear; it was just one small fear out of many, the many stemming from a general and acute awareness that, as I put it at the time, anything can happen.

About four months after I got blown up, the Washington Post ran an article about vets with PTSD, one of whom was asked what he’s afraid of, if he could articulate it. He said that he was afraid of everything, because “anything could happen.” -!- The interviewer said, “What do you mean by anything?” When I read that my first thought was, “What a dolt – he said it: anything.” I knew exactly what he was saying. A tree could fall on me; a crazy loon could walk into the grocery store with a gun and start shooting; some maniac could break into the house and strangle me (I’d never get away with one foot in a cast, one arm useless, one eye blind and my brain whipped up on Percocet!); a gas leak could blow up the house; a car could lose control and hit me; a rabid porcupine could leap out from behind a bush and bite me; the Coke can sitting in the parking lot could blow up; a piece of a broken satellite could come streaking through the atmosphere and take off my head … truly, I could go on and on. Anything could happen! If you put just a little bit of time and imagination into this (and obviously I put quite a lot) it’s possible to come up with some truly outrageous possibilities, which can be a lot of fun. I recommend it as a passing amusement for those who are normally fairly well-adjusted and fearless, and I’d suggest that you don’t play the game with a veteran without checking the strength and resiliency of their ability to laugh at themselves … a sense of humor, the sicker the better I think, may be a key to training oneself out of the silliest of the fears.

Well, these were my light and cheerful thoughts as I tripped through the windy countryside under a crystal clear blue sky … wait, I came all the way to England to think about this?! Please! I turned my attention back to the path, which was somewhat treacherous for a one-eyed goofball who didn’t know the way to get to where she was going. Yes, I left the house heading for Witton Castle without actually knowing exactly where Witton Castle was located beyond a rather vague downhill and across the river. And yes, we have a map: I didn’t think to bring it.

So I wandered down the public footpath to the railway embankment, climbed the stone steps up and over the tracks and down more steps to a gravel road. There I made a bold decision to turn left. After a few hundred meters I came to a paved road, and turned right in order to cross the bridge because – yes, the castle is across the river. Once across the river I flailed a bit, wandering about half a mile too far to the right until I caught the sound of a loudspeaker behind me … I followed the sound over a rock wall into someone’s private wood, snuck past a sheep corral, ducked under a wire fence, and found another gravel road that led right onto the grounds of the horse event. Brilliant.

I don’t know what this horse event is called. I’m more of a rodeo sort of western horse person. I should re-read those British horse mysteries – what’s the author’s name? This is a three and a half mile course laid out over a few hundred acres, with a bunch of different jumps: downhill, uphill, logs, metal poles, brush, hedges, over water, landing in water … it looked complicated. As I strolled out of the woods, a horse came loping down the slope on my right and leapt over a brush fence about thirty meters in front of me. Yikes! I froze for a moment, but there were other people just standing around even closer to the jump than I was, so I guessed that I wasn’t in the way. As I followed these other people along the gravel road up the hill, I noticed lots of pairs and trios of people walking all over the course, examining the jump approaches, standing beside the jumps as if waiting for the next horse … it seemed really weird to me, like allowing the public to wander through the arena while the bucking bronc event was going on at one end – eek!

Oddly enough, I didn’t actually go to this event to watch it. Lisby and I had been ready to walk out the door this morning when we realized that our car keys were missing. We assumed that Julie, being kind of an annoying chuckle-head, had picked them up thinking they were a set of house keys. Julie was at the horse event, so I was hoping to find her. Fat chance! I gave it up quickly after seeing how much country the event involved, and feeling a bit timid about moving around through it as casually as others seemed to do. I was worried that there were customs and rules about when and where to walk that others knew and that I wasn’t picking up on just by watching them cross the fields. A man on a motorbike passed by me a few times, making rounds of the jumps, and I was tempted to ask him if an earnest, vain, self-dramatizing sixty-something year old American woman had hit on him and if so, could he please point out her location to me. Though he had a crooked grin and a twinkle in his eye that suggested to me that he might find the question amusing (and that he could be from the York area – remember, they all seemed to be about to break into good laugh), I nixed the idea as unlikely to yield results. I watched a few horses over the five jumps near me, wandered up the hill to where some cars were parked, scanned the people I could see on the course without finding Julie, then wandered back into the woods toward home.

I took my time walking back to the house, enjoying the trees whipping around against the blue sky and avoiding all thoughts of one falling on top of me. The atmosphere here has often been kind of hazy, so this crystal clear blue sky and bright sun was wonderful. Once home I ate some lunch and took a nice nap.

A few hours later Alicia called us to ask if we were missing our car keys … well, as a matter of fact we were! She’d picked them up on the way out the door when she left on the Alicia/Lynn daily excursion. Shame on us for jumping to conclusions: it wasn’t chuckle-headed Julie after all! We felt suitably sheepish and have vowed to amend our ways (or try … maybe best not to hold your breath). Alicia felt so badly for stranding us at home all day, she generously took us out to dinner in Wolsingham.

Day 24: Darlington & High Force

Twenty or thirty miles west of Witton le Wear in the Tee valley is a waterfall called High Force. Great name! Straight to the point! I decided to end the day with a walk through the woods to take a look at it, as an antidote to the first part of the day, which was spent in the car. Lisby is using Darlington and Salton by the Sea as settings for scenes in her current book, so we drove around the edges of those towns, only getting out of the car briefly in Salton for the views.

Salton is perched on red clay cliffs two or three hundred feet above a wide sand beach. The Victorians liked to spend weekends in the town, and it retains the flavor of that era. The tall buildings overlooking the sea are of fussy, picturesque Victorian style, and a small funicular, in keeping with the era, runs up and down between the town and the waterfront. The upper boardwalk offers beautiful, sweeping views of the cliffs to the south, green fields farmed right up to the cliff edge. Below is the wide beach with a long pier and surfers in the waves. To the north is a distant area of industry including a line of nuclear power plants…

One of the small luxuries of traveling, for me, is being able to look at a landscape and appreciate its beauty without contemplating contexts or judging the effects of short-sighted human politics on it, which I do all the time in the States. For example, when I see a lovely river in Minnesota or Oregon, I don’t just see the winding river and rolling green farmland surrounding it – in my mind I see the farm pesticide/herbicide runoff and the factory upriver spitting junk into the watershed; I see the invasive species and the reservoir downriver generally messing with the entire ecosystem. When I drive across western South Dakota or through the Owyhee uplands of Oregon, I notice the overgrazed pastures, denuded riparian areas, and noxious weeds. In other words, I can complicate a beautiful view with hardly any effort at all! I know that there are equivalent issues here in England but somehow I’m able to ignore them and assume that all the rivers we see are clean and free-flowing, all the farms are organic, and the wild animals have fully adapted to an intense human presence over the past few thousand years. Ignorance is bliss!

The sight of a line of huge concrete nuclear reactors in the States would trigger some black jokes and reflection on the social and political implications of nuclear energy, since it can be such a loaded issue there. Seeing them here in England, though, I did little more than note the dumpy proportions of the hourglass figures and move on. Practiced ignorance …

We’d have stayed to walk on the beach at Salton, but a biting wind was blowing. Since the clouds have disappeared, the temperatures are brisk. Lisby and I are both still recovering from colds so we skipped the windy walk.

We drove home round the edge of Darlington, Lisby needing to see nothing but the area around a city park. After a quick salad at the house, I headed off to High Force. The roads I chose to take were rural ones through rolling pastures and over some wide open moors. Some of the moors are so like high areas of Wyoming or southeastern Oregon, it gives me a form of vertigo. I feel as if I’ve been transported home. Looking closely breaks the spell, since there’s more grass here and the brush is not sagebrush but heather and bracken. And of course, I didn’t see any overgrazing, or contemplate the use of pesticides and herbicides; I didn’t note noxious weeds or wonder how polluted the River Tees might be! Once again, with the sun shining and big puffy white clouds, the English landscapes were enchanting. The lower pastures were brilliant green, the river was sparkling as it wound through the bottom of the valley, and the sky overhead was a saturated blue. The High Force falls were beautiful, but even if I hadn’t seen the falls I’d have been satisfied with the drive.

The falls lay at the end of a wide gravel path down off the bluffs of the Tees Valley. Cliffs of 300 million year old rock hem the water into a gorge, squeezing the river through a narrow cut. The falls are about one hundred feet high, twisting around a corner in a cascade before pouring over the high drop. The walkway leads first to the base of the falls, next to a large pool surrounded by boulders, then continues on up a stone stairway to the top of the falls. There I’d have had to scramble across boulders to actually see the top cascades and I wasn’t quite comfortable doing that alone without half crawling, which seemed too undignified for the moment. And even at a crawl it would have been possible to misjudge a step, slip and do a face plant! I have enough dents in my head already from the low beams and slanted ceilings of Arrow Cottage. (And I’d have to clean the mess up – sigh.)

I have to admit that this sort of curtailment of outdoor activity requires some effort to get used to, and is more bothersome to me than most other changes that having one eye has imposed. Having worked on a Wild & Scenic river for six years or so, I became quite good at rock-hopping smoothly across long boulder fields, for instance, and liked doing it. Requiring a certain mindless flow of intuitive decision-making, it feels like dancing and is really an enjoyable little skill.

But …I can still see; I have one good eye! This thought always cheers me up and reminds me to quit whining and get on with it. I settled on a rock next to a contented looking older woman and enjoyed watching other people pick their way across the boulders and lean out over the cliff to see the upper falls. The power of the falling water thrummed through the rocks that we were sitting on. When the sun disappeared behind a big tree, I made my way back to the car and drove back to Witton le Wear through the valley and over the moors, stopping here and there to take pictures of the land lit up by the setting sun.

Tonight, our last night at Arrow Cottage, Alicia is cooking up a feast of pork loin and vegetables. After dinner there will be a poetry reading – this is a group of writers, if that makes this sound any less esoteric or contrived. Since there’s plenty of wine with the meal, it promises to be an amusing evening …

Day 25: Long Meg & Castlerigg Megalith Sites

We packed up our scattered belongings in an uncharacteristically energetic whirlwind of activity this morning, four of us heading to Keswick and the fifth to York. Lisby and I dropped Julie (the one to York) at the Durham train station then drove the high road across the moors, passing again through Nenthead. We’re enamored with that road, each time blown away all over again by how similar the country looks to western South Dakota.

Once across the moors we made our way to Long Meg and Her Daughters, a stone circle near the village of Little Salkeld. We drove right to the site, for once. Usually we circle a goal for awhile, lost on small roads and spitting ourselves off roundabouts in the opposite direction to what we’d intended. We can both be a bit dyslexic, so “go right” instructions from the navigator often translates to a left turn, and vice-versa. To complicate matters, left turns feel like right turns feel in the States, since crossing traffic isn’t required during execution. Because left turns feel like right turns, and right turns feel like left turns, we use an abbreviated correction introduced by Sara weeks ago, shouting “Conceptual left!” or “Conceptual right!” as needed.

That is really only one aspect of the many difficulties we routinely encounter while navigating roads in England, and one with a semblance of a solution. In any case, we’re getting much better at picking our way on rural roads. And the 1:25,000 map we have of this area probably had a bit to do with today’s dead reckoning … (ya think?!)

Long Meg stone circle is located at the end of a narrow one lane country road. The circle is actually an oval at least three hundred feet in diameter at the widest, I would guess, with stones spaced at intervals of a few meters all the way around. The stones are all fairly large, 1m or more in height. Some have fallen but the majority are still in place. One taller stone stands outside the circle – presumably Meg (the rest being her daughters?). That one is nearly 3m tall, and a profile of a face can be seen in the stone from two angles.

A track in to the adjacent farmer’s yard runs through the site, though that doesn’t detract from it. Cows graze in the next pasture, and some big beautiful oak trees grow next to the circle. The sun was shining yet again, a few puffy cumulous clouds and long streaks of feathery white cirrus set off the blue of the sky and deep green grass. It was a very peaceful spot. There were only a couple other people visiting the site while we were there. We walked around the whole circle, then sat for a few quite awhile, just soaking in the quiet.

About half an hour’s drive west from Long Meg lies another better known stone circle called Castlerigg. We’d agreed to meet back up with Lynn and Alicia there, so after an hour or so at Long Meg we drove on over. On the way my camera decided to act up – a daily occurrence. I banged the side of it with the heel of my hand a few times … I know it’s a finely tuned piece of expensive electronic equipment, Nikon no less, but it usually works. This time it didn’t. I took the battery out and put it back in, turned it on, turned it off, turned it on, punched some buttons that restore default settings, took out the battery, put it back in, smacked it two or three times and cussed quietly. Suddenly it came to life! Alas, it paid me back for beating it so mercilessly: it erased all my photos of Long Meg! Dastardly little machine. I’ve vowed to treat it better … (fingers crossed)

Castlerigg deserves all the attention it gets, being set on a spacious hilltop with stunning views of valleys and mountains all around. This is the Lake District, but it could just as well be called the Mountains District. Where the high moors are old rounded high humps of worn mountains, the mountains here are sharper and more imposing, with peaks and defined spines. The slopes aren’t wooded, though, as they are so often in the western States. Bracken and heather grow over them, creating broken blankets of gorgeously rich umbers and burnt reds. Swaths of green fields shorn by sheep climb up the lower edges, and some areas higher up have the silvery ochre sheen of dry grasses. The circle sits atop a grassy knoll with these stunning views in every direction.

As we walked up the grassy slope to Castlerigg, a man in front of us talked an old woman on a walker up the hill, teasing her. The last time you were here you probably skipped up this slope, I’m guessing. She was smiling. While we see people on crutches and walkers and in wheelchairs in the most unlikely places all over England, I would never expect to see it in the States. Why is that? Here people who can hardly walk are out walking slowly and laboriously down village streets, on country roads, and apparently even across grassy slopes to visit stone circle sites. It’s quite beautiful and inspiring.

Castlerigg circle is perhaps a little over one hundred feet in diameter, stones placed within a couple of meters of each other all the way around. A rectangle of stones lies within the circle on one side, as well. There were quite a lot of people at the site. Aside from the walker-woman, there were some mountain climbers who were sitting on a rock with binoculars picking out routes on surrounding mountains; a young man in motorcycle leathers smoked a cigarette, snapping pictures and looking a little self-conscious. Two or three couples were shooting photos of each other, laughing, taking turns posing against the stones with their faces turned to the sun. I had as much fun watching the people as anything. Everyone was acting playful and relaxed. With the walker-lady sitting on a stone, hang gliders soaring over one of the mountains, and the sunshine moving across the hill, this was an absolutely lovely place.

Eventually we tore ourselves away, driving on to nearby Keswick to check in to our B&B. As soon as we got our keys I dumped my bag and took off to wander around town.

The buildings in Keswick are mainly brilliant white stucco, or dark grey stone that’s more slate-looking than the stone of Northumberland. Overall, thinner pieces are used, walls looking like they’re made of stacked flagstones. The stone is dark and sharp-edged enough that buildings made from then could easily look dour and forbidding, but the eaves of the buildings are often patterned and painted white, and with colorful flowers blooming in window boxes and small gardens, the end effect is cheerful.

The main street of the village is given over to pedestrians, of which there were many. Although I heard some German, French, Italian and eastern European languages, the majority of people seemed to be British vacationers. The ambiance of the town reminded me of Bozeman or some Colorado mountain towns: total granola. Everyone was wearing fleece, Goretex, and hiking boots. I passed six outdoor gear stores then quit counting.

When I’d walked the length of the main street I followed signs to the lake. When the signs disappeared, as they so often do in England, I took some wrong turns and made some useless loops, wondering how I could make something as simple as finding a large lake so difficult. I screwed myself up by thinking that I should be able to see the lake from the town, but it isn’t really possible. A small hill lies between the bulk of the town and the lake. Eventually I found an extensive formal garden backed by a hill (the hill – the obstacle!) and poked around its edges until I found the damn lake.

The lakes here are like the Finger Lakes in New York: very long and narrow. The view that I found from a grassy knoll covered with goose pooh was … well, I’m tired of saying every view in England is beautiful, lovely, stunning. I sound like a broken record! I found a lake that was maybe five hundred or more meters wide, its surface reflecting the mountains behind it. Two well-proportioned islands with shaggy woods overhanging the banks looked like they were drifting in the reflected sky. A line of docks ran off along the left bank, seagulls perched atop each piling. A few sheep grazed around me on the grassy hill, not at all alarmed by my presence. A big flock of geese were grazing their way up the hill toward me. Beautiful? I guess it was ok … could have been ten degrees warmer. And what’s with that damn hill in the way?

 

We met up with Lynn and Alicia for dinner. Alicia pointed out that it’s so interesting to go from one landscape to something completely different within fifty miles. In the States we can drive five hundred miles, starting and ending in the flats of the Midwest, or in the Great Basin sagebrush. England is like taking the US, subtracting the deserts, and shrinking it down to a manageable size.

We walked to the lake again in the dark after supper. Since I’d figured out all the wrong ways to get to the lake earlier, they put me in the lead. I heard some low whining sounds as we walked, so I’m not the only one who thinks the lake should be closer to the center of town … see? Everything in England isn’t perfect.

Day 26: Bangor Is Y Coed & St Deiniol’s Library

I’m comfortably lounging in a silent, intimate old library snuggled in a wing of a grand stone building. Founded by William Gladstone in the 1800s, St Deiniol’s Library now offers lodging for travelers and scholars. We taken rooms here for one night.

We left Keswick just after breakfast this morning, driving south through a steady rain. The first part of the journey must be beautiful on a clear day, passing by lakes and winding through small villages. The clouds hung so low and the rain at times came down so hard today, we saw little of the countryside.

Once out of the Lakes District we hopped onto the freeway, the M6 I believe, and zoned out. Freeways are freeways everywhere, flattening the landscape and dulling it down. We were reduced to giggling at road signs. “Lane closed due to bridge abutment repair,” one told us. Another said, “Lane closed for repair of worn out roadway.” Can you imagine any DOT in the States giving us this much information on a road sign? Hardly! “Road Work Ahead” is about all we’re likely to get. I appreciate it that the English transportation department feels that we deserve to be told a bit more than that. I almost feel like I have a say in the plan.

Perhaps the same spirit that moves the British transportation people to give us details regarding what sort of work is being done on the road also inspires them to give us a great deal of detail regarding direction by painting many lines, arrows and words on the roads. This is something we honestly don’t appreciate quite so much. Some of the instructions can be puzzling, confusing, or even alarming. The route names and numbers painted in large letters in the various lanes of wide and fast-moving roundabouts strike us as distracting and impossibly useless. The upside-down triangles painted in a lane to indicate the lane must yield at a junction become less confusing as our minds reprogram themselves; the first intuitive translation says it’s an arrow pointing traffic toward us, which means we’re on the wrong side of the road – and when you’re driving on the “wrong” side of the road to start with, this message can throw the intuitive mind into instant panic! A simple left/right – only two choices!! – suddenly takes on the complexity of quantum physics.

But our least favorite road marking is when they’ve written “No Entry” upside down in the lane we’re driving in. We read the words upside down and process the message about four seconds before we process the fact that the message is upside down and so not meant for us. Inevitably Lisby and I notice this message on a road at the same moment. We both suck in our breath as our heart rates shoot through the roof! The brakes go on, then – oh! It’s upside down … damn it – why do they do that!?

On the other hand, I have a favorite road marking convention: large white arrows painted in arcs across the centerline, presumably letting drivers know that it’s safe to pass in the direction of the arrow. For some reason the arrows strike me as rather whimsical for their large size and jaunty arc. They also seem like total overkill for the message, which makes me giggle. Our USA solid yellow lines painted on one side or the other to indicate the same thing seem coldly efficient, soulless and obscenely minimalistic next to these arrows bounding across the centerline. I would like to suggest that we use the arrows instead. I would like the arrows, too, to be cleverly drawn animals: rabbits hopping, for instance, arcing across the centerline, ears the back points of the arrow. This would add quite a lot to any road trip, in my opinion.

 

The countryside here is flatter, less spectacular though still pretty. Instead of stone being the predominant building material, here it’s red brick. Some red sandstone can be found, used primarily for churches, cathedrals, bridges and other public works, and the lower courses of large older houses. Interspersed with the red brick buildings are Tudor style black and white structures. The nearby city of Chester is noted for them. At the time many of them were built, timber was scarce. Using timber to build was a sign of wealth, and leaving them exposed was a way to show off that wealth.

When we neared Chester, we looped around it to the south and shifted back onto local roads. We drove through small towns named for what are presumed to be Lisby’s ancestors, related to St Cudda. We also visited some possible sites of a notable battle instigated by a Saxon Northumbrian king in about 815 AD, King Aethelfrith.

Bede and a few others wrote that King Aethelfrith met the English at battle somewhere in this area. Prior to the battle, twelve hundred unarmed monks ringed the battlefield. By the end of the battle Aethelfrith’s men had slaughtered them all. This was an unholy (sorry – irresistible pun) number of men to die in any battle during that time. That they were unarmed monks is said to have been unconscionable, so reprehensible as to turn his own men against him.

Aethelfrith in particular is part of Lisby’s scholarly obsession with the Saxon kings, as it’s likely that he’s an ancestor of hers on her father’s side (so no known relation to me, our mother’s being our link).

I’ve listened to Lisby’s theories and asked her numerous times to repeat what she knows and what she suspects about all of this, and I still can’t remember the details. (It’s a gift, really.) I do better with remembering oddities and bizarrities. Here’s one: our first stop was Bangor-is-Y-Coed, a small Welsh village with a charming stone bridge over the River Dee. A stone church beside the river held an odd surprise. I’d stepped around the corner of a billboard pinned with children’s drawings, and was startled by a rather realistic looking man in a monk’s brown robe seated at a small desk. He had his hood up, paper in front of him, pen in hand. Thinking that this was a weird thing to put in the corner of a church, I turned around toward the altar … and I heard creaking floorboards and a whirring sound. I spun back around, startled, and found the monk was moving his head slowly up and down, and his hand was scribbling on the paper with the pen! I called Lisby over to see this bizarre sideshow setup. She stared at the monk, too. She agreed he was sort of creepy, then compounded the bizarrity by punching a button in front of him which set off a monologue about the story of Aethelfrith. Hm.

The other notable stop that we made was at a compact little stone church at the end of a narrow lane between tall hedges. Fields surrounded the churchyard. There was not a home or road in sight. It was very peaceful, and seemed an odd out-of-the-way place to maintain a church. Many of the gravestones were less than two or three years old, and one grave was very fresh, so the church is obviously used.

We stopped here because Lisby thinks Aethelfrith’s killing of the monks took place within sight of the church, across what is now a sheep pasture. We engaged in a spirited discussion about what we each think is likely or unlikely as far as hauling dead bodies off battlefields goes. Intrigued? Read on! No one has done any archeological investigations in this area, nor are they likely to, so there’s no way of knowing for sure, but Lisby believes this must be the site of the monk massacre, based on place names and the few existing descriptions of the battle.

Key to our discussion, you’ll need to know that a burial of 120 male bodies was found about six miles from this site, and conjecture says they’re Aethelfrith’s men who were killed in the monk massacre battle. Their skeletons reveal that the men were in excellent health, had very good teeth, and were well muscled with exceptionally strong forearms – which warriors/soldiers would have had at that time due to the weapons that they used. The bodies, as Lisby describes, were laid out carefully, one beside another and stacked atop each other. They were all buried at once. I haven’t seen the archeology report, so don’t know if artifacts were found with them, or if there are other details that are relevant, but if these were Aethelfrith’s men, I said that I would find it hard to believe that the battle took place near this church, six miles away. It’s presumed that ¼ – 1/3 of Aethelfrith’s men were killed. If that’s true, I’d bet half his men were injured (220), half of those very seriously (110). If they’re in enemy territory, having just boiled up the ire of the whole area by slaughtering 1200 monks, not to mention decimating the opposing army and winning the battle, and have around two hundred injured men to assist, why are they hauling 120 men six miles to bury them? I can’t believe they would haul 120 dead men six long miles to bury them.

But I could be wrong … there may have been a running battle that started at the church and ended at the gravesite. They may have had a Marine-style oath of never leaving a body behind. The grave may have nothing to do with this particular battle! It’s an argument that can’t be settled, since there isn’t enough evidence to support either Lisby’s theory or my suspicion. It’s fun to think about and talk around, though.

 

Leaving our discussion at the little church, we made a quick pass through Chester, as I’d read that it’s a charming walled city with interesting Tudor style buildings. We walked around for only a few minutes in the old town before we decided that was enough. The buildings are interesting, but the city felt disjointed and jittery. I can’t quite explain that. We kept thinking of York, another walled city that feels personable and friendly, familiar and comfortable, easy to get around in. We strongly prefer York. So we left Chester without giving it much of a chance, driving west a few miles to check into the St Deiniol’s Library – wide silent hallways, high ceilings, casement windows, creaky wood floors, church bells on the hour, and books everywhere. I could stay here for a month.

Dinner is served, so time to sign off.

Day 27: Hay on Wye via Wales/England Border

(… no, it’s not a speech impedimentary hay on rye, which is what I think every single time I pronounce the name of this village. I imagine a fat Rueben sandwich made with fresh fragrant hay instead of sauerkraut. That explosive blow to the head again, I’m thinking …)

Yesterday we stopped at a services area along the freeway (which is called a motorway in England, by the way) to get something to drink. These are like the rest stops along freeways on the east coast of the States, with gas stations and a little mall of eating establishments. While we sipped our drinks at a table in one of the snack bars, we watched two English women with clipboards, polling people about something. In the States, many people doing things like this sort of step into your space and accost you, yes? These women weren’t approaching anyone outright. They stood in the center of the hallway, smiling off at the wall or a far doorway or middle earth or something, waiting for people to make eye contact with them first. Inevitably men were the ones to make eye contact, whereupon the women taking the poll would smile a little bit wryly, apologize (“Sorry …”) and ask if the man had just a moment … it was quite subtle. We decided the poll (or whatever they were doing) was going to be wildly skewed, totally lacking in women’s points of views.

We had to drag ourselves away from St Deiniol’s Library this morning. It was so peaceful and comfortable, we’d have happily stayed for a couple of weeks. Knowing we had to leave, though, heading south to Hay-On-Wye was about as fair an enticement as possible.

We started south on freeways, and quickly decided that was not going to work. We preferred to see more of the countryside. The alternate route we chose kept to secondary roads, winding through small villages, atop high hills and ridges, and back down into narrow wooded valleys. We closely followed the England-Wales border, crossing back and forth many times.

One of the amusements of being on the road in England is the many goofy place names that pop up. Yesterday we passed the town of Mold. Today we passed a bus whose designator sign said Mold then Flint. ! That struck me as the preferred direction to be heading. Lisby thought it sounds like directions for building a wall: first place the mold, then flint, mold then flint … Some other favorite place names so far: Pant, Barff Hill, Slobbercroft Covert.

On the Wales side of the border, all signs are in English and Welsh. The town names became what looked to me like impossible tangles of consonants. Llwndwyddon, Drynnwyddyd … well, ok, I made those up. Nevertheless, they’re not so far off from real names on the map. Fortunately I’m traveling with Lisby, who has a Ph.D in linguistics. She explained the sounds of the letters, which helped … if we had the time to sound them out into some semblance of a word. Unfortunately, when we’ve hit a crossroads in a small town and have a string of cars behind ours waiting on our decision, and cars facing us waiting on our decision, and a sign with three arrows and four sixteen-consonant village names in front of us, sounding out the words just isn’t quick enough to make an efficient (popular) decision. I started butchering the names, pronouncing them as if they were English or Spanish just so I could remember them for the ten short seconds it took me to match them to something on a map.

We drove through generally hilly landscapes along the border. The slopes of high rounded-top hills and ridges have slopes that are lumpy and bumpy, making for lots of small hills and hollows, adding depth and intimacy to the landscape. The hills are cut by narrow valleys of rivers winding down and out to wider river valleys, which we’d pass through every thirty miles or so. This area has more trees than farther north, but there are still plenty of the impossibly green fields, and blankets of heather and bracken on the upper slopes.

The houses and outbuildings in this area tend to be of brick or Tudor style black and white. They don’t sit as comfortably in the landscape as the stone buildings of Northumberland. Lisby and I both noticed this, but couldn’t articulate the difference any better than that. We see few stone fences in this area, either. Fields are separated by hedgerows, which line all the country roads as well. They can be quite tall, so views of the countryside come in quick flashes at gates or breaks where the hedgerow plants have died. Atop the high hills, up in the bracken, the hedgerows disappear and the views are long and – of course – absolutely beautiful.

We stopped for lunch at a small café in Knighton, a compact and attractive village that caters to a lot of trekkers. A national trail passes through the town, according to an interpretive sign that we happened upon while walking around. Built on slopes above a river, its streets are steep and I wondered how they fare on an icy winter day.

The drive to Wye took five hours – about three hours longer than if we’d taken the freeway but well worth it for the views. As we finally drew near Hay-On-Wye, a construction diversion sent us zig-zagging around on narrow lanes through tall hedgerows. Our final approach was like negotiating a six mile wide chicane (how do you spell that word??). When we finally reached Hay, we were glad to get out of the car to stretch.

As I’ve said, Hay-On-Wye is famous for its used bookstores. It’s another small, compact village, easy to walk around in and a challenge to drive around for its narrow streets. Immediately making a wrong turn, as usual, it took us awhile to find the huge car park at the edge of the village. Once we had, we happily abandoned the car and dove into the nearest book shop. I don’t know exactly how many shops there are here, but it must be close to thirty. Some specialize in particular types of books – mysteries or rare books – and others have a broad assortment. Even the walled garden of the castle is lined with bookshelves, a sign requesting £1 for hardbacks, 50p for soft cover.

We’re staying in a B&B about a mile west of Hay, in another little village whose name I’ve forgotten (it’s Welsh and begins with two L’s – of course). The large rambling white stucco B&B was once a post office. Its floors are rough plank that feel like the solid, polished surface of living trees, all bumps and lumps. They must be four to six inches thick. The ceilings are exposed beam, and doors are all short, being no more than 5ft 8inches high. Once again I’m trying to remember to duck at the proper moment!

 

Tomorrow we’ll spend some time browsing the bookshops before heading off toward the vicinity of Avebury and Stonehenge.

Day 28: Caerleon Coliseum & Lacock Abbey

We sat down to breakfast this morning with an older couple who seemed to enjoy entertaining us by affectionately badgering each other. At some point over eggs and toast someone made a comment about the knives at the table settings, which had bone or ivory handles and blades of such similar shapes that I’d assumed they were all of a set. In fact, each was different, as the older gentleman pointed out with enthusiasm. He began grabbing all the knives within reach in order to examine the blades, where the makers marks were found. He was looking for knives made in Sheffield, with the explanation that they were from Sheffield themselves, and Sheffield was once the capital of English flatware manufacture. Linda, B&B owner, had called the flatware cutlery. Cutlery refers to sharp knives, Sheffield Man gently admonished her, and table tools are called flatware. Oops!

The mistake led into a more detailed discussion of the knives’ manufacture and dates (1800s). Linda opened a sideboard drawer to look at the rest of the knives that she had stashed there; when she closed the drawer and walked back into the kitchen, Sheffield Man leaned over a little surreptitiously, opened the drawer, and dragged the whole box of knives out in order to examine them! Linda reappeared almost immediately with a cutting knife from the kitchen, though, that caused Sheffield Man to lose all interest in the flatware. He took the cutting knife from Linda’s hand and stood to move into the light from the window, explaining that this blade was made of X steel – now I can’t remember the specific name – and bent the blade to nearly a ninety degree angle. He said this is the best knife ever made, truly. They made the handle tong with iron, and the blade with steel, he told us, pointing out the smooth but clear joint between the two metals. The handle tong (I made up that word) fit inside the ivory handle, then they’d smack the end of the iron tong to flatten it, in order to hold the handle in place.

OK, Lisby finally said, I have to know! How do you know all this!? We all joined her in urging Sheffield Man to explain his expertise, which of course included a lot of bantering since asking an Englishman outright about something like this is sharply prodding the safe limits of courtesy. He was typically modest and cagey about it all. His wife, though, was obviously proud of him and added helpful clues in asides while he hemmed and hawed. Through her and a few things that he said, we figured out enough to google him later: this was Sir Ken Hawley (OBE – whatever that means: I’m blissfully ignorant of these English titles …), considered an expert in edge tools, cutlery and measuring tools. He’s collected since the 1950s, concentrating on Sheffield tools but including comparative tools from all over the world. His collection will soon be housed in a museum at the University of Sheffield (see http://www.shef.ac.uk/ hawley/index.html).

After this intriguing breakfast conversation broke up, we headed south on the freeway. The country we were to drive through is flatter and less interesting to us overall than was the Welsh border country, so we felt we could safely use freeways. We did, and zoned out until Lisby realized we were approaching Cearleon and suggested stopping at the Roman coliseum. She’d been before and thought it was beautiful and interesting, as in fact it turned out to be.

 

When we arrived at the car park of the coliseum, a group of schoolchildren were perched on the berms surrounding the excavated coliseum, chanting, “Li-on! Li-on! Li-on!” Cheers and shouts would grow and ebb. It was quite funny, really. By the time we walked out to the coliseum to see what was going on, they were organizing themselves for races around the grassy floor.

The coliseum was built in about 90AD, about twenty years after the Roman fort was established at Caerleon, or Isca as the Romans called it. The coliseum has been excavated so the entrances and the arena walls are exposed, and some of the small rooms off the ramps are visible. It was originally built into the ground, with enough seating that some of it was built up above the surrounding land level. Now the excavated portion is a sunken arena surrounded by a berm. Seating held six thousand people in Roman times.

The arena is oval, and would have been sand where now it’s the typically impossibly green British grass. It was used for military parades as well as for gladiator type entertainments. Having carefully read my Horrible Histories book on the Roman period, gladiator entertainment now conjures up vivid mental images of really hideous tortures, but I’m not sure those took place here. It may only have been fights between professional gladiators, which I imagine to be the equivalent of our modern day World Wrestling matches or whatever they’re called. I can see the gladiators doing the deals behind the arena: I’ll smash you over the head, then you pick me up and throw me against the wall, yeah? Let me win this one and you can have the next one – we’ll split the winnings fifty-fifty, deal?

We hopped back on the freeway after Caerleon, crossing a beautiful suspension bridge near Bristol. This was the highlight of the freeway, after which I zoned out again until Lacock.

Lacock is an historic village that’s almost too adorable, or twee as the English might put it. The Abbey was actually our goal, the village being a quick tour afterthought that I did alone, Lisby having seen it before. All the houses and buildings are charmingly attractive stone or Tudor, many with thatch roofs. Streets are narrow and interesting to walk along. The shops are relentlessly touristy. Scenes from the Harry Potter movies have been filmed in this town, which undoubtedly attracts additional hordes of tourists.

Nearby Lacock Abbey was built in the 1200s but went into private hands in the 1700s. It’s built of local stone off a lovely subtle pale ochre. The interior of the stately main building is strange, the owner having put in hallways and walls that chop up the space. I raced through it, really, only noting that his daughters’ watercolors were quite beautiful, and the treasure room on the ground floor of a tower was the only classically simple and beautiful room left in the place.

 

The cloisters hadn’t been touched, thankfully, and were more evocative of the era of the Abbey when it was a nunnery. There were traces of wall paintings still visible, stairs worn by many feet passing, and beautiful aging stone. Cloisters always feel very calm and peaceful, it seems, with the beautiful subtle colors, and silent spaces.

Just a short trip down the road brought us to Upavon (pronounced up-avon, like the cosmetic manufacturer) where we’d made reservations for lodging. The B&B is a large handsome house with garage and converted barn set on immaculate and picturesque grounds of gardens and green grass. A good size pond lies just beyond the drive, with horse paddocks beyond it. The house and barns are of a unique style typical to this area, it seems. The walls are a combination of red brick and stone, the stone being dark chert (flint) pieces set into mortar. The effect is to make these sections of the structure look spotted. It sounds like a hideous combination, red brick and black spots, but it really is interesting and works. With thatched roofs, the whole effect is unique and quite striking.

Isabelle, owner of the B&B, told me that she’d just had top rims (I don’t know the technical terms) added to the thatch roofs of the house and garage, which was outrageously expensive. The roofs themselves, if they’re wrapped with chicken wire as most now are, will last thirty years. Isabelle said that there are a large number of thatched roofs in this area, as many buildings in the vicinity (including hers) are listed with the National Trust. New homes, too, are being required to use it in order to keep the aesthetic of the area intact – or maybe to keep all the thatchers employed!

B&B’s are always a little weird to me, since they’re so often in people’s homes. To get to our rooms in this house, we enter the kitchen, walk through a large dining room/sitting room to the laundry room. We climb the stairs in the laundry room to reach our rooms. It seems so intrusive and weird to be wandering around someone’s house, and we sort of feel as if we’re sneaking in and out. Isabelle seems very easy-going and relaxed about things though, her house being in a sort of lived-in disarray that Lisby and I can relate to.

We’ll spend two nights here, visiting Avebury and Stonehenge tomorrow.

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