Read Part I: London and the Isle of Wight
After ten months of bouncing between the cosmopolitan worlds of Oxford and London, I was overdue for an encounter with the British parts of Britain.
The family in Wales not only adopted me for the week, but embraced tour guiding for their corner of the island. Don’t go to Cardiff, they advised, so I took the train to Bath for the day instead. You can’t visit Abergavenny without “walking” up the Sugar Loaf, I learned, so they drove me there themselves.
Best of all, they unleashed me on three children and a library of picture books – in English and Welsh!
My hostess Gill introduced me to Welsh pronunciation: the double ‘ll’, in ‘Llewyllen’ for example, is aspirated (which really delighted me, because it sounds like the ‘hl’ in Zulu). That’s why it sometimes seems that there are no vowels in Welsh names, she confided, because the double consonants all have their own particular sound, and ‘y’ counts as a vowel… Our Welsh lessons foundered on my knee-jerk instinct to coo at their baby girl in Afrikaans, but I did learn “llaeth” for (can you guess?) “milk.”
Castles are old hat for the Welsh, but once they realized how medieval fortresses completely charmed me, the family made a point of touring the local beauties. White Castle struck me as the most profoundly prototypical shape for its kind. (Though it never saw action, I counted this to its credit as a defensive investment.) The prevalence of castles helped me make a critical connection, of the kind that seem blindingly obvious in retrospect but don’t hit you with full force until you experience a place firsthand: Castles often pop up along borders and contested territories, because they represent sites of concentrated military might.
Whatever White Castle’s bulk lacked in elegance, Raglan Castle abounded in. It unfolded before us like a life-size cutaway diorama: with a keep, moat, and spiral staircases galore, all exposed to the air and open to the public (save the areas roped off to remind us all that loosening regulations didn’t promise perfect freedom). I was eager to know if Raglan Castle had any connection with the Dublin poem performed everywhere in Ireland, but it seems that the castle predates the road. The family’s second son (an adventurous sprite not given to crying even when he falls flat on the pavement) kept us all on our toes, particularly around the edge of the moat.
On my second day in Wales, the United Kingdom’s expansive rail system spirited me back east for a day trip to Bath. The settings of so many classic novels sprang to life before my eyes – including the cryptically named Pump Room. I can’t speak to its former incarnations, but in present day this mysterious establishment essentially offers multi-course dining disguised as “tea” – too popular for drop-ins, alas.
When Gill’s parents discovered I counted baked Alaska (ice cream cake topped with meringue) as a novelty, they promptly commissioned to whip up a batch! We farewelled the week around picnic tables in the backyard.
Outdoing themselves in gracious hospitality, Dave and Gill had arranged for me to ride north with them the next day, and then stay with friends of theirs in York. These were my two dream destination spots: Wales, as a new country, and York, for its literary pedigree.
The locals found it so bemusing that a foreigner would want to see anywhere beyond London or Stratford-upon-avon that they repeated the story everywhere: my eccentric wishlist, and the perfect match. To paraphrase my professor: “Well, then, let me introduce you to my friends, who are from Wales and York.”
The York family rolled me right into the swing of things with a backyard barbecue (equipment purchased during the lockdowns, naturally). They invited me to their church and cared for me the entire visit, picking me up late from the train, connecting me with one of my professor’s family friends, and not batting an eye when I asked to stay an extra three nights after my plans in Scotland fell through.
Sinking at last into English life, I learned the difference between “dinner” (used largely south of London) and “tea” (everywhere else as you shade north). A lady at church also opened my eyes to the surviving localism in the UK: when asked, “Are you from York?”, she returned stoutly, “Oh, no! I’m from West Yorkshire.”
In a surprise adventure, the family invited me to accompany the Keeper of the Keys for the city of York on his nightly circuit of locking the gates … and he handed me the ring! We circled the city, weaving around tourists (and some unpleasant refuse) on the way. He would deftly fasten locks that baffled me, meanwhile favoring us with historical tidbits about photo magnets built only decades ago while placards marking Norman and Viking ruins went unnoticed.
Before touring Howard Castle with a friend from church, I zipped around the grounds with my hosts. We talked of rapeseed regulation crises while admiring the Temple of the Four Winds and a staggeringly old yew tree. On our luxuriously lengthy tour, the docent recounted how a progressive-minded duke deliberately broke up the estate in the early 20th century, but tragedy a generation later left the house itself to the youngest son, who determined to preserve it. Thanks to him and his dauntless wife, it has featured as a set for Brideshead Revisited and welcomes visitors today.
Startled to find York the site of an ancient Viking settlement, I scrambled to book a visit. From Castle Howard I flashed to Yoric, a delightful museum that animated its archaeological dig with a theme park style ride through a village of animatronix with audio in old Norse. The figures act out scenes uncovered at the actual site, like a basin of spilled dye and a limping woman with a crutch.
The next day dawned my venture to the Yorkshire Dales. It would be difficult to overstate the significance this place holds for me: his classic tales of life as a country vet lately enjoyed a resurgence thanks to a new TV show, but I knew Herriot from devouring his books as a little girl. His descriptions of the Dales captivated me most: the people, the animals, the haplessly miserable early mornings mucking around in the freezing winter…and ultimately his decision to marry the daughter of a farmer and settle there. It was another world in some ways: between the wars, where some of his clients owned neither TV nor radio and so after dinner they just … sat, until it was time to go to bed. For years, I had longed to experience for myself the beauty Herriot captured in passages like these:
“In the summer dusk, a wild panorama of tumbling fells and peaks rolled away and lost itself in the crimson and gold ribbons of the western sky. To the east, a black mountain overhung us, menacing in its naked bulk. Huge, square-cut boulders littered the lower slopes.”
“At times it seemed unfair that I should be paid for my work; for driving out in the early morning with the fields glittering under the first pale sunshine and the wisps of mist still hanging on the high tops.”
Searching for the sort of place where Herriot would have thrown himself down to gaze admiringly at the land unfolding below, I pinpointed the spot where (according to the guide) Herriot made his decision to settle in the Dales. Google maps warned me that the bus route there operated only on Sundays, but (blithely oblivious to such a possibility) I went anyway and found myself stranded at the first stop. The driver advised me to hunt down a connection in Richmond.
Nowhere in the USA will you find that an out-of-the-way bus stop features a Norman castle. There was plenty to occupy me for two hours while I waited for the “little white bus” (a fifteen-passenger van shuttle) to arrive. Once on board, I listened enthralled to the accents of my fellow passengers, who spoke as if sprung from Herriot’s pages. The driver deposited me in a postage stamp village at the foot of a rising slope.
What struck me most was the perfect peace of the place. There wasn’t the shocking majesty of altitude that I had found in Quito, and a year in England had accustomed me to rolling green fields. It was the stillness, the quiet, the simplicity that set the Dales apart. All these decades later, I could still feel it. No wonder Herriot had planted roots there.
The remote locale allowed me just one shot at catching a bus back to the Richmond – and I missed it (by standing on the wrong side of the road, a mistake that plagued me throughout my travels). What seemed to herald complete disaster, turned out to be the best gift of all: the magnanimous driver offered to drop me off in Richmond anyway, if I didn’t mind riding with his last passenger through the Dales to the farthest stop. Didn’t mind? I basked in the scenery with my nose against the glass.
I had contemplated spending the next day in the moors (another irresistibly depicted landscape from British literature), but the Bronte museum website intimidated me its recommendations of routes best accessible by car. I settled instead for a cursory glance at the moors en route to Whitby. The English equivalent of a beach town, Whitby exuded the summer holiday vibe, with irreverently unconcerned crowds defying social distancing strictures and vendors bristling with seafood on every corner.
Following advice from my hosts in Wales, I took advantage of the east coast rail lines to drop by Durham for the day. It struck me as a miniature Oxford: with a river, high street, and historic college (situated in a castle). The river walk soothed and uplifted me with its abundant verdance and towering architecture. The castle tour engrossed me in the local history: namely that William the Conqueror suffered the assassinations of four dukes before he decided to consolidate political and religious power here in the hands of his bishop – inaugurating an infamous dynasty of bishop princes.
Whenever I mentioned my visit to Scotland from seven years ago, everyone would ask whether I had been to Edinburgh. It began to seem that I had missed out on something important, so I was determined to go.
Two stops past Durham answered my wish. The train station outclassed most airports in its hustle and bustle – I haven’t felt so overwhelmed at a transport hub since flying via Atlanta to Ecuador.
The city itself did not disappoint. Its steep elevation stacked parallel roads on different stories, with bridges and steps and staircases twining away, dwindling down to the level below. For its sheer concentration of jaw-dropping architecture, I found Edinburgh the only UK city to beat out Oxford. (Sorry, Cambridge.)
York’s art museum claimed my final afternoon, with a highly fitting exhibition (considering my future travel plans) that juxtaposed Japanese prints and art deco. Then I had a third go at the York Minster, where I had been trying to snag a seat at sung prayer since my cavalier choice not to book tickets on the previous Sunday. This time the choir defied me by departing on holiday – I had to content myself with the sunrise service before a fabulous stained glass window, and admiring the heart of the nave during said prayer.
If you want to know what a “minster” is, I sympathize. I tried asking the difference between abbey, cathedral, minster, etc, but my sources answered vaguely – something to do with preeminence?
This minster suffers from the impractical feature of relying on local limestone, which sloughs off so quickly in the rain that it is under perpetual renovation. Perhaps it can afford some disintegration around the edges, as the largest Gothic church in the world. I entered expecting it to claim its throne among church design for shock and awe, but surprised myself with a muted reaction. It seems the optical illusion that empowers Gothic architecture starts to break down when the building itself reaches a superlative scale.
Fatigued from a week of unrestrained travel, I boarded the train back to Oxford with some relief. Supporting an educational conference at the Canterbury Institute promised me a vacation from vacationing.
Readers will probably thank me for a breather here, too: read part three!