Well, I'm still feeling a bit hung over from the trip, and I will tell you outright that getting back to real life has not been an easy process, but I have recovered enough to share a few pictures and a synopsis of our very, very active three weeks. No doubt our journey and activities wouldn't be to everyone's taste (and in fact at dinner on our last night, Andy and I decided that perhaps our next vacation should be a bit more relaxing and centered around only two or three towns or cities—instead of eight!), but it was really a dream trip, the list of places we visited and things we saw is rather amazing (if I do say so myself, as a result of a year and a half or so of planning), and we had an absolute blast. We would happily do it all again (after a couple of weeks of rest, perhaps).
We flew into London, and somehow we survived a 7:30 check-in for a full-day tour the following morning, which took us to Leeds Castle, Canterbury Cathedral, Dover, and Greenwich, from whence we returned to London by boat on the Thames. Not one of our best tours, in terms of the rather scatter-brained guide who was obviously bored by the time we reached Greenwich and so dismissed it in a rather "if you're interested in that sort of thing" kind of way. But the castle was lovely, and I saw my first cathedral of the trip, so I didn’t mind very much.
Not a bad pic of Canterbury Cathedral—though it's the only cathedral I know of that is so cramped in its location that it's impossible to get a head-on photo. In general, photos just don't do justice to cathedrals anyway, and I know not everyone is as obsessed with them as I am, so I'm not including a lot of cathedral photos here. In this case, we also took a picture of the tribute to World War II fire watchers who kept the cathedral safe. It has sometimes been easy for me to forget that the Blitz was just as devastating in many areas outside of London as it was in the capital.
|Tribute to fire watchers in Canterbury Cathedral|
On our second day, we were able to sleep a bit late in the morning, then visit Windsor Castle and take a stroll through Eton. Photos don’t do justice to Windsor either, so I’ll take this opportunity to ask if any of you smart, well-travelled readers know something I couldn't find on Google: What on earth is the large, dramatic-looking church visible a short distance from Windsor?
|Mystery church seen from Windsor Castle|
Back in London that afternoon, we paid a flying visit to the Persephone shop (conveniently located three blocks from our hotel, though I didn't realize that when I chose the hotel—really I didn't!), where once again I missed out on meeting Nicola Beauman. I believe we are destined never to meet—either that or she’s avoiding me, but I choose to believe the former. But the charming Lydia gave us a warm welcome, and I was delighted to see a couple of the Furrowed Middlebrow books on their display table.
That evening, we had dinner with the brilliant Gillian Tindall and her husband in their Kentish Town home, and were fascinated by tales of their historic house and the evolution of their neighborhood, as well as by discussion of the works of her mother, Ursula Orange, and her aunt, Monica Tindall, both of whom I've discussed at some length on this blog. It was a wonderful evening and a thrill to meet not only the daughter and niece of authors on my Overwhelming List, but an actual author from my list in her own right! By the way, Gillian's latest book, The Tunnel Through Time, is about the building of the new Crossrail line far under London. It's getting rave reviews and I'm looking forward to diving into it.
The following morning we were off to pick up our rental car in Tonbride. Andy was our designated driver. (However harrowing learning to drive on the left might have been, he felt it was nothing compared to being in a car with me learning to drive on the left!) But it was a surprising experience. The driving-on-the-left thing began to seem familiar and intuitive within the first half hour or so, but what never became familiar was the width of many of the roads in the south of England. Andy kept braking and veering to the left at every oncoming truck or bus, and I kept shrieking at him to stop swerving to the left or we would hit a wall/curb/hedge. Gadzooks! We must have looked like characters from a National Lampoon vacation movie. The unflinching, steely-eyed approach of other drivers at 60 miles per hour on roads the width of an average American sidewalk brought to mind Brits’ unflinching courage during the Blitz. But suffice it to say that I do now understand why folks kept telling me that driving 50 miles in England is a quite different experience from driving the same distance in the US...
We were certainly ecstatic to reach each of our destinations that first day and get out of the car and breathe normally for a while. Said destinations included Sissinghurst,
Bodiam Castle, which some of our friends in the UK had never heard of, but which was really lovely (though its tiny little charity shop put the first crack in my façade of book-buying self control with a lovely hardcover copy of a Jean Rhys story collection, but that’s for a future post),
and Battle Abbey, at the last of which the beautiful weather showed ominous signs of changing, which allowed Andy to get this lovely and dramatic pic:
We stayed at the Mermaid Inn in Rye that night, and we were both quite taken with Rye (despite the fact that Lamb House was closed the only day we could be there—I peered through the windows a bit in mournful fashion, while honestly thinking more about Rumer Godden than of either Henry James or E. F. Benson). Rye is a lovely, moody little place, though driving into the very center of a medieval town with one-way streets at every turn was a bit of an adventure. And we loved the Mermaid Inn, though we felt we should have received a discount since we experienced no haunting of any sort and slept like logs the whole night through. Alas. (But perhaps the ghosts just couldn’t rouse us from our slumber???)
The next day was the first of our slightly morbid visits to the places authors and other famous figures lived and died. Charleston Farmhouse was quite wonderful—Andy was taken with it too, despite not giving a fig about Bloomsbury, and we both enjoyed the helpful chart showing all the different relationships—familial and romantic, gay and straight—between the many figures who visited the house. It was only while we were at Charleston that someone mentioned the nearby church decorated by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and others, and because we had our lovely rental car, we were immediately off to Berwick Church just a few miles away (having had to ask directions at a café where two youngsters gazed blankly at my references to a church with paintings by Bloomsbury artists but referred me to an older woman upstairs who [eventually] figured out what I meant and gave me directions). It’s a lovely little church and some of the paintings are wonderful. And apparently it's a well-kept secret (even for the locals).
Then we were off to Monk’s House, Virginia Woolf’s nearby home, which I found quite moving somehow, though you might not notice it from the pic in which I tried to look suitably intellectual (and “smug”, no doubt) on the deck of Virginia’s writing shed, where the likes of E. M. Forster and Vita Sackville-West had schmoozed.
The next day we were off to Chawton, where we visited the Jane Austen house and saw the first of two or three tables we’d see on this trip, upon which great novels had been written.
|Jane Austen's writing desk|
Next, Winchester and my second gorgeous cathedral, as well as other highlights of the town shown to us by Ruth, a regular reader and commenter on this blog, who took the time to meet us for lunch and give us a lovely guided tour (and—albeit a little reluctantly—pose for a photo), including a couple of bookshops, which further chipped away at my determination not to fill an entire suitcase with books. Thanks again, Ruth!
|With Ruth in Winchester|
The next day, we were off to Avebury, which was marvellous, but I admit we were both a little distracted from our communing with the spirits of prehistoric peoples by attempting to avoid the sheep poop. I philosophized to Andy that this was an excellent reminder of the realities of ordinary life that have been going on for the several millennia the rocks have been in place. But that didn’t make it easier to clean our shoes after.
We spent that night in Bath, and had a quick stroll through town, before our tour the next morning to the Cotswolds. The high point for both of us that day was Bibury, but we also visited Castle Combe, Lacock, and Malmesbury Abbey, among other things. (Practically everywhere we visited, I kept telling Andy, “I could live here,” but I think I said it more enthusiastically in the Cotswolds than anywhere else.)
The following day we gave Bath its due, visiting the stunning Bath Abbey, the lovely Roman Baths (Query: Does anyone not dip their hands in the water, regardless of all the warning signs? Isn’t that why we carry hand sanitizer?),
at least one or two more places where Jane Austen lived, and yes, Tom, we managed to see the Assembly Rooms and snap a pic of the most dramatic room, with the three chandeliers that are actually from the period (the rest of the rooms having been gutted by Nazi bombs, yet another inescapable reminder of WWII’s lingering effects).
|Assembly Rooms in Bath|
On to Cambridge, where we did a walking tour of the colleges, including the breathtaking King’s College Chapel. Not a cathedral, obviously, but perhaps the ultimate high point of all my visits to ecclesiastical sights. Words can’t even. And pics can’t either, but here was our best shot, followed by a better example from a postcard:
|King's College Chapel in Cambridge|
|King's College Chapel in Cambridge|
When I had recovered from the amazing experience of the chapel, we were off to meet another kind reader of and frequent commenter on this blog, Gil (aka Cestina), who also aided and abetted my book shopping addiction and, more importantly, gave me an amazing gift of a stash of girls’ school stories from her own collection (more of that in my upcoming book post). It was also, for that matter, Gil who first advised me to keep my eyes peeled for the ubiquitous Oxfam and other charity shops in even the smallest of towns, so my subsequent pillaging of charity shops all over the north of England and Scotland can surely be laid at her door. She was even more reluctant to allow a photo than Ruth was, but it actually turned out beautifully. Thanks, Gil!
|Scott with Gil in Cambridge|
The next morning, a flying visit to Ely and the cathedral, which, alas, was hosting a job fair for teenagers that day, so quiet meditative contemplation of the spectacular structure was only to be had in the lovely Lady Chapel, which was gloriously empty. Back in Cambridge, with rain threatening and wind adding an adventurous nip to our excursion, we scrapped the idea of a walk along the Cam to Grantchester and took a taxi instead. Our taxi driver was bewildered as to why tourists would want to visit Grantchester, but apart from the Rupert Brooke/Bloomsbury connection, the church there was obviously aware of its more newfound tourist appeal, as this poster next to the baptismal font suggests:
|Grantchester Church's subtle (?) not to its notoriety|
And even with rain threatening, the meadows nearby (also familiar to fans of the television series) are extraordinarily beautiful.
|Meadows by the River Cam near Grantchester|
The next morning we made our way to York (with just the merest tantalizing glimpse of Peterborough Cathedral from our train—does that count for my list of cathedrals visited?). We were blown away by York Minster, clearly the king of all the cathedrals we saw, and we enjoyed seeing the Kings Screen, which fans of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell might recognize from a scene in which the sculptures came to life and started to speak.
|Kings Screen in York Minster|
We were also, as it happens, thoroughly charmed with York itself, and decided that of all the places I fantasized about living during the course of our trip, York would, given the choice, be our mutual winner. (Andy didn’t do as much fantasizing as I did on the rest of the trip, but even he’s on board with a move to York.) Breathtaking historical areas combined with a walkable size and a large enough population to support enticing theatres, restaurants, and other social life—we’re sold! Where do we sign to make our relocation happen??? (Never mind the thoroughly overwhelming Oxfam bookshop in York, also to be discussed in my next post.)
We had two day tours while staying in York. The first, to Haworth, Harrogate, and Skipton, brought us in contact with more dead authors and another writing desk with a rich history—this time Charlotte Brontë’s, from Haworth Parsonage.
|Charlotte Bronte's writing desk|
The Brontës’ story is not an uplifting one—I always find it a bit overwhelming to think of Charlotte losing her brother and both sisters in the course of less than a year, and then trying to rebuild her life and marrying, only to die while pregnant with her first child. Dear lord. And Andy managed to take this brilliant and haunting picture in the Haworth churchyard, which rather captures the desolation of this tragic family.
|Andy getting artsy with the camera in Haworth churchyard|
Clearly, we needed something more frivolous after that, so at Harrogate we sauntered up to the Old Swan Hotel and self-consciously skulked inside as if we were the first people to ever think of making a sightseeing jaunt to the spot where Agatha Christie was discovered followed her dramatic ten-day disappearance in 1926.
|Old Swan Hotel in Harrogate|
Once inside, however, it became apparent that no one at the hotel was surprised by our appearance for such a purpose, as this framed newspaper story features prominently on the wall of the lobby:
|Newspaper story in lobby of Old Swan Hotel|
The following day, we made a tour of the North Yorkshire Moors, where our tour guide, a part-time photographer, captured my favorite picture of Andy and I from this trip amidst rather breathtaking scenery (which we will no doubt visit frequently once we settle into our new home in York…):
|Andy and I surveying our new neighborhood in Yorkshire|
That tour went on to Whitby, which highlighted yet again how different people’s tastes and interests can be, as I recall one reader suggested that the town wasn’t worth bothering with. But we both loved it and wandered around snapping pictures wildly. (Come to think of it, I think someone said the same about Rye?)
|Whitby Abbey, from West Cliff|
We settled for a dramatic view of the abbey (which purportedly helped inspire Bram Stoker’s Dracula) from West Cliff, rather than climbing the 199 steps to see it close-up. But we had great fun walking along the piers being battered by the North Sea winds and eating the ubiquitous fish and chips. Rather more exciting than the tour’s next stop, in Goathland, primarily to snap pics of the train station, which appeared as Hogsmeade station in the Harry Potter films.
|Goathland train station, otherwise known as Hogsmeade|
On the way to our final stop in Edinburgh, I got another cathedral glimpse as I strained my neck and made folks on the other side of the train uncomfortable trying to gaze through their windows at Durham Cathedral. The most enticing glimpse of a cathedral I’ve ever had, and it had me kicking myself that I didn’t somehow build in time for a day in Durham, though I think we would have required some illicit drugs in order to have energy for one more stop.
In Edinburgh, we stayed at the gorgeous and luxuriously comfortable Victorian Townhouse B&B on Eglinton Crescent, which had been recommended by folks from the D. E. Stevenson discussion list. The house was the birthplace of Stevenson, in fact, and its owner, Aileen, was easily the most welcoming and generous host of our entire trip. She was also excited to tell us that she will soon be getting one a blue plaque on the house to commemorate Stevenson. We couldn’t get Aileen to pose for a picture with us, but this is the one major, wholehearted recommendation I’ll make from our trip—if you’re going to Edinburgh, definitely stay with Aileen—the website is here.
|Eglinton Crescent, Edinburgh|
|Eglinton Crescent, Edinburgh|
In Edinburgh, apart from obvious sights like the castle and the Royal Mile, we had the unique pleasure of visiting places associated with a living writer. We forgot, however, before our visit to Greyfriars churchyard, to check the internet for the locations of the graves that provided J. K. Rowling with character names for Harry Potter, so we merely wandered aimlessly and finally took a picture of the sign at the entry which includes mention of a McGonagall.
|Greyfriars Churchyard, where Tom Riddle's grave proved elusive|
|Greyfriars Churchyard, with Professor McGonagall's namesake at the bottom|
And then of course a quick glance at the Elephant House, where Rowling started writing the books.
|The Elephant House|
We did do the “real” sights of Edinburgh too. Honest we did. Here’s my proof.
We had two final full-day tours from Edinburgh, and I have to admit by now we were starting to run out of steam, but they were good tours. The first took us to Rosslyn Chapel and Hadrian’s Wall, with quick photo stops at Carter Bar (the border between England and Scotland, with the requisite photos of Andy and me on both sides of the giant stone with “England” on one side and “Scotland” on the other) and Jeburgh Abbey.
Rosslyn Chapel, for those who don’t know, was a little-visited relic until a decade or so ago when it featured prominently in a book you may have heard of called The Da Vinci Code. But apart from the idiotic plot of that novel, it’s a gorgeous and fascinating place, so much so that it’s hard to believe that a few years ago it was so rarely visited that the door was simply left open and no tourist facilities were provided. (Now things are very different, and commerce is clearly the name of the game, but this undoubtedly means the chapel is a bit better cared for and protected as well.)
By the time we got to Hadrian’s Wall, the weather was a bit dicey, to say the least. We were incredibly lucky with weather on our trip, though, so we can't complain. Andy took a video there and the only sound you can hear is the roaring of the wind—we look like TV journalists covering a hurricane! But the wall was one of the things I most wanted to see, so we persevered and got some great photos.
And our final tour was to Lindisfarne (also known as Holy Island) and Alnwick Castle, as well as a photo stop at Bamburgh Castle. Sadly, we were a bit rushed at Lindisfarne, because the tides were rising (you may know that it’s a tidal island, which means that vehicle access is only during low tide—reportedly an average of one car per month has to be rescued from the tides, occasionally by helicopter). The tour guide said we had only an hour and so we wouldn’t have time to make it to the castle, the most dramatic spot on the island, but she clearly underestimated us.
We even made it back in time to catch a glimpse of Lindisfarne Priory before the tour left for Alnwick. Alnwick Castle has yet another Harry Potter connection, as many of you probably know, since it portrayed Hogwarts in the first two movies.
|Alnwick Castle, aka Hogwarts|
And did I, you ask, manage to squeeze in time to visit Barter Books in Alnwick? Hmmmm, did I?
|Barter Books in Alnwick|