November 1, 2012
We returned to the royal throne of kings, the sceptered isle, after three decades to find that even in late October its cities and historic towns were overwhelmed with tourists. And so many from The Orient! Our England is always the countryside, the counties, the gardens, the foliage, the farms, the fells and dales and moors, the sheep and ravens. The North.
We bolted out of Manchester straight up the M6 to Lancaster and the row house where we lived on St. Mary’s Parade in front of the Castle. Not much has changed in this gritty county town but the University which was muddy roads and two colleges in 1968 is now vast, unrecognizable with a –GASP—huge sports complex and 20,000 students, half foreign born. The manager of the Horse and Carriage Hotel where we stayed on St. George’s Quay was however the son of the pub masters in Lonsdale College where we spent much time.
Waking to what the locals call “filthy” weather where the black clouds seem a few feet from your head we remembered why we left years ago; continuing north to the Lake District. Then the preternatural gloom lifted, gloriously revealing a perfect autumn day in the high fells with Cumbrian mountains cloaked in muted colors reflected in the still lakes. The sky with its swiftly changing clouds and fluorescent surreal lighting sets this landscape apart from all the others in the world. Right out of a Pre-Raph painting.
Grasmere, Ambleside, Hawkshead, Coniston, Keswick all have a few too many tea shoppes and Beatrix Potter outlets but commerce cannot ever ruin the staggering natural beauty that lured the poets and painters. We made the pilgrimage to Brantwood John Ruskin’s estate on Coniston Water which we tried to save from the wrecking ball and the University of Texas, successfully so it seems. The English off handed indifferent attempt at commercialism and being (depressingly) children friendly was much appreciated.
Since The Toffs still rule the roost in old Albion where snobbery and class consciousness are as profound as ever, fancy restaurants are the costly alternatives to chippies. At The Samling on Windermere localism was at its self-conscious height and for 50 quid sans vin one et Morecambe Bay Crab, Cartmel Valley Quail and Salt Marsh Lamb. We didn’t make it this time to Sharrow Bay or Dungeon Ghyll or Miller Howe for there was too much to see and we wanted to move on.
We headed from Penrith to the North Riding of Yorkshire past Barnard Castle and Bowes Museum, both dark and dingy decades ago but now fully restored, then stopped at Eggleston Abbey where the first look at the expanse of North Yorkshire was breathtaking. This is why you come to England. Gorgeous countryside with picturesque ruins of castles and abbeys. Dreamlike, resonant.
The city of York a casualty of demographics, local and foreign, crowded, traffic clogged, ugly and dirty and so different from the beautiful walled town we remember. We attended a long Evensong in the choir of York Minster looking for carved gargoyles under the seats then repaired to The Hole in the Wall for local bitter and steak and ale pie. The option was a free bottle of plonk with two orders from the grill. So WC!
It was a profound relief to escape just fifteen miles north to the Vanbrugh masterpiece Castle Howard the setting for all those films about the fictional Flyte family from Waugh’s novel Brideshead. As in 1972 we sat on the great lawn, strolled the thousand acres of Capability Brown’s landscape genius and searched for Hawksmoor’s Temple of the Four Winds, still Gothically untended, blackened and crumbling.
A quarter million visit annually but apparently not in late October and we had the house to ourselves with workmen who were setting up the outdoor stages and tents for a family celebration the following week. The Castle is inhabited by Simon Howard, his wife Victoria Barnsley, head of Harper Collins UK, and their children Octavia and Martin. According to The Telegraph they expended 250K pounds to entertain guests on the grounds, 200 seated, 200 for a buffet (can hardly imagine the social jockeying here.)
Since we had booked no rooms in advance and having sworn off B&Bs forever (shudder) we searched for local hotels. At the quintessential Yorks village Pickering we were advised to try The Feathers in Helmsley. Now that was jolly good luck. Located in Ryedale at the end of the North Yorkshire Moors National Park and in the very centre of the medieval market square it was perfect, especially since our stay coincided with the weekly farmer’s market and the opening season of pheasant hunting. Local squires in Wellies and green tweeds and shotguns at the ready congregated on the square in the morning and in the pubs after a day’s shooting. Up Carlton Bank were the best views of the heather moors with a staggering number of pheasant families, alas with some casualties along the road that the hounds missed that morning.
Close by was Rielvaux Abbey at the valley on the edge of the moors where 900 years ago the first French Cistercian abbey in northern England was established. Monks and geese still walked the grounds of the ruins in the light fog. What more is there to say? Land of abbeys and castles and glorious ruins!
Off we went to Lincoln for a night at the Queen Charlotte Hotel, dark and forbidding with a loud local wedding party — very Breughelesque. Finally the object of our quest, Cambridge. Cambridge. For thirty years we dreamed about our magical year reading Roger Fry’s papers in the King’s College Library with Quentin Bell who was also sifting through the papers of his teacher. Well in 2012 we were just another tourist, grabbing a beer at the absolutely mobbed Eagle where once we had supped with Sir Geoffrey Elton and now ……..oh never mind. One couldn’t visit old haunts since colleges were closed for half term graduation ceremonies. Punting has become a common activity for the plebes.
Well at least Oxford didn’t have as many memories beyond the drinks in the digs of Richard Cobb at Bailliol or the annual stay at Lawrence Stone’s house in Woodstock. The bloody city was, however, like Cambridge, so swarming with people it was distracting and irritating, a year round tourist trap jumping with film companies and noisy hordes………oh dear.
We chose to stay inWoodstock in the Oxfordshire part of the Cotswolds which reach into six counties with beautiful villages in that honey colored Jurassic limestone. Each county jealously guards its piece of the pie like little chauvinistic principalities. The Bear an inn in the old part of the town was a good choice and you could see Blenheim out the back door. Though we were tempted to see another Vanbrugh masterpiece. where the 11th Duke of Marlborough still lives, the tour buses approaching at seven in the morning for a day on the grounds was discouraging.
Thence to Chipping Norton deemed a Set with residents like that creepy phone hacking journalist Rebekah whatever her name, the Prime Minister and other self made millionaires is an an upper crust town where the local tea shops offer excellent coffee and no bacon butties but fresh spinach and goat cheese eggs.
We raced past Stratford on Avon so quaint those years ago and now a logistics nightmare driving straight to Warwick Castle which had become more Disney than Disneyland, a theme park for thousands of children in Halloween mode, the worst single example of ersatz commercialism in England, tacky, over the top, absurd. We fled.
Then the weather let us down completely and the dark skies glowered for the last three days so no hope of seeing the Shropshire and Cheshire countryside which vanished in the mist. Burton on the Wold was barely visible in the white fog which lifted a wee bit at Moreton-le-Marsh an ancient market town with wonderful 18th century townhouses now housing fine shops. We bought some Wensleydale cheese and chutney for lunch then viewed the Celia Lendis Gallery with Steve Mitchell’s paintings far more sophisticated than anything in River North and furniture stores to rival Manifeso.
Inching closer to Manchester we stayed in Shrewsbury in despair at having utterly mistaken that it was Ludlow and the Feathers where we wished to visit not this dowdy old town with the Prince Rupert Hotel right out of a 50s Tyrone Power flic.Oh well Chester was like Lancaster and Cambridge– largely unrecognizable. Located on the Welsh border and undecided whether to drive to Conway Castle we settled for thousand year old Chester Cathedral and a walk along the roman walls then had lunch at the Chester Grosvenor a respite from the shoppers and the loud live music outside.
Royal Lytham St.Anne’s Golf Course the site of British Opens and a private club did not allow entrance to the clubhouse because of our friend’s sneakers and athletic pants.
Located near St.Anne’s a windy Irish Sea “resort” town, really a mini Blackpool or Morecambe with the early Beatles melancholia of lost working class lives, silted over sands on the beach, eternal fish and chips and bitters.
England always resonates with us as with every literate person on the planet, because of its language and literature. One cannot imagine life without the Written English Word from Beowulf to James Herriot from Thirsk, Yorks. We took Churchills’s African Journal from 1908 along for reading on the long uncomfortable flight (never again to coach seating) and was overwhelmed by the beauty of his prose.
Love the Times, the Telegraph with their judicious blend of news and gossip, not to mention the Court Circulars.The big story was the dead entertainer Jimmy Savile’s purported pedophilia, rather ghoulish finger pointing at the BBC who Penn State like knew and did not tell.
Downton Abbey not as popular as in America though we saw upcoming episodes due here next year. A hundred years ago those Howards and Marlboroughs employed over 1/3rd of the English population so the life of service hits rather too close to home in England.
Piers Morgan a “transatlantic chatshow host” who has hung himself with his book The Insider revealing knowledge of hacking apparently.
Conrad Black the “tricky Teflon coated fraudster” unable to escape the “fragrant” extravagant wife and looking flabby and truculent, determined to return to the House of Lords, which is silly anyway.
Premier of the Bond flic with Chester lad Daniel Craig sour and churlish with the fans.
The Middleton family’s Party Pieces doing 007 theme parties and a general Hands Off Kate and Wills in the press.
The hard working royals helicoptering all over the counties all the time as in Charles at a Shropshire art gallery amused that his wife bought a painting of a chicken (yes, she loves them!) and quipping that he simply cannot control her.