Durham, England – My Weekend as Castle Guard

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 Durham Castle Porter’s Lodge

Darn that Bill Bryson – it seems the secret is out about Durham being the most awesome place in England.  I am using the word “awesome” in its original sense like when one finds oneself speechless, jaw dropped, in a state of awe.

Although American, Bryson is every Brit’s favorite travel writer and they take his advice seriously when he suggests they take notice of something incredibly fine in their very midst that no one is talking about (Notes from a Small Island.) The place was overrun with vacationing Brits!  What’s more the 11th century castle where I was staying was overrun with wedding parties both days and both nights!

As a solo traveler in a castle packed with guests, I was, as usual, offered the Harry Potter death trap room reached by climbing 105 stone steps where the walls were so thick there wasn’t a shred of wifi or 3G signal.  I politely declined the room and packed my stuff to transfer to a room in another part of the castle that was very similar but at least had a view of the magnificent thousand year old cathedral and only 52 stone steps.

Alas, I had just unpacked when a red-headed lad knocked on my door and in a broad Yorkshire accent asked if I would mind moving to the “potter’s lodge” since this room had been promised on the following night and I was staying two nights.

With ominous visions of packing up my gear just to find myself in a potting shed, I wearily asked if I could see the room first.  The young man guided me through a gaggle of wedding guests in the courtyard (I dressed in a kaftan and flip flops) eventually leading me, not to the potters lodge, but the porter’s lodge at the impressive castle gate. We climbed a mere 30 winding steps and I found myself in the coolest place I could imagine spending a night in Northern England.  I was in a big tower with three huge gothic windows. See photo above.

My views included:

(1). The huge, extremely photogenic castle courtyard featuring the exquisite entry of the magnificent great hall,

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(2) a view of the keep and the 300 stone steps leading to it (where, presumably, the University of Durham dons live in splendor),

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And a view of the cathedral.


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Yippee!

I spent the first night just dreamily looking out at the illuminated views from my exquisite tower vantage point. Every now and then I would feel compelled to pull away from a window when I saw someone pointing a camera at me.  My porter’s lodge was part of the photogenic castle entry.

The next morning, I discovered that I couldn’t go on the official castle tour which is always canceled during weddings, but in a way, I’d already had one what with my three moves and breakfast in the great hall.

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Still I was free to wander about through the public rooms and lovely old chapel.  The porter on duty at the lodge told me about a much older Norman chapel (1080 AD) in the castle. When he saw my excitement, he gave me the key so I could run have a peek.  What I saw made me feel I had stepped onto the set of The Lion in Winter.

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I did get to go on official tour of Durham Cathedral (pronounced by the well traveled Bill Bryson to be “the finest cathedral on planet earth”.) Built in the 10th century, the cathedral was intended to be the final resting place of the bones of St. Cuthbert but was also an important part of William the Conquerer’s “shock and awe” campaign against the northern Saxons, something a little more positive than burning all their villages and poisoning their fields.  This was the “awe” part of shock and awe.

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This colossal structure had the first stone vaulted rib ceiling ever built anywhere. It was an absolute miracle of architectural engineering then as it is now and there is nothing under that roof to spoil the effect. Our tour guide was a marvelous story teller. He showed us the hidden bricked in window above the sanctuary knocker where two Benedictine monks from the attached monastery would watch for accused criminals on the lam and let them in where they were guaranteed 37 days of safety and care after which they could either face trial or be escorted to the dock and placed on the very next ship headed for a foreign port. Our guide said that the records show that out of hundreds of prisoners, not one opted for trial, so harsh were the penalties for the pettiest of crimes (e.g. losing a head or hand.)

I particularly liked the tales of shenanigans and intrigue that went on over the relics having to do with St. Cuthbert and St. Bede and even the head of a local military hero later known as St. Oswald. Apparently you could kill people and still become a saint; his skull can be found alongside St. Cuthbert’s in the very same coffin. Almost all depictions of St. Cuthbert show him tenderly holding a severed head. While these matters might seem like high comedy to modern day cynics, they were nothing to laugh at in the Age of Faith.

Two items of interest to Americans:

(1) There is a plaque and coat of arms on a wall in the cloister wing of the cathedral that once housed the Benedictine monks.  It commemorates the generous support of generations of Washingtons.  Six generations later, this same family produced America’s first and  greatest hero.

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(2) As one exits the great hall of Durham castle, there is another plaque honoring an anonymous “American citizen” who between 1930 and 1939 financed the renovation of the castle foundation which saved the castle from imminent and complete destruction.

London, Oxford, and Bath: Looking for the WOW

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I have always thought of myself as psychologically tough and resilient. But when you are on the road alone away from comfortable routines, you’re going to find out some things about yourself that you didn’t expect.

It all started on a rainy day in Paris when I was stuck in my hotel room during the three week French train strike. Upon checking my email I discovered that my brother had unexpectantly died. There was no question of going home since all flights were completely booked due to the strike and my family did not expect me to return in any case. Still I wanted so much to see his wonderful family, my brother’s greatest contribution to the world, I begged my niece to come join me touring Europe.  This turned out to be impossible due to her new job. I was disappointed because I knew having Melissa’s company was guaranteed to protect me from feeling sad. No sadness allowed!

So I put on a cheerful face, happy to find myself  at Dover after crossing the channel by ferry. I was on English soil at last among kindly people who spoke my language.  What’s more, the July weather was absolutely perfect. Still I wasn’t prepared for the tourist mob in London and it wasn’t much better in Oxford or the Cotswolds or Bath until evening when the “day trippers” left.

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The tourist mobs were somehow disturbing to me. It was as if they were all desperately looking for the big “WOW!” The idea seemed to be that this WOW moment would occur if one stood or sat or walked in the exact same spot as Samuel Johnson, Pepys, Princess Diana, or David Beckham (London), or Christopher Wren, C. S. Lewis, Sir Walter Raleigh, or Oscar Wilde (Oxford) or Jane Austin, Beau Nash, or Queen Anne (Bath). I amused myself thinking how surprised those tourist groupies would be to learn that the last creature to occupy that particular three dimensional space was probably a dinosaur since it takes 226,000,000 years for the sun to orbit the center of the Milky Way galaxy.

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Then in a moment of clarity I realized that I was no different.  Even if I wasn’t rushing around with a camera trying to visit Stratford-on-Avon, Stonehenge, and Bath all in one day like some Asian tourists I met, I was still desperately looking for the WOW.  We all are.

It was in Oxford and Bath that I finally had to admit that, not only was I not feeling the WOW even though I was surrounded with amazing beauty and a great deal of interest, but something was wrong with me which I could only attribute to a delayed reaction to my brother’s death, something I had repressed.

I was starting to have fearful dreams about never seeing my loved ones again, about something happening to them.  There were also dreams of losing my grip on reality, seeing looks of horror on strangers’ faces when I mistook them for my dead brother.  Sometimes while trying to distract myself with sightseeing, I would start trembling as if very cold.  I knew I wasn’t afraid of anything external.  I was afraid of me as if I couldn’t trust myself  anymore.

Then I met a succession of individuals who, while engaged with life, didn’t seem to be desperately looking for the WOW.  Three were at a hostel located in a lovely, peaceful Italianate Villa in Bath. One was a Scottish woman taking a course in Tibetan Buddhism. Her modest goal was to learn compassion.  There was a charming seventy-six year old woman who was very well traveled and was researching a book on her family history as a gift for her grandchildren. There was also a tiny very young girl with an enormous backpack on a solo journey. She never went out to see the sights or look for entertainment but spent most of her time alone on the lawn reading.

I didn’t know why but I found myself canceling my week in Penzance and looking for accommodations in Bath since the hostel was booked. I was able to secure a room at a bed and breakfast in a tiny village on the outskirts of Bath. My host, David, explained that he had been recently widowed and was new to the business of taking in paying guests.  I soon found that David was the epitome of all things good about the English. He generously gave me full run of the house and garden including the laundry room, a great blessing to one who has been on the road for months. I’m sure he found it strange that I spent all my time in the garden reading and never went to town or wanted so much as a cup of tea but he gave me my space and privacy until he sensed that I was feeling sociable at which times he was a wonderful conversationalist.

Walking or sitting in the garden with all the flowers and listening to birdsong, I was finally calm enough to acknowledge the things that were troubling me, knowing that the only way around is through.

On my ipad  I read Emerson, Walt Whitman, E. E. Cummings, James Broughton, and Timothy Freke . . . all high priests of the WOW that requires no exertion of any kind. Slowly that shattered feeling began to diminish. In any case I was no longer running away seeking distractions. Then, amazingly, one night I actually experienced the WOW.

I was gazing out my bedroom window in the early evening.  My eyes were focused on a neighbor’s garden.  Unlike David’s eclectic easy going garden, this garden was sheer perfection. I was particularly struck by the vividness of the colors of the flowers in magnificent full bloom.

imageSuddenly I knew something without really thinking about it.  We always think we know, or at least should know, what we need.  We’re wrong on both counts and if we can only manage a little bit of honesty, vulnerability, and trust, more often than not the universe will compassionately provide what we truly need.

. . . wow

The Cotswalds – Quaint, Qwirky, Twee

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After one harrowing day in London, I saw the wisdom of my original decision to spend my first week in England in the Cotswolds, well-known haven of bucolic bliss and all things English. Like London, this area is chock full of tourists but somehow they don’t ruin it.  In fact most of the tourists are English who, like you and I, live in big cities or industrial suburbs and are looking for the home they always knew they should have had but didn’t.  That home is in a village built of honey colored limestone with green hills, gardens, quaint shops and tearooms, and charming friendly people who take life slowly, content to relax over tea and scones with homemade jam and clotted cream.

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And that’s exactly what you get in the Cotswolds – as advertised.  At first you’ll simply rejoice that such things exist, then you’ll start looking for the fly in the ointment or the “worm in the bud” as the British say.   Your mind will start doing strange things like pulling up odd memories from old Miss Marple episodes. Agatha Christie was not the first writer to be struck by the fact that settings too good to be true must have a dark underbelly that could profitably be exagerated into a St. Mary Meade rife with greed, envy, revenge, and violence.

Conan Doyle had Sherlock Holmes introduce a similar concept in response to Watson admiring the countryside from a train window.  Charlotte Graham created a setting every bit as lovely and bucolic and violent as St. Mary Meade but added a good dose of sexual perversion to the mix resulting in over one hundred episodes of Midsomer Murders any one of which could have been filmed in the Cotswolds.  In fact, every time I went outdoors I found that creepy Midsomer Murders theme playing on a Theremin in my mind on a continuous loop.

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Now it’s really not necssary to go running about trying to see all of the Cotswolds towns and lovely views.  In fact, due to an injured foot, I wasn’t able to do a great deal of walking and therefore only visited a representative few.  But that’s alright.  The Cotswolds are not about rushing around and, while each village is unique and qwirky in its own way, they have a remarkable number of elements in common.

My list of modest examples follows.

They will all have:

  • cold mornings and a little rain every day
  • the oldest continuously operating inn, pub, or tea shop in England

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  • an inn visited by King Charles I   (Either he praised the place heartily or failed to pay his bill.)
  • a place that inspired Tolkien and is described in detail in The Hobbit or Lord of the Rings

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  • a place that was recreated in a Harry Potter film
  • a pub or inn called The Kings Arms, The Queens Head, or The White Hart.

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  • a green area with benches from which to view “the old stocks” where you can enjoy a photo op (These are not the original stocks used in the seventeenth century; they have been replaced several times as  a fun reminder of a time when one could throw rotten tomatoes at one’s helpless neighbor.)
  • imagea charming water feature such as a stream or river with a low stone bridge, a pond with cute little nesting cottages for the water fowl, or an ancient well

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  • a street name derived from a gruesome historical event like Digbeth from “ducks’ bath” as in “pools of blood were so deep that ducks were able to bathe in them.”
  • a pub or inn with a fireplace carved with “witches marks” to ward off evil spirits
  • the oldest tree in England

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  • a museum dedicated to something qwirky like cricket, textiles, or agricultural tools

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  • a small coop grocery store on High Street
  • a huge Tesco superstore close by but discreetly hidden around a corner behind tall hedges
  • a creepy church yard with a side door to the church designed for a dwarf or hobbit

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  • an old mill or brewery
  • a manor house and garden open to the public for a small fee

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  • a charming walk along the nearby countryside including a photo op of a mysterious bronze age standing stone.

imageDuring my weeklong stay in the Cotswolds I never discovered any evil lurking behind chintz curtains or low stone walls, just charming, cheery people enjoying the convenience of a Tesco, Volkswagen, and smart phone in a setting as lovely and dreamlike as any Thomas Kincade painting. It’s like the home you always deserved.