HOW TRAVEL IS CHANGING ME

Dinner has taken on a new level of significance for me on this Great Britain adventure. Always coming late in the day, usually as the light is changing into the soft muted tones of evening, I enjoy the pleasure of being done with driving, walking, looking, listening, learning and formulating more questions. We seek places that specialize in the local food and culture. Sometimes we choose one that represents the local “food scene.” Sometimes we look for a small place with simple food and only one or two people doing all the work. In England especially we have enjoyed the variety of pubs.

After perusing the menu and ordering we sip a glass of wine and talk about what we did and saw during the day, sometimes flipping through the day’s pictures. It is amazing that after nearly 52 years of marriage we still sometimes have very different views of the same experience.

So over a glass of wine and some starter we relive the day. Theses discussions have taken on a new twist, introduced by some form of the question, “How is this trip causing you to grow, to change, broaden your perspective?”

Each of these discussions elicits necessarily tentative observations that require the seasoning of time and contemplation in order to grasp the full significance of the Great Britain adventure and its impact on each of us. Several themes keep recurring during these dinner discussions.

One theme is a growing awareness of the layers of history. Most of the places we have visited here have more than 2000 years of continuous written history, often most of it visible in the buildings, the streets, the landscape. Time and again we have found visible symbols of human history going back centuries before written history. (I will not use the inaccurate and short-sighted term “prehistory” as it denigrates the value and humanness of our ancestors whose written record we have begun to learn how to read and understand in the last 100+ years.) The changes I am aware of include a constant awareness of the much longer scope of human history than I came here with. While some of this began to happen during earlier experiences in Europe, the cumulative effect seems to be driving this awareness to deeper levels and encouraging me to be aware of these layers as part of daily living.

This historical awareness is fixing a spotlight on the American mindset that history began with “me” and the idea that you can just tear down something that is “old” and build something different, new, better without reference to the lessons of the past or alternatively, invent a past to suit your emotions and then insist that is the way it really was, regardless of the evidence to the contrary.

Finding Stone Age artifacts of human history reminds me of the multi-thousand year journey of humanity. The record of how we have adapted and changed over the last 70,000-250,000 years, from Stone Age to Bronze Age to Industrial Age to Digital Age, from Hunter Gatherers to Farmers to Factory Workers to Information Workers emphasizes for me the immediate need to elect politicians who have the insights and skills to collaboratively develop solutions for our tomorrows rather than bandying simple (and backward facing and wrong) slogans about how we are going back to better days.

Another theme emerging in these dinner conversations is stewardship of the environment. Stewardship is one of those highly valuable concepts from my religious past, focusing on the responsibility to care for and use wisely what we have. Stewardship is a concept that does not need religious grounding. Most of us (but clearly not all of us) do not trash our homes and squander the life giving resources in our possession, yet when it comes to our shared environment we eschew the concept of personal or collective stewardship. Every place I have traveled in Europe is far ahead of the United States in renewable energy. What I can do, how I choose to invest my time and resources in this and other environmental issues will emerge after this Great Britain adventure. I have the feeling I have already done the easy things and now need to address fundamental, structural change.

A third “how I am changing” theme emerging grows out of the gracious friendly respectful way we are treated here everywhere by everyone. Striking up conversations is easy. Even discussing (albeit at a necessarily observational level) has everywhere been easy and enlightening, even when we disagreed. Pondering trips to France and Spain I remember finding the same thing. Far from the stereotype of cold and aloof, we have relatively easily negotiated the language barriers and made connections. Such a contrast to the often hate-filled trash talk we hear in the US. I find myself wondering how to engage in making changes in the quality of how we relate to each other. Another long term complicated project.

Not meant to be an exhaustive list, this has turned into a longer post than I originally envisioned. This may even become a longer term project.

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DRIVING THE HIGHLANDS TO OBAN AND THE HEBRIDES.

The drive from Glasgow to Oban (about 85 miles) took 2.45 hours. We drove along Loch Lomond Shore for 25 miles, stopping several times to soak in the beauty and try to capture some of the beauty in pictures.

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Loch Lomond

Then we climbed into the mountains on a basically good 2 lane road, much of the time near the rail line from Glasgow to Oban. This is the ferry gateway to the Hebredies (Mull, Iona, etc, the southern end of the island archipelago).

Where we are staying is magical. Between the water’s edge and our windows are a seawall and a strolling lane, a two way street, a front yard that is all paved parking, steps up to an elevated 12-14 foot wide porch. So the total distance from the water to the bed is maybe 5-6 car lengths.

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The Bay out our bedroom window

For dinner we had today’s catch of muscles, langostinos, brown crab claws, scallops, and oysters. Desert was Bailey’s bread pudding with warm cream and ice cream topped off with a 16 y scotch from Isle of Islay (about 20 miles out from here) that was very smokey and smooth. This place is a fairytale.

The weather (wind and snow, visibility 250 yards) was such that the ferries did not run until late afternoon, then only the short runs in the protected waters. They will not run tomorrow, but will Wednesday after the weather breaks in the middle of the night Tuesday night. So tomorrow’s plan is to mostly sit and absorb. The light changes constantly. When we can see the mountains on the outer islands they are snow covered; much of the time they are shrouded in clouds and snow.

The white caps on Loch Lomond were amazing! I’ve seen it on Lske Champlain (much smaller than the Great Lakes) but never on something as narrow as these lakes. The wind was heavy gale force down the valley and all boats were apparently tied up. The Firth of Lorn and the Bay of Oban here was quite choppy with significant white caps until about 5:30.

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THE BORDER LANDS, HADRIAN’S WALL

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A stretch of Hadrian’s Wall at Birdoswold

Winding through the countryside on single track roads we found the wall. Really, we found what’s left of it. Originally 4-5 meters high time has taken its toll. Over the centuries people have treated the wall as a Lowes store, taking the stones to construct other buildings for their current needs.

The area is windswept, characteristic of the high point of a region. This day is overcast with intermittent mist-not-quite-rain and a chill in the air.

We explored the remains of a Roman fort that in its heyday house about 1000 Roman soldiers. Archeologists tell us there was a covered area for combat practice so the troops, protected from the elements, could stay in fighting form.

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Foundation of the covered practice ground

The wall is situated where the Romans could keep an eye on both sides of the area and easily defend against marauders. It marks the northern limit of the Roman Empire in Great Britain. Along its length were defensive towers and signaling towers. It stretches some 78 miles from the North Sea on the east to the Irish Sea on the west.

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View from near the wall down the hill to the river.

Self consciously designed to keep out undesirable neighbors, the wall failed when Rome failed. Scholars have examined the causes of the collapse of Rome. I’ll examine some of those reasons in another chapter of my life. What seems pertinent right now is the question about walls as policy to keep out (or keep in) people that want to be on the other side of the wall. Hadrian’s Wall in Britain. The Great Wall of China, The Berlin Wall, The Iron Curtain Wall; it’s hard to not think of them all as failures.

The American Poet Carl Sandburg in his poem “Mending Fences” wrote of the spring process of repairing the winter damage to the wall marking the boundary between him and his neighbor:

“Something there is that doesn’t love a Wall.”

Next stop is Lanercost Priory, near Hadrian’s Wall. Established as an Augustinian cloister before the time of Edward I king of England, it is today mostly ruins. One part, the nave, of the original church building is still in use as a church. In the transept (in the ruins) are graves typical of medieval churches of this type. Inside are places commemorating men lost in the Boor war in 1896 (?) and “The Great War”. I could feel the weight of hope for life and family and loss of children and future stretching over the centuries.

Constructed in an age when all artistic energy went in to telling a particular religious story, the stone work is beautifully carved and constructed.

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Driving through the Lakes District

The scenery changes every few miles. Leaving Conway, Wales and heading to the Lakes District we drive through England’s equivalent to the Industrial Rust Belt. Engines of the industrial heyday are visible, but the telltale evidence of manufacturing activity is missing.

In the U.S. some politicians bate the unemployed with promises to “bring back the manufacturing jobs.” Or bring coal jobs back. Here in the Midlands is evidence of the same end to the industrial era. The truth is that automation “eats” most of the manufacturing and labor-intense jobs. There is no “bringing” those jobs back.

Lest one gets snookered into believing the decline of industrial manufacturing as we know it is somehow unique in our world or in our lifetime, in the last few days I have talked with sheep farmers who went bankrupt when the demand for wool declined drastically. Today successful sheep farming depends not on demand for wool but on the demand for lamb meat. Adapt or fade into oblivion.

There are many other examples of the “churn” on jobs that takes place constantly. One of the best sources I know for evidence-based analysis of the underlying factors driving our economy is Paul Krugman. Google for his column and his blog. He won’t give you simple slogans and easy (wrong) answers. He will give you data to chew on.

Returning to my story, driving through England’s industrial past reminds me that the world is changing–not just America–and America needs leaders who can articulate the realities and find solutions for tomorrow, not leaders who want to take us back to plantation and pollution days.

If you are still with me, we did drive into the Lakes District. The land is criss-crossed with stone fences and hedge rows up and down hills. Lush green pasture is dotted with sheep and spring lambs. Here and there are fields of rape seed, though fewer are seen the farther we drive. The visual effect is peaceful beauty.

Dove cottage. William Wordsworth’s home for a decade, where he wrote most of his well-known poems, was a required stop. A small, dimly lit home with a quiet garden up the hill in back, it lacks all the creature comforts we can’t live without. An associated museum displays many original manuscripts, pictures and artifacts of his life. I found it worth the stop to be in the place where genius once struggled to own just the right words to create the images of natural beauty and humanity’s search for a meaningful place in the universe.

In Keswick we saw a new play, “Wordsworth,” which gives a feel for the struggles of a poet trying to support his family by his writing. He nearly took a job from one of the nobility just to survive. The play closes with an ode to his 12 year old son recently dead from measles, and the implication he chose to skip being beholden to the establishment and pursue the gift and vision inside himself. No Wordsworth scholar, I cannot attest to the historical accuracy of the play. Talking with a local theatre attendee afterwards he said the play closely hued to the known facts of Wordsworth’s life.

I am especially delighted to have had this experience. Currently pondering the life of Vincent Van Gogh in the hope of writing a play about him, the Wordsworth play gives me pause to avoid simple cause and effect stereotypes and to wrestle with the complexities, contradictions, unknowns and unknowable.

Many stretches of road are narrow and winding, offering many blind curves. Traffic is heavy coming into the Lake District and even more congested in the villages. Speed is mostly posted at 60 MPH, though even with no traffic holding me up, much of the way is much more doable at 40-45. What a metaphor: we are always in a hurry (ok, I am always in a hurry.). Some things just can’t be rushed.

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Lake Derwentwater

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Dove Cottage, William Wordsworth’s home in the late 1790’s.

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The room where Wordsworth worked on some of his poems.

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The room where the family spent most of their time.

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HOLYHEAD, CAERNAFON CASTLE, SNOWDONIA PARK

After a quick tire repair we are off to the day’s adventures. First stop is Holyhead. It is the end of the road in Wales where the ferry heads to Dublin. Windswept, feeling like the North Atlantic, a few houses, marinas, docks, sea gulls, and at the moment a gentle wave action near low tide behind the break wall, it suited me perfectly. Lunch in Harbourfront Bistro was an unexpected delight. Seafood trio in a mango lime sauce over jasmine rice was spectacular, as good a dish as you would find in a fine restaurant anywhere. So was their pan fried sea bass.

Next stop was at Caernafon Castle, one of the castles Edward I built in his attempt to conquer Wales. It was here that a Welsh king first bestowed the title Prince of Wales on his oldest son who would become king. It was here in 1969 that Queen Elizabeth invested her son Charles as Prince of Wales. (They both look so young in those 1969 photos, but then it was 48 years ago! Will he ever be king?)

Next was Snowdonia National Park. home to Mt Snowden, at 3560 feet the highest peak in the U.K. The scenery was eye catching all day. Talking with people was incredibly easy. Driving was a challenge sometimes.

Dinner at Bridge restaurant included lamb roast and shepherds pie with lamb. I thought I had died and gone to Wales.

Arriving home before dark we chatted a bit with our host Paul, learned about pig farming, boarding horses, keeping up the house his family has lived in for 3 generations and general talk of the neighborhood.

We bid good night and retired to our apartment for tea and planning out our day tomorrow.

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THE COTSWOLDS

April 15-16. 2017

Blenheim Palace called for a visit. Built by the first Duke of Marlborough after he defeated the French and effectively ended their attempts to colonize Britain, it is an imposing edifice grandly situated amidst sweeping gardens and greens and is an ostentatious show of wealth. One couple we talked with (both of them work in the travel industry in the U.K.) said it is the only place in England that is not a royal residence that can be called a “palace.”

Home to 12 generations of Dukes of Marlborough, to most of us the most well known resident would be Winston Churchill. We would also recognize the late Lady Diana Spencer, Princess of Wales as a relative of the family.

The most impressive room in the house (I know, that is a very opinionated thing to say, but I’m the one saying) is the library. It extends across the garden side of the house nearly the equivalent distance of a city block on Park Avenue between 45th & 46th. The ceiling looks to be higher than 3 stories of the average American home. A pipe organ fills one end, and an Easter concert notice was posted nearby. The view out the windows over the formal gardens, the lakes and rolling hills is marvelous.

The Palace currently has an extensive fashion exhibit on display that loosely covers the generations associated with the house. There is a rather demure little black dress called “revenge” displayed in a glass case. Diana, Princess of Wales wore it when she emerged socially after her divorce from Prince Charles.

Several rooms contain various artifacts related to Sir Winston Churchill, who was born and lived here. Out in the gardens they have marked the spot where he proposed to his wife Clementine.

A short tour of the upstairs is devoted to a multimedia presentation of the construction of the Palace as told by a servant of Sara, the first Duchess of Marlborough.

Upon leaving the Palace, the visitor is treated to the obelisk John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, had built to commemorate his victory over the French at Blenheim. It dominates the skyline at the top of a wide grass sward.

We drove on from here to Hidcote Boyce, enchanted by the rolling hills, lush green fields, brilliant neon yellow blooms of the rapeseed plant from which canola oil is pressed, thousands of sheep and lambs dotting the landscape, stone walls and hedges ordering the fields. The roads became progressively narrower and I became adept at timing the pull outs with oncoming cars. Arriving at The Old House B & B we were warmly welcomed by our host Tim and his five year old daughter Maya, and treated to layers of historical stories about the neighborhood.

We ate dinner at Maharaja in Chipping Campden. Rumor has it that the food was so authentically Indian that the restaurant was raided; all 4 cooks ran, were later found, and 3 were found to have immigration problems. The fourth returned.

Sunday we spent half the day in Hidcote Manor Garden. Designed and built by an American, it sits atop a hill looking out over the Cotswolds. We strolled about for an hour soothed by the beauty and inventiveness, sat for a while looking out over the adjacent landscape, had cream tea and reluctantly left to drive around to several small villages and enjoy being in such idyllic environs.

Our host Tim told stories about his family living in this house for over 200 years and in the neighborhood for almost 400 years. His family lived in the house where I slept longer than my family lived in the USA. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around that depth of history and constancy.

My reactions to being in the Cotswolds is to slow down, relax, breathe, enjoy my surroundings. This trip is chipping away at pieces of my type A personality. And I am constantly pleased with the warm gracious reception we have experienced at every turn.

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DRIVING TO ST FAGANS

The big excitement today was successfully driving 146 miles to St FAGANS (in Wales, just a few miles from the capital Cardiff), then to Tintern Abbey and then back to Bath without running off the road, without hitting anything, without getting lost, etc. Just so you know, while it was an adventure that produced some white knuckles for me, I have always thought I am the Little Engine that knew he could. Judy, on the other hand, failed to breathe for most of the trip. (She did not volunteer to stay home tomorrow!)

St FAGANS is an outdoor museum that covers many acres in the Welsh countryside. One house is indigenous to the site, kept the way it was at the end of WW I.

Other buildings have been collected from various parts of Wales and reassembled here. There is a church from around 1520. When they began to examine it to prepare to move it they found paintings under white wash on the walls. After research they figured out how to lift the paint pigment from the walls and transfer it intact to the stones they reassembled here at St FAGANS.

One building is a merchant/trader from the late 1700’s (approximately) in which he lived above the level where he kept his goods. A 19th century general store has hundreds of items useful at that time in history and smelled like my grandfather’s old shed.

Up the hill about a quarter of a mile is a pair of reconstructed Iron Age huts. Made of mud and straw and 1-inch-thick sticks, covered with thatch, one of them contains the artifacts and articles of daily life.

One of my favorites is the Workman’s Institute. Built by coal miners as a community center it provided schooling, newspapers of the day, a library, meeting rooms and a social hall.

Everything there is built to last. Many buildings are constructed of local sandstone. It’s remarkable to realize the British Isles at some point in earth history were deep enough in the ocean that sand and sediment could be compressed into the stone that has been used to construct buildings since before the advent of the Romans.

The museum is continuing to expand their collection of buildings and artifacts to illustrate Welsh life over the centuries.

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Later in the trip when the ruins of Tintern Abbey came into view memories came flooding back. My father was a student of English literature and often would quote from memory lines he particularly loved. Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey” (full title: “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye During a Tour, July 13, 1798”) was one of his favorites.

I remember seeing ink sketches of the ruins, seemingly in a book of Wordsworth’s poetry, and probably other sources as well. Tintern Abbey is more stark in person than in the sketches I remember.

Built in the early 1130s by Cistercian
monks (a purist break away Order of Benedictine monks) the buildings were expanded over the years until the time Henry VIII separated from Rome, declared himself head of the Church of England and seized most church property to support the kingdom. For nearly 500 years since then Tintern Abbey has continued to deteriorate. Today it is a stark reminder of the past, and of the destructiveness birthed by rigid adherence to the idea that “my view of what God wants is the only right view, and if you disagree with me you will pay a serious price.”

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If you are interested in reading Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey, this link will take you to a copy of it.

http://www.shmoop.com/tintern-abbey/poem-text.html

Back home safe and sound, we found a fine little Italian restaurant in Bath, had house red wine with dinner and reveled in the day. It is an amazing experience living in the midst of so many layers of human history and being reminded that we are but a speck in the known history of the universe.

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