Monday, November 19, 2007

Quaint England in a Nutshell: Ely, Cambridge, and Yorkshire

[A chronologically misplaced blog post detailing my mother and I's recent visits to Ely, Cambridge, and Yorkshire. I will return to my earlier adventures in Corsica, Scotland, Alaska (summer), Lake District, and Southern England in upcoming posts -- please keep checking my blog!]

* * *


In the beginning of November, on her way to visit Israel (a trip doubtlessly inspired by my hot-off-the-press Israeli post :-) ), my mother decided to join me in England. Our joint adventure for the week began in Ely, a neat little town some 70 miles north of London: quiet, rustic, and very peaceful. At the center of the town stands a cathedral -- not quite as tall and imposing as Lincoln Cathedral, built around the same time, but beautiful and monumental non-the-less. Long, tall, covered in stained glass, with an unusual octagonal tower at its center, the cathedral is definitely the landmark of Ely, and is seen from nearly every place in town. The other less-prominent landmark of Ely is the Great River Ouse, though it is not particularly grand in this part of England, where its water stands so still that it's far more reminiscent of a canal. The river is favored by ugly turkey-resembling ducks (actually, a genetic cross between those two species), and by far more intriguing longboats, docked at its banks. Those boats, low, narrow, and disproportionately long, are the canal version of RVs, containing tiny kitchens, bathrooms, a number of rooms, and even an occasional bike-rack! We were told that though some people live on the boats permanently and have no other home of their own, most owners use the boats just for traveling along England's plentiful canals (a leftover of the Industrial Revolution, where canals were seen as a cheap and safe method of transporting products from remote inland factories to the booming marketplaces of large cities).

On the day of my mother's morning arrival, we walked for several hours throughout the town, observing its old and ivied homes, the ever-English neat gardens and hedges, the cathedral, the river, and just the tranquil and anachronistic atmosphere that hung over Ely. We also chanced upon a crafts fair, where, among other things, we saw the making (and selling) of beautiful glass figurines -- a process deceptively easy, where, almost by itself, a glass rod stuck in a hot flame and touched by other bits of colored glass would placidly morph itself into a bird, dolphin, walrus, or any other animal, springing to life out of the skilled craftsman's tongs.

In the evening, which happened to be the first Saturday after the 5th of November, a spectacular fireworks display was held in the center of town. The place was buzzing with a festive air! Several thousand people poured out into the park adjacent to the cathedral, where a large fire was already consuming the effigies of Guy Fawkes. Soon, a dozen rockets took off into the sky, showering the heavens in color and light; they were immediately followed by other fireworks, all launched one after another, so as to not give the darkness the slightest moment to retaliate. Though I have always loved fireworks -- attempting to see them whenever I could -- I have never actually seen a comparable fireworks show! Some rockets exploded in a broad circle, their sparks of light continuing up into the sky; others released streams of warm glowing light that descended gently, as if through a thick fog, towards the ground; others yet, multicolored and launched in parallel from some twenty spots on the field, sliced through the air with an atypical R2D2-like squeal, changing course every several seconds in the most random and comical fashion. The air was so thick with fireworks that it seemed almost too sparse to hold any more rockets, and yet the fireworks kept coming, one lush eruption of color after another! Indeed, with such an abundance of ever-present light raining down upon the ground, it seemed like I was on some fantastic scuba voyage through the brilliant constellations of the sky, hurtling through the air from one fading explosion of light to the next!

* * *


The following day, my mother and I took a train to the nearby town of Cambridge. We arrived to the sound of a military parade, and it took me some time to realize that it was just past the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month: the 89th anniversary of the long-awaited amnesty of the First World War. We proceeded from there along the cobbled streets, past (and briefly into) a beautiful small cathedral, and finally into the heart of the University buildings in central Cambridge.

Cambridge University is composed of many colleges, scattered throughout the town, each with a fair share of autonomy and self-sufficiency. Each building complex includes a residence hall, a classroom hall, a dining hall, and maybe even its own library or chapel. Some of the colleges are organized by departments (such as the School of Engineering or the Arctic Research Institute), while some are less academically divided (such as the King's College and the Queen's College). What they share in common, apart from the underlying Cambridge University funding, is a visible atmosphere of student learning and academic endeavors, combined with a feel and look of an ivied and a tradition-filled campus.

Of all the colleges, one of the most fancy and well-endowed was King's College, home to some of the most astoundingly beautiful architecture in Cambridge:. A spectacularly-gothic chapel -- complete with thin spires regularly piercing the skyline, tall stained-glass windows and elaborate stone sculptures -- stood in the middle of the College's spacious grounds. By its side ran the narrow river Cam; not so much "ran", perhaps, as rested in shallow motionlessness, but its waters were constantly rippled by the traversing of punts. Those boats -- wooden, shallow, moderately long and with a slightly-raised platform at their rear -- were typically filled with a group of tourists and captained by a single college-age student standing on the platform. The steering and propelling of the boat was quite a spectacle: towering, like Moses, with a tall wooden staff in his hand, the student would drive the wooden pole into the river, pushing off of the shallow bottom and thrusting the boat forward. Even more of a spectacle, though less Moses-like, was when a tourist rented out one of those boats instead, only to discover that it takes having a Cambridge-student wisdom to successfully pilot the boat. Such cases usually led to the boat drunkenly swaying from one side of the river to the other, bumping into other boats and spontaneously reversing directions along the river. Once, indeed, a newbie punter accidentally let go of the pole and it fell into the river, out of reach of the boat. Fortunately, each rented boat included a rented paddle, so after some re-adjusting to the new mean of propulsion, the clumsy punter regained possession of his pole. With renewed zeal he forced the boat up the Cam, soon ramming into a central pillar of a nearby bridge, and undauntedly proceeding onward.

While in Cambridge, my mother and I also visited a beautiful art gallery and museum -- beautiful both for its collection of portraits and sculptures and fine china, and for the overall extravagant design of the building itself. What I remember most from the gallery, however, was a painting on a familiar theme, but presented in an entirely new perspective. The artwork was named "Sunset" -- but, unlike all previous sunset images I have ever seen, this one did not focus on the beauty of the moment, nor on the changing colors of the sky, nor on the dawning tranquility of the earth. Indeed, the red disk of the sun was not even present in the picture, obscured by an oceanside cliff, and known only by the reds and oranges cast upon the floating clouds above the water. And the subjects of the picture -- a group of fishermen, some sailors and two women -- were all too busy completing their daily chores to glance at the setting sun. For them, the sundown was not a romantic symbol -- a nostalgic image of a long-gone past, or a natural wonder in its own right -- but a somber reality of impending darkness, with many a task still to be completed before nightfall. Despite the touching beauty and the possible sadness of the moment, to the subjects of the painting, the sunset bade nothing more than an ending to another wearisome day...

* * *


On Monday, leaving the comfort of Ely and Cambridge and other "civilized" towns, we boarded a train to Yorkshire. Though I had bought the tickets several weeks in advance, and though I had painstakingly scraped together some information about our destination, I was not particularly sure why we were heading to Yorkshire. In my mind, Yorkshire was composed of tiny authentically-English farmland communities, unpleasantly cold in the winter and set in a fairly uninteresting flat landscape (after all, those who wish to visit the mountains go to nearby Lake District, or to the further-north of Scotland) -- most notable only as the setting of James Herriot's sentimental veterinary stories. However, as I had already visited Lake District and Scotland and as my mother felt inexplicably drawn to the place of Harriot's lovingly-described natural settings, I consented to travel with her to Yorkshire.

As scant as information on visiting Yorkshire was, I understood that our best bet would be to stay in the small town of Aysgarth, and, from there, to explore the surrounding area of the Yorkshire Dales. The Dales, as it turned out once we arrived, are wide valleys with plentiful streams and waterfalls, surrounded by far more picturesque hills than I had ever given Yorkshire credit for. Aysgarth, as I read on the web, contained some famous cascading falls, as well as a convenient hostel and information center within the town. I decided that we would worry about finding information on local attractions once we got there and, in the meantime, my only care would be figuring out a how to get from Ely to Aysgarth using some means of public transportation.

Despite Aysgarth's many advantages, it did not stand directly on a rail line; for that matter, neither did any of the other Herriot-associated villages of which my mother had sent me a list. Aysgarth was situated, however, a mere fifteen miles from the station of Garsdale on the main railroad route. The Aysgarth website spoke of a "regular bus service" running throughout the area, so I had little qualms about our journey. Armed with that information -- and imagining Garsdale to be a bustling railroad town -- my mother and I stepped out of the train onto a deserted wooden station, and almost collapsed back onto the departing train!

Garsdale, from where we stood, appeared to be composed of approximately four houses; a closer inspection revealed another six homes hidden from view. The rest of Garsdale was populated strictly by sheep, consisting of only two small roads (one leading to the station, and an even narrower one -- shared by animals and cars alike -- leading to some distant nowhere) and two larger roads (leading east and west the hell out of Garsdale). As for the station at which we arrived, it consisted of a small elevated hut, which, despite the total isolation, was manned by a friendly railroad worker. When I asked him for directions to Aysgarth, our conversation was interrupted by a series of patterned rings -- not telephone rings, but TELEGRAPH-LIKE rings, produced by some ancient piece of machinery, communicating the arrival of a train to a neighboring station!

Not only was there hardly a house in Garsdale, but there was also hardly a bus service: though we had arrived at two in the afternoon, the next bus would not arrive 'till 5:30pm, and it listed only one destination -- some unheard of village of Hawes (although, to its credit, it did boast of a youth hostel and a tourist information center). The weather seemed pretty enough, but cold; two hours later, with the sun (and a glorious sunset) long gone by, and with cars -- unwilling to pick up hitchhikers -- whizzing next to us in the engulfing darkness, it became bitter cold. To add insult to injury, when we finally arrived to Hawes, we found the hostel to be closed for the season! Fortunately, at least plenty of Bed & Breakfasts were available in town, so we decided to settle in one of those for the night.

As it turned out, Hawes was actually not a bad choice at all! Unlike Garsdale, it proved to have a good bus service to the surrounding villages (Aysgarth included), and, unlike Aysgarth, its Tourist Information Center remained open on weekdays even in the end-of-the-season November. Tourist-oriented, filled with museums and arts workshops and surrounded by hills and sheep, Hawes turned out to be a great "base camp" for our exploration of the surrounding Yorkshire Dales!

* * *

In the next two days, we visited Askrigg (a small town on the way to Aysgarth), Aysgarth, and the hills surrounding Hawes. Askrigg's only claim to fame was that the James Harriot TV series was filmed there, but as the road to Aysgarth ran right through Askrigg, we decided to take a quick peek there first.

To be honest, we did not get very far through the town. Very soon we came upon a "POTTERY STUDIO" sign over an ancient-looking house, and, as a hobbyist wheelthrower myself, I could not resist the temptation to step in and take a look. The pottery there was indeed very beautiful, of pleasing classical form and of a fabulously painted earth-tone design. The pots were all made by the same man, the owner of this 1600s house, whose studio was located in the home's basement. We had come to the studio right as he was carefully loading his new work into a giant kiln, which he had built himself many years before. Colorful Indian flags hung from the ceiling above the kiln, and a small Buddha sat on the topmost brick, meditatively blessing the proceedings. That, the potter said, was his religion -- Hinduism, or something of such contemplation- and living-in-tune-with-the-Earth- sort. The design of the pots themselves, too, must have come from the potter's beliefs in a simpler and more earthly life. Born in England as a hippie child of the 1960s, and eventually kicked out of college for the possession of marijuana, he at last decided to go to art school, but had to wait a year before he could enroll. Taking the opportunity to travel, and leaving home with but five pounds in his pocket, he hitchhiked his way through England, across to France, down to Spain, and finally through the Gibraltar Straight down to North Africa. Working odds-and-ends jobs all along his route -- from mixing cement for the building of cathedrals and mosques, to cleaning streets, to assisting in art studios -- he finally settled in Cairo. When the time came for him to head back to England, he and his girlfriend bought an old ambulance, painted it in psychedelic colors, wrote "SMILE" in big bold letters across the back of it, and journeyed back to Britain, getting stopped and thoroughly checked by police at every town along the way.

By the time I had bought a beautiful goblet, thanked the potter for his stories and his hospitality, and admired his well-cared-for garden (where I could not help but wonder if -- out of old habit -- some marijuana plants still grew), my mother and I had but ten minutes to spare before catching the next bus to Aysgarth. The "bus" that came was actually not a regular town bus, but a Royal Mail van instead. In these isolated areas of Britain, particularly in Yorkshire and in parts of Scotland, the Royal Mail often supplements regular bus services, transporting paying passengers along its remote mail routes.

The town of Aysgarth scarcely exuded the same charm of Hawes or Askrigg, resembling not so much a town, but a chain of buildings lining one main road. Aysgarth's claim to fame, however -- a series of three cascading waterfalls, surrounded by beautiful woods -- proved quite worthy of the trip. Each waterfall was composed of multiple rock "steps", formed by the natural pealing away of whole slabs of rock over the course of time. The waterfalls were separated from one another by several hundred yards, with still smaller cascades of steps running in between. Though Aysgarth was mostly surrounded by grassy pastures, the area immediately around the creek was enclosed by a thin strip of woods, whose trees still carried late-autumn leaves.

From the waterfalls, we leisurely followed a footpath across expansive cattle fields, each separated from one another by typically-British stone walls. The long-established path cut across these fields, taking "grandfather-rights" precedence over private property, and even provided gates and steps to help people cross over the enclosures. Walking along the path for about three miles, and stopping to admire nearly every adorable sheep and cow along the way, we finally made it across the wide valley to Bolton Castle. Though the castle was closed for the winter, its unmistakably strong walls and fortress-like look was easily discernable even from a distance. Contrasting sharply with these stronghold features was the Castle's garden, where a maze made of hedges and a lovingly-enclosed vineyard grew peaceably along the castle's impenetrable side.

The following day my mother and I chose not to travel to other nearby villages, but instead to hike up one of the hills that overlooked Hawes. The day was beautiful -- blue-skied, not windy, with but an occasional feathery cloud floating overhead. Like in Aysgarth, we cut across the fields of Hawes along a series of public footpaths, passing through more stone walls and more flocks of sheep. I should note that nearly all the sheep in Yorkshire were coated with streaks of paint -- red, orange, blue, or a mixture thereof. We were told that the paint indicates ownership of the sheep (if more than one person owns a plot of walled land), or the mating status and/or age of the ewes. The paint is fairly weather-resistant, but comes off eventually (perhaps through a chemical process) when the wool of the sheep is sheared and sold.

We walked through a tiny hamlet, built into the base of a hill before proceeding further up. Like nearly all settlements in Yorkshire, however, the tiny cluster of houses was a picturesque addition to the surrounding hills. As one book on Britain pointed out, English scenery is not spectacular, but pleasant. There is no pretense about fearsome towering mountains in the British Isles, for there are none; what Britain is known for is its enclosed coziness, its maintained gardens, and its peaceful -- albeit small -- lochs. Thus, quaint villages scattered amidst peaceful sheep-grazed hills only add to the English charm! And if the houses within are crooked, small, and "cobbeldy-wobbeldy" (an actual term I heard used by a Briton with regards to a village in Yorkshire), those lovely details just reinforce to the village's British authenticity!

We did not reach the top of the hill. The gentle slope seemed to recede far into the horizon, away from the tranquil Hawes, its traditional homes, and its baa-ing sheep. There seemed no reason to keep following the hill away from the pleasant Yorkshire scenery, so we soon turned back into the valley that we had grown so attached to. On the way down, we also witnessed the flight of a pheasant: a surprisingly beautiful and free glide, with the pheasant's wings spread like that of a model airplane -- quite unlike the ungraceful trotting that pheasants usually do while walking on land.

The following morning, after strolling around town, visiting numerous shops and seeing a ropemaker's workshop in action, we took a southbound train to Harlaxton. The scenery around us -- at first beautiful and remote, with plenty of sheep grazing amidst valleys and hills -- soon grew flatter, bleaker, and more cluttered with modern cities. We were out of Quaint England, at least for the duration of the train ride. But ahead of us, looming over the modernized cities of Britain, rose Harlaxton -- of whose beauty and prominence my readers have surely read in previous blog posts. With that, my mother and I's journey across the quaint and charming England was complete.

- Michael

No comments: