Lake District Surprises

England’s Lake District felt like Vancouver—there was a lot of rain, which made the loss of a travel day because of our flat tire a little more bearable.

I wandered the one-street town of Torpenhow, marvelling at the quaintness of the houses, the street signs, and the melancholic beauty of the cemetery and old parish church that is still active today—St. Michael and All Angels.

This is the kind of town where being stuck without a car is rather inconvenient since the closest shop to walk to was a pub half an hour away. Needless to say, we were thankful once the car was fixed and we could get on the road to do some driving and hiking in the nearby Lake District.

Buttermere to Rannerdale Walk

When you only have 1 full day in the Lake District (not recommended), it’s hard to choose which hike to do! We opted for a version of this 2-hour route found on the National Trust website along the mountain ridge from the cute village of Buttermere to Rannerdale Valley.

The wind and rain were relentless. Note my hair whipped straight back from my hood. I’m cradling my stomach here as this was baby’s first hike (then just the size of an avocado). The large swath of purple below me is Rannerdale Valley filled with bluebells.

They don’t call this area the Lake District for no reason! The lake in the foreground is called Crummock Water (meaning “crooked”, referring to the lake’s shape) and Loweswater in the distance.

Sheep are everywhere in England, but this type below, Herdwick sheep, are native to the Lake District. Famous children’s author Beatrix Potter was known for keeping and herding them.

Despite the wind and rain, the hike was a blast, especially when we reached the fabulous bluebells that bloom in spring. May was a perfect time to see them. I found this legend interesting:

Sometimes known as the Secret Valley, this area is said to be the site of a battle at which native Cumbrians and Norsemen ambushed and defeated Norman armies in the century after they came to Britain in 1066. Rannerdale offers a popular bluebell walk in spring, when the woodland floor becomes an indigo carpet. Local folklore suggests that the bluebells have sprung up from the blood of slain Norman warriors.

National Trust website

We probably spent close to half an hour just wandering in and out of the bluebell paths and taking photos. I’ve never seen this concentration of flowers before. It felt a bit like we were in a fairy tale.

We learned that the weather in the Lake District changes all the time, so chances are some sun will poke through even on the dreariest days. (Though the rain adds such a moody, dramatic effect to the landscape that’s worth experiencing too!) We enjoyed some sun driving the scenic roads back to Keswick, the hub of the northern Lake District.

Before reaching Keswick (shown above), we detoured along a popular packhorse bridge called Ashness Bridge. Incredibly narrow, I had to get out of our boat-car to direct my husband through it. Thankfully we made it!

Castlerigg Stone Circle

Another gem in this area is Castlerigg Stone Circle, one of Britain’s earliest stone circles dating back to the Neolithic period (4000-500 years ago). I had been to Stonehenge 10 years ago, and even though that site was impressive, I enjoyed these stones so much more. For one, we had it almost all to ourselves. Number two, the setting is incredible. 38 stones sitting on a low hill, surrounded by mountains in the setting sun. Unbeatable. And three, the stones weren’t roped off like they are at Stonehenge, so you can actually walk right up to them and touch them.

Coming back to Torpenhow for our last night was magical. Sunset was spotlighting Scotland in the distance, across the Irish Sea, as we drove in on the single-track road to the soundtrack of bleating lambs and mooing cows.

We said goodbye to this fabulous view out our farmhouse window the next morning and headed for Scotland.

Hadrian’s Wall and an Unfortunate Event

What’s a road trip in a foreign country without some misadventures?

Continuing on from Durham, we drove along Hadrian’s Wall on our first day with the car or boat as my husband often referred to it (we were given a very large car, not ideal for UK’s narrow roads).

Unfortunately, you can’t see the wall from the road so you have to stop at designated attractions, such as Housesteads Roman Fort. This is the best example of a preserved Roman fort in England though and definitely worth a stop. You can walk among ruins of a hospital, barracks, and even see flushable toilets though we missed those. Hadrian built this wall in 122 CE as the northernmost frontier of his empire to separate the Romans from the “barbarians.”

We got there with less than of hour of the fort closing. After a long day of learning to drive on the other side of the street and all your senses on overdrive (pardon the pun), our priority was running along the wall and taking shots with our bright red umbrella (with some occasional meandering through the fort). We had it all to ourselves and look at those pastoral views!

Our end destination that day was a tiny town (and I mean tiny) called Torpenhow that lay just north of the Lake District. We arrived late at night because we got the first of two flat tires on our 10-day road trip. We think the tires were lemons because what we hit would not normally deflate a car’s tires, but in any case, we managed to make it to a gas station and waited a few hours for roadside assistance to rescue us and patch the tire enough so we could get to our Airbnb 20 minutes away. Apparently UK cars don’t have spare tires like Canadian ones do. Who knew? The next day, we had to bring the car in to Carlisle to get the tire replaced, eating up what precious time we had left in this scenic part of northern England.

All that to say, when we got to this Ivy Cottage in the smallest town I have ever visited, we were very much ready to pack it in for the night after eating our gas station dinner of canned soup and beans.

Gazing at Glass in Durham Cathedral

On our way to Hadrian’s Wall and the Lake District, my husband and I stopped in the small town of Durham to see their towering, world-class cathedral.

Elvet Bridge in Durham

Durham Cathedral is a great example of Norman or Romanesque architecture. It was built to house the shrine of St. Cuthbert from Lindisfarne. The cathedral you see today was erected over St. Cutherbert’s tomb in 1093 and completed in a remarkable 40 years.

Durham Cathedral

There’s another famous figure associated with Durham Cathedral: The Venerable Bede, an eighth century monk who wrote the first history book of England. Fun fact: his Ecclesiastical History of the English People was the first work to use the AD dating system (anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord or when Christ was born).

Tomb of Venerable Bede in the Galilee Chapel

Romanesque or Norman Architecture

Rounded arches and vaults are characteristic of Romanesque architecture (meaning “from Rome”). In Britain, however, it’s more common to call this architecture “Norman” because it was the Normans who came to England from Normandy (France) who introduced this style.

Compared to the Gothic-style York Minister I blogged about last week, Durham Cathedral impresses you with its bulkiness and solidity. You can immediately notice the difference. There’s a weight and heaviness to the nave with those chunky stone pillars that you don’t experience in the lighter, airier York Minster nave. Because churches in the Romanesque period were made of stone, they had to be very thick and the windows small to prevent the building from collapsing. Over time, a leaner style was achieved that led to the Gothic style of ribbed vaults, flying buttresses, and pointed arches.

Geometric patterns were common Norman decorations and I enjoyed spotting different markings in the stone pillars of the nave (e.g some had a chevron pattern, others a honeycomb).

Durham Catheral’s website states that during the monastic period (1093-1539), the walls would have been painted and the windows filled with stained glass. After the Reformation, however, the walls were all whitewashed and the stained glass removed. The stained glass you see today is almost all Victorian. I wonder if this section below is a remnant of the monastic wall paint showing through like old wallpaper.

Stained Glass Windows

My favourite part of Durham Cathedral isn’t the architecture but the numerous stained glass windows that give more colour and life to this dark and sombre structure.

Of course there are the classic stained glass windows showing Biblical scenes like the crucifixion:

The Rose Window and 3 stained glass windows above the Chapel of Nine Altars

. . . but you can see those in practically any cathedral. What’s different about Durham Cathedral is its abundance of contemporary stained glass windows and how well these modern artworks complement the traditional ones and even combine with them in such a historic building.

The millennium window

The Millennium window is a great example of an artwork blending classic and contemporary motifs. Installed in 1995 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of St. Cuthbert’s shrine arriving at Durham, it begins with imagery of St. Cuthbert’s tomb and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, moving through England’s history with depictions of coal miners, cows, and a computer (bottom left) printing out a 12th century account of moving St. Cuthbert’s coffin.

The TraNSfiguration window

I couldn’t make out many scenes in The Transfiguration window, but I loved the use of the orange and blue complementary colours centered around a swath of blazing light. The window seamlessly integrates representational figures in the lower half with abstract representations in the top half. It was designed by Tom Denny and contains Biblical stories and scenes from Durham’s history.

The Daily Bread window

The Daily Bread window was a gift in 1984 from Durham’s Marks & Spencer department store, of all places! Mark Angus is the artist. It’s a modern interpretation of The Last Supper seen from above. I had a wonderful chat with an elderly docent about this window, where he asked me questions to help tease out more of the meaning. Instead of literal people, the artist represented the apostles as circles resembling worlds with their own colours, uniqueness, and personalities.

“Which one do you think is Judas?” the docent asked me.

“That dark greenish black one on the left.”

“I would agree. And notice how it’s painted further out than the other circles are, as if he’s in the act of leaving the table. And which one do you think is Jesus?”

“Centre bottom.”

“The brightest one. What do you think the green and blue colours refer to?”

“Water and land?” I venture.

“Or earth and sky with stars twinkling in the night, emphasizing that Christ is Lord of heaven and earth. And the colour purple?”

“Royalty.” I gaze more at the wave-like pattern in the background and it brings to mind folded clothes or the loose robes that hang from the cross at church after Easter.

I loved looking at this painting of the Last Supper because I’ve never seen one like it before. It’s simple yet rich with symbols. I also love that I got to talk about it with someone who’s probably looked at it a hundred times and who deepened my experience by sharing his insights with me. There are often docents posted in galleries and museums—if you get a chance, pick their brain because they have a lot of knowledge and are usually happy to share it!

Another moving artwork in Durham Cathedral: this sculpture of The Pieta by Fenwick Lawson. It breaks with tradition by depicting lying at his mother Mary’s feet instead of in her arms.

Walking the Walls

Whenever I visit a new city, I look for opportunities to climb something—a tower, a set of stairs, a hill—anything to give me height over what I’m looking at. It helps orient me and boosts my confidence in navigating than if I just stayed at ground level.

York provides a great way to do this (and it’s free). Every city has its unique attributes and I’d say what makes York worth a visit (apart from its cathedral) is its walls dating from the Roman and medieval times. I was surprised at how well intact they still were, meaning you can walk them! It’s fun to do sections at a time so you can hop on and off and tour the nearby area.

My husband and I went there earlier this year as part of a road trip through the UK (more posts to come on the other places). York was our starting point and we loved it. Historic, quaint, walkable.

Ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey that date to the 13th century, part of the Museum Gardens.
A door knocker on one of the churches that was believed to protect whoever it was that reached it.

We did a 3-hour walking tour with White Rose York Tours, which included walking a portion of the wall from Bootham Bar to Monk Bar (crowded but worthwhilefor the back view of York Minster). I don’t think I’ve ever been to a place brimming with so many layers upon layers of history.

Bootham Bar, one of the 4th century Roman gates with the towers of the Minster poking out behind it. Simply climb up those steps and you can walk the walls.

In 71 CE, York was a Roman provincial capital called Eboracum. Constantine was proclaimed emperor here in 306 CE. There’s a statue of him outside the York Minster.

This section of the wall between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar is skinnier and has railings. I loved the flowers along the way.
View of York Minster from city walls.

Sections of the wall surrounding the city still date from Roman times, such as this one.

The picture below is of the Multangular Tower outside the Museum Gardens that the Romans built for military purposes. The small bricks in the lower half are Roman; the upper ones are medieval.

However, most of the walls you see today were the result of the invading Normans who destroyed and then rebuilt the city.

A morning walk on a much less crowded and wider section of the wall on the southeast end of the city.

So enough about the walls. The York Minster is one of my all-time favourite cathedrals (up there with St John the Divine in NYC). This is the largest Gothic church north of the Alps. We attended an evensong service there, which felt like we were in the company of angels singing.

York Minster sits on the remains of a Romanesque church but this version was begun in 1220 and took 250 years to finish. I love how tall and bright the nave is. Apparently it’s one of the widest Gothic naves in Europe and is notable for its wood roof rather than a stone one.

You can’t help but be amazed at the stained glass. Rick Steves says there’s more medieval glass in this building than the rest of England combined! The Great West Window below is a great example.

Nicknamed “The Heart of Yorkshire” for its heart-shaped stone tracery, this window represents the sacred heart of Christ and his love for the world.

Since we arrived in York shortly after my birthday, we took a celebratory high tea at the famous Bettys Cafe Tea Rooms (who were celebrating their 100th birthday). There are two locations—we opted for the Stonegate one that had less of a wait. Boy was it ever yummy and filling, especially that Yorkshire cream on those delicious scones!

To provide some contrast, I also ate this in York and am proud to say I finished it! Classic British cuisine right here.

For Harry Potter fans, a trip down The Shambles is a must for its Harry Potter stores. This was the street the filmmakers took inspiration from for Diagon Alley. It was less crowded when the rain came out and I had it all to myself for my Mary Poppins photo!

Here’s an example of the bench talked about on the sign above. Hard to see but just above the name you can make out hooks where butchers hung the meat.

And to finish off this post with a last bit of history, here’s a picture of the oldest houses in York on Goodramgate. They’re white-washed, timber frame medieval houses dating from around 1316 called “Our Lady’s Row” which now contain a Chinese restaurant and other businesses below. They are also England’s earliest example of houses with overhanging jetties, the upper floor wider than the lower.

Talk about a city with character!

Discovering the Four Quartets

A friend and I lamented the other night how we were only taught T.S. Eliot‘s early poems in undergrad: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922). She came over so we could discuss the suite of four poems Eliot wrote after his conversion to Christianity and what I would claim as his magnum opus: the Four Quartets (1935-1942).

I fell in love with Prufrock as much as the next budding English student swept away by the angst of modernism. This poem and The Waste Land were taught as Eliot’s crowning achievements, as if that was all there was to the man. It wasn’t until this year that I read his entire collected poems and realized if you just stop at his early works, you rob yourself of the bigger, more complete picture of who this famous poet was.

There’s no doubt T.S. Eliot is intimidating to read. He can throw down references to the Baghavad Gita as easily as the Bible, and there is a level of erudition from the reader his poems require. Every word and image matters, and there are so many layers to his work you could be peeling the onion forever.

One of the biggest differences that struck me in comparing his earlier poems to his later poems is the emergence of hope in the latter. Prufrock and The Waste Land are notable for their lack of hope—the despairing landscape they paint after World War I. A recurring theme in Eliot’s work is the failure of words to adequately describe human experience.

We see this in The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

And would it have been worth it, after all,
Would it have been worth while,
After the sunsets and the dooryards and the sprinkled streets,
After the novels, after the teacups, after the skirts that trail along the floor—
And this, and so much more?—
It is impossible to say just what I mean!

We find a similar sentiment in East Coker, the third poem in the Four Quartets, and yet there’s a twist. I’m including this whole passage because it’s my favourite in the Four Quartets:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

My friend posited that the early T.S. Eliot would have stopped after “by men whom one cannot hope to emulate”, and I tend to agree. But this T.S. Eliot didn’t. Hope is the difference. You wouldn’t keep trying if you didn’t think it was worth it, after all. There is a significant change in his worldview.

I love this passage not only because it speaks to me as a writer, but also because I sense this is actually Eliot talking, not the speaker. It’s rare to get these vulnerable glimpses of the man behind the poet, and it draws me closer to him, hearing him wonder on the page if he wasted twenty years, if his work matters, if he matters.

T.S. Eliot may be intimidating, but the irony is that he’s so human in his questions and observations. There are passages in the Four Quartets that completely stump me, and others that make me laugh out loud with how in touch he is with human behaviour:

The tolling bell
Measures time not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers, older
Than time counted by anxious worried women
Lying awake, calculating the future,
Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel
And piece together the past and the future….

Perhaps the biggest joy I had in reading the Four Quartets was discovering he was the author of a phrase I had heard before and cherished, and never knew it was him who had penned it (it’s not the Julian of Norwich reference, but the first four lines). This is the stanza that ends the Four Quartets and which I never would have guessed came from the T.S. Eliot I studied in school. People change, and all his searching, questioning, and exploring led him to a beautiful place.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, remembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning;
At the source of the longest river
The voice of the hidden waterfall
And the children in the apple-tree
Not known, because not looked for
But heard, half-heard, in the stillness
Between two waves of the sea.
Quick now, here, now, always—
A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.

Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent

Amsterdam was a great place to finish our month-long European vacation of fall 2017. It was friendly, walkable, and people spoke English—three important factors when you’re running out of travel steam.

My husband and I spent our last night in Europe at the Van Gogh Museum. It felt like a fitting ending to our beginning in Paris where we saw his works at the Musée d’Orsay and snapped a picture of the dried sunflowers hanging from the shutters three stories up above the blue door of this apartment building in Montmartre. The flowers mark the spot where Vincent lived for a while with his brother Theo. You have to look very closely to spot the sunflowers.

Vincent Van Gogh, Self-Portrait,1889, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

27 days later with approximately 3000 photos on my camera, I decided to spend our last European night simply enjoying the artwork in the Van Gogh Museum without a lens in front of my face.

It was an interesting time to be in Amsterdam because the hand-painted film revisiting the cause of Vincent’s death called Loving Vincent had just released and there were advertisements for it everywhere, including this one just outside our Hotel Museumzicht.

We contemplated going to see it in Amsterdam (how cool would that have been?) but alas, we ran out of time. We saw it when we returned to Vancouver. That same fall, I read The Letters of Vincent van Gogh that I purchased at the Van Gogh Museum. I’ve been meaning to read them ever since I heard Matthew Perryman Jones’s song Dear Theo several years ago that I link to here.

The letters are a work of literature in their own right, let alone a fascinating journey into the struggles of one of the greatest modern painters. I loved seeing his sketches for what would become his iconic paintings and reading his intentions behind them. Take his Bedroom in Arles, for example:

This time it’s simply my bedroom. Only here everything depends on the colour, and by simplifying it I am lending it more style, creating an overall impression of rest or sleep. In fact, a look at the picture ought to rest the mind, or rather the imagination.

16 October 1888, Letter to Theo
Vincent Van Gogh, Van Gogh’s Bedroom in Arles, 1889, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay.

All of this Vincent immersion led me to reevaluate what I thought about him. I wrote the article “Lessons Learned from Loving Vincent” shortly after. It’s only now been published, but it’s published nonetheless and I’m thrilled to share it with you over at Still Point Arts Quarterly.

I’d love to hear what you think and what your relationship is to this much discussed artist. There’s definitely no shortage of art about him, which says something in itself. Beauty begets beauty. Next up on my Vincent journey: watching this film.