Saturday, September 30, 2006

Chipping Campden & Broadway Tower (7 mile walk)

Despite a 20% chance of rain and mostly cloudy skies, we set off this morning for the northern Cotswold village of Chipping Campden and a short walk on the Cotswold Way to Broadway Tower. (Along the walk, there was much discussion of what "20% chance of rain" means. Does it mean that it will rain 20% of the time?) Chipping Campden is known for its particularly fine High Street. The honey-colored limestone of the buildings on the High Street is typical of villages in the Cotswolds. The village also has a very fine church built of Cotswold stone, the Church of St. James, which is full of remarkable treasures, including the early fifteenth-century brass of William Grevel, "the flower of the wool merchants of all England." In the late middle ages, Chipping Campden's wealth came from the wool of the Cotswolds' famous sheep. Now, most of its wealth comes from tourism. Even on a dull, damp late September day, there were large groups of Japanese tourists strolling up and down the High Street, looking into antique shops and tea shops and quaint boutiques.

Our walk took us south from Chipping Campden along the Cotswolds Way, a long-distance footpath that runs a hundred miles from Chipping Campden in the north to Bath in the south. We only walked as far as Broadway Tower, a Gothic revival "folly" built in 1797 by the sixth Earl of Coventry, for no other reason than that it seemed a shame to have such a wonderful exposed hill without a tower on top. In the nineteenth century, Broadway Tower was a favorite retreat for the pre-Raphaelites, especially Edward Burne-Jones and William Morris. From the top, even on a cloudy day, we could see the Malvern Hills and, in the far distance, the gray outline of the Black Mountains of Wales. There was a brisk wind blowing on the top of the tower, and it was hard to imagine William Morris bathing up there, as his daughter May (who also loved staying at Broadway Tower) reports him to have done. It was worth the £10 family admission price to Broadway Tower to hear Will (whose standard for walking in England was set in the Lake District) admit that this was a good walk.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti, May Morris

As we walked back to the car, rain started to fall out of a sunny sky and a rainbow appeared directly over Chipping Campden, as if its mellow limestone buildings were the pot of gold. Like all good walks, this one ended at a pub—the Eight Bells, which claims a history going back to the fourteenth-century—with a pint of Butty Bach from the Wye Valley Brewery.

Friday, September 29, 2006


This morning, I saw several blue tits (parus caeruleus) on the ledge outside our bedroom window. The European blue tit is a more colorful version of the North American chickadee, with a blue head and wings, olive-green back, and yellow breast. "Tit" is the common short form of "titmouse," which comes from the Old English for "small bird." I had great hopes of learning to identify English birds, but so far I have become familiar with only a few: magpies, wood pigeons, robins, and now, blue tits.
The History Boys

The lobby of the Warwick Arts Centre was heaving with orientating students and gray-haired old-aged pensioners with a free afternoon as we waited for the doors to open for the National Theatre’s touring production of Alan Bennett’s The History Boys. While we waited, I shelled out £2.50 for a play programme, which is not included in the price of admission. Another difference from our usual American theater experience was that the play was not preceded by an announcement asking members of the audience to switch off their cell phones. Twice during the play loud and insistent ringtones echoed through the auditorium.

The play began with some fast-paced references to the British educational system, and the reputations of various universities and private schools, which drew appreciative laughs from the new university students sitting in front of me, but which were lost on me. But the play was brilliantly written and acted, and filled with thought-provoking and complex discussions about history and the purpose of education. Having just read Jeffrey Hatcher’s The Art & Craft of Playwriting, I paid special attention to the play’s structure and its use of Aristotle’s “six elements”: character, action, ideas, language, music and spectacle. The play delivers brilliantly on all counts.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Warwick & Lord Leycester Hospital

This afternoon, Clara and I drove to Warwick on a reconnaissance mission to find the Newburgh Primary School, where Will has his first oboe lesson tomorrow evening. The drive involved about ten minutes on the A46, including a mega-roundabout shaped like a partially-amputated monster octopus stretching its tentacles in five or six directions. Clara drove brilliantly, and even got us in and out of a shoebox-sized parking garage in Warwick town, where we went to visit the Lord Leycester Hospital.

The "hospital" has been, since Robert Dudley, Lord Leicester, endowed it in 1571, a retirement home for disabled soldiers—one of whom, an old curmudgeon, sold us tickets at the entrance. The ancient half-timbered buildings date back to the fifteenth-century and earlier, and are among the only buildings in Warwick to have survived the great fire of 1698. The Great Hall was built in 1383, when the buildings housed Warwick's medieval Guilds. The lovely little Chapel of St. James the Great was built over the west gate into the town of Warwick in 1123, rebuilt in 1383, and remodelled several times in subsequent years; the tower was added in 1450. Among the highlights of the chapel are a small stained glass window and altar hangings by William Morris, and some remarkable woodcarving.

Other treasures on display in the hospital are a chair in which King James I sat on his visit to Warwick in 1617, some needlework from Cumnor Hall attributed to Amy Robsart (read Sir Walter Scott's Kenilworth to find out about the ill-fated Amy), and a wardrobe used by Queen Elizabeth I on her visit to Kenilworth Castle. The hospital also wraps around two lovely small gardens, the Master's Garden and the "millenium" knot garden, constructed in 2000. Also, just inside the medieval town gate is a rare pillar-shaped post box (with a vertical slot) from the reign of Queen Victoria (VR, for Victoria Regina).

We were home in time for one of my favorite programmes on BBC Radio 3: Choral Evensong. The programme has been broadcast continually on BBC Radio since October 7, 1926, which means that next week's programme is roughly its 80th anniversary. By clicking on the link above, you will find an audio link allowing you to listen to the programme (Real Player required). For those of you in the Central Time Zone, the programme would be on at 11:00 a.m.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Charles Darwin

Today's installment of Great Lives on BBC Radio 4 was on Charles Darwin. The panel discussion included speculation on why Darwin and his theory of evolution, which are generally accepted in Britain, are so controversial in the United States. One of the panelists speculated (as I suggested in an earlier post) that in the United States the separation of church and state has paradoxically made religion a more charged topic than in England where there is official recognition of religion by the state. If religion could be taught as a separate subject in American schools, perhaps fundamentalists wouldn't demand that it be taught as part of the science curriculum.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Lunt Roman Fort (about 12 miles round trip)

Students who have studied Unit 3 of the Cambridge Latin Course will be familiar with life in a Roman fort in Britain during the dangerous late first century C.E. The story in the CLC is set in 83 C.E., the year of Agricola’s major victory over the Caledonii in the north. Lunt Roman Fort (excavated between 1965 and 1973) was constructed shortly after the Boudiccan rebellion in 60 C.E. A cohors equitata (cavalry) was probably stationed at Lunt; the evidence for this is the gyrus (the reconstruction is seen at the right in this photograph), a small circular arena used for cavalry training. On the left of the photograph is the reconstructed granary (horreum), similar to the one under which Modestus and Strythio conceal themselves in Stage 27: Modestus et Strythio, e carcere egressi, ad horreum fugerunt. per aditum angustum repserunt et sub horreo celati manebant. The granary was raised off the ground to keep out rats and dampness.

The Lunt is actually rather disappointing, since (apart from the earthworks) it is entirely a reconstruction. The defensive earthworks are on the eastern side of the fort. The modern timber reconstruction of the eastern gate makes use of the actual Roman post holes. The small museum inside the granary has an interesting model of the entire fort as it may have looked in the first century, along with artifacts excavated on or near the site. The most interesting artifact, I thought, was a burial urn containing gray ashes and fragments of bone. Unfortunately, we arrived on a slow day at the end of the season, so there were no reenactors in Roman costume marching around the site or training in the gyrus (which, incidentally, appears to be unique in Britain). The modern chainlink fence in this photograph spoils the effect of reconstruction.

The Lunt is in the village of Baginton, which also has a small 13th-century church (dedicated to St. John the Baptist). Next to the church is the site of Baginton Castle, also dating to the 13th century. Now only fragments of the foundations remain, and English Heritage has fenced these off (admission is £2.50 by special arrangement). Excavations around Baginton have also revealed an Anglo-Saxon burial site and remains of an Iron Age settlement. Baginton is also the location of the Coventry Airport, which was a Royal Air Force base in World War II (one of the reasons, no doubt, that the Germans bombed Coventry).

There is a good footpath to Baginton along the eastern bank of the River Sowe from the attractive little village of Stoneleigh. These almshouses were built in Stoneleigh in the late sixteenth century by Alice, Duchess Dudley (née Leigh), and are mentioned in passing by Jane Austen in Mansfield Park, chapter 8: “Those alms-houses, built by some of the family.” One well-known feature of Stoneleigh is the mid-nineteenth century blacksmith’s shop on the village green, which stands under a “spreading chestnut tree.” Unfortunately, the tree is now a victim of the chestnut blight. There are also several thatched-roofed, half-timbered cottages in Stoneleigh, and a fine church (dedicated to St. Mary the Virgin) with Norman arches and the lovely alabaster funerary monuments of Duchess Dudley (d. 1668) and Baron Chandos Leigh (poet, friend of Lord Byron, and founder of the Stoneleigh Cricket Club).

Saturday, September 23, 2006

The Tipperary Inn

It's important that any walk of more than a few miles either begin and end at a pub, or that there be a pub halfway around. This afternoon, Clara, Peter and I went on a seven-mile walk from Kenilworth Castle to the Tipperary Inn in Meer End. The Tipperary Inn (originally The Plough) was once owned by the Williams family, originally of Balsall. One of the Williams sons, Harry, became famous for writing the World War I standard, "It's a Long Way to Tipperary." The walk (an extension of my favorite short walk, see Tuesday, September 19) begins with wonderful views of the castle, crosses numerous fields full of friendly cows, and passes close to Rudfyn Manor, an Elizabethan farm house. The Tipperary has a pleasant beer garden and good ale on tap, including Director's and Tetley's.

Rudfyn Manor

A Contented Cow

Kenilworth Castle. Here you can see that Kenilworth is a "motte and bailey" castle: it is built on a raised mound of earth (motte), with a courtyard (bailey) enclosed in a curtain wall. The building on top of the mound is the Great Hall built by John of Gaunt, the second-oldest section of the castle.

Friday, September 22, 2006

Odd Encounters with the English

I mentioned in my very first post that English people tend not to smile or exchange a friendly greeting when they pass you on the street. This is generally the case, but occasionally you will encounter an elderly person desperate to relieve herself (usually) of a long monologue. The first time this happened to us, Clara and I made brief eye contact with a woman in a raincoat and wellingtons who was walking a greyhound with an injured foot. Our brief eye contact initiated a rather long description of the dog’s injury and its treatment, followed by an extended panegyric on greyhounds as a breed. Just yesterday, I crossed John O’Gaunt Road and encountered an elderly man with a meershaum pipe and a Wallace and Gromit accent who was all ready to launch into a monologue about gardening, almost as if he had been expecting my arrival at precisely that moment.

Among the English, I always feel a little off balance. I never know whether someone is going to stare grimly past me as if determined to deny my existence, or whether I will be made the captive audience for a monologue on gardening or dogs. My general feeling of cluelessness in England is what makes me so fond of the out-of-place characters in Rose Macaulay’s novels. Here’s an exchange between Barbary and her step-mother, Pamela, as the family prepares to set out for a holiday at Barbary’s uncle’s summer home in Arshaig, Scotland. Pamela is telling Barbary about her cousins:

“The boys are at Eton; Ken’s captain of the eleven.”
“Eleven what?”
“The cricket eleven, of course.” Pamela spoke a little sharply, feeling that ignorance should have its limits. “I say, Barbary, I advise you not to say things like that at Arshaig. You might pretend to know just a little about things, like other people. Even if you have lived abroad...”

Thursday, September 21, 2006

The Square

This area at top of the Warwick Road, with its drearily functional modern architecture, is known as The Square (although, being dominated by a traffic roundabout, it has lost its square shape). This is where, on the night of November 21, 1940, a German bomb destroyed a number of fine Elizabethan and Victorian buildings, as well as the Globe Hotel. The top photograph is of the De Montfort Hotel. Below is the Thursday market (the white stall in the center of the picture is the fishmonger's stall, where this morning we bought a large fillet of halibut), with the clock tower in the foreground. The clock tower was dedicated in 1906, but the original crown on top was destroyed by the German bomb; the crown was replaced with the one you see in the picture in 1973. In the middle of the marketplace is a marker on the site of the Globe Hotel, where eight people—evacuees from London—died in the bombing.
The World My Wilderness

The Kenilworth Public Library is located on Smalley Place, near the top of Warwick Road, Kenilworth’s main shopping street. In World War II, a German bomb fell short of Coventry and destroyed the historic buildings that stood on the site, clearing the way for the enormously out-of-place De Montfort Hotel and the bland, utilitarian public library. The library has a small collection of fiction, but library card holders have access to the much more extensive holdings of the entire Warwickshire library system. There is a £1 fee for each item requested from another county library. I’m expecting to spend many pounds requesting books this year, but this time I was lucky. The Kenilworth Public Library owns a copy of Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness (1950).

Rose Macaulay (1881-1958) was born in Rugby, here in Warwickshire, but moved with her family to Italy when she was six. Although she returned to England to live as an adult, her foreign upbringing (so her biographers say) gave her a cool detachment which made her a brilliant satirist of the English and their ways. There are often cool, detached, observant women in her novels, like Helen in The World My Wilderness. She also creates female protagonists with sexually ambiguous names—most famously Laurie (which, in England, was once primarily a male name) in her masterpiece, The Towers of Trebizond (1956). In her novel from the 1920s, Crewe Train, the protagonist is a girl named Denham who was raised in Andorra and then exposed to alien and sophisticated London society. That theme of alienation from polite English society is revisited in The World My Wilderness.

As a classicist, I find Helen an especially interesting character. Her name brings to mind Helen of Troy; like her classical namesake, Macaulay's Helen has left her aristocratic husband to run away across the sea with a foreign lover (in this case, a French merchant from Perpignan). Helen spends her days translating Greek comedies into French, and is described variously as a Venus, a Cleopatra, and a lotus-eater. When her daughter was little, she told her classical bedtime stories: "Perseus and Andromeda, the Golden Fleece, Theseus and the Minotaur, something out of Herodotus." As for religion: "I can't think, if people want gods, why not the Greek ones; they are so useful in emergencies, and such enterprising and entertaining companions." At one point in the novel, her son finds her forging medieval Provencal poetry for publication; she tells him she might try her hand at a classical hoax next: "I might discover a page or two of one of the lost books of Livy next... Or a treatise of Varro's, or some letters from Atticus to Cicero. But I'm afraid classical scholars are too smart." She admits that her morals, scholarly as well as sexual, are shockingly loose.

In The World My Wilderness, the protagonist is Helen's daughter Barbary, a seventeen-year old girl who has lived with her English mother in southern France throughout the German occupation. Her French stepfather collaborated mildly with the Germans, while she and her step-brother moved through the dangerous underground world of the maquis, the French Resistance. She is furtive and half-wild and physically and emotionally scarred from her wartime experience. Although she loves her mother, something unspoken has come between them and damaged their relationship. When Helen sends her to London to live with her upright father, a KC, Barbary doesn’t take well to civilization, and goes feral the post-blitz ruins around St. Paul’s. The ruins are a powerful symbol for Macaulay—she wrote a non-fiction book titled The Pleasure of Ruins—as is St. Paul’s itself, rising solid and white above the wreckage of the war. As she grew older, Macaulay turned increasingly to the church. The Towers of Trebizond chronicles a spiritual journey in the form of a travel narrative, as Laurie struggles toward the elusive towers that represent forgiveness and reconciliation with God.

Macaulay’s 1923 novel Told By an Idiot begins with the family patriarch losing his faith and giving up his comfortable living as an Anglican clergyman. In the course of the novel, he loses his faith many times, only to rebound into another faith—Methodist, High Church, Low Church, Swedenborgian. His life is a long, restless, but somehow satisfying spiritual quest for the true religion. When he dies, one of his daughters reflects that at least now that he’s in heaven he’ll know the truth. Her cool, detached sister remarks that, since he was so happy continually losing and gaining his religious faith, perhaps heaven for him will be a continuation of the same pattern. Macaulay herself, though drawn toward the reassuring rituals and creeds of the church, seems to prefer ambiguity and uncertainty, or at least to recognize that certainty is impossible for humans to achieve and dangerous for them to claim.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Castle Walk

One of my favorite short walks (2 miles) around Kenilworth starts below the curtain wall of the castle and heads northeast across gently rising fields toward Chase Lane. The walk offers some of the best views of the castle. I took this walk alone over the lunch hour today, stopping on the way home at the Albion Street butcher (for some Warwickshire sausages) and greengrocer (for red cabbage and potatoes). This photograph, taken a few weekends ago, shows one of the more distant views of the castle on this walk. The footpath here crosses a field of borage. Between the rows of borage, with its deep blue, star-shaped flowers, there were thousands of tiny yellow wild violas (viola arvensis) in full bloom. In the green field beyond the hedge in the distance, there were still a few red wild poppies blooming.

Speaking of flowers, late August and September are the dahlia season, and we were fortunate, on our walk to Baddesley Clinton, to find the dahlia border in full bloom. England is justifiably famous for its gardens. Writing after his April 1786 garden tour of England (on which he was accompanied by John and Abigail Adams), Thomas Jefferson wrote: "The gardening in that country is the article in which it surpasses all the earth. I mean their pleasure gardening. This, indeed, went far beyond my ideas." The generally mild climate makes flower gardening possible year-round. At the moment, the local gardening shop is selling winter pansies. Meanwhile, the farmers are harvesting their wheat fields, plowing, and spreading manure. For the past several days, the air has been heavily laden with the smell of manure, and today there is a definite autumnal nip in the air.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Maria Update

On last night's final show of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, the British public chose Connie Fisher to play the role of Maria von Trapp in The Sound of Music, beginning November 3 at the London Palladium. If the concept of How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? appeals to those of you back in America, you will soon have a chance to watch the American version on NBC (co-produced by the BBC). You're the One That I Want will use the reality show competition format to cast the leads for a new Broadway production of Grease.

Blog Note: Some of the earlier posts in this blog are now being shunted into the Archives. To view earlier posts for September, click on the September 2006 link under Archives in the sidebar.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Coombe Country Park, Brinklow, Thirteen Roundabouts, and a Coventry Diversion
Driving: about 24 miles, round trip
Walking: about 6 miles

On a cool, silvery-gray morning, we piled into our Rover 660 and hit the road for Coombe Country Park, a few miles east of Coventry. This was our first real outing in our car, and with Clara at the wheel we arrived quickly and easily at our destination—despite having to negotiate six roundabouts, including two major junctions on the A46. We arrived at Coombe Country Park to find the “autumn nationals” of the American Auto Club UK in full swing—a loudspeaker blaring Elvis Presley, American flags (and a few Confederate) waving in the misty English breeze, and people wandering around admiring enormous Dodge trucks as wide as an entire English street.

Coombe Country Park is the location of Coombe Abbey, a large stately home built on the site of a twelfth-century Cistercian Abbey. In 1603, King James I sent his eldest daughter, nine-year old Princess Elizabeth, to be educated at Coombe, which was then the home of Sir John Harington. The Gunpowder Plot two years later involved a plan to kidnap Princess Elizabeth from Coombe Abbey and install her has a puppet monarch who would restore England to Catholicism. (Elizabeth was, in fact, a devout Protestant.) But perhaps the most impressive thing about Coombe is its grounds—nearly 400 acres of gardens and parkland landscaped in 1771 by Lancelot “Capability” Brown.

Unfortunately, the rest of our walk was much less scenic than the grounds of Coombe Country Park. Once we left the park, the first part of the walk took us behind the large Rolls Royce plant (Coventry is the Detroit of England), and the last part of the walk took us along the edge of a quarry—a long, deep pit full of reddish-brown mud. The one highlight along the way was in the little village of Brinklow, where we climbed the green mound (or “tump”) of a Norman motte and bailey castle. In this photograph, you might be able to see that the mound (with Will and Peter on top for scale) is surrounded by a deep ditch, which served as a moat. The earth removed during the digging of the ditch was piled up in the center, and a wooden keep was built on top. Several of these motte and bailey castles in the area were built during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154), a dangerous period known as the Anarchy.

We stopped in Brinklow for pints and lemonades at the dark and smoke-filled pub, The Raven. All conversation in the pub stopped when we entered, and it took several minutes for the regulars to get over our unexpected arrival. I had an awful pint of Marston’s Pedigree.* (I think the best ale I’ve had since our arrival has been Wells Bombardier.) After choking down the Pedigree, we made a quick escape and picked up some fish and chips at the Brinklow Fish Bar down the road. The fish (haddock) was much better than the beer.

I have to admit that the thing I got most excited about on the walk was this field. If you look carefully at the ground on which the sheep are standing, you may notice that it is corrugated. We crossed two large pastures in which the ground rose and fell in these earthen ripples underfoot, and I was excited to realize that I was walking over the ridges and furrows characteristic of Anglo-Saxon farming in the central part of England, including Warwickshire and the Cotswolds. It was fascinating to walk across an Anglo-Saxon field and then climb the mound of a Norman motte and bailey castle. Again I found it remarkable how much history is written into the landscape of England.

Our drive home from Coombe was somewhat eventful—we got confused on a series of roundabouts, and ended up heading for the Coventry city centre. We stopped at a BP station for directions, we ran into road construction and a diversion (detour) at a crucial point in the journey, and I came close to having a panic attack once or twice, but we finally managed to come out on the somewhat more familiar Kenilworth Road. Next weekend we may be ready to venture even further afield...

*Note: Marston's Pedigree is an anagram for "Message: order pint!"

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Virgins and Castle

Photograph: Will and Peter in Abbey Fields.

In the Domesday Book, the survey of the King’s dominion made by William the Conquerer in 1086, Kenilworth appears as Chinewrd—a small enclosure or hamlet that originally belonged to a Saxon woman named Chinehild—and was home to ten villeins (tenant farmers) and seven bordars (lower-ranking tenant farmers). What first put the town on the royal map was Henry I’s grant of land in Kenilworth to his chamberlain, Geoffrey de Clinton, in 1119. It was de Clinton who established both Kenilworth Castle and the Augustinian priory, the Abbey of St. Mary. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1538, and over the centuries that followed the abbey buildings were dismantled to provide building stone for improvements to the Castle.

The abbey stood on what is now Abbey Fields, the main public park in Kenilworth, which lies between the old and new towns. The town’s indoor swimming pool stands on the site of a mill connected to the medieval abbey, and nearby stands the only complete structure remaining from the abbey—this medieval barn, which now houses the local history museum (open only on summer Sunday afternoons). The museum contains architectural fragments of the old abbey—arches and corbels and various bits of stone ornamentation—as well as other artifacts from two thousand years of the town’s history: Roman tiles, horn combs made in local workshops in the first half of the nineteenth century, old photographs of the Square before it was destroyed by a Nazi bomb.

Abbey Fields is bordered on the north by High Street, the principal street of the old town, and the street where the market was held in the 14th and 15th century. High Street is home to what may be the oldest pub in Kenilworth, The Virgins and Castle. It’s possible that the pub had its start as the hospitality house of the Abbey of St. Mary, and may have welcomed travellers under the sign of the Virgin—that is, St. Mary. In any case, after Queen Elizabeth I visited Kenilworth in 1575, the pub became The Two Virgins. The name was changed to The Castle in 1827, and then to the The Virgins and Castle in 1854—and so it remains. Today, The Virgins and Castle is an attractive, comfortable pub, full of the kind of ambience that may only come from six hundred years of history. But as you can see from the ladder out front, the pub just received a fresh coat of white paint last week. Clara and I stopped in for a pint on a Friday afternoon (I had a mediocre pint of Everard's Beacon), and passed through a variety of snug rooms and cozy nooks (where, for some reason, I imagined David Copperfield having a pint with Steerforth) on our way to the sunny patio out back. The fresh air of the patio at least helped the smoke to dissipate somewhat.

According to 2005 statistics, 25% of adults over 16 in Britain smoke. I'm not sure that this is a higher percentage than in America, but in America smoking bans have become the norm. When, in 2005, the British government proposed a smoking ban in pubs where food is served, many publicans said they would stop serving food rather than submit to a ban on smoking.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Important Links

Clara's Sabbatical Blog
Will's Blog
Kenilworth Common

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Horse Chestnut Blight

A few days after our arrival in England, an article appeared in the Independent about a blight which has infected horse chestnut trees in Britain. The blight is described as "the worst case of tree blight since Dutch elm disease." The horse chestnut was introduced to Britain from its native Balkans in the 16th century. There are now over 400,000 horse chestnuts in the country, of which an estimated 10% are currently affected by the disease, which is spreading quickly. For more about horse chestnuts, and the eccentricity of the English, you can read about the World Conker Championships, taking place on October 8 in Ashton, Northamptonshire.

(Photograph: a large horse chestnut tree on the edge of the Warwickshire Golf Club.)
Thoughts of Home on September 11

A few days ago, Clara and I discovered the Kenilworth Common, a local nature preserve occupying land set aside for the public under an eighteenth-century enclosure act. The common was once open heath land, suitable for grazing sheep, but over the past century it has become an English woods of beech, oak, and sycamore, with little or no undergrowth except occasional glosses of holly and ivy. The main path slants upwards from Forge Lane and Finham Brook to Common Lane, running between high wooded embankments. It’s a beautiful place, and well-known among local naturalists for its populations of native butterflies and reptiles.

Unfortunately, it’s also full of trash—empty potato chip packets, candy wrappers, plastic shopping bags, crushed beer cans.

If you look carefully at the exterior photograph of the Chapel of St. Mary Magdeline at Guy’s Cliffe below (click on any photograph for an enlargement), you will see that the windows facing the courtyard are filled with clear glass. This is because, in 1974, a gang of teenagers broke all of the eighteenth-century stained glass with stones pried from the courtyard. (The offenders were apprehended and got off with a fine of £3 each.) The south-facing windows of St. Nicholas church in Kenilworth are also filled with clear glass—the original medieval glass was smashed during the English Civil War and the Victorian glass was shattered by a Nazi bomb during World War II.

Will reports that someone in school asked him, “Why are you spending a year in a shit hole like England?” I’m glad to find that, for Will at least, one of the early consequences of our stay in England has been a deeper appreciation of his own home. He told us that Northfield is one of the loveliest places in the world. I’m happy that he’s had the opportunity to travel, to see so much more of the world than most people see—that he’s climbed fells in the Lake District and explored ruined chateaux in the south of France—but I’m happier still that in the end the place he loves the most is the place he’s from. If he doesn’t think his home is a shit hole, he’s unlikely to treat it like a shit hole—to fill the woods with litter, to spray graffiti on the walls, to smash the windows, to cause irreparable damage through hostility or neglect.

(Photograph: detail from the stained glass windows of the First United Church of Christ in Northfield, Minnesota. A youthful vandal threw a rock through one of the windows several years ago.)

Sunday, September 10, 2006

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?

My guilty pleasure since we arrived in England has been a Saturday night reality programme on BBC One called How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria? I have never been a fan of reality shows in the United States, and have steadfastly avoided being sucked into the vortex of American Idol, so I was surprised how quickly I was hooked on Maria. Like American Idol, Maria is a singing competition, but there are important differences. On Maria, the contestants are competing for the role of Maria Von Trapp in an upcoming West End production of The Sound of Music, co-produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Thus, all of the contestants are attractive young women. As on Idol, there is a panel of judges, but each week the actual voting is up to the viewers. At the end of each week’s show, the two least popular contestants compete in a “sing-off,” performing an Andrew Lloyd Webber song in front of Webber himself, who is allowed to “save” one of the two girls. The show ends with the remaining “Marias” singing “So Long, Farewell” to the Maria who has been given the boot. Not surprisingly, the host of the show is Graham Norton, who is gay and partial to iridescent suits with a pinkish sheen.

I’m reminded occasionally that in the seventeenth century the Puritans cleared out of England and went off to establish their theocracy in America. Three and four centuries ago, England was ruthless in its enforcement of the middle way of Anglicanism. Their record of persecution in the pursuit of religious moderation is shameful, as the experience of English Catholics in the seventeenth century attests, and religious toleration came slowly to England. Catholic emancipation (the granting of full political and civil rights to English Catholics) came as late as 1829. The Church of England is still the established church, and the separation of church and state is not a part of English constitutional law—as my sons, taking mandatory religious education in their English school and discussing “the Christian concept of justice,” will readily attest.

One consequence of the departure of the Puritans from England is that the puritanical tradition was transplanted to America at a formative time in our history, and has yielded the current crop of fundamentalists who have hijacked American politics. In England, one of the consequences of an official “middle way” in religion seems to be that religion is defused as a political issue. Religion is a matter of cultural form and private devotion rather than a motivator of policy. In England, there is no divisive political debate on abortion (significantly, the English speak plainly of “abortion rights” rather than elliptically of “choice”), there is no mindless attack on evolution from a religious Right, and same-sex civil partners have the same legal rights as heterosexual married couples.

In his sermon two Sundays ago, the vicar of St. Nicholas church in Kenilworth sought to illustrate what Anglicans believe about communion. He stressed that Anglicans don’t believe that the bread and wine become the actual body and blood of Christ through the miracle of transubstantiation. He explained that the bread and wine become significant to Anglicans through a kind of convention, an agreement that the consecrated elements will have a kind of added value, even though they remain simply bread and wine. To illustrate, he took out a ten pound note and explained that the only thing that separates a ten pound note from a mere piece of paper is our (officially sanctioned) assignment of extra value to it. What I loved about this illustration was that the £10 note, which he held up from the pulpit to make his point, has a portrait of the Queen on one side and a portrait of Charles Darwin on the other.

In America, 55% of respondents to a Gallup poll expressed the belief that “God created humans in their present form.” The consequence of “freedom of religion” appears to be the freedom to give a religious answer to every question—including questions of science and public health that are not best answered by Biblical literalists.

I love America, and I have moments of intense homesickness every day. But there is much that I am coming to love about England. I love places like Baddesley Clinton, where sixteenth-century Catholic priests hid from their persecutors, which remind me that England was able to get beyond the days when Christianity was a deadly and divisive political issue. I love seeing Charles Darwin on the ten pound note. I love the flaming spectacle of a gay host in an iridescent suit moderating auditions for the role of a singing nun.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Guy’s Cliffe House, Warwick
Saturday, September 9, 2006

On my walk to Old Milverton, I noticed, along the banks of the Avon River, the mysterious and romantic ivy-covered ruins of an old stone house. Nearby, I could see the tower of a small church. I later learned that the ruins, unmarked on the OS map, belong to Guy’s Cliffe House, built in the mid-eighteenth century and allowed to fall to ruin in the decades since the Second World War. I also learned that the ruins and the church (about which more below) would be open to the public for a limited time as part of the annual Warwick Heritage Open Days.

Our walk again took us along the golf course, past the church in Leek Wootton, and past the Warwickshire county police headquarters, which occupy an old stately home called Woodcote (seen here, with the geometric topiary). Before we visited Guy’s Cliffe House, we stopped at the Saxon Mill for lunch. The pub is quite posh and historic—a nineteenth-century mill incorporating (as English buildings often do) elements of a much older structure. There is still a working water wheel and a lovely mill pond. We first took our drinks (Timothy Taylor Landlord bitter, lemonade) out onto the patio overlooking the mill pond, but soon found ourselves quite chilly, so we retreated inside to sit on a comfortable sofa and eat our “fired pizzas.”

The history of site around Guy’s Cliffe House goes back to Anglo-Saxon times. According to the 15th-century antiquary, John Rous, an oratory (a chapel connected to a small religious community) was founded on the site in around 600 A.D. by St. Dubritius. For centuries thereafter, the chapel became associated with hermits who lived in the nearby caves. The most famous of these hermits was the legendary Guy of Warwick—dragon slayer, Crusader, Saxon champion who single-handedly saved Winchester and King Aethelstan from the Danes—who ended his days in a nearby cave in the early 10th century.

The existing chapel seems to incorporate construction from the 12th century (perhaps in the north wall, seen in the interior photograph here, which incorporates a stone statue of Guy, just to the right of the central pillar). Extensive renovation was done by Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, in about 1430. The Freemasons now own the chapel and use it as a Masonic Temple.

Red brick is definitely the building material of choice in Kenilworth. The oldest buildings (Kenilworth Castle and St. Nicholas Church) are constructed of native red sandstone, but nearly every other building is brick—although sometimes the brick is dressed up with white stucco. Most of the brick houses in Kenilworth, I would venture to say, date from the late Victorian and Edwardian age and later. (Even our small 1990s terrace house is solid brick.) The British have a well-known penchant for taxation (the VAT, or “value-added tax,” England’s sales tax, is 17.5%), and between 1784 and 1759 there was a tax on bricks. The lifting of that tax, and the mass production of bricks beginning in the nineteenth century, led to a boom in the building of brick houses.

(Those masterbuilders, the Romans, left a large enough supply of bricks in Britain that the British were able to use recycled Roman bricks until the thirteenth-century, when the art of brickmaking was revived in Britain.)

One of my favorite architectural touches in these late nineteenth century houses is the use of polychromatic brick. Often, black bricks are used for special effect, around windows or in a single course between the ground and first floors (top photograph, of a nineteenth-century house on the corner of Spring Lane and Henry Street in Kenilworth; click on photograph to enlarge). In Wroxall, the new owner of Wroxall Abbey in the 1860s, James Dugdale, built a row of lovely estate cottages out of this multicolored brick. The most striking building, though, is this old schoolhouse (bottom photograph), in which blue-black brick predominates. The name Wren Hall acknowledges the former owner of the Wroxall estate, Sir Christopher Wren.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Old Milverton (10 mile round trip)
Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Today’s walk took me on a roundabout route along the edge of the Warwickshire Golf Club and along the northern outskirts of Warwick Town. I was walking alone and, for the first time, with only the Ordnance Survey map (Explorer 221) and a compass to guide me. No walking guidebook, such as the invaluable More Kenilworth Footpaths, published by the Kenilworth Footpath Preservation Group. My objective was to visit the church of St. James in Old Milverton and the grave of Vera Brittain, author of the classic memoir Testament of Youth (1933). I spent more than half an hour wandering through the churchyard, but failed to find Brittain’s grave. So I headed back to Kenilworth up the Warwick Road, stopping briefly at the Anchor in Leek Wooton for a pint of Old Hooky, an unusually fruity ale brewed at the Hook Norton Brewery in Oxfordshire.

In Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson observes that many streets in English towns (he mentions Bournemouth and Oxford) are more attractive from the top of a double-decker bus than from street level. Often the most appalling modernizations have been made at street level—particularly the installation of plate glass windows—but the upper floors have been preserved in roughly their original condition. Kenilworth has some very fine Tudor buildings, mostly notably the half-timbered, thatched cottages of Little Virginia, at the end of the High Street. There are also many lovely Georgian and Victorian buildings. But some of the buildings, especially downtown (along the Warwick Road), are remarkably ugly. Not all of this is the fault of architects and planners. The rather unattractive de Montfort Hotel stands on land occupied by older buildings that were destroyed by Nazi bombs during the Second World War (Kenilworth is about five miles south of Coventry, which the Nazis virtually razed). But, as Bryson observed in Oxford, many of the buildings have been disfigured by modern updates. Here is an egregious example: a lovely Tudor half-timbered cottage fitted with the obligatory plate glass of a modern commercial establishment. Can anyone explain to me why an exterminator needs a plate glass window?
Stoneleigh Abbey (4 mile round trip)
Sunday, September 3, 2006

The last time we visited England, in the summer of 2000, Stoneleigh Abbey was covered with scaffolding, in the midst of a multimillion pound restoration project that was completed in 2003. This summer was a special summer for Stoneleigh Abbey, since it marked the 200th anniversary of Jane Austen’s stay at the house in August 1806. Jane Austen, whose mother had been Cassandra Leigh before her marriage to Rev. George Austen, came to Stoneleigh as the guest of her cousin, Rev. Thomas Leigh, who had recently inherited the estate. The estate, originally established as a Cistercian abbey in 1156, first came into the Leigh family in the middle of the sixteenth century.

Stoneleigh Abbey is approached from the west by a long, gracefully curving drive bordered on both sides by rows of tall lime trees (basswood trees to those of you at home). A visitor to the estate enters through the beautiful 14th century gatehouse, which belonged to the original monastery. A short distance beyond the gatehouse, the house itself rises magnificently in the midst of grounds originally landscaped by Sir Humphry Repton in the early 19th century. The older east wing of the house, built of local red limestone, was built on the foundations of the monastery. The baroque west wing was designed by Francis Smith of Warwick. (Smith’s characteristic use of Corinthian pilasters in the interior of Stoneleigh are perhaps a link with the church at Honiley.) Only the ground floor of the west wing is open to the public; the older east wing has been converted into private residences.

These exterior photographs show the gatehouse, the west wing, and the “lake” that Humphry Repton created by widening the Avon River (just as, closer to home, D. Blake Stewart, Carleton’s legendary groundskeeper, widened Spring Creek to create the Lyman Lakes on the Carleton College campus).

The most remarkable aspect of the interior, in my opinion, was the mid-eighteenth century plasterwork, especially in the Saloon (the great entry hall), which depicts the Labors of Hercules. The ceiling depicts the Apotheosis of Hercules. Interior photography is not permitted, but you can see some of the details of the plasterwork by following this link.

Our tour guide, who liked to imagine herself as the housekeeper in Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley, or Mrs. Rushworth at Sotherton, presented all of the family portraits to us in almost excessive detail, and lavished a great deal of attention on the furniture. She was fond of telling us that “this is exactly as Jane Austen would have seen it.” Stoneleigh Abbey is undoubtedly the model for Sotherton in chapters 8-10 of Mansfield Park. As we sat in the pews of the Leigh’s private chapel, the guide read us a passage from Mansfield Park in which the chapel of Sotherton is described. It was clear that we were sitting in exactly the place that Jane Austen described, but I didn’t experience any special frisson at the thought. In the end, Mansfield Park remains much more real to me than Stoneleigh Abbey. The stone and plaster of reality is no more than an interesting but minor footnote to the work of a brilliant imagination.

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, chapter 9:
The whole party rose accordingly, and under Mrs. Rushworth's guidance were shewn through a number of rooms, all lofty, and many large, and amply furnished in the taste of fifty years back, with shining floors, solid mahogany, rich damask, marble, gilding, and carving, each handsome in its way. Of pictures there were abundance, and some few good, but the larger part were family portraits, no longer anything to anybody but Mrs. Rushworth, who had been at great pains to learn all that the housekeeper could teach, and was now almost equally well qualified to shew the house. On the present occasion she addressed herself chiefly to Miss Crawford and Fanny, but there was no comparison in the willingness of their attention; for Miss Crawford, who had seen scores of great houses, and cared for none of them, had only the appearance of civilly listening, while Fanny, to whom everything was almost as interesting as it was new, attended with unaffected earnestness to all that Mrs. Rushworth could relate of the family in former times, its rise and grandeur, regal visits and loyal efforts, delighted to connect anything with history already known, or warm her imagination with scenes of the past.
A Walk to Baddesley Clinton (12 mile round trip)
Wednesday, August 30, 2006

One of the most remarkable aspects of England, in my opinion, is the extensive network of public footpaths that crisscrosses the country. Many of the footpaths cut directly across fields in which cows or sheep are grazing, and in which fresh cowpies, studded with amber flies, are a continual danger underfoot. Here in Warwickshire, most of the rural footpaths run along hedgerows in which hawthorn and blackberries predominate. In late August, the blackberries are at their peak of ripeness, in dark clusters in nearly every hedgerow.

There is a popular misconception that everything is bigger in America than in England. This is certainly true of houses, cars, washing machines, and most other things designed to consume energy. But since our arrival in England, I’ve been compiling a list of things that are larger here than in America. At the top of the list are pigeons, blackberries, and slugs. The slugs are enormous—at least three inches long, glossy and black, with prominent antennae protruding from their front end.

At 9:00 on a Wednesday morning, we set out for a walk along public footpaths to Baddesley Clinton, about six miles to the west on foot, but nearly twice as far on the highway. We started out at Kenilworth Castle and followed a narrow gravel road called Purlieu Lane which eventually funnels into a dirt track passing between hedgerows that have grown together above the path to form a green tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, the path emerged into the open fields.

According to the latest census, the population of Great Britain stands at about sixty million people, which translates to a population density of more than 600 people per square mile. In the book Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson puts it like this: “to achieve the same density of population in America as in England you would have to uproot the entire populations of Illinois, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan, Colorado, and Texas and pack them all into Iowa.” (The population has increased by another 12 million people since he wrote that.) Large towns like Kenilworth tend to be compact, unlike the sprawling suburbs of the United States. Every square inch of available land in the town is built on, and most of the people are packed into small terraced houses like ours: attached houses that share a common wall with their adjoining neighbors, each house a mirror image of the one beside it, each with its small walled-in back garden.

It’s remarkable, in such a densely populated country, that you can spend a full day rambling across public footpaths in almost complete solitude. Of course, this is not always the case. During high season in the Lake District, we encountered throngs of people on the six-and-a-half mile walk from Patterdale to Howtown along the southern edge of Lake Ullswater. But between Kenilworth and Baddesley Clinton, we encountered only a handful of people on the footpaths—a few joggers and cyclists, a few people walking dogs.

In the town, I’ve noticed, English people rarely smile or say good morning when you pass them on the sidewalk. They tend to return a friendly smile with a suspicious look, as if they suspect you of being slightly deranged. English people can seem unfriendly, even hostile, as if even a smile is an unwelcome encroachment on their private space. The one place I’ve found where this generalization doesn’t hold is on the public footpaths. On the footpaths, people usually say good morning, or at least return your smile with a grudging half smile of acknowledgment.

The ground we covered on our walk, like almost every square inch of English soil, is steeped in centuries of history. In the first open field we crossed we found two large concentric squares of mounded earth that are all that remains of the Pleasaunce, the moated pleasure ground built for a visit of Henry V to Kenilworth Castle in 1414. In the next field, hidden in the tall grass at the field’s margin, traces had been found of a Roman tile kiln. A mile further on, we came to the small eighteenth-century church in Honiley.

Honiley, it turns out, was originally part of the estate belonging to Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester who held Kenilworth Castle in the mid-thirteenth century, and who was eventually killed in the baronial rebellion he led against Henry III in 1265. De Montfort built the original church in Honiley and dedicated it to St. John. Nearby natural springs, St. John’s Well and Our Lady’s Well, were frequently visited in the Middle Ages by pilgrims seeking absolution for conceiving children out of wedlock. And it was in Honiley that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick—known as Warwick the Kingmaker—captured Edward IV during the War of the Roses. Now there is little to see in Honiley but the church, a few remaining outbuildings of the eighteenth-century manor house, a pub (The Boot), and the local “dog rehoming centre.”

According to an inscription above the door, the present church of St. John in Honiley was built in 1723. The exterior of the church is unassuming gray stone, but the bright interior is clean and white, illuminated by the soft light from clear arched windows along the sides of the nave. In the small chancel, three arched windows of brilliant stained glass are framed by gray fluted pilasters topped with white Corinthian capitals, which echo the two Corinthian columns at the back of the nave. The effect is quietly stunning, and a surprising contrast to the dull gray stone and simple geometry of the exterior.

The construction of the new church was financed by John Saunders, who bought the Honiley estate in the early eighteenth century. One evening in 1723, according to local legend, Saunders dined with his neighbor, Sir Christopher Wren, and announced his intention to rebuild the local church, which had fallen into ruin since the days of Simon de Montfort five hundred years earlier. Wren, the story goes, asked for a pen and quickly sketched a design for the church on the white tablecloth. Saunders then had the church built according to Wren’s design. The legend is appealing, but it’s more likely that the church is the work of the Warwick architect Francis Smith, who designed the impressive west wing of Stoneleigh Abbey (1720-1726) and rebuilt much of Warwick itself after the great fire of 1694.

From Honiley, we walked down a country lane to the small hamlet of Wroxall. Wroxall Abbey—originally the site of the twelfth century priory of St. Leonard—was purchased by Sir Christopher Wren in 1713 as a wedding gift for his son, and Wren himself lived there, in the old Elizabethan manor house, until his death in 1723. On our walk, we bypassed Wroxall Abbey, and the old church containing memorials to several generations of the Wren family, and after a short jog down the busy Birmingham Road headed out across a field to Hay Wood.

Hay Wood is a fragment of the ancient Forest of Arden. In the Archive Room at Baddesley Clinton hangs a map of the estate drawn in 1699, by which time the estate had been in the Ferrers family for six generations. The boundaries of Hay Wood on that late seventeenth-century map are nearly identical to the boundaries as they appear on the 2006 Ordnance Survey map. Already, three hundred years ago, deforestation had reduced the Forest of Arden to small fragmented woods and copses like Hay Wood. The wood is disappointing for anyone expecting Shakespeare’s romantic greenwood. On our walk, we followed a wide, muddy track through the woods, through bracken and past pine plantations in staggering rows, which reminded me that Hay Wood is now a managed forest. At least the woods were quiet: we had finally come out from under the flight paths of planes landing at Birmingham International Airport.

In the Middle Ages, the Forest of Arden was deep and dangerous, full of wild beasts and marauders who posed a constant threat to life and property. Before the Norman invasion, the Saxons grazed their cattle in clearings in the woods, often surrounded by a defensive ditch. After the Normans came into possession of the land in 1066, farms and manor houses were often built in these clearings, and the defensive ditches were often elaborated into moats. Such was the case at Baddesley Clinton. The estate was originally a forest clearing belonging to a Saxon named Baeddi—hence the name Baeddis Leah, or Baeddi’s Clearing—which passed into the hands of a succession of Norman families, including the de Clintons, who came into possession of the estate in the late thirteenth century.

Fifteen generations of the Ferrers family are buried in the small church that stands on the path between Hay Wood and the Baddesley Clinton manor house. The Ferrers remained a steadfastly Catholic family after the Reformation, and in the 1590s, Henry Ferrers (“the Antiquary”) rented the house to the intrepid Anne Vaux. In the Protestant England of Elizabeth I and James I, Catholic priests were outlaws, subject to imprisonment and torture if discovered, so during her tenancy Anne Vaux had Baddesley Clinton remodelled to include several cunningly concealed hiding places where Catholic priests could hide from priest hunters (or “pursuivants”). Two of these “priest holes” are visible on the tour of Baddesley Clinton—one in the kitchen, in the shaft of a medieval garderobe, and one in the moat room. In October 1591, five priests and several lay brothers hid for hours in these hiding places while pursuivants ransacked the house.