Monday, April 30, 2007

150th entry.

Not the Actress...

Elizabeth Taylor (1912-1975) is one of my favorite English novelists. I discovered her in the mid-1990s, when I read her second novel, Palladian, about a young woman named Cassandra Dashwood who is engaged as governess to the daughter of a man named Marion Vanbrugh, an arid classicist who inhabits a crumbling Palladian mansion. I loved the novel for its literary echoes (especially of Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot), and for how it blended and undercut this self-conscious literariness with straightforward realism. Cassandra is a palimpsest of Marianne Dashwood, Jane Eyre, and Dorothea Brooke; Vanbrugh is Colonel Brandon, Mr. Rochester, and Edward Casaubon. But the novel is much more than a literary pastiche. One theme that runs through most of Taylor’s novels is the tension between the life of the imagination and the life of ordinary dailiness in the real world. She’s interested in how we see life through what we read, and in how literature provides an inadequate substitute for life itself. Her novels are shaped by the female Great Tradition in literature and the day-to-day realities of women's lives. Her earliest novels are full of characters who are insulated from real life by literature, including an out-of-touch novelist significantly named Beth Cazabon, in her third novel, A View of the Harbour (1947).

Taylor was born in Reading, attended the Abbey School (as did, more than a century earlier, Jane Austen), and worked as a governess and librarian before marrying a business man and settling down for the rest of her life as a housewife in Penn, Buckinghamshire. Her father-in-law was at one time the mayor of nearby High Wycombe, which we pass through on the train journey from Warwick to London. In a rare interview, she confessed, “I dislike travel or change of environment, and prefer the days (each with its own domestic flavour) to come around almost the same, week after week…. I also very much like reading books in which practically nothing ever happens.” She raised two children, who must have been quite young when she wrote her first novel, and seems to have enjoyed hanging out the laundry. Here’s a passage from Angel. The title character has become a successful romance novelist, writing novels that have very little relation to real life. Her poor mother, Mrs. Deverell, has been forced to leave behind her familiar cramped shop in town to live an idle life in Angel’s large suburban home:

At a time of her life when she needed the security of familiar things, these were put beyond her reach. It seemed to her that she had wasted her years acquiring a skill which in the end was of no use to her; her weather-eye for a good drying day; her careful ear for judging the gentle singing sound of meat roasting in the oven; her touch for the freshness of bacon; and how, by smelling a cake, she could tell if it were baked: arts, which had taken so long to perfect, now fell into disuse. She would never again, she grieved, gather up a great fragrant line of washing in her arms to carry indoors... The smell of ironing being done or the sound of eggs being whisked set up a restlessness which she could scarcely control.

In the background of this, I catch a glimpse of Taylor herself, the successful novelist, determinedly holding onto her ordinary life—the raising of her children, the drying of laundry, the middle-class anonymity of a Home County businessman’s wife. She kept herself rooted in what was real from day to day. All of this (the erudite literary references and the grounding in dailiness) had an immense appeal for me in the mid-1990s when I was making the sometimes difficult transition from visiting assistant professor of classics to stay-at-home father. Elizabeth Taylor seemed like a kindred spirit: someone who had read and appreciated Middlemarch, but who also knew what it was like to rinse out diapers in the toilet.

For years, Elizabeth Taylor felt like my own personal discovery. I found her novels in yellowing old Virago paperback editions languishing on the shelves of used book shops. There was no biography, and only one or two scholarly articles on her work. But Elizabeth Taylor is suddenly becoming popular. Virago has reissued her novels in slick updated editions, and two recent films have been made of her novels: Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont (2005), starring Joan Plowright, and Angel (2007), starring Romola Garai, Charlotte Rampling, and Sam Neill.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Ryton Wood
Updated Sunday, April 29:
New photograph added at end of post.

Bluebells in Ryton Wood (click photo to enlarge).

Ryton Wood is Warwickshire's largest surviving ancient woodland. Some parts of the woods date back to the eleventh century, and some, it's thought, to the last ice age. The trees are primarily oak, hazel, and small-leaved lime (tilia cordata, or, in American terms, basswood). The woods, crisscrossed with excellent paths, adjoin Ryton Pools County Park, which is built on the site of an old county landfill that operated from the early 1960s to the early 1990s. One interesting feature of the park is a methane factory which taps the methane produced by the buried garbage and converts it to electricity. But at this time of year, the real reason to visit Ryton Wood is to see the bluebells carpeting the woods. Ryton Wood is a ten-minute drive from Kenilworth. Clara and I drove over this morning for a brief walk in the woods. In some places, it was like walking into an Impressionist painting.

Friday, April 27, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

Last night, we saw an absolutely stunning production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. The production was directed by Tim Supple, and was cast entirely with Indian actors, dancers, acrobats, musicians, and street performers. At least half of the dialogue was in either Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi, Sinhalese, or Sanskrit. Despite the language barrier, the entire production was breathtakingly beautiful, side-splittingly funny, and unexpectedly touching. If anything, the language barrier heightened the effect of being transported to a mythical world of mischievous fairies and strange transformations. The first half ended with an ingenious tour-de-force of creative staging in which Puck caught the four lovers in a web of elastic tape stretched across the stage; the actors' movements through the web were both comic and beautiful. It was absolutely perfect and priceless. And, near the end of the second half, I was surprised to find myself close to tears over the death of Thisbe in the mechanicals' silly play-within-a-play. For a moment, a comically tall, thin Indian man in a blue dress, speaking in Bengali, wrung real emotion out of me. The whole production was a classic example of the magical, transformative power of theater.

You can see a short "trailer," and read more about the production, here.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Stratford-upon-Avon Public Library

Stratford-upon-Avon Public Library (1906).

In 1902, American steel-magnate Andrew Carnegie, who was on a library-funding spree in the United States, agreed to fund a new library for Stratford. The town authorities in Stratford wanted to build the new library on Henley Street, the street on which Shakespeare's Birthplace stands. The plans called for razing several cottages on the proposed site. Enter the romance novelist Marie Corelli (see yesterday's entry), who had only recently moved to Stratford. She protested against the destruction of the cottages, and said that a new building would deface historic Henley Street, which she called "the central aisle in the cathedral of literature." The town authorities produced reports claiming that the cottages were Victorian, but Corelli dug deeper and proved that some of the cottages had, in fact, belonged to Shakespeare's granddaughter Elizabeth (see yesterday's entry). The cottages were spared, but the new mock-Tudor library was built on Henley Street after all, only a few yards from the Birthplace. Marie Corelli, meanwhile, sat down a novel in which she aired, behind the veil of fiction, some of the resentment she felt over the whole affair. (To get a sense of Corelli's style, you can read the first chapter of that novel online here.)

Northfield Public Library, Northfield, Minnesota (1910).

The tug-of-war between development and historic preservation is familiar to residents of places like Northfield, Minnesota, which in recent years has been attempting to balance the preservation (and revitalization) of the historic downtown area with the growth of outlying commercial developments. It's often (but not always) the relative newcomers, like Marie Corelli, who come down on the side of preservation; they want the town to remain as it was when they chose to move there. One of the issues Northfield will have to face in the coming years is whether its public library will remain in the cramped but historic downtown building or move to a more spacious location. Northfield's public library, like Stratford's, is a Carnegie library, built at around the same time as Stratford's.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

The Shakespeare Houses, Part I

Exactly 443 years ago tomorrow (April 26, 1564), John and Mary Shakespeare presented their eldest son, William, for baptism at this font in the thirteenth-century chancel of Holy Trinity Church, Stratford-upon-Avon. William had been born a few days earlier, on the 22nd or 23rd, in John Shakespeare's house on Henley Street, where John also had a glovemaker's shop.

William grew up in Stratford, where his father was a prominent citizen, serving variously as alderman, high bailiff, and in other important civic offices. In 1563, John was town chamberlain, and as such he was ordered by the Protestant town authorities to whitewash over the medieval religious murals inside the Guild Chapel. The chapel is pictured here. Past the chapel to the right is the King Edward VI School, where young Will may have attended school and learned his little bit of Latin and less Greek. In the foreground you can see the signs for the Chaucer's Head Bookshop (founded in Birmingham in 1830 and later moved to Stratford) and for Nash's House (about which more later). At the bookshop, I bought a Virago Modern Classics paperback of Elizabeth Taylor's 1957 novel Angel, about the career of a romance writer loosely based on former Stratford resident Marie Corelli, whose old home now houses the Shakespeare Institute. Taylor's novel is sometimes included on lists of greatest novels of the 20th century; for an appreciation, click here.

William was still a teenager when he started walking out to the village of Shottery, about a mile west of Stratford, to woo Anne Hathaway. He did more than woo, since when eighteen-year old Will married twenty-six year old Anne in November 1582, she was already pregnant with their first child, a girl named Susanna (b. 1583). Anne Hathaway's cottage in Shottery is an icon of rural Englishness, with its lovely garden, half-timbering, and thatched roof. Unfortunately, when I visited today the picturesqueness of the cottage was marred by blue scaffolding (just visible to the left in this photograph). The grounds of the cottage include a tree garden planted with species of trees mentioned in Shakespeare's works.

In 1607, Shakespeare's daughter Susanna married a prominent local physician, Dr. John Hall. In about 1613, Dr. Hall built himself a large house, known as Hall's Croft, where he and Susanna lived for only about three years. When Susanna's father died in 1616, she and her husband moved to his old house, known as New Place. Hall's Croft is still standing (pictured at left), but Shakespeare's New Place was demolished in 1702; only a bit of the medieval foundations of the house remain. Next door to the site of New Place is the house which once belonged to Thomas Nash and his wife Elizabeth, née Hall, the daughter of Dr. and Mrs. Hall. Elizabeth Nash was William Shakespeare's last surviving direct descendant.

When New Place was demolished in 1702, a new house was built on the site. In the 1750s, this was owned by a Rev. Gastrell, who quarreled with the town council about his property taxes, and eventually decided to demolish the house rather than pay his taxes. In the house's garden was a large mulberry tree, supposedly planted by Shakespeare, which Rev. Gastrell cut down because he was annoyed by all of the tourists who came to look at it. An enterprising local man bought up most of the wood from the tree and used it to carve little Shakespeare-related souvenirs, some of which are on display in Nash's House. The house also has a good display of early editions of Shakespeare's plays. At left are the gorgeous wisteria vines growing up the side of Nash's House, seen from across the site of New Place.

For £14, I bought a ticket to all five houses owned by the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Today, I visited three of them: Anne Hathaway's Cottage, Hall's Croft, and Nash's House. On another occasion, I'll go back and walk out to Mary Arden's House in Wilmcote, and visit the Birthplace itself. Meanwhile, tomorrow night we're going to see a Royal Shakespeare Company production of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Swan Theatre in Stratford. Above is the new Courtyard Theatre, the RSC's wonderful temporary space (being used while the main theatre is being renovated), where we saw the three parts of Henry VI, and where in June we will see Sir Ian McKellen in both King Lear and Chekov's The Seagull. Both productions are coming to The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis in October (October 5-14), with the expensive tickets ($30-$90) going on sale on July 22.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Clara's Blog Updated

Clara has finally posted her long-awaited blog entry on the Romans in Lincoln and York.

In other news, the American dollar is now at its weakest against the British pound in more than two decades. A dollar is worth about 49p. Financially, this is the worst possible time to be in England. And just how much more expensive are things in England? Let's look at the price of gasoline (or "petrol"). In England, gas is heavily taxed, as it should be, and sold by the litre. A litre of gas is now about 95p, which translates to roughly $1.90. Remembering that there are 3.78541 litres in a gallon, gas in England costs approximately $7.19 a gallon.

Here's a letter that appeared in yesterday's Guardian newspaper: "I have always been opposed to the US-led invasion of Iraq. Shortly after the war started I instituted limited trade sanctions against the US, trying not to buy products made by American companies. I am astounded how successful this has been in bringing low the once-mighty dollar. It makes me wonder what would happen if there were two of us doing this."

The pound's rise versus the dollar is fueled in part by inflationary trend in the British economy, which means a double whammy for us: British goods are more expensive as the buying power of the dollar is weakened. Last week, inflation in Britain rose above 3% for the first time since 1997; at the same time, the pound rose to $2.0074, the highest it's been since 1981.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Breaking News: Warwick Wins University Challenge Final

On Monday evening, the University of Warwick defeated the defending champions, the University of Manchester, to take home this year's University Challenge trophy!
Yorkshire Holiday, Part 5 (and last): York

Mickelgate Bar, York.

We took the Transpennine Express from Scarborough to York and spent about five hours in a city that really deserves at least a week of its own. The city is full of ancient churches, full of medieval stained glass, Anglo-Saxon dedication stones, and other historical treasures. From the rail station, we walked down to Mickelgate Bar, the main gateway to the medieval city. In the Middle Ages, it was customary to display the severed heads of traitors from Mickelgate Bar. In Shakespeare's Henry VI at the RSC, we heard Queen Margaret demand the beheading of her enemy, Richard, Duke of York, with the words: "Off with his head and set it on York gates;/So York may overlook the town of York." The Duke's head was set above the gate in 1461. He was not the first figure from one of Shakespeare's histories to suffer this fate: in 1403, the head of Harry Hotspur (see Henry IV, Part I) was set on a pole above this same gate.

On the walls of York

St. Anne teaching the Virgin to read, All Saints, North Street, York. Click to enlarge for more detail.

From this gruesome beginning, we walked north along the city's western walls to the River Ouse, then headed up North Street to the marvelous church of All Saints, where it's possible to get right up close to the beautiful medieval glass, such as this delightful window (early 1400s) of St. Anne teaching the Virgin Mary to read. The church also contains a window illustrating the harrowing medieval poem "The Pricke of Conscience," depicting the last fifteen days of life on earth—beginning with rising sea levels and other disasters that seem eerily like global warming.

York Minster

The "Heart of Yorkshire," the great west window of York Minster. Click to enlarge for more detail.

From All Saints, we walked to York Minster, the largest cathedral in northern Europe, where we spent about two hours looking at the stained glass. We also went down into the undercroft, where excavations have revealed fragments of the Roman garrison (including a well-preserved section of a Roman wall painting) that, as in Lincoln, once stood on the site of the cathedral.

Like Lincoln, York had a large Jewish population in the early Middle Ages, before the expulsion of the Jews from England in the 13th century. As in Lincoln, and elsewhere in Europe, the Crusades brought a backlash against the Jews, and in 1190 a hundred and fifty Jews of York took refuge from a mob in the wooden tower of the castle. Rather than surrender to the mob, the Jews set fire to the tower and committed suicide. This later stone tower, known as Clifford's Tower, stands on the site of that earlier wooden tower.
Yorkshire Holiday, Part 4: Helmsley and Rievaulx

On the Cleveland Way between Whitby and Robin Hood's Bay.

We visited Whitby twice—once with Will and Peter, and once with my mother. On the first occasion, we left Whitby Abbey and headed south along the Cleveland Way, the long distance footpath that runs for over a hundred miles through the North York Moors and down the coast from Saltburn-by-the-Sea to Filey. We walked a dramatic eight-mile section along the clifftops from Whitby to the picturesque fishing village of Robin Hood’s Bay.

Entering Helmsley Castle.

The following day, we drove to the western terminus of the Cleveland Way, in Helmsley, to visit the ruins of Helmsley Castle, the medieval seat of the powerful de Ros family—and another keep slighted by the Parliamentarians in the Civil War. Everywhere in England there are reminders of those two catastrophic events in English history—the dissolution of the monasteries and the Civil War. From Helmsley Castle, we walked three miles along the Cleveland Way to visit one of the most famous of the dissolved monasteries, the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx in the peaceful Rye valley.

Rievaulx Abbey from Rievaulx Terrace.

In the early sixteenth century, Yorkshire was home to more monasteries than any other county in England. Among these were weathly houses like Rievaulx, Whitby, and Fountains Abbey. For the profligate King Henry VIII, who had squandered most of his inheritance, these houses represented an amazing source of untapped wealth. In 1535, he began to dissolve the monasteries and confiscate their wealth, selling off their land to the highest bidder. In Yorkshire, there was a rebellion, and a man named Robert Aske raised an army of 40,000 men to defend the monasteries in what became known as “the Pilgrimage of Grace.” The king sent the Duke of Norfolk to negotiate, and Aske extracted a promise that the Yorkshire monasteries would be exempt from dissolution. As soon as the army disbanded, the king broke his promise, executed the rebels (including the abbots of Rievaulx and Fountains), and dissolved the Yorkshire monasteries. Rievaulx was bought by the Duncombe family, who began to dismantle it to build a new stately home. Astonishingly, the shells of not only the grand church, but of many of the monastic buildings remained—the cloister, the chapter house, the refectory, the infirmary. Rievaulx gives a remarkable and, in its ruined state, poignant suggestion of what the great monastic community must have been like.

The Ionic temple, Rievaulx Terrace.

In the mid-eighteenth century, as the picturesque came into fashion, Thomas Duncombe built a neoclassical terrace on the hill overlooking Rievaulx, complete with a Tuscan and an Ionic temple. From Rievaulx Terrace, connoisseurs of the picturesque have remarkable views of the ruined abbey in the valley below.

Beatrice de Ros, in the St. William window, York Minster.

After a stroll around Rievaulx Abbey and a steep climb up to the terrace, we walked back to Helmsley for one last look at the slighted keep. The castle was besieged in the autumn of 1644 by Parliamentary troops led by Sir Thomas Fairfax. Fairfax was fresh from successfully laying siege to the walled city of York, which had been a Royalist stronghold. Fairfax was a native of Yorkshire, and when York surrendered, he did a remarkable thing—he insisted that the city’s medieval stained glass be spared. Thanks to Fairfax’s intervention, York is England’s great treasure trove of medieval glass. Among the windows spared was a window donated by Beatrice de Ros, daughter of the lord of Helmsley Castle.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Yorkshire Holiday, Part 3: Whitby Abbey

A memorial to Caedmon in St. Mary's churchyard, Whitby.

On Easter Monday, we took a bus from Scarborough to Whitby, further north along the Yorkshire coast. Appropriately, it was at Whitby, in 664, that a synod met to reconcile the traditions of the Ionan and Roman churches concerning the date of Easter. An extensive (and contentious) account of the Synod of Whitby appears in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History. Bede also preserves for us the only surviving fragment of poetry from Whitby Abbey’s most famous brother, Caedmon—the first English poet to write religious verse in the vernacular.

The iconic image of Whitby Abbey.

Whitby Abbey was founded by St. Hild in 657, and the original Anglo-Saxon monastery—a mixed community of women and men—survived for about two hundred years, until it was sacked by the Danes in the mid-ninth century (ca. 867). It was refounded in about 1077 by a knight of William the Conqueror who saw the picturesque ruins of the old monastery and vowed to rebuild a religious community on the same dramatic headland overlooking Whitby.

The abbey was dissolved with England’s other monastic communities in 1538 and purchased from Henry VIII by the Cholmley family, who began dismantling the abbey to build their stately home. In the nineteenth century, the romantic ruins of the abbey began to attract artists and writers like Sir Walter Scott, who worked “high Whitby’s cloistered pile” into his long poem “Marmion.” But perhaps most famously, Whitby is the scene for a dramatic episode in Bram Stoker’s novel Dracula, in which the medieval monastic ruins become the perfect setting for Victorian Gothic horror, as Lucy Westenra encounters Dracula in the churchyard of St. Mary’s, in the shadow of the old abbey.

The parish church of St. Mary, Whitby

Whitby, as first described by Stoker’s narrator, Mina Murray, is a beautiful place, and not at all sinister:

This is a lovely place. The little river, the Esk, runs through a deep valley, which broadens out as it comes near the harbour. A great viaduct runs across, with high piers, through which the view seems somehow further away than it really is. The valley is beautifully green, and it is so steep that when you are on the high land on either side you look right across it, unless you are near enough to see down. The houses of the old town, the side away from us, are all red-roofed, and seem piled up one over the other anyhow, like the pictures we see of Nuremberg. Right over the town is the ruin of Whitby Abbey, which was sacked by the Danes... It is a most noble ruin, of immense size, and full of beautiful and romantic bits... Between it and the town there is another church, the parish one, round which is a big graveyard, all full of tombstones. This is to my mind the nicest spot in Whitby, for it lies right over the town, and has a full view of the harbour and all up the bay to where the headland called Kettleness stretches out into the sea. It descends so steeply over the harbour that part of the bank has fallen away, and some of the graves have been destroyed.

Mina also mentions the famous steps, 199 of them, which curve upward from the cobbled streets of the old town to the churchyard and abbey:

The steps are a great feature on the place. They lead from the town to the church, there are hundreds of them, I do not know how many, and they wind up in a delicate curve. The slope is so gentle that a horse could easily walk up and down them.

I’m not so sure that a horse could easily walk up and down the steps, but as you can see from the picture, they were eventually conquered by my seventy-year old mother with her replacement knee. Fortunately, Dracula was not waiting for her at the top of the steps.

When I got almost to the top I could see the seat and the white figure, for I was now close enough to distinguish it even through the spells of shadow. There was undoubtedly something, long and black, bending over the half-reclining white figure. I called in fright, "Lucy! Lucy!" and something raised a head, and from where I was I could see a white face and red, gleaming eyes...
Yorkshire Holiday, Part 2: Cayton and Scarborough

Easter morning, St. John the Baptist, Cayton.

Our Easter holiday began on Saturday, as we drove from Kenilworth to Cayton, on the North Yorkshire coast, with a stop for lunch in Lincoln. These days, Cayton is known primarily for its crowded caravan parks, where vacationers set up their campers within easy walking distance of the broad beach on Cayton Bay. But Cayton also has the distinction of being one of England's 32 "thankful villages"—that is, one of only thirty-two villages in England that lost no young men in World War I. Cayton sent 43 men off to World War I, and all 43 returned home safely—more than any of the other 31 thankful villages. No young men from Cayton died in World War II either, making it one of the rarest places in England—a village without a war memorial. The church of St. John the Baptist is a simple Norman church, with a low roof and squat tower. The High Church service, complete with bells after the blessing of each of the communion elements, was led by a humorously grumpy old vicar whose sermon was mostly an extemporized venting of the irritations faced by a priest during Holy Week, including cleaning up vandalism of the vestry, leading daily services that no one attends, and putting in the potatoes on Good Friday (the traditional day).

Will and Peter on the Scarborough beach (South Bay), with the castle headland in the distance.

From Cayton, it's a short (about four mile) walk along the coast to Scarborough, England's first seaside resort. In the seventeenth century, a natural spring was discovered in the town, and a popular spa quickly grew up on the site. A busy street now separates the crowded beach, where traditional English seaside donkey rides are offered, from the rows of tacky amusement arcades and fish and chip shops. Further along the beach, fresh seafood stalls offer treats like cockles, mussels, and whelks; across the busy street, the Golden Grid offers "the world's best fish and chips."

A steep climb up from the beach brings the curious tourist to St. Mary's church and, in the churchyard across the street, the grave of Anne Brontë, author of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall and the least famous of the three Brontë sisters. She came to Scarborough to teach, but died there after only a few days. On a bench next to the grave, a large shirtless man was sunning his massive white belly and reading a Sunday newspaper. A few tourists walked past and wondered aloud who Anne Brontë was.

From Brontë's grave, it's a short climb to Scarborough Castle, on a dramatic headland wedged between Scarborough's north and south bays. The ruined castle stands on a site occupied for 3000 years. A Bronze Age settlement once stood on the promontory, as did a much later Roman signal station, established in the fourth century to warn of Anglo-Saxon coastal raids. In the thirteenth-century, the castle belonged to Edward II's favorite, Piers Gaveston. Gaveston was captured in a siege of the castle, and taken to Warwick, where he was executed (on a hill outside of the village of Leek Wootton, within easy walking distance of Kenilworth). The castle was "slighted" during the Civil War—as was the case at Kenilworth Castle, a wall of the keep was blown up to prevent the castle from being retaken and used against the Parliamentarians.

John Paul Jones.

In 1779, Scarborough witnessed one of the greatest sea battles of all time. It was in the waters off Scarborough that the American John Paul Jones, in the leaky old Bonhomme Richard, rejected a call for surrender from the British commander of the vastly superior Serapis with these famous words: "I have not yet begun to fight." Although the Bonhomme Richard was lost (sunk off Flamborough Head, south of Scarborough), Jones won the day, and became one of the iconic figures of the American Revolutionary War.

The Humber Bridge, seen through the windshield of our car (click to enlarge for a clearer view).

Incidentally, our trip to Yorkshire took us across the Humber Bridge, at 7,283 feet the fourth-longest single span suspension bridge in the world. The bridge between Lincolnshire and Yorkshire at Hull was begun in 1972 and completed in 1981, and spanned the last unbridged estuary (of the Humber River) in England. Until 1997, the Humber Bridge was the longest single span suspension bridge in the world. (The main span of the Mackinac Bridge is only 3,800 feet, making it the tenth-longest in the world.)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Happy 30th Birthday, Sarah Michelle Geller (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Yorkshire Holiday, Part 1: Wetwang

England is full of villages with humorous names, places like Spital in the Street (North Lincolnshire) and Bishop's Itchington (Warwickshire). But for a teenage boy, no place name is funnier than Wetwang (East Yorkshire).* Wetwang received some attention in 2001, when an Iron Age chariot burial was unearthed in the village. Wetwang was also the ancestral home of one branch of the Hardy family, descendants of a Hardy who came over with William the Conqueror. We found a few nineteenth- and twentieth-century Hardys in the churchyard of St. Nicholas, Wetwang, and there was a Hardy listed as a current member of the altar guild. But for Will and Peter, the biggest attraction was the name of the village itself.

(Etymological note: wang is an Anglo-Saxon word for "field," so "wetwang" is a marsh. In Middle Earth, Wetwang is the name of the marshes at the mouth of the river Entwash.)

Friday, April 06, 2007

Brief Hiatus: Spring Break

This blog will go on a brief hiatus this week while we are on holiday in Yorkshire. Posts will resume next Sunday, April 15. This week we'll be based in Scarborough, but we'll also be visiting York, Whitby (Whitby Abbey), and Helmsley (Helmsley Castle and Rievaulx Abbey), and walking along the North Yorkshire coast on the Cleveland Way.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Nathaniel Hawthorne on Gothic Cathedrals

Since our visit to Lichfield, I've rediscovered Nathaniel Hawthorne's essay on his own visit to Lichfield while he was American consul in Leamington Spa (during the ignoble administration of his college friend, Franklin Pierce). Having seen Lichfield Cathedral, Hawthorne writes:

A Gothic cathedral is surely the most wonderful work which mortal man has yet achieved, so vast, so intricate, and so profoundly simple, with such strange, delightful recesses in its grand figure, so difficult to comprehend within one idea, and yet all so consonant that it ultimately draws the beholder and his universe into its harmony. It is the only thing in the world that is vast enough and rich enough.

Hawthorne also writes about his stay in Lincoln, where he saw all of the things we saw: the cathedral, the Jew's House, the castle, Newport Gate. He said that the cathedral "had taken possession of [him], and would not let [him] be at rest." He had to keep going back to look at it. I know the feeling, having recently taken fifteen photographs of the west front alone. Hawthorne writes:

York Cathedral is comparatively square and angular in its general effect; but in this at Lincoln there is a continual mystery of variety, so that at every glance you are aware of a change, and a disclosure of something new, yet working an harmonious development of what you have heretofore seen. The west front is unspeakably grand, and may be read over and over again forever, and still show undetected meanings, like a great, broad page of marvellous writing in black-letter,—so many sculptured ornaments there are, blossoming out before your eyes, and gray statues that have grown there since you looked last, and empty niches, and a hundred airy canopies beneath which carved images used to be, and where they will show themselves again, if you gaze long enough.

Hawthorne's essays on his travels in England are collected in Our Old Home, originally published in 1863.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Captain Dangerous Live in Nottingham

Click Here!

My nephew Mark is the bassist in the Nottingham-based band Captain Dangerous (click on the banner above for more information, and to hear their first single, "You Could Be My," which will be available for download on iTunes at the end of the month). The band won a competition to open the weekend of music celebrating the opening of Nottingham's new market square. On Saturday afternoon, Nottingham was treated to fifteen minutes of Captain Dangerous's "outrageously catchy melodies." Nottingham is not a beautiful city, although it does have a lovely "castle"—not the Sheriff of Nottingham's castle, but a 17th-century ducal palace on the hill where the original castle stood. Nottingham is also home of the oldest pub in England, the Trip to Jerusalem, established in 1189. The name comes, of course, from the Crusades, led by England's King Richard I. The pub is built into the side of the hill on which the castle stood, and incorporates some of the caves underneath the hill.
Lincoln III: Lincoln Castle

The towers of Lincoln Cathedral and the Observation Tower of Lincoln Castle, from inside the castle.

Construction on Lincoln Castle began soon after the Conquest. The Castle and Cathedral, facing each other across the square, were a potent symbol of the power of the new Norman regime. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Lincoln Castle housed a prison, organized on the Pentonville system, in which prisoners were kept strictly segregated. Condemned criminals were hanged on one of the castle towers (known as "the long drop"), and buried inside the old castle keep. The old Georgian prison building now houses a display on the Magna Carta (Lincoln is home to one of four remaining originals, though when we visited it was on its way to the United States for a tour). We visited the Victorian cell block and the eerie prison chapel, in which hooded prisoners were segregated into enclosed, coffin-like pews.

The east gate of Lincoln Castle. The brick building to the left beyond the arch is the Georgian prison building; the colonnaded building straight ahead is the Crown Court.

The castle keep, atop one of the castle's two mottes. Lincoln Castle is one of only two castles in England with two mottes. Inside the keep is a courtyard containing the graves of prisoners executed in the prison in the nineteenth century.

Clara has promised to blog in more detail about Roman Lincoln. I'll let you know when she gets around to it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lincoln II: The Cathedral

The famous west front of Lincoln Cathedral.

The building of Lincoln Cathedral was begun soon after the Conquest by Bishop Remigius, who died in1092, before the original Norman cathedral was completed. Much of the building of the present cathedral was begun under St. Hugh, in the twelfth century. After his death, St. Hugh's grave at the east end of the cathedral became a focus of pilgrimage. Although his shrine was destroyed in the sixteenth century (in the time of Henry VIII), there is still a decorated plinth in the "Angel Choir" on which his relics—specifically, his head in a jeweled casket—were displayed.

The south side of Lincoln Cathedral, from the ruins of the medieval bishop's palace.

Another macabre feature of Lincoln Cathedral is the tomb of Queen Eleanor of Castile's viscera. When she died near Lincoln in 1290, her grieving husband, King Edward I, had her body embalmed for the long journey back to Westminster Abbey. Her viscera were buried in Lincoln Cathedral. As the funeral procession made its way south, the king had a cross erected at each resting point—the remains of one of these Eleanor crosses stands in Lincoln Castle, and Charing Cross in London takes its name from another such cross (no longer extant). Also buried in Lincoln Cathedral, in a rather plain tomb in the sanctuary, is Katherine Swynford, the wife of John of Gaunt and heroine of Anya Seton's novel, Katherine.
The Dean's Eye, the medieval rose window in the large north transept (click to enlarge).

"Crazy Vaulting" in the roof of St. Hugh's Choir.

The statue of Tennyson on the northeast side of the cathedral.

The cathedral and market square, seen from the walls of Lincoln Castle.

My interior photographs of the nave don't at all do justice to the awe-inspiring internal space of the cathedral. To get a sense of that, you just have to visit. You can see some scenes of the interior of Lincoln Cathedral in the movie The Da Vinci Code, in which Lincoln Cathedral doubles as Westminster Abbey.
Lincoln, Part I

Lincoln is a remarkable town. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 C.E., a post for the Ninth Legion was almost immediately established here; when the legion moved on to Chester, Lincoln became a colonia, a community settled by Roman veterans and Romanized Britons. The name "Lincoln" comes from Lindum Colonia (Lindum being a Romanization of a Celtic name meaning "the town beside the pool"). At left is Newport Gate, the northern gate into the walled Roman city. In Roman times, the ground level was nine to twelve feet lower than it is today, so much of the arch is under ground. Newport Arch is the only Roman arch in England still used by traffic. In 1964, a lorry (i.e., truck) misjudged the height of the arch and smashed the upper part of the arch (now carefully restored). It's amazing to think that this arch was already a thousand years old when William the Conqueror passed under it in 1068.

After the Romans left, there was eventually an Anglo-Saxon settlement at the bottom of the hill on which the Roman city stood. The oldest church in Lincoln—older than the cathedral—is St. Mary-le-Wigford Church, an Anglo-Saxon church in the lower city. When the Saxons built the church, they incorporated a Roman tomb stone into the tower. The stone, memorializing a Roman named Sacer, was reused for an Anglo-Saxon inscription commemorating the contributions of a Saxon named Ertig toward the building of the church.

Lincoln became important again after the Conquest, when William the Conqueror had both a large castle and an impressive cathedral built in the upper city, on top of the old Roman colonia. The cathedral was expanded throughout the Middle Ages, but the west front of the cathedral (seen here) retains many of its Norman features (especially the rounded arches; the pointed arches are Gothic additions). The famous English art critic John Ruskin said: "I have always held and am prepared against all evidence to maintain that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have."

Norman House, or "Aaron the Jew's House."

How did the church pay for such a massive building project? For one thing, the diocese borrowed money from one of the great financiers of 12th-century England, a Jew named Aaron of Lincoln. Aaron (ca. 1125-ca. 1186) loaned millions of pounds during his lifetime, and after his death, the King took over all of his loans—thus, the cathedrals and abbeys who had borrowed money from Aaron now became indebted to the King. Aaron of Lincoln's house still stands on Steep Hill, and may be the oldest extant building in England to have been built as a private residence.

Further down Steep Hill stands this house, known as "The Jew's House," another 12th-century private residence, connected to another stone building (in this photo, the one with people in front), which may have been Lincoln's medieval synagogue. Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community in the 12th-century, but (see my post on Gilbert Crispin for February 1) life for England's Jews was precarious. In 1190, York's Jews were slaughtered after taking refuge in Clifford's Tower, and, as I mentioned earlier, Christian crusaders slaughtered Jews throughout Europe during the 1190s. Lincoln's Jews escaped by taking refuge in the castle; and the church authorities usually did what they could to protect the Jewish community. In 1255, however, Lincoln's Jews were accused of ritually murdering a young boy named Hugh, and 91 members of the community were rounded up and sent to the Tower of London. Eighteen were executed. Update: English Heritage has just published a book called Jewish Heritage in England: An Architectural Guide, by Sharman Kadish, which, among other things, explores the Anglo-Jewish medieval heritage of Lincoln and York.

In my next post, I'll have more photos from the beautiful town of Lincoln.