Saturday, June 30, 2007

Lansdowne Circus, Leamington Spa

I've mentioned Nathaniel Hawthorne in several of my posts recently. In 1852, Hawthorne obliged his old college friend, Franklin Pierce, and wrote an official campaign biography. It's undoubtedly the low point in Hawthorne's literary career—especially the part in which he urges voters to elect a man who will leave slavery alone to run its course. If left alone, he argues, slavery will eventually outlive its usefulness and simply vanish without a fuss. When Pierce won the Presidency, he rewarded Hawthorne by making him the American consul in Liverpool, England. For part of Hawthorne's time in England, though, he lived in Leamington Spa. His home was at 10 Landsdowne Circus, pictured here. Nearby is Landsdowne Crescent, pictured below, which is also the work of architect William Thomas (1799-1860), who left Leamington during an economic depression in the 1840s and emigrated to Toronto, where he became Canada's leading exponent of Decorated Gothic Revival architecture. St. Michael's Cathedral in Toronto is Thomas's work. Ontario's Ministry of Culture has set up an historical marker in front of Landsdowne Crescent. As for Franklin Pierce, who sent Hawthorne to England, he is consistently ranked among the worst United States Presidents (for example, he's #4 in the U.S. News and World Report ranking of worst Presidents).

Friday, June 29, 2007

You may have seen or heard on the news that police in London found and defused a potential car bomb early this morning near Piccadilly Circus. Yesterday, I stood in Marylebone Station waiting for my sister-in-law Mary, who was my traveling companion for the day, to emerge from the Tube and join me on the 1630 train. At about 1615 (4:15 p.m.), there was still no Mary, when an official suddenly closed the gates to the Tube station and announced that the Bakerloo Line was suspended due to a security alert. A few minutes later, a swarm of police in flak jackets emerged from the Tube. Fortunately, Mary had gotten off the Tube at Regent's Park and had run the rest of the way to Marylebone, and we were able to make the train back to Warwick.
The rain it raineth every day...

Monday was the wettest day in England in the past century. The heaviest rain fell north of here, with severe flooding in Shropshire, Derbyshire, Yorkshire, and Lincolnshire. Clara and I had considered a trip to Ludlow, in Shropshire, for our 18th anniversary, which is today. (Ludlow is known for having the most Michelin starred restaurants in England outside of London.) But Ludlow was hard-hit by the flooding, with bridges out, roads closed, and homes evacuated. The highest rainfall total in England on Monday was in Fylingdales, North Yorkshire, just outside of Robin Hood's Bay. When we visited North Yorkshire, we were in the middle of an exceptionally dry April, with only a fraction of an inch of rain all month. Over four inches of rain (103.7 mm) fell in Fylingdales on Monday. In April, there were fire warnings in the Peak District because of the dry conditions; on Monday, most of Sheffield, just outside the Peak District, was underwater. The picture here, though, is of Pickering, a village in Yorkshire that we drove through in April on our way to Helmsley Castle and Rievaulx Abbey.

Meanwhile, I seem to be losing my will to be a tourist. With only a month and a half before we return to Minnesota, I've started to think about packing up and clearing out our house in Kenilworth. In the end, the list of things I failed to do in England will be longer than the list of things I've done.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

The Courtauld Instutite and The Wallace Collection

Today I left Clara at home to get some work done and took the train to London to spend the day looking at art. My first stop was the Courtauld Institute, where my sister Ruth had sent me to look at Edouard Manet's famous "Bar at the Folies-Bergère." Unfortunately, the painting is on loan to the J. Paul Getty Museum until September. I wasn't in much of a mood for Impressionists in any case. I stood for a while in front of Van Gogh's "The Crau at Arles" Peach Trees in Blossom" (a poster of which hangs in Clara's office at Carleton) and felt slightly queasy—something about the dark blue-gray mountains looming in the background of all that hectic color. I was in much more of a mood for spirit-freshening Italian Renaissance Madonnas and for the special exhibit focusing on Lucas Cranach the Elder's 1526 "Adam and Eve," which was displayed with companion pieces from the National Gallery, the Getty, and the Queen's Collection. I loved Cranach's round-faced Saxon Eve, and his penchant for painting reflections in water. Notice, in the "Adam and Eve" above, that the deer is catching its reflection in a small pool of water.

From the Courtauld (in Somerset House), I walked back down the Strand, past Trafalgar Square, down the Mall past Buckingham Palace (where I saw the famous guards on duty; see below), along Piccadilly, up past Berkeley Square, to Manchester Square and Hertford House, the home of the fabulous Wallace Collection. The Wallace Collection has a marvelous collection of medieval and Renaissance armor, as well as a world-class art collection. Arguably the most famous work in the collection is Frans Hals' "The Laughing Cavalier," but what I enjoyed the most were the paintings by the seventeenth-century Spanish artist Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo. The collection also includes too many Greuzes and Fragonards—after a while, all Fragonards begin to look alike. The most famous Fragonard in the Wallace Collection—or anywhere—is "The Swing." The pink girl on the swing has launched her little pink shoe—but my favorite detail is the man in the background, who appears to be holding onto her with strings as if she were a kite. I have to admit that by the time I came to "The Swing," I was exhausted from so much art.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Shakespeare Houses, Part III: The Birthplace
(and More Thoughts on Hawthorne)

“After wandering through two or three streets, I found my way to Shakespeare’s birthplace, which is almost a smaller and humbler house than any description can prepare the visitor to expect; so inevitably does an august inhabitant make his abode palatial to our imaginations, receiving his guests, indeed, in a castle in the air, until we unwisely insist on meeting him among the sordid lanes and alleys of lower earth...I should consider it unfair to quit Shakespeare’s house without the frank acknowledgment that I was conscious of not the slightest emotion while viewing it, nor any quickening of the imagination. This has often happened to me in my visits to memorable places.”
—Nathaniel Hawthorne

Was Shakespeare born in the Birthplace? Probably. Was he born in the room known as the Birthroom? It's impossible to know. The Birthroom is identified as such in a tradition that goes back only to the eighteenth century, which was the beginning of a boom in visits to the Birthplace. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams visited together in 1786; Hawthorne visited in 1855; Mark Twain visited in 1873. Millions of others from around the world, famous and unknown, have visited since the eighteenth century. It's easy to imagine a series of garrulous old ladies, tenants and tour guides of the house on Henley Street, eager to impress their paying visitors by showing them the exact room in which Shakespeare was born or the exact chair in which young Shakespeare sat. For a little extra, she would even take out her handy knife and whittle off a bit of the chair for you too take home as a souvenir.

As I walked through the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church on my way to the Birthplace, I noticed a tall cedar of Lebanon with a sign that identified it as a tree brought back from Gethsemane by a former vicar of the Stratford church in the late nineteenth century. After the experience of Madame Tussauds, I was full of thoughts about the need to feel a physical connection with the past, the sacred, or the celebrated. P.T. Barnum felt that need so strongly—or rather, felt its profitability so strongly—that he made a bid to buy Shakespeare's Birthplace and transport it to his museum in New York. Why do we need to touch something, walk through something, own something? Does walking through the Birthplace bring us closer to Shakespeare? Does it add anything to his plays?

For Hawthorne, the answer was no. One of my favorite Hawthorne stories, "The Virtuoso's Collection," is about a visit to a museum which brings together such improbable items as the dove from Noah's Ark and Puss in Boots (both in the large collection of taxidermy), the tortoise that fell from the sky and killed Aristotle, the hatchet that George Washington used to cut down the cherry tree, and hundreds of other objects from myth, history, and literature. Again, Hawthorne explores the obsession with physical objects, and wonders in what sense those objects are more "real" than the stories that animate them and give them meaning.

Hawthorne’s most famous work, The Scarlet Letter, begins with the discovery of an artifact—the scarlet letter itself, discovered in the attic of the Custom House. The discovery of the scarlet letter prompts the telling of a story in which the letter is originally intended to sum up the entire physical and spiritual life of Hester Prynne for the society in which she lives: she is an adulteress. The artifact is at the center of two stories: the story that Hawthorne tells to his readers, and the story that the letter itself tells the people of Boston about Hester Prynne. The scarlet letter allows the people of Boston to objectify Hester, and its discovery allows the writer to tell a story which redeems her from that simple objectification.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Shakespeare Houses, Part II: Mary Arden's House

The platform and bridge at the Stratford- upon-Avon railway station.

I started today's journey at the Stratford-upon- Avon railway station, where for £1 (less than the cost of a small cappuccino at the station café) I bought a single ticket to Wilmcote. Back in 1973, when her father was on sabbatical in Stratford, adorable twelve-year old Clara had violin lessons in Wilmcote and made this same five-minute train journey each week, racing across this same bridge over the tracks to the northbound platform with her high-heeled shoes and her violin case.

Until 2000, the half-timbered house at left, on the Station Road in Wilmcote, was called Mary Arden's House. Tourists walked through it and imagined Shakespeare's mother spending her girlhood there, and imagined John Shakespeare, the glovemaker of Stratford, coming to court the prosperous farmer's daughter. Unfortunately, the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust had the wrong house. This house belonged to Adam Palmer, a neighbor or Mary Arden's father, Robert. As you can see, the house was getting a new stone wall in front. Wilmcote was long known for its quarries of gray limestone. The Mason's Arms, where I ate my ploughman's lunch, is a reminder of Wilmcote's history of stoneworkers. The real Mary Arden's House, identified by documents discovered in 2000, is pictured below.

Palmer's Farm is now home to the Shakespeare Countryside Museum, with displays of antique agricultural implements and a small working farm with rare English breeds such as Cotswolds sheep, Tamworth pigs, Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs, Buff Orpington chickens, and longhorn cattle. At left is a Cotswolds sheep. After the sheep are sheared, a long forelock is left so that the quality of the sheep's wool can still be judged on the animal. The farmyard of Mary Arden's House is also the home of the Heart of England Falconry Centre, and regular falconry exhibitions are offered. Although I missed seeing an exhibition, I did see several of the birds, including this young kestrel (below). The centre is also home to several owls, including the owl who played the part of Hedwig in the first Harry Potter movie.

After my lunch at the Mason's Arms, I walked three miles back to Stratford along the Stratford Canal, where I saw several narrowboats negotiating the Wilmcote locks. The Wilmcote locks are narrower than those at Hatton on the Grand Union Canal, which can accommodate two boats at a time instead of just one. At the pub, I overheard a conversation between several old men about the difficulties yesterday's severe flooding caused for navigation on the canal. Heavy rain fell across England from the Midlands north yesterday. It was the wettest June day on record in England, and flood conditions still persist, especially in the Sheffield area, where flooding has closed the M1. The water levels of the Stratford Canal are well regulated, but the River Avon through Stratford was overflowing its banks.

A Tamworth pig.
Tamworths are one of the rarest and purest breeds of pig,
considered fairly direct descendants of England's original wild boars.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Tourists in London

The London Eye

As a thirteenth birthday present for Peter, we took the train down to London on Saturday morning and crossed two of the standard tourist attractions off our list: The London Eye and Madame Tussauds. The British Airways London Eye is the largest ferris wheel in the world, taking its passengers 130 meters (426 feet) over the Thames in space-age glass and steel capsules which comfortably hold 25 people. It's expensive (£13/$26 for a 30-minute "flight"), but provides spectacular views over London—especially of the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey across the river. The queue to board was long, but moved quickly, and the ride was perfectly non-threatening, even for someone like me who is afraid of heights!

The birthday boy on the London Eye

The Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey from the Eye

With so many things to choose from in London (my list still includes St. Paul's Cathedral, the Tower of London, and the new Rembrandt and Hals exhibit at the National Gallery), Madame Tussauds would not have been my personal first choice, but it was a fun—if crowded and expensive—place to take teenagers on a star-studded tour of hyperreality. It's a strange experience, wandering around having your picture taken with wax effigies of celebrities. Peter posed with everyone from Albert Einstein to Jimi Hendrix. At left, the boys pose with Captain Jack Sparrow. Both the London Eye and Madame Tussauds are operated by the large UK entertainment conglomerate Merlin Entertainments, which also operates the Sea-Life Centres (such as the one we visited in Birmingham), Warwick Castle, and Alton Towers, Britain's largest amusement park. Will spent Friday at Alton Towers on the Kenilworth School Year 10 reward trip.

Wax museums became hugely popular in the nineteenth century. In America, Charles Willson Peale's famous museum, established in 1784, included waxwork figures. During her miserable sojourn in the United States, Mrs. Trollope even started a wax museum in Cincinnati, with wax figures created by the young sculptor Hiram Powers. But the most famous wax museum has always been Madame Tussauds, opened on Baker Street in London in 1835.

Clara battling it out with Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France.

Nathaniel Hawthorne seems to have had an interest in waxworks: he mentions them several times in his notebooks, where he collected ideas for his writing. I have always thought that waxworks may have inspired the chapter in The House of the Seven Gables where the narrator seems to circle around the dead body of Judge Pyncheon. Hawthorne was fascinated with questions of life and art. Stories like "The Artist of the Beautiful" and "Drowne's Wooden Image" are obsessed with the attempt of art to imitate, or even recreate, life and the human soul. Hawthorne was exploring these questions at the beginning of the age of machines, an age in which human skill and creativity had been unleashed in new and unexpected ways. Mary Shelley, in Frankenstein, was fascinated with these questions, too. How far can humans go in exercising their almost god-like powers of invention? It's interesting that Shelley, in exploring this question, creates a monster. Madame Tussauds had its start during the French Revolution, and the popular Chamber of Horrors still includes wax depictions of the Reign of Terror (including the actual guillotine blade that beheaded Marie Antoinette) along with its gallery of cool-looking nineteenth-century killers. The French Revolution is the classic historical example of the pursuit of human reason and perfectibility ending in slaughter, of god-like creativity ending in god-like destruction.

The boys with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

The first thing you come to on a visit to Madame Tussauds is a room full of Hollywood celebrities, with strobe lights and glitter balls and music playing to create the atmosphere of an Oscar night party. It seems a far cry from Madame Tussauds original wax depictions of Voltaire and Robespierre, icons of the human potential for both creative reason and mad destruction. The first thing Will wanted to do was to have his picture taken with Brad Pitt. Why Brad Pitt? "Because of Fight Club," Will said.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Guest Blogging on AustenBlog

Now my brother-in-law Jason Mittell is not the only guest blogger in the family. Over on AustenBlog, you can read my piece on a visit to Stoneleigh Abbey.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Summer Solstice

A heron in the pond in Abbey Fields.

The sun rose this morning at 4:43 a.m. and will set tonight at 9:31 p.m., giving us a longest day of the year that lasts for 16 hours and 48 minutes. (In Northfield, Minnesota, the day will only be 15 hours and 32 minutes long.) Tomorrow, the day will be two seconds shorter as we begin the long slide toward winter.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Wheat that Springeth Green

A wheat field near Chase Lane in Kenilworth, looking toward the site of Henry V's Pleasaunce.

Yesterday on my walk I came across this field of wheat, with its soft green tassels waving in the strong breeze. The effect was like wind on water. The entire field seemed fluid and alive. It was, strangely, one of the most spiritual experiences I've had in England. The great churches and cathedrals and ruined abbeys impress me more with their sense of history and grandeur than with their spirituality. But the wind through the tender green wheat was like a spirit made manifest. It rippled through the wheat and seemed to pass through me, leaving me quite at peace. I also imagined what Minnesota must have been like, a hundred years ago and more, when wheat, not soybeans and corn, sprang from the beautiful rolling hills of the former prairie, swelling against the dramatic Minnesota sky.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Home in Fifty-Seven Days

"There was not time now for them to visit all the churches, castles, museums and exhibitions they would have liked to see. Such expeditions had been among their most delightful pastimes."
—Elizabeth Jenkins, The Tortoise and the Hare

Monday, June 18, 2007

Vindolanda Tablets

Yesterday, Clara made a quick trip down to London and stopped in at the British Museum to have a look at the Vindolanda tablets. In my earlier post about Vindolanda, I mentioned that one of the tablets is an invitation to a birthday party sent by a woman named Claudia Severa to her friend Sulpicia Lepidina. This is the earliest example we have of a correspondence between women and the earliest example of a woman's handwriting:

Friday, June 15, 2007

Compton Verney

Another day, another stately home and/or art museum. Compton Verney is both: an art museum housed in the eighteenth-century country house designed by Robert Adam for the Verney family. The house is set in a pastoral Capability Brown landscape, and houses a good small collection of Neapolitan and Germanic paintings from the 15th through the 17th century, as well as one room of English portraits. The house stood empty for many years after being requisitioned by the military during the Second World War. In 1993, funding from the Peter Moores Foundation allowed the house to be purchased and restored as an art museum. Among the museum's most popular works is this 1550 portrait of young Edward VI, attributed to William Scrots.

As you can see from the dark clouds in this photograph (of one of the four sphinxes on the Robert Adam bridge), we returned to the car just as the light rain was starting to fall. Yesterday brought an afternoon and evening of torrential rains that, for a time, closed a long stretch of the M40 between Warwick and Banbury. With 70mm (2.76 inches) of rain, yesterday was the wettest day in Coventry since 1900. We're in the midst of another heavy downpour as I write this blog entry— the 175th entry in the record of our sabbatical year in England.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

St. Catherine of Alexandria in Christ Church

Christ Church Cathedral has two windows depicting St. Catherine of Alexandria. The one on the left is medieval glass. The one on the right is from a window by Edward Burne-Jones. It is said that Burne-Jones's model for the face of St. Catherine was Edith Liddell, the younger sister of Alice. Unfortunately, her face is unclear in this photograph because of the brilliant light that was shining through the window.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


The "dreaming spires" of Oxford from Christ Church Meadow.

This morning, Clara and I boarded the train in Leamington Spa and traveled to Oxford. Clara spent the morning researching in the Sackler Library while I wandered around the Ashmolean Museum. I spent quite a while looking at the Roman sculptures from the Arundel Collection, which was given to the university in the seventeenth century. One of my favorite pieces in the collection was this first century AD Roman statue of a hermaphrodite. The Ashmolean, which opened its doors in 1683, is the world's oldest university museum. It holds an impressive collection— everything from Guy Fawkes' lantern to a Stradivarius guitar to French Impressionist paintings. One of my favorites among the latter was Camille Pissarro's portrait of his eight-year old daughter Jeanne-Rachel.

"Tom Tower" and the quadrangle at Christ Church.

After lunch, Clara and I were joined by her sister Mary and mother for a special tour of Christ Church, courtesy of Mary's friend Sarah, who is the dean's assistant. From Sarah's office, we could look out into the garden where eight-year old Alice Liddell used to sit while Charles Dodgson, one of the college dons, watched her from the windows of the old library. Alice, the daughter of the late nineteenth-century Christ Church dean Henry Liddell (known to classicists for the Liddell and Scott Greek lexicon) inspired Dodgson, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, to write Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. Below is one of Dodgson's photographs of Alice, possibly sitting in the dean's garden.

Christ Church is also home of Oxford's cathedral, the former priory church of St. Frideswide, which has some fine stained glass—both medieval and modern—including a Burne-Jones window depicting scenes from the life of St. Frideswide. One of the more charming details in the window is the late Victorian toilet in the corner of this detail from the death of St. Frideswide (partially hidden by the red curtain on the right). Finally, the spectacular Great Hall of Christ Church can be seen, transformed through the magic of cinema, as the Hogwarts Great Hall in the Harry Potter movies.

From Christ Church, Mary, Clara's Mom and I (Clara had returned to the Sackler) walked around Christ Church Meadow, past punters on the River Cherwell, to the Botanic Garden (founded in the seventeenth century), where I admired the roses, poppies, and waterlilies. The Botanic Garden is across the street from Magdalen College, where we attended a beautiful choral evensong service in the chapel. But before the service, we joined Clara's Carleton colleague, Jack, for a pint at the Turf, Bill Clinton's favorite pub during his Rhodes Scholar days in Oxford.

Magdalen Tower from the Botanic Garden.
Caterpillar Infestation on Helvellyn

If you look at the photograph of the peak of Helvellyn below, you'll notice that it's awfully brown. On our ascent of the fell, we noticed hundreds of small caterpillars along the path. It turns out that Helvellyn is in the midst of a periodic large-scale infestation of antler moth caterpillars. The moths lay their eggs on the fells, and every eight to ten years there is a large-scale emergence of caterpillars, which strip the grass and leave the fells brown and bare.

BBC: "Caterpillars devour Lakes grass"

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

McKellen's Lear

There was a controversy here in England because critics were not allowed to see the new RSC production of King Lear for review until the run was sold out and nearly over. During rehearsals, Frances Barber, who plays Goneril, was riding her bicycle in Stratford when she swerved to avoid hitting a pedestrian and fell down. She ended up needing knee surgery, and the production had to go on with an understudy in the role of Goneril. The RSC didn't want the production reviewed with an understudy in one of the main roles, so reviewers were banned until about two weeks ago. This, I think, was a mistake. First, It made the reviewers grumpy, causing bad press. Not that this matters, since the production is sold out. Second, I can't believe that Frances Barber is vastly better than her understudy. Goneril is really not such a big part, and Frances Barber is not such a great actress. She seems to have two basic settings: nasty and loud.

Having said that, the production was amazing. Ian McKellen is the greatest actor I have ever seen. He's surrounded by some other very good actors, especially in the roles of Edgar and Gloucester, but he had me completely spellbound. First of all, he has the most wonderful voice. At least one critic, crankified by not getting to review it earlier, complained that the production was more about McKellen than Shakespeare, that it was impossible to think of McKellen as King Lear or anything other than England's greatest living actor showing off his great acting. I completely disagree. It seems to me that when you see a play, you are always aware, on some level, that acting is going on. Like any great art—painting or music or a great poem—it's something artificial that somehow gets you to think about what's real. It stimulates feelings that in everyday life are often half asleep. McKellen's performance was great art.

The production passed my two basic tests: it kept my brain engaged throughout, and it made me cry at the end. I should warn you: in one crucial scene, Sir Ian strips off his trousers and exposes his orbs and sceptre. It makes sense. King Lear is stripped down, exposed, as powerless as a naked infant.

One scene I particularly liked was when Edgar, disguised as Mad Tom, leads his blinded father, Gloucester, to what Gloucester thinks is the edge of the cliffs of Dover. Gloucester intends to jump off the cliff. Edgar vividly describes the cliff, although we know there is nothing there and see nothing but the empty stage. Gloucester "jumps" and curls up on the stage. Edgar returns, disguising his voice, and tells Gloucester it's a miracle that he survived such a fall. It's a scene in which nothing actually happens. No cliff, no jump, no death. But so much happens. Edgar makes Gloucester believe. He believes in something that never happened. Something entirely made up becomes a miracle. Well, isn't that what theater is about—the possibility of being changed by the imaginary? Nothing really happens on stage—no one is betrayed, no one dies. It's just what the actors, like Edgar, make up for you. You jump, expecting something to happen, and although you remain safe in your (by this time in the play) increasingly uncomfortable seat, you are briefly given a new life.

Monday, June 11, 2007

June in England

Roses in our back garden.

May is the season of bluebells in the woods and white blossoms of hawthorn, or may, in the hedges. May also brings the laburnums into bloom, with their cascades of yellow flowers. Finally, late May brings the roses and, in the fields, the buttercups and daisies. The stinging nettles are also back in full force, crowding around every kissing gate.

After a dry and mild April, this past May was one of the wettest in the past century. In fact, April was the driest month of the year so far in Warwickshire, with a spell of eighteen days without rain (April 4-21) and a scant five millimeters of total precipitation. Five times that amount of rain fell on a single day in May (May 13), and May ended with a total of 141mm. of rainfall for the month.

In the Lake District, which is further north than Warwickshire, we were getting more than seventeen hours of daylight almost four weeks before the summer solstice. On our first night in Dacre, I stood in the churchyard at 9:30 in the evening and watched a spectacular rainbow that seemed to stretch from Penrith to Ullswater. Here, there is now light in the sky (and loud birdsong outside the window) from just after 3:00 in the morning until after 10:00 at night.

June has started with ten days of dry weather, but the rain should be moving in again soon. The black-and-white cows are lying down on the humps and bumps of Henry V's pleasure ground beyond the castle. In the garden, the roses have already begun to drop their petals.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Upton House and Berkswell

On Saturday, we drove to Upton House, not far from the site of the Battle of Edgehill (October 1642), the first battle of the English Civil War. Upton House is a seventeenth-century stately home that in 1927 became the home of the 2nd Viscount Bearsted who, in addition to being the chairman of the Shell Oil Company, was also an avid art collector. The house is now an art gallery operated by the National Trust, full of wonderful European paintings dating from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century—everything from quattrocento Italian altarpieces to the sentimental eighteenth-century soft porn of Jean Baptiste Greuze. The painting below, though not itself in Upton House collection, is typical of their five Greuze paintings, and of his work as a whole. He churned out paintings such as this to pay the debts incurred by his wife's extravagant lifestyle.

Upton House is also known for its collection of fine porcelain, its beautiful gardens, and its dramatic ha-ha.

This afternoon, we made good on our intention to visit Berkswell, a small village about five miles north of Kenilworth. The name Berkswell is thought to come from "Bercul's Well;" Bercul was the original Anglo-Saxon inhabitant, and his well still stands near the church. In the Middle Ages, the "well" was evidently used for immersion baptisms, but today seems mainly to breed insects.

Church of St. John the Baptist, Berkswell, Warwickshire

The lovely Norman church, much of it dating back to the late twelfth century, is notable for its fine Norman crypt and for the lovely half-timbered vestry over the porch. The church was included in Simon Jenkins' book England's Thousand Best Churches (less expensive from than from, which remarks upon the "immaculate" setting of the church in the picture-postcard English village of Berkswell.

The Berkswell Museum.

In the summer, afternoon teas are offered in the village reading room. We chose instead to spend a quarter of an hour in the village museum before heading down to Meer End for a pint of Timothy Taylor Landlord Bitter at the Tipperary Inn. The museum is full of artifacts from the history of the village, from fourteenth-century tiles from the church, to WWII ration booklets, to special displays on the three most famous natives of the village: former England cricket captain R.E.S. Wyatt, actor Jeremy Brett, and Maud Watson, the first women's singles champion at Wimbeldon (1884). Maud Watson is buried in Berkswell, where her father was the rector of the church.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

More on England's Most Bizarre Prejudice

The Chapman children from Newcastle

From this morning's Telegraph newspaper:

By Laura Clout

A father whose children allegedly suffered years of abuse because of their ginger hair was told by a council official to dye their locks, it was claimed yesterday.

Kevin and Barbara Chapman, from Newcastle upon Tyne, say they have been forced to move twice because of name-calling, graffiti and attacks on their children, aged between nine and 13.

Their 11-year-old son Kevin became so depressed that he tried to hang himself, they claim, and he has since been taken out of school.

Mr Chapman alleged yesterday that a housing officer from Newcastle council suggested that he dye his children's hair to "take the pressure off". He told Jeremy Vine on Radio 2: "Why should we dye their hair? We are proud to be redheads." Mr Chapman said their windows have been smashed and graffiti daubed on their property.

Their children, Kevin, 13, Ryelle, 10, and Daniel, nine, have been punched, kicked and thrown over a hedge, he said. Mr Chapman said of their tormentors: "I just wish they would stop and realise what they are doing to the family."

Sgt Colin Murray, of Northumbria police, said the incidents had been fully investigated.

The council denied that the family were advised to dye their hair and said it was "in discussion" with them about the alleged abuse.

Other links to the story:
The Daily Mail

Monday, June 04, 2007

Lake District Holiday V (Final): Helvellyn

Legend and poetry, a lovely name and a lofty altitude combine to encompass Helvellyn in an aura of romance; and thousands of pilgrims, aided by its easy accessibility, are attracted to its summit every year. There is no doubt that Helvellyn is climbed more often than any other mountain in Lakeland... (Alfred Wainwright).

Peter and Will on the summit of Helvellyn, with Striding Edge in the background.

Since our first visit to the Lake District in 2000, we have wanted to climb Helvellyn,* at 3115 feet the third-highest mountain in the Lakes. The classic and preferred route to the summit is along Striding Edge, a dramatic knife-edge of rock that Wainwright calls "the finest ridge there is in Lakeland." Striding Edge occasionally requires the walker to claw his way up steep chimneys of rock that rise thrillingly above the sheer precipice on either side. Unfortunately, my bad knee forced us to reroute our ascent of Helvellyn to the west side, which Wainwright dismisses as "unattractive and lacking in interest."

Clara on the ascent of Helvellyn, with Thirlmere in the background.

There are several ways up Helvellyn from the west, including a long route from Grasmere that Wordsworth followed when he was in his seventies. We chose the shortest and easiest, from the car park beside Wythburn church. The church is all that remains of the village of Wythburn, which was wiped out in 1890 when the valley in which it lay was flooded to create the Thirlmere Reservoir and provide a water supply for the growing city of Manchester.

The final ascent to the summit of Helvellyn from the west: "unattractive and lacking in interest"?

The ascent from Wythburn is not Striding Edge, but I wouldn't dismiss it as unattractive. The early stages, with Thirlmere in the background, are quite lovely. It is only the final ascent to the summit that seems a little dull. But from the summit itself there are glorious views northeast toward Ullswater, with Red Tarn and Striding Edge in the foreground. One of the advantages of the western ascent was that we met relatively few other walkers along the way. When we had our first sight of Striding Edge, we could see walkers lined up all along the ridge, like a queue at a post office.

My knee was in good shape during the ascent, but was aching by the time we reached the car park again at the end of the walk. Striding Edge will have to wait for another year.

*Will persisted in referring to the mountain as "Van Halen."