September 23, 2013

Back in England

"My life was not useless; I gave important truths to the world, and it was only for want of understanding that they were disregarded. I have been ahead of my time."  Deathbed quote of Robert Owen 

Carol writes:
NEW LANARK:  Our visit to Scotland had just about come to an end when we left Edinburgh.  We had one more planned stop before we headed back into England and that was at the historic textile town and World Heritage Site called New Lanark.  It was in the textile mills where the Industrial Revolution really took off as more and more of the textile manufacturing process became mechanized, and so it was at New Lanark.  The historic mill town buildings have been wonderfully restored to the point where they once again serve as homes for a small community.


New Lanark was the brainchild of Robert Owen, the manager of the mill and the man behind a great social experiment that was conducted in the early 1800s at the New Lanark textile mills.  Owen was very progressive in his thinking and believed that society could be free of crime, poverty, and misery; the key, he believed, was education.  For the workers at New Lanark, he provided decent homes, fair wages, free health care, the first workplace nursery school in the world, and a new education system.  The restored schoolhouse was especially cheerful.


We were fascinated when we saw the operation of some of the large old machinery for winding New Lanark yarn onto spools.

As we walked through the house that Robert Owen lived in, it was interesting to discover that he had transported his progressive social ideas to the United States and had tried to set up a town similar to New Lanark in a place called New Harmony, Indiana.  However, due to insufficient financial backing, his ideas just never quite caught on in New Harmony.

THE LAKE DISTRICT:  During many of our conversations with fellow travelers, the one comment that has been repeated most often is, “You must not miss the Lake District.”  As soon as we entered the Lake District, it wasn’t hard to appreciate what all the talk had been about.  The lakes with their surrounding idyllic scenery formed the most spectacular English scenery we had seen to date.  We were determined that as long as we were in the Lake District we would take a hike around one of the lakes, no matter what the weather.   With its bucolic lake beauty and charm, the 4-mile loop around Lake Buttermere seemed a perfect idea…that is until we were 2 miles into the hike--past the point of no return--and it started to pour.  Gradually, what we have come to call “soft weather” had become a soaker.

However, there was a section of our lake hike through a field of sheep that was so bizarre that we almost didn’t mind getting drenched.  Hundreds of sheep in the field around us were standing still as if frozen in place.  None of them were eating, none of them were lying down, and none of them were moving!  Some of them seemed halted in mid-stride!  Perhaps that is typical sheep behavior when it is raining, but it looked very weird.  Other hikers from the UK remarked to us that they had never seen such sheep behavior before.  Obviously, this snapshot with a camera couldn’t quite capture how frozen in time this entire herd of sheep appeared to us.

We felt relieved when we got back to the RV where we could get out of our wet clothing.  Eventually, it took 3 days to dry out everything that had gotten soaked.  However, as one of our campground wardens told us, “If it wasn’t for the rain, we wouldn’t have the lakes.”  I suppose that’s the practical Lake District way to look at rainy days. 

We rounded out our time in the Lake District with a tour of Honister Slate Mine,


a visit to Dove Cottage, where England’s Poet Laureate William Wordsworth lived for nine years,

and a stop at 5000-year-old Castlerigg Stone Circle.


As at other standing stone sites, several meaningful alignments in the placement of the stones at Castlerigg have been discovered.

YORK:  The city of York has played such a pivotal role in British history.  The ancient walls of York lay claim to Roman history, Viking history, medieval history and Industrial Age history, so it is no wonder that today its chief industry is tourism.  Its visitors want to experience some of that history!

The jewel of York is the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps—the grand York Minster.  Since it was not part of an abbey, the Minster was spared destruction during the reign of Henry VIII.  During WW II, its priceless stained glass windows were hidden in private homes to protect them from German bombs.

When we inquired about attending evensong on Sunday afternoon, we were told that a new pastor was being installed that day and that evensong service would last a little longer than usual.  Our timing was fortuitous…  There is no better way to appreciate the musical and spiritual essence of a grand cathedral in Europe than to attend one of its services.  The acoustics and ambience of a wonderful cathedral like York Minster certainly enhanced our choral evensong experience.  The choir sounded heavenly.  There was quite a festive atmosphere at the conclusion of evensong when everyone wanted to greet the new pastor and welcome him to the ‘Minster.’

Our last day in York was a rainy one, so we decided to take in two of York’s best museums.  The York Castle Museum has been dubbed “possibly the closest thing to a time-tunnel experience” with its incredibly detailed life-size reproductions of rooms from the 17th through the 20th centuries,


along with a re-created life-size Victorian street called Kirkgate that was lined with shops and businesses.  As we wandered through the shops of Kirkgate, background sound effects typical of a Victorian-era street contributed to the time-travel experience.

The other museum we visited in York was the National Railway Museum.  Typically, at the mention of a train museum, my eyes start to glaze over—not my favorite topic of interest.  However, throw in several tracks of beautifully restored royal trains and my interest increases dramatically.  The museum had wonderfully restored royal train cars that were used by Queen Victoria, King Edward VII, and Queen Elizabeth II.  It was difficult to get good photos through the windows of the royal cars.  The best of the pics included this one of King Edward’s smoking room lounge car with its oversize green leather armchairs,

and the pic of the bathtub in King Edward’s private bath car. 

Brontë Parsonage:  The Brontë family is perhaps the world’s most famous literary family.  In preparation for our visit to Brontë country, I had recently read both Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë and Wuthering Heights by her sister Emily Brontë.  Both of these literary masterpieces were written at the Brontë Parsonage family home in Haworth where Patrick Brontë, the father of the six Brontë children, was pastor of the church.  The furnished rooms in the parsonage captured an authentic atmosphere from the days when the Brontë family lived there.  Display cases were filled with a fascinating wealth of clothing, personal possessions, paintings, letters and notebooks from various members of the family. 

The next-door church graveyard seemed awfully spooky on the cold, windy, rainy day of our visit.

It was especially interesting to see the actual moors in the distance that inspired Emily when she wrote Wuthering Heights.

In the early years, life in the Brontë household was a happy time around the dining room fireplace where the three sisters (Charlotte, Emily, and Anne) supported, inspired and critiqued one another in their individual literary pursuits.  However, as the rest of the family story unfolded, it became clear that it was a tale with few happy endings.  The mother of the Brontë children died of cancer at age 38 and left her young children to be raised by her sister at the parsonage.  Charlotte lived longest of the six children and also died at age 38, in the early stages of pregnancy only 9 months after her wedding day.  The father of the Brontës died in his 80s, having outlived his wife and all six of his children.  What a burden to bear!  It is remarkable how in such a relatively brief number of years this talented literary family caught the attention of the world.  The fascination has never lagged to this day.

“Any relic of the dead is precious, if they were valued living.”        Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights


September 20, 2013

Scotland's Capital on the Firth of Forth

"And yet the place (Edinburgh) establishes an interest in people's hearts; go where they will, they find no city of the same distinction."  Robert Louis Stevenson

Al writes:  Our first impressions when visiting a new city give us an idea about the uniqueness and character of the city.  As soon as we entered Edinburgh, we felt this visit would be a special treat. Edinburgh is the historical and cultural capital of Scotland.  What we thought would be a three-day stay turned into 5 days and ended up being the longest time we have spent in one place since we arrived in Europe.
The town is on the Firth of Forth (I love saying that fast) and is built around a couple of extinct volcanoes on lava flows.  The old town dates back to medieval times and the new town is one of the first Georgian (18th Century) planned towns.  

The entire area is dominated by Edinburgh Castle (11th Century) which has been an integral fixture in the history of the city.  It currently houses the Scottish Royal Crown Jewels, the Stone of Scone (more later), National War Memorial, Scottish Military Museum, and headquarters of a Scottish Regiment.  It is also the place where the Military Tattoo takes place, which is an annual competition of bagpipe bands from around the world.  It is a big deal and you have to get reservations a year in advance.
From the castle, you enter the Royal Mile.  It is the main street through the medieval portion of the town that ends at the royal Palace of Holyroodhouse.  The street is lined with shops, restaurants, museums, the Scottish Parliament, and historic landmarks.

The Palace of Holyroodhouse and connected abbey ruins is the royal family's bungalow in Edinburgh.  The Queen comes here every year, receives the keys to the city, which she immediatley gives back for safekeeping, and throws a modest garden party for 8000 after she awards the Order of the Thistle to deserving Scots for above and beyond performance, duty, or charity.  


After visiting the new Scottish Parliament Building, I have to digress a little on the history.  The United Kingdom is composed of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.  Over the centuries, England had to repeatedly put down revolutions in these areas.  Scotland was always a thorn in England's butt with such guys as Bonnie Prince Charles and William Wallace.  The Scottish Parliament originated in 1293 but was dissolved in 1707.  It is only recently in 1998 that the Scots voted for home rule and the Queen formally opened Parliament in 1999.  Also, the Queen agreed to return the Stone of Scone with the condition that it be returned for future coronations at Westminster Abbey.  The Stone of Scone is a big grey chunk of rock on which the Scottish Kings as far back as the 9th century were coronated.  We saw the big grey chunk of rock next to the Crown Jewels but were forbidden to take photos.  What is more interesting is Scotland has a big vote next year on whether to remain a part of the United Kingdom or become an independent country.  Crazy stuff. It is like Texas trying to secede from the Union.  Hmmm, that sounds familiar.
We devoted an entire day to the National Museum of Scotland. 

Wow, what a collection of stuff in a confusing series of buildings!  I told one Scottish couple on an elevator that I have been trying to find the exit for three days and keep moving so that I am not labeled an artifact.  They laughed but I think I heard a mumble about crazy Americans.  You could spend a week in the place.  They say that there are 20,000 artifacts on display and we saw only 3,479.  I thought the highlights were the hoards and brooches.  Scotland and Ireland are covered in bogs and that is where the oldtimers hid their wealth.  The museums are full of discovered hoards that go as far back as Roman times.  I know what I would be doing if I owned some bog.

Brooches were used to hold the cape on the shoulders, and the more ornate, the higher one's standing.

Another very enjoyable museum was the National Gallery of Scotland.  For a relatively small museum, it has some world-renowned art in an impressive setting with red walls.


Other sights included a tour of a 17th century merchant's house, an 18th century Georgian house, and the Writers' Museum devoted to the big three in Scottish literature: Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, and Robert Louis Stevenson. 

Finally, our last day in Edinburgh was devoted to touring Her Majesty's Royal Yacht Britannia.  The ship served the Royal Family for 40 years and was retired in 1997, ending an unbroken string of royal yachts that stretch back to the early 17th century.  The Britannia is really two ships in one.  There is the portion that is devoted to the Royal Family and staff, and then the part that is the Royal Navy.

The ship was commissioned in the early 50's and has that look of simplicity.  It was used extensively by the royal family for showing the flag, diplomacy, vacations, and honeymoons.  It was not a bad way to travel.  A sampling of the royal suites include the Queen's bedroom,

Queen's office,

 Queen's salon,

Queen's sun deck

Queen's State Dining Room (Eisenhowers, Clintons, Reagans, Madela, Yeltsin to name a few have been fed here),

 and one of the many Queen's booze lockers.

The Royal Navy side was fascinating because of the rules followed to avoid disturbing the royal family and make it a tranquil, relaxing place.  All work was to be completed by 8 AM.  Only first names were used among the crew.  No public, loud disciplinary actions.  If you ran into a royal family member, you came to attention and looked off to the horizon. The crew was required to use hand signals.  The captain of the ship was an Admiral.  To contribute to this placid environment, there were 5 official bars for the crew depending on your rank.  Shucks, I could have enjoyed going to sea in this environment.  I could start my day quietly talking to Seaman Timmy on his chore to complete by 8, walk into the wardroom and talk about our cruise route today with Winston, the Admiral.  I could practice my hand signals for the rest of the day until it was time to have a pint of Guinness in the officer's bar.  

The tour of the yacht was very complete from the bridge to the engine room.  Some examples:

Royal Marines berthing,

low-ranking enlisted bar/lounge,

officer's bar,

engine room,

officer's wardroom (I never had ship meals with crystal),

and the senior chief's bar (I apologize for the photo but a German couple insisted that we pose with the hats).

After the tour, it was easy to see how much we have adapted from the Royal Navy (except for the bars).

Our stay in Edinburgh was a great time to explore one of the unique cities of the world.  Now it is time to move south down the west coast of England for more adventures.

"Britannia is the one place where I can truly relax.” Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II











September 16, 2013

Capitals in Contrast

A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.”   John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States

Carol writes:

DUBLIN:  It was in Dublin, the Republic of Ireland’s capital and largest city, where the echoes of Ireland’s fight for independence could be seen and heard the loudest.

Our guidebook had given such praise for the double-decker hop-on/hop off bus tours that we decided to use that method to visit the historic areas of chief importance. 

From the very start of our bus tour, it was quite apparent that Dublin is very proud of the men who fought for Irish rights while Ireland chaffed under British rule for over 700 years.  Numerous statues of notable Irish heroes were seen everywhere.  The statue of Daniel O’Connell (“The Liberator”), with the controversial Millennium Spire in the background, stated loud and clear that we were unmistakably in Dublin. 

There were statues of many of the brave patriots, such as Michael Collins, who paved the way for Irish independence in 1922.

Along the main street was the General Post Office, one of the most iconic buildings in all of Dublin and the one that played such a big part in the 1916 Easter Uprising.  This was where Patrick Pearse read the Proclamation of Irish Independence (from British rule) that kick-started the tragic violent events of Easter Day nearly 100 years ago.  Damage from bullets fired during a fierce gun battle with British troops could still be seen on some of the classic stone columns that graced the front of the Post Office.

The Easter Day Uprising against British rule did not turn out favorably for the Irish.  Sixteen of the leaders of the rebellion were captured and imprisoned at Kilmainham Gaol.  Within a month, fourteen of these men were executed at the gaol (jail) by firing squad.  We took a tour of the jail and found it to be a very sobering experience, especially the area in the courtyard with a simple cross commemorating the spot where some of the executions took place.

One of the sixteen who was not executed was a man named Eamon de Valera who, incredibly, eventually became the president of Ireland and was a dominant political leader for 40 years.  His cell in Kilmainham was commemorated with a name plaque.

One fact became certain during our visit to the jail—imprisonment there was a dreadful experience and no amount of restoring some of the cells with nicely whitewashed walls could change that.

On a lighter note, while we were in Dublin we couldn’t resist a visit to Trinity College.  We took an entertaining, joke-packed tour led by one of Trinity’s graduate students.

The highlight of the tour was viewing the famous Irish medieval illuminated gospel manuscript known as the Book of Kells that was housed inside the extraordinary Trinity Old Library.  The Book of Kells has been regarded as one of the finest works of art from the Dark Ages.  

[Internet photo]
On first entering the library, which was stacked two stories to the ceiling with some of Trinity’s oldest books, both Al and I had what we call one of those rare ‘wow moments.’

While in Dublin, we spent the better part of a whole day tackling the highly-praised Dublin Museum of Archeology which showed off Irish treasures from the Stone Age up to modern times.  We were fascinated by the very old golden necklaces,

along with one of the collection’s most notable pieces, the Tara Brooch (fastener for a cape).

But…to be totally honest, it was the tasteful and excellent display of ‘bog bodies’ that held the most fascination…ghoulish but irresistible.   

These bodies had been preserved for over a millennium in the oxygen-starved environment of a bog.

Dublin lays claim to several of the world’s most well- regarded authors—James Joyce, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and W.B. Yeats, among others.  During our ramblings, we stumbled on what has become a permanent display on the life and works of W.B Yeats, one of Ireland’s most beloved poets.  As always, it was fascinating to see some of the world’s most famous literature written in the hand of its author, freezing for all time the moment of its creation.

We also made a quick visit to the National Gallery to see Dublin’s fine collection of European masters.  We thought this would also be a great opportunity to get an introduction to some well-regarded Irish painters.  I was especially curious to see a painting called “Meeting on the Turret Stairs” by Frederic Burton, which had been voted Ireland’s favorite painting in 2012.  It was just around the corner at the very end of the Irish exhibition…

What the heck???

BELFAST:  After 19 days of touring the island and two days of strolling through Dublin’s very historic streets, we felt we had learned a lot about Ireland’s stormy history of war and peace, suppression and independence, conflict and calm. 

We had booked a ferry back to Scotland that left at 11:30 p.m., so that left us the day to look around Belfast.  Today, although Belfast enjoys a fragile peace, we detected a feeling of tenseness in the air.  The political sentiment of the Protestant/Unionist areas was displayed loud and clear.  In many towns in Northern Ireland the Union Jack (the British flag), along with a flag displaying the “Red Hand of Ulster,” was prominently displayed along the road on every vertical pole.  Many private residences also flew these flags.  It struck us as sort of an ‘in-your-face’ way of saying that they are happy as a member of the United Kingdom and have no desire to reunite with the largely Catholic majority in the Republic of Ireland.  Or…perhaps the Protestant Unionists in Northern Ireland were just more vocal than the Catholics who long for Irish reunification.  Whatever the case, we always felt a little on edge in Northern Ireland, especially in Belfast, scene of some terrible violence during the ‘Troubles’ not too many years ago.  We saw brick wall murals with militant Unionist symbolism in some of the neighborhoods that we drove through.  We were not tempted to get out and walk in any of these neighborhoods, as some of the Belfast crowd struck us as a bit on the rough side.

Our primary destination in Belfast was a place with no political overtones--the Titanic Belfast, a sparkling new museum that just opened in 2012.

This high-tech museum told an incredibly detailed story of the short life of the Titanic--from planning, through construction by the proud ship workers in Belfast, to the fatal maiden voyage in 1912.  Everything you always wanted to know about the Titanic was in this top-notch modern museum.

BACK TO SCOTLAND:  With their usual efficiency, in a little over two hours Stena Lines had ferried us across the Irish Sea back to Cairnryan, Scotland.  We spent the 2-hour ride in the TV lounge watching “Oblivion” starring Tom Cruise.  After 6 months of no television, a movie appealed to us as a novel diversion to pass the time.  So, along with the rough-and-tumble trucker crowd, we were entertained by the movie and in no time at all were pulling into port.  We felt very happy to be back in Scotland and were eagerly looking forward to some great Scottish ambience in Edinburgh. 
My Ulster blood is my most priceless heritage.” James Buchanan, 15th President of the United States