October 2010


Bye Bye Sheep

England


We landed in Dover on June 10; over four months later, we are now back in France.  

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The entire time we were in the U.K., the sheep were our companions; we miss them already.  In a group of islands filled with inconsistencies, the sheep were always there – they varied in color, temperament, size, you name it – but around every corner.  We loved the U.K., and they were one of the reasons why.  (One does wonder, however, why we were never served mutton when we visited folks.)

We left Scotland as the weather became colder and wetter; the condensation inside the coach was almost as heavy as the puddles outside were deep.  It was the 8th of October.  We decided to make a run for the south coast of England and find a ferry to France.  Having noticed how many miles we had already covered this summer, we wanted to make it a straight shot.  But there were several jewels in the crown of England that we didn’t want to miss, so we zigged and zagged as usual.

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The first order of business was Hadrian’s Wall, at my behest, in the Northumberland Moors.  I’ve always been fascinated by this whole idea of “keeping the hordes at bay” by erecting a wall.  It has always seemed to me that if the wall has an end, well….  But we went to see it.  Pretty cool, actually; there is a very complete section that has easy access.  So I stood on it, Rick took pictures, and we explored the area, while it drizzled and misted and I felt like a Roman legionnaire on sentry duty.  We were in the middle of nowhere; at one point I had to open a gate so we could continue on our way; the gate wore a sign asking that you close it again after you pass through.  This is a very old farming area; we found it quite interesting.  Moors are great.  Almost as good as bogs.

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As we worked our way down from Scotland through England, we swung west (zig) through the Lake District, or Cumbria (a cool name).  There were lots of folks enjoying the lovely area.  Rolling hills, pretty lakes with sailboats, lots of cute villages and places to hike; what’s not to like.  We ran into some real Indian summer weather and it was quite nice.  The trees were in good color, and the air had a very different quality to it – it was definitely fall. 

Then is was into the Yorkshire dales (zag), and we really thought we’d found the best of everything.  Fewer trees and very open, broad hillsides (moors) combined with narrow valleys and charming little towns, along with far fewer people – terrific.  James Herriot country.  

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We would have been delighted to stay for a few weeks, puttering around.  A few areas were disappointingly smoky, as controlled burns of the heather on the hills was underway, but they were easily avoided.  We spent one night camped underneath a huge viaduct that is used for a scenic train that traverses the area.  We were quite unique among the hikers and walkers and children on field trips who had come to learn about the terrain.  We bought a bunch of local cheese at an open market in Hawes.  What a good time we had.  Our vote for most charming village to put on a list for a return visit was Plateley Bridge; you should try to get there.

Another night was a real adventure.  We’d been looking for a spot away from the towns, which had lots of visitors and too much going in.  Up a small road we found some open space and settled in, not far from a military training area that was not in use.  We knew that because they have lots of signs warning of the red flags on poles at the edges of the restricted areas; the flags were down, meaning no activities were underway.  We had a quiet night, but when we got up in the morning, we looked out at some birds flying past – “just above the red flag, which is now flying…” said Rick.  Well, we had a quick breakfast and beat feet down the hill again.  The soldiers, preparing for target practice, ignored us as we went by and presumably would not have been firing in our direction anyway.

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Still moving southeast, and heading toward York, we stopped near Harrowgate, at the ruins of Fountains Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  It was quite amazing; we’d never seen such complete ruins, nor one so well kept.  A beautiful spot, it should be on your list when you get to England.  

Trucking on, we swung through Richmond, with its nifty castle (closed) but terrific tower (imprisoned Richard III?) and then on to York.  York was a real highlight for us, with its Minster and easy walking access to the medieval sector. There’s a very active university population there, and in walking around it was quite apparent that Halloween was on its way; we saw some of the weirdest get-ups you could imagine, and dyed hair is all the rage this year. It’s a lovely, evocative town, and had definitely earned its status as a jewel not to be missed.

York also is home to the National Railway Museum, which was a treat.  As the guidebook suggested, it was way more than just trains (although they had a nifty collection that included Queen Victoria’s train and one of the ones used by Queen Elizabeth II).  You’ll find a few photos at www.motor-museums.com.

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I’d been wanting to see Canterbury Cathedral and Greenwich ever since we arrived in Britain, but it was not to be.  Having already made our ferry reservations, we were suddenly running out of time.  Greenwich we abandoned because Johnny Depp had taken over the place and everything was a mess.  The Canterbury Cathedral had to be content with a drive-by and a wave and a promise to return.  Sigh.  But we did trade in some books at a neat bookshop and get to Dover Castle before we left.  

Now, do remember this, please:  if you only get to one castle in England, and you want one that’s got all the things a castle should have, Dover’s the one for you.  It’s quite complete (“castles have roofs?  Who knew?”, said Rick).  It has furnishings as of the time of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine.  It has kings and queens discussing the politics of the day.  There is an exquisite late Saxon church that dates to the year 1000; it’s lovely.  There’s even an actual Roman lighthouse from around 100 A.D.  We had a great time; you can too!

We had a nice dinner in an atmospheric pub, The Old Gate Inn (est. 1728), to finish out our English adventures, then hopped a ferry for Calais.  We had left many jewels in the English crown still to be plucked, London for starters, but it was a good run, and we were already making plans for a return visit down the road.

In addition to the sheep there are many things we’ll miss about the UK.  We’ll miss the GREEN; nowhere else can possibly be as green as Britain.  We’ll miss the easy grocery shopping and the wonderful, unending array of cheddar cheese.  Now we know that the continental cheeses are a delight for many, but for us – well Rick mostly – the entire cheese constellation begins and ends with cheddar (well, granting the need for good mozzarella and parmesan for Italian dishes) and in the UK a good cheddar fix is never far away.  We’ll miss the pubs and the ready availability of fish & chips (though not the mushy peas thank you very much).  We’ll also miss the wonderful, evocative town names.  How can you not love places like Deeping St James, Sutton Stibbington, Woolsthorpe by Colsterworth, Kirkby Overblow, or good old Studley Roger.  These are not, by the way, special names we wrote down along the way, but rather just a collation gathered from a couple of pages of our trusty AA atlas.

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As for things we won’t miss, well that’s a pretty short list.  Driving on the left turned out to be pretty much of a non-starter as a worry and after awhile we even got used to the narrow lanes lined with rock walls and hedges.  Fuel and groceries are more expensive than on the continent, and Britain does not have the lovely Aires network that provides us with nice places to overnight in many countries in Europe, so finding places to park is a little harder in some areas.  And then there’s Dorcus Ubiquitous.  Dorcus is our very own mythical Roman Legionnaire who served here in Britain back in the day.  We call out his name whenever one of his many descendents cuts into our lane or stops in front of us in traffic for no apparent reason.  Actually, we needn’t fear that we will be leaving Dorcus behind.  Throughout Europe, wherever the Romans once controlled the land, we will surely meet his descendents out there sharing the roads with us.

Oh, and while we may miss cute little British girls like this one, we know they have a good supply of them in other countries as well. 

And now…ah, France!  Or Spain, or wherever we have to go to find a warm, dry climate.  

All the best from The Gang: Rick, Kathy and the kids (no sheep allowed in the coach)



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