Wednesday, October 31, 2012



As our motor coach sped through the English countryside, we took note of two things, (1) speed cameras to catch the unaware speeder, and (2) fields of beautiful yellow flowers.  We learned that the flowers are rapeseed which we know today as canola.  When Henry VIII broke off relations with the Pope, the Catholic countries of southern Europe, especially Spain and Portugal,  cut off England's supplies of olive oil.  Henry's solution was to order the British to begin planting rapeseed, a rich source of vegetable oil as a substitute.  Today, it is used for biofuels, animal feed and nutritious vegetable oil.   We don't like the name rapeseed, although the word actually comes from the Latin rapa which means "turnip".  Instead canola is deemed a more politically correct word, but it is actually an acronym coined by plant researchers--CAN O L-A which stands for Canadian oilseed, low acid. 


No visit to England is complete without seeing William Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon.  We always knew that Avon is the river there, but we didn't know that Avon was actually the old English word for "river". Thus Avon River is really "river-river".  There are six different Avon Rivers (actually Rivers Avon) in England--in Devon, Warwickshire, Hampshire, Bristol, Hampshire again, and Evesham, plus three more in Scotland and another in Wales. 

We crossed the Avon into Stratford where our first stop was Anne Hathaway's cottage with its thatched roof.  We didn't spend a lot of time there other than taking the group picture with our tour guide.  Anne Hathaway was a cougar--or was it a coyote?  Whatever the case, Anne was 26 and pregnant when she and the 18 year old William Shakespeare got married in 1582.  Does that tell you something?  Their first child, born a few months later was Susanna, and not too long after, they had twins, a son, Hamnet (not Hamlet) and daughter Judith.  Little Hamnet died at age 11, most likely from bubonic plague which was rampant in England at that time.

From Anne's standpoint, marriage was crucial.  In those days, women couldn't hold occupations except as domestics or nuns, and convents were on the way out after Henry VIII.  Single women, called "spinsters", generally had to be supported by their male relatives and were often accused of witchcraft.   For Anne, by age 26, time was definitely running short.  The Shakespeares were prominent in town, and under the circumstances, a quick marriage was necessary to avoid embarrassment. 

Shakespeare's father, John was a glover, and his shop was in the house.  To learn his trade, he had to serve a seven year apprenticeship.  But he had another racket going.  He got himself appointed the official ale taster.  Somebody had to do it, so he volunteered.  He parlayed that into getting elected mayor of Stratford.

We visited the little house and shop where Shakespeare was born.  They still have the bed in which he was born back in 1564, and it is made up the way his mother would have liked it.   After this short tour, we walked out to the garden where actors in period dress acted out and recited the words of the Bard who created more words in the English language than any other individual.  We spent the rest of our time obambulating around the rest of downtown Stratford. 

In Shakespeare's time, Stratford was a market town and it still is.  It burned down in Tudor times and was rebuilt.  Most of the buildings are from (the first) Queen Elizabeth's time in the Tudor style built with half timbers.  Anne and William lived in the house with Shakespeare's parents, and Anne remained there even after William went to London and became successful.  Despite being married to one of the greatest writers in world history, Anne was illiterate.  Maybe that was a good thing, because she couldn't read the savage attacks written by Shakespeare's critics. 

Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23, 1616.  The Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes died on the same day (in a different city).   April 23rd is now celebrated by the U.N. as World Book Day to honor the two writers.  While it appears to be a great coincidence, and I hate to burst their bubble, but they didn't really die on the same day because Spain at that time used the Gregorian calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory in 1582, while England still used the Julian calendar.

England didn't switch to the Gregorian until 1752 when it eliminated 11 days in September.  When Sweden and Finland switched over in 1712, they worked in a double leap year day--February 30, 1712.  Russia didn't switch over to the Gregorian until 1918, China in 1929, and some others like Saudi Arabia still haven't adopted it.  Getting back to Shakespeare, he actually died about 10 days later, in May, if they had used the Gregorian calendar then.  For what its worth, the English poet William Wordsworth also died on April 23rd, but about 200 years later.  A better coincidence would be that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died July 4, 1826.   Better yet, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on the same day, February 12, 1809, although the news media of the time made no mention of it.

Shakespeare is said to be buried in an 11 foot deep grave.  At that time graves were routinely exhumed every 3 years or so and people's remains used for religious or research purposes or even for fertilizer.  But not 11 foot graves.  Shakespeare had this fear of his corpse being dug up, and so for good measure, he had a curse engraved on his tomb at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford warning gravediggers, "and curst be he that moves my bones".    His anxiety about this exceeded even the fear of death itself, and references to this are found in 16 or his 37 plays including Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Richard III.  I'm not making this up, but last year paleontologists sought permission to exhume Shakespeare's body to determine if he smoked pot--they thought maybe that was the source of his genius.   They were turned down.  All's Well that Ends Well. 

We ate lunch at the nearby Garrick Pub.  There is a Garrick theater in Chicago.  We suspected there was a connection, but weren't sure what.  It turned out David Garrick was a famous Shakespearean actor in the 1700's. 

A big fan of Shakespeare was King James I, whom you'll recall was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.  He was King James VI of Scotland and essentially united the two countries.  During his reign, he was best known for commissioning a rewrite of the Bible and founding the Jamestown settlement.  A fun (?) fact about James I is that he reportedly never took a bath in his whole life.  Even Louis XIV of France, who ruled for about 72 years, took at least 3.  And the City of Bath wasn't that far away.

But around the same time, maybe on the recommendation of the King's courtiers, Parliament passed a law requiring everyone to take at least one bath per year (whether they needed it or not).  People generally did so in the Spring.  In fact, that is why traditionally weddings have been held in June--the people were cleaner.


Blenheim (pronounced BLEN-em) Palace is most famous today as the birthplace of the great British leader Winston Churchill.  The palace has been in the Churchill family for over 300 years, beginning with John Churchill, a British military commander during the War of Spanish Succession. When he defeated the Austrians and French (there they go again!) at the Battle of Blenheim on the Danube River, he became a national hero.  His wife, Sarah, a headstrong woman, was Queen Anne's best friend and confidant.  In 1702, the Queen rewarded him with a dukedom, land and money to build a palace.  Thus, John Churchill became the first Duke of Marlborough.  The Marlboroughs later had a falling out with the Queen and were forced into exile on the Continent when the Queen shut off the  money, but they returned in 1714 right after Queen Anne died.

The construction of the  palace was a source of constant intrigue. The Duchess wanted Christopher Wren to build it, but the Duke prevailed with his friend John Vanbrugh.  The Duke was away fighting battles for most of the construction, leaving the Duchess in charge.  Queen Anne and England wanted a fitting monument to the Duke, while the Duchess wanted a comfortable house.  The two objectives were not necessarily compatible.  The Marlboroughs were at the mercy of the Queen and Parliament controlling the purse strings, and the architect wanted to build a grandiose palace.  The unsurprising result was severe cost overruns.  Ultimately, the Marlboroughs completed the project with their own money, and the family has lived there ever since, though not always smoothly.  The project destroyed the architect Vanbrugh's reputation and he was never given any government business after that. 

The various Dukes of Marlborough over the years were by and large spendthrifts, and by the late 1800's, the future of the family estate was in dire straits.  Priceless paintings and other assets had to be sold off, but even that was insufficient to settle the debts.  Charles, the Ninth Duke of Marlborough neatly solved the problem soon after he inherited the estate in 1892.  The social dictates of the era prohibited him from working and earning money, so he did the next best thing--he married it.  The lucky lady, if you could call her that, was Consuelo Vanderbilt whose family owned the New York Central Railroad.  The loveless marriage went forward after lengthy negotiations with her divorced parents.  Her father, William Vanderbilt finally coughed up about $2.5 million to make his daughter a duchess.  The couple divorced in 1921. 

Although Marlborough was a direct ancestor of Winston Churchill, neither Winston nor his father held the title of duke.  The reason was the primogeniture system in which titles and inheritances are passed to the eldest son.  The system actually made some sense because it kept estates intact despite its inherent unfairness to the younger kids.   In the 18th and 19th Century, the younger siblings would go to America to make their fortunes or enter the clergy.  The girls would be married off to noblemen. 

We noticed that Winston Churchill's full name was Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.  I asked the guide if Churchill was related to Princess Diana (Spencer), and indeed he was.  When the first Duke died, his only surviving child was a girl, Henrietta.  She married a Spencer. 

The current occupant of the palace is the 11th Duke of Marlborough, John George Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill who, of course is a cousin of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill as well as the Vanderbilts. 

Blenheim Palace is an enormous building surrounded by manicured hedges, 300 year old trees, a lake, fountains and statues of Greek gods.   In 1987, UNESCO designated the palace as a World Heritage Site.  The admission fee is about 35 bucks.

During our visit, the British Mercedes Benz Club held a car show on the grounds, and I enjoyed walking among the vintage autos of the 1960's.  This was personal for me; as a teenager, I learned to drive a standard shift on a 190-SL sports car.  I saw several at the show as well as the gull-wing 300-SL's of the same era. 

We drove through the rolling hills of the Cotswolds (from Old English for "God's high open land") in Southwest England, and observed flocks of sheep peacefully grazing.  This area was designated an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" (AONB)--they really have such a designation!  What beautiful country!

We stopped for a delicious lunch of broccoli and Stilton soup at the Woodstock Arms in nearby Woodstock, Oxfordshire.  After lunch, we had an hour or so to walk the streets which have quite a few antique stores.  In England, the antiques are considerably older than those in the U.S.  I made the acquaintance of a nattily dressed fellow named John who was decked out in a green and  black plaid suit and tie.  He may have been a walking billboard for one of the shops, but he attracted my attention, and we exchanged pleasantries and took my picture.  We went to a craft fair at the old town hall which was noteworthy for the tapestries on the wall depicting events in medieval British history. 


On the way to London we visited Windsor, famous as the site of the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.  It is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II although she wasn't home when we arrived.  We visited her State apartments decked with priceless oil paintings from the Royal Collection which includes more VanDycks than anywhere else in the world.  What we didn't see were her bedroom, her TV set, closets and shoes.  This place is huge and employs over 500 people.  The dining room comfortably seats 66 people at the table. 

The castle is built in the motte and bailey style.  A motte is an earthen artificial hill and a bailey is the courtyard surrounding it.   Atop the motte is a keep, a stone structure.   This was a state of the art fortification in the 12th and 13th Centuries, and the Norman castles throughout England had these features. 

Windsor Castle was originally built by William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy who later became known as William the Conqueror, as history was kind to him.  The Normans were a Viking tribe, who when they weren't raping and pillaging, were farmers and builders.  They settled in Normandy in France in the 8th Century.  The "Nor" in their names indicated that they were from the North.  This area around Rouen was surrendered to the Normans in the year 911 by the French king Charles the Simple--history wasn't as kind to him!  He called 911, but the line was busy.

William was one of several claimants to the English crown.  He was related to the Anglo-Saxon king, the childless Edward the Confessor and became upset when Edward designated the powerful English earl Harold Godwinson as the next king.  William was a man of action;  he raised an army, crossed the Channel and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 at which Harold was killed. 

William was illiterate and didn't speak English (neither did George I), but he had a major impact on the development of the English language.  He brought in skilled Norman administrators and established a justice system.  The language of the courts was French which developed side by side with English.  The net result is in today's English, we have synonyms, essentially two words for almost everything--the Saxon word and the French word.  e.g. big, large


The Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle is a sight to behold.   The Marching Band of the Welsh Guards, elegantly dressed in red uniforms with black fur hats marches in from the Victoria Barracks through the arched gate, to the Quadrangle playing To Anachreon in Heaven, a familiar tune to most Americans.  The music was written in the 1750's by an Englishman, John Stafford Smith, but new words were given to the tune by the American poet Francis Scott Key in 1814.  We heard the instrumental version.  Many of these soldiers had recently served in Afghanistan where the fur hats were probably impractical. 


Queen Mary (the Queen, not the ship) was the wife of King George V.  In the early 1920's, she built her dollhouse at the suggestion of her cousin, Princess Marie Louise who was well connected to the prominent artists and craftsmen of the time.  She persuaded the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to draw up plans and construct the house, which took a couple years to complete.  The result was an instant tourist attraction, first exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924-25.

Everything is obviously in miniature (one inch to one foot) but the amazing thing is that the fixtures actually work.  For example, the dollhouse has working plumbing--running water through tiny pipes with even a flushable toilet.  I'm not sure that's such a good idea, but apparently there haven't been any problems. 
The tiny electrical fixtures work.  The carpeting and curtains are copies of the real stuff.

In the library are tiny books which are actually written and bound in that size.  The Queen talked prominent authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham to contribute their works in miniature.  George Bernard Shaw told her to take a hike.  She even got famous painters to provide miniature pictures. 


The magnificent 15th Century Gothic St. George's Chapel, named after the patron saint of England is the chapel of the Order of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry in the U.K.   It dates back to 1348.  A who's who of English royalty is buried there, including Henry VIII, and one of his wives, Jane Seymour, as well as the beheaded Charles I, Edward IV and VII, and George III through VI.

The Order of the Garter is bestowed mostly on British and other Commonwealth subjects, mostly nobles, although it includes former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher) and Sir John Major.  At any given time, it is limited to 24 members not including "supernumerary" lords and ladies such as members of the British Royal Family and some foreign monarchs (none American).  The members are chosen solely by the British monarch.

The Order was created by Edward III, who got his chivalrous reputation when he allegedly covered up a medieval wardrobe malfunction.    As the story goes, the Countess of Salisbury was dancing at a court ball in Calais, and her garter slipped off her leg.  In the commotion, the King picked it up and handed it to her exclaiming "honi soit qui mal y pense" (shamed be the person who thinks evil of it) which is the motto of the Order.  So there you have it!.  The motto is inscribed in the Chapel.   There are other competing theories about the origin, but as far as I'm concerned, that's the best and most popular explanation.


We stayed two nights in the grand old Randolph Hotel in Oxford across from the Ashmolean Museum on one side and Oxford University along Magdalen Street on the other.  In the unique British pronunciations, Magdalen is pronounced MAUD-len.     College towns are dynamic and bohemian with numerous cultural opportunities, and Oxford is no exception. 

Oxford University was begun in 1167, but is not the oldest in Europe.  We visited Jesus College, New College and Trinity College.  New College was so named because it was "new" when it was founded in the 1300's.  In all, Oxford has 38 different colleges all under the umbrella of Oxford University.  The final exams are given by the University.  Each of the colleges has a separate endowment and separate sports teams.  Students at the different colleges often separately study the same curriculum such as law and medicine.

To be accepted into the University, a student must get accepted into the individual college.  A tutor from the individual college interviews prospective students for that college.  We learned about some of the famous alumni, often with portraits in the main halls--Lawrence of Arabia at Jesus College; Richard Burton at Trinity College.  Harry Potter movies were filmed at the main hall at Jesus College.


The awe-inspiring Bodleian Library at Oxford was founded in the 1300's.  It was re-created in its present form by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602.  Oxford scholars refer to it as "the Bod".  This is the English equivalent of the Library of Congress in that it was established by Parliament as one of six Legal Deposit Libraries for all works published in the United Kingdom.  It is a reference library, so you can't check out books.

This library is huge, encompassing several buildings at Oxford, not to mention sites outside Oxford and even an abandoned salt mine in Cheshire.  All told, it has 11 million items on 117 miles of shelving.

Some of the better known items in the Bodleian collection include 4 copies of the Magna Charta, the Song of Roland, a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare's First Folio, and its oldest manuscript, the Huntington MS-17, which is the complete text of the Four Gospels in Coptic.  We didn't get inside to see these things, but I don't read much Coptic anyway.  To get inside, they make you sign a pledge not to take, deface or injure in any way, any of the materials, and not to bring in any fire or flame or smoking materials--well you've got the idea.  Sir Walter Raleigh would have had a hard time gaining entry--there's no smoking section.


We devoted a rainy afternoon exploring the Ashmolean Museum which is housed in a Greek Revival building built in 1677.  It was built to house the collection of the oddly named Elias Ashmole, a hoarder who would hit the antique stores of his day.   His collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, plants and stuffed animals.  He even had a stuffed dodo bird which became so decomposed that it had to be destroyed except for the head and beak.

The museum was totally remodeled and re-opened in 2011 to exhibit a large collection of Egyptian and Green artifacts.


The iconic Stonehenge was constructed by the ancient Druids (we think!) on Salisbury Plain between 4000 and 10,000 years ago, depending on whom you talk to.  The best guess is about 3100 B.C., based on carbon dating of human remains in the area.  This remarkable place attracts new-agers from all over the world.  Neo-paganist folks dress up in ancient druid costumes and camp out nearby.  The authorities have had to control access, and tourists are no longer allowed to walk up to the structure.  It is roped off, maybe in response to the Chevy Chase movie European Vacation.  In that movie Chase backed his car into it and knocked down the huge stones like dominoes.  We looked at it fairly closely, and those stones are dug deep into the ground and they're not going anywhere.

Stonehenge is not the only neolithic stone complex in the area.  Even bigger, and free, but about 1000 years newer is the nearby Avebury henge, 25 miles North, but we didn't have time to visit it.

Stonehenge is a circular setting of large standing stones set within earthworks.  These stones weigh many tons each and were moved here from quarries miles away.  We're not sure how they moved them; the builders left no written records.  Modern archaeologists speculate about its function--astronomical observatory, religious worship, human sacrifice, you name it.  There is evidence that it may have been a site of pilgrimage from other countries, based on the study of the many burial sites in the area.  Whatever the case, we've seen it now, and we can cross it off our list.


Finally, a note about our favorite nursery rhymes, most of which had political meaning in medieval England.  the origins of these rhymes are murky.  For example, "Baa baa Black Sheep, have you any wool"  refers either to a complaint about the English tax on wool in the 13th Century or perhaps about the slave trade.  In the 20th Century, the forces of political correctness  have attacked this nursery rhyme. 

Humpty Dumpty may refer to the humpbacked Richard III who was defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485.  Ring Around the Rosy may refer to the bubonic plague.  Ashes, ashes..., of course refers to the cremated people who died from the Black Death. 

Mary, Mary quite contrary, How does your garden about either Mary Queen of Scots who was attempting to reinstate Catholicism after the reformation of Henry VIII, or it was about Mary I of England who was unable to produce heirs to the throne.   We'll leave it to the serious scholars to decide.


Thursday, October 11, 2012



As our motor coach drove South out of Scotland through the fields of purple heather, we discussed the different tartans which have come to be associated with each of the many Scottish clans.  My wife, Dianne, is a MacDuff, so she has a special interest in the subject.  We found no particular significance in the colors they have chosen.  In fact, the dominant color of the tartan was most likely chosen because of the availability, in their area, of the plants from which that color is derived.

The tartan (the American word is plaid) is a pattern called a sett, consisting of criss-crossed horizontal and vertical bands in multiple colors.  Tartan comes from the French word tiretain which refers to the woven cloth. The American word plaid comes from the Gaelic word plaide which means blanket. 

The use of tartans took off when Parliament passed the Dress Act of 1746 banning the tartan and other aspects of Gaelic culture.  As we often experience today, banning something often makes it more valuable.  The law was repealed in 1782, but the damage was done to the point that the Scots wore the tartans with honor.  At that time, the different tartans were associated with areas of Scotland rather than with specific clans.  Clans did not begin adopting their own distinctive tartans until the middle of the 19th Century.


The revival of tartan dress as we know it today was inspired by King George IV when he visited Scotland at the invitation of Sir Walter Scott.  George IV, the son of George Washington's nemesis, George III, inspired many new fashions, surprising, considering that he was extremely obese.  On his visit to Scotland, he had a tartan kilt made for him.  Whether he looked ridiculous or not, there is no record, but most likely, his minions kept their opinions to themselves.  In any event, he was the King, and people wanted to imitate him.

The political opponents of George IV instituted a tax on wig powder.  In response, George IV abandoned his wig in favor of his natural hair.  He wore dark colors and trousers to disguise his girth.  Also, he made popular a high collar with a neck cloth to hide his double chins.

George IV left his mark in other matters of style and taste, originating the Regency style in London.  He hired architect John Nash to design the fashionable Regents Park and Regent Street in London, as well as the Royal Pavilion in Brighton and the remodeling of Buckingham Palace.  Like the song, Nash could see clearly where his future success lay--working with the King.


Stretching 74 miles across England from coast to coast, this 15 foot high wall was built by the Roman Emperor Hadrian in the year 125, ostensibly to keep out the warlike Picts, the so-called "painted people" who were the fierce ancestors of the Scots.  They would yell, "Yo Hadrian!", and the Romans, frustrated with their guerrilla warfare called them barbarians.

Many scholars don't accept that as the reason for the wall.  They believe that the wall was built to prevent smuggling, to collect taxes from trade and control movement and immigration.  An alternate theory is that it was built to keep the troops occupied, working on a public works project meant to display the power of Rome.

Today the stone wall is only about 4 feet high, above ground.  Most of the original wall is buried.  Many parts of the wall have been removed over the years, as the stones were used for building houses and monasteries.   The actual border with Scotland is several miles North.  There is a hot dog stand directly on the border with a Scots flag on one side and an English one on the other.  The Union Jack is essentially a combination of the two flags. 

The border country between Scotland and England has some interesting history.  Going back to medieval times, Scots law had a lower age of consent than that of England, and (very) young English couples would travel there to get married.  .  The Scottish village of Gretna Green, hard by the English border, has been called the Las Vegas of England, not for its gambling, but for its main industry--weddings.  One in six Scottish weddings is performed there.  The rules for who can perform a wedding are relaxed there, and many have been traditionally performed by blacksmiths.  These are called "anvil weddings."


We visited the Lakes District of England, staying two nights in the Langdale Hotel near Ambleside.  Some of the nearby towns in this Cumbria area are Bowness, Windermere (mere means lake) and Cocklemouth.  The town of Bowness on Windermere, a fishing village, was the home of Beatrix Potter, the creator of the  children's story, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, which is popular all over the world.  The exception may be Australia where they have a serious rabbit problem because the English, after 5 attempts to introduce the rabbit there finally got the animals to thrive.  The Aussies cheer for the evil Mr. MacGregor, the Elmer Fudd of his generation.

Beatrix Potter has an interesting history herself.  She came to the Lakes District to get away from her wealthy, domineering parents who kept her on a short leash financially.  As a young girl, she kept many small pets who became characters in her stories.  She had no formal education.  She  was raised and educated by three governesses and grew close to their children.  Growing up, she read many books and enjoyed drawing plants, animals and landscapes.   She longed to be independent of her parents and earn her own way.  Ms. Potter vacationed in the Lakes District and purchased a farm there.  She often wrote to the children, creating animal stories including her rich illustrations.  These letters became part of the historical record. 

One of them was the "bunny story" of the 4 little rabbits, Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail and Peter which became The Tale of Peter Rabbit which, of course, was her most famous, although she wrote 28 children's books in all.   Her realistic illustrations of plants and animals drew critical renown in the scientific community.  Her other passion was raising Herdwick sheep which are indiginous to the area.  The sheep are very hardy--they thrive on steep hillsides and in bad weather.  They don't have a lot of offspring either, which may be a good thing.  When Ms. Potter died in 1943, she willed her 4000 acre estate along with several thousand Herdwick sheep to the National Trust which was left with the job of managing them, which they do to this day.    Most of her land is now part of the Lakes District National Park. 

In Bowness, we visited two stores carrying Beatrix Potter souvenirs.  One was a children's paradise with books, dolls and toys with the Beatrix Potter characters.  The other carried many different kinds of candy for the adult audience.  For example, "jelly boobs" candy carried a picture of a voluptuous young lady on the package.  I didn't taste any.

The Lakes District is a popular vacation spot for the English people.  It attracts 11 million visitors a year, which is much more than Yellowstone Park, as an example.  Apparently the rain doesn't bother the British--this area gets 88 inches of rain per year, on the average--about twice the amount Chicago gets.  The day we visited was no exception; it rained all day.


We arrived in the nearby town of Grasmere just in time for the Grasmere Festival.  The highlight is the Senior Guides Race in which several hundred "fell runners" as they are called, race up and down nearby Breckenfell Mountain and back down.  This mountain is about 1000 feet high.  The race has been run since 1868.  If a runner can beat the record of 12 minutes and 21.6 seconds, he gets a prize of 500 English pounds.  The prize is safe again this year as it has been since the record was set in 1978.  You can actually come down much faster, but the rules say you must stay on your feet.

Grasmere is also famous for being the home of the poet William Wordsworth.  I visited Dove Cottage, Wordsworth's home.  His story is noteworthy.  He hung out with guys like Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Rime of the Ancient Mariner) and Robert Southey (poet laureate, biographies of John Wesley, Oliver Cromwell, John Bunyan and Horatio Nelson).  They are known as the "Lake Poets".  These guys did some crazy stuff.  They participated in some apparently hilarious experiments with nitrous oxide (laughing gas) under the supervision of the famous scientist Sir Humphry Davy.  Modern poets don't have anything on these poets of the Romantic school.

Wordsworth's sister Dorothy Wordsworth was a prominent poet in her own right.  Wordsworth didn't like to physically write, and they didn't have word processors in 1800, so he convinced Dorothy to come live with him and his wife Mary and transcribe his poems.  She had better penmanship anyway.   Wordsworth would go walking through the countryside, composing poems in his head and come back home and dictate the poems to Dorothy, 100 lines at a time.

When Southey died, the 73 year old Wordsworth replaced him as poet laureate.  He accepted,  under the condition that he not be required to write unless he was sufficiently inspired.    Well he wasn't and he didn't.  However, he did collect his annual stipend and other benefits until his death at age 80. 


Our journey continued on to another historic house, Levens Hall, representative of the Elizabethan Era, though dating back to the 1100's.  For the past 700 years, it has been owned by members of the Bagot family and is now owned by Hal Bagot.  This is an example of a family struggling to maintain a huge house and grounds, so they have opened it to the public, charging admission.   Two docents showed our tour group around the house and grounds.  Ours was a peoper English lady named Jillian with a lovely English accent which reminded me of the famous food guru, Julia Grown-Up. 

The walls of the house are adorned with original paintings by artists like Rubens (yes, THAT Rubens).  The Bagots make their own beer, Morocco Ale which was enjoyed by many of us.  They also have a collection of antique steam engines and roll out a 19th Century working steam engine called "Bertha".

Levens Hall is dripping with history.  It was built in the late 1200's although the land was given by charter from William de Lancaster in 1170 to Norman de Hieland (later known as Redman) , but reserving for himself  "the fishing, hawking and hunting of buck and doe, boar and sow".    The charter is displayed in the house though it is difficult to read in the dim light.  The Redmans lived there until they sold the house to Sir Alan Bellingham in 1562 although he couldn't get possession until Dorothy, the widow of Sir Richard Redman III died in 1578.  Unfortunately, Sir Alan didn't live that long, but his son, James Bellingham inherited the house and rehabbed it, carving his initials and coat of arms, as well as that of Queen Elizabeth I all over the house.

His great-grandson Alan was a degenerate gambler, and in 1689, he was forced to sell the house to his cousin, Colonel James Grahme for, basically a 2300 pound gambling debt.  The tradition handed down was that the winning (or losing) card was the ace of hearts, and in fact, the downspouts on the house are decorated with the ace of hearts and the initials of James and Dorothy Grahme.

Among other notables living in the house was Sir Chrles Bagot who was appointed governor of Canada (by George IV) and was the author of the Rush-Bagot Treaty, establishing most of the border between the U.S. and Canada.

Levens Hall is renowned for its topiary garden, one of the finest in England, with beautifully sculptured trees and shrubs, many of them 30 feet or higher.  The garden was designed in 1694 by Guillaume Beaumont, a French Hugenot, and it has changed little since then.  A shrub shaped in the form of a baby elephant had the Union Jack stuck in its trunk.  We walked through the garden with our umbrellas open, but the gentle rain seemed appropriate for the occasion, as it nourished the lush vegetation.   Obviously this garden required much hands-on tender loving care. 


At the gateway to Wales, we entered the walls of the old Roman town of Chester.  This walled city was built about 2000 years ago.  Today it has a population of about 120,000.  The Roman wall is about 20 feet high and has a walkway on the top.  We walked on it past the spectacular Chester Cathedral, and also the famous Eastgate Clock which is the second most photographed clock in England--Big Ben is first. The cathedral has a foundation dating back to 907, in Saxon times.  It was restored in 1057 by the Earl of Mercia and Lady Godiva who later became famous for her antics in Coventry.  The cathedral as it stands today was rebuilt in 1250.  Henry VIII was enamored of it and spared it from destruction.

Chester is unique in that it still has a Town Crier, who every day at Noon, rings the bell and announces that all is well.  This 60ish gentleman is about 6'8", decked out in a red uniform and has a voice like a foghorn.  Crowds of people gather around the square approaching Noon, waiting for him, and they are not disappointed.  He can be described as the British Don Rickles, insulting people from foreign countries.  He asks the crowd if there are an Australians, for example, or Americans.  I answered, and he motioned for me to come forward.  I shook his hand and posed for a photograph.  He told me to identify myself to the crowd, and I did.  "I'm from Chicago, you got a problem with that!"

We had a few hours to spend in Chester.  We ate lunch and visited the Roman ruins and amphitheater for which Chester is famous.  In its heyday, the amphitheater could seat over 8000 people.  Today there are stripes indicating where the seats were located.  The statues of the Roman gods still stand.


Our motorcoach continued on narrow roads in Wales where they speak a different language, Welsh.  Wales is called Cymru in the Welsh language.  Back in 1901, The British attempted to eradicate the Welsh language.  The Welsh are fiercely independent, and in recent years, Welsh has made a comeback with a vengeance.  All the signs and brochures are in English and Welsh.

The Welsh language is nothing like English.  The alphabet is generally similar but is has an unusual proliferation of double letter combinations.  For example dd is pronounced like "th" as in "the".  The double LL is pronounced like the guttural "ch".  Also w is a vowel pronounced like "oo".   Many of the place names have the word llan in them.  Llan means "field" in Welsh. 

There is a town in North Wales called Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which means "Mary's Church by the white hazel pool, near the fierce whirlpool with the Church of Tysilio by the Red Cave". The town is famous for having the longest name in Europe.  It has a railroad station with the name on the sign, and it attracts many tourists. 

We often visit roadside attractions in the U.S. like the Spam Museum and the Biggest Ball of Twine, and I really wanted to visit this town.  We were only about 10 miles away, but it was not on our tour, and the bus driver would not take us there.  This town actually had a more conventional name--Llanfairpwllgwyngyll, but in the early 19th Century, the city fathers renamed it in the hopes of attracting tourists.    It is heavily promoted by James Pringle Weavers which operates a restaurant and shopping center there, selling souvenirs.  What surprised me is that both our Scottish bus driver and our American tour guide were familiar with the town and able to pronounce it. 


Our hotel for the next two days in Wales was Portmeirion, the Welsh version of Disneyland.   It is built on the coast of North Wales, next to a tidal estuary which is dry for half the day and you can walk across the sand until the tide comes in.  However, if you're caught there with the tide coming in, you're in big trouble.  The tides are about 25 feet--comparable to the Bay of Fundy in Canada.  They post signs all over the park
telling you what time the tide comes in.  By then, you'd better head for the high country.

Portmeirion was created by an environmentalist architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), and is best described as a "folly".  He acquired the land in 1925 and built this on his own private peninsula with the intention that architectural good manners could also be good business.  In effect, he created his own little playground.  The best comparison I can give is a boy playing with his electric train set, constantly moving around the props, changing the landscape.   The difference is that Sir Clough did this on a giant scale, and he apparently had the money to indulge his fantasies.  Many of the buildings can be described as Potemkin Village style, with elaborate facades and no buildings behind them.  Sir Clough salvaged buildings from demolition and moved them to his estate.   He designed some of the buildings himself. 

Early in his career, he befriended Arthur Tauck, the creator of Tauck Tours, and to this day, Tauck tours of the British Isles always include overnight stays in Portmeirion.


Caernafon Castle is a World Heritage Site, built in about 1283 by Edward I, who came back from the Crusades and found himself King of England when he learned that his father Henry III died.  Edward who was called "Longshanks" was a very tall (6'2") and intimidating man, and he threw his weight around.  Both before and after becoming King, he was almost constantly fighting with somebody.  Edward was so unpredictable that his father thought he was planning a coup d' etat.  First he put down the rebellion of the English barons led by Simon de Montfort.  After defeating the barons, Edward was encouraged to go off on a crusade to the Holy Land where he accomplished little or nothing of substance.  On his return he fought the Welsh in two wars.  After that it was the Scots (remember Braveheart).  He even found time in 1290 to issue the Edict of Expulsion (expelling the Jews).  He had already exploited them so much to fund his wars that they just weren't useful to him anymore.  That Edict wasn't overturned until 1655 under Cromwell's reign. 

He built Caernafon Castle along with two others to solidify English control over the rebellious Welsh.  Edward lived in the castle and his son Edward II was born there in 1284.  Edward was created Prince of Wales in 1301 to begin the tradition that that title is held by the eldest son of the monarch, which it is to this day.  For several hundred years, the English and Welsh were often at war with each other, and this heavily fortified castle was in the center of the action.  One medieval innovation was the "arrow slits" in the walls by which bowmen could shoot their arrows through these narrow slits without fear of being hit by the enemy. 

In the surrounding city of Caernafon, in the County of Gwynedd, we went window shopping and stopped for fish and chips at an interesting inn with the politically incorrect name of Black Boy Inn. In recent times, they may have been a little sensitive about the name, and the inn has an alternative name, the Black Buoy Inn with a picture of a boat and a buoy.  However, the restaurant has a sign and a brochure explaining that the name Black Boy dates back to Cromwellian times in the 1600's when there weren't a lot of Black people in England.  The name refers to the heir to the throne, the future Charles II.  Those were difficult times, and people didn't want to mention the young man's name because Cromwell had spies lurking.  The story here was that the young Charles was given the pet name by his mother, Henrietta Maria who was part Spanish and part French.  He was said to have a swarthy complexion, and his mother referred to him as "my beautiful Black Boy".  Be that as it may, the logo for the Black Boy Inn has a picture of a Black man.

Nearby is Mt. Snowdon, the highest point in Wales and England at 3560 feet.  It is located in the Snowdonia National Park.  The town of Llanberis is a major tourist attraction, especially for hikers planning to climb the mountain on the trail which begins there.   We saw beautiful scenery as our bus traversed the narrow Welsh roads which are not wide enough to accommodate two commercial vehicles.  If we encountered another bus or truck coming toward us, either we or they would have to back up and find a place to pull off the road.  Fortunately, most British drivers are courteous.  Some actually got our of their cars to direct traffic, and that is a common sight.


The ancient city of Bath was built by the Romans almost 2000 years ago around the hot springs.  Julius Caesar visited the place at least twice with his pal Brutus.  The name of the city is pronounced with a short a like "bahth" rather than rhyming with "math".  The Romans built an impressive temple around the baths and took baths there, but not showers--otherwise the city might be called "Shower".  But it's not.  The water flows from the spring at a temperature of 46C, which is about 115F.  If you're sitting in it, you might want to drink some McDonald's coffee to cool off.       

In recent years, the English created a museum around the ancient buildings to display Roman artifacts.  As far as I could tell, tourists are not allowed to bathe there although several nearby hotels have spas. 

We stayed at the MacDonald Hotel & Spa which is part of a luxury hotel chain mainly in the U.K. although they also have one in Dubai.  The hotel is beautiful and expensive, especially the drinks.  It was about $14 for a vodka and tonic.  We were disappointed with the hotel for a couple of reasons.  First, we had 3 phones in the room (good), but none worked (bad).  We contacted the front desk, but they couldn't repair them.  Also, there are no clocks in the rooms.  Even in Las Vegas where there are no clocks in the casinos, they have them in the rooms.   We needed a wake up call, and the first morning, the bellman knocked on our door, waking us up.  The second morning he didn't show up. 
Luckily for us, we could hear doors closing down the hall which woke us up. 

Besides the Roman baths, there is much to see in Bath.  They gave us a street map of the city, so we could get fully immersed in Bath.  We ambled over to the Fashion Museum which had a large feature exhibit of costumes worn by actors and actresses who had portrayed British monarchs.  We've seen many of them in Hollywood movies.  That exhibit was free.   We paid about 10 bucks to see Twentieth Century fashions, and we probably should have passed on that. 


We ate lunch at Sally Lunn's Buns, a famous restaurant located in the oldest building in Bath other than the Roman baths.  It was built in 1499.  The callipygous Sally, whose real name was Solange Luyon, was a French Hugenot who had to flee France.  She came to town around 1680 with a recipe for sticky buns, and people still eat them today.  We each ate one, and I would compare it to Texas Toast.  Aside from Sally's buns, the rest of the food was just average.  I had Welsh Rarebit, a cheese concoction on toast, and I won't order it again.  The creamy vegetable soup was good though.


Bath was the home of Jane Austen, the English romantic novelist who died in 1817 at age 42.  She wrote books such as Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility and Mansfield Park, and is one of the
most widely read English novelists.  We don't have much biographical information about her.  She wrote many letters to her sister Cassandra who burned almost all of them.  Her father was a prominent minister, and her childhood home had a library with many books.  She was encouraged by her family to read and write, and she did so voraciously. 

All over the world are Jane Austen Societies.  Several movies have been made about her like my favorite, the 2007 movie Jane Austen Book Club starring Amy Brenneman, Kathy Baker and Jimmy Smits.  The "book club" discusses Jane Austen's novels and tries to ascertain what she was thinking when she wrote them.  If she came back today and I interviewed her, she would probably say she wasn't thinking about anything.  It's a "chick movie" but I enjoyed it.

We visited the Austen house which has a gift shop, a costumed coachman and a colorful statue of Jane Austen in front.   We were in a hurry to see the William Herschel Museum and did not tour it. 


We continued walking across town to the William Herschel Astronomy Museum  located in Mr. Herschel's rowhouse.  The German-born Herschel, in case you're not aware, discovered Uranus with his homemade telescope in 1781.  He tried to name the planet after King George III, but the French and Americans took a dim view of that.  The museum has on display a replica of his telescope as well as a prominent portrait of Herschel's mother-in-law glaring down at us.  Herschel was a prolific astronomer who discovered two moons of Uranus--Titania and Oberon, as well as two moons of Saturn and infrared radiation.  He coined the word "asteroid" and discovered several.  When he wasn't discovering things, he found time to compose 24 musical symphonies.   Herschel lived there with his sister Caroline, who suffered from smallpox and didn't get out much.  However, she was a notable astronomer in her own right, discovering 8 comets and 11 nebulae and published the British Catalogue of Stars. 

Herschel's son John Herschel turned out to be a pretty bright kid himself.  He named the moons of Saturn and Uranus, went to South Africa to map the Southern skies, made significant inventions and contributions to photography (including color reproduction), and was a prominent botanist.  In his spare time, he translated Homer's Iliad and fathered 12 kids.


It wasn't on the tourist maps or anything else, but Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Famer Eddie Cochran died in Bath in 1960 at age 21.   His most famous song was Summertime Blues which has been covered by many artists over the years.  Cochran was notable because he was an influence on John Lennon and Paul McCartney.  Cochran had written a song called Twenty Flight Rock which he sang in the movie The Girl Can't Help It starring Jayne Mansfield.    I don't remember the song, but I do remember her.  She was known for two reasons, neither of which I'll discuss here.  Whatever!  Lennon invited McCartney to play with the Quarrymen (predecessor of the Beatles) when he learned that McCartney knew the chords and words to that song. 

Cochran was riding in a speeding taxi with fellow rocker Gene Vincent (Black Slacks) through the nearby town of Chippenham when it blew a tire and crashed.   Cochran was rushed to St. Martin's Hospital in Bath where he died.  On the 50th anniversary of Cochran's death in 2010, the hospital re-dedicated a memorial stone commemorating him.  They also have a plaque by the chapel.  Vincent survived the crash, but his injuries permanently affected him and shortened his career.