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  The law was repealed in 1782, but the damage was done to the point that the Scots wore the tartans with honor.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.



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