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Archive for September, 2018


One of the excavation sites at Vindolanda where digging was going on

Friends and readers,

We are tonight come to the end of our tour to northern England. You’ve heard enough of moors, great lakes and mountains; poet lairs, towns and libraries, museums;  towers and, castles.  So just the central three places left: Wallington House, the “seat” of the Trevelyan family, otherwise known for their activities in Cornwall and the English court; Vindolanda, surely one of the richest sites for excavation still on-going, the name translates into white or wintry field, with Hadrian’s Wall nearby; and Durham Cathedral, our last stop before driving back to Manchester, the airport hotel, and taking that long trip home.

The reader may notice I indulge my penchant for pictures by women artists in this last blog and end on a poem in a volume put together by a poet whose work I have elsewhere much recommended, Carol Ann Duffy.


Wallington House

Thursday our penultimate day. I will remember Wallington house for its picturesque gardens, the tasteful art objects in the house, the rooms themselves got up for us as living spaces (where people played this game, or read that), paintings by family members of themselves doing things (like painting a sketch of a chapel by a mid-century female Trevelyan),


Molly Trevelyan — a self-portrait I felt touched by

the doll house room (large ones there), a vast hall downstairs with tapestries, and another with murals:


The hall itself


Three plangent scenes


The one on the far right reminds us of the human enslaved labor which made Hadrian’s Wall.

I only understood the significance of these pictures as by three Pre-Raphaelites under the direction of Pauline Lady Trevelyan and who she was when I received a reply to this blog by Jacqueline Bannerjee: see Jacqueline Bannerjee’s review of John Batchelor’s Lady Trevelyan and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.

Most of all the stories told about the last Trevelyan to own the place and live here affirm that he was a committed labor socialist and left this house and its treasures to the National Trust. Little sayings attributed to him were everywhere: generous, egalitarian, humane thoughts.


A dollhouse so large I’m sure a three year old would try to step in

The guides were unusually friendly, and one gardener made me feel I was back in Secret Garden when he took me into his confidence over how he needs more staff with him, and tales of upkeep, a little about the family. I felt closer here because of the Cornwall connection (foolish me): I knew more about the Trevelyans than our Road Scholar guides.


Wallington Greenhouse with flowers all around

The old stables at Wallington were now a cafe, the old servants’ headquarters now an extension to look at artefacts; there is another another walk by a rivulet, and a large grassy square for tents for people to visit and children to play upon

That day we were in a town where we were in an indoor farmers’, butchers’ and all sorts of objects sold marketplace; in the square a street performer. But I did not take down the names.

Vindolanda on Friday might be referred to as chef d’oeuvre of the whole tour. It’s an excavation site, living museum, once the enormous center piece or showcase of Roman Britain from the 2nd to the 7th century AD.

The standing building, once the home of Robin Birley’s family, is now a cultural and science center, restaurant and meditation (if you can find a good spot)..

While I enjoyed the film with Robin Birley as narrator telling of his life of excavation on this site, and the thrill of finding the many plaques buried deep, which turned out to (with the help of super-technologically expert machines of all sorts) to be letters from various people who lived on this site (invitations to dine, instructions, personal commentaries, lists of all sorts),


Online photo of a famous birthday invitation

and liked looking at all the artefacts (one statue looked like a cat, until I saw it was a dog) for me the most enjoyable rooms were about the earliest excavations by the family who developed the site: this was at the end of the 18th century, a clerical scholar named Eric Birley, began it: here was this man’s desk, that woman’s find. One could follow the Birleys into WW1; there was a period of neglect but in the 1960s, new interest was kindled and now the place is crawling with archeaologists, geologists, students seeking degrees, to say nothing of tourists and sometimes local people.


Online photo of the imagined fort at Vindolanda, from a western angle

I listened to two different tour guides about the life of the people and disposition of structures out on the open plain; also just watching a large crew of people.

We didn’t have that good a lecture, but I stopped and listened to a lecturer for another group. He talked of how the Romans coopted the local people: the men were offered Roman citizenship if they worked for so many years as soldiers and as soldiers they did many tasks beyond sheer military control. We were shown where people probably slept; the refectory; where when the Roman emperor came, he stayed. The Romans remained in Britain for several hundred years, mining mostly.

So it was like learning of several layers of civilization, a palimpsest you stripped piece after piece off.


Watching a group of people dig: I did this too, on another part of the middle level of the sites.

I just loved the bookstore, which was unusually rich in types of books relating to Roman Britain, the area of Northumberland, Latin itself. I bought as a present for Izzy the second volume of the Harry Potter books translated into Latin. She had the first translated into Latin! For myself a slender book with many pictures on Vindolanda. I can’t share these as my scanner no longer permits me to put anything on the glass but a single sheet, and I don’t want to cut up my books. I have succumbed to only one from Wallington (Molly Trevelyan because it touched my heart)

We drove from there to Hadrian’s Wall in two different places. At one we could look up to the top of the wall about the height of a fifth floor apartment building along one side was a stairway with no banister, nothing to hold onto and I decided I might not be up to that without a panic attack and I didn’t want to be a burden on anyone. So I went with the careful people to a second site where we came upon the wall from the back, gently up slope to its top. So I stood there with another woman and we looked down and into the distance where we could see a body of water.

These were the days that on the way back to Otterburn we took a chance, left the itinerary of Road Scholar and stopped at churches nearby. One an ancient 12th century building, still in use — it seemed to me it would be very cold in winter.

Another was built-up, looking quite comfortable within (plushy seats, heaters, handsome decors for chapels


Late Romanesque

The last two evenings at Otterburn Castle were also especially enjoyable, pleasant for me. I knew everyone by that time, was comfortable with most, could sit by the roaring fire in the stone reception room and read my email from my cell phone. One night we gathered in a front room. People had been asked to write a poem, or tell what was the most remarkable experience of the trip. Most people did one or the other, and there were some comic and revealing verses. I fell back on quotations from travel books by poetic authors I had found in one of the bookstores we visited. There was more drinking together as there had been the first night at Lindeth Howe Hotel.


Otterburn castle in the morning

When we said goodbye to the hotel and the very friendly staff (a family) on Saturday morning, there was one more place left for us to see: Durham Cathedral. It’s not on the way to Manchester, but we had all day so we took the detour to Durham. We did walk through a major mall in the city where we saw a good opera house, playhouse with modern plays, theater for movies, shopping, cafes and the like. Then a walk to some older buildings and onto the cathedral square.

Durham cathedral combines the function of commemorative local community place (the center of economic life in the 19th century was mining), with history museum, not only of the religious history of the church (beginning with St Cuthbert as usual), but fast forward to the World Wars of the 20th century as they affected the cathedral close and Durham,. It’s a religious site, with relics, tombs; it’s a tourist attraction and restaurant with garden, and art objects: the building encloses in it different centuries of styles, of figurines. There are tours twice a day and people hired to stop vistors photo-taking as well as answer questions about what visitors are seeing.

I was not surprised to see modern sculptures of Mary, a replica of the four monks carrying the corpse of St Cuthbert round about Northumberland until his body rested in this very cathedral, but I was surprised to see a couple of modern women artists. Even here the attempt to bring women out of obscurity continues. So there was a Paula Rego (whose work I like) imagining (from her Portuguese Catholic background) an old woman, aristocrat, with a young boy at her feet.

This time I was startled — though the images fit the grave and desperate ones of people all dressed up in other pictures by Rego. Here the faces are of skeletons, ghostly.

We stopped for tea somewhere, and then we sped down the vast highway at 70 miles an hour, reached the comfortable, but anonymous soulless hotel where we to dine one last time and then sleep. I had to get up by 6:00 am to make a plane at 9:00 am. I had made a friend of a man slightly younger than me to the point we agreed to try to travel together inside a larger Road Scholar tour group next May to Cornwall. So I’ll see more of it than I did two summers ago with a friend and her partner. After that I may stay to do research in the Royal Cornwall Museum on Winston Graham, and to London for the British library and (if I can get in) BBC archives for the scripts of the 1970s Poldark. Perhaps a dream, but my friend met me at that early hour, we had breakfast, coffee, bid one another adieu and off I went.


Adieu to Cumbria

Gentle reader, I cannot get myself to take pictures as I move through these trips, and don’t have many original informed thoughts to share, only the lectures to tell and my stenography is not what it was.  I wish I had more patience to describe, but such as I am and what I have been able to do is sincerely represented here.

I did unexpectedly have many Trollope sightings: he sets numerous scenes in Can You Forgive Her? and Lady Anna in Cumbria where his sister, Cecilia lived for a time with a husband and he and his mother visited. Langdale Pikes is mentioned more than once as a place to (he must’ve) wander[ed]:

And so another set of travel blogs comes to an end. I close with a poem by Patrick Henry (found in Carol Ann Duffy, Answering Back):

The Waiting Room

An empty coatstand in a public building, in August.
Even this is draped with your absence.
The rags of a seagull’s cry hang from it now.

Nothing is devoid of love.
How many years did I waste, listening out
for your voice?

…………… The park through a window,
swollen with leaves, smothers its coatstands well.

Thin veils of clouds, a city’s prayers,
fall away to the west. For a split second
I can see your eyes.

………………… But if I break my gaze
the gull has slipped its hook, the sea
is a long way away.


Lady Mary Lowther, A Waterfall (one of the watercolor artists whose work I saw in a library and then read about in a book I brought home with me: In the Line of Beauty: Early Views of the Lake District by Amateur Artists texts and choices by Stephen Hebron)

Ellen

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Again Mabuza and Bokkie in a soft version of the orange-red light of the play’s first act

I want to make rock flowers …
They have eyes, but they do not see us. – Nukain Mabuza

Friends,

This is to urge all those within reaching distance to hurry over to the Alexandria City theater, MetroStage to see the startlingly powerful Athol Fugard play, The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. It tells the core experience of life of a real artist, Nukain Mabuza, who painted rocks across farmland he was paid a pittance to take care of.

There are two contrasting parts: in the first act, set in 1981, the era of apartheid, we watch and listen to a very old “Kaffir,” Mabuza (played by Doug Brown) suddenly moved by the presence of his perpetual companion, a little boy, Bokkie (Jeremiah Hasty) whom Mabuza treats with real love and concern, to have the boy under his direction paint a symbolic depiction. It is intended to project how Mabuza has been excluded from all that could have enabled him to live a life with enough money to live independently, with decent clothes (he has none), education (he has had none), shelter (he lives in a hut with no amenities), true peers — he lives dependent on the meager charity of the land’s owner, the white Afrikaner, Elmarie Kleynhans (Marni Penning). When he has finished his soliloquy and the boy the piece, she comes on stage to give a bowl of food to the child. At first she pretends friendship and concern, but when she sees that this picture unlike the others is not simply of flowers in circles, rather a coded representation of humiliated oppression, she turns nasty, insisting Mabuza erase it and replace it with flowers. When the boy defends the picture, she becomes incensed with his “disrespect” and insists the old man whip him. The old man grieves intensely when she leaves the stage.


Mabuza putting the painted images on the large rock into words for Bokkie

The young boy actor is not quite up to the wrenching emotionalism of the role, but the older one left me (and the rest of the small audience there) numb with pity and admiration for the deprived nature of his existence and his eloquence and nobility of soul. The character reminded me of Sam in Fugard’s very great Master Harold and the Boys, the only play by Fugard I’ve been lucky enough to see live (twice), only in this case the great-souled character dies a few days later and the listener flees.


Jonathan Sejake putting into words what his experience has been to Elmarie in a stage lit with alternatively white and dark light

A place of disgrace, of humiliation. – Jonathan Sejake

The concluding contrasting act, 2003, post-Mandela, comes onto the stage a young black man dressed in a suit, determined to restore the now nearly faded rock back to what it was so vividly many years before. He is Jonathan Sejake (played by Jeremy Keith Hunter), speaking a long painful soliloquy with even greater (if possible) searing eloquence about what his life has been since he fled.  Sejake is Bokkie grown up.  He went to Zimbabwe and was treated with true decency, educated, given a chance to take on a fulfulling useful job. He speaks to us and to Elmarie who now carries a loaded revolver and responds in turn for most of the act with open hatred and anger of how the revolting blacks are murdering her people, taking “their” land. He talked piercingly about a life of humiliation inflicted on Mabuza (whom she still refers to by a childish nickname). As someone who was an  invisible adjunct for decades and lives in a house once referred to as “painfully modest” in a local newspaper article about ex-President Ford’s house nearby, I identified utterly.  She “owns” the rock and refuses to give permission, but at last near the act’s end is brought to acknowledge the hurt and destruction she wreaked on Mabuza (whom she calls a childish nickname) and tried to inflict Sejake when a boy. Far more explicitly than in Master Harold and the Boys, the speech persuades a hitherto powerful white (the ambiguously shamed teenage Harold in the first play) into a change of mind or heart.

I was just stunned with the energy and masterful domination of the whole stage Hunter displayed. He gave this role his all and held me (and the audience) mesmerized. He was of course enacting a protest, ethical, upright, with an appeal so obvious to any but the most obdurate closed mind, an enactment of what is happening in the US today; alas, the problem is these closed minds are often (I have met such people) inoculated against any information or moral truth. I went to an end-of-summer picnic two Sundays ago and when I was telling of the documentable facts Mueller has been able to prove Paul Manafort’s corruption with, I was greeted with faces filled with derision, and voices which told me everything in the New York Times or whatever newspaper I read this in is all lies. The white people around this table grinned at me with glittering eyes, and I knew there was no use even talking with them, so filled with resentment and scorn were they. None of them would sit through this play; indeed they’ve never go.

All the reviews I have found describe the performance with as strong favorable words as I have: E. A. Aymer, Anonymous, Debbie Minter Jackson. The writers speak of how this is probably Fugard’s last play; he is in his eighties; as with the one other play I’ve seen, the playwright imagines the beginning of reconciliation. In previous iterations, the praise for the play is as strong.

There is little overt action in this play. The setting is bare stage with rocks with small paintings on them all around and the one big rock off center right.


The actors are posed in parallel ways in the two acts

At the back of the stage a veiled screen shows images of South Africa, we see a city, we see boys and men walking, a woman at one point, and at a moment of high emotion (as Sejake tells Elmarie how well he was treated in Zimbabwe, which she has described as a violent corrupt society) a film of Mandela as he was when he first emerged from prison and became the leader of the country. I felt choked up with emotion when I saw his image. The audience is thus shown that miracles can occur, even if (as the young man concedes) that hope that was has turned into disappointment. Life then seemed incomparably better for black people from what it was, and they had hope it would improve more.


Athol Fugard

Metrostage apparently opened in 1987 with a production of Fugard’s Blood Knot, and has staged other Fugard plays over these long years of mostly deterioration in US arrangements — with occasional successful attempts by those governing during the Clinton and Obama administrations to put in place laws, customs, agencies to help the majority of people whose interests the government is supposed to represent. Still it would be a shame worth crying about if this play is not seen by more people than I saw in the theater this past Saturday afternoon I was there (13, 2 black, 11 white). Go and tell others you know about it when you come home.

******************

I wish I could say that the play could have some positive effect today on the minority Trump electorate: wealthy powerful people, with their hangers-on who understand that Trump and his regime are further destroying the economic existence of the deluded white working class willing to trade the promise of a better practical existence centrist democrats held out and never delivered on for pride in their race and revenge on other vulnerable people they have been taught to blame for their plight. They represent 27% of the population gerrymandered into a fake majority by an oligarchical constitution. I don’t believe this can happen before an election which brings to power the progressive left wing of the democratic party in sufficient numbers who are honestly willing to pass effective legislation to improve the well-being and self-esteem of huge numbers of impoverished and declining groups of people all over the US. Only thus can you reform the modes of thought that have led to an intolerable situation with a lying tyrant male given almost limitless power by those willing to exploit fear, and gaps in the US government arrangements which allow undermining of all social good they can.

In the 1990s I used to assign Master Harold and the Boys to undergraduate classes and had a tape of a performance (in the form of a video casette) I would show on a TV.


A key scene in the 1982 film I used to screen: Danny Glover as Harold, Zakes Mokae as Sam (Master Harold and the Boys)

More than two decades later I am just now again adding my mite to bring some understanding to the history of the present clash of values by teaching a course to retired adults in the long 18th century I called The Enlightenment: At Risk.

Ellen

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Kate Eastwood Norris as Lady Macbeth in the present Folger production

Friends and readers,

I much enjoyed, indeed was drawn to attend minutely to the Folger Shakespeare William Davenant’s 1673 version of Shakespeare’s Macbeth this afternoon. I was in the lucky (or for the sake of simply accepting Davenant unlucky) position of having just watched a 1979 film (scroll down) of the mesmerizing Trevor Nunn Macbeth featuring Ian McKellan and Judi Dench. Izzy told me when at Sweet Briar’s some years ago now she was on a tech team producing Shakespeare’s Macbeth, had watched it 8 times, to say nothing of remembering our having seen a naked Macbeth (actors stark naked with no props) done here at the Washington Shakespeare theater (at the time in Arlington). We both also remembered an HD screening of a Eurotrash Verdi Macbeth done at the HD Atlas in DC. So unlike just about all the people around us, we were very familiar with Shakespeare’s play.

In brief, and to be candid, Izzy said she found Davenant “tedious”, except in those scenes where he came closest to Shakespeare, where Shakespeare’s original memorable speeches were done so eloquently by our players, and she didn’t think “the comedy funny at all.” The jokes were “irritating,” and “brought Shakespeare down.” That’s what she said.


Rachel Montgomery, Emily Noel and Ethan Watermeyer as semi-comic haunted witches

I admit that after looking forward to dancing and singing witches, I found the extravagant numbers extraneous, tiresome and one supposed lustful love song by one of the witches (Emily Noel) inexplicable. My incessant remembering and comparing led me only to realize that Davenant worried his audience wouldn’t understand Shakespeare so constantly added in little explanations (“here is is a letter informing me …. ” says Lady Macbeth), and big explanations: for the first time I understand why Malcolm tells Macduff he is evil — to test him on the supposition Macduff would prefer a deeply corrupt man in charge to a good one (maybe I was alert to this since the advent of Trump’s regime). Davenant changed the words clunkily (brief becomes small candle), ruined some speeches by understanding them literally, and was determined to make things more moral and pro-Royal (so we had speeches on behalf of royalty, and no porter). When I relaxed though, far from finding the revision “contemptible” (as a literary critic from the 1920s, Hazelton Spencer does in a blow-by-blow comparison), I was fascinated to see how easily Macbeth and his Lady were turned into a bickering couple, how near farce Shakespeare’s Macbeth is. Our lead couple were funny in more than a nervous way. (Just now on the London stage, Othello is being done as wild farce with Mark Rylance stealing the show as mischievously amused Iago.)

Further, as in many movie adaptations, I found good things in some of the changes. I like how Davenant increases the role and presence of Macduff (Chris Genebach) and his Lady (Karen Peakes) so they appear in scenes from the beginning and throughout the play:


Karen and Owen Peakes as Lady Macduff and her son (he also plays Fleance)

I thought her speeches eloquent: she is given one anti-war soliloquy (which reminded me the English civil war was just over), and I felt more emotionally engaged by them as a couple, though making his reasons for his desertion of her so explicit (so as to make them both safer? so as to form a party against Macbeth &c) had the effect of making me blame him more. Maybe Davenant was giving all his actress-singers more lines. I also thought some of Davenant’s lines expressing horror, and poetic haunting effective. (I downloaded the ECCO text of Davenant tonight and skimmed through.) I got a great kick out of Norris exculpating herself absurdly. The play was set in a Marat/Sade mad Bedlam prison but the point seemed to be to avoid having too accurate Restoration outfits (which might be off-putting), though other elements (the candle chandeliers, the make-up, wigs), and a kind of artificial stylization in the acting was I thought meant to remind us we were watching an 18th century play. For Shakespeare lovers (if you know Shakespeare’s play and keep an open mind), this is worth going to see.


Chris Genebach as Macduff and Ian Merrill Peakes as Macbeth

The Folger consort was there too — high on the balcony playing Restoration music by John Eccles, among others. I recognized Purcell. So from a theatrical standpoint, Davenant’s play becomes highly effective again and again.

And it’s not just a period piece, a close reading lesson. I wondered how Davenant would add poetic justice to Shakespeare’s play. The famous 18th century adaptations make sure we have a happy ending or poetic justice (Nahum Tate’s Lear Edgar and Cornelia marry and Lear lives) or are concerned lest we catch too much despair and apprehension of meaninglessness or nihilism from Shakespeare, or feel the cruelty of life (so Juliet wakes up for a while). Trevor Nunn worked to get rid of this upbeat optimism. Rafael Sebastian (superb performance) as Malcolm played the character as probably base, strangely inward, actuated by the witches.


Rafael Sebastian as Malcolm and John Floyd as Donalbain

They wanted to make it eerie, and as in so many productions nowadays, bring out contemporary analogies to our present bloody POTUS, so indifferent to who is killed, he lies about how many (a few dead is fine). Here is the child Fleance helpless against the evil instruments (the hired murderers) of tyrant:

The concluding scene had the three commanding the stage. There was an attempt at the gruesome and zombies: after Louis Butelli as Duncan (got up to resemble Charles II) is killed, his body is seemingly tortured and he lurches about the stage as a living corpse — Lady Macbeth is haunted by Duncan in Davenant’s play (there is much parallelism).


Witches gloating over the king’s body about to get up again

Perhaps best of all, while I regretted the loss of favorite lines (especially on how one cannot minister to a mind diseased, all the speeches about murdering sleep; they cannot sleep are gone), a great deal of Shakespeare survives just about intact. Thus Ian Merill Peakes delivers the “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow” speech with full resonance at the same moment as the character does in Shakespeare after being told of Lady Macbeth’s death. Norris had full scope as a murderous and then mad Lady — true she does not come up to what Judi Dench enacted, but has anyone?

I’ve been reading Voltaire’s comments on Shakespeare in his Letters on England (Lettres Philosophiques) where he praises Shakespeare (“strong and fertile genius, full of naturalness and sublimity”) and finds the problem with his success is other English playwrights copy him and fail to pull off his “inimitable” combination of “monstrous farce” and deep craziness with daringly humanly real scenes — human stupidity, buffoonery, undecorous behavior wildly on display. Shakespeare’s “outrageousness” has just infected the English stage. Spot on. This adaptation is like Voltaire’s translations of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, meaningful in a French context, filled with Voltaire’s thoughts, but continually weaker than the original. The production’s director, Richard Richmond, in his notes is still right to congratulate himself on bringing together “academic scholarship, performance expertise, and creative design” (Tony Cisek, Mariah Anzaldo Hale). Pepys’s admiration for the productions of the play that he saw is quoted in the program notes:

a most excellent play in all respects, but especially in divertisement, though it be a deep tragedy, which is a strange perfection in a tragedy, it being most proper here, and suitable” (1667).

Well, yes.

Ellen Moody

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Lindisfarne priory

Dear friends and readers,

I am slowly becoming startled at all the material I have to write about, all the pictures! The Road Scholar guides took us to see and experience a remarkable variety and number of places over the two weeks. I had intended at most 5 blogs and now it seems to me I have matter (could this be?) for 6! I also intended to rearrange my travelogue so as to group thematically similar places together (Roman Britain, the violent Reivers at the borders) but the experience I want to convey would be lost. It’s the intertwining of the disparate in the same landscape that makes for variety and therefore fun. I had come to see the Lake District and if I could have chosen would have gone home after the first week, but I admit that this second week was more riveting, the buildings more moving and the whole ambiance of the place redolent with deep past history


Cumbria lake

We have reached the remarkable 8th day, the Monday during the day when we traveled to Otterburn Castle, and went through a scenic Troutbeck around Ullswater lake, visited Carlisle, saw the castle, cathedral, spent a couple of hours in its Tullie Museum (just stuffed with treasures and art) and we will move through to the 10th day when we drove across the Northumberland coast and crossed into what’s left of Lindisfarne priory, its castle, lighthouse and church (not just a ruin but an active place).


This middle twentieth century statue of four monks carrying St Cuthbert in his tomb around Northumberland and Cumbria is also found in Durham Cathedral — one must be a replica or facsimile

We might make a central theme out of the stories told of St Cuthbert, first a reclusive monk, then a hermit, then a corpse fought over by warring factions of ethnic tribes (Romans versus celts, Romans versus saxons), whose relics were scattered as sacred sites around Cumbria. In many of the churches or museums we visited were monuments to him, his history re-told, a relic on display. Or Mary Queen of Scots, whose name came up now and again as this fleeing romantic figure (forgetting she meant to be a politician, was a writer, a poet of considerable ability, a failed intriguer and queen), someone who a particular site is “sacred” to (or built around to lure tourists). The Percys were mentioned again and again — a powerful family.

But I’d like to mention two writers: Walter Scott who was mentioned unobtrusively now and again as saying writing border ballads about the Reivers, visiting and writing poems or novels situated in this or that place or around this or that event. He unites lowlands with highlands, Hanover Protestant capitalism with nostalgic Scots customs. He collects folk verse as the “minstrelsy of the Scottish borders.” Marmion is “a tale of Flodden Fields.” And Basil Bunting, one of Jim’s favorite poets (I have a volume of his work and a slender literary study of him), from Northumberland. A poem he would recite:

A thrush in the syringa sings.

Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things
fear, hunger, lust.

O gay thrush!

Winding all about the coast (Toutbeck, Lowther Castle, the ruins of one of Anne Clifford’s fortresses), we began to find ourselves in the 20th century as the large city of Carlisle came into view. We stayed in the center where one of the castles used to protect the place during the seige still looms over the highway


Carlisle Castle — it reminded of the Sforza castle in Milan without the relics and museum art

Walk in a circle away from the castle and you come upon the vast large cathedral, still going strong as a center of that part of the city’s community: a huge place very proud of its stained glass windows which survived many a war, some directed at them too. It goes back to the 12th century and probably took several centuries to reach its present form:

Walked through streets, small shops, bookstores, empty places too (parts of Carlisle are suffering economically), and we saw very ordinary kinds of attached houses that I remember in Leeds — and lived in myself. With bow windows, green sills, all red brick. Then the fabulous museum. It has several floors and different corridors. The exhibits ranged from burial grounds and relics from neolithic times, to the vikings, to several rooms of Roman life (one rebuilt piece of wall with a tape of life on Hadrian’s wall); one moved through the 15th to 17th century, with pictures of battles, people captured, time capsules of villages, and paintings from the wars between England and Scotland (stolen church bells). Skip past the 18th century to the 19th, with insides of trains replicated where one could sit. Sculpture and pictures of 19th century industrial areas, fishermen areas.

The 20th century was treated as history too, with costume and furniture areas. High art like the Pre-Raphaelites, romantic painters, and pictures going up into the 21st century of the local landscape. Everything chosen with care, taste; there was too much to see before it was time to have the best lecture of the tour: by a young lecturer-curate of the museum on the Reiver culture of the area.


A Peel tower we visited where one of our group got stuck up on top —

Brief summary: from the 14th to the 17th century the area south and north of the borders was dominated by local violent family groups who stole and murdered from one another for a living — the farming land was very poor. It’s a history of successive gov’ts attempting to repress these people by arrest, execution, and finally negotiations and treaties and extradiction, forced emigration, clearances. He told of famous battles whose names I had heard of. I had not realized that the Percys in Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays were part of these Reiver clans, and Hotspur one of them. Cattle raids are not romantic as a way of life. He claimed there was a code whereby the women were not raped but I don’t believe that for a moment. Imagine giving birth in such a culture? Women led a hard life. Few people could be long lived: kidnapping, ransom, with fierce uses of symbolic weaponry. I suddenly understood better those parts of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall where Cromwell threatens nobility who are not doing their “job” of pacifying the local population. The specifics of these local wars are found in Alistair Moffat’s The Reivers, and John Sadler and Rosie Serdiville’s The Battle of Flodden (1513), which place we later visited.


A memorial on Piper’s Hill overlooking Flodden field, near Branxton church — the day we walked it was very windy and cold even if sunny

The lecturer used phrases like “semi-idiocy” of the way many of these encounters were conducted, in several cases just like Culloden, a huge slaughter which could easily have been avoided (1542 Battle of Solway Marsh hundreds faced one another and proceeded to kill). Flodden was an absurdity brought on by Henry VIII having gone to fight in France (at great expense to no real purpose), so the Scottish king thought he could just take over without planning, care, or sustaining his army. He named names and told of historical figures and legends. The ascension of Mary Queen of Scot’s son, James VI who became James I of England began the end of the era as he proceeded methodically and consistently to abolish flexible border “laws,” execute, arrest, transport people, also take down the Peel towers (thick narrow castles for protection and from which people attacked one another, and where there were dungeons photographed above). The landscape and ancient buildings we were about to see were the remnants of these peoples.

I remember eating in a lovely cafeteria (with that comical statue of someone riding a bike high up) after which we drove to Lannercost Priory, without doubt the loveliest of all the churches I saw during the trip: it is high Anglican done in quiet good taste, late Romanesque. The windows were paid for by a patron of the Tullie Museum and were done by various Pre-Raphaelite painters:


This might be Edward Burne-Jones

The church is still in use, and inside is recorded recent history, but behind it are ruins where we saw a touching burial monument for a young child

All around outside a garden with flowering trees leading to a graveyard and back to the church. It was a quiet place, hardly any tourists (but us), and one could hear Gregorian chanting in the central nave.

We then drove onto Otterburn, the renovated 10th century castle we spent the next five nights in. In the common areas was a fire in the reception area, a small library like bar, a large common room, and the dining room. All around back, meadows and a small lake or pond. In the first blog I included a photo of my magnificently sized room with the tapestry over my bed


Kieder Forest —

On Tuesday we drove through Kieder Forest (huge old forest, with moors, meadows of flowers, also burnt woods, and sheep), saw the Keider castle once used as a Percy hunting lodge, now a place to have lunch and walk by the water,

and then onto the 13th century Hermitage castle, an astonishing building in Liddesdale, a guardhouse whose form was actuated by the felt terror of those inside against those outside and those in their dungeons. The most famous story is of Mary Queen of Scots visiting a wounded Bothwell here; there is a painting of Walter Scott sitting on some stone stairs and contemplating the place.


The hermitage looking up from one of the dirt floors

I surmize the picture of Scott at the Hermitage is an image of him superimposed onto one of the building stairs, so it seems to me just as appropriate to put here one of the 19th century illustrations to his novel The Black Dwarf where the Hermitage plays a role:

The building dates from the 1200s and was in active use until the late 16th century. It could never have been very comfortable, though an official guide fills the Douglas tower with imagined rooms of people going about daily ordinary activities of eating, sleeping, reading, entertaining themselves.

We drove on into Scotland the abbey town of Jedburgh where we visited a Norman abbey (ruined), a Victorian house said to be in which Mary Queen of Scots had stayed for an afternoon (numinous person), a grim jail (no longer in use) set up so you can see some of the desperate nature of the condition people were kept in, with their pathetic crimes life histories, and egregious punishments put down in different cells. The town seemed in good economic shape


We walked all around the abbey

We had quite a way to drive back from Scotland into Cumbria and Otterburn and broke the journey by stopping at a church which the guides took us inside. This below is not that church but another we spontaneously explored another day, similar in age and surprisingly also still in use


A twelfth century church — inside it is unheated, very plain

Dinner, rest, read, and now it was Day 10. Lindisfarne had been built up as truly special place and it took some trouble to get into — you had to plan to go through when the causeway was not flooded and to return before the waters rose again. Nonetheless we meandered through the landscape, driving by Bamburgh castle and looking at people bathing on the shore of the north sea it might have been.


Lots of tourists all around

Lunch in a small town and then onto Lindisfarne, which one of our guides persisted in calling “the holy island,” in honor of St Cuthbert, a central nowadays mythical figure


Lindisfarne estuary or causeway — crossing over into the island

The central story of Lindisfarne is of St Cuthbert told in a museum:

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by the Venerable Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704.[30] Cuthbert was buried here, his remains later translated[c] to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century. Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham Cathedral

It was very crowded, worse than an amusement park, with children everywhere. At first I was put off, but after a while wandering about the shore I could try to imagine what the place might have been like with only a very few quiet people living here under rules of silent and ordered activity. The island has been inhabited for centuries


You walk up to the castle and then wander inside


The church windows from within

Our day was not ended. Late afternoon still around the borders of Scotland, we visited Etal castle (placed in a once strategic position), another heavily built this time 14th century dungeon like structure — though it had more of a feel of a place one could imagine people living in because of the wider floors — Flodden field is however nearby. In all these places there was a museum and a corridor of objects, history, maps and art objects one could look at. We learned of a rich woman who was responsible for single-handedly (with her money) lifting the impoverished abysmal lives of the people in the area to modest prosperity in the middle of the 19th century


The afternoon had turned sunny

I end with Bunting:

Weeping oaks grieve, chestnuts raise
mournful candles. Sad is spring
to perpetuate, sad to trace
immortalities never changing

Weary on the sea
for sight of land
gazing at the coming wave we
see the same wave;

drift on merciless reiteration of years;
descry no death; but spring
is everlasting
resurrection.
— Basil Bunting


One of several bookstores we passed by, one I did walk into …. Very good, lots of well-chosen books, a room for reading them ….

Ellen

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Vindolanda


John Millais’s loving portrait of a young John Ruskin

Friends and readers,

Though I had heard of Hadrian’s Wall, I had never thought there must have been a world of people inside this wall the Romans were seeking to protect and control. During the two weeks, our group visited a number of sites revealing Roman settlements all around the north west and western parts of today’s Great Britain. They came to extract the minerals in the ground and take it back to Italy to be hammered into thousands of objects. On different days over the two weeks we rode and walked over included the mountain top Hardknott Roman Fort, smaller forts, and finally near and by Scotland the vast excavation site of Vindolanda, and Hadrian’s Wall.

The areas we covered in the two weeks further north have also known incessant violence from continual internecine warfare by groups of maraunders (gangs of tribes and family groups) who came to be called the Borders Reivers: they are recorded from medieval history as living by stealing and killing and we visited and went pass their forts, Peel towers (places of refuge), heavily built castle-like dungeons. Carlisle, the city is found amid what once were these scenes and it has a marvelous museum remembering its history from the Vikings, through the Romans onto feudal and Victorian-Edwardian times: Tullie House and Museum, and there we were treated to the best lecture we heard: on the Reivers and this area in the 15th through early 18th century. Here too we came into contact with earlier Celtic and early Christian worlds at Lindisfarne island.

Throughout we often took the equivalent of or actual old Roman roads newly fixed, once important arteries for transportation.  (We stayed off main highways.)  One of the guides maintained the first language written down in the British Isles which we can find is Latin. Art works, and celebrity souvenirs, guide books support this remembering of history which gives meaning and a long-term identity to Northumberland and Cumbria and their specific localities.

This basic outline of local particular history that we traveled through was varied with visits to family estates thrown open to the public and (if they had one) castles or manor houses. One day we visited another poet’s house, from which he drew and wrote, supported artists and working people’s causes: education for all, better housing, civil rights: John Ruskin’s Brantwood. There were Roman and early gothic churches and vast cathedrals, more museums, more mines still being worked or open to the public for display and sales. Art objects at all these places and guidebooks could help you remember what you saw — as well as use of your cell phone or ipad or fancier camera.

I have summed up what is to come so we can have perspective and move through the  rest of the two weeks more quickly.


Hardnott Pass – the picture is not large enough to show the ribbons of road or their steepness

Friday morning dubbed “a day of high adventure” we drove up a terrifying Hardknott Pass: a zizgag of a narrow path going ever higher but at corners demanding that the bus turn narrowly on its wheels in a new diagonal one way and then that, often at the edge of a steep incline, where the bus was really at risk of toppling over — except for intrepid guide drivers, excellent brakes and super-sturdy mini-buses.


Remains of Roman Fort

Once we got to the top, everyone had to have thick shoes, and we walked around an vast open space to look at the remains of Baths, forts, and living quarters for Roman soldiers and all those living with them (household, women, horses).

Here’s a piece of this place:

You’re right: it’s a stone wall.

We then drove to Muncaster Castle where we were treated very well.


Muncaster Castle

The present owner, married into the Penningtons (a family who go back to Elizabethan Britain) gave a lecture as he took us around the bottom part of the castle now set up for tourists and also groups coming in for occasions (weddings, barmitzvahs, parties) and then showed us where we could walk in the garden. Meant to amuse us, show the whirligig of time has not favored the aristocrats of England, the owner told us the present family lives in the basement. I’ll bet that’s a word that covers a suite of beautiful rooms below, complete with glass windows and window doors.


A sixteenth century bedroom on the top floor

I liked how simply and obviously the rooms were got up to display different functions. Inside the house were many genuinely fine works of art from the 16th through 18th century. There was a rich library of sets of books and rare books, which he said was undergoing digital cataloguing.


The Muncaster library

Then it was time to go to lunch. We ate in the castle in a room from which we could see the gardens. After lunch we could walk about (the grounds reminded me of Bignor Park which I saw during the Charlotte Smith conference) and we did and then at 2 a falconry show (every Tuesday and Friday afternoon). Basically three young adults, and the owner too, with three birds attached to each of the three falconers flew and played around him or her. It felt like more than a show because the birds were made to fly low and fly quite far in the sky. This part reminded me of Longleate where the public was supplied with entertainment (a zoo, a ferry, picnic grounds), only again something more select, unusual was done. I have read one of the Pennington’s diaries, and thought about how hard it was to run this house now as a business.

It was now later Friday afternoon we drove back over Corney Fell, where we made frequent stops, and I began to be aware of how many sheep we were continually seeing:

The scenery was spectacular: I felt like I was in a picture postcard:

Saturday’s big event was our visit to Brantwood house, John Ruskin’s home and we were led to dwell for a few hours on this man’s life, his friends, his work. First we saw a half hour film which emphasized his social and political activities (his schemes adumbrated the national health, public housing, pensions) and then plenty of time to explore his wonderfully appointed large house (a museum as private dwelling) and extensive gardens overlooking a lake.


A detail from John Millais’s portrait of Ruskin with a backdrop of the natural world — it is not sufficiently appreciated how often the Pre-Raphaelites painted the natural world in great careful detail

We were told Ruskin bought Brantwood sight unseen for £1500 (or was it £15,000?)


Brantwood house — 1862; he lived there the rest of his life with a small band of family, friends, servants

In each of the rooms there were albums with writing and pictures commemorating eras in Ruskin’s life, drawings and paintings, many by him, many by friends, often of nature using primitive cameras to become more exact.


Brantwood room: note the Pre-Raphaelite like pictures

We saw the furniture he used, the musical instruments everyone played, his desk.

All round the house were smaller buildings with exhibits (on birds, an ice house, young artists today). It really took a couple of hours to explore. The effect was to reveal how much richer he was than anyone else around him. But he also was much beloved and befriended: I felt all the people living around him were not faking. He really was a deeply kind and decent man who made accurate pictures of nature.

The next phase was lunch on a garden terrace where room was found for a restaurant overlooking the lake:

From there we caught a Victorian looking steam boat and rode across the lake.


The lake we crossed seen from on high …

We looked at the Coniston Falls, said to be the inspiration for his famous poem of daffodils; click here to read Dorothy Wordsworth’s Grasmere journal on Ullswater. This time the later afternoon stop was Langdale, where we stopped to take pictures and look out at the valley:

I learned what was meant by a pike (a word Trollope often uses in his descriptions of Cumberland in Can You Forgive Her? and Lady Anna — his sister had a house there when she was married where his mother visited and presumably he too):


Langdale pikes

Sunday was dubbed a free day. The guides had a day off and got some needed rest.  The group was invited to take ourselves to the different ferries crossing different parts of Lake Windermere and going to different towns — we were given maps and tickets to a fery.  I had had enough of company, 6 and more hours a day on the mini-bus, staring at lakes, and it looked like it would rain (it often did) so chickened out. I sat by a warm and pretty (though faked) fire (it looked like wood burning but was a gas fire) in one of the common rooms and read Voltaire’s Lettres Philosophiques. In the afternoon I took a walk by myself. I discovered I couldn’t get far and how much we did need those mini-buses and shuttles to reach any where near for a town.

The next day, Monday, we all rose early, packed, and with an extra bus for luggage, drove a number of hours to get to our second hotel, a converted 10th century castle, Otterburn in Cumbria, whose picture of which I supplied in my first blog, but here is a publicity shot, meant to allure people to come to the place as a hotel — inside it is much renovated and much of it rooms rebuilt during the later 19th and 20th centuries, though a central block is 13th century and has a large still working fireplace (renovated 18th century) where I would sit in the later afternoon:

It’s worth noting that most of the castle ruins we saw were in Cumbria, further north near the border, most of the ancient small churches, all of the dungeons


A castle ruin we passed by at some point during the following week

Otterburn church near the castle:


Another publicity shot

We had entered the area historically once of high violence and more primitive conditions, about which I’ll be writing next time. I bring out this perspective to distinguish the Lake District from the border country.  In the lake district we were shown trains and how today too a privately run one is kept up to unite small towns. We went to libraries and sites “sacred” to writers, poets, artists. The landscapes were the epitome of beauty.  In the border lands one finds many ugly bleak places, dungeons, towers, mostly ruined or uninhabited castles, castles whose function is utterly changed. Among the rare ones still a family, Alnwick Castle, now known for housing Harry Potter at school on films, one episode in Downton Abbey, and three in the older TV farce, Blackadder. For me the context is still the great 18th century painter, Canaletto whose painting makes it so idyllic, so appealingly picturesque:


Antonio Canaletto, Alnwick Castle, 1747

But it took the real form it did because its origins and its present place, however peaceful today, and just in Northumberland, are in these more northern border places:


Alnwick Castle photographed by a Road Scholar pilgrim from a bus stop

We didn’t go into Alnwick because you did have to make an appointment and to see each part of the castle was separate fee on top of the parking fee. Nota bene, gentle reader.

I will be attending a course on the poetry of Robert Frost in a couple of weeks. Now thinking about how I became an English major, and how my choice to become an English major was clinched when I read Wordsworth and yes the other Romantic poets (also Lamb, Coleridge, Keats, Shelley), and how I’ve ended up where I am, in solitude, going on a holiday to these sites with a group of pilgrim-strangers as friends, I’ll end on Frost’s great poem,

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

But my choice was not so free. I chose the road less traveled by because out of my class origins, my gender, my character I was not able even to conceive of following the one most people chuse (18th century spelling).

Ellen

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