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Posts Tagged ‘Muncaster’


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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