Early Sunday morning, we checked out and took a taxi to the Gare du Nord
to catch the Eurostar to London. After some initial confusion over where
to check in, we went through British customs and an airport-style security
line and found our seats in the first class car.
The aircraft-style seats gave us plenty of room to stretch out and relax.
We watched the French countryside roll by as we ate breakfast. The train
paused at Calais, where French troops patrolled the platform, then headed
for the Channel. Going through the Channel tunnel was a non-event and
the train pulled into London's Waterloo station just over three hours
from the time we left Paris.
Getting to Euston station to catch our train to the Lake District was
a little more complicated - due to construction, the direct underground
line was closed and we had to change trains twice. We finally got there,
picked up our BritRail passes and boarded the express train. At Oxenholm
we changed to the spur line to Windermere and had tea while we waited
for a bus to Coniston. By 5 PM we were checked in at the Yewdale Lodge.
We walked down to the marina to check on boat schedules and returned to
a dinner of salmon and Cumberland sausage in the pub downstairs. The pub
was showing the England/Ecuador World Cup soccer game and we got to see
Beckham score the winning goal.
We slept late and at a leisurely breakfast - fried eggs, sausage, bacon
(more like ham slices than bacon), grilled tomato, coffee, juice, toast
and jam. Quite a change from coffee and a croissant!
We walked to the boat dock and got aboard the Gondola - a restored steam
cruiser from the 1860s. The boat has a remarkable dragon figurehead and
varnished wood everywhere. The engine was recovered from a narrow-gauge
railway and burns a special kind of coal that is now imported from Poland
because it is no longer economical to mine it in Britain. Like the rest
of the boat, the engine was immaculate.
The Gondola took us part way down the lake and then dropped us off at
the restored home of John Ruskin, Victorian art critic, social philosopher
and an early proponent of the arts and crafts movement. While his personal
life was something of a disaster, he managed to produce a prodigious number
of books, pamphlets and papers that were cited as influential by people
as disparate as Gandhi and Frank Lloyd Wright. He lectured on art at Oxford,
provided financial backing for the revival of the lace industry in the
Lake District and thought up the British National Trust, national health
insurance and social security.
Ruskin also had definite ideas about gardens and his is preserved alongside
the house. A stone chair looking out over the lake, known as 'Ruskin's
Seat' still provides a great view. An art gallery associated with the
house shows works of local artists - the works on view when we visited
included stone sunken-reliefs and wood carvings. We had lunch on the terrace
of the tea shop - it was just warm enough to enjoy being outdoors and
watching the sailboats on the lake. We caught the Gondola back to Coniston
and walked over to the churchyard across from our hotel. Ruskin's grave
is there, marked by a tall art nouveau cross designed by one of his friends.
We ate dinner at the Sun, a different pub just up the hill from our hotel.
Locals and their dogs wandered in and out. We had a great dinner and some
local ale as we enjoyed the cozy room and the oak fire.
Our plan for Tuesday was to take the bus to Keswick and then hike
up to a stone circle near there. Because of long lags in bus connections,
the trip took longer than we had planned. The ride north did convince
me, however, that we had made the right decision not to rent a car - besides
the English habit of driving on the left, the lanes are narrow and lined
with the high slate walls that are ubiquitous here. You might think that
this would mean that the bus line uses small vehicles, but they are standard
size. The hedges overhanging the walls all look neatly trimmed - we eventually
realized that they were continually sheared by the busses as they sped
past. When the bus meets oncoming traffic at a narrow section of road,
the cars have to back up to let the bus pass. The expressions on the other
drivers' faces ranged from terror (American tourists, we imagined) to
resignation and pictures of them would have made a best-selling coffee-table
Once in Keswick, we
sat out a rain shower in a tea shop and then started following the directions
from the Rough Guide to the trail to the circle. The directions were wrong
from the start - although we did eventually find the abandoned railway
line that served as the main part of the trail. The promised sign post
to the circle never materialized and after hiking some miles, we asked
a trio of grizzled hikers headed the other way whether we were on the
right trail. Oh yes, they said, it's only five or six miles more and you'll
come up close to the A66 - cross that and look for a stile in the fence,
then scramble up the hill (it's a bit steep) another mile or so and you
should see the circle across the ridge. This was too much for us - the
mile and a half walk we had anticipated had turned into double that already.
We walked up to the next railway trestle, contemplated the river below
and turned back to catch the bus back to Coniston.
On the ride back we shared the bus with school children headed home for
the day and as they were dropped off one by one the sun came out and the
green grass sparkled between the slate walls around the fields. The gloomy
hillsides we had watched roll by in the morning turned into marvelous
views across the valleys. Once back in Coniston, we took advantage of
the sunshine to hike around the village and take some sunny pictures of
the lake and hills.
We ate dinner at the Black Bull (yet another handy pub) - it was built
as a coaching inn in the 1700's and has the blackened beams in the dining
area to prove it. We drank the local ale and chowed down enormous portions
of Cumberland sausage and haddock - both delicious.
After our problems with bus connections on Tuesday, we decided to stick
closer to Coniston on Wednesday. We spent the morning in the town museum,
which had interesting exhibits on slate and copper mining, local history
and a room devoted to John Ruskin that had an extensive selection of his
writings, lace designs and a musical instrument resembling a marimba that
he built out of slate. There was also material on Arthur Ransome and his
use of Coniston as a setting for some of his books.
We had a cream tea at a local shop, then headed out on a lakeside trail
that took us south as far as Coniston Hall, built in 1290. As we maneuvered
through gates and over stiles across the fields, the sun came out and
we once again had amazing views of the lake and hills. Back at the marina,
we had a leisurely lunch and waited for our pre-arranged tour of the lake
to see the sites Ransome used in his book 'Swallows & Amazons', a boyhood
favorite of mine.
As we waited for the boat, we chatted with a woman with two flat-coated
retrievers, a local breed that looks like a black golden retriever. We
had actually seen her with the dogs on Monday evening at the pub. We discovered
she would be piloting our boat!
The cruise went all the way to the south end of Coniston Water, where
the river Crake flows out. The models for Holly Howe farm, Wildcat Island
with its secret harbor, the cormorant trees, Octopus Lagoon and the Amazon's
Beckfoot home and boathouse were just as I had imagined them. We also
saw the farm where Ransome spent his childhood summers and the view from
the Peak of Darien. The guide peppered his narration with questions about
the books and I found myself nodding as the 10 and 12 year old kids on
the tour shouted out the answers, clearly as delighted as I was to see
the reality of the scenes Ransome depicted in fiction.
We walked back to Coniston on an alternative path, giving us a different
view of the fields and mountains. After resting up a bit we walked over
to the Sun for dinner, passing a curious little fountain made from a stack
of circular layers of slate with water bubbling up from the center of
the top layer and trickling down the sides.
We set off Thursday
morning for the little village of Haltwhistle. We took an early bus to
Windermere - halfway there our bus came head-to-head with a huge truck
hauling a boat and had to back up a hundred yards or so along the road
and then into a side lane to let it past. From Windermere we took trains,
changing at Oxenholm and Carlisle before we reached our destination. Haltwhistle
is about two thirds of the way from Carlisle to Newcastle just south of
Hadrian's Wall and the Scottish border. The station at Haltwhistle still
has its Victorian railway buildings - including a two story control tower
that once overlooked a switching yard. We dropped our bags off at our
bed & breakfast and then took a shuttle bus to Housestead's Fort on Hadrian's
Hadrian's wall was built by the Roman legions and stretches 80 miles across
the narrow neck of Britain and much of it still intact. Housestead's Fort
is the remains of a Roman 'mile castle' - there was one every mile. In
between are two evenly spaced guard towers. When it was in operation,
several hundred Roman auxiliaries manned the fort. The museum at the fort
had interesting artifacts that had been discovered during archeological
digs, including parts of armor and letters written on wood 'slates'.
Wherever possible along the route of the wall, the Romans built on hillcrests.
To get to Housestead's, you have to trek up a hill from the road. Once
there, you are rewarded with a view of the wall snaking away to the east
and west - Scotland stretches out to the north across fields dotted with
sheep. Standing atop the wall it is easy to imagine Roman legionnaires
walking guard duty 1700 years ago.
The commandant's headquarters, a hospital, a bakery and an elaborate latrine
have all been excavated. The eastern and western gates, which led out
to a military road that paralleled the wall still have their main pillars
standing and you can see the tracks in the stone floor where wagons wore
grooves as they rolled past over the centuries that the wall functioned.
We caught a late bus back to Haltwhistle and ate dinner at a pub filled
with locals. While waiting for our meal we browsed through a shelf of
books next to our table - we settled on a book of trivia questions and
as we tried to answer them, we got help from a couple seated next to us.
Sometimes they could name U.S. cabinet members that we had long forgotten.
Our B&B was probably the most upscale of our lodgings - it was in the
former house of the Anglican rector and, I must say, he lived rather well.
We had a room at the head of the staircase on the second floor with a
four-poster bed and a view over extensive gardens stretching down the
hill toward the road. The breakfast room had tall windows overlooking
the terrace, matching stone fireplaces at either end, and a 14-foot, elaborately
Thursday morning we took the local train to Newcastle and then one stop
on an express train to Durham. The rail lines into Newcastle come in on
very high trestles, so we got good views of the river and the old industrial
heart of the city.
The Durham station is also on a high point north of the center of the
city and we could see Durham castle and cathedral as we walked down the
hill. After a little difficulty with our map and some helpful directions
from locals, we found a hotel that would take us, dropped our bags in
the room and walked down to the old section of town.
The old center of Durham sits on a curve of the river Wear, giving it
a natural moat on three sides. Crossing the bridge and following the winding
street put us at the market square, which has an assortment of interesting
statues and an array of old-style phone booths next to an old fashioned
pillar box. A local merchant seeking approval of a canal scheme in the
early 1800's donated one statue - it's of Neptune, presumably to remind
people of a link to the sea. Another statue is of a general who fought
at Waterloo and then married a local girl.
Leaving the square on the other side, we wended our way up the hill through
twists and turns to the square that fronts both the cathedral and the
castle. The castle and its original bailey is now surrounded by other
old buildings that are now part of Durham University. Much of the square
was covered in a large tent and circled by crowds of young men and women
in academic gowns.
We had, it turns out, arrived in Durham on graduation day. In fact, graduation
ceremonies were being held at that moment in the cathedral - we were allowed
in to watch from the rear chapel, but were not permitted to tour the cathedral
itself. We waited outside until the ceremonies had ended and watched the
academic procession emerge, with provost carrying the ceremonial mace
and the deans and professors in their brightly colored gowns.
The everyday activities of the cathedral continued after the graduation
ceremony. We were able to sit with the cathedral choir and listen to the
evensong service. The choir was only a dozen or so men and women, but
their voices filled the cathedral. Our guidebooks informed us that evensong
had been celebrated continuously in the cathedral since it was completed
in 1135 and in Saxon shrines that had preceded it since 998.
Saturday morning proved bright and clear. After breakfast we walked down
to the bridge and, instead of crossing, took the steps down to the river,
where a path ran all the way along the curve of the riverbank to the next
bridge. Along the way, we had beautiful views of the cathedral on the
opposite bank and watched a lone rower scull along the quiet river.
Once at the cathedral, we toured the nave and side chapels of the cathedral,
including the graves of St. Cuthbert and the Venerable Bede. The cathedral
is built in the Norman or Romanesque style, with a few Gothic additions
at the east and west ends.
The cathedral museum housed a variety of relics of St. Cuthbert and books
and vestments from the cathedral's past as the seat of the Prince-Bishops
of the North. Before the Reformation there was a Benedictine monastery
associated with the cathedral and the chapter dormitory and cloister still
survive. The dormitory is now a library, with enormously high ceilings
open to the roof beams, each made from massive oak trunks. The cloister
courtyard was used as a location for a scene at Hogwart's in the original
Harry Potter movie. We browsed through a bookstore in the old monastery
kitchen and then ate lunch under the stone arches beneath it.
We picked up our bags at the hotel and trudged up the hill to catch a
train to London. The four hour trip gave us a welcome chance to rest.
Once at King's Cross, we took the underground out to Heathrow and settled
in at our hotel to relax, eat dinner and catch a very early flight back