Loving Ely

August 31, 2016: When I walked through the south door of Ely Cathedral, and looked up, I was completely blown away. I was facing the crossing, where the nave, running west to east, meets the north and south transepts. Completely normal, but the octagonal lantern crowning the crossing was not at all normal. It was a marvel of stone, wood, stained glass and paint that really needs to be seen to be appreciated, although I did take some photographs. If I had entered at the west end, which is apparently the normal route, I might not have been quite as amazed, but coming in from the south the Octagon was the first thing I saw. And although the rest of the cathedral was certainly worth visiting, I kept coming back to the crossing.
The main building was lofty and long, and there was an additional, huge, lady chapel. The volunteer who took me round told me that it had been founded in 763 as a dual male and female monastery, and there was still a shrine to the female founder, Etheldreda, a Saxon princess. The current building was begun in the late eleventh century when it served a Benedictine monastery, although the Octagon was built in 1322 after the central Norman tower collapsed. Besides the Octagon the choir stalls were certainly worth a look, and the organ, in a case above the stalls, boasted gaily painted pipes. The cathedral even had a small labyrinth built into the floor, possibly Victorian, with very tight corners and not much respect from visitors.

Since Ely is so close to Cambridge – 16 miles, 15 minutes or so by train – and Cambridge is so close to Letchworth – 25 miles, half an hour by train – where I grew up, I am not sure why I had never been there before. True, it is one of the smaller cathedral cities (although St. David’s, in Wales, remains the smallest). But it is a perfectly fine place for a day trip, with the cathedral soaring majestically over the flat fens, a house once occupied by Oliver Cromwell during the first stage of his rise from obscurity to ultimate power, and a rather nice canal.

I skipped the cathedral’s stained glass museum, but I did visit the Cromwell house, of especial interest since I had just enjoyed the Civil War reenactment in Newport Pagnell. The tour ended with a request for visitors to vote on whether they now thought him a hero or a villain. During the tour, informational texts had reported on his reasons for rebellion, concentrating on Charles I’s attempts to change church policy in a more Catholic direction, and trying to debunk the persistent tale that he had been responsible for banning Christmas celebrations. (Having just encountered the first Christmas tree of the 2016 season – in mid October! in Kyoto Station! I must confess to some sympathy for the ban, whoever was responsible.) In the end I voted for hero, although he has never been a favorite of mine.

August 30 – September 2, 2016:
Cambridge, England, not Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I stayed last year. I had booked the Milton Keynes to Cambridge leg with National Express, the coach company, but noticed that the ride would actually be provided by Stagecoach. When my sister dropped me at the Milton Keynes Coachway stop, my bus was not on the departure board, and when I finally got a word with the ticket clerk, I was told they didn’t list other companies. Great. The clerk was besieged, as the ticket machines weren’t working. I was more than ever glad I had bought my ticket ahead of time. The ride was slow, as the bus morphed into a local after Bedford, but it dropped me in the center of town, quite close to Sydney Sussex, where I was staying.
Sydney Sussex, which I had picked because it was small, and likely to be less popular with tourists, turned out to be a disappointment. It’s true that there was a gratifying shortage of tourists, but the chapel was closed for repairs, and I found the dining hall rather plain after Christ Church and Keble (the college’s website claims it is “one of the great Rococo interiors of Cambridge”). Worse, my room was in a modern block, and the walk to the back of the site at night, dark. Whoever designed the block had some strange ideas, as all the rooms featured an unnecessary tall, thin, window, which in my case was opposite the bed and not curtained. A complaint to the porter did produce two men with a roll of black plastic and some tape, which fixed the problem, but why would anyone design it that way? The main,window was perfectly adequate. I also had issues with the mattress, which should have been retired some years back.

Another time I would put up with the tourists and book with one of the colleges with “backs” (i.e. grounds running down to the river Cam), as the backs turned out to be off limits when I first wanted to visit. I did get to spend some time enjoying the river and the views after I bought my ticket for a guided tour of King’s College Chapel. This is arguably the premier sight in Cambridge, with possibly the best fan vaulting in England. The product of the patronage of several kings, principally Henry VI, Richard III (yes, that Richard) and Henry VII, it was begun in 1441 but took nearly 100 years to complete. The fan vaulting, however, was completed in just three years, 1512 to 1515. Although the tour was delayed when the guide failed to turn up, it was worth waiting for. I would have liked to attend choral Evensong in the Chapel, but as with the four cathedrals I had visited, the choir was spending the summer elsewhere and there was no substitute the days I was in town.

Having visited the Ashmolean Museum and the Botanical Gardens in Oxford, I now proceeded to visit the Fitzwilliam Museum and the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge. The Fitzwilliam featured a great deal of china, both Japanese and European, a number of attractive fans, and a temporary exhibition on illuminated manuscripts, but on balance I think I would recommend the Ashmolean. However, there was no question but that Cambridge’s Botanical Gardens were bigger and better, with more varied and educational plantings.

Cambridge’s train station was inconveniently situated out of the center, but the town had a good bus system. I ate a not very good dinner at Bill’s – the chicken initially arrived undercooked – a quite good curry at Vedanta – for which a reservation is recommended – and a filling and delicious appetizer with a side of chips (fries) at Senate. I also drank quite a lot of coffee at various Caffe Nero’s, a chain that knows how to make a proper macchiato (although I have since been informed that I should boycott them because of tax evasion).

Houses and History

August 26-30, 2016: After Chester I headed back south by train to spend the August Bank Holiday weekend with my elder sister. The train was so packed for the run to Crewe that the reservation system had booked a family with kids into the quiet car. The train largely emptied out at Crewe, but the family remained. My sister lives on the edge of the new(ish) town of Milton Keynes. I say edge advisedly, as I could see sheep and later cows from my bedroom window, and one morning we walked to the local church for coffee, and I found that it had been built in the thirteenth century. (Since I was staying with my sister I was no longer restricted to public transport, and she drove me to a couple of sites that might be difficult to reach by bus.)
The first afternoon we visited Wrest Park, although the weather wasn’t very suitable for what is mostly an outdoor attraction. But at least the rain merely threatened. The de Greys first settled at Wrest in the fourteenth century, but the formal gardens were begun in the second half of the seventeenth century by Amabel, the wife of the 10th earl. Further extended in the next century, the finishing touches were supplied by Britain’s great landscape architect ‘Capability’ Brown. The current house itself, built only in the 1830s, is mostly off limits to visitors, but we did see some of the ground floor rooms, resolutely French and unfurnished. After a checkered career in the 20th century, including stints as a military hospital and a research institute, the house and grounds are now in the care of English Heritage. The grounds were extensive, decorated with statues, and with the ‘Long Water’ leading to an impressive baroque pavilion.

The next day we went back to Waddesdon Manor, which we had visited in 2014 for the Christmas decorations. The decorations had been impressive, with plenty of pretty trees in the house, and some imaginative light features in the grounds, but we really hadn’t been able to appreciate the rooms and furnishings. This time we made a day of it, with morning coffee in the cafe in the former stables, a formal (and very good) lunch in the restaurant, a two hour tour of the building with audio guide, and coffee with scones and clotted cream to top things off. I could easily have spend longer, as the house was full of interesting and beautiful objects, and the audio guide was informative. The house was built in the 1870s for Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, who wanted a house in the style of a Loire chateau, where he could entertain weekend guests. We had visited another Rothschild house, Ascott, the last time I stayed with my sister, and that, too, had been well worth seeing.

And on Bank Holiday Monday we went over to Newport Pagnell for a Civil War reenactment. Yes, the English Civil War – I confess that I have now lived in the US long enough that my first thought was of the Union versus the Confederacy, but England had a Civil War, too. Fought between supporters of the monarchy on one side, and Parliament on the other, it started in 1642 and the fighting ended in 1651. Depending on how you look at it, though, it might be said to have finally ended with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Charles I having been executed in 1649. The intervening years had featured first a Commonwealth and then a Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell. It had not been a popular regime, and after Cromwell’s death there was no enthusiasm for continuing it. The monarchy after the war, however, was a different institution than it had been before, when Charles I insisted that he ruled by divine right and could ignore Parliament. I consider the Civil War more important for the development of democracy in England than the Magna Carta, although it seems to be the Magna Carta that gets all the attention.

I have always been a little conflicted about the Civil War. The Royalists (I knew them as Cavaliers, and the opposition as Roundheads, but the reenacters objected to those terms) seemed more dashing and romantic, and the Parliamentarians overly somber and puritanical, but intellectually, of course, I supported Parliament. However, here there was a supporter of Parliament got up with lace collar and cuffs, and it is certainly true that even aristocratic families could be split over which side to support. The reenactment itself was a bit sedate, and seemed to be more for the participants than the audience, as despite a lot of gunfire and even cannon fire, no one acted killed or injured during the half hour we watched. There was a fair amount of marching and drumming, and the small contingent of horse galloped around every so often, but it was mostly a big photo op. Off the field of battle tents were set up with various demonstrations and I was pleased to see a spinning wheel actually in use.

August 25: Chester would make a reasonable base for a day trip to Liverpool, which I am told now has a revitalized river area, with good new museums. However, none of the museums particularly interested me, and I chose to visit Port Sunlight on the Wirral peninsula instead. Although my elder sister and her family had lived on the Wirral, between the Mersey and the Dee, for some years, and we had visited often, somehow we had never gone to Port Sunlight, even though we lived in Letchworth, the First Garden City, a town begun on somewhat similar principles.
Port Sunlight was built as a company town, but it should in no way be confused with the infamous company towns in the US designed by mine owners to effectively enslave their workers. Lord Leverhulme, born William Lever, the founder of Lever Brothers (now part of Unilever), wanted his employees to have healthy accommodation with light and air, and the village was laid out with plenty of open space and facilities for communal activity. He also provided health care for his employees, and was an advocate of old age pensions. Although the excellent small museum informed me that the houses had been built in north-west vernacular style, many of them could have been transplanted from Letchworth, in the south-east. Port Sunlight was begun a couple of decades before Letchworth, but the Quaker founders of the latter were in close contact with Lord Lever, and the 1902 meeting of the Garden City Association was held in Liverpool with Lord Leverhulme presiding, so the similarities are perhaps not surprising. Letchworth, however, was a town rather than a village, much bigger and with a commercial center and multiple factories.

Among the facilities for communal activity were dining halls – separated by sex in the early years – and a hall for concerts. I was interested to discover that the first concert the Beatles performed after Ringo Starr took over as drummer, was held in Port Sunlight. Of course, the village is no longer so tied to Unilever, although there is still a factory on site, and the current arrangements, which include restrictions on the appearance of the buildings, expire next year. The communal ethos led to a mass sign up of volunteers for the First World War, and a large war memorial dominates a central park. Nearby is a memorial area for the victims of the Hillsborough soccer disaster in 1989. In contrast I found an unusual floral sun dial. If you stood on the correct month stone, your shadow would fall on the stone for the hour – one set for “natural” time, and one for summer time. As the instructions pointed out, you needed sunshine for it to work, and therefore I couldn’t try it.

Lord Leverhulme amassed a considerable collection of art, and built a classically-styled museum to hold it. Unfortunately, I was rather tired by the time I visited it, and didn’t spend as much time as it deserved inside. I did admire a considerable collection of Wedgewood china, an unusual Tang horse, and some Pre-Raphaelite paintings.
Walking to one of the two stations serving the village to catch a commuter train back to Chester, I passed a bowling green with a small group of serious-looking men in possession. Further on, a larger group of women were also playing bowls, and on chatting to one of them I learned they were on a group outing. I’m sure Lord Leverhulme would have approved.

Checking Out Chester

August 24-26, 2016: Getting to Chester by rail was not a problem – the Birmingham-bound train duly stopped on request – although it was crowded. Getting from the station to my B&B by bus wasn’t a problem, thanks to my Android phone and its map app. Getting into the Grosvenor Place Guesthouse turned out to be an unexpected problem. My booking instructions said that check-in was at 3:00, but that I could leave luggage at “a laundry round the corner”. I can state definitively that there is no longer a laundry anywhere near the guesthouse. No-one answered the door bell and no-one answered the emergency number listed outside. Fortunately, a couple of men showed up on motor bikes, and were able to rouse someone in the house.

I left my bigger bag, collected the code for the front door, and set off into the very crowded town center in search of lunch. The place I picked, near the cathedral, was more of a tea place, and I indulged in a scone and clotted cream for dessert, with white tea selected from an extensive menu. The dark grey modern tower next door turned out to be a replacement bell tower, while the cathedral was close by in the other direction. Perhaps because it was my fourth cathedral in a week, I was not particularly impressed by Chester, except for the late fourteenth century misericords, which were beautiful. Unconstrained by the religious doctrine manifest elsewhere in the building, the carvers were able to have fun.

The day was fine, and the forecast for the next day not so good, so I walked down to the river and took the last cruise of the day – hardly an economic proposition for the owners, as the fair-sized boat only carried one family and me. I enjoyed this cruise much more than the canal trip in Gloucester, as there were plenty of interesting buildings to admire. Afterwards I did part of the wall walk. Aside from the walls, Chester’s main claim to fame is it’s medieval ‘rows’, the two crossing main streets, originally laid out by the Romans, lined with Tudor style buildings, with arcades. You can walk under the arcades, at ground level, or one level up, in both cases with shelter from sun and rain. These streets were mobbed with tourists during the day, but I quickly discovered that I could shake the crowds simply by going up, and walking above ground.

The day I left Chester I visited the Grosvenor Museum, just round the corner from my rather unsatisfactory guesthouse, and across the street from Chester’s historic racecourse, first used as such in 1539. I found the Roman artifacts surprisingly disappointing, and the impressive display of local silver too brightly lit. I was glad to have seen Chester again, but the crowds convinced me that August was not the best time to visit.

August 22, 23, 2016: Originally I had thought to use Wales’ narrow gauge steam railways as transport, sleeping in Porthmadog and day tripping to the Italianate village of Portmeirion. Then it occurred to me that using a narrow gauge carriage for transport of luggage, on an August weekend, was not one of my better ideas. Plan B was to day trip by narrow gauge from Conwy, but the timetables would have left me only a short time in Portmeirion. Next trip, maybe. Instead I used Conwy as a base for Beaumaris Castle on Anglesey, Bodnant Gardens and Llandudno.
Unfortunately, the weather did not cooperate with my plans for Anglesey. When I woke up and saw the rain, I nearly canceled my visit, but there was always the chance, this being the UK, that the weather would clear up. I took a bus to Bangor, and a second on to Beaumaris via what I believe was the Menai bridge. The bridge was completed in 1826, and I was amused to notice that the driver took his bus through the narrow archway very, very slowly, with only centimeters of clearance to either side. He didn’t have a lot of clearance on some of the roads – maybe lanes would be a better word – once on the island.

I reached Beaumaris, I drank coffee in a cafe opposite the castle, I bought my entrance ticket, still rain, in fact heavier rain. But while I watched the introductory video the day cleared enough for me to walk through the castle and half way round the battlements without recourse to my umbrella (which might not have withstood the wind). Beaumaris was designed as the perfect defensive castle, and though never finished (Edward turned his attention north and the money dried up), photos taken from the air show it to be exactly that, with moat, double defensive walls, and towers. Unfortunately, it is not so obvious on the ground, and after seeing Conwy on this trip, and Caernarfon on earlier trips, I found Beaumaris not worth the trek, although I did rather like the red Welsh dragon emerging from the ground inside. Afterwards, I ate lunch in the Bull’s Head, which had been recommended (whitebait and deviled kidneys, quite good).

My plans for Anglesey had included a visit to Plas Newydd, but this would have required a fifteen to twenty minute trek from and to the bus stop, and it looked like there was going to be more rain, so instead I went back to Conwy, wrote a blog post over coffee, and walked the walls. Skipping Plas Newydd, along with missing Lulworth Cove in Dorset, was one time when having a car would have made a difference.

In complete contrast, the next day featured bright sun. I was able to take a bus (although not one of the Arriva buses covered by the day pass I had just bought) right to the gates of Bodnant Gardens. The absolute best time to visit Bodnant is when the laburnum arcade is in flower, but there was still plenty to see. The site was big, and it was quite a trek to the Far End, mostly through trees and alongside a stream. Some of the trees were remarkable, including the tallest yew and the tallest redwood in the UK. The flowers were back near the entrance, on terraces and round lily ponds below the house, which was not open for visits.

Another bus took me from Bodnant Gardens to the center of Llandudno, on a peninsula north of Conwy. I have distant memories of visiting Llandudno back when I was a child, and I wanted another look at the Great Orme, the massive limestone headland at its far end. A lot of other people also wanted to have a look at it, and the line for the Victorian Tramway, with just one small carriage, was long. I could have ridden the new cable cars, but I have a decreasing tolerance for heights and felt safer on solid ground. Besides, the tram was more fun. The best views of Llandudno’s sweeping half-circle of sand were from the halfway point, where we changed trams, and the tourist clutter at the top was disappointing. If I had felt more energetic, or it had been earlier in the day, I might have walked down, taking in the Bronze Age copper mine on the way, but I didn’t, and it wasn’t, and I rode the tram both ways. The Ormes (there is a lesser one on the eastern side of the bay) are covered with short grass and are good places for hikers and picnickers. I even saw gorse and heather on the way up.

August 20-24, 2016: From Shrewsbury I rejoined the Birmingham to Holyhead train to reach Conwy, on the north coast of Wales. The rails ran quite close to the shore in places, and I enjoyed the views. My B&B was just uphill from the small, on-request station, and the whole town was easily walkable. The B&B, the Gwynfryn, run by friendly hosts busy expanding their operation into a former chapel, was a little frou-frou for my taste, with cute decorations on every available surface and trailing draperies at the window. (I don’t necessarily count the extra pillows and bedspreads, I seem to be always removing those.)
Back when the Welsh were periodically fighting to remain independent of the English, Edward I built a number of castles to keep them quiet. Conwy has not only retained its castle, roofless and floorless but otherwise impressive and in quite good condition, but an almost complete circuit of protective walls around the town center. Visiting the castle costs money, but walking the walls is free. I did both, although while I walked the castle’s battlements, I only went up one of the towers, as the wind was trying to blow me off and I didn’t feel secure enough to take photos, which required two hands. I did see enough to appreciate the castle’s strategic position.

After the castle I visited Conwy’s two house museums. The National Trust property was small and rather bare, but Plas Mawr was big and well decorated. The elaborate Tudor plasterwork had been renovated, and painted in the original colors. Ornate chests flanked four poster beds, a good sized kitchen was next to a scullery with game hanging from the ceiling, and the main bedroom even had its own toilet in a small closet.
Three bridges cross the river Conwy right below the castle: the railway bridge, the modern road bridge (currently partly hidden while renovations are in process), and between the two, Telford’s 1826 suspension bridge, anchored actually into the castle walls at one end. Admission to the NT house included admission to the toll keeper’s cottage at the far end, and I got to walk the bridge as well. I was surprised to learn that the position (and the accompanying cottage) had been auctioned off every three years. The winner got to keep the tolls, and apparently made enough money, and enough of a reputation as a reliable worker, to move on to other things, as records showed continual changeover.

My splurge meal in Conwy was at Watson’s Bistro, just up the street. This turned out to be an excellent choice, for both service and food. I had made an Open Table reservation, as I was eating there on a Saturday night, but the reservation had not made it into the Bistro’s system. Fortunately, my reservation was early, at 7:30. I ate my main course at one table, reserved for 8:30, and my dessert at another, vacated at 8:00. Meanwhile, several couples were turned away. The main course, tender lamb shank with potatoes and vegetables, was delicious, but too much meat given I wanted room for dessert, an excellent Welsh cheese board, complete with descriptions. The house port was quite drinkable and went well with the cheese. My other meals in Conwy were not memorable.