When you’re tired of London…

Samuel Johnson famously said that when you are tired of London, you are tired of life.

But I do tire of London. Its busy, polyglot, loud and smoggy atmosphere do get to me. But it’s always exciting, with so much to do.

Again I stayed close to the British Library, because the problems with getting everything at Boston Spa meant I had re-ordered a number of items for London. And it all showed up! Looking through the journals, I discovered two more Wellsian pieces that aren’t in the bibiliographies. It’s almost annoying now. Almost, but not quite.

Because I was also able to mention it while attending the H. G. Wells Society’s Annual General Meeting. I am a fairly new member, and have published in their journal, but I had not actually met any of the other members. I was meant to, on an outing to G.B. Shaw’s house planned for September (Wells’ birthday is in September). But it had cancelled.

I was tentative about attending the meeting, because I knew that several people whose work I admire would be there (I’m actually not nearly as confident as I appear in print — well, almost). And indeed, it was a small meeting with all the folks I wanted to meet. Everyone was very kind, and I was introduced as someone engaged in digging up articles by Wells no one knows about. Many of the members study Wells’ literature, rather than history. I very much enjoyed the paper Eric Fitch presented, which reaffirmed how very deep and wide is the interest in Wells. There was a discussion about how to get younger people more interested in his work, but of course there are perennial movies and exhibits based on his science fiction going on all the time.

But man cannot live on Wells alone. One also goes to London for the art museums, and there was a major Van Gogh exhibit on at the Tate Britain. Although the tickets were timed, each group allowed in was huge. It was very difficult to see the pictures:

Can you see any Van Goghs? It wasn’t easy. Everyone wanted in particular to see Sunflowers, which is funny because it’s usually at the National Gallery anyway. There’s quite a rivalry between the Tate Modern and the National Gallery. A couple of years ago I attended a talk at the Turner gallery at the Tate, which has a huge selection of Turners, but not my two favorites, The Fighting Temeraire (soon to be on the £20 note) and the Great Western Railway. They were rather defensive about the fact that those are at the National Gallery.

Not a lot easier to see paintings there, is it? But I am really glad that everyone is so enthusiastic about art!

One also goes to London for theatre. It’s been trickier in recent times to find good, local plays. Over the years, the selection has become increasingly dominated by Americans and big musicals, most of which I’ve already seen. There was Thorton Wilder’s Old Town at the Regents Open Air, and Arthur Miller’s All My Sons with Bill Pullman and Sally Field. Kelsey Grammar is starring in Man of La Mancha, for goshsakes. If I wanted to see American works and performers, I would have stayed in America. My visit was before Present Laughter with Andrew Scott opened, and it was impossible to get in to the only truly British show, Only Fools and Horses (based on a TV show of which I am not particularly fond). But there was one delightful production, at the mysteriously hidden Charing Cross Theatre (it’s under the station bridge): Amour. Music by Michele Legrand (so stunningly beautiful) with a very British libretto by Jeremy Sams, who wrote a charming introduction in the program of what it was like to work with Legrand.

Apparently Amour was on Broadway for only two weeks in 2002, but got five Tony Award nominations. Here it was supposed to run until mid-July, but was closing early. The theatre (audience on two sides, like in-the-round but square) was small, but full. The cast was excellent, the music delightful, the staging original. It was the story of an ordinary clerk, the one who everyone hates because he does his work precisely, who suddenly can walk through walls. Trying to impress the woman he loves even though he’s only ever seen her from afar, he begins committing Robin Hoodesque robberies to get her attention. The ending is sad, but also charming.

So why hasn’t this delightful show done well? I think it’s timing. People want their theatre these days to deal with the social and political trends of the day if they’re going to see something other than Phantom of the Opera. They want Come from Away, or something about family relationships that don’t work. Or they want deep, meaningful stuff like the Pinter series that’s been going for a year (also sold out). I heard one man, who’d seen Amour three times and was sad it was closing early, say he thought it was the title. Or perhaps its continental focus doesn’t work in a time of Brexit.

Here’s something very English from the window of the Transport for London Lost Property office. They’ve not only promised to take care of Paddington; they’ve given him some marmalade.

The new buses are retro, I noticed. When I first returned to England, in 1981, you could board a double-decker bus at either the front or the back. At the front the driver took your money (they used money then), or at the back the conductor would. The back was the quickest way to the top deck. Then for years, as they cut the bus staff in half, they didn’t have a conductor, so the back staircase wasn’t built anymore. But now, thanks to “cashless” technology (use your Oyster card or your contactless credit card), the back is reopened. You can wave your card and go up top.
And last, a photo showing life finding a way, even on the Hungerford Bridge.
I shall miss London. I shall miss England. I always do.

The purpose of museums

One of the reasons for staying in Saltaire was to be near the Bradford Industrial Museum. It’s in a mill, a vestige of the industrial age.

Not as easy as I’d hoped, the bus route takes one to within a few blocks, then you have to walk through a bit of suburb. Industrial museums built in old mills are not, of course, in the center of town.

But what a museum! So many rooms and recreations. At first it seemed deserted — we wandered around the outbuildings before a man came out of the mill (he was on his way to lunch) and invited us inside, telling us where all the exhibits were. He apologized for the steam engine not running, as they’re doing renovations. Then we explored on our own.

The Studio to Selfie exhibit was small, but I loved the idea: exploring photography within the context of modern cultural habits. Translating something historical into modern terms is often a good thing to do. But I was sad because one element was clearly missing among the Victorian photographs, perhaps because it was too gruesome. Death photography was a morbid and fascinating trend in Victorian times, but was not even mentioned. It’s a subject particularly suited to visual analysis, since it was not at all typical (many of the examples that make their way round the web are of living people, just photographed badly). It thus plays into current themes about “fake news”.

The Bradford Industrial Museum obviously has extraordinary knowledge behind it. There are excellent exhibits, many created with a lot of love. But there are too few people presenting it, so it isn’t easy to ask questions. And not everything is labeled, including the many machines attached to the pulleys that were working in the engine room.

The print works were particularly fascinating.

As soon as I saw the sheer quantity of printing machinery, I went in search of a jellygraph, since H.G. Wells wrote about one. I couldn’t find one, nor anyone to ask. There was a wonderful timeline down a wall, showing changes in media over the years, but not relating it to the web or media culture today. In the weaving room, instead of someone actually running a loom, there was a video of someone in that same room running a loom. Efficient, but somewhat bloodless.

The museum is free, which means that the staff is all volunteer, so I don’t blame them for the video or anything else. It was a weekday, and we saw only a few other people visiting.

I’ve seen a lot of changes in museums over the years, and their efforts to bring in new visitors. The addition of multimedia was seen as a cure-all for awhile, but people have, I think, tired of just interacting with more screens when they come into a space that’s supposed to offer something different. Similarly, audio “soundscapes” and video “enactments” (for example, having video of an actor pretending to be a prisoner projected onto a cell wall) have become dull in an age of interactive media. This stuff was too little, too late.

The idea that museums can teach, the pedagogy of the museum visit, may be in difficulty also. This problem is hardly new. I uncovered an H.G. Wells article last week called “Variorum:  Of The Fallacy of Museums” (1895), where Wells explored whether museums work for teaching groups of children. He concluded no, primarily because of the poor organization of museums for this type of learning. You cannot learn about “birds” if you’re a 10-year-old interested in birds, because the information is divided among various areas of the museum. To see the bones of a bird, you go to the skeletons. To see feathers, you go to the taxidermy area. And to see the insides, you go to the jars in the basement. It’s hard to learn that way.

The Science Museum at South Kensington, of course, was really intended as a research institution rather than a place for free public education. But today many museums are assumed to take on this larger task.

Industrial heritage might be a hard sell these days. It’s no longer appropriate just to celebrate machinery, because everyone’s very sensitive to (and guilty about) industrialization. I noticed that all around the Bradford area, the old smokestacks from the mills, though preserved, feature cellular relay antennas. England has found a good use for those tall remnants of smoky industrial might. People are tentative now about celebrating an age that featured not only pollution, but child labor and the death of other romantic notions: the beautiful countryside, hand-crafted items, planned communities.

The interest now is in extremes. That’s why the costumed actors are projected on the walls at places like York Castle Museum. Being imprisoned is an intense experience, so the effort is to get people interested via their emotions. So why be squeamish about death photography? It was an extreme thing, propping up the dead baby in a photo with the other children. That would get people interested — the past has many horrors tinged with sympathy.

I went to London after this, and they’re still lining up at Madame Tussaud’s.

Waxwork of murderer H.H. Crippen

When it first opened in the 1830s, visitors were interested in the “from life” waxworks of people executed during the French Revolution, or wanted to see what their politicians and royalty looked like in the years before television or color photography. Nowadays, the website doesn’t even refer to its history, just the celebrities one can pose with for a selfie. Anna Marie Gresholtz (Madame Tussaud) would love it, with her talent for promotion — see Tussaud’s original catalog here. Although a few of her waxworks may have been from life (or death masks), most of her work was purely imaginative or based on previous portraits. Then, as now, the most popular part of the exhibit was the Chamber of Horrors. This isn’t the first generation to want extreme in their entertainment.

Museums like Bradford will do better once we get over our difficulties celebrating industrialization. But in the meantime, a few death photos, and some solid relationships to current trends, wouldn’t hurt.




Busing round the Dales

I have been planning to ride buses through the Dales for some time, ever since I saw that it was possible, and read Bus-Pass Britain.

Obviously, I don’t have a bus pass, but the book told me about the buses that go through the Dales. There aren’t many, some are locally funded, and many only run in the summer. Well, it’s summer (despite the chilly wet weather), so I was willing to work out how to do it. And my son has come over to England to join me for a week, and he wanted to see the Dales. Since I have no intention of driving, it’s the bus or don’t go.

I chose Saltaire for our stay, since every time someone heard I was a historian focused on the Victorian era, they’d say, “You’ve been to Saltaire, yes?” Um, no. But there happened to be an AirBnb holiday let that’s actually in one of the cottages Titus Salt built for his mill workers, so that was too cool to resist.

First, then, Saltaire. It’s a little bigger than the French Quarter in New Orleans, but similar in that it is a quite perfect place surrounded by imperfect places (in this case, Shipley and Bradford).

It’s a little difficult to manage, because no one seems to eat dinner out here (unless you like fish and chips — then go to Webster’s). The first night we walked to Shipley, and there wasn’t anything there either. But there are wonderful shops, including a butcher and a baker and a co-op grocery with everything. And you can see the Dales in the shots above, but it’s not close enough for me.

So what we did was (takes notes):

Train from Saltaire to Shipley, then change for the train to Ilkley. (This was kind of strange — the Shipley rail station is a bit bizarre, and you get off on one platform, but then have to cross the car park to get to the other.) Walk to the bus stop (quickly, because there is no bathroom at Ilkley station), and catch Bus 74A to Hebden.

Now this is a country bus, which is more like a van than a bus. And it filled right away with local pensioners, leaving only the two seats we took (one of which had to be given up for an older gentleman before our stop). The bus is the only one with a stop at Bolton Abbey, which is far more stunning than it looks in any of the photos. And the driver was fantastically helpful. Knowing (because he drives it) that there is only one bus coming later that day, he told us he’d watch for us.

Have I mentioned that people in the north of England are invariably helpful? As soon as they know you’re a visitor, you get advice on what to do and how to do it. If you’re lost, they help. And they do it all with an extraordinary sense of humor. Yorkshire folks in particular have a deadpan and ironic humor that is very similar to my own — they’re always having you on. So much more fun than in the south. They say northerners are dour, but that’s never been my experience (with the exception of the Left Luggage man at York station).

For example, a woman on the crowded bus had a little dog. When a man got on the bus, they negotiated, since he had a cane and wanted to sit on the aisle for his leg, but she was worried her dog would get crushed, and her argument carried. As he squeezed in to the window seat, he asked, “Is your dog fierce?” and she immediately said “Well, he ate several people for breakfast”, then the woman behind him said, “You’re all right then, since he’s eaten already.”

I thought that Bolton Abbey was just a ruin (thanks, Henry VIII), but it’s a whole estate. The ruined part is there, but so is an active church that still stands in part of the old building. An attendant was there to tell us about the church and its history. And the whole setting is along the glorious River Wharfe, which I had seen in Wetherby but looks completely different here, active and fast-moving.

After a few hours walking around Bolton Abbey (lunch at the Cavendish Pavilion was quite good), our driver returned on the 74A (empty bus this time, so we could chat) to continue on the line to Grassington, through glorious scenery.

He said it was lucky there were enough seats this morning. I said I felt badly if we took away seats from the locals, since we’re only on holiday and they have places they need to go. But he said many of them just ride the bus for something to do, and just ride around all day. I told him if I lived here, I’d do that too!

He then advised us not to stay in Grassington, but to take the next bus to Skipton (Bus 72, which is a little more frequent than the eastern line), since it was market day there and more would be going on. I have learned always to take the advice of bus drivers, so that’s what we did. And the scenery along the way from Grassington to Skipton was, as I hoped, equally glorious to the ride between Ilkley and Grassington.

We happened to get to Skipton Castle just in time for the last entry, so we were the only ones there. We had a whole castle to ourselves for almost an hour.

Skipton Castle is fantastically preserved, and restored thanks to:

From Skipton, which you have to walk across to get to the rail station, it’s an easy train ride back to Saltaire.

So even though it’s tricky, I’d do it again. With the Dalesbus schedule on your mobile phone and the help of Yorkshire bus drivers, you can’t go wrong.

Durham Cathedral in photographs

Durham Cathedral has never allowed photographs. The one time I snuck one I felt so guilty I erased it.

But now, suddenly, there are signs saying you are welcome to photograph. Just please don’t take pictures during a service or of other people’s children. This is only as of March 8. I was told the change in policy is because of the new canon.

So along with a revealed tower, and services where you join a procession, you may now take pictures. Quick, before they change the rules!

This, of course, is my favorite cathedral ever. I have seen York Minster, Salisbury, Ripon (recently), and many others, but to me this is the best. It has to do with the Norman style. It’s not huge and distant like Gothic. It doesn’t pull you upwards, but rather wraps around you like a hug.

It’s grand, and big, but not too grand and big. And those wonderful varied columns. People like them so much they’ve been put on a postcard, just the column designs. A Durham Castle guide today told us they would originally have been painted in bright colors.

He also told us that the now white gallery ceiling in the castle would have been painted bright red and blue, but that Victorian restorationists thought that didn’t look Tudor enough (it was in fact Tudor) and they painted it white. Now if all this is true (and he had the same qualifications as a historian as I do), then it really adds to the story of art history.

You see, like most people, when I look at Greek and Roman statues and buildings, I assume they were always plain and white. But I learned long ago that they were all brightly painted. So now it seems that medieval and Tudor surfaces were also brightly painted, which means that the modernist aesthetic has come to influence our view of the past. That’s rather intriguing.

But painted or not, I certainly appreciate being allowed to take my own photos of this wonderful space.

Opt-out Female Goes to England?

I have been considering writing a travel book about (and for) women of a certain age going solo to visit England from America. There are quite a lot of us here. You can find us chatting with bus drivers, giving money to beggars, and not caring whether our hair is mussed in the wind. I can practically guarantee that when I overhear a friendly conversation between an American female and a male from anywhere else, it’s a woman my age (and often wearing my backpack purse, sensible shoes, and scarf — but I hold the monopoly on the red M&S trench coat).

The title “Opt-out Female” refers to the TSA wanting me to go through the backscatter radiation scanner, and me “opting out” (which you have a legal right to do at the American end). I’ve done this many times, and because I’m female, they yell, “Opt out female!” at the top of their lungs to get a female TSA officer to pat me down. I then wait up to 45 minutes for someone to come.

There are already websites on how to travel alone safely if you’re female, but they tend to emphasize youthful travelers. They have advice on how not to attract too much attention, how not to drink too much, how to stay with a group, etc. Although we-of-a-certain-age are certainly not immune to unsafe situations, let’s just say it is a lower concern than things like: where can I get dried fruit now that I’ve eaten all these carbs? how do I get my heavy bag on and off the train? do I try to converse with the TSA woman in the blue gloves running her hands up and down my thighs?

I am an expert on renting cheap rooms at universities, cooking quick meals from Sainsbury Local, and finding airline-size bottles of Famous Grouse whisky. I can get a bus to almost anywhere (except Holy Island, it seems, because of the tides), so I’m not going to clutter up the book with train advice (except for historic steam trains, of course).

Since I see these other women at all the places I go (second-hand book shops, museums, art galleries) I think there’s an audience. Hmmm. Well, at least if I do it, I’ve posted it here first!


Game of Bags

The saga is over. While it many not be as exciting as the last season of Game of Thrones, to me it’s epic.

Our story began as Lisahild set out on her journey, from the dry, far shore of the New Land to the green valleys of the Old Land. The crossing was peaceful, and yet upon arrival the ship’s knaves damaged her chest of belongings by casting a spell which made one of its wheels disappear. Although she dragged the chest to three different mavens, they offered only their own chests, which were of inferior quality. So she searched and searched and found an enchanted cart to wheel the chest, but the chest did not fit well, and had to be attached by a special set of cords. She then began her journey to the north, hoping to find help among the northern gods.

The enchanted cart was southern, and created obstacles on the voyage north. On the northern carriage, among discontented natives, the cart tried to detach from the chest and return to its native southern climes. Upon arrival in Durhamvale, Lisahild stowed the chest and enchanted cart, and went alone into the town. For the first two days the magical spell of Durhamvale beguilded her and she forgot her quest as she roamed happily among the old towers. But on the third day, the Marketplace appeared, and she was enticed inside.

The Marketplace was captivating. So many remarkable objects, all together, the sort of thing you’d have to travel miles in the south to find individually. A large bag, with blue flowers, appeared in her path. It had a label with numbers, and she wrote the symbols down, then looked for a measure. She had a choice of three, and took one back to the place where her chest was stowed. She measured the chest, then compared to the symbols she’d copied from the blue flower bag, and knew that the one would fit inside the other. Returning to the Marketplace, she was delighted to find another label on the bag that said £40. And there was only the one bag to be had. The gods had smiled!

Exchanging her gold coins for the blue flower bag, she took it back to the dwelling and put her chest inside it. It fit exactly. But then, what to do with the enchanted cart? It was quite heavy, and given its wayward manner could not just be left behind when she journeyed on. But that very morning she had noticed a mystical book shop, full of old books that others had discarded. She wondered whether they might make use of the magic wheels? The proprietor said yes, and was most pleased to have the cart to help with all the heavy books.

Thus endeth the saga of the chest and the bag, as Lisahild journeys forth with both.


Ah, the challenges of travel! I have arrived in Durham, but it was really lucky I never got to Leeds.

Since Wetherby no longer has a rail station, bus or taxi are the only ways in or out without your own car. I have, of course, this awful bag to deal with. The best way by bus seemed to be to go to Leeds (the stop for Bus 7 being right outside my flat door). But strangely, that bus does not go to the Leeds Rail Station, only the bus station, and I’d have to pull my bag quite a ways in a big city. At least I assume it’s a big city, since I never got there.

Instead, I happened to see the night before, by looking up buses online, that it might be possible to get to York without changing buses. I had thought I’d need to pull the bag five blocks to Wetherby bus station, possibly in rain and cold (so much for the post office queue predictions). But they had a new service, and since I happened to be ready to go early, I went outside and waited. Amazingly, it all worked and I got to York early, so I put my bag in the Left Luggage (the sun was out — the young man taking the luggage was grumbling continually that the sun meant more work for him). Of course I went to my favorite place in York: The York Castle Museum. And my favorite place in the York Castle Museum: The Victorian Street.


When I was done, I had some lunch (can’t get enough cheese and chutney sandwiches), then went to the station to buy a ticket to Durham. There were notices and announcements that trains from Leeds were all cancelled, due to a “trespassing” problem. So if I’d gone to Leeds as planned, I would have been stuck. As it was, there was only one train, due to leave in 15 minutes, and the man at the ticket desk said it would be £37, which is really high, and no seat reserved (I had to stand up last time from Leeds to Durham). He told me, “to be honest, you could probably get a better price using the app”. The app? Oh, you mean Trainline? Yes, he said. I thanked him, pulled my awful luggage over, and engaged in panicky work on my phone (I’m not fast on phones). He was right: £16.95 and a seat reservation!

But you see, everyone who couldn’t get a train thanks to the Leeds issue was either waiting on the platform, or had gotten on the train further south. The train had only four carriages (one was first class) and there was no space in baggage sections for my bag, so I dragged it down the aisle. Someone was in the seat I had reserved, and she told me none of the reservations were working today so forget it. The people behind me were getting unhappy, so I maneuvered my bag to the far end of the carriage, and left it in the aisle in a way that people could step over the wheels, and took the last remaining seat (much to the consternation of the gentleman with the cane seated on the aisle).

A strictly uniformed analysis: I will blame (loudly!) the privatisation of British Rail. It makes the railways unresponsive to any urgency. To add more cars in response to the Leeds closure, that particularly railway (CrossCountry) would have needed to have cars in the right place. They can’t, because all the competing companies need space too, and there wouldn’t be enough storage for anything along the lines for all the different carriers.

But it’s all worth it because…Durham.

The pictures give an idea of why I come here. I love it, even though it has nothing to do with my research. When I popped into the Victorian Street sweet shop at the museum in York, I chatted with the proprietess. Mentioning I was working on a project about H.G. Wells, she frowned and said, “but he’s from the south”. I get that reaction up here a lot. Everyone seems to know where H.G. Wells is from, and that it isn’t here.

But, wait. What’s up with the cathedral tower? I usually go to the cathedral as soon as I get into town, and for the past several years the tower has been covered up for repairs. I noticed the lack of coverings as I came upon the cathedral from the river path.

I love the services at Durham Cathedral, but I’m ignorant. I had no idea I was there on Ascension Day, or that because of this the service would be different (I had to walk in a procession down the nave, and inhaled vast quantities of incense). I also had no idea that the celebration was special for another reason, because the tower was being reopened, right after the service. They invited everyone to go outside on Palace Green after the service and listen because the choir, climbing all the way up to the tower, would sing out over the city, followed by bell ringing.

What a wonderful welcome to Durham.


More on Durham: posts from 1 July 2017, 18 September 2018

A day in Wetherby (and only Wetherby)

A sunny morning (and only morning) was promised, so I caught Bus 7 early to the Boston Spa branch of the British Library. I told the driver I wanted a “day pass” instead of “day tripper” and caused confusion, of course.

Really, it takes three days to sort out what everything is called, and what little streets are short-cuts, and where the post office is, and where to eat dinner. But since I usually only stay in one place for three days, I do much bumbling around. And it turns out I didn’t need a day pass, since I only ended up going to the Library.

The Library is less than 3 miles at Wetherby, but I could see on Google Maps it couldn’t be walked because there’s no verge to walk on for the whole middle part. I knew I had to go towards Leeds, then get off at Walton something. Oh dear:

Got off at Walton Corner, walked past a dozen or so houses, crossed the road, followed the signs. It was interesting –pavement only existed from the bus stop to the Library. Despite the pavement, it was obvious that this is a route intended to be driven rather than walked. The guard was at the gate for cars, and the booth where you walk up was empty. “A Reader, are you?” he asked. Yes. He asked my name but didn’t write it down, then pointed at a green line on the pavement and told me to follow it to Reception. Same routine there at the London branch, just in miniature: lockers, clear plastic bags, Readers Card, etc.

I thought I’d be there for just a few minutes, since all but one item I’d ordered had been refused. This was due to Bank Holiday Monday, and me asking the system to do too much. Apparently everything I’d used in London had to go back to storage first, and there wasn’t time to get it to Boston Spa. What was less explainable was that the item I’d forgotten to check in London also wasn’t available, so I talked to staff and a very nice woman not only ordered it for when I was back in London, but called and made sure they got the right one.

So I thought I’d sit down and flip through the one book that did arrive, a journal from 1894. To my knowledge, this particular year didn’t have anything by H.G. Wells — I was more looking to consider writing an article about the journal itself. So I flipped through page by page, since I had time. I turned a page and there was an article by Wells. That’s not supposed to happen. I got out my phone and checked Zotero, my bibliography program, but it wasn’t on my list.

This happened a few months ago. I discovered another item by Wells that wasn’t in the bibliographies. And last week at the British Library in London, I found a review he wrote that no one knew about. But this was another full article, and I don’t think it’s in the bibliographies either. How is this possible that I keep stumbling on unrepublished works that no one knows about? I’m very late to this game. Did previous researches not just sit at the library flipping through the volumes? Isn’t that how one finds these things?

All done, I walked and walked and caught the bus back to town. Just to give you an idea:

Yep, that’s the setting for one of the best libraries on earth. Why doesn’t it have its own stop? Students have a bus directly from Sheffield and York Universities. Most people drive. But lowly foreign scholars have to take the bus and walk. At least there’s pavement. And it wasn’t raining.

Back at the flat, I’m thinking quick errand, then maybe go to Leeds or do something fun. But I needed to post some of the books I bought (have I mentioned that I can’t pass a second-hand books shop?).  Now, I had done advance research on posting books internationally, because every time I come it’s different. In the old days (2015 and before), there was a “book rate”, a cheaper rate if the box only contained printed material. But the last couple of years, there’s been no book rate, but rather a cheaper rate per portion over 2 kg up to 5 kg only if it’s printed material. So I went to the post office, weighed my stack (2.3 kg), bought a big bubble envelope, took it five blocks back to the flat, addressed it with pen I’d brought from America for the purpose, used the scissors I’d brought, and wrapped it thoroughly with the tape I’d brought ( I’ve learned that these are things you have to buy if you don’t bring them).

But when I brought my carefully (and thoroughly – the tape is often the only thing that holds) wrapped package in, they said it would cost twice as much because it was over 2 kg, so it had to go Parcel instead of Royal Mail. The fact that it was books made no difference at all. It didn’t make sense – I’d looked up all the rates in advance. But you can’t argue this sort of thing. To save money, she recommended I divide the package. So I bought two smaller bubble wraps, went back to the flat again and rewrapped. Then back to the post office queue.

Now, the post office queue is traditionally where one learns things, and I learned that the weather is about to warm. Estimates varied from 26 to 30 degrees. This is despite the fact that it’s been so cold here (9 degrees) that I even heard two Yorkshiremen complaining on a bus. So we’ll see. I have noticed that neither BBC Weather or Met Office has accurate weather, so maybe the post office queue has the scoop.

By the time I got it posted, and bought small-denomination stamps to make my collection of 97p stamps good again, it was past 3 pm and there was no time to go anywhere else!


A rippin’ day in Ripon

The bus to Ripon meant a change at Harrogate. So I needed a day pass, for which I had to explain I wanted to go to Ripon. For the uninformed (like me) it’s pronounced “Rippin” as in Rippin’ Yarns, not Ri-pawn. The locals must have thought I was trying to sound posh. Not that an American ever really sounds posh.

I went to see the cathedral. I had seen photos, but I still wasn’t prepared. While it hasn’t displaced Durham Cathedral in my affections, it is now a close second.

So, some photos:

The carving on the right, which dates from the 15th century, is a misericord, and Ripon is apparently famous for them. I knew this, but didn’t know what they were, so I didn’t know where to look. Turns out they’re carvings on the underside of the folding seat in the quire stalls. The one above on the right is thought to be where Lewis Carroll got the idea of the Griffin and the White Rabbit (it shows the rabbit about to hop down a hole to get away).

This is because Carroll (real name Charles Dodgen) was the son of a canon at the Cathedral. Before 1836 it was just a Minster, which is what the clergyman with whom I spoke called the one at Leeds (a diocese since 1878, so obviously a latecomer).

I’ve never seen a cathedral where they let visitors in the library, so this was super special. They had Tudor paintings in there, and a collection of silver and jewels and Anglo-Saxon ornaments found by detectorists looking for cool stuff.

It was like being backstage at a performance.

The west front faced the road coming from the town center, so when I left it made the most sense to go back to the center, but instead I turned right because I felt I hadn’t seen enough of this beautiful place. As I told the clergyman inside, the space was so human — it didn’t feel overwhelming. Must be a feature of these just barely gothic cathedrals, where the Norman influence is still present.

I then went to the Courthouse Museum, where I happily let myself be talked into a pass for all three Ripon museums (I hate spending money, but I love giving it to museums). The Courthouse Museum was small, and the best part was watching a child put together a courtroom puzzle. But the Workhouse Museum, which I visited after having a salad at a cafe, was exceptional.

What they’ve done is reclaimed a whole Workhouse complex that’s been used primarily as offices, and volunteers have been recreating it. So far they’ve got quite a lot done: front parlour of the caretakers, disinfection rooms, cells for the mentally ill. I learned a lot from the excellent signage. Turns out an idiot is someone who is mentally disturbed full-time, while with a lunatic it’s periodic. Made me wonder, since the “luna” refers to moon, whether people became crazy monthly, or whether the moon period is just an example.

The last image is from the infirmary, where there was a small but good collection of medical equipment — this is a breast pump of excellent design. They also had a vaccine kit, with a note that babies were vaccinated too. The museum had a lot for kids, including a kitchen where you could make biscuits and places where you could try on workhouse clothes. There were signs in every room: “Why would you be bathed if you came to live here?” Really well-designed. I spoke with one of the volunteers awhile about the garden, and what was planted in it. Some of the more controversial herbs have been left out, but there was a lot of information there, about using cabbage instead of potatoes in the diet. Far too much to tell in a single blog post!

But that’s what’s so interesting about museums. To look at the brochure, you’d think the Courthouse Museum and the Workhouse Museum (and the Prison and Police Museum, which I didn’t visit) were just about the same. But the Courthouse Museum was basically one (very interesting) room, while the  Workhouse Museum was large and intricate and still in process. You just never know until you go!

True friends, political change, and Wetherby

A friend takes you to the station. A true friend drives you all the way to Wetherby on Bank Holiday Monday right before the Appleby Horse Fair.

Compared to Southern California, there is no traffic here, but for many in the north whatever slows you down is traffic. A horse-drawn caravan certainly does that on a two-lane road (i.e. most of them). As do families trying to get in a visit to a picturesque village or have an ice cream by the river, pretending it’s summer. Jenny drove through all this to get me to Wetherby, where tomorrow I shall begin to pester the British Library staff at the Boston Spa branch.

But first, some gratuitous Yorkshire driving shots:

Today is a rather strange day anyway in the UK, since last night results came in for the European Parliament elections. Back in summer 2016, when I was in Durham, voters demanded Brexit, so there shouldn’t be any need for such an election, because the UK shouldn’t have any members to elect. But since Brexit hasn’t yet happened, new parties have formed, and they ran candidates to be MEPs. The Prime Minister resigned a few days ago, and since I seem to be here whenever anything big happens in UK politics, I will venture my opinion.

        On the way to Wetherby, with canal boats in background

I see the results as a referendum on the Brexit process, which is neither producing Brexit nor going back to Remain. People are frustrated. I suspect that even if they have no idea what the European Parliament does, they voted for a party. So the Brexit party, whose position on Brexit is clear (“Now!”) got the most votes. This is troubling mostly because it mirrors some of the right-wing surge in Europe itself.  But the Liberal Democrats (who clearly wanted Remain) did extremely well also. Labour, under the wishy-washy Corbyn leadership, lost votes from last time, and the Conservatives bottomed out.

Some say the results clearly point toward the need for a second referendum, but I see just the opposite: the Brexiteers have not changed their minds. I have no idea which party a General Election would bring to power. Perhaps none: with at least four possible major parties, there may have to be a coalition government. Greens-LibDems-ChangeUK, I’m thinking, could beat both Labour and Conservative.

But we didn’t talk politics on the drive to Wetherby, which has turned out to be a lovely town (made of sandstone, interestingly) and I’m in a lovely flat overlooking the River Wharfe. I had been seeking the ultimate “room of my own” and this is the perfect writer’s retreat. (That open window, however, let in a large flying insect I have never seen before, and unfortunately I injured it getting it back out the window — this sort of thing happens a lot.)

True friends also help you move the desk across the room so you have a view.