Aloof, humorless Brits; dingy gray cities and streets choked with tourists – that’s what I expected to find in the UK. But by the time I had toured Edinburgh, Scotland and visited lovely Newcastle, England, it was obvious how ridiculous those stereotypes were; not only had I found warm, welcoming people, the cities were filled with handsome stone architecture and the countryside was exquisitely green.
As with my previous two destinations, I had chosen York in order to visit a friend. For more than two years I had corresponded with the legendary Mike Sowden, otherwise known as “the guy with the big-ass trowel,” a York-based travel writer who blogs at Fevered Mutterings. There was no way I could leave England without meeting Mike in the flesh, especially since I was less than two hours away by train. The morning after my arrival we rendezvoused at York Minster, a great cathedral in the center of the old city that houses the world’s largest single expanse of medieval stained glass. Big-hearted Mike brought along two other visitors from Australia and the three of us spent the entire day and part of the night following Mike around as he peeled away layers of history and exposed York as only a trained archaeologist can. Mike worked for a few seasons on various digs, got his undergraduate degree in archaeology at the University of York in 2004, and promptly left archaeology behind, but not before becoming somewhat of an expert on York.
The history of the city begins in 71 AD when Romans invaded and subdued what is today northern England. They built a fort between the rivers Ouse and Foss and within a few years ships were sailing up the Ouse with merchandise, attracting craftsmen and merchants who settled the town of Eboracum. By the 3rd century a protective stone wall had been built, wealthy people were constructing grand houses with mosaic floors, and public buildings such as a baths began to appear. One of these, a Romancaldarium (steam bath), was discovered during routine construction at the Roman Bath Pub in 1970. The resulting excavation uncovered a well-preserved semi-circular bath with steps at both ends and a nearby plunge pool. Actual footprints and an insignia of a Roman legion; believed to be that of the famous 9th legion that founded the town, are imprinted in the tiles surrounding the bath, which is preserved in a museum beneath the pub.
Roman civilization began to break down in the 4th century and York was all but abandoned. The town fell into ruins and was forgotten for more than three hundred years, until it was given a bishop who built a cathedral inside the old walls. It’s ideal location as a trading place attracted Saxons, who revived the town in the 8th century. By the mid-9th century the town, thought to be named Eofer’s wic (wic meant trading place), was once again flourishing.
The year 866 brought about another transition. Danish Vikings conquered northern England and made York the capital of their kingdom. The city (Jorvik to the Danes) grew rapidly and became a thriving industrial center for wool weaving, blacksmiths, potters, and the manufacture of items such as combs from bone and antler. By 1066 its population may have been as high as 10,000.
In 1068, two years after the Norman Conquest of England, the people of York rebelled. The revolt was put down by William the Conqueror, who immediately built two wooden fortresses on hillocks that are still visible on either side of the river Ouse. Present day Cliffords Tower was built in the mid-13th century to replace the keep of the main castle which burned in 1190. At the end of the day I gazed up at that stone monolith, outlined in sharp relief against the azure night sky by gleaming yellow spotlights, and wondered at the history encased within its ancient walls.
As if we hadn’t abused him enough with our myriad questions, Mike invited the three of us to accompany him on a circumvention of the city’s medieval walls the following day. York has more miles of intact wall than any other city in England. Continue reading
No visit to England is complete without a stop in a traditional English pub and in Newcastle the most famous of them all is the Crown Posada. My friend Val, who has lived in Newcastle all her life, dragged me in the front door and introduced me as a travel writer to the bartender, who immediately began talking about the history of the pub. Fortunately, I had my video camera rolling and captured his comments, however I must admit I had to listen to it about two dozen times before I could understand his brogue and there’s still some words I’m not sure about.
I met Valerie Jamieson almost a year ago, during a visit to Chitwan National Park in southern Nepal. Serendipitously, we had booked weekend safaris at the same lodge and ended up on the same bus back to Pokhara, where she was volunteering at an orphanage and elementary school. We bonded immediately and started meeting every morning for breakfast, where we compared notes on Nepal, shared life stories, and commiserated about getting older and not being able to do all the things we could when we were young. Eventually, Val’s volunteer stint came to an end; she headed for a tour of Tibet prior to returning to her home town of Newcastle, England, with a promise that she’d email me when she got home.
Certain that we were the kind of friends that would last forever, I was surprised when that email never arrived. I thought about writing to her but didn’t want to push the issue if she had no interest in staying in touch. I just assumed she got busy with life or hadn’t really felt the same kind of kinship with me that I had with her. Then one day, months later, I received the following shocker of an email from Val:
“Remember me from Nepal? You might have wondered where I went when I promised to keep in touch by email or that I didn’t think we were friends after all. Well, neither is true! When I went home after Nepal I became more and more ill. You might remember that I had a problem with my eye. The investigations into that led to a CT scan and I was finally diagnosed with a benign brain tumour on 16th March this year. It was benign but very large and was pressing on my brain causing massive swelling and fluid on the brain. I had loads of symptoms (remember I had no sense of smell!) and in the weeks previous my balance went completely amongst a pile of other things but they were all disconnected and I never once thought of a brain tumour. By the time I was diagnosed it was an emergency and I was rushed into hospital that night and given massive doses of steroids etc. I had a full craniotomy on 25th March when the tumour was fully removed and I am home now recovering.”
I had one of those “life is short” moments that always accompanies that kind of news. My next thought was that I was scheduled to be in Edinburgh, Scotland soon, which is just over the border from Newcastle. I emailed Val back, offering to come if she felt well enough to have visitors. Not only did she feel well enough, she insisted I stay with her and even met me at the train station.
My goal in visiting Newcastle was to spend time with Val. I certainly didn’t expect her to be strong enough to show me her home town but not only did she look wonderful, she felt well enough to take me on a walking tour of the city center the following day. We listened to a musician play Irish Pipes in the Central Arcade, wandered through Black Gate and past Castle Keep, spent a couple of hours walking around Quayside on the Tyne River, and capped off the afternoon with a visit to the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art, which occupies an old restored flour mill. Again I was surprised. As a child I had often heard my English grandmother remark that something was, “Like taking coals to Newcastle,” a reference to the extensive coal mining that had occurred in that part of England. Continue reading