Re-visiting York: And there came raiders from the sea

I love York. Or, if you are of the belief that you cannot love anything on such a slight acquaintance, I at least really, really like it. Regular readers will remember that I was there in December with Half Pint, Darcy, the Duchess and Princi. Our time was limited then, and as my mother noted, we seemed to spend most of the day either in Minster Gate bookshop or eating things at Betty’s. I for one remain entirely unrepentant about the manner in which we occupied our time, but when my family asked if I’d like to go on holiday to York and the moors with them this year, I was pleased at the opportunity to see more of the city.

We took a train from Oxford two days after I graduated. Within sixty seconds of purchasing a coffee in a poorly designed cup at the station, I had distinguished myself by pouring perhaps half of the scalding liquid down my front. It instantly soaked through the unresisting bodice of my dress, at precisely the moment at which our train was announced. My mother, through some sort of pre-verbal communication with the bewildered coffee shop guy, secured a bottle of water for me, which I, in an advanced state of pain and irrationality, promptly poured down my front as well. We boarded the train like a sort of farcical freak show, all in a rush, and I set about trying to fix myself in the train’s bathroom. The scald was disappointingly mild. I am the sort of person who considers pain affronting, and if suffering is necessary, I prefer it to leave some kind of dramatic mark with which to impress people later. This was clearly not going to happen; the skin was red and angry and too painful for clothing, so I improvised a top from a pashmina, but it wasn’t even remotely likely to scar. Feeling both relieved and disappointed, I returned to my seat and passed the journey by napping fitfully and reading the first installment of the Gormenghast trilogy (which is my new major reading project).

York station is exceptionally nice. In general, you can assume that a major city’s train station and its environs are not of the most salubrious character; in York, such is not the case. The station is large and attractive, in a solid way, constructed of characteristic dark yellow brick and containing footbridges which arch over the rails from platform to platform with gratifying delicacy. We arrived in the early afternoon; the day was sunny, and as we set off for our B&B, the route taking us past the Royal York Hotel, over Lendal Bridge, and through the Museum Gardens, the city appeared bright, pretty and welcoming. I remembered my excitement the last time I’d been there, and also the coldness of that December compared with this July afternoon. Re-visiting places is an odd activity, if you think about it. Some places (like my grandparents’ village in Sussex) appear to exist in a kind of benevolent twilight zone, fundamentally unchanging. But most places are never the same way twice, and re-visiting is a kind of negotiating process, where you have to come to terms with your past experiences there while also bothering enough to have new ones. (It’s a theory, anyway.)

We hadn’t managed to do Jorvik, the recreated Viking centre, in the winter, so I was extremely insistent upon it this time around. Led by my mother, we booked tickets ahead of time and, when we showed up to the centre’s doors, were confronted by the arresting figure of a solid man with flowing locks and massive beard, dressed in what was clearly a reproduction Viking outfit. It was historically accurate, thank goodness–no horned helmets here–and surprisingly colourful, consisting of a red tunic and soft tan leather boots. Altogether it was a civilized looking ensemble. As it turned out, according to the display cases in the underground room you first enter, the Vikings were almost inconceivably well-connected people. Their trading networks were vast. In the dig at York, archaeologists have found the usual Frankish and Western European coins and goods, but also a cowrie shell, which suggests a North African connection, lapis lazuli from modern-day Uzbekistan, and fragments of garments made from silk that originated in Istanbul. These were neither primitive nor ignorant people.

The whole point of Jorvik, however, is not to brood philosophically, but to go on the ride. The centre opened in 1974 and features a rather 1970s (though it has apparently been recently updated) kind of fairground ride, where you are strapped into a blue space-age carriage and are ferried via electronic track around a reconstructed Viking village. The lighting is low, and the village is “populated” by mannequins whose resemblance to actual human beings is by no means great, but is sufficient to be disturbing. The carriages actually swivel towards some of the mannequins, and the recorded commentary engages in “conversation” with them. It’s partly endearingly goofy (“Hello, Gunni the Blacksmith! What are you doing?”) and partly terrifying (one of the mannequins turned its head slowly towards me as we approached, and blinked. I swallowed a wail of panic, only to be overcome when a voice behind us turned out to belong to an elderly Viking crone mannequin, who seemed keen to gossip in Old Norse.) The Jorvik ride is also famous for its smells, but the most off-putting thing about them is that they bear almost no resemblance to real smells. The scent of ordure (cow, pig, human) is recognisable; so is the scent of wood smoke, furs, fish, grease. The smell in Jorvik, or the combination of smells or however they do it, is none of these things. It smells filthy, but in a strangely chemical way, dark, bitter and gritty. Impossible to tell what actually constitutes the filth.

After the ride, there is still more to see in the way of artefact cases. I have a tricky time with artefacts; to understand them and appreciate them properly in their own context requires a particular type of imagination which I don’t possess naturally and which I frequently can’t be bothered to summon. But skeletons are a different thing entirely. In a case near the exit lay the skeleton of a young man which, as the staff member standing next to it was explaining, suggested a truly appalling death. He was a young soldier, probably 20, and had been attacked by two or three separate enemy soldiers. He suffered a blow to the leg which chipped the thigh bone–you can actually see it–and, unable to put any weight on his leg, he would probably have known that he was finished. What finally got him, discounting the various relatively minor wounds on his arms, was a blow to the back of the head which virtually decapitated him. But by that point he would have been bleeding freely, essentially hacked to death by a gang of enemy soldiers working together. “But,” said the Jorvik staff member pensively to the assembled and spellbound crowd, “the thing about this boy is that he was loved. The battlefield is thirty miles from York, but he’s buried here. Someone cared enough to bring him all the way back. And he wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. But somebody cared.” He tapped the glass of the display case and gazed tenderly at the gaping skull. “Yeah, this boy was loved.”

With that on our minds, we went to the Minster. It’s an appropriate place to go after Jorvik, since both make use of layers upon layers of history. The Undercroft (crypt) museum of the Minster is brilliantly, lucidly designed and makes it very clear how much building has been done on the site: it began as a Roman fort, but a Norman missionary church was built partly on the same site, and the current Gothic minster also shares foundations with some of the Roman buildings. That evening, though, we didn’t go the museum, just wandered round the cathedral. It is one of the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen–and I’ve seen a lot of churches in the past month, partly as a result of the Assisi tour. The architecture, magisterial though it is (and the Chapter House, which was built in the twelfth century with no central supporting column, but is still standing and in excellent nick, is about the most impressive construction I can think of) has been written about by other people. The memorials are what surprise me. There are so many of them, memorials for every war, every campaign, all the way back to the Indian mutinies and beyond. There are memorials for individuals who died tragic deaths, young captains and lieutenants. One who drowned accidentally in the Ouse. Another was taken captive by Greek brigands in 1871, held for ten days, and then killed, for uncertain reasons. The memorial tablet is detailed–it would have been expensive: “He refused to purchase his own safety with the lives of others”, it reads, in part. Nearly a paragraph is engraved in the stone. A third monument details the life and achievements of a worthy gentleman:

His virtues were equal to his descent;

By abilities he was formed for publick,

By inclination determined to private life…

He was in religion exemplary, in senate impartial,

In friendship sincere, in domestick relation

The best husband, the most indulgent father.

His justly afflicted son, Thomas Lord Malton, to transmit the memory of so great worth to future times, erected this monument.

Morbid it may be, but I could not help hoping, as most people must from time to time, to die as deeply beloved as both the massacred Viking boy and Lord Malton clearly were.

On our way over Lendal Bridge the next day, I noticed a sign on the bridge tower. It read, in part, “In 1677, the predecessors to The York Waterworks Plc received the rights to lease the building in perpetuity, at the rate of one peppercorn per year.” This, as I pointed out to my mother, is precisely the reason why no full-blood American can take Britain completely seriously. (Another reason, of course, is the plethora of villages with names like Giggleswick, Ugthorpe and Nether Poppleton. I jest not.)


Do fidem

I graduated on Monday.

What the hell, you guys. This was not supposed to happen, like, ever. I was meant to come to Oxford and be ridiculously happy and make friends and learn things and never, ever leave. All of those things happened, but now it turns out I have to leave.

Well, sort of. I’m still living in town next year. But I won’t be a student again for a while to come, and I sure as shootin’ won’t ever be an undergraduate again. This probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to me, but it turns out that it is really quite surprising.

The morning I graduated, I woke up so nervous that I felt sick. I’m still not sure why. It might have been motivated by a subconscious fear that my family would do something American and gauche, like cheer at a wildly inappropriate moment, or it might have had to do with the fact that I knew perfectly well what the day would entail: inhumane amounts of clothing experienced simultaneously with extreme heat, stress, uncertainty about where to go and what to do, and a general inclination of circumstances towards the unenjoyable. Actually, most things turned out fine. I had already pre-ordered the BA gown and hood, which is lined with white fur, from Walter’s, the shop where I’d bought both my commoner’s gown in first year and my scholar’s gown after Mods results. I’d completely forgotten about the problem of subfusc when I was packing up my house earlier this month, and had therefore put mine in storage, which forced me to buy an entirely new skirt, shoes and black ribbon for the graduation ceremony. But apart from that, which I’d taken care of before getting to Oxford, all of the regalia proved unproblematic. The woman at Walter’s, whom I’d spoken to on the phone, leaned to me conspiratorially as I left: “I’ve given you a nice hood,” she said in an undertone. (And she had.)

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

Me and the Kid pre-ceremony

We were meant to show up at the lodge and leave our hoods in the rector’s lodgings, before attending a briefing by the Dean of Degrees on how to behave during the ceremony. I met both Darcy and the lawyer in the quad, with their respective families, and although I quickly lost track of the lawyer (finding him again later), Darcy and I went off to the dean’s meeting together. Our Dean of Degrees is one of the modern language tutors, who frequents chapel for the music, so although I’ve never met him officially, his was a familiar face. His duty in this instance is to present us to the Proctors and the Vice-Chancellor formally, to ask them to admit us to the degrees which we’ve worked for. There’s some onus on you as a student, as well; you have to bow at certain points, as a mark of respect, and you have to respond “Do fidem” (“I swear”) to the injunction to uphold the “statutes, privileges, customs and liberties of the University”. This question is posed in Latin, and, as the Dean warned us, it did not sound like a question. Consequently, there is a lot of bleating and mumbling as people try to work out whether their turn to assent has come or not. I think the graduating group of Exeter B.A.s did better than most. We were certainly an improvement on the two hapless men receiving one of the Masters degrees, whose incompetence so greatly surpassed the norm that it even flustered the officials.

There were, I admit, a couple of tricky moments. One of them was the point at which the Vice-Chancellor told us to applaud our families, who were all sitting in the uncomfortable, closely-spaced, high-banked seats of the Sheldonian, watching the ceremonies. He reminded us, pertinently, that we would not have succeeded without them. This is quite true, and it made me feel a bit weepy. (I could see, even from several hundred feet away, that my dad had already succumbed to the same impulse.) When we sat again, I pinched my wrist to deflect the weepiness, and watched the blue-and-rust mural of unidentifiable semi-pagan figures and painted clouds on the ceiling, waiting for the hot prickling sensation behind my eyeballs to disappear.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

It is a very diverting ceiling.

After you say “Do fidem”, you are marched out of the side doors of the Sheldonian and into the Divinity Schools (a massive room in the Bodleian, where they filmed the infirmary in the Harry Potter films). All of our hoods were somehow moved into this room while we were inside, and the ritual is to don the hood before being paraded back through the Sheldonian, three by three, like a weird triumphal procession. I found my labeled bag without apparent difficulty, fastened the hood properly, and cast around for Darcy. He was standing by the window, hoodless. “Someone’s stolen mine,” he said with peculiar calm–so I waited, with the lawyer, for the Development Office minions to find a spare. As a result, we ended up the last three in the procession. “At least our parents will know which ones we are,” I pointed out.

The lawyer, whom I’ve known since freshers week, stood on my right; Darcy, on my left. “It feels rather appropriate to graduate with you,” the lawyer said. “End as you began, after all.” End as you began, and as you continued, I thought: with your friends. The doors opened. We walked in, and through, and bowed to the Vice-Chancellor, and out. We had degrees. We could officially put “B.A. (Oxon.)” after our names. We were really, truly finished.


But I’m not finished here.

I know I started this as an Oxford blog, but it’s become more than that–a travelogue, a sort of incubator for opinion pieces and sketches of places, people, events, a record of thoughts and doings–and I want to keep doing it. In the fall, it will move to a different website, and I’ll keep you all updated on that as it progresses. (I’ll also include a link to the new site here, when it moves.) Meanwhile, the summer beckons: I’m in York at the moment with my parents, which is a good chance to revisit a city I loved six months ago, and a further trip seems to be in the offing in August. Keep coming back, and I’ll keep feeding you!


I called my parents this evening (well, okay, they called me and I missed the call, and then I called them and they missed the call and eventually the Powers That Be got bored of messing with us). After a couple of minutes chatting about my little brother’s social graces (much better than mine as a high school freshman, i.e. he has friends) and my cousin’s awesome music camp where they got a bunch of teenagers to produce a credible Mozart Requiem at the end of the week, my dad casually said, “And of course  we’ve been doing gardening and housework all day for the 4th of July.” And I remembered that, again, I would miss the most quintessentially ‘Murican holiday of all time by being in England. I’ve been missing the 4th of July for years now; since at least the summer of 2010. When people ask me about it, I say that I don’t want to go back–not now, not ever–and that’s true, as far as it goes. I don’t want to live in the States, I don’t want to have a career or start a family or build my life there. But I started my life there, and that does make a difference. Sometimes, especially in the summer, there are things that I miss about America. We do a lot of things pretty poorly, but some things we get right. To wit:

Oreos. I swear they’re smaller here.

Highways. You can’t really do a good road trip in England. It just doesn’t have the same feel to it as this:

The Extraterrestrial Highway–more UFO sightings than anywhere else in the country.

Milkshakes. English shops sell something called “milkshake”. It’s essentially flavoured milk, a sad, pathetic shade of what it claims to be. I particularly miss the ones from Chaps, a downtown Charlottesville institution.

County fairs. Their combination of livestock, quilting and jam exhibitions, healthful snacks such as cotton candy and funnel cake, stomach-dropping rides, all in the dying heat of a late-summer evening…that constitutes my childhood, in some ways.

Heat haze. Where the blacktop meets the horizon and it looks like water.

Flipflops. Every day from April to October.

Ceiling fans. They’re beautiful, they create a delicious breeze, and the low humming sound the blades make is the most comforting in the world.

The Blue Ridge Mountains. Just…unghh.

Sometimes I get really bored of how flat Oxford is.

Guitars being plucked. Like this:

Bandanas are cool. Srsly.

The University of Virginia. Especially the Lawn. And all the frat houses on Rugby Road, which are the most gorgeous big old red-brick neo-Palladian things.

Coffee. Look, I am sorry, but screw instant granules.

Thunderstorms. They just don’t seem to exist in England, and I miss the way the world feels scrubbed and fresh after they pass over.

School buses. Obvi.

Wilderness. In Virginia, you can drive for fifteen minutes and be in the middle of East Jesus Nowhere. In most of England, you can be pretty sure there’s a tea shop somewhere nearby. Which is often a good thing, but sometimes you want to be in East Jesus Nowhere, and uncertain of how you’re going to find civilization again.


The sheer ingenuity of this awful, awful creation must be acknowledged.

Accents. Simply watch O Brother, Where Art Thou?. People actually talk like that. (Not everywhere, of course.)

Summer nights that are warm enough not to need a jumper when you sit outside.

Whitetail deer. Everywhere.

Baseball. Watched on TV on aforementioned warm nights, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Football. Watched in freezing, windy, bright-blue-sky conditions, with a beer. Your team always loses.

Diners (and their cheeseburgers).

Flexible Flyer little red wagons (a brand name which, now that I think about it, sounds like a burlesque act).


Macy’s 4th of July firework display, NYC

A castle on a cloud

There’s a world in my head which is exactly like the real, everyday world, except it’s only the good bits. I am far too easily irritated–or not even irritated, just discouraged–by things that aren’t done properly. (It’s a family trait. My brother used to come home from school in a cloud of enraged misery because, oh, let’s say, a band concert that he was meant to be playing in was disorganized and underprepared. It’s the kind of thing that just happens in life, but we’re not the kind of people who can just shrug it off, or rather, we can but we need to have a mighty good bitch about it first.)

Consequently, whenever I see things done well, or whenever there’s a lovely day, or evening, or a good meal, or a wonderful conversation, they often go into a little file in my head, marked “Perfect World” (well, not actually, but sort of). If, for argument’s sake, there’s a heaven, and if it’s unique to each of us, these are the things that will go into mine.

Here’s my newsflash: I have found the Perfect World’s village shop.

Compton tea room


It’s in Compton, West Sussex. It’s actually a village shop/tea room (which probably explains much of my attraction.) The first half of it is the shop, with a magazine rack that contains not only four different magazines on field sports (two of which had virtually identical headlines, something along the lines of “Find and train the perfect gun dog!”), but also the Literary Review (with a cover article on Oscar Wilde biographies) and Private Eye. Along with chocolates, biscuits and crisps, the shop stocks a small but well-thought-out inventory of essentials: proper cheeses, local sausages and eggs, lavender and honey (also locally sourced), yoghurts both normal and Greek, esoteric juices (pear and raspberry) as well as apple and orange, two pestos, Nutella, sauces–basically, it’s everything that might at some point crop up in a recipe and make you think, “Oh, I need that, but I think we’ve run out.” They also sell fresh vegetables, and probably fruit in the summer, and baking essentials. Nothing is excessive, but nothing is missing. It is literally perfect.



The tea room is in an annexed room on the side, six or seven tables and a window overlooking the village square, pub (an extremely picturesque Coach and Horses) and old well. They sell soup (parsnip and red chilli today, which was well worth it) with cheese scones, jacket potatoes, sausage rolls, baguettes and the like, with tea and coffee, and of course a vast array of homemade sweets: lemon sponge, coffee sponge, chocolate sponge, Victoria sponge (I do love a sponge cake, me), sweet and savoury scones, flapjacks, tiffin slices and chocolate caramel shortbreads.

Also, it’s run by local ladies and they are just the best. The very phrase “local ladies” sums them up. You know what I mean. Efficient service, fabulous cooking, friendly faces.

There is definitely a place for Compton Village Shop and Tea Rooms in my little heaven.

Yorkshire 3: Air and earth have nourished me

Humor me, gentle snowflakes. Quickly–in your heads, please–do a free association with the word “Yorkshire”. What do you come up with? Yorkshire pudding, perhaps. Proper tea. Swaledale sheep. I would hope that at least some of you thought immediately of the moors, and, depending on your level of literacy, of the Brontë sisters. Certainly few people have chronicled the characteristic Yorkshire landscape so memorably, so popularly and, yes, so skillfully (whatever you feel about Heathcliff and Cathy, you don’t forget ‘em.) It would have been thoroughly ridiculous to make a trip to Yorkshire and not visit Haworth parsonage, where Charlotte, Emily and Anne were raised, and where they all lived for most of their adult lives. (This is without even mentioning their impecunious brother Branwell, who passed his brief existence in spectacular mid-Victorian fashion, addicted to opium and alcohol, the creative impulse he shared with his sisters diverted into a dilettante career as a portrait artist and minor poet. He wasn’t unskilled, but he wasted his talents with remarkable single-mindedness, and died at home of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-one, with only his father for company.)

We drove to Haworth over the moors, their wintry expanse stretching away burnt orange and purple under grey skies. I peered out the clouded car window, swiped ineffectively at the condensation with my coat sleeve, watched for about thirty seconds as a patch of clear glass was briefly visible, then repeated the process as the combined breaths of five people refogged the window again. Looking out the front windshield gave a somewhat better view; the car plunged down into steep valleys, through collections of stone houses too small even to be called hamlets, then up onto the tops again. The Yorkshire moors aren’t exactly the Rockies, I grant, but they are quite high enough, and the ascents are steep. Half Pint’s car, which really deserves a medal of some kind, hauled up the incredible hill on the top of which historic Haworth is perched. It was not a slope up which I would have cared to walk, but the car, carrying five of us, wheezed into the parking lot at last. We had been told that Haworth was an extremely busy tourist attraction, particularly popular with the Japanese (and their Nikons), but there was no one else in the parking lot when we got there–just us, and a man with two very large black Labrador dogs, running to fat. I cooed at them whilst Half Pint, the Duchess and Princi commenced a sudden search for one of Princi’s earrings, which she had lost somewhere between the car’s interior and its exterior. Perceiving that Darcy and I were somewhat supernumerary, Half Pint dispatched us to find out ticket prices.

We wandered up around the side of the parsonage and into the front garden. It is an ugly house, shaped like a block of cheese, but solid and well-built, made of the yellow-grey stone that characterizes rural Yorkshire architecture. As the last outpost between tender civilization and the rugged moorland, Haworth could have done much worse. The front garden gate opens directly into the parish cemetery and thence into the church. The cemetery, it transpired, was responsible for some serious contagion in the village in ye olde times; more corpses than the sacred ground could, strictly speaking, accommodate resulted in a massive outbreak of cholera. Public health inspections twenty or thirty years before the Brontës’ time brought this to light, and conditions were amended (one assumes; it’s not actually clear), but I would not perhaps have looked upon the scene as one of such secluded tranquility had I known earlier. The ticket prices were printed on a board outside the front door. It was £5 for students, which was favorable. Princi and the Duchess were not interested, and excused themselves to go shopping, but Darcy, Half Pint and I brassed up and went in.

The house museum is a curious little place. It’s laid out such that you wander from room to room, consulting a glossy pamphlet which tells you what happened in each place. Generally, this information is of a fairly obvious nature (“Mr. Brontë’s study. This is where Patrick Brontë kept his books and wrote his sermons…Kitchen. Here the two house servants would prepare meals…” and so on), but there were one or two interesting tidbits–Emily is thought to have died on the sofa in the front sitting room, which lends it the macabre interest of a relic. In a similar vein, Charlotte’s clothes are on display upstairs in the room that was her bedroom. She was remarkably tiny, even when you remember that people used to be smaller; her shoes are like a child’s. There is, too, the bed in which Branwell died, in another upstairs room, and a room in which are hung some of the portraits that he painted. Looking at them is sad; he was a good enough painter, apprenticed to Thomas Lawrence, one of the most well-respected artists of the day. If he had lived longer and worked harder, he could have been, if not great, then at the very least, even better. But then, the Brontës are a sad family. Even their successes are sad. Emily was simultaneously wild and domesticated, hating to leave home but loving to wander the moors for hours on end, alone, once famously disciplining her unruly dog Keeper with her fists before weeping with remorse. Anne is more enigmatic, her two novels probably the least famous, but she was the only one of the three who managed a career as a governess and teacher. Charlotte married, but died just a year later, pregnant with her first child. Their father outlived them all.

With this on our minds, we emerged from the museum gift shop (which sells all the novels) and set about trying to find the Duchess and Princi. Half Pint texted them both, and we waited for a minute inconclusively by the church, just opposite a pub called the Black Bull. Darcy poked me and pointed at a plaque on the side of the building. It read, “Here Branwell Brontë used to drink himself into a stupor and assault the barmaids” (or near enough). So did the plaque on the next building. In fact, most of the center of Haworth seemed to have been the site of Branwell’s bacchanals. This was incredible, but must have been true. At that moment, Princi and the Duchess appeared at the top of the hill, swinging bags from a secondhand bookshop and looking very pleased with themselves. The evening was drawing in by now (we had set off late, needing the morning to sleep off the night before), but we wanted to see the high street of old Haworth before all the shops shut. The warm golden glow of a shop called Rose & Co. beckoned. It described itself as an Haworth Rose & Coapothecary, but sold all sorts of things: Yorkshire Tea, soaps that looked and smelled like tiny fragrant pastries, badger-hair shaving brushes in a corner, baskets full of shortbread and chutney. In a back room, there were frilly knickers (the temperature the day we visited was not much above freezing, but one supposes they’re hardy up there) and dresses made after vintage patterns. It was all utterly delightful. We left happy and took pictures of ourselves in the street in positions of varying silliness, then headed down the hill, but were stopped by the sight of an old stone building on the high side of the street. It was clearly a shop, and it bore a black-and-gold sign which read THE SOUK. We had to go in.

Well, it was wonderful. It was run by a woman in a tweed waistcoat and pince-nez called Diane, with her assistant who bore a striking resemblance to the character Joanna Lumley plays in Absolutely Fabulous. Joanna Lumley was talking to a man who was clearly a regular but who looked wildly out of place in a Yorkshire moor town, a straggly-haired character in a long shapeless camel-colored coat with a distinctly eccentric air. He glared at me as I moved past him, smiling apologetically. The shop sold vintage and second-hand clothing, shoes, hats, gloves, purses, jewelry. There were some glass decanters ranged along the far wall, but they were impossible to see from the door; you had to walk all the way around the shop to find them. You had to walk all the way around the shop to find anything, because it was crammed full of things and the aisles were about as wide as my waist. I nearly stepped on an unbelievably elderly dog, a liver-and-white cocker spaniel with goiters the size of my doubled fists, which gazed mildly at me, then whiffled a little and collapsed with a wheeze underneath a nearby dress rack. When I got back to the front of the shop, Darcy and the Duchess were trying on waistcoats together, and Princi was experimenting with hats. My eyes lit upon a rack from which hung six or seven corsets. Half Pint looked at them, then at me. I reached for one, and at that moment the straggly-haired man left. Joanna Lumley’s attention, now diverted, turned to me. “Do you want to try one on? You must. Diane can do the laces. Come here. No, not in the middle of the shop, come behind the screen, come on.” She herded me and Half Pint together. I grabbed one, a black-and-gold beauty which looked about the right size. “Diane!” Joanna Lumley shouted. The proprietress appeared and looked me up and down, then at the corset in my hand. “Oh, those are lovely,” she said. “I got them from a fabric factory that had shut down. The material was eighty quid a yard when it was on the market. Now turn around.” Helpless with the effort of trying to comprehend something worth eighty quid a yard, I obeyed. She immediately set about lacing me up. I couldn’t see what was going on behind my back, but from the way it felt, she must have looked somewhat like a deep-sea fisherman hauling up a catch. “Breathe in,” she instructed, then pulled even harder. Darcy and the Duchess had briefly ceased their waistcoat shopping to spectate. I hoped not to pass out. Half Pint was walking circles around me, talking out loud: “A long skirt would be good with that. A black one, maybe with some gold underneath–we’d have to make allowance for the bottom of the corset at the waist, obviously…” She gripped the material, tested it. She and Diane consulted, turned me around, turned me the other way, murmured about fabrics. I felt like a doll. I bought the corset.

At the Souk

The Duchess and Darcy made some purchases (waistcoats and a tartan smoking jacket, respectively: all gorgeous clothing) and we drove back over the darkened hills, the Duchess teaching us a song from the Second World War memorably entitled “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball”, with regional variations. We were booked for dinner at an Italian restaurant in Hebden Bridge, where we drank rather a lot of red wine and consumed rather a lot of pasta, and where the waiter gave Half Pint a free brandy on discovering that it was her birthday. We sang to her, in harmony (as we had done the night before), and returned to the house content.

The next morning, I woke at five. Darcy, who had offered to drive me to the airport, was downstairs soon afterwards. We ate in the dark; Half Pint came down to say goodbye, which was awfully sweet of her, as did Princi (a fact which I forgot in the first edition of this post; mea maxima culpa, and I probably owe Princi a drink for it); and in the dark we left. My flight was from Manchester Airport at nine o’clock that morning. Darcy drove me through a night which did not lighten, down the M60, straight over the sprawling city (with a brief, exciting and unplanned visit to Bolton) and to the airport in perfect time. It is a kindness to drive anyone to the airport, let alone through one of England’s largest metropolitan areas at a peak travel time when it is still dark, and here I will thank him, and register my opinion that he is an officer and a gentleman.

And in two days’ time, back to England–to Cumbria first, then to Oxford for the beginning of Hilary. Stay tuned.

Yorkshire 2: To see a city, once of so much fame

And so we went to York. As English cities go, York is one of the oldest: the Vikings had a settlement there called Jorvik, then the Romans named it Eboracum (a name that still survives in part, in roads around the county called Ebor Way, as streets in leafy suburbia might be called Elm Street or Maple Avenue.) In the fifteenth century, its population was second only to that of London. My mother lived just outside of it, in a village called Haxby, from the ages of nine to eighteen. I was extremely excited.

We took a train from Hebden Bridge, where it is so difficult to find parking that we worried Half Pint wouldn’t make it. Princi bought her a ticket while she parked, and we huddled on the platform, cold and breathing steam into the grey air. Fortunately, Half Pint made it to the platform bang on time. We caught a train which took us forwards as far as Bradford Interchange, then backwards from there to York. This distressed the Duchess, who doesn’t like traveling backwards, but fortunately she wasn’t sick, and we arrived at York station, where my parents used to meet in their courting days, in a little under two hours. The walk from the station to the city centre takes in lovely sights: the city walls, the bridge over the river (the gatehouses of which have been turned into sandwich shops), and the imposing, beautiful Royal York Hotel. As we came in sight of it, memory stirred: not my own, but the memory of a photograph. My mother, only three years older than I am now, beaming at a long table, all in white. My parents had their wedding reception at the Royal York. The neatness of it made me very happy. We carried on under the city walls and towards the Minster.

The Minster is by far one of the most beautiful cathedrals in England. Unfortunately, it also costs £8 to go round it, even with a student discount. If I’d been on my own, I’d happily have stumped up, but the others didn’t seem keen, and we didn’t have time to wait for a service so we could get in for free. Instead, we headed off down a side street in search of a sweet shop, which Darcy said he remembered from a long-ago school trip. We didn’t find it, but we found something just as good: Minster Gate Bookshop, a ramshackle, meandering, four-story secondhand bookshop which also sold prints and engravings. We all immediately burrowed into our various favorite sections: history, classics, fiction, art. I flicked through the prints in search of a present for my mother and suddenly, as if by magic, found a perfect one: a picture of Fountains Abbey. It’s a ruined monastery near the city. There is a twenty-seven-year-old photograph of my father standing under one of its destroyed arches, in a mist so thick that nothing further can be seen–just my dad, his hands in his pockets, gazing up at a crumbling transept arched like a giant’s spine. I bought the print immediately and wandered up and down the stairs collecting books: No Country for Old Men, the shorter poems of Edmund Spenser, and a history of the Wars of the Roses–which, with the print, came to a rather staggering £23. I found Darcy downstairs. “What in God’s name have you got there?” I inquired. He already held two carrier bags full of books, and his arms were piled with another two bags’ worth. The fact that he could justify buying it all because he didn’t have to worry about airline weight restrictions made me envious. “Seriously, what is all of that?” He looked extremely sheepish, rooted through one of the bags. “Biography of Peel…biography of Handel…some history…” He shuffled the books in his arms. “You know, interesting stuff.” “Oh ah. Interesting stuff.” I looked around the room, my eyes alighting on a pile of handsome coffee-table books. I picked one up in mild mockery: “Oh look, a monograph on British basket-hilted swords. What do you reckon?” To my intense dismay, his face lit up and he lunged for it. I held it out of reach. “No–no! Buy what you’re going to buy.” He did. It came to four carrier bags and a total rather larger than my own.

When, days later, I mentioned the bookshop to my mother, she furrowed her brow for a moment, then said, “Is that on Stonegate?” I thought back. I remembered the black-and-white sign high up on a building, the address printed on the receipt. “Yeah,” I said, “it was.” “I know that bookshop,” my mother said; “I used to go in there all the time.” And again I had that odd sensation of the repetition of time, and of the ways in which I’ve made my choice–picked England–and what that means for both her and me.

We headed off down the narrow street (Petergate, I think, this time), but were stymied by the Duchess’s disappearance into a gift shop for cat lovers. She stayed there for quite a while, til we sent Princi in after her. This was not effective; Princi was sucked into the happy vortex of the Duchess’s cat-themed shopping. We could see the two of them through the plate glass in the door, looking at tea towels. Half Pint looked at me with an expressive eyebrow. Darcy was only with difficulty being restrained from walking off in search of sweets. I breathed deeply and went in. The Duchess looked up at me. “Shall I get my mum a calendar, or a nice little apron?” “Umm…the calendar looks all right.” It was called Musical Moggies and consisted of pictures of grinning felines playing musical instruments. “But,” I added, “it’s getting pretty cold out there, so if you could maybe start to decide…” “Oh yeah,” the Duchess said distractedly, “I’m coming.”  I watched for a minute or two as she flicked through cat-bedecked oven mitts, then went outside again. The other two gazed hopefully at me as I stepped out. “I’ve managed to get her to promise to buy something soon,” I said. Half Pint looked patient. Darcy swung his bags in a desultory fashion and resumed his aimless pacing on and off the sidewalk. I was quite happy. I pushed my hands into my pockets and looked at everything: the tight, one-lane street, the overhanging shopfronts, the man with a guitar busking (pretty nicely, for once) on a corner. The cobblestones that lined the side of the road and gutter. The lights in the windows. The neatness of street and sky, the way everything felt secret and old. I like this, I thought. I must come back here.York 3

One of the glories of York–Yorkshire in general, but York in particular–is Betty’s, a family-owned chain of tea rooms. Betty’s has two shops in the city, one on a square in the center of town, and one in a very tiny building in one of the winding, labyrinthine streets we now wandered through. We weren’t entirely sure how to get there. Half Pint and the Duchess whipped out their iPhones. This depressed Darcy, who thought it an un-picturesque way to get directions and was all for simply relying on our senses of direction until we bumped into it. As it turned out, someone noticed the iPhone confusion–a kind woman just going into L.K. Bennett–and she pointed us in the right direction, completely voluntarily, proving yet again how outrageously friendly Northerners are.

The queue for the main Betty’s was ridiculous. It stretched out the door and halfway around the building. We turned with one accord and fled to the small Betty’s on a side street. The queue here was also distressingly long, but at least it was still essentially within doors. It snaked through the small, crowded front room, which was stuffed full of chocolates and teas and fruitcakes, and up a winding staircase to the sanctum sanctorum, the tea room. Princi, Half Pint and the Duchess conferred as to the wisdom of remaining and waiting, and for how long we should wait, and what a reasonable amount of time to wait might be. Darcy and I, who both tend towards the decisive–either you do it and wait as long as you have to, or you don’t compromise at all and don’t do it–looked at the chocolate mice. Darcy eventually took out his new biography of Peel and, propping it against my conveniently-placed shoulder, began to read. After a while, he began to read bits of it out loud to me, which caused not a few curious glances from our neighbors in the queue. I looked back at them. There was, after all, no question of us not going to Betty’s; the Duchess had made it sound so wonderful that it was really one of the primary reasons for us being in York in the first place, and it is famous throughout the North, not to mention the rest of the country. So we queued. I have inherited from my father a profound physical impatience (I loathe queuing and frequently misbehave out of sheer brain-withering boredom), but from my mother have also inherited a capacity of retreat into my own head for long periods of time, which is a lifesaver in such situations. After perhaps twenty minutes, a brisk, black-clad waitress appeared at the top of the stairs and summoned us. We had arrived at the Promised Land.

The tea room glowed red and gold and white and pink. We sat in a table pushed up close to the bow window that overlooked the lane, where a performance artist painted entirely purple perched motionless on an equally purple bicycle. A shy, quite young waitress came and took our orders; I had a smoked salmon omelette, which was precisely as good as I’d hoped it would be, and two pots of Earl Grey. Half Pint’s brother called halfway through lunch. He’s an actor and often flies back and forth between L.A., New York, London and Manchester. He was about to leave for the States again, but he had called to wish her a happy birthday. She hung up the phone quite delighted; it is so nice, after all, to speak to a loved one who lives so far away. We asked to see the cake trolley (we like cake trolleys, as a general rule) and made selections: Half Pint and I had a layered espresso cake, which came complete with a chocolate-covered coffee bean, Darcy had something that looked like chocolate death, with raspberry coulis; the Duchess had a scone, and Princi chose a Yorkshire dessert that resembled bread and butter pudding, minus the sultanas. After some deep but unnecessary confusion about the bill (the notion of separate checks not appearing to have reached the North yet, or at least not the consciousness of the woman who brought our bill), we ambled down the stairs, in mild physical discomfort but otherwise merry, and headed for the Shambles.

ShamblesWe did not know precisely where the Shambles was (were?), but this did not deter us. The iPhones remained unused, and we wandered in what seemed the approximately correct direction before coming upon a fingerpost which was helpfully labeled. We followed it and arrived at the mouth of a street of great tininess (though not, as I had expected, fairy-like in stature–it wasn’t noticeably smaller than some of the lanes in the center of Oxford.) An amiable young couple took a picture of us all at the top of the street, and we went down its length, looking at shops that sold tea and cakes and fudge (these three things seemed virtually inescapable), jewelry and toys and cheese. Darcy pointed out to Princi the two remaining butchers’ shops. In ye olden days, butchers had lined the street and given the area its name: a shambles is an open-air abattoir. (Hence, it would seem, the use of the word to describe a disastrous event.)

By now, night was falling and we returned to the station. After mild concern over where to find the train home, everything was sorted and we rumbled through the darkness back to Hebden Bridge. The night was devoted to Half Pint’s birthday dinner. Her grandmother and aunt, who live locally, and two close friends from school, came over as well, and we all sat round the table in the large dining rom. Half Pint and her mother had made vast cauldrons of lasagna, garlic bread, and green veg, which we consumed with gusto. There was plentiful wine, then a rich chocolate cake, a lemon meringue pie, and truffles beyond measure. We had all dressed nicely, at Half Pint’s request, and sat sipping drinks and watching with delight as she opened her gifts. There is something infinitely nicer about watching someone else get presents and be happy. One’s own happiness is often temporary and marred by one’s awareness of its temporary nature; it is frequently so much easier to repose in another person’s happiness. We went to bed late, full and happy, planning to sleep in the next morning before venturing out across the moors to see one of the most quintessentially Yorkshire sights of all.