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.)


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.

Yorkshire 1: All aboot t’green nobby hills

The titles of these posts are going to come from an extremely entertaining book I’ve just discovered entitled “Yorkshire Dialect Poems”, edited by a fellow called F.W. Moorman. Because dialect is just that good.

Well–we found Princi eventually. She’d had a terrible time on the train from London, which was delayed, but arrived safely, so we threw her in the back of the car and set off for the house. It’s about an hour’s drive, mainly on motorway but, once you’ve turned off it, up a series of increasingly dark and winding country lanes, barely punctuated by the lights of houses. The car labored gamely up these slopes, the sweep of its headlights illuminating drystone fences and windswept fields, before coming to a stop at Half Pint’s gate. After a protracted struggle with the cases, we got them out of the car and into the house, which is a converted barn and very lovely. The entire downstairs is an open-plan sitting room, with doors leading off it into dining rooms, kitchen (complete with refurbished Aga, of which I immediately became very fond), and study. The upstairs is a balcony with doors leading off it into the bedrooms and bathrooms. A wood-burning stove in the main sitting room ensures maximum coziness–it is a wonderfully comfortable house. Half Pint’s mum was out at a holiday party, but had left a fish pie for us in the bottom of the Aga, which we fell upon eagerly. Afterwards we sat around in the sitting room, talking and giggling and working our way steadily through a box of white wine.

I was up around eight the next day, along with Half Pint, and we waited for Darcy to arrive. He was meant to be driving down from Cumbria early in the morning, but his phone had broken and Half Pint was uncertain as to his ability to find the house unaided. “He’s got a sat nav,” I said optimistically, but we both recalled his navigational efforts in Cumbria last spring, and even the prospect of electronic assistance was hardly reassuring. The most unsettling part of it all was that he couldn’t contact us, nor we him. For people of our generation, this is almost unheard-of, and as we sat nursing our cups of tea, it became clear how our parents must have felt when they’d invited friends to stay: with no up-to-the-minute contact, they told you when they aimed to arrive and you hoped for the best. If they were delayed, you waited in ignorance until they could get to a pay phone and explain (hopefully) where they were. This, incidentally, is why the iconic red phone box is disappearing: the rise of mobiles means no one needs them anymore. They’re keeping them in rural areas where signals might be bad, but other than that they’re quickly becoming obsolete.

Remarkably, ten minutes before we were expecting him, Darcy’s car pulled into Half Pint’s driveway. We crowded around and fussed at him while he grinned sheepishly. “The sat nav actually got you here?!” “Well, no,” he admitted. “I just went and asked a farmer up the road. He was very helpful.” Half Pint pondered this for a moment. “Was he tall? What color was his hair? I wonder who that can have been…It was probably Mike,” she added reflectively (or some such name), before bustling off to arrange bedding.

After a quick cup of tea, the four of us packed into Half Pint’s car and headed off on a walk at a place called Hardcastle Crags. It was almost like parts of Virginia–the walk wound around the bottom of a hill, following the course of a stream. There were lots of trees, spaced at convenient distances from one another, and small clambery rocks underfoot, and at one point a bluebell wood, not in bloom at the moment of course, but impressive nonetheless. Bluebell woods are ancient and there are not many left; they’re disappearing swiftly, as so many ancient and beautiful things are doing, and so it was nice to see that the National Trust was interested in preserving and protecting this one. Darcy went mental and spent much of the walk running away from us, like a distracted puppy, to do things like climb trees and scale rocky outcroppings and ford the stream. Once we found him hanging from a branch by all fours like a giant sloth.

The lesser-spotted Darcy sloth

The lesser-spotted Darcy sloth

Another time, Half Pint, Princi and I posed for a picture near the water, only to find, on subsequent examination, that the camera had also caught Darcy halfway up a nearby tree. We peered up at him. “Can’t get down,” he called, disconsolately. But he did, and then proceeded to bound over the landscape until we reached a part of the stream with a large rock close to the bank. As if by magnetic force, he made straight for it, clambered up it, and sat there dangling his legs for a while, grinning like a schoolboy, until the time came for him to try and get back down. The three of us watched him for a moment. Then Half Pint turned to me. “Can you swim?” “Yes.” “Good, because if he falls in, you can go in after him.” “He won’t fall in,” I said, watching Darcy’s singleminded progress, “but he might well get his foot trapped and break an ankle.” We observed him in silence for a while. “But that’s unlikely,” I added hopefully. Half Pint looked at me. “No it’s not.” “Yeah, I know.” We were interrupted by Darcy’s sudden and noisy (but, fortunately, unproblematic) landfall, and after some perfunctory head-shaking, we carried on.

The path ended at a place called Gibson’s Mill, which had a cafe and an outdoor seating area, but, more importantly, a bridge. We all decided more or less simultaneously that a stick race was in order, but my blood sugar had let me down again so I sat on the bridge parapet pricking my finger while the others scouted for sticks. Darcy returned with a stick for me which was closer in size to a small boy bandlog. It was ludicrously disproportionate, like trying to win a drag race in a tank. The only possible way to win would be to drown everyone else’s sticks within the first few seconds. This, of course, did not happen. We dropped ours over the side; mine sank with an almighty kerplosh; the others ran over to the other side of the bridge and jumped up and down with anticipation. Princi’s came out first, then Half Pint’s shortly after, and Darcy’s at a respectable distance. Princi turned to me. “Where’s yours?” “I know where it is,” Darcy said, laughing, and pointed to the stream bed where my log lay, majestically inert. I sulked for about five minutes, feeling hard done by, then lost interest and we carried on back to the car by road, a much quicker walk than the way we’d come.

The Duchess was meant to be arriving in Halifax around three, so we still had some time to kill and spent most of it in a pub in Hebden Bridge, called the Stubbing Wharf. (There was no wharf in sight, but the soup was very good. The cider, on the other hand, was like distilled gnat’s urine.) I exchanged some texts with the Duchess. The coach hadn’t stopped at all on the six-hour drive up and she was very hungry. When we collected her, I fed her some sherbet straws from my bag and we headed straight back to the pub, where she had lunch and Princi, a fiend for chocolate of any description, had some decadent item or other for pudding. I bought a coffee with Bailey’s and waited at the bar, listening to the witticisms of the men next to me, who were enthralled by a label on a beer tap for a variety called Black Sheep. “That,” one of them said with tipsy lucidity, “in’t politically correct, that in’t. They ought to call it Ethnic Sheep or they could get done.” His buddies fell about chortling to themselves. I collected my coffee and hastened upstairs again, leaving another man to remonstrate, “But that’s how you spell Ethnic, B-L-A-C-K.” It was not a conversation you would ever hear in Virginia. I spent a while thinking about it. It wasn’t vicious, they weren’t a lynch mob; they were just casually racist. Was that racism? I wasn’t sure. I sipped the coffee with Bailey’s, felt it warm my stomach, and watched Princi destroying her chocolate cheesecake.

We returned to the house in the late afternoon, and Darcy brought in from the car a very ancient board game called Kingmaker. It’s sort of like Wars of the Roses Risk; you get to march troops all over the board (a map of England) and capture nobles and slaughter royals and all the rest of it. I decided to be a Lancastrian and set about systematically murdering Richard of York and his sons, George of Clarence and Richard of Gloucester. (An inestimable loss for literature: bye bye, Richard III.) Half Pint and I even teamed up, but unfortunately we weren’t quick enough to kill the remaining Yorkist, Edward of March. Darcy promptly crowned him, killed the Lancastrian queen Margaret and her son, then revealed his true colors by switching sides, killing Edward and taking control of Henry VI, thereby neatly winning. It was all most exciting and deeply infuriating and I enjoyed it immensely. Fortunately, just after we’d been trounced, Half Pint’s mum announced that roast pork was ready, and we practically climbed over each other in our haste to get at it. It was glorious, but after that and an episode or two of the West Wing, we were sufficiently tired and went to bed. The next day, after all, was York, for which we would need all of our (considerable, in Darcy’s case) energies.

Yorkshire: Prelude

I write this sitting in the kitchen sink. No, not really–I write it sitting at my desk in Virginia. I’ve just gotten home, having been traveling for twenty-two consecutive hours as a result of connection cock-ups and other such fun things. My body thinks it is four in the morning, but my sleep schedule is now so irremediably buggered that it won’t hurt to write up a bit of the first installment of the Famous Five’s adventures in Yorkshire, which have taken up the last four or five days of our lives.

The Duchess, Princi, Guppy and I came back down to Oxford last Wednesday to sing a mini carol concert for a conference being held in college. It was for City professionals (a word I feel more and more inclined to use with inverted commas); they had specifically requested a carol concert but then proceeded to show not the slightest respect for, or even interest in, the very thing they had demanded. The level, not merely of perversity, but of arrogance, which that sort of behavior requires is impressive in and of itself. I can only assure you that if you are ever thinking of doing business with a firm called Morgan Lovell, I have seen hyperactive eight-year-olds more capable of controlling themselves than some of their employees. They were drunk, but grown-ups should be grown-ups, or at least make a solid effort. Some of them did. It would have been amusing if it weren’t so embarrassing.

The next two days I stayed in Oxford reading for the first essay of Hilary. It seemed as good a thing as any to do with the time; no one likes the panicked rush of late noughth week/early first week, where you have to revise for collections as well as writing your first essay, always in less than a week and frequently in as few as three days. So until Saturday, I ensconced myself in first the EFL, then the Upper Reading Room (and Blackwell’s when those two got boring) to read about the generic history and tradition of medieval folk drama underlying Shakespeare’s so-called problem plays (Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure, and All’s Well that Ends Well.) The work went smoothly, and on Saturday morning I got up at eight, having arranged to have breakfast with Hawkeye at Patisserie Valerie. I don’t usually do breakfast with people (physically incapable of it, mostly), but my train was at noon and it seemed the only way to see Hawkeye at all before leaving. Pat Val is virtually the only place open at eight o’clock in the morning, and it was really quite nice: we had croissants and coffee and eggs benedict and talked about the prospect of family Christmases. I was on my way to Yorkshire for Half Pint’s birthday celebrations and needed to get her something to open on the actual day, and Hawkeye needed a Christmas present for his sister, so we popped off to Lush after breakfast and perused slabs of soap the size of cheese wheels, containing seemingly arbitrary ingredients (beer! salt! coal!), before choosing gifts. We parted with a hug outside Thorntons’–he to flee back up the Banbury Road under the onslaught of Saturday-morning Christmas shoppers, and I to try and get a new charger for my phone before heading off to catch the first of the trains that would take me up to Manchester.

That duly accomplished, I betook myself and my case to the station, where I got a Crosscountry train to Birmingham. Crosscountry trains are fast and efficient and for that I am exceedingly grateful, but they also operate a seat-booking policy which generally creates more problems than it solves, and they invariably overbook. I ended up, flustered and awkwardly balancing cup of coffee, purse, hat and coat, asking a nice middle-aged couple to move from the seats they were sitting in, because I had booked one. This, of course, made me feel irrationally guilty and selfish. Fortunately the girl standing in the aisle just behind me was my seatmate. She was obviously a student too, and though we didn’t exchange any particulars, we were amiable to one another, in the pleasant reserved English way that I now like so much. On the way up through the Midlands I drank my coffee and read Anthony Trollope’s doorstop of a Victorian social satire novel, The Way We Live Now (it’s excellent, and written in conveniently sized chapters that let you feel as though you are making progress swiftly.) An hour and a quarter left me on the platform at Birmingham New Street station, where to my great distress I realized that I had four minutes to make my connection. After a brief but frantic search for a departure board, it turned out that the platform on which I was standing was also the platform for Manchester trains, so I relaxed somewhat and sent Half Pint a text letting her know where I was. Another hour and a quarter left me in Manchester.

Following Half Pint’s instructions, I trundled down a set of escalators and out into the pickup area/short stay car park. For a few minutes I waited, shuffling my feet to stave off cold and looking at what I could see of the city from there. It was inconclusive but generally not unpleasant–there was another railway for Manchester’s Metrolink system, a pub on a corner, some vaguely warehouse-like architecture across the road. It looked exciting and urban, but manageable. I liked it at once. Half Pint appeared in her small but valiant car soon afterwards, and after quickly loading my enormous case into her boot, we set off to find a parking lot where we could stay for a few hours. By now it was 3:00, and Princi’s train was meant to be arriving at 5:30, so we had some time to kill in the city and Half Pint wanted to show me the Christmas market.

Manchester’s a big city. It’s not in the least like London–nowhere is very much like London–but it’s certainly the biggest place I’ve been to, other than that, in the UK. (I got an even better sense of this when Darcy drove me through it on the M60, on the way to the airport.) There were also a lot of people out. I suppose they had reason; it was a Saturday in December, it wasn’t oppressively cold, and everyone, but everyone, was Christmas shopping. We threaded our way down a very crowded street towards a large building in the distance, a shopping mall outside of which the Christmas market started. Half Pint dodged street musicians and tram tracks alike with equal aplomb; I stumbled after her, cursing my stylish but impractical heeled boots for their inability to cope with cobblestones, and the general population of Greater Manchester for its inability to cope with the concept of perambulation. (It’s not just Mancunians; no matter where I am, other peoples’ walking habits annoy me; but it was particularly noticeable there and then.)

The Christmas market turned out to be amazing. The whole idea is a German one, but England has adopted it enthusiastically. A dozen city blocks of little wooden huts, selling all manner of lovelies: cheese, beer, olives, paintings, hats and gloves, jewelry, glassware, toys, sweets…it’s like a combination of a farmer’s market, an arts and crafts show, and an American county fair. They sell food too–we declined to consume the incredibly tempting bratwursts that were scenting the air, seeing as Katie’s mother was producing a roast dinner for us that evening, but we did treat ourselves to Gluhwein, a German mulled wine which was served by a fraternity of serious but twinkly-eyed men with competent demeanours and aggressively festive jumpers. I bought presents for the Kid and my parents (the nature of which can only be revealed after Christmas, BUT THEY’RE GREAT). We wandered, very happy, through lit streets, and dropped into a Waterstone’s on our way back to the station, where I induced Half Pint to buy a copy of Trollope’s Lady Anna. (Well, I say that–she appeared keen; I only fueled the fire by giving Trollope in general a glowing report.) I bought nothing but had a happy glance round, and then we went back out into the streets again.

Almost immediately, we came to a very enticing stall selling half a dozen varieties of olive, tapenade, houmous, pesto, and more off-beat delicacies such as whole baby octopi. Half Pint and I began to work our way systematically through every free sample on offer, and were soon accosted by one of the men who worked at the stall. He engaged us at first in conversation upon the virtues of North African pesto, but hearing my accent, quickly segued into, “So where are you from?” “Originally the States,” I said–my standard reply–and he opened his mouth in something like amazement. “I thought you might be a farmer,” he said, an assertion so singular that I was lost for something to say in return. He explained: “I’m from Bristol; you sounded for a minute like you had a really strong rural Gloucestershire twang. Like when you said weird a minute ago.” He pronounced it with an imitatory emphasis on the r: weirrrd. I laughed out loud. “No. I’ve got a very odd accent, but it’s not that.” He appeared delighted, then addressed Half Pint: “What about you?” “I’m from Yorkshire,” she said, truthfully (which, in her accent, comes out as “Yawkshih.”) By degrees, the olive man winkled out the basic story: that I was visiting for a few days, that it was Half Pint’s birthday, that we had more friends coming. He asked what uni we went to. We looked at each other. Saying it public is always a gamble, even in England. Eventually one of us said, “We’re both at Oxford.” If possible, this delighted him even more. “Wow!” He staggered with exaggerated admiration. “This is so cool. I’m talking to real life Oxford people.”

There’s a certain way that some people respond that makes you feel like a curiosity: a two-headed sheep, perhaps. And there’s another way that’s bound to get your hackles up, a kind of dismissive, defiant indifference born of insecurity on the part of whoever you’re talking to. There’s a way that’s equally irritating because it consists of blind awe and the unquestioning assumption that you and all your friends go to lectures in white tie. Then there’s the way this guy responded–the impressed serenity that belongs to someone genuinely secure in himself and really, honestly happy to show curiosity. Such people are inquisitive and interested, but totally unthreatened. It’s rare, and it’s so nice when you occasionally do meet with it.

In any case, he gave me a baby octopus head to try. It was white and purple, shaped a bit like an earlobe, chewy and rubbery but not altogether unpleasant. Half Pint ate a tentacle, which I thought was even braver, and we resolved to buy some of the dips, to be eaten on her birthday. We picked out black and green tapenade, chilli and garlic houmous, and anchovies in a spicy oil. It was technically meant to be 100 grams of each, but after the money had been handed over and we’d trilled “Merry Christmas!” at each other, Half Pint turned to me as we carried on down the street. “There is no way those are 100 grams each,” she said. I glanced into the bag where the plastic tubs were snugly packed. She was quite right; each one was near to overflowing. “We weren’t even wearing low-cut tops!” she practically shouted, causing a couple of shoppers to glance at us with interest. “A double victory,” I said (as indeed it is when one is successfully charming in the wintertime, when heavy coats and red noses tend to impede such efforts.) We retired, well pleased, to Manchester Piccadilly, and set about trying to find Princi.