Thursday, February 28, 2013



Sean the Sheep
There was just something about that goofy little face. The instant I adopted Sean the Sheep in Wales, he became the rock star of our tour group—loved, admired and even coveted by a sinister few….

“Did Sean sleep well last night?”  I was frequently asked as we boarded the bus each day.

“What did Sean think of York (or the Abbey, or the Museum, or Yorkshire pudding)?” asks others anxious for his opinion.

Then there was Chuck who was more interested in Sean’s private life, “Well, have you fixed Sean up with any ewes yet?”

It must have been his pure animal magnetism that infected 22 mature adults with a sort of sheep mania. They each became doggedly determined to find a “Sean” of their own. Every gift shop between Wales and York was fallen upon by our frenzied group searching for Sean look a-likes, but there were none to be had.  Did I buy the only googly-eyed doorstop in England? In resignation, Paula finally decided on a  stuffed lamb while Brenda, the least maniacal of the group, bought a sheep shaped cookie and promptly ate it. 

Brenda--she's only a carnivore with cookies!
Mania is the only way to describe what happened next to the two brothers, Steve and Larry. By all outward appearances they were sane, professional men, both dentists, enjoying a shared trip with their better halves, Ruthie and Barbara. But the minute Larry laid eyes on Sean, he was like a man possessed. He HAD to have a one exactly like him. His wife Barbara, in order to placate him, frantically scoured the countryside for another Sean but only found miniature Sean clones that she and Larry called Sons-of-Sean. But it just wasn’t good enough. In frustration, he actually offered me 100 pounds (equivalent of $150!) for my Sean. Of course, I could never sell him; I was just as smitten as he was.  I already knew that there was no way I could even give him to my granddaughter and she’s the one I bought him for in the first place!

And then Sean began to disappear.  If Larry couldn’t have a Sean of his own, mine, it seems, was fair game.  He recruited his older brother Steve to join him in a highly organized sheep snatching syndicate.  They became the diabolical duo: Larry would do the snatching while Steve would slip ransom notes into my purse when I wasn’t looking, demanding….what, I wasn’t really sure. 


But, it was the second note that was particularly alarming:



Thankfully Sean was never served up with haggis (a traditional Scottish dish made with organ meat--not very tasty or Jewish for that matter)! He was always returned by these loveable brothers shortly after being “knapped” and no worse for wear except for the wet, sloppy kisses planted on his nose by Larry. But, Sean didn’t seem to mind.
The loveable Sheep Knappers, Steve (L) and Larry (R) with Sean the First. (Sean's in the middle.)
Thanks, Guys for the wonderful memories!

I was a little sad when we drove out of Shap and the Lake District early the next morning knowing that we were on the last leg of our grand gallop around England.  We would be on the road most of the day headed for Edinburgh, our final destination, but we would make a few stops prior to that along the way.  The first was the ruins of the Lanercost Priory in Cumbria.  The Priory, or religious residence, was built in 1169 as an Augustine monastery and is an English Heritage Site. We only stayed long enough at the Priory to take some pictures and then drove on down the road a few miles to see the big attraction of the day, Hadrian’s Wall. 

One of the doors in Lanercost Priory.

Nowhere in England do you find more evidence of Roman occupation than the remains of Hadrian’s Wall. During our jaunt across England, I was always impressed with how many ruins and relics of Roman life there were.  I really shouldn’t have been surprised because after all, the Romans ruled the country for 400 years. There would have naturally been a lot of pots, pans and columns left behind. But, it was Hadrian’s Wall that captured the full legacy of Roman rule over Britain for me. Once I touched the weathered stone wall and saw how it snaked across the miles of fields, I finally understood the scope of Roman dominance.

How and why had the massive wall been built?  The Romans had claimed land as far up as Aberdeen, Scotland but had to fight constant battles for it with the ferocious Picts that lived there. They were an ancient people who had called that land their home for thousands of years and they weren’t going to give it up easily.  When Emperor Hadrian came to the throne in 117AD he decided that the empire needed securing not expanding and ordered an 80 mile fortified wall built across what we know now as northern England.

The wall measured 10’ wide and 15’ tall was 80 miles long with a rampart along the top.  At every mile marker, a small fort was built consisting of a kitchen and barracks and between the forts, were two observation towers.  Along with the smaller forts, 17 larger ones were also incorporated into the wall equipped with gates. For 400 years it stood as a formidable barrier between the warring Picts from the north and disgruntled Britons from the south. Much of the stonework has been pillaged over the centuries but enough is left for us easily impressed tourists to take a picture in front of so we were happy!
Some of what's left of the 80 miles of Hadrian's Wall.

Sean sitting on Hadrian's Wall looking nostalgically over the valley below.

Friends and sheep lovers all, from Left to Right first row: Sean and me, Darlene, Barbara, Joseph, Barbara P., Sue, Cathy. Second row L to R: Paula, Anita (our shy tour guide), Larry, Gervaise with Judith hiding behind her, Ruthie with Brenda hiding behind her, Pat. Last row, L to R: Chuck, Bill, Frank, Harley, John, Rosalie, and Bill.

Gretna Green is the Las Vegas of Scotland. It lies right on the border between England and Scotland and is the place to go for a “quickie” marriage, no questions asked.  5,000 people are married there every year including one out of six Scottish couples.  And, it’s all because in 1754 a law was passed in England and Wales stating that if a parent objected to a child under 18 getting married, they could prevent it.  However, the law did not affect Scotland. Back then, boys 14 and girls 12 could get married with or without consent. Not only that, Scottish law allowed that practically anybody had the authority to conduct the ceremony! All the couple had to do was declare their intention of marrying before two witnesses, then grab the first person that came along to do the deed, and voila! Here comes the bride! There were a couple of famous blacksmith shops doubling as wedding chapels that did bang up business for centuries.

We stopped just long enough to take some pictures of Sean with a very obliging Scottish bag piper and buy some souvenirs. Then it was back on the road to our final destination, Edinburgh. 

 Next time: Edinburgh

Thursday, February 21, 2013


It looked like it was going to be another full day of rain as our big silver bus lumbered out of York and headed northwest towards the Lake District, England’s favorite vacation destination.  I didn’t really mind because the recent rains had made the land vibrantly green but it did make sightseeing a bit of a drag. We would make several stops before the evening was over and at each one the routine was the same: struggle into the wet raincoat and grab the still drippy umbrella.

Our first stop was just outside of York in Skipton. We braved the rain just long enough to take pictures of the ruins of Bolton Abbey, a 12th century Augustinian priory. Bracing my umbrella under my arm while attempting to focus my camera at the same time took special talent I found out.

You can just see Bolton Abbey in the distance.
Bolton Abbey
While there, Sean said hello to his Swaldale cousins.

It wasn’t long before we were well into the Lake District, England’s largest National Park consisting of twenty major lakes.  Interestingly, there is just one body of water called a “lake” in the area; the larger ones are called a mere and the smaller ones, a tarn. This explained the name of the next place we stopped, Grasmere, which is located on the river Rothay and is a half a mile from (lake) Grasmere.  We stopped there not only because it is an appealing riverside village but because it is where the poet William Wordsworth is buried.  It was his home for fourteen years and he was quoted as saying that Grasmere was “the loveliest spot that man hath ever found.”  I visited his peaceful and secluded grave site in the old Grasmere Church Yard next to the river and it was indeed “the loveliest spot”.
The Rothay River flowing next to the Grasmere church and Wordsworth's gravesite.
From left to right, William and Fanny Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth, John Wordsworth.
A door into the Grasmere Church
 The Lake District is also where London born Beatrix Potter (author of classic children’s books like “Peter Rabbit”) considered home.  Beatrix and her family started vacationing in the area when she was sixteen and fell in love with it.  Over her lifetime, this breathtaking landscape became not only her home but her passion.  She used the proceeds from her books to eventually buy fifteen farms and over 4,000 acres of land that she willed to the National Trust to be preserved for all time. Beatrix understood the importance of preserving the culture as well as the natural beauty. And we were going to have lunch at one of her farms.

Gently tucked into grassy hills and framed by stack stone fences sits the 330 year old farm house and barn of Yew Tree Farms.  Used in the movie “Miss Potter” starring Renee Zellweger as her actual home in Hill Top, it is both a working sheep farm and heritage site. Shortly after we arrived, we were welcomed by Caroline and Jon Watson, the current owners, and ushered into the intimate dining room made cozy by the low timbered ceiling and a blazing fire in the fireplace.  No sooner had we sat down when great platters of hearty peasant bread were passed from hand to hand followed by steaming tureens of homemade squash soup. Toasting my backside by the fire, having second and third helpings of the best food I can remember eating and watching the rain fall on a landscape that looked like a painting in the National Museum, I could have stayed there forever.  However, there was another treat for us in store outside.

The house still has many of Beatrix Potter's furnishings.
View from the dining room.

Driveway into the Yew Tree Farms.
We had to brave a rather serious downpour as Jon, in his role as sheep herder, and his dogs demonstrated how they worked together to herd his flock of Herdwick sheep.  It was such a beautiful setting that I wished it could have been a nicer day, but Jon and the sheep didn’t seem to mind, just taking the cold wet weather in stride.  I think it was Brenda, one of the more observant in our group, who wondered why it was that wool shrunk so drastically when washed when you’d think it would have already been preshrunk on a sheep’s back.  Yes, Brenda.  Why is that?

Jon Watson and his sheep dogs in front of the barn.

It was very hard to leave Yew Tree Farms.  I could have so easily unpacked my bags, ordered tea and settled in for a long, long time.  But, reluctantly we boarded the bus and Davie, our driver, very carefully maneuvered our massive coach through tiny country lanes back to the main road and drove on to our hotel in Shap.   On the way, we passed the town of “Giggleswick” and I wondered if it had been named by the same guy who named “Birdlip” in southern England.

We arrived late in the afternoon at our inn, the 200 hundred year old Shap Wells Hotel, located in the middle of the Lake District. It had been miles since we’d passed any kind of settlement and when we turned off the main road, we bumped down a very long secluded driveway surrounded on all sides by a seemingly endless moor. The abundance of rain had transformed the landscape into a spectacular shade of emerald green which was being munched on by a few thousand sheep.  On our right we could see the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement, and farther down was a turbulent rain swollen stream rushing down a hill past the inn, brown with silt.  It was a glorious setting.  At dinner that night, we enjoyed that same view through a massive picture window that framed the wild and natural landscape like a living painting.  

View from the road outside the Shap Wells Hotel in the Lake District.
Part of the Roman ruins on the land in front of the hotel.
Since we were “hotel bound” for the evening, Anita, our tour guide, had given us an assignment.  She asked us to prepare a short presentation about what England meant to us and illustrate it with something costing less than 2 pounds.  We would gather in the lounge after dinner.  It was a contest and a prize would be awarded.

 Each presentation was more impressive than the last. Sue had written a clever poem and Chuck, from memory only, picked out something unique to say about every single one of us. His was so witty and polished, he was certain to be the winner. Then it was my turn.  I had wanted to use Sean, but since he cost a lot more than 2 pounds I had to come up with something else. I finally found a postcard that depicted my favorite English scene which was, of course, sheep and pasture with a cozy cottage in the background. When it came to my turn I simply said, “At first I wanted to show Sean because he will always remind me of the great camaraderie and friendship that has been forged among us all on this trip. And when I think of England, I will think of you all.  However, I chose this postcard because in the end, England to me is its land.  It is the particular green of its hills; the countless sheep that fill me with peace as they innocently graze. It is the stack stone fences erected by hard working farmers using just their hands and the stones from their fields, and it’s the moors carpeted with endless heather.  I can see why so many nations and people have fought to possess this land, this island Eden. It is truly beautiful.”
What England means to me.
Anita’s friend Roger, who drove up to join us for the evening, had been appointed judge.  He complemented everyone on the fine job they did but said he could only pick the one who had touched his heart.  Mine.  I was shocked.  There had been so many deserving ones!  I was humbled and much complimented as I accepted my prize—another stuffed sheep. Sean now had a companion I eventually decided to call Hamish.  Hamish Herdwick, that is.

Sean and Cousin Hamish 
DON’T MISS: The movie, “Miss Potter” starring Renee Zellweger.  It will become one of your favorites. It is definitely one of mine! Watch it at least for the scenes of the Lake District.

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Whitby Abbey
Standing on the windswept cliff, the turbulent North Sea hundreds of feet below me and the stark ruins of Whitby Abbey looming behind me, I felt a little like the “French Lieutenant’s Woman” yearning to see the sails of the ship that would bring my lover back to me.  Well, maybe not, but the setting was dripping with romance anyway.  Stretching out behind me in the distance were wild heather clad moors while far below were the red tiled roofs of Whitby, the former home of rugged whalers and the fearless navigator and explorer Captain Cook. 

View from Whitby Abbey of St. Mary's church, Whitby and the North Sea below.

Sean thought the Abbey
 was very nice but needed a roof.

The cemetery next to St. Mary's church
 overlooking the North Sea
We descended from our dramatic perch on the bluff down the winding 199 step staircase into the center of Whitby, extremely thankful we were going down and not up.  Whitby is now a major tourist destination instead of a whaling and seafaring port and it was packed.   It seemed like everyone wanted to spend a day in this picturesque sea side town with its stunning coast line and I couldn’t blame them.  It was probably going to be one of the last beautiful weekends of the summer.

Decending the 199 stairs down into the town of Whitby.  Great view of the harbor.

Our lunch was supposed to be a treat—an included lunch of a thoroughly English meal of fish and the prerequisite side of thick sliced chips. The treat was that the fish was caught fresh that day, but the turn off was that the whole affair was deep fried and dripping in beef fat. (Sean was smart and ordered the grass plate special.) After wishing I’d skipped lunch, we crawled back into our big silver bus and lumbered out of town through the North York Moors National Park on to our next stop, Castle Howard.  The moors were covered in a sea of deep purple heather that stretched endlessly on the horizon. Alternately dappled in the soft light and shade of billowing rain clouds, it made my heart hurt with its ethereal beauty.  

North Yorkshire Moors National Park
 Castle Howard
View of Castle Howard from the lake
When Castle Howard first came into view the effect was stunning.  Sitting regally on a far away knoll it overlooks lush lawns that gently slope down to a reed lined lake, reflecting the palatial estate on its tranquil surface. Only 15 miles outside of York, it has been the home of the Howard family for more than 300 years, once one of the wealthiest and most influential families in England. However, even though it is impressive on the outside, we didn’t get to see much of the interior. A devastating fire destroyed a large part of the 145 room estate in 1940 leaving a burned out shell. Fortunately enough of the opulent rooms were spared for us to enjoy, but I could still see evidence of blackened walls sadly marring the exquisite three story entry. Since only a small part of the home was open, I spent most of my time outside on the lovely grounds.  Fortunately, the exterior of the Castle is intact and gives the illusion of being the stately home it once was.

Spectacular domed entry way

Exterior of Castle Howard

Besides being famous for having such prestigious owners as the Howards and for having been the setting for Brideshead Revisited, it also contains millions of dollars worth of priceless art from Roman statuary to a Michelangelo drawing. 

 It was really worth making a special trip to see the Castle and Whitby Abbey.  To me, just spending the day in the timeless beauty of Yorkshire made it absolutely worth it. I think I left my heart there.

Sean and I in the magnificent heather clad moors of Yorkshire

Suggested reading:  “Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey” by Lady Carnevon (can-AR-von) A factual account of what it is like to live in a grand English manor both as an owner and servant.

“The Other Queen” by Philippa Gregory.  An historical novel about Mary Queen of Scots and her years of “house arrest” with the Howards (the 6th Earl of Shrewsbury). 

“All Creatures Great and Small” by James Herriot.  Funny and heartwarming, it is the autobiography of a Yorkshire Veterinarian in the 1940's.  A classic.

Next time:  The Lake District and Hadrian's Wall