If you ever want to read a Romantic poem designed entirely to make you pine away for the English countryside, Matthew Arnold’s 1865 “Thyrsis” is a winner. In three lines, he single-handedly created the phrase that fueled the tourism industry for the town of Oxford for the next century and a half:
And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,
Lovely all times she lies, lovely to-night!—
Just say “dreaming spires” to most Anglophiles and their eyes mist over while they look off into the distance, heaving a long, wistful sigh.
In fact, Oxford has a Bridge of Sighs (an urban bridge based on its Venetian elder):
Its buildings echo with the footsteps of famous writers. You, too, can sit in the Eagle and Child Pub (locally called the Bird and Baby) and have a pint right where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the others in their group The Inklings sat and read from The Narnia Chronicles, Lord of the Rings,or other works.
You can watch scullers on the River Isis:
And if you are a book-lover, you will be drawn like a drug addict to Blackwell’s Booksellers. You fall silent when you enter the door and see the heavy wood beams and walls of books. It is an English Temple to Reading.
So, yes, at the end of the day, you’ll agree that Matthew Arnold got it right. Oxford is a town out to capture your imagination.
Next time: Photos and thoughts from my August 2019 ramblings about Wiltshire
In the 1200s and without due process, the townspeople of Oxford executed two university students accused of killing a woman. Disgusted and fearful for their rights, some scholars walked seventy-six miles eastward into the fens, marshlands that would not be drained for five more centuries. There on the river Cam in 1209 they established Cambridge University, a modest academic center that would grow into a powerhouse educational institution of 31 colleges housing about 600 students each. Though the two universities are rivals, they will be forever linked by the shorthand term of “Oxbridge.”
Make no mistake: no one is joking about the marshland origins now. Cambridge is the wealthiest university in Britain and has such strong technology centers that it is often referred to as Silicon Fen.
As one of the two premier universities, Cambridge with its 114 libraries is also legally entitled to one free copy of every book printed in the country. Its libraries house over 8 million volumes!
Several of the older colleges border the river Cam with lovely greenspaces called the Backs. If you visit, you can inexpensively rent a small, flat-bottomed boat and see the Backs as you pole (“punt”) along the river down to the Mathematical Bridge (originally assembled without a single nail). Don’t be surprised if you see some young boy clinging to the pole mid-river because he held on after getting it stuck in the mud.
You also might want to tour Trinity College where Lord Byron kept a pet bear (to spite the administrators who refused to allow pet dogs). Just be sure to keep off of the courtyard grass. Only members of the college are allowed to walk on it, and there are college officials called Beadles who will tell you in no uncertain terms to remove your feet from their fescue.
If you are a Harry Potter fan, you will be please to stroll along the King’s Parade, stroll into shops selling elegant woolen scarves emblazoned with a college seal (just as it’s done at Hogwarts).
Let yourself be stunned by the shortlist of scholars associated with Cambridge:
Scientists Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Alan Turing
Abolitionist William Wilberforce
Musician Ralph Vaughn Williams
Writers W. M. Thackery, E.M. Forster, A. A. Milne, Michael Crichton, John Donne,
Williams Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Actors Emma Thompson, John Cleese (Monty Python), Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey)
Finally, treat yourself to a spirit-nourishing experience. Close your day of touring by making your way into the King’s College Chapel just before 5 p.m. There you can listen to an evensong service of organ and voices that cannot help but move you. The music spirals up and rolls over the fanned stonework in the high ceiling of this elegant chapel, drawing you heavenward.
And at that moment, you will know that you have been in one of the special places of the mind and heart.
Next Time: Oxford and Its “Dreaming Spires”
Make yourself a note: This Christmas, tune in to hear the King’s College Nine Lessons and Carolson PBS or NPR.
Photo credits: Open source internet
Opening featured photo aerial view of Sissinghurst cottage: Nancy Parrish
You have arrived at the train station in Cambridge, dropped your bags at the quaint, half-timbered B&B, and decided to save the pleasure of studying the town until tomorrow. However, you do very much need a proper English tea.
Before there was a Grantchester television series with an impossibly handsome Anglican vicar named Sidney Chambers (James Norton), there was—and still is—the impossibly charming village of Grantchester, an easy 40-minute walk southwest of Cambridge. This is just the place to find your tea and scones in a quintessentially English country setting.
Your walk begins at the Mathematical Bridge. The legend goes that medieval scholars assembled the wooden bridge without a single nail—just by calculating inclines and pressures. But when modern scholars took it apart to analyze it, they couldn’t reassemble it without braces, screws, and nails. It’s a good story.
Anyway, you stroll from Grantchester Street to Eltisley Avenue and soon find yourself walking a flat earthen path meandering through the Grantchester Meadows. Here and there the River Cam peaks out at you from the soft, green weeping willows overhanging its banks. Bluebells, lilacs, primroses, and cowslip escort the river on its leisurely way. Meadow flowers festoon the fields. No motors disturb your reverie, and so you easily drift into a daydream of walking through Victorian or Edwardian England .
Almost too soon you find yourself coming up to the High Street in Grantchester where you face the pleasing 14th-century stone Church of St. Andrew and St. Mary with its square bell tower. With a turn of the head you see, swathed in ivy, the brick 17th-century Vicarage that was once home to the poet Rupert Brooke and to the novelist Jeffrey Archer. And now, the handsome Sidney Chambers.
But you’ve earned your tea now and so stroll left on Mill Way for just a few yards where you see the Grantchester Orchard Tea Garden. Scattered beneath apple trees are low-slung canvas chairs where have sat relaxed and cozy tea-drinkers ranging from Virginia Woolf to—yourself. Generations of writers, artists, and ramblers have found their ways to this orchard and have spent gentle afternoons in conversation and silence, content in this country grove. Settle in with your tea, strawberry jam, Devon cream, scone and you may agree with Rupert Brooke:
I only know that you may lie
Day long and watch the Cambridge sky
And, flower-lulled in sleepy grass,
Hear the cool lapse of hours pass,
Until the centuries blend and blur
In Grantchester, in Grantchester. . . .
—from “The Old Vicarage, Grantchester” by Rupert Brooke
Next Time: Looking Around Cambridge
Note of apology: This blog has been delayed as I was completing and sending my book The Downton Era: Great Houses, Churchills, and Mitfords to the publisher. Be looking for its launch in late October or early November!
Though Lord Horatio Nelson lost an eye and an arm in battle and shocked public sensibilities by having a public affair, the dashing officer eventually became so beloved by the British public that bystanders burst into tears of admiration when he passed through the streets.
Nelson had risen through the ranks to gain command of his own ship by age 20 in 1778; and he didn’t gain that position by playing it safe. Always leading in the thick of battle, the 30-year-old lost an eye at a battle in Corsica when cannon fire hit a sandbag filled with rocks and sand, sending debris into his face. Later in life at the Battle of Copenhagen Nelson intentionally raised his telescope to his blind eye and turned to his aide, honestly remarking that he had not seen any signal to retreat—and so he ordered an attack.
At age 40 in the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a musket ball hit his right arm and required its amputation. A half hour after the surgery, he returned to duty in the fight.
Early in this meteoric career, while Nelson served duty in the West Indies, he met and married Frances Nesbit. The couple became estranged over time and Nelson fell in love with Emma Hamilton. Frances issued an ultimatum that he must choose between his wife and his lover; he chose Emma and had a daughter with her. His open affair sat uneasy with his peers; and after his death they gave her no financial assistance, causing her to flee debtors with her daughter Horatia. During his lifetime, though, Nelson was so wildly popular that his personal life went virtually unchallenged.
Nelson defeated Napoleon’s eastern fleet at the Battle of the Nile, but it was Nelson’s spectacular strategy in the Battle of Trafalgar that sealed his fame. The battle had huge implications: if Nelson could not defeat the Franco-Spanish navy, Napoleon would certainly invade and perhaps conquer Britain. From the deck of his flagship HMS Victory, Nelson sent his armada a phrase that became legendary in naval history–“England expects that every man will do his duty”—and engaged the enemy.
The battle was won, Britain was saved, but Nelson himself was killed by the bullet of a marksman who recognized Nelson’s rank displayed on his uniform. The brilliant admiral was 47 years old. To preserve his body for burial, his body was placed in a cask of brandy and returned to Gibraltar where he was placed in a coffin filled with wine. Finally, the body was transported back to England where, after a 4-hour service attended by thousands, he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey.
By 1835 his admirers placed his statue atop a column in a London plaza. This is, of course, the famous Trafalgar Square.
If you are lucky to be old enough, for eleven weeks in a row in 1981 you could settle in with your popcorn in front of the tv set and watch young actors Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited. The story was a poignant look at an aristocratic family in the soft twilight of Edwardian England. The story ended with everyone miserable, and I loved it. The family house, named Brideshead, was the first stately home I had ever seen, and it took my breath away.
I much later learned that this home was not a movie set but an actual country house: Castle Howard.
If you drive north from London into the countryside of Yorkshire and about 15 miles northeast of the cathedral city of York, you will discover this residence that has been in the Howard family for over 300 years. No, it’s a great country house rather than a castle, but that doesn’t stop it from impressing. Its art collection rivals that of many small museums, and the house was once so prominent that it even had its own railway station. In its heyday–at 13,000 acres–this family’s estate measured 20 square miles.
But what you should do is take a picnic, sit across the lake, and let yourself study this jewel of art that situates itself as a home. It is stunning and as pleasing as looking at a beautiful painting.
After your picnic lunch, you should wander the grounds to find the follies. Most of us with gardens have small decorative elements in them—fairy houses, St. Francis statues, suncatchers. Great houses have follies: pieces of architecture to decorate the grounds. Each folly has been placed to draw your eyes around the view as though you actually are viewing a painting. Try looking at the picture below: you can’t help but feel your eyes being drawn around the view.
The folly below is called Temple of the Four Winds, and its name plus its Palladian style fulfill another job of a folly: to capture your imagination and make you wonder about what this place has witnessed or who has been here.
It took me 29 years to make my way on a bus tour to Castle Howard, and I only had an hour there.
But it was worth it. My personal Brideshead Revisited.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”—Robert Laurence Binyon (September 1914)
We humans are naturally most aware of the great tragedies occurring during our lifetime. In Vietnam the US suffered 60,000 fatal casualties; 36,000 were killed or wounded in Iraq; 23,000 were killed or wounded in Afghanistan. However, even by these standards, “The Great War”—World War I—shattered the entire world with a new type of warfare creating carnage on a heretofore unimagined scale. The British had over 3 million dead or wounded. Russia had over 9 million. Those left grieving counted in the millions upon millions. Survivors were left disoriented, bewildered, untethered from all that had once seemed good and dependable. Gertrude Stein would name this a “lost generation.”
In 1915 after the Second Battle of Ypres (in Belgium), Canadian physician John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” which said, in part:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row. . .
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
This poem held the kernel of what survivors would cling to: they would never forget those who had died.
Today in Ypres, Belgium, you can see this emotional commitment in statues such as the bas relief memorial showing a dead British soldier flanked by women mourning his death, the British lion roaring its grief. Ascending heavenward like Christ, this soldier is accompanied by an angel carrying a sword and a laurel crown, signaling immortality and reward for his bravery in battle.
You can attend the evening ceremony there at the Menin Gate that has taken place—with only a handful of exceptions—every day for over a hundred years: a poem of remembrance is read; a mournful trumpet sounds its salute; fresh flowers are laid.
A practical aspect of the memorials was that they offered the only focal point possible when the fallen were never recovered or never properly identified. In the heat of battle, army chaplains could only write a soldier’s name on a slip of paper, slip it into a bottle at the burial site, and hope the location might later be marked by a wooden cross.* The British government undertook to establish an Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) to take whatever action necessary to insure a respectful grave or remembrance for each soldier from the British Commonwealth. The Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Belgium is only one of the hundred of WWI cemeteries holding carefully tended graves planted with flowers.
The British government also commissioned famous architect Edwin Lutyens to design an empty tomb as a poignant reminder of the soldiers who would never return to their homeland. And the government very intentionally chose to place this Cenotaph in the middle of Whitehall, London’s busiest street. On November 11, 1920—the second anniversary of the Armistice–when King George V unveiled the monument and tossed “a handful of the soil from a Flanders battlefield into the grave,”* the entire nation was silent and no noise could be heard except for the sound of sobbing women.** For decades, buses would literally stop in London on November 11—Remembrance Day–at the eleventh hour and stand quiet for two minutes.
Even 100 years after the war—in 2014-2018–the British affirmed their faithful remembrance with ceremonies, conferences, and art displays such as the famous ceramic poppies cascading like bleeding tears down the Tower of London:
This war haunted England. They remember.
Next Time: Castle Howard–why “Brideshead” should be Revisited
*The Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011), 239.
**Adam. Hochschild, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 348.
When St. Patrick’s Day comes around, most Americans think of the bridges and pubs of Dublin, shamrocks curled atop foaming pints of Guinness, and bad jokes. (You know you have. Remember the one whose answer is “Patty O’Furniture”?!).
Well, when you think of going to the Republic of Ireland, consider landing on the west coast (at Shannon) rather than the east (at Dublin). Everywhere, everywhere are wee villages and byways where you’ll find yourself smiling as you watch the shepherd slowly move wooly sheep down the road in front of you. Small pubs will tempt you with the creamiest, most luxuriant Irish coffee you’ve ever tasted. The Dingle Peninsula has a shore road that will give you a day’s worth of stunning coastal views. And Killarney has lakes that seem intent on delighting you with brief, soft rains followed by rainbows.
However, the view I’d very much like you to see are the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, an hour north of Shannon. You’ve probably caught a glimpse of them if you’ve seen The Princess Brideor Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; but nothing will prepare you for the jaw-dropping beauty of the cliff themselves.
As you drive up to the orientation center, you’ll smile: they’ve nestled it into a hillside so that it looks just like a Hobbit home. The center is truly informative, and one of the most crucial things they will say is to observe the barriers on the hillside: these barriers will truly protect you from being swept over to the Aran Islands by the west winds.
Safely behind the fencing, then let yourself stare. These 700-foot-high cliffs extend for nearly five miles and seem the embodiment of what a rugged, handsome Irish coast should be.
And that’s no Blarney. If you go, make sure you see them.
Next Time: The Unusual Mourning by the English of World War I
Photo credits: Killarney (vacationKillarney.com), Moher visitor center (arup), Cliffs of Moher (travelandleisure.com)