England’s Lake District

From Glasgow we’re driving to the small city of Lincoln in England, but we’ll take a short detour.  I once asked several English couples where they would choose to live in England if they had their choice.  The consensus was “The Lake District”, and we’re passing close to it.  For you poetry buffs, this is William Wordsworth’s stomping grounds (as well as Samuel Coleridge and Robert Southey).  It comprises an area of only 30 miles x 30 miles, and we visited just the less-touristy northern part around Keswick, avoiding Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter sights (although we’re Wordsworth fans).  As you’ll see, The Lake District, with a patch of brightthis pristine area juxtaposes a lush green countryside with treeless hills reminiscent of the Scottish highlands – quite a fascinating mix!  However, getting that lush green comes at a cost; rain, mixed with occasional “bright spots”.  Alas, the pictures below should show brilliant colors (it was fall when we were there), but “gloom” and “brilliant” don’t coexist easily.  Still, there were occasional bright spots like that shown above – which, by the way, was absolutely spectacular, in spite of the gloom!

Near Keswick is the Castlerigg Stone Circle, built in the Neolithic period around 3200 BC.  A little quick math says this circle is 5,000 years old, which is going back aways.  It’s one ofAerial view of the Castlerigg Stone Circle, picture stolen from the internet the earliest stone circles in Britain and possibly in Europe.  From that aerial picture, it contains an unusual rectangular inclusion, called the “sanctuary”.  You may recall our previous encounters with similar stone circles in Scotland and Ireland (Isle of Harris and Southwest Ireland Tour and Traditional Irish Music I).  All these stone circles were built on a relatively high hill or ridges, with a view of the mountains in the distance – presumably in order to align the stones with mountain landmarks and the rising or setting sun at particular times of the year.  Since the heaviest stone is estimated to weigh 16 tons, hauling that sucker uphill must have been a chore, not to mention positioning it (Oops!  Nope.  Another foot to the right, please).  This Castlerigg circle is in a beautiful setting, as you can see below.

The Castlerigg circle lies on a line that would connect the two highest peaks on the horizon.  The 2 front stones face due north, toward a cut in the mountains.  Presumably

the stones served as a celestial calendar for ritual celebrations.  The sanctuary points to where the sun rises on May 1, the ancient (northern hemisphere) spring festival.  Some stones in the circle have been aligned with the midwinter sunrise and various lunar positions.  As in all these (thousands of!) stone circles, their true function is unknown.  Some archeologists link this circle with the nearby Neolithic stone axe industry (ah, early Capitalism!); the circle may have been a meeting place where stone axes were traded or exchanged.  Ritually deposited stone axes have been found all over Britain, suggesting that their use was more than functional (is that the original “bury the hatchet”?).

The day is getting short but we decide to do a quick hike up Latrigg Peak for an overview of Keswick and the nearby Derwentwater Lake.  The mountaintops are pretty much treeless, so there will be good views; but first you have to get there.  The ascent isn’t hard, but it’s

also not short.  The view, however, is worth it.

Now we just have to hike out of here in failing light!  Our reward as we stumble out is the view of cozy lights from the windows of the hillside farms.

Our B&B is in the Newlands Valley just west of Derwentwater Lake, and the vista that greets us is a nice “G’morning, isn’t this gorgeous!”, even though that “bright spot” in theNewlands Valley, from our B&B picture isn’t shining on us.  Today we’re driving a loop that goes through a lot of Lake District scenery: Newlands Valley, Buttermere Village, the Honister Pass, Borrowdale, and Derwentwater Lake.  We’re heading west, and our two-lane road quickly becomes a single lane, as shown in the first picture below (although the road does have turnouts).  The subsequent pictures show picture-book idyllic scenery.

Then it’s up to Newlands Pass, going up treeless mountains as shown in the first picture below.  At the top is a nice waterfall!

And then there’s a colorful descent down to the hamlet of Buttermere and its scenic lake.

As shown below it’s a pretty lake, but even better, it comes with a mountain-high cascading waterfall!  You can barely see it through the mist in the first picture (left side),

but it’s nicely shown in the next one.  The beauty of the long lake is offset by strange denizens – some of the ugliest, shaggiest sheep we’ve ever seen, a breed called Swaledale.  The poor things look like they’ve been assembled from a variety of leftover animal parts.

As we travel further we encounter another waterfall, even more beautiful than the last one!

It’s coming from the cirque above, probably from a small lake.  If that weren’t enough beauty, a little further along the road are a few more waterfalls coming down the

mountains!  That last picture looks back at the previous waterfall.  This is an awesome area!

Looking back on the way to Honister PassWe’re now heading up to glacier-carved Honister Pass.  This picture also looks back at our previous waterfall, far in the distance.  The river adds a new element to this pretty area.

The scenery going to the pass is treeless, stark and otherworldly empty; for perspective, the tiny white dots in the top right

picture below are grazing Swaledale sheep.  Near the top of the pass is England’s last still-functioning slate mine, which one can tour, but we decide to press on.  Going down is steep, but pretty; we have trees again.

Back at the valley floor there are scattered hamlets, and the scenery is again bucolic.

You remember Derwentwater Lake, seen from above during our hike yesterday (shown earlier), right?   When we climbed Latrigg Peak?  Well, now we’ve circled around to the lake’s southern end, at lake level.   The forest is gorgeous in its fall colors, the lake is choppy and gray but still interesting, and we decide to take a short hike along its shore.

Back on the road, the valley is enchantingly beautiful.  In the pictures below, the green of that grass seems impossible, but it’s real.

A few more stops to enjoy the view, shown below, and then we are back at our B&B with

not much of the day left.  Beautiful isn’t it?  The 2nd picture below is our

greeting the next day – another stunning “G’morning”.  Alas, we must leave this magnificent Lake District.  The next post will be from Lincoln; it’s not really on the tourist trail, but it does have a magnificent cathedral.  You’ll see.


Bamburgh Castle

The hill on which Bamburgh Castle sits was a defensive site for thousands of years, taken and lost, damaged and rebuilt over the course of many centuries.  The Britons had an early fort here which was captured by the Anglo-Saxons in 547.  Later, in 607, King Aethelfrith expanded this region to create Northumbria and in 615 renamed the fort Bebbanburgh after his wife, Bebba.  His death in 634 was followed by the usual fight over succession, and his son Oswald fled to the Scottish isle Iona for safety.  This was the home of the monastery that introduced Christianity to the Picts.  When Oswald returned in 635 to oust the Welsh pretender and claim his throne, he brought a monk named Aidan with him from Iona.  Aidan established Christianity’s tenuous toehold in England at nearby Lindisfarne (see previous post “Durham and its Norman Cathedral“, February 6, 2015).  Rival kingdoms continued to contest the region for several centuries, until Bebbanburgh was left in ruins by the Vikings in 993.  The conquering Normans built a new castle on the site, Bamburgh Castlewhich forms the core of today’s Bamburgh Castle.  That square keep in the middle of the picture was built in 1164.  In 1464, during the War of the Roses, Bamburgh endured a 9-month siege; artillery was brought in to the attack, and the castle (but not the sturdy keep) was heavily damaged.   Bamburgh gained the dubious honor of being the first castle in England to be defeated by cannon fire.  During the 18th and 19th centuries the castle was restored by various owners.  The restoration was finally  completed by the wealthy Victorian industrialist William Armstrong in the 1890’s.

Bamburgh Castle, entranceThe front of Bamburgh castle is formidable.  The entrance has features similar to the Moorish forts of the 8th and 9th centuries (described in a much earlier post  – Malaga, Costa del Sol“, Jul 10, 2013).  Given that the bones of this castle were built in the 1100’s, maybe that early style was still in vogue.  An attack through the front gate would have been tough. The approach to the gatehouse was pretty exposed;

once through the first gate, attackers would have had an uphill climb between high inner and outer walls to reach a second gatehouse and those walls would have been well-defended.  Attackers who managed to make it through the second gate would have found themselves in yet another uphill walled corridor, both trapped and exposed.   Run fast and duck a lot!  A model of the castle is shown below.

Before going inside to the staterooms, we’ll show a few exterior pictures.  That last

picture is Lindisfarne Castle, seen from Bamburgh Castle’s battlements.  Lindisfarne, now called Holy Island, is that close.

Into the staterooms we go!  The staterooms bore the brunt of the cannonball attacks and are a rebuild; in particular the (privately lived-in) interior is from the Victorian 1890’s.  That’s a little disappointing given the medieval exterior, but here goes.  We enter a medieval kitchen with 3 giant fireplaces.  It was originally built in the 1300’s, largely destroyed in 1464, then rebuilt in the 1700’s (note the cool bicycle).  After passing a few

small storage rooms we enter the impressive King’s Hall.  Take a look at that fantastic ceiling – it’s teak!  Wow!  Straight ahead is the Cross Hall.  This was the site of the (targeted) owner’s apartments that were destroyed in 1464.

From there we wander halls and and can only peek at the stairs that lead to the current owner’s private rooms. It’s quite a refined castle, really.  Cold and drafty it is not.

There is an armory with interesting armor and weapons, including a crossbow.

At  last we get to go into the keep, descending to a room called the Keep Hall.  The

ceilings are the typical barrel vaults used by the Normans.  In addition to the fireplace, the room has a well, the oldest of 3 on the grounds:  “There is on the west and highest point of this citadel a well, excavated with extraordinary labor, sweet to drink and very pure to the sight” – A History of the Kings of England, Simeon of Durham, AD 774.   The well is 6 feet in diameter and 130 feet deep, through solid stone.

Finally, take a look at this carved stone, discovered in the 1800’s and originally thought to be a piece of a standing cross, but more recently identified as the arm of an Anglo-Saxon

stone chair or throne from around 800 AD.  Since Bamburgh was a royal site, there is a chance it was part of a royal throne, a reconstruction of which is outside the keep.

I’ll finish with 2 more pictures of Bamburgh Castle.  The castle exterior is certainly

impressive, isn’t it? It too has a cinematic history, having been used in films such as Ivanhoe (1952), El Cid (1961), Mary, Queen of Scots (1971), and Elizabeth (1998).

Next stop, Melrose Abbey.

Alnwick Castle

Alnwick CastleAlnwick Castle, like all of England, has history; let us give you some of its flavor.  We’ll begin some 3 decades after the Norman Conquest, before the Castle was built.  The city of Alnwick lay within the region of overlapping claims by English and Scottish kings; as a result, this area was the site of frequent raids.  In about 1096, in response to these raids, the English Baron Vescy built the first part of Alnwick Castle on a natural bluff guarding a road that crossed the River Aln.  The castle was captured by King David I of Scotland in 1139, but was reclaimed (along with the rest of Northumberland) in 1157 by King Henry II of England.  In 1172, and again in 1174, it was besieged by the Scottish King, William the Lion, but in the second siege he spread his army too thin and was captured by English knights.  Some 50 years later the Scottish kings signed the Treaty of York, formally abandoning their claims to the region, and establishing Scotland’s current border.  However, the area was still considered a great source of plunder, and Scottish raids continued.  In 1309 the castle was purchased by Baron Percy, who began construction resulting in the castle pretty much as it appears today.  He built an extensive outer bailey with a series of strong towers, a middle gateway to an inner bailey, also with towers, and added semi-circular towers to the keep, making it a

major fortress along the Anglo-Scottish border.  The garrison in 1314 consisted of 3 knights, 38 fully armed soldiers and 40 mounted troups.  The castle balanced military requirements with the family’s residential needs, and became the template for castle renovations in the 1300’s.

The castle became a focal point in the War of the Roses (1455 – 1487), changing hands 5 times between 1462 and 1464, but it ultimately ended up back in Percy hands.  However, the 7th Earl of Northumberland, Thomas Percy, loyal to the Catholic Church, was a leader in an unsuccessful effort to restore Mary Queen of Scots to the throne and was beheaded for treason in 1572.  After his death, the castle was uninhabited and fell into decay; the Italian Canaletto’s romantic view Detail of Italian painter Canaletto's picture, "View of Alnwick Castle", 1752of the castle, painted in 1752, barely masks its forlorn state of crumbling, cracked, and plant-infested walls.   Fortunately, in 1750 a descendant of the Percys,  Elizabeth Seymour, and her husband the Duke of Northumberland inherited the castle  and decided to make it their principal country seat.  Famous architects including Robert Adam whom we met earlier (“Harewood mansion, near Leeds”, Dec 11, 2014) were hired to transform a medieval castle into a modern (Gothic) palace.  Parts were torn down and rebuilt, a chapel was added, and the interior of the keep was completely transformed (state rooms, grand staircase, etc. were added).  Finally, in the 1850’s the Fourth Duke (Algernon) replaced many of the Gothic decorations with the finest Victorian vision of an opulent Italianate style, and this is the castle one sees today. 

Before we show off this castle, let us mention that there is recent history here too, of the cinema type.  The Castle is picturesque, and has been the site of many movies, including Becket (Peter O’Toole, Richard Burton), Mary Queen of Scots (Vanessa Redgrave), Ivanhoe (Anthony Andrews, Sam Neill), Robin Hood- Prince of Thieves (Kevin Costner), Elizabeth (Cate Blanchett, Joeseh Finnes), Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (you know the actors) and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

So let’s see it!  As shown in the first picture below, you must admit the entrance looks pretty imposing.  Actually this current entrance is not the original main gate that led to the outer bailey; instead, as you pass through this gate what you see ahead of you is … another

Inner bailey - and home to Harry Potter's quidditch matchgate!  That gate ahead of you (with imposing towers) goes directly into the keep.  And if you turned to your right, you would be looking at the inner bailey – quite a large area for stables, growing crops, etc.  Does it look familiar?  It’s Harry Potter’s quidditch field, of course.

The entrance to the keep looks impressive (below), but we’ll get to it later.  We turn to the left and proceed through the  “Middle Gateway”, arriving in an even larger open space, the

outer bailey.  In that last picture above, we’ve walked across the outer bailey and are looking back at the keep, with the Middle Gateway on the far right.

The pictures below show Alnwick’s original main gatehouse that led into the outer bailey.  This gatehouse is Alnwick Castle’s most distinctive military feature, the barbican.  Believed to have been built in the 1300’s, the gatehouse front was built with ditch, counterpoised

drawbridge, and outer tower and gate, which lead to … another gate!  It would have been a deadly arrangement.  Invaders who managed to make it through the first gate would have entered a narrow, high-walled, roofless area with another barred gate ahead, and no place to hide.  The defenders on the walkways above, protected by the tower walls, would have Outer bailey, site of the Whomping Willow inHarry Potter and the Chamber of Secretshad easy targets.  You might recognize this gate as the one that the Weasley family car flies through in the Harry Potter series.  The outer bailey is also where Ron and Harry fly the family car into the Whomping Willow tree, which was situated to the left of this picture.

Now, into the keep!  It’s the oldest part of the castle, some of it dating from 1096 (but remember it was extensively

renovated in 1750).  The pictures below look back toward the entrance to the keep, an

archway from the early 1100’s decorated with Norman chevrons.  It is picturesque!

Alnwick Castle is only open to the public in the summer – and then, only some of the rooms in the keep’s palace can be seen.  Like the Harewood estate in the earlier blog noted above (“Harewood mansion, near Leeds”), Alnwick Castle is a privately-owned home – in this case, home of the current Duke of Northumberland.  There are a bunch of public tours offered at the castle, but we only had time to take 2, one being this palace tour, the other the Harry Potter tour (of course).  The palace was renovated in Italianate style, and although the official website says a large amount of Robert Adam’s Gothic work survives, none of it is in the rooms shown to the public.  A bigger “alas” is that no photos were allowed!  So we bought their Alnwick Castle book and took pictures from it, just to give you an idea (once again) of how the English aristocracy lived – and lives.  Below are some rooms and details ….

Posh, we would say.  Maybe over-the-top?  But we’re not finished.  Oh no.  Throughout we’re talking major flaunt by wealthy people collecting art for 10 or so generations.  Our favorite piece of furniture is this ebony (!) cabinet from the drawing room (ahem – one of

a pair …) made in 1683 for Louis XIV’s Versailles.  I wish I could have taken pictures!  That’s a picture from the book.  Those panels you see?  The designs are made from inlaid semi-precious stones.  They are jaw-droppingly spectacular.

We should also mention the (plentiful) paintings by Van Dyck, Turner, and a slew of incredibly famous Italians, examples below.  Museum curators would drool.

After finishing our tour of the keep, we went to see the Percy coach.  The first picture is my picture of the coach (it was outside the keep), the second picture is from the book.  The coach was built to transport the Third (Percy) Duke as King George IV’s personal

representative to the coronation of Charles X in France in 1825.  It was last used for the wedding of Lady Melissa Percy, youngest daughter of the current Duke of Northumberland, in 2013.  Gosh, why didn’t we think of using something like that, instead of Ginger arriving for our wedding in the family car?  Yup, if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

I’ll finish with Alnwick Garden, originally part of the Castle grounds.  The gardens started with Elizabeth Seymour in 1752, and have undergone centuries of development (how do you get such a beautiful lawn?  Start by rolling it for 2oo years …).  The latest update of the gardens was begun by the current (12th) Duchess of Northumberland in 2001.  She decided to “do it right” and create a garden for all seasons.  Some of the best garden

designers in England and Europe were hired, a charitable trust was created, and the Duke and Duchess donated a great deal of money and the 42 acres on which the gardens sit.  We visited in September.  The hillside of ornamental cherry trees was not in bloom, but the meandering garden still had some flowers and a slightly bombastic charm.  The ornamental section was ordinary but nice.

Pretty birds had the run of the place.

Bamboo mazeWhat really impressed us was the garden’s bamboo maze.  We did indeed get lost in it, in spite of there being several exits.

On the grounds of the Garden, off to the side, is a beguiling and intriguing place to explore.  High up in the treetops, amid wobbly rope bridges and wooden walkways, is an enormous treehouse with a small shopping area that included a fancy restaurant and a funky laid-back bar.  It was a delightful way to end a very long day!

Next stop, Bamburgh Castle.

Hadrian’s Wall

The Roman Empire extended nearly to Scotland.  The Romans arrived in southern England in AD 43 and set about subduing the population; it did not go easily!  Revolts were common.  Originally the Romans provided infrastructure and protection (therefore promoting stability and a better economy, thereby allowing higher taxes), but otherwise they worked through treaties with the tribes of England and allowed local government rule (client state allies).  Local fiefdoms could thus hate each other and the Romans, with ensuing wars and revolts, principally by the Brigantes in northern England but also local tribes such as one that destroyed Roman cities like London and St Albans.  In the AD 70’s the Romans had had enough of the Brigantes and client states, and conquered instead, occupying the land and establishing Roman rule by Emperors.  They drove deep into the north (today’s Scottish Highlands) and consolidated their grip on northern England.  Continuing battles in the north caused a withdrawal from what is now Scotland, and around AD100 a frontier zone of forts and watchtowers linked by good roads was built to hold the native tribes in northern England in check.  However, fierce fighting continued (some forts were burned down).  In AD 122 Emperor Hadrian arrived shortly after some hard fighting.  Hadrian had a “defense before expansion” philosophy.  Realizing that the cost of conquering Scotland would far exceed the economic gains (“It’s the economy, stupid”), he decided to build “Hadrian’s Wall”, an admission of the limits of Roman power.  It would prevent the southward movement (raids) of the unconquered north, and allow the Romans to develop the economic potential and prosperity in the growing Romanized southern provinces.

depiction of Hadrian's Wall with watchtowerThe accomplishments of the Romans are so impressive.  Somehow the Romans knew where the narrowest width of England was located (and how did they do that, in 122 AD?), and built a 73-mile-long coast-to-coast wall.  Oh, it gets better.  A wall of quarried stone, 15 to 20 feet tall (!), in the middle of nowhere.  A ditch on either side, with earthen ramparts on the southern side, and a service road (“the Military Way”) between the ramparts and the wall.  Slightly less than every mile along the wall was a castle guarding a

gate, with turrets on either side, 80 castles in total.  During construction the plan changed, and some castles became full-fledged forts.  For perspective, the (longer, bigger) Great Wall of China of the Ming Dynasty was built 12oo years later….

Today, Hadrian’s Wall is really “Hadrian’s Shelf”; what’s left is about 3 feet wide and 3-6 feet high, when it doesn’t disappear into a hill.  It’s still pretty cool, but Hadrian's Wallreally there is so much more to see than just a wall.  There are a dozen or so Roman forts along or near this wall, ongoing archeological digs, and some pretty amazing artifacts in museums.  The remains of the forts themselves are a fascinating glimpse into a 2nd-century soldier’s life.  We’ll look at two of them.  Let’s start with the Housesteads (originally Vercovicium) Roman Fort, which was a fort attached directly to the wall.


Below are pictures of pictures showing what it looked like then vs now.  Note the

similarities in the “then” picture with York’s precursor Roman fort (Eboracum), shown in an earlier post (York’s History and the building of the The York Minster“, January 20, 2015).  Roman forts followed a standard template everywhere, making it easier for construction and for (standardized) regiments to move easily between them.  The existing ruins of this fort, when seen up close, are much more interesting and impressive than the present day arial overview above would imply.  Although the remaining walls are only a

few feet high, they’re enough to provide the “you are there” effect.  The commanding overview of the countryside is also pretty impressive, as is the steep hill that the soldiers had to walk A Victory statue adorning the East Gateup and down every day.

Let us give you a quick tour of some of the sites.  As you entered the East Gate of the fort, you would have passed this giant Victory statue, symbolizing success in battle and protection against death (and a foot on the world).  Four such statues were recovered from Housesteads.  Within the fort, we’ll start with the soldier’s quarters – the remaining ruins and an artist’s reconstruction.

The first picture below shows the remains of one of the 10 barracks in the fort.  Completed soon after 120 AD, it was altered and repaired for almost 200 years.  Each barrack

was a long, low building that accommodated 80 men, an army unit called a “century”,  in 10 compartments – plus a larger apartment for the centurion in command.  Usually each compartment was divided into a rear room for sleeping and a front room for weapons and kit.  As you can see, space was at a premium.  A roof extended over the front of the building, supported on stone columns, to provide a dry covered area.

Keeping soldiers healthy was important; all soldiers were trained in first aid, and every army unit had medical staff trained in surgery and the treatment of wounds, and with some knowledge of pharmacy and medicines.   Housesteads even had a hospital building,

usually found only in larger fortresses.  Even more rare, there is another hospital on Hadrian’s Wall at the fort at Wallsend – perhaps they were required in a region that saw a lot of action.  The hospital here was built around a courtyard (in the foreground in the left picture above) where a covered walkway provided access to the rooms.  A large room along the top side (the stone floor in the left picture) may have been a surgery.  The smaller rooms were for the sick or wounded, and there was a latrine.  And when all else failed, a soldier could appeal to the gods for aid – in the Housesteads museum there is a votive foot that would have been offered to the gods in exchange for a cure for a foot ailment.

Speaking of latrines, the main one here is the best preserved anywhere.  It’s located at the

lowest downhill corner of the fort.  Pretty fascinating!  With 800 men in the fort, good hygiene was important.  The latrine had a deep sewer, originally covered with a raised wooden bench with holes.  The sewer was flushed by rainwater in drains brought from all over the fort, and went out via a culvert under the fort wall.  In dry spells, flushing was with rainwater collected from the roofs of nearby buildings and stored in stone tanks (two are still there).  Within the latrine, the central platform had a stone channel along which water flowed for washing.  The two stone basins were used when water supply was restricted.

Artist rendition of the fort's bathsOf course no Roman fort or city would be complete without baths, and an artist’s rendition of the fort’s bath house is shown here.  Finally,we should mention the granaries.  800 men needed a huge quantity of food, which had to be dry and safe from hazards like fire, mold and vermin.  Granaries had strong buttressed stone walls with air

vents, an overhanging roof to keep rain away from walls, and raised floors to allow the circulation of air and to stop moisture and rodents.  This granary was on the highest and driest region of the fort; originally it was a single building, possibly 2 stories high.  It was later modified into two buildings.

We’ll end our Housestead’s tour with a walk along Hadrian’s Wall, and the view it presented into the scary north.


A model of Vindolanda (and its associated village), 213-276 ADVindolanda was a bigger fort than Housesteads, housing at least 1000 soldiers and likely many more at various points in its history.  Vindolanda guarded the Stanegate, a major Roman road, and was an important fort (and village) for 40 years before construction started on Hadrian’s Wall.  The fort itself is only about 2 miles away from the Homesteads fort, and less than a mile south of the Wall.  So why would Housesteads have been built at all, with Vindolanda so close?  The answer is likely due to the more complicated history of Vindolanda, which was occupied for 325 years – but not occupied continuously.  Vindolanda is the site of at least 9 forts, built (and demolished) one on top of the other.  The first, built in 85 AD, was a timber fort, as were the next 4.  After Housesteads was built, many of Vindolanda’s soldiers were moved further north to the Antonine Wall (oh, you didn’t know there was a Roman wall built north of Hadrian’s?  We’ll come across that in a later post).  To cope with a diminished number of soldiers, a smaller stone fort was built at Vindolanda.  Subsequently that was destroyed and 3 more, usually larger, stone forts were built.  Finally Vindolanda was abandoned in AD 410.

What you see today is a sprawling expanse of low walls.  It looks like it was a big fort, but you’re not seeing the earlier versions!  Some of the earlier timber forts were 3 times the

size.  There is a full-size replica of the fort wall on site, where you can take your turn

at guard duty.

These ruins are generally not as impressive as Housesteads, but they’re still pretty interesting.  Remains of a temple dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolichenus, 220 ADThe temple to the left is an extremely rare find.  It was built inside the fort walls around 220 AD; the shrine to the god is located in the center of the main room.  The temple was dedicated to the god Jupiter Dolichenus, an ancient weather god widely adopted by the Roman Army.  The building was eventually destroyed around 370 AD when paganism was being replaced by Christianity.

The most important (and most impressive) building in a fort would be the headquarters building (principia), which was placed at the fort’s center.  It acted as the treasury, holding

money for the soldier’s pay, held the regimental banners and honors, extra weapons, etc., and was the center where all the records and administration for most aspects of military life took place.

Another take on a granary is shown here – twin granaries, really.  These were 3-story

structures and would have held grain, beer, sides of ham and smoked pig, hay for horses, and spare military kit.  They would have held enough food to supply Vindolanda from harvest to harvest.

The bath house (for 1000 soldiers) was pretty complex, and was built early – written tablets show it was repaired in 100 AD.  In addition to cleansing, it served important social

functions where soldiers (and their families) could work out, relax, gamble, gossip, etc.  It also provided access to a public toilet.

I should also mention the plumbing.  It is, of course, everywhere – these are Romans, after

all.  The main draw of Vindolanda is not the ruins as much as the museum.  This is still a working archeological site, of major importance (and you can talk to the people out on the site cleaning things freshly dug up).  I mentioned there were (at least) 9 forts here, one on top of the other.  Two things make this site exceptional.  One, the Romans sealed the foundations from each previous fort and built fresh; the 9 forts go down nearly 20 feet deep from what you see here, each isolated from the others.  Two, the water-logged site is very anaerobic, preserving thousands of items that normally do not survive, like clothing, shoes, and wooden writing tablets.  The site has produced the largest collection of Roman Empire leather items, but it is particularly famous for the preservation of wooden writing tablets that provide a singular look at Roman life on the frontier.  We’ll share views of some items from the museum!

We’ll start with leather shoes.  Romans could choose from a range of footwear.  A common type was the carbatina – it was cut from a single piece of leather, had scallop-shaped holes along the upper edge and was tied with a single lace criss-crossing the foot.

Two other types of shoe are sandals with simple toe thongs, and wooden clogs that would have a leather strap to secure the shoe to the foot (this one was made for wear in the bath

house).  Personal items are intriguing – they’re so normal.  There are hairnets, gold

earrings, combs (including one still in its leather case), and hairpins (or dress fasteners).  The silver hairpin with a hand holding a chain is particularly interesting – at the end is a small mirror with hook that attached to the wearer’s hair.

Roman tools are also amazing.  This is like 200 AD, right?  Well, they have shears and

hammers and crowbars that look pretty familiar!  The (new) sheep shears we saw in New Zealand last year looked just like those from 200 AD.

The museum had a lot of other stuff, like stone carvings; you’re on the frontier, in a fort, and you have art??

And, of course, there were coins and armor and pottery.

Finally we come to the greatest discovery from Vindolanda, the tablets.  More than 400 tablets were found, mainly in a waterlogged rubbish heap at the corner of the A Roman letter, beautifully preservedcommander’s house.  Most dated from AD 97-103.   The tablets were made from wafer-thin slices of wood, 1-3 mm thick, and about the size of a modern postcard.  The correspondent wrote with quill-type pen using carbon ink, then folded the leaf in half and wrote the address on the back.  The letters have provided invaluable insight into the military and private lives of those on the frontier.  In particular, they put a very human touch to the well-oiled bureaucratic machine that was the Roman army.  Let me give you some examples!  The first is from one of the commanders leaving notes for his successor, complaining of the problems facing a guerrilla army that fights very differently.  “The Britons are unprotected by armor.  There are very many cavalry.  The cavalry do not use swords, nor do the wretched Britons mount in order to throw javelins.

How about this one?  “Masculus to Cerialis his king, greetings.  Please, my lord, give instructions on what you want us to do tomorrow.  Are we all to return with the standard, or just half of us?…(missing lines)…most fortunate and be well-disposed towards me.  My fellow soldiers have no beer.  Please order some to be sent.

The one below I find humorous, as it describes a businessman’s problems with cash flow, logistics, and competition.  Some things never change!  “Octavius to his brother Candidus, greetings.  The hundred pounds of sinew from Marinus, I will settle up.  From the time when you wrote about this matter, he has not even mentioned it to me.  I have several times written to you that I have bought about 5,000 modii of ears of grain, on account of which I need cash.  Unless you send me some cash, at least 500 denarii, the result will be that I shall lose what I have laid out as a deposit, about 300 denarii, and I shall be embarrassed. So, I ask you, send me some cash as soon as possible.  The hides which you write are at Cataractonium, write that they be given to me and the wagon about which you write.  And write to me what is with that wagon.  I would have already have been to collect them except that I did not care to injure the animals while the roads are bad.  See with Tertius about the 8½ denarii which he received from Fatalis.  He has not credited them to my account.  Know that I have completed the 170 hides and I have 119 modii of threshed bracis.  Make sure that you send me some cash so that I may have ears of grain on the threshing room floor.  Moreover, I have already finished threshing all that I had.  A messmate of our friend Frontius has been here.  He was wanting me to allocate him some hides, and that being so, was ready to give cash.  I told him I would give him the hides by the Kalends of March.  He decided that he would come on the Ides of January.  He did not turn up, nor did he take the trouble to obtain them….  I hear that Frontinius Julius has for sale at a high price the leather ware which he bought here for five denarii apiece.  Greet Spectatus and …and Firmus.  I have received letters from Gleuco. Farewell.

Finally, below is an invitation from the commander’s wife; reading it today, the wording is a bit foreign, but those 2000 years that separate us dissolves away to show how unchanging our human bond is.  “Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings.  On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival, if you are here.  Give my greetings to your Cerialis.  My Aelius and my little son send him their greetings.  I shall expect you sister.  Farewell, sister, my dearest soul, as I hope to prosper, and hail.

Enough for now!  Hope you enjoyed this look at the Roman Empire.  Next post, the Alnwick Castle, site for Harry Potter’s Quidditch match.

Durham and its Norman Cathedral

Durham has England’s 3rd-oldest university, a medieval atmosphere, and, reputedly, England’s best Norman (Romanesque) cathedral.  The cathedral is spectacular indeed.

We passed through Durham on our way north, so our visit was very brief; we would love to go back again.  It’s a charming little place, built along a tight curve of the river that has protected it on 3 sides for hundreds of years; it also occupies some seriously steep hills.

Its Market Place square was designed about 1100 AD; in order to maximize the number of

shops that could occupy this prime real estate, the Market was marked off in long, narrow plots only 25 feet wide.  Now, 900 years later, most of the store fronts on the Square still appear to be that narrow, although many of them are actually multiples of that original

A pub, with history width on the inside.  Pretty quaint.

On the left is an example of a town building that is not on the Market Square. The building, which houses The Shakespeare Pub, dates back to 1109.  It was an inn (the Ostler & Groom) in 1468.  Obviously it has seen a lot of modernization, but I love the preserved lineage of the buildings in Europe!  The connection with a past is palpable.

Now off to the Cathedral!  It was built to house the bones of the revered St. Cuthbert, who was instrumental in returning Christianity to the UK after it had drifted back to paganism.  St. Cuthbert was bishop of the Lindisfarne (now Holy Island) monastery in the mid 600’s, and was buried there.  Eleven years later his body was exhumed (building project) and found to be perfectly and miraculously preserved, enhancing his fame and attracting even more pilgrims to the site.  When the Lindisfarne monks fled the island in 875 to escape Viking raids, they carried his body and the famous illustrated Lindisfarne Gospels with them.  After 120 Durham Cathedralyears of roaming, the monks finally settled in Durham and built the “White Church” to house St. Cuthbert’s relics.  A hundred years later construction began on a monastic Cathedral to replace the White Church; and what a Cathedral it is!!  A renowned  masterpiece of Romanesque architecture, it is the only cathedral in England to retain almost all of its Norman craftsmanship, and one of only a few preserving the unity of its original design. The nave, choir and transepts are all Norman; the nave contains what is thought to be the world’s first structural pointed arch.   There have been some updates; the Galilee Chapel is late Norman 11oo’s; the chapel at the opposite end is 1200’s in the Gothic style.  The western towers are from the 1100’s and 1200’s, and the central tower is from the 1400’s with Gothic detailing.  Picky details, it’s all pretty darn old!  You might have noticed that it’s also immense – nearly 500 feet in length.  Unfortunately, my pictures couldn’t capture its magnificence.

Before we head inside, take a look at pictures of the cloister, below.  While it was begun at the same time as the Cathedral, much work was done on it from the 1400’s on.

Durham Cathedral naveThe true beauty of the Cathedral is inside, but, alas, photography was forbidden.  I found some pictures on the internet that I will share here.  The nave is particularly striking; built in only 40 years (started 1093), it is harmoniously textbook Norman.  You may have noticed that other aspects of the Cathedral, such as the transept windows shown on the exterior pictures, are proto-Gothic – built by French masons and architects familiar with Europe’s latest innovations.  The Cathedral is just amazingly beautiful, as you’ll see in the borrowed pictures below.

Bronze knocker from the 1100's used by criminals seeking sanctuaryOne interesting aspect of the Cathedral’s history is the big lion-faced knocker on its door.  In the Middle Ages the Cathedral provided a refuge for fugitives.  Anyone who was accused of a serious crime could claim sanctuary by knocking on this door.  Fugitives were given 37 days to organize their affairs and decide whether to stand trial or (safely) leave the country by the nearest port.

Next stop – Hadrian’s Wall.  Getting closer to Scotland!

York Museums

We’ll finish describing the fascinating city of York with a look at their two very different museums, the Yorkshire Museum (York’s history) and the York Castle Museum (re-creation of home life in more Victorian times).  This post is a bit long, dedicated to museum go-ers; be forewarned!


There were a few exhibits from Roman times – statues, busts, a mosaic floor, parts of a painted Roman wall, pendants, jewelry, etc, but most interesting to me was the arm purse (last picture below).  Soldiers were paid in silver coin; since there were no banks, a soldier

carried his wealth on his arm; to open the purse, it had to be removed from the arm.

After the Romans left, the Angles, from northern Germany, moved into the region they called Northumbria and settled Eoforwic (York). They occupied the region from about 410 to 866.   The museum has a number of wonderful artifacts from this time.

Comb, 600-700 ADLet me digress for a moment and present this interesting tidbit of life back then.  The comb to the left is from 600-700 AD, and was not used primarily to arrange hair.  Rather, it’s use was to remove lice and their eggs ….

In 866 the Vikings (Ivan the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army [I’m not making that up!]) conquered the region and renamed Northumbria “Danelaw”.  Eoforic maintained its status as capital of the region but was renamed “Jorvik”.  Shown below are several stone carvings from this period, and a reconstruction of a Viking farmstead.

The York area was always a capital of northern Britain and was therefore relatively wealthy.  But there were  frequent hostilities with the Saxons, who had claimed the southern regions of  Britain in the post-Roman period, and during times of war, much wealth was buried underground for protection.  Some treasures were never reclaimed by their owners and were only found a millennium later.  Examples are shown below.  The

last two pictures show the Ormside Bowl, an Anglian ecclesiastical vessel converted in Jorvik into a Viking drinking bowl.  It is an outstanding example of medieval art.

The Normans arrived in 1066; they met with resistance in York, and much of the city including the Minster was destroyed during its conquest. In order to repress further rebellion, William the Conqueror built several strong castles around York, rebuilt the

Minster in Norman style, and built St. Mary’s Abbey, which became the wealthiest and

most powerful monastery in the North.  The interior of the Norman abbey was richly decorated for the time (pictures below).  What survives of the decoration are just a few painted fragments that were discovered in the mid-twentieth century.

Entrance statue to St. Mary's AbbeyThe larger-than-life statue to the left is one of 4 that adorned the abbey entrance to awe and inspire visitors.  The statues were originally painted in a rich palette, and are the finest surviving examples of 11th century sculpture in England.  It was dug up after being buried in mud for more than 3 centuries.

Ruins of St. Mary's Abbey Chapter HouseThe museum had a (much-restored) section of a wall from the Abbey’s Chapter house, shown above.  Better, however, is what is on exhibit just outside the museum – the remains of St Mary’s Abbey itself.  The Abbey met its demise during Henry VIII’s “Dissolution of the Monasteries” in 1540.   These ruins (and so many others like it throughout England), stand as beautiful and stark reminders both of man’s artistry and accomplishments and man’s struggles with power and ambition.

We should also mention the adjacent St. Leonard’s hospital, one of the oldest and largest medieval hospitals in England.  Run by the Augustinian order, it could house as many as 240 patients.  It’s hard to get an overall picture of this ruin, so I’m including a picture of a

drawing.  The high ceilings and large windows were there to circulate fresh air, important since illness in the middle ages was thought to be caused by ‘bad air’.  The hospital cared for the sick, poor, and old; care included cleaning, feeding, clothing and housing.  The sick were not treated for any illness until they had confessed their sins and thus cleansed their soul.  The hospital was closed during the Dissolution, and York would not have any hospital for the next 200 years (!).

We come next to the Angevin Empire, 1154 -1399, when England was ruled by a succession of kings and the Royal Court was moved to York (perhaps with an eye on extending the

Empire into Scotland).  Choosing the winning side when potential heirs were battling for the throne was a tricky business, and York chose poorly in the case of Henry IV vs. his cousin Richard II (1400).  Henry ultimately killed Richard, and wealthy York, which had raised an army in defense of King Richard II, suffered greatly.  It took nearly a hundred years to recover.  At the end of the War of the Roses, with Richard III on the throne (1483), York once again was favored.  In medieval times, the badges of powerful people were worn by Medieval heraldic badgetheir followers (choose well!) and the museum had a number of these.  The white boar was the symbol of Richard III, and for his coronation 8000 badges were printed (most in cloth).  Metal badges were reserved for supporters of higher status, and precious metal badges for the VIP’s.  These were all represented in the museum.

Other surviving treasures are the portable shrine to St. William of York, once jeweled (1480’s) – it was “destroyed and sold” during the Dissolution – and a St. Christopher

plaque, found at Wistow.   With few bridges, river crossings were hazardous, so the Saint’s aid was often invoked.  Among the displayed jewelry was the Middleham Jewel, considered to be England’s finest piece of medieval gold-working.

Finally, the museum covers the Tudor period, from 1485, with just a few items.


17th century dining roomWow, are these two museums different!  The Castle museum immerses you primarily in Victorian times – with a few exceptions, the first being this reconstructed dining room of a prosperous, late 1600’s family from the York area.  The family no longer ate with the servants in a communal hall.  Everything was made of oak, from the wall paneling to the decoratively carved furniture.  The room would have been much lighter and brighter when new, without the patina of age and soot.

The Georgian Room, about 1780The second, the Georgian Room (about 1780), would have been found in a fashionable city home.  The room is lined with painted pine paneling.  The chairs and ceramics are typical of the period.  With growing industry, items like the carpet, previously a luxury, are now affordable to a larger number of people.

The Moorland Cottage, about 1850The Moorland Cottage, from about 1850, depicts a small rural house in Yorkshire (the rest of the building would house livestock).  The peat-burning fire was the center of family activity and was used for heating, cooking, and providing hot water.  The furnishings are practical rather than decorative, and often home-made.  Furniture like the bed would be passed down over generations.

The Victorian Parlour, about 1870.The Victorian Parlour, about 1870, depicts the “best” room in the house of a middle-class family living in the York suburbs.  The room reflects comfort and prosperity.  Most of the furnishings were, by then, mass-produced, relatively cheap and widely available.


Women’s fashions for mourning and wedding were fascinating.  Mourning had some complex rules!  A widow mourned her husband for 2.5 years, through several stages of

mourning apparel – first and second mourning, ordinary mourning, and half mourning.  By the end (half mourning), grey, white and shades of purple were allowed.  Different types of jewelry were to be worn at certain stages.  Men, of course, were hardly affected, except for jewelry.

Women’s (and some men’s) wedding clothes through the years were also quite interesting – wedding dresses have not always been white!

Kitchens over the years were also fascinating.  Look at the clever hardware of the 1800’s – the fascinating “chimney crane” with the rotisserie turned by a weighted pulley.  The crane

supported the weight of heavy cauldrons, frying pans, bakestones or kettles, swung outwards from the fire to make it easy to lift pots on and off, and had an adjustable lever to help raise or lower the cooking vessel above the fire.  Examples of other kitchens are shown below:  note the improvement between the last two kitchens, both operating at nearly the same time!  All of this history shows that life today, at least in some areas, is indeed a lot easier and nicer than yesteryear!

Part of the museum is dedicated to a recreation of a Victorian street, called Kirkgate.  The museum was closing, and the street and shops were deserted as we were being shooed out (normal situation for us), but we still could see some interesting old stuff, like that vintage

bike.  There was a bunch more to see in this museum, but you can’t see it all, can you?  Hope you enjoyed this long look at the museums.

Next stop – Durham and its magnificent Norman cathedral.  Heading toward Scotland!









The York Minster

56DSC_0015The previous post described York’s history and the building of this Minster, finished in the 1400’s (York’s History and the building of the The York Minster, January 20, 2015).  Here we get to see it!  I’ll set the stage for the beautiful York Minster by showing you this fabulous ceiling from its Chapter House.  If I could’ve included more of the windows in the photograph, you’d be even more impressed!  I’m lying on my back in the middle of the floor to get this shot; I probably could have lain there mesmerized for hours, but I was afraid of being stomped on by people who were also looking up at the ceiling, not down at me on the floor.  Spectacular, isn’t it?  Now, with that appetizer, on to the Minster!


Instead of a photograph, I’ll have to show you a Overview of the York Minsterschematic of the Minster, shown to the right.  It’s hard to capture the beauty of this cathedral because (1) it’s huge (it’s one of the  largest in Northern Europe), and (2) it’s nestled in the heart of the city and you can’t back up far enough to capture it all.  Hopefully seeing some of its parts will give you a reasonable idea of how magnificent it truly is.


And of course I must include some of the gargoyles!  A sculptor obviously has to have some fun, after all.


The interior is impressively enormous, and beautiful.



The Chapter House, built in 1280, is a private meeting room where all the priests could gather for readings or to conduct business.  This Chapter House is an octagonal building

with a pointy roof.  Nice on the outside, but the inside is better (below).  Like many chapter houses, there are places for all the priests to sit along the walls; note that the sculptors had a good time with the figures above the seats!

The last picture shows a model of the superstructure built to support the ceiling.    This is 1280, remember!  The central post (king post) is constructed from 3 huge oak trees spliced together ….  For perspective there is a human figure at the center.


And then there are the marvelous (and numerous!) stained glass windows.

That last window, the West Window, is from 1338!  Its heart-shaped tracery is called “The Heart of Yorkshire”.  Note in some of the pictures above that it is difficult to discern The East Windowthe images.  Over the centuries the windows have shifted and buckled and the glass has cracked and been repaired so many times that there is as much lead as glass.  To address this, the church is carefully (and at significant expense) restoring the windows, starting with the Great East Window of 1408, shown on the left.  This window depicts the beginning and end of the world, and is the largest existing expanse of medieval stained glass in the world.  Happily, a few of the repaired window panes were on display.  The first one, below, is from Revelation 16:3 – “The second angel poured his bowl into the sea, and it became like the blood of a corpse, and every living thing in the sea died“.  The repaired panes are pretty spectacular.

Well, enough for now.  The next York post will show you some cool stuff from a couple of museums, and then we’re off to Durham, site of England’s greatest Norman church, and Hadrian’s Wall.  Perhaps you’ve surmised from our northern trajectory that our main goal here is bonny Scotland, which we’ll explore in some depth.


York’s History and the building of the The York Minster


Roman forts in Lincoln and, farthest north, YorkThe Minster is the pride of York, steeped in history and a symbol of the importance that York wielded for 1500 years (!).  I want to give you a feeling for the amazing historical bones of this city that led up to the mighty Minster, then present the interesting evolution of this impressive building (and York’s claimed link to the survival of Christianity!).  This post will be all history with no sightseeing, so feel free to wait for the next post devoted to the Minster.

We begin in AD 71, when 10,000 (!) Roman soldiers establish their northernmost fortress, named Eboracum, from which to control the rebellious Brigantines (note Lincoln on the map: we’ll get there in a later post).  For perspective, below are artists’ renditions of the Roman fortress – and the remains of the real thing.

The early York, Eboracum A civilian settlement quickly grew up to supply services and goods to the Roman soldiers.  For  200 years Eboracum (York) continued to grow, becoming an economic center as well as the provincial capital; on three occasions it hosted visits by a Roman Emperor.  Roman Britain was later divided first into 2 and then into 4 districts, with Eboracum always a capital; 4 deputy emperors were introduced to rule Britain.  In 303, Emperor Diocletian commanded a “Great Persecution” of Christians throughout the Roman Empire.  In 305 Chlorus, who had become senior western emperor,  summoned his son Constantine to Eboracum to help fight the northern Picts.  When Chlorus died at Eboracum in 306, Constantine was named his successor by his loyal troops; subsequently his position as emperor was made official by Rome.  In 313, Constantine reversed Diocletian’s anti-Christian edict, issuing the Edict of Milan that allowed Christians to worship openly; in 380 Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire.  York somewhat slyly implies that the fate of Christianity hinged on what transpired at Eboracum.  Not long after this, troops began to be siphoned away from Britain to deal with barbarians closer to home.  In the early 400’s the fortress at Eboracum was abandoned, and by 410 all armies were withdrawn and Britain ceased to be part of the Roman empire.

Subsequently, Germanic people (Angles, Saxons, Jutes) invaded and settled in Britain and a pagan Anglo-Saxon culture developed.  The Anglian King Edwin (of Northumbria) chose Eboracum as his seat of power and renamed the city Eoforwic.  Around 600, Pope Gregory sent missionaries to re-Christianize Britain, and Eoforwic was chosen as the church’s northern missionary center.  King Edwin was converted; in 627 he built the first Minster, a wooden church, and was baptized there.  Three years later, a larger stone church was built.

In 866 Viking raiders (“Ivar the Boneless and his Great Heathen Army” – I love the title!) invaded northern England, captured the city and killed its last king.  They called their newly won kingdom “Danelaw” and kept Eoforwic, renamed Jorvic, as its capital.  They made (tentative) peace with the Saxons who controlled southern England, although skirmishes between the two countries continued.   In 954, Eric the Bloodaxe, last Viking king of Danelaw, was murdered, and Jorvik was captured by Eadred, King of England (he unified England, more or less).  Are you following all of this?  British history is nothing if not serpentine, and kings had notoriously short life spans.

A turbulent period followed with local rebellion and Norwegian invasion.  In 1066 King Edward the Confessor died without a successor and his brother-in-law Harold assumed the throne.  The Norwegian King Harald invaded from the north and was defeated (and killed) by King Harold (are you still following this?  Harold beats Harald?), but within days William, Duke of Normandy (aka “the Conqueror”), who was King Edward’s first cousin once removed, landed in the south with an army of Normans and French, to claim the English throne; King Harold marched his tired troops south but was defeated (and killed) at Hastings.  William assumed the throne but faced many rebellions, which he ruthlessly suppressed; he burned the city of Jorvik (and the Minster) in 1069, and the surrounding countryside was laid to waste and thousands of people slaughtered or starved.  In order to maintain control of the region, he built several commanding castles nearby.

This William was not exactly a nice guy, but he did bring stability.  The next year he began rebuilding the city in the shadow of the two imposing castles, and Jorvik became Yorke.  He appointed an Archbishop to the city and repaired the Minster.  Yorke became strong both defensively and economically, and powerful people were drawn to it.  The city prospered and successive kings used Yorke as their northern base.

Here we begin our story of the building of the Minster.  In 1080 construction started on a new Norman Minster, the site using existing foundations and columns from the ruins of

the 1000-yr-old basilica that was part of the Headquarters building of the abandoned Roman fortress (ultimately a mistake, as we’ll discuss in a subsequent post).  Some of this foundation is still there to see, as shown below.  In 1100 the work was completed; the new

Norman church claimed to be the largest cathedral in England – larger than Canterbury, home of the first Archbishop of England.  There was a rivalry, and when Archbishop

Thomas Becket of Canterbury was murdered in his cathedral in 1170, the Archbishop of York (Roger of Pont L’Eveque) was thought to be behind it.  Ah, serpentine English religious politics!

In about 1230 the north and south transepts were rebuilt in Early English Gothic style;

around 1280 the lovely Chapter House was built (wait ’til you see that!).  In 1298 King Edward I, wanting to extend his Anglo-French empire into Scotland, moved his court to Yorke, making the city the royal capital of England.  Yorke’s nobility and gentry became among the wealthiest in England, and a wealthy middle class emerged.  In 1360 the Gothic

nave was completed, and the Gothic east end finished in 1373.  In 1407 the central tower collapsed and the central region (Gothic ‘Quire’) was rebuilt with a shorter tower in about 1415.  Finally the west towers were completed in 1450, and by 1472 the present

Gothic Minster was completed.

OK, so enough of history, eh?  You do see that York sits on a lot of it!  For the next post, let’s take a closer look at this Minster!

York is a Fabulous City

Wow, where to start!  York has it all – it was always important, and its history surrounds you, with Roman ruins, two centuries of Viking rule, a fabulous minster (cathedral – reputedly the finest Gothic church in England), medieval city walls, and a preserved medieval quarter.  There is much to see!  Let’s start with just a walk around the town.  How about walking the city walls?  To get to them, you first climb one of the city gates, which York calls “bars” (“gates” are streets – blame the Vikings).

Below is a wander around this medieval city (lots of pictures!).  We’re caught by how old everything is, and still in use.

Among the medieval buildings are a number of guild halls, one of them pictured above.  Another we found by accident, just wandering into courtyards and alleys.  We’ve recreated this wander below (you’ll also notice a lot of rebuilt and repurposed buildings).

The parish church shown below, Holy Trinity, dates from the 11th century (!), expanded in the 12th century, another aisle added in 1325, and a tower and refinements added over the next 200 years.   The inside is impressively old!

“Younger” buildings, such as the King’s Manor, are pretty cool as well.  Built in 1483, it originally  housed the abbots of St. Mary’s Abbey (which we’ll see in a later post).  It survived Henry VIII’s “Dissolution of the Monasteries” (again, a later post), when Henry made it the seat of the Council of the North in 1539.  King Charles I stayed here a few times in the 1630’s.  You can see his coat of arms over the doorway in the first picture; his father, King James I (who was also James VI of Scotland, the first Scottish King to reign in England), had introduced Scotland’s unicorn into the royal arms, joining the lion of England.  The King’s Manor surrounds a series of courtyards and is now part of the

University of York.  Another interesting parish church is St. Michael le Belfrey, an Anglican church right next to York Minster; it was originally a chapel for the Minster, dating to 1294 or earlier.   In 1525, during Henry VIII’s crusade against the Catholic church, it was rebuilt in Tudor gothic style.  Of particular interest is the beautiful east window, much of which survives from 1330.  The

church is also of note for baptising local boy Guy Fawkes in 1570.  Fawkes later converted to Catholicism and was arrested with 36 barrels of gunpowder under England’s Parliament in a failed attempt to assassinate the Protestant King James I (James VI of Scotland).  Oops!  Hanged, drawn and quartered.

A fascinating part of York is an intact medieval street of half-timbered houses, called “The Shambles”. As early as the 11th century, it was a street of butchers; the name comes from “Shamel”, the stalls or benches that displayed the meat beneath the overhanging eaves of the houses.  The area was rebuilt in the 1400’s and hasn’t changed much from then – except the goods are pretty touristy now.

Overview of the York MinsterWell, that’s enough for the introduction to York, right?  In the next post I want to show you the fabulous gothic York Minster (which started off as a Norman church about 1100!). However, first I think it would be useful to introduce a little history on how York got started in Roman times, and why the Minster is here.  So that will be the next post, with the  Minster to follow.


Harewood mansion, near Leeds

Harewood is a monster of a mansion.  Built from 1759 – 1771, it is a masterpiece of

Georgian architecture.  The Earl Edwin Lascelles wanted nothing but the best and employed the finest craftsmen of the time: architect John Carr, interior designer Robert Adam, furniture maker Thomas Chippendale, and visionary landscape gardener Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown.  That backyard, shown below?  No, not that simple patio garden in the foreground, silly, we mean Harewood backyardthe trees and lakes going off into the distance in all directions – that’s all Brown’s landscaping and tree planting, making it look manicured but natural, just so.  With regard to expenses: “Let us do everything properly and well ….”  The place defines filthy rich, with Renaissance masterpieces, exquisite family portraits by artists like Reynolds and Gainsborough, an enormous collection of Sèvres china – a lot of it previously owned by Kings Louis XV and XVI (and some ordered by Louis XVI but not delivered due to a decapitation problem), etc etc.

Today Harewood is one of England’s “Treasure Houses”, a consortium of 9 of the foremost stately homes in England still in private ownership that market and promote themselves as tourist venues.  The Lascelles – Earl and Countess of Harewood – still live there, but since the place is beyond huge, we’re sure they don’t miss the area accessible to the public – although even that area becomes available to them after hours and in the winter.  So let’s take a peek at the life of the English aristocratic rich ….

The "Old Library" - hard to get it all in one picture!We’re starting with the OMG ceilings, each room different, each designed by Robert Adam, with a rug designed to complement it.  Of course the wallpaper and rugs have been restored now to reflect what it would have been; the fireplaces are original and the ceilings have their original plaster work (though it has been repainted).  It’s impossible to really get an entire room in a photo and still see the incredible detail, as illustrated in the picture to the left, so we’ll just show some of the ceilings.  We think you’ll agree, they’re pretty incredible.  Of course you need to add the full-room floor rug with a pattern that’s riffing off the ceiling design to get the full effect.


Apparently if one has a lot of money, there’s nothing to do but collect expensive things, and then show them off (flaunt?); so there are a lot of collections on display, such as ladies fans (from the days before air-conditioning).  There were lots of fans (!), so we’ll just show a few that impressed us.

We’ll start our tour of Harewood with Edwin Lascelles’ bedroom.  The bed is from

Chippendale.  Ah, to avoid repeating “from Chippendale”, let us note that every piece of furniture in the house was designed and made by Chippendale!  The Chinese wallpaper, from the 1760’s, is spectacular.  It’s the original; out of favor in the early 1800’s, it was cut from the walls and stored away – for 200 years, and nearly perfectly preserved.  Hand-painted on fabric made from mulberry bark, it’s a continuous landscape of traditional Chinese rural life.

Lord Harewell's Sitting RoomNext is Lord Harewell’s Sitting Room.  Every room has a unique fireplace, and above that, usually a large mirror slightly tilted so that it reflects the fabulous ceiling.  This room has some line drawings of unclad females, but also has some pretty fabulous paintings – like J.M.W. Turner (1789) – who painted the Harewood mansion (!), Thomas Girtin (1801 – you probably don’t know him [we didn’t]; he outshone his friend Turner and played a key role in establishing watercolor as a reputable art form, but he died young), and two paintings by John Singer Sargent (1905, 1913).

The State Bedroom was reserved for visiting royalty or heads of state, such as the Grand Duke Nicholas of Russia (1816) and the future Queen Victoria (1835) – ie., it was

used infrequently.  The bed and furniture are Chippendale, of course – and they’re spectacular.

Next is the Main Library, a Victorian room with imposing mahogany bookcases with brass inlay and marble chair rail.

Then the Yellow Drawing Room – not too shabby.  The porcelain throughout the house is astounding.

The Cinnamon Drawing RoomThe Cinnamon Drawing Room is enormously long and houses a lot of collected treasure.  Edwin Lascelles – and his son after him – had an eye for beautiful objects and a bank account to support expensive tastes.  Maybe you noticed the Chinese pottery in nearly every room shown so far – like the Ming vases in the Main Library above.  How about these next gems?  The first vase below (French, 1740-1760), has a Chinese celadon glaze, a dolphin body, a ram’s head below the spout, and serpent handles.

The other celadon-glazed vase is also French (1774-1795) and is thought to have come from the Palace of Versailles.  And the paintings?  We’re talking private collection here –

how about having on your wall a Bellini, or Filippino Lippi, or Titian, or El Greco, or Jusepe de Ribera?  Finally – for this room – the china.  How boring, you say?  Well, a short history lesson is needed!  When Louis XV moved the government and court to the Palace at Versailles, it became the center of society, art and fashion.  The King (and his mistresses Madames de Pompadour and du Barry) commissioned the greatest artists and craftsmen of the day; in particular, their patronage of Sèvres porcelain was key to that factory’s success.  After the fall of the Bastille, the new government confiscated and sold the art, and France’s finest made its way to the wealthiest families in Europe.  In England in the early 1800’s, French style and culture was the fashion, and Sèvres porcelain was one of the more prized Porcelain display roompossessions.  Here at Harewood, there is an entire hall of this porcelain in display cases, so many different place settings that one gets tired looking at it.  That’s in addition to a room where some of the best is displayed, and where looking is much less tiresome!  Here are some examples – and some from the table of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, delivered a year before their executions.  They are spectacular.

Just because I thought it was gorgeous, here are pictures of a cabinet from that room.

The State Dining RoomOK, we’re nearing the end of the display of conspicuous consumption.  Just a few more rooms to look at.  This is the State Dining Room.  It still has the original furniture, but everything else, including the stone fireplace, was remodeled in the 1840s.  Of course the dinnerware is still (yet more) Sèvres porcelain.  The portraits on the wall are the various Earls and Countesses of Harewood.  The fireplace (below), is pretty spectacular, with its head of Bacchus (god of food and wine).  The

Chippendale furniture is remarkable; the (urn-topped) pedestal conceals racks to keep plates warm; the urn itself is lead-lined, to be filled with ice to keep beverages cold.  That oval “cellaret” beneath the (superb) side-table?  That’s a lead-lined wine cooler for use during the meal.

The Music RoomFinally, the Music Room.  It’s pretty much unchanged since 1771.  The Chippendale inlay on the furniture (shown below) is amazing.  The vase, Sèvres of course, is from 1770.

I guess I have mixed reactions to this incredible extravagance on display.  Look simply at that Chippendale inlay above.  Every piece of furniture in the house is like that.  Really?  Every piece?  When is enough enough?  Is “Because I can” a sufficient justification for doing?  Primarily I am repulsed by the need to own 1,000 pieces of Sèvres porcelain dinnerware and the total output of the Chippendale factory for several years.  On the other hand, would these beautiful items be here for us to see if not for the extravagance of the rich?  Haven’t the arts almost always relied on rich supporters?  I remain ambivalently repulsed.

Then again, out of curiosity I queried the internet on how the Earl Edwin Lascelles made this incredible fortune that his heirs continue to enjoy to this day.  Funny, the Visitor Guides and brochures don’t say a word about that.  The Earl made his fortune in 3 areas: in “Customs positions” (I don’t know about the Earl, but historically being in charge of who pays how much in customs down there at the docks was a very rewarding profession); in money lending; and in the slave trade.  Yeah.  That unearthed info makes me see the lavish display of wealth (and aristocratic power) in an even less sympathetic light.  Methinks scruples and wealth frequently have an inverse relationship; the pillars of capitalism do not rest on a moral foundation.  I confess I have great admiration for Bill Gates, however he has decorated his house – he seems to be trying to do good.  For most of the 1% – couldn’t you get by on maybe just 500 pieces of Sèvres porcelain?

I offer a small apology regarding these ruminations over wealth.  Wealth does divide us.  I must say I’m content with my middle-class life.  Yet somewhere in my head there is a notion, right or wrong, that great wealth also comes with greater responsibilities; there is a greater chance for impact.  When the incredible wealth of a place like Harewood slaps you in the face with its extravagance, it’s hard not to see it as, sadly, simple narcissism and lost opportunity.

Next post – the incredible city of York (and no philosophical meanderings).