I charted an ambitious itinerary, though hardly the marathon of some of my previous expeditions. After making a stop in London's Kensal Green Cemetery, I left the city as quickly as possible, making first for Cambridge and the Fitzwilliam Museum, then on to a small riverside inn in nearby Holywell. As luck would have it, they were having their annual well-dressing festivities at the Holy Well of St. Ivo, right down the way. The next day, we were on to Ely, a quick visit with my Spanish friend and almost-cousin Andres, then Little Walsingham, and around the Norfolk coast and back into the East Midlands, staying at an old Edwardian hotel in the working-class town of Wellingborough. Then with a few stops along the way, we made our way to the misty Peak District, but not before a stop Leicester Cathedral for Richard III and at the Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem pub in Nottingham. The first item of business was to purchase some proper English duds for me in Bakewell: a rain jacket and a pair of wellies. After partaking of the Peak District for a couple of days, we dipped into Birmingham to view the Pre-Raphaelite works there, then stopped by St. Kenelm's Church and holy well, then the Arts and Crafts masterpiece of Wightwick Manor, before settling-in for a number of days in the Welsh Marches. Although we technically stayed in far western Shropshire and Herefordshire, we were all over eastern Wales as well. The attractions here--hiking in the most scenic region of the U.K., snug little pubs, Guinness and homemade gin,
I was in full history professor mode, and the trip definitely took on historical and literary overtones, with me overseeing a variation of Six Degrees of Separation for a number of British authors and artists. Centering on the interrelated notable English families of Asquith and Horner, with stops at the graveyards in Mells and Sutton Courtenay, I was able to link together Edward Burne-Jones, Simeon Solomon, Sigfreid Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, Edith and Osbert Sitwell, Fr. Ronald A. Knox, Anthony Powell, Evelyn Waugh, Alastair Graham, Steven Runciman, Steven Tennant, George Orwell, Prince Antoine Bibescu, Patrick Leigh Fermor and others. And from a small stretch of country road in the Ewyas Valley, I brought in Fr. Ignatius, Digby Dolbein, Francis Kilvert, Eric Gill, David Jones, and Bruce Chatwin. Visits to favorite bookstores in Brampton Bryan and Hay on Wye, necessitated that I had unpack the extra soft suitcase that I had folded up inside my main bag.
In addition, I was able to visit with several literary acquaintances made through the years. We had tea with Nicolas and Frances McDowell, proprietors of The Old Stile Press, at their lovely home on the Wye River. We talked of many things, including the Richard Barnfield and Alice Meynell works I received from them. Late in the trip, we had a fascinating meeting with Tom Sawford at a Middle Wallop pub. If enthusiasm counts for anything at all, then Tom is far ahead of the game. He is responsible for this website devoted to all things Patrick Leigh Fermor. Tom presented me with a first British edition copy of Between the Woods and the Water, for which I was deeply touched. Finally, at Caffe Nero in Heathrow Terminal 5, James and I visited with my longtime correspondent, Keith Marshall and wife Noreen. Keith is the moving force behind The Anthony Powell Society, of which I am a founding member. We enjoyed a quick hour discussing AP, parting with hopes for future meetings. And in one obscure and only tangentially literary association, we chatted with a nice elderly monk, whom I had met before, at the Orthodox Shrine of St. Edward King and Martyr. I thought this jogged something in my memory, and once home discovered he had been mentioned in passing in the recent biography of Sir Steven Runciman.
We largely stayed in small inns, usually just a cluster of rooms above a pub. This suited to a tee. We probably had nicer rooms in the venues more on the hotel end of the spectrum, but at the cost of the low key ambiance we were after. I believe that the countryside was something of an eye-opener for James. And I'm not above learning a thing or two along the way myself, even at my age. Over a short course of time, I became a full-fledged convert to the British style of drinking ale and beer; no more ill-considered complaints from me along those lines. In fact, I now actually prefer it that way, and a pint of Guinness in particular. James was an excellent coach in this regard. I do not mean to imply that it was all boozy Guinness nights. On some days I opted for G & Ts.
Given my interests, we found ourselves visiting a number of old churches, both large and small. There are, sad to say, simply too many of them, given the U.K.'s post-Christian, if not post-post-Christian culture. Some of the smaller churches have been converted to other uses, while others sit closed up amidst overgrown churchyards. The lucky ones still have a semblance of parish life, sometimes even a vibrant one at that. The larger churches and cathedrals are the ones where I feel most removed from any real sense of holiness or that it is still even a place of worship. And whether large or small, seemingly all have to resort to using their building for community centers, concerts, plays and lectures to try and make ends meet. The larger cathedral churches are sometimes roped off, where admittance is charged to stroll through the sanctuary (such as in Ely). Pleas for donations are everywhere. Many of them post figures of how much it costs every day to keep the church open. I am suspicious of these figures, but if true then I think I would just throw up my hands in hopelessness.
Without being too judgmental about it all, I would say that the problem is baked-in. In Orthodox lands, the scale is much smaller. Even in larger churches with a soaring dome, the interior space is actually quite small and intimate. And the simplicity of Orthodox design means that these churches could be rebuilt or restored or repaired through the ages relatively affordably. The English churches, once they left the simplicity of the Anglo-Saxon age and moved into the Romanesque and then the Gothic high Middle Ages, seem to me to be ever more difficult to maintain or repair given their height and immense size. I'm not sure how they will be able to do it, going forward. If the U.K. were still a land of church-goers, then this would not be a problem, but it hasn't been that for a long time. One thing I have noticed, is that in their interpretive instructions to visitors, they often note how the church had once been awash in color, before, of course, things started going off the rails in the English Reformation.
In one Norman church, tucked away in a corner of Radnorshire, I showed James an
exquisitely sculptured font dating from the early 1100s; said to be the best preserved from that era in the entire country. Amidst the intricate design was a Norman version of the Harrowing of Hell, a familiar subject in Orthodox iconography. Six weeks earlier, half a world away in a tiny Orthodox church high in the remote Caucasus mountains, we viewed the same scene, albeit on a frescoed wall. More than anything else we've seen and talked about recently, this spoke to the overall unity and universality of the Faith prior to the Reformation.
Before leaving home, I figured this would be my last trip to the U.K. (as well it might be). But if I am granted enough time, I will return. I am already thinking about next summer--Ireland, the Isle of Man and the North. We will see. But from this journey, a few of my favorites, below:
FAVORITE SCENERY AND/OR VIEWPOINT:
Offa's Dyke Path atop the Black Mountains, even with Llanthony; views of Ewyas Valley and Wales to the west and the Golden Valley and Herefordshire to the east.
The B4391 between Llanfyllin and Pennant Melangell in Wales
The road approaching Trevique Farm, off the B2363 out of Boscastle, Cornwall.
FAVORITE COUNTRY ROAD:
The drive between The Bridges and Church Stretton in Shropshire.
Offa's Dyke Path in the Black Mountains of Wales
Coastal Pathway in northwest Cornwall.
FAVORITE SMALL TOWN:
James loved Hay on Wye--no argument there.
Bakewell in the Peak District is also a contender
Most any of them
The Stiperstones Inn, Stiperstones, Shropshire--home of their homemade Whinberry Gin
The Napoleon Inn, Boscastle, Cornwall
The Cobwell Inn, Boscastle, Cornwall
The Jug and Glass, Peak District--where I was introduced to the "Gimm's Cup," a Pimm's Cup topped off with cucumber gin
James' favorite by far was Abbe Dore in Herefordshire, and I agree.
For a quintessential village church, St. David's at Kilpeck, Herefordshire is hard to beat