Inside England - Volume 1
There are many ways to experience a country. You can pay someone to haul
you around in boats and buses and point you at things they think are worth
seeing, or you can do it on your own. The obvious attractions can be found
in tour books, where the number of pages dedicated to a particular offering
could indicate its desirability (or importance). Here I describe blending, a
process of experiencing subtle and delightful offerings of a culture, many
of which would be impractical, if not impossible, to include in tourguides.
Even so, as I describe specific experiences that I found extremely enjoyable
and/or interesting, this is not recommendation to repeat exactly what I did,
which is probably impossible anyway. This is a recommendation to try a
process that will allow you to discover and enjoy your own experiences.
Opportunities are limitless and everywhere.
Blending is an extension of the WWT, DoWhaLDo (Do What Locals Do)
principle. Vacations are for relaxing, extreme pleasure, enlightenment, and
for revival, although maybe not all in the same trip. Visit the standard
tourist attractions. Squirm shoulder to shoulder through millions of
natives, beggars, and tourists to see the Taj Mahals of the world, but don't
wait until you have seen everything you are supposed to see before
experiencing things that a tourist is not supposed to see. The places one
rarely hears about, places that are rarely seen by tourists, are just as
delightful and almost certainly more relaxing. Look for them and enjoy them.
They are everywhere. The absence of tourists is one of the reasons why they
are so special.
Like most countries, England has many wonderful sights. A lady seated in
behind us at the theater told her friend about a trip she had just completed
to England. "How long were you there?" her friend asked.
"Oh, well, we were there for 10 days." was her proud reply, imagining 10
days in one country is a lot for an American. What did you see during your
visit?" was the next question.
"We saw everything except Stonehenge," was the reply.
I would guess that most Americans, even those who have been to England
more than once, have little idea how much England has to offer the
adventuresome traveler. And I am sure that this statement applies to almost
any country. I visited England many times before finally discovering what
are, for me, the most enjoyable experiences the country offers. They include
such entities as: Public Footpaths, Open Gardens, Cathedrals, Churches,
Festivals, Canals, Morris Dancers, Marketplaces, Stately homes, Villages,
ruins, and Scarecrow Festivals.
People develop and invent unique pastimes to entertain themselves, some
related to the history, religion, geography, and climate, and some with no
obvious origin. Therefore, they are usually unique to one place, one of a
kind, and not exactly what one could see anywhere else. Experiences designed
by and usually available only to the residents can be enjoyed by the
adventure seeking tourist who has extra time to explore and who knows the
process. Bound up in such experiences are the culture as well as the
environment; they are the very heart of a society.
A short cut in the process lies in meeting, making friends with, or being
lucky enough to have relatives in other countries, and then joining in with
them. Except for the obvious problem in timing, one can visit friends and
relatives and simply go along with them. Another way is to take up residence
for a few months, although most people cannot afford the time or expense
until they approach retirement. Many home swapping programs exist that make
this possible. Building friendships in foreign countries and maintaining
these over many years is yet another. Lacking these short cuts, local
libraries, newspapers, and the Internet are alternatives. Once the process
begins, you will find yourself continually stumbling onto interesting
Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs)
One of the best ways to visit villages and even large cities is to use
the ubiquitous Bed and Breakfasts (B&Bs), which are especially good in
England. They cost less and are often better than even the finest hotels,
and they are everywhere. One method, although a bit risky, is to start
looking for B&B signs when you arrive in a place you would like to stay.
Even though I have never met disaster with this procedure, I admit being
anxious a few times.
The Internet makes the process more plannable, since many B&Bs are now
listed and make reservations by Internet. One can rent a room or even an
entire house just about anywhere in England. The people are friendly, and
best of all, the locals always have suggestions for taking in the special
local attractions. Take advantage of the fact that people who run the B&Bs
love to help you enjoy yourself with a personal touch. It is their
profession and they like to feel they are providing a good service. If you
cannot stay with a friend or relative, a B&B is the next best thing, and
sometimes even better.
Pauline and I are extremely fortunate in that our British friends often
invite us to spend an evening with them in their homes when we are in their
neighborhood (as we do if they visit Bedfordshire or California). This
provides an immediate resource of local information. Local events include
antique and art shows, open gardens, Morris Dancers, air shows, glow worm
hunts, music festivals, and so on. We even went to a Scarecrow Contest where
the residents of a village compete to design and display in their yards the
best scarecrow. Seriously, this could catch on.
The Public Footpath is a wonderful concept in England, which the British
take so much for granted that they rarely even brag about them. Even tour
books pay little attention to them. No such thing exists in the United
States, so we have no concept of the meaning of the ubiquitous, wooden
"Public Footpath" signs. In the USA we have great nature trails, regional
and National Hiking trails, and parks, but nothing resembling a Public
One reason for this is that we don't have villages in the same sense as
England. England is crisscrossed by many thousands of miles of well-marked
Public Footpaths that connect many thousands of tiny villages sprinkled
across the country.
One can walk from one village to any other over these paths, most of
which have existed for hundreds of years and which farmers are required by
law to maintain. All fences are equipped with gates and stiles, and
footbridges cross the rivers and streams. The designs of these structures
are as varied as one can imagine and some have their own trademarks. Some of
the bridges are an experience to cross. If you have your lady with you,
don’t forget to take advantage of the "kissing" gates. Trap her in there and
don’t let her pass without paying the price.
Kissing Gate on a Public Footpath-Trap your lady
and extract the toll.
One could never run out of interesting footpaths that lead through tiny
villages, woods, streams, past colorful pubs, ancient churches, thatched
roof homes, windmills, canals, and historical sites. One is never far from
such a path anywhere in England.
One hundred meters from our Flitwick home a public footpath passes
through the Two Moors National Trust Reserve to the villages of Greenfield
(one mile) and on to Flitton (another half mile) and beyond. The path
follows the River Flit, which is lined by comfrey, foxgloves, the
ever-present stinging nettles, and dozens of other wildflowers. Along the
way one passes a few pubs, thatched roof houses, a mausoleum, a medieval
church, and Pussy Pond (Don’t ask me why they call it Pussy Pond). In August
you can stop along the way and pick and eat plump blackberries so prolific
that they literally weigh down the vines.
Flitwick Moor Public Footpath-I painted this scene.
Blackberries in Flitwick Moor-Eat them right off
the vine, but not down lower than a dog can pee.
Flitton-Along the Two Moors Public Footpath.
Notice the thatched roof. I am standing by the White Hart Pub and the
Flitton Church and Mausoleum.
Watch out, however, for the stinging nettles. This plant is unlike
anything we have in America. All you have to do is touch it and a crystal of
formic acid attaches to your skin and burns like hell. I once dropped a
blackberry into a patch of nettles. That is the last time I will ever
attempt to recover a dropped blackberry. Nettles are, strangely enough, good
to eat, if you pick them with gloves and cook the hell out of them. As you
would guess, every year there are stinging nettles eating contests in which
contestants eat these things raw.
Keep a sharp lookout and you may see a montjac, a small version of a deer
about the size of a big dog.
A few miles south of Flitwick is the village of Sharpenhoe. Towering
above are the Sharpenhoe Clappers, named after the French for rabbit warren.
This public footpath provides a great vantage point to look over
Bedfordshire. From this trail one could observe a crop circle that had
magically appeared in a wheat field below.
Jimbo and Jim Walking the Sharpenhoe Clappers
A few years ago a public footpath was opened that follows Hadrian's Wall
from coast to coast, about 70 miles. You can walk for days along the ruins
of a 2000-year-old wall and occasionally pass forts and other more complex
structures from the Roman era. You also pass other villages, churches,
bridges and beautiful scenery.
A coastal footpath follows the coast for hundreds of miles, and almost
any section of it provides walkers with magnificent views. Along the Devon
and Cornwall coasts are some of the most stunning views in England. Around Tintagel is one of my favorites. Such walks pass windmills ranging from the
modern to the medieval.
Whether passing from one village to the next, through the moors, dales,
and forests, the public footpaths are one of the most amazing offerings of
England free for all to enjoy. One does not need to walk for many miles in
any single outing. Thousands of one or two hour loop walks provide a
delightful array of sights. In 2004 a new law, the CROW or Citizen Rights of
Way, was passed giving people even more access to lands, not necessarily
limited to the public footpaths. Land Barons and large land owners fought
this in the courts but ultimately lost. One notable loser was Madonna, the
singer, who did not want her privacy invaded.
Local libraries and tourist offices usually have maps or books that
identify and recommend the most colorful public footpaths. The Internet is a
good resource if you can get past the marketing traps. However, nothing
beats the advice of a local walker.
The British Canal System
Another British phenomenon is the system of picturesque man made canals,
which crisscross the country, punctuated with thousands of manually operated
locks. Originally built during the industrial revolution for transportation
of cargo, the canals are now maintained largely for pleasure. In England one
is never far from a canal, and a public footpath accompanies most of the
canals. Canals and public footpaths are two major, unique features of
England that are rarely a part of the typical tourist itinerary and that are
delightful to experience.
Heading into the lock-Two boats at a time in this
Passing through the locks-It is all done by hand.
The canals support an entire community of long boat owners passing back
and forth through hundreds of locks. Watching the boats go through the
locks, or better yet, assisting with the lock gates and watching tons of
water raise or lower a boat 5 to 10 feet to the next level is great fun. And
of course, the ultimate is to make a journey on one of the long boats.
Lichfield and Ticknall
Pauline and I have enjoyed some events so much that we return each year
to repeat the experience. One such event is the Lichfield Music Festival,
which takes place in July. Our friends John and Patti, who live in nearby
Ticknall, introduced us to this festival. It takes place in the Lichfield
Cathedral and also surrounding churches. For an entire week each year, small
symphony orchestras and chamber music groups put on a variety of shows. What
a wonderful way to experience music, in a medieval cathedral; the acoustics
are amazing. During the intermission, members of the various organizations
serve drinks in tents on the cathedral lawn. Concomitant with the music
festival is an art festival, put on by local artists, also in the cathedral.
Some of these occasions feature well-known musicians and actors. For
example in one evening event, Sir Alan Bates, a famous English actor, read a
Tolstoy story to a background of music.
John and Patti always enhance our experience with the local flavor. They
share with us not only their home and friends but also their talents, and
canal long boat, on which John graciously hosts trips and meals. It’s fun to
watch other boats working their way through the locks, but doing it yourself
is the ultimate. The scenery along the canals is also interesting, and one
can quickly feel the camaraderie of the long boat community. For some reason
the boats tend to bunch up around the pubs.
Dinner on the Long Boat
The Dales of Yorkshire and Lancashire
I think I must have first learned about Dales from our visits with our
friend, Margaret, who lives in the village of Micklethwaite near Bradford in
Yorkshire. She has guided us along delightful walks in Yorkshire and
Lancashire. In June 2004, we joined Margaret and drove to the Northwest
coast along narrow roads through the countryside to Morecambe Bay. In
Bolton-le-Sands we linked up with a mutual artist friend, Chris, with a plan
for walking the Lancashire Dales. Morecombe Bay, in addition to being
beautiful, is notorious for its quicksand traps and dangerous tides. Many
people have lost their lives after being caught up in them.
Every turn presents a potential painting subject, and my temptation is
always to stop and break out watercolors. Christine’s artistic virtuosity
provided me an especially high concentration of pleasure, since her artistic
interests matched mine. Just walking around her lovely home with walls
covered with watercolors of local scenery told me this was an artist’s
From Chris’ home one can choose trails along the coastline, the canal,
and nearby Dales for astonishing walks. Our longest walk was from the
village of Millthrop to Dent in the Yorkshire Dales, about a six-mile walk.
As we drove through the Dale to reach our starting point the increasing
numbers of hikers along the roadways told me that this was something
special. Everywhere in England is near a beautiful walk; when British
walkers drive for hours to do a walk, you can guarantee that it will be
something really special.
British friends teased me for years before I learned how to distinguish
villages, towns, and cities. A typical village in England has one pub, a
store, and a dozen houses and sometimes a church. The church is likely to be
a thousand years old and worth a visit. Villages have names like "Little
Snoring" or "Nether Wallop", and are usually surrounded by farms and woods.
The ability of the British to maintain the countryside atmosphere is
absolutely amazing. You could never guess that the population density in
England is actually larger than most countries. Unfortunately, the
automobile explosion and the gridlock on the narrow roads belies the country
atmosphere. Automobiles have really screwed up our world almost everywhere.
Entering the tiny village of Milthrop, we left our car, and immediately
photographed a most beautiful garden in front of an old stone house before
leaving the road to follow the public footpath that crossed a wheat field.
The next six miles presented an always-changing view of hills, streams,
agriculture, flowers, cattle and sheep. We stopped for a picnic along a
stream, and devoured what had to be the best sandwiches ever made, before
continuing along the river to Dent. A farmer in a nearby field was
harvesting wheat, and birds flocked along behind him, apparently capturing
the exposed insects. Dent is a medieval village, which is known for its
"Terrible knitters of Dent" (Terrible meant terribly good), who apparently
produced classic designs that were coveted by many people. After a
midafternoon tea in the local teashop, Chris’s brother arrived as previously
agreed and took us back to our car at Milthrop.
Front Garden in Milthrop
On Sunday, while the others attended church I elected to walk along the
canal to sit and paint an especially picturesque scene that Chris had
pointed me to on the canal. As I painted, I imagined that the only thing
that could have made this better picture would be a little boy with fishing
pole projecting over the canal. Even as the thought persisted and I had some
doubts that these canals even supported fishing, the universe dealt me
another one of those special moments that make me wonder how much we create
our own environment.
A young boy walked up and asked me if he would disturb me by fishing in
the exact spot where I had imagined placing him in the painting. He could
have chosen any spot along a hundred miles of canal, but he chose this exact
spot. I immediately added him into the painting.
Bolten Le Sands -I painted this scene. The
fisherman showed up later, so I added him.
Kettlewell and Surroundings
Two great hikes in Yorkshire followed the river from Burnsall to
Grassington and a five mile loop trail that began and ended at the village
of Malham. Nearby lay the village of Kettlewell where the movie "Calendar
Girls" was filmed so we could not resist a visit there. I think that we were
the only car in the village. We parked immediately in front of the town
hall, where the ladies had met in the movie, and we walked to the corner
teashop, which in reality is a gift shop. A scarecrow contest was underway
in the surrounding area. The church at Kettlewell was another treat. There
are so many footpaths in Yorkshire we will not run out of places to hike and
most of them are worth a second go.
Public Footpath from Burnsall to Grassington-Another painting done here.
Kettlewell-This was the tea shop in the movie
Malham Cove-The village of Malham is at the end of
the trail you can see below.
The Cathedrals of England
The people of England have been building cathedrals for over a thousand
years, and in spite of Henry VIII, who destroyed many of them in the mid
fifteen hundreds, about 50 magnificent cathedrals still exist. I found a
deck of cards with 48 cathedrals to measure my quest. By summer 2004 I had
logged up 20 cathedrals scattered over England.
It is really hard to say which are my favorites because each of them is
my favorite. Each one has a character of its own . Some people consider
Lincoln Cathedral to be the most spectacular. When we visited Lincoln, we
managed to join a special tour of the rafters that took us through the bell
tower, the rafters, and even out on the cathedral roof. I saw parts of a
cathedral I had never seen before. The old city and castle around the
cathedral definitely add to the overall ambiance.
Lincoln Cathedral from the Town Square
Wells Cathedral has some of the most spectacular sculpture outside,
unique rock steps and architecture inside and an ancient clock that features
a black and white knight fighting every hour. For over five hundred years
the white Knight has managed to win every time.
Wells Cathedral-Outside Sculpture
Salisbury Cathedral contains one of the best versions of the Magna Carta
as well as one of the oldest clocks in existence. (And Stonehenge is
nearby.) Beneath the church tower the floor is marked at the tower center
position showing how much it has drifted around over the centuries. Some of
the seat-of-the-pants construction rules in those days were not adequate and
towers have been known to collapse.
One should not simply walk into a cathedral and look around and leave. A
good cathedral should be savored with several visits at varying times of
day. One should sit in and around them and contemplate their beauty and
history. These are massive structures constructed by thousands of workers
sometimes over hundreds of years. Imagine cutting and moving these massive
stones completely by hand. Within the cathedrals are ancient artifacts,
bones, tombs, catacombs, jewels, paintings, sculpture, books, and spirits.
Like icing on the cake, all of these cathedrals have tearooms that must
be visited and treated like palate fresheners. Some of them feature homemade
cakes produced by volunteers who act as servers. Hopefully, this delightful
treat will not be eliminated by our litigious societies attempt to eliminate
all risk of danger or using mishaps to enrich our lawyers and ourselves.
(Some noises have been made about outlawing home made treats from public
access.) I always try the home made cakes, and I haven’t been poisoned yet.
Even those religious establishments that Henry the Eighth destroyed are
worth visiting in the form of ruins. Glastonbury is a good example. When the
Bishop of Glastonbury failed to cooperate with Henry, Henry had him
murdered, mounted his head at the town gate, cut up his body, sent bits of
it all over the country as a warning and destroyed a magnificent Abbey. The
abbey grounds contain well-preserved ruins of many buildings and graves, one
of which is claimed to be that of King Arthur. Of course, this is not the
only place claiming to have King Arthur’s remains. To be completely fair to
Henry, the blokes running the Abbeys were not always saints themselves.
England is covered with such ruins of Abbeys, Castles, and forts. A
little imagination is all it takes to enjoy hours hanging out in these
places, and they are rarely crowded with tourists.
Glastonbury Abbey Ruins-
Henry the Eighth’s
Near Glastonbury is Glastonbury Tor, a tower atop a local hill. The climb
up the hill is not for wimps, but the view on top is well worth the climb.
Glastonbury Tor-Not a climb for Wimps
Many of the villages are blessed with ancient churches that date back
through the centuries. Pauline always looks for angels in churches in
paintings, sculptures and carvings. Some of the churches are widely known
for ancient wood -carved angels in the church roofs. In South Creake, a
small village near Fakenham, we found two churches that had especially
exciting angels built into the vault. These angels are over 400 years old.
Angels in the Rafters of South Creake Church
The Norfolk Coast
The Norfolk coasts are filled with wonderful sights, including seaside
villages, The Broads, and the City of Norwich. We stayed in various quarters
including a B&B in the village of Blakeney, a rented house, and the
Maidenhead Hotel in Norwich, immediately adjacent to the cathedral. We found
all of these on the Internet.
The Broads are hundreds of manmade lakes that resulted from peat mining
pits dug hundreds of years ago and subsequently filled by high tides. This
part of England has turned into a boating community that reminds me much of
Florida. Surrounding the lakes are swamp like areas filled with unusual
birds and plants. Wooden footpaths have been constructed in many of these
bogs, providing a never-ending adventure through swamps and lakes. The paths
also contain hides, where one can wait to observe birds that may land
Ranworth Broad, Norfolk
Many picturesque villages dot the broads, and also windmills that were
used to pump the water out of the bogs . At the ancient Ranworth church, we
climbed the church tower and found a breathtaking panorama…...and a
wonderful teashop. The pub at Ranworth offered a great lunch and a pint of
bitter that tasted even better after the climb.
Horsey Mill, Norfolk-Another painting.
Althorp is the stately home of Charles Spencer, the Earl of Althorp,
pronounced "Althrop". More recently, as well as more famously, it is the
burial place of Princess Diana. As of 2004, one can still visit, during the
summer months, special exhibits at Althorp memorializing Diana, the home,
and the burial place. Charles Spencer, himself, often hangs out at the
memorial and signs copies of his books. On our visit we had the honor to
speak with him as we collected his autograph. The place was not crowded and
was a very pleasant, tasteful experience.
Althorp-Diana, Princess of Wales Burial Site
Practically every village and town in England calls itself the "Historic
Village of ….....". Apparently this is possible because given enough time,
someone or something major will show up everywhere sooner or later. England
had kings, queens, Vikings, Romans, wars, and so on all over the country, so
if one showed up in a village, it can be called "historic". We checked in on
the town of Ampthill to participate in its Aragon Days Celebration. Ampthill
was the home of Ampthill Castle where Catherine of Aragon stayed during part
of her marriage to Henry the Eighth. The celebration included musicians,
dressed in period costumes and even Henry the Eighth, himself and Catherine
of Aragon. They cut a ribbon on the reopening of the Greensand Ridge public
footpath that had been refurbished.
The ribbon cutting was followed by a walk along the refurbished footpath
past Houghton House (the "House Beautiful" of John Bunyan fame) to the next
village of Maulden, where tea was served in an ancient church. As a special
treat, a church bell ringers group gave us a tour of the bell tower and a
demonstration of bell ringing while we were in the tower. Behind the church
we visited the Mausoleum and saw the tomb of relatives of Robert the Bruce.
I have described a few
ways to blend, to get inside a country, to know the very heart of a
culture,………………… but I saved the very best way, the one I found the most
effective, for the end of this installment. The very best way is to find
yourself a gorgeous and wonderful native, take her walking on one of the
public footpaths, enter a kissing gate, and keep her there until she agrees
to marry you.
Gate to the 12th Century St. Peter and St.
Paul Church where our wedding was blessed.