A DAY OUT IN ENGLAND
While I Had Been Stravaiging, The Stramash Was OverLast updated Sunday December 11th, 2005
By SCOTT JOHNSTON
On Monday I went to England.
Not a thing I care to do too often these days. The English have become somewhat grumpy neighbours since they wakened up to the fact that they now have no Parliament they can call their own. All they have is Westminster, with MP’s from all over the United Kingdom. This deals with what roughly speaking would in US terms be federal matters. And it also deals with English domestic matters too.
So MP’s from Scotland, and Wales, get to vote on English legislation. But since the establishment a few years ago of a Parliament in Scotland (and an Assembly with limited powers in Wales) English MP’s play no part in domestic legislation for their Celtic partners in the United Kingdom.
Personally I can’t see why the English shouldn’t have a Parliament of their own if they want one. It’s up to them. But this isn’t the answer they really want. Their problem is that they have only just grasped what we’ve known for three hundred years - that England and Britain are quite separate concepts. This seems to cause a fair degree of resentment, and many do not attempt to hide it.
A Wife Wise Beyond Her Years
It can be all be very wearisome, but even more wearisome would be the turmoil in my house as people got to grips with the not trivial consequences of an overflowing upstairs washbasin.
So my wife urged me to get out of the way by accepting an invitation from my pal Jean Michel, a Frenchman who heads up a research lab in Edinburgh, to chum him in his car to Harrogate in the North of England where he was attending a three day international immunology conference. At Harrogate I would use my old folks pass to take the train home.
And that is what I did. I was home just twelve hours after I left, having catered to my insatiable desire ever to keep on the move, having kept out of the house to everyone’s advantage, and on the train home having spent three comfortable hours dining and working in a desultory fashion on the script in German of a now imminent lecture on Bucharest that I had some weeks previously rashly volunteered to give at my German class.
Route Of The Invaders
So, Monday morning sees Jean Michel and me driving south from Edinburgh through the gentle hills of the Borders and down towards England on the fast modern freeway through Annandale - the west coast route to the south. The ruins of centuries old stone towers remind you that for two thousand years this was one of the highways taken by invaders and would be conquerors of Scotland. You come out of the hills on to the dreary salt flats where Scotland ends and England starts. The landscape changes as dramatically as the accent. The great castle at Carlisle, the first town on the English side of the border, reminds you that they too had serious things to do to defend themselves from aggression and retaliation out of Scotland.
I once went with my American cousin Hutch to lunch in Askham. Now I was going with Jean Michel. I guess two or three hundred people live in Askham. South of Carlisle, it lies in the foothills of the Lake District, just a few miles off the Glasgow/London freeway. You get to it along a winding, narrow byway from Penrith. It is a long village, sloping quite steeply downhill to a wooded gorge. The road straggles down through it for a quarter of a mile or so, not winding, but not straight either. It is not wide, but on either side are broad, uneven and irregular areas of grass. Beyond these are the houses, facing each other perhaps fifty or so yards apart. They are kind of piled together, higgledy pigged fashion. They go up and down with the natural contours of the land. Their frontages do not present a straight line, in any dimension. They vary in height and style, but all present a somewhat mediaeval external aspect. The total effect is a pleasing and unplanned sense of cohesion and unity.
Is That Errol Flynn?
You’re mildly surprised not to see Errol Flynn wandering about wearing green tights, high boots with reverse castellations where they are turned down just below the knee, a Lincoln green tunic and a quiverfull of arrows. And of course a daft hat with a feather.
The landscape invites other caricatures into the theatre of the mind. Swineherds in rags. Lads tending goats. Applecheeked and saucy maidens laughing provocatively and talking in Old English. A couple of crones. Itinerants selling candles, varieties of offal, and bits of rubbish. Perhaps a man playing these strange leather bagpipes that you blow up with your elbow, still to be heard making wild barbaric music in the Apennines and in the uplands of Bulgaria. A friar selling pardons and indulgences. Barefoot children in tatters being brutally exploited. You get the picture.
At the top of the village there is a pub, but it is to The Punchbowl at the foot of the village, and just above the wooded gorge, that we make our way. Perfect. Mediaeval. Well no, more a Dickensian Christmas card bring me a tankard of foaming ale mine jovial host sort of place. Roaring fire, low wood beamed roof, soft lighting, hunting prints, primitive plumbing, but a large menu, offering both the sort of food that would have gone down well with folk just off a stagecoach (jugged hare, for example, or boiled beef) and stuff that wouldn’t be too far out of place in 21st century Kensington. We drink some not too powerful local ale, had parsnip and curry soup, and steak and kidney pudding. Not the gastronomic event of the year, but good enough, and not hideously expensive either.
Back To The (Sigh) 21st Century
We came into Askham from the north. Now we left it to the south to rejoin the twenty-first century on the freeway ten miles or so away on the high moors at Shap Fell.
So, down the narrow road from The Punchbowl, into the woods, across the narrow bridge over the gorge, sharp turn left, then up through more woods, to emerge on open and meticulously tended parkland. To the right, a quarter of a mile off the road at the top of gently rising grass, a huge and turreted mansion. In front of it a broad terrace with stone balustrades. There are copses for aesthetic effect, and to provide cover for game. Discreetly to the side, and out of sight of the mansion (as of course is the village too) are estate workers’ houses, sturdy, uniform, but still in touch with the ambient architectural idiom.
But look closely. The mansion’s windows just stare back eerily. The facade still stands, but the place is empty, lifeless.
So enter stage right in the mind a new cast of characters. Bertie Wooster and Aunt Agatha. The Marquis of Blandings, and Bright Young Things playing tennis and drinking cocktails. A gramophone on the terrace plays music to dance the Charleston to. Cloche hats and long, long cigarette holders. Jeeves hovers discreetly in the background. Open touring cars with running boards arrive bringing more house guests, their servants coming up behind with cabin trunks full of luggage, just for a long weekend. Housekeepers shush giggling maidservants, and calm men with white aprons and silver hair supervise the disposal of luggage and take the guns to the armoury to be oiled, ready for tomorrow morning’s sport. Twenty cooks toil in the kitchen quarters; others in the pantries. Silver and crystal ware is polished to perfection. The butler and his team reverently perform their meticulous rites. Pure PG Wodehouse.
Enter A Bony Northern Man
Later on and further south we stop for coffee and scones in the comely village square of quaint Kirby Lonsdale - a small northern England rural town. The coffee shop is ever so slightly twee. No need here to exercise the mind to people the stage. The caricatures are sitting right beside you. A bony northern man comes in. Nothing twee about him. Forthright and downright, a no-frills man. He is wearing hiking boots and a face that tells you he has no time for fancy talk. "Toasted muffin and a pot of tea" he says bluntly to the waitress. For a moment the waitress hesitates, long enough to remind the man that he has a companion, who has has been trained to be wholly inconspicuous.
"Aye", says the man as an impatient afterthought, "an’ I expect she’ll be wanting something too".
But the town has some style - moderately classy shops, antique dealers whose prices seem outrageous, and specialist delicatessen.
There must be money there. Where does it come from? It stands in the midst of very marginal agricultural land that will these days yield small returns to farmers. I suppose weekend tourism must be quite important. And in truth it is an appealing place. I wouldn’t mind spending a weekend there. But it is also to me a strange and alien landscape, and I feel less at home there than I would in parts of France or Germany. This I cannot understand. But it is so. We discuss this in the car. That and public ethics and hypocrisies, Post Modernism which both of us despise, and our experience of life and of the universe.
On to Harrogate, arriving late afternoon, and now it’s dark. This is a spa town. In the twenties Agatha Christie disappeared there for a couple of days or so, a mystery that never has been solved. Very much bigger than Kirby Lonsdale, and in fact very modestly cosmopolitan, it’s principal shops speak also of middle class comfort and restrained style. A place where Jane Austen might well have felt at home.
I have a drink with Jean Michel, and then take a train to York, forty minutes and five stops away in a rattling swaying two coach travelling slum - a garden shed on rails. But it’s on time. And ten minutes after I arrive at York, the modern express from London pulls in - bright lights, a bar and a buffet and a dining car.
No Coals For A Reinvented Newcastle
Then it’s off, fast and smooth, through the flat rich lands of Yorkshire, and on to Durham. About a million years ago I graduated from Durham University. I lived then in a leafy college in the shadow of the immense nine hundred year old cathedral and castle. It comes back to me that I enjoyed my time there, but always felt slightly out of place in this quintessentially English environment. At Newcastle we cross the Tyne, one of the cradles of the Industrial Revolution. Newcastle has handsomely and successfully reinvented itself after the decline and disappearnce of its coal mines, its shipbuilding and its heavy industry.
Now it’s dark, but I know the landscape well. We stop briefly at Berwick on Tweed. It changed hands twelve times in the course centuries longer warfare between Scotland and England. It ended up in England. But half the population still have unmistakeably Scottish accents. And its professional soccer team plays in the Scottish League. The modern border lies three miles north of the town, exactly where the flat lands of the east coast give way to rugged cliffs and churning restless seas.
I’ve done it a thousand times, but still I experience a frisson of pleasure going north across the border. This time I’m treating myself to a coffee and brandy after dinner as the train glides into Scotland and on through the dark, up the main eat coast line, to Edinburgh. As ever, Edinburgh’s skyline, as you leave the station, is pure theatre. The floodlit castle hangs in the dark, above the city, It is entirely magnificent.
And while I’d been away stravaiging, to use a Scottish word of ancient Norse origin, the stramash at home, to use another, was over.