Friday, October 23, 2015

Letters from a Golden English Autumn. Part 1: Scotland and the Lakes

It's a golden Scottish autumn too, of course, for the journey and the adventure in fact begin begin at Edinburgh. This part covers Edinburgh to the Lake District.

View from Claire's window, Edinburgh

Tuesday, Sept. 22, 1015

Hi Peter, Paul, and neighbor Pam,

Over the Labrador Sea, below Iceland. A little over 3 hours left to London, in a 9 1/2 hour flight, extra fast due to jet stream. As you know I hate flying (can’t even watch movies, but compulsively follow the map of the plane’s progress), but this is getting to be the exciting part. My spirits always bound with excitement as we fly over these northern seas, and approach the British Isles – each and every time.

On the way I kept thinking about women my age, and where I was in life. By coincidence, the taxi driver taking me to the airport was a 69 year old woman. She was a strong lady, with a military and police background, said she’d driven a cab 28 years. When I mentioned I'd just retired she said she never can, and her only hope of ever taking such a trip as mine (and I do it every year) was if she won the lottery. Felt bad, at the way things don’t even up. At least she has a Santa Monica rent controlled apartment...

Then at the airport I met another woman my age. We bonded in a friendly way over the bad tasting Starbucks. She was English, lived in an Edwardian house in Kew – now that would be a lottery-dimension dream for me!  And she had grandkids, but had to spend a lot of time flying from London to Los Angeles to see them, which is hard. As one who always compulsively does the life-comparison thing (an odious, unshakeable habit probably ingrained in me from my New York upbringing), I consoled myself with the fact that I’d published more. Pathetic! Perhaps we each saw things in the other’s life to be wistful about, but we really clicked and will be Facebook friends.  

Oh look at us, past the tip of Iceland now.

Safely landed at Claire's house

My wonderful hostess 

View from the window

Near Holyrood Park

Afoot in Edinburgh

A must-buy in an Edinburgh shop, in honor of our three pussycats

 Landed after nice smooth flight, spent some time at Heathrow's dazzling shops, ate a fry up, and then got on the much nicer, smaller plane for the pretty,1-hour flight to Edinburgh. Clouds and sunshine, cool crisp air hit my face like a welcome hug of exhilaration as I got off the plane. Friend Claire so kindly surprised me by meeting me at the Edinburgh airport, and we took a lovely bus ride to Waverley Station in town. It was a glorious, sunny, brisk day, and the bus wound most conveniently around the wonderful old buildings of Edinburgh, which I have not seen in perhaps a decade. Everything was so beautiful, it was a sightseer’s dream!  Then we walked from the station to Claire’s house, about a 20 minute walk, with Claire gallantly hauling my heavier bag!  Sure, it has wheels, but Edinburgh has steep cobblestones, and she was a champion. Her charming house is right on the park, and I had a chance to get my bearings by sitting in the window seat drinking tea and eating Victoria sponge (my favorite), while gazing with delight at the stunning view of the city below. Then two members of the Edinburgh Chalet School literary group, Janette and Allison, came to dinner. I knew them both from Facebook but meeting them in person was very special, and we chattered away as if I’d been an old friend. It was all so cozy and friendly, as we talked books and friends and ate lasagna and salad and more Victoria sponge. One lady was another contemporary, but I was far too happy to make comparisons - and anyway it would have been a dead loss, as she is fortunate enough to live in Edinburgh!  After my ultra long journey (I think about 16 hours door to door) I slept like log, though wakened by a phone call from Paul with a credit card fraud question – my having used a cash machine at Heathrow was challenged -  but that was quickly fixed and I went back to sleep!

Climbing Arthur's seat

Picking blackberries 

As high as we got - view of the Firth


On the trail to Galashiels

From the train

Thursday, Sept. 24.  Claire and I walked out on a sunny morning and went out for walk in Holyrood Park, just the kind of leg-stretching breathtaking walk that’s so perfect after a long trip. We walked part of the way up Arthur's Seat, with gorgeous views of the city, some small lakes, and beautiful green hills – we picked and ate wild blackberries. Back again, Claire kindly and almost simultaneously downloaded Skype onto my iPad, while making and packing a delicious lunch, egg sandwiches and shortbread. We walked back to Waverley Station to catch the train for Galashiels, about an hour's ride away. This Borders Railway line had just re-opened for the first time in half a century; the Queen opened it two weeks ago. Claire came along with me for the ride, and then returned to Edinburgh. A short, pleasant journey, and I drank my favorite Caffe Nero cappuccino while enjoying the sandwiches. The Enterprise man from Galashiels came to pick me up at the station and took me to the car office (very nearby). There I was shown how to work the neat little Vauxhall (little only compared with American cars), and off I went, tooling along quite alone in the Scottish countryside! Absolutely beautiful green country but I couldn't really look at it much, as I was concentrating with my whole mind on driving!  

Scenic rest stop en route to Peebles

Finally safe at the Peebles Hydro Hotel parking lot!

Mountain view from the parking lot

 I always adjust pretty quickly to being on the “other” side of the road, but what I have trouble with is the narrowness of the roads. Sitting on the right hand side of the car rather than the left, it is very difficult to estimate the width of the car, and know if you’re going to scrape a wall on the left, or if there’s room for the drivers approaching you to get by!  Pretty nervewracking, even though this was the quietest sort of country road I was going to get on this trip, and only about 18 miles. I did safely reach the Peebles Hydro Hotel where the Jane Austen and Scotland conference was being held, and thankfully parked the car in the parking lot with its lovely mountain views, glad that I would not have to drive the car again for three days! I immediately saw the conference organizer, Patrick Stokes, a Jane Austen relation and former head of the English Jane Austen Society, whom I last met when he played the Prince Regent in the play Syrie James and I wrote and produced in Montreal. We chatted with other conference goers, and then friend Janet Todd arrived with the contingent that were coming by train and being met at Waverley Station. We visited, heard a lecture about the Scottish Library, and had a very nice dinner of roast pork. So tired I went immediately to sleep in my quiet, comfortable, large room with its windows looking out onto Scottish mountains and the Tweed, with crystalline Scottish air flowing in.  

Peebles Hydro Hotel

Sunset at the Peebles Hydro
Friday/Saturday, September 25/26

Opened eyes on a grey cool day in Scotland, and tucked into the most enormous Scottish breakfast – everything you could possibly wish under that designation – fried eggs and sausages and bacon and all kinds of toasts and bread and beans and haggis and tomatoes and mushrooms. Then they took us by coach to Edinburgh (almost an hour’s ride, but nice views) to the Scottish National Library, where we saw exhibits and listened to talks. There was lunch in an Italian restaurant which I hadn’t much appetite for (wonder why), and Jan and I took a walk through the pretty Edinburgh streets, to Greyfriars Kirkyard. Enjoyed meeting one of the speakers, Dr. Helen Vincent, a Girls Own list member who has the enviable job of being head of rare books and music at the National Library of Scotland. After a delightful bus tour of the sights, we were driven back to Peebles for another good dinner at the hotel, meeting other interesting conference members.

Saturday morning, after another enormous breakfast I walked through the woods into Peebles, a little sorry there wouldn't be time to check out the Alan Buchan museum. I returned in time to get on the 10:45 coach, but there was a mix-up: we were told the bus would be leaving later and we should hold people back from getting on. Then we saw it sailing past and couldn’t stop it! Yet it all turned out very well. Four of us, me, Jan, Heather Wills-Sandford and Maureen Stringer followed the coach in Maureen’s car, driving like the wind through lovely Borders countryside, and we reached Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s beautiful fanciful castle home with lovely green grounds, just behind the coach. I’d been to Abbotsford about twenty years ago but it has been remodeled and looked somehow different, and it was lovely to go round the house and the exquisite gardens, especially the walled one filled with beautiful late-flowering plants. 

Diana Birchall, Janet Todd, Heather Wills-Sandford and Maureen Stringer, jolly independent party at lunch

Conference members at Abbotsford

Exhibition cases: Mary Queen of Scots' crucifix, Flora Macdonald's wallet, etc.

Beautiful Chinese wallpaper


The Tweed

Botanical gardens

Lunch at Abbotsford was very nice tomato basil soup and little egg sandwiches, with cappuccino and shortbread. Then the bus departed and we four drove by car, to the beautiful Dawyck Botanical Gardens where we had a refreshing walk through exotic trees and bright blooms, with a little stream. Then we drove back to the hotel and rested till it was time to process with a bagpipe into dinner. (I actually missed most of that, having been hit with a bout of jet lag.)  I was slightly appalled at being put at the head table, between two alarming English gentlemen!  I knew this meant I’d be required to talk to one, then turn and talk to the other, and I wasn’t quite sure just how to do it! To make polite amusing conversation during a long banquet with two unknown Alpha male English gentlemen was somewhat disconcerting to this American, despite my thirty-odd trips to the UK.  However, it actually worked out very pleasantly and my fears subsided. The gentleman on the left, Tom Kelly, was associated with Edinburgh University, lived in Deeside, and would be speaking tomorrow on Scottish history. It was a bit stiff at first since I didn’t have the conversational technique, but we soon got into an interesting discussion of the British use of sporting teams to assess matters of class, and what it all meant, which was fascinating. Just when I was getting comfortable I saw it was time to turn to the other man, and did – and he turned out to be  a retired professor from Manchester University, Bill Hutchings, whose subject was 18th century poetry! He was the perfect person to ask Peter’s question about a Scottish poetry edition, and show him one of Peter’s “Lallans” poems, and we had a very nice chat. Jan and Patrick, sitting opposite, later assured me my efforts had appeared to be quite successful, and I felt most relieved, though in point of fact I hadn’t got the timing quite right, but had left the "turning" a little late. Still, not a bad attempt. Then there was entertainment, Scottish songs and readings, and now I'm tucked up in bed. Tomorrow we drive to the Lake District.

At Blackfriars, Edinburgh

Edinburgh Castle

Conference pictures below courtesy of Alan Thwaite.

Waiting for the coach at the hotel

Going in to dinner, Patrick Stokes on left

Me between my two gentleman, Patrick and Jan opposite

Scottish songs, with mural of Battle of Bannochburn as backdrop

Sunday, September 27.

Just going to bed, very tired, in our gorgeous, old, remote hotel in the Lake District, so you see I survived the drive!  After breakfast at Peebles Maureen very thoughtfully set me and Jan off with some directions how to get out of Peebles and onto the right road, but of course we still circled Peebles a few times, which was no hardship, as it is such beautiful country and a day of golden cool sunshine. We found the main road, which was the easy part, as driving on a motorway is similar to freeways at home and there are no problems with narrow roads. When we got off in the Lake District things got hairier, which I was prepared for, having driven there before; but that didn’t make it any easier! I hadn’t realized that Sunday was about the busiest driving day in the Lake District, and there were endless rows of cars speeding around those terrifyingly winding narrow roads, pushing on our bumper through hairpin turns. Quite scary, sometimes we weren’t sure whether we were gasping at the jaw-dropping views or the car barreling toward us, but Jan navigated well, I somehow evaded all missiles, and it certainly was a beautiful drive, especially between Windermere and Ambleside. We found our isolated “Old Rectory” hotel near Coniston with some difficulty, feeling exhausted by the time we got there, but a very peaceful comfortable welcome awaited us. A lovely old stone house set in beautiful rolling hills and farmland, lacy flowers against the stone walls. We had a fine dinner of roast lamb, and then I went to sleep in my own little cottage. It was the night of the Supermoon eclipse; Jan saw it; I slept through it.

Fishermen on Windermere

Driving along Windermere

Kirkstone Pass, highest pass in the Lake District that you can drive over

Other side of the pass

Intrepid driver

The Old Rectory Hotel, near Coniston

Evening view outside my cottage

Next morning's view

Cozy lounge

My own cozy private cottage

Cozy bed

Morning at the Old Rectory 

Next morning's breakfast at the Old Rectory

Morning walk

Landscape with sheep 

After our Old Rectory bountiful breakfast and a lovely walk in the surrounding area, we drove to Hawkshead, a pretty little Lake District town nearby, that was remarkable for the numbers of retired English basking comfortably in the sun and a great many souvenir shops (excellent clotted cream fudge, it must be said).  We visited Hawkshead Grammar School, founded in 1585, where William Wordsworth studied from 1779 to 1787. It's most unspoiled, and we enjoyed seeing the old desks, and Wordsworth's signature (or maybe it's his brother John's). 



A Wordsworth signature

Wordsworth's desk

Afterwards we had tea, and it was odd to see this woman, completely covered in a burkha so even her eyes didn't show, taking pictures with her cell phone, just as we were doing. A changing England...

Last Lake District cream tea

Then we drove to the Windermere Ferry, a convenient way of getting to the other side of the large lake, otherwise we'd have had to drive around for miles. In fact, it's so successful an operation it has been in service for 500 years, in one form or another!  Safe on the other side of the car ferry, we set out on our day's journey to Liverpool.  But that is another story, to tell on another day.