Hello All! Following is my long-awaited (well, by me at least) travelogue about our recent trip to Great Britain. For those who don’t know, this was the first time in a long time in which I had two weeks off in a row so I took my two sons –Constantine and Michael–with me. It was a graduation, Christmas, birthday, etc., gift all rolled into one. Long story short: we walked part of Hadrian’s Wall which for history junkies like us was fan-diddly-tastick!
I’m sorry it took so long but I really wanted to get it right and make it readable. Plus there was a lot of news on the Orthodox front that kept me hopping. Anyway, it’s good to get away and reflect on some of the more cheery things in life. I hope that for those who are interested, that you’ll take the time to read it.
Standing on the wall itself: your humble correspondent and sons: Denny on the left, Mikey on the right.
href="http://www.monomakhos.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/hadrians-wall-map-start.png">Long story short, we knew we were in no shape to hike all 84 miles so we decided to do a 30 mile section in the middle, from Humshaugh to Banks, so we had our first three nights accounted for. From then we were going to fly by the seat of our pants. As for transportation, we found that it was cheaper to rent a car than to rely on Britrail or public transportation. (The downside: gasoline was about $8.00 a gallon. Ouch!)
Tuesday, July 25th
We took Delta from Houston to Atlanta and had about 20 minutes to make the connecting flight. We ran like madmen to make the connection. We made it but in a scene drenched in irony, it was all for naught because the weather in Atlanta was so bad that we were stuck on the runway for about 2 hrs. Oh well. We landed on Tuesday at Gatwick airport only about an hour later than we were scheduled and got through Customs without incident. However our luggage went to Heathrow, which is about 35 miles away in the other direction. Well, nothing like a baptism by fire to get acclimated to driving conditions in a foreign land, especially one in which they drive on the “other” side of the road! On top of that I had to learn to drive stick left-handed. Somehow I managed.
Getting to Heathrow was a chore (was I supposed to take the M-23 to M-25 and what does “M” mean anyway?) but about an hour and two near-accidents later, we made it. Roundabouts are treacherous, they’re everywhere, even in the smallest village so you better get used to them fast. They’re tough to navigate and English drivers aren’t very forgiving. As a general rule, they’re not the rudest in the world and compared to most everybody else on the Continent rather polite but they like to lay on the horn the second the light turns green. Once we got to Heathrow, we had to find the right place to park and right baggage claim to go to. It took another hour to get Mikey’s suitcase so a little panic was setting in (as well as grouchiness from not being able to sleep on the plane). Finally, after about an hour we found it! We decided to have our first English meal at the airport, a place called Wetherspoon’s, which is kind of like a Chili’s. I had the shepherd’s pie, Denny had fish and chips, Mikey had a mixed grill. We all had Guinness. Beer, is there anything it can’t do?
By now we had lost a good five hours and we were still south of London proper. Our destination however was in Northumbria, a charming little hamlet called Humshaugh, not far from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne and about 100 miles north of York. Anyway, it was about 350 miles to the north to the north of London. Needless to say, we had to high-tail it on the M-6 in order to get there.
Well, everybody in England was unfailingly polite which was a good thing because we must have stopped about a half-dozen times to ask for directions. We stopped at a Costa Coffee/Burger King hybrid to tank up on coffee and relieve ourselves. I was impressed by the barista who told me in a sincere voice “have a safe journey.” She seemed of Indian descent and was quite pretty. It was just the first of many kindnesses we would experience in Great Britain. By the time we got out of Greater London, we were traveling a good 80mph in order to get to the Mingarry Barn, our B&B. Luckily for us, everybody else was travelling at least as fast. By the way, if you don’t already know, the English countryside was absolutely lovely. Thanks to daylight savings time, we had light until about 9pm.
One thing I noticed the further north we got was the preponderance of giant windmills. In theory, I suppose they are supposed to generate electricity but I couldn’t help but notice how off-putting they were, probably because of their great size. There extreme modernity and sleek design was jarring to the rustic countryside. (No wonder the Kennedys didn’t want them off of their private compound in Hyannisport).
We decided to get some supper and we stopped in the city of Sheffield. Had to drive about 5 miles off the M-6 to get there but we thought, why not? Its main claim to fame is that this is where Def Leppard hails from. (I’m a huge fan.) You could tell that it was an industrial town at one time and the older buildings were covered by soot from a long time ago. The industrialization reminded me of the poem “Jerusalem,” by William Blake (1757-1827), a great mystic poet of the Romantic Era.
“And did those feet in ancient time
walk upon England’s mountains green
And was the Holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen!
And did the Countenance divine
Shine forth upon our clouded mills,
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark, satanic mills?
Bring me my Bow of burning gold;
Bring me my Arrows of desire;
Bring me my Spear: O clouds unfold!
Bring me my Chariot of Fire!
I will not cease from Mental Fight,
nor shall my Sword sleep in my hand:
‘Til we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant Land.”
The “satanic mills” referred to the new industrial-sized mills that were the spearhead of the Industrial Revolution which put independent millers out of work. In time, it came to mean all types of smokestack industries, which despoiled the land and encouraged tens of thousands of people to abandon the countryside and migrate to the cities.
Its inner city today is heavily Islamic. We were looking for a nice English pub to eat but we were under time constraints so we stopped at a Halal restaurant with Indian/Pakistani fare. Though we were the only Americans (and I dare say Christians in there), like everybody else in England, the staff were polite and eager to help with directions. Needless to say, we didn’t see any beer on the menu so settled for water. When in Islamabad, do as the Islamabadis do, I guess (although we were in the middle of Sheffield for Heaven’s sakes!) We didn’t see women wearing any burqas but headscarves were the order of the day. A lot of men wore those long robes and skullcaps. Anyway the food was very good and the pita bread was twice as large as what you’d get in the States.
We were losing time now. Had things gone according to plan we would have left London by noon and made it to Humshaugh by nine or so. It was past nine now and we had another 150 miles to go or so. It was dark and I saw that we were entering the outskirts of York and I thought it might be a good idea to stop for the night and see York the next day. (This is where Constantine the Great was declared Emperor by his troops upon his father’s death.) We called the Mingarry Barn and asked if we could delay our journey by a day but the proprietress told us that would be impossible as our rooms were reserved for someone else the next day. She said not to worry, she’d leave the door unlocked for us and told us where our rooms were. We promised we’d make every effort to get there as close to midnight as possible.
One thing we noticed was the closer we got to our destination was how absolutely lovely each little village was. About eighty miles away from our destination, we got off the M-6 and decided to take the A-8. This enabled us to drive through the many little small towns so we could see them for ourselves. Another thing we noticed was how much altitude we were losing. For about a good thirty miles I’d say that I was able to shift into neutral and just glide at about a good 40mph. The names of some of these towns were memorable –Low Row, Corbridge, Hexham, Greenhead, and so on. (That led me to ask, what do the locals call themselves? Lorovians? Greenheaders? Hexhamites? I dunno.) Anyway, we pulled in about 1:00am, a good three hours after check-in. The owner didn’t mention anything the next day at breakfast but only asked how our accommodations were. Classy people these British.
Wednesday, July 26: Humshaugh to Once Brewed
A good British breakfast greeted us at the table. Two eggs, thick bacon, black pudding, sautéed mushrooms, miniature tomatoes, “tatties” (hashed potatoes), beans (!) coffee and orange juice. Cereal was there for anybody who wanted it. (If my doctor is reading this, he’ll blow a gasket.) Regardless, it was delicious and carried me until supper. We met a nice Australian fellow at breakfast who was also staying at the inn, Paul, and he agreed to hike with us until our next stop, a little town called Once Brewed about 12 miles away. He was going to do the entire 84 mile journey but he would be taking breaks in between.
What can I say about the English countryside? Terms like verdant, hilly, bucolic, idyllic and peaceful are inadequate. I felt like we’d been transported to another world, where man and nature lived in harmony. It’s beauty reminded me of the Orthodox prayers said at every funeral: “grant him a repose in a verdant place, where there is neither sorrow, nor suffering…” Contrary to what Kevin Costner said in Field of Dreams, this is what Heaven must look like. I very much appreciated the lack of billboards. The entire landscape had a pre-Industrial Age feel to it. We had to traipse through a few pastures to get to Hadrian’s Wall and I felt a little uncomfortable thinking that we were trespassing, but Paul assured us that through each plot of land, rights-of-way had been established by common law centuries earlier. English Heritage, which maintains most historical sites in England, had actually crafted step-ladders to enable hikers so they could climb over the stone walls that separated the pastures. They were marked with an acorn logo. Sheep and cattle were unavoidable, as was manure, but the tranquility that surrounded us made us not care. It was a little overcast and cloudy but otherwise beautiful. We met several other hikers who were fascinated by us Sooners. I kept on hearing apologies about how hot the weather was. I assured them that 75 degrees was far better than the 110 we were experiencing day in and day out back home. Just getting out of the heat made the trip worth it.
Can you believe how beautiful the English countryside is?
To those who know something about Roman history, Hadrian’s Wall is something of a landmark, not only in geographical terms, but in historical terms. Recently a movie called The Eagle was released which told the story of the 9th Legion, which was stationed there in the 200s (I believe). Although I didn’t see the movie, the Wall was awe-inspiring, not because of its size — a lot of it has been much-reduced in height thanks to pilferage and erosion—but because of what it represented –the northern fringe of the Roman Empire. Built in AD 122 by Hadrian, the Wall represented the Empire at its zenith. The fact that it stretched from Newcastle-upon-Tyne to Bowness-on-Solway (from the North Sea to the Irish Sea) a good 84 miles was nothing to sneeze at either. In its heyday, it was about six feet wide, ten feet high, and was interrupted by mile-castles and forts and garrisons every so often. Its purpose was to prevent the Pictish barbarians to the north (in what is now Scotland), from invading Roman Britain. For centuries it actually was the border between Scotland and England but King Edward I Longshanks of England was able to claim Northumbria and Cumberland (Cambria) for England back in the 1280s so now it doesn’t really touch Scotland until you get further to the west.
The intervening centuries have not been kind to the Wall. Thousands of stones have been pilfered by locals over the years to build houses, barns, and the boundaries between pastures. In some areas, the soil has covered parts of it. We were advised to not walk single file in order to prevent the formation of ruts. Paul and Mike formed the first rank of twos and Denny and I formed the second. Looking back, I wished that I had brought a hiking-pole. To their credit, Contours sent us a list of things that we would need but since it was summer we took a chance and decided to travel as lightly as possible. We thought we could get by with ponchos (in case of rain), hats, sunscreen, and comfortable shoes. We also had special backpacks for carrying water and a special mouthpiece so that you wouldn’t have to take it off in order to drink. If I had to do it over again, I’d definitely take a walking-pole.
At about the sixth mile, we came upon a ruined Mithraeum, a small temple dedicated to the Greco-Iranian sun god Mithras. His cult was popular among the soldiers of the Roman army and according to most accounts Constantine the Great was a devotee when he was a young man. The centerpiece of the altar’s iconography was the taurobolium (“bull-slaying”), in which Mithras is shown slitting the throat of a cosmic bull. This was also the main initiation ritual of the cult. Basically, a novice was placed underneath a grate near the altar and a live bull was ushered in above him. There the priests imitated Mithras and slit the bull’s throat causing his blood to spill onto the initiate, cleansing him of his sins. According to most historians, this ritual needed to be repeated every twenty years but with the rise of Christianity it seems to have been reduced to once in a lifetime.
The stark beauty of this Mithraeum is apparent even in its ruined state
Once we got back to our hike, we noticed that the trail got quite hilly, very hilly in fact, darn-near mountainous. By the third hill I was quite tired. Little did I know that we had another two very large hills to climb. Still, seeing people of all ages traverse these same hills-–families with children even—-made me persevere. And the scenery was breathtaking. Looking to the north one could see how high up we were. The Romans chose to build this barrier well; not only would barbarians have to climb the mountains to get to Britannia, they would then have to try and scale the wall which ran the length of it. In some places, the drop-off to the north was so sheer that it was terrifying. I’d say the cliffs were at least 1000 feet in height, possibly more. Considering that I’ve never been comfortable around heights, I did OK. By 6pm or so we reached our destination: Once Brewed.
Exhausted, we stopped at the first tavern we found, The Twice Brewed and enjoyed some fine ale. We thought that that was going to be our inn for the night but we were told that we had to go to the Vallum Lodge, about a half-mile up the road. Sure enough, our bags greeted us there. By now our legs were really sore so we took warm baths. Refreshed, we went back to the Twice Brewed for supper. All told, we walked about 13 miles that day.
It was a charming place but service was lousy, or so we thought. After about 15 minutes, I flagged down a waitress and asked her to take our order. Little did I know that in the UK, one has to go to the bar and place your order. Well, when in Rome, do as the Romans. We decided on a bottle of wine instead of ale and ordered local dishes, lamb shanks, sausages, and beef, which we ate heartily. Back to the Vallum and sleep. Needless to say, we slept like rocks.
Thursday, July 27: Once Brewed to Banks
Another English breakfast. I could get used to this. Our legs were sore but we had to persevere. We bid farewell to Paul and exchanged phone numbers and e-mails. Anyway, back to the Wall. The previous day I overdressed and sweated profusely. For this leg of the hike I decided to wear a tee shirt. Unfortunately, it got rather chilly but, remembering the terrible heat we had left, I decided not to complain. This part of the journey was more level and the two hills we traversed were not as steep or high as the previous days’. After about six miles we came across a Roman museum so we decided to stop and tour it and have some lunch at the coffee shop.
The museum was very modern and contained Roman military artifacts. It also showed a short documentary about what life was like on a Roman outpost. It had interactive maps showing the expansion and decline of the Empire with interesting details about life in a Roman legion. My favorite part was a quote from Vergil plastered on one of the walls:
Know Roman, that your special genius is to rule the world, to teach the ways of peace, show generosity to the conquered and force the proud to submit. (Aeneid)
All in all very impressive. Healthy egos these Romans had.
By now it was quite cold and late. We had another four miles to go but it started to rain. Thinking that we wouldn’t need them, we packed our ponchos in the luggage so we were at the mercy of the elements. As we were leaving the museum we met a cute young couple (Ted and Susan) from Manchester and struck up a conversation. They were fascinated by our accents as we were of theirs’. They told us about a bus that would come by in about an hour. Realizing that discretion is often the better part of valor, we thought it best to take the bus.
One thing I noticed about England was that the further north one got, the more difficult it was for me to understand people. Don’t get me wrong, I actually liked their accent, it’s quite delightful actually. The thing that stood out most was that all words that had a “u” (whether long or short) were always pronounced “oo.” Things along the lines of “this item will cost this mooch,” or “would you like to travel with oos.” Words like “house” and “about” reminded me of Canadian speech (HOW-oose and a-BOW-oot) but that would make sense if we consider migration patterns. Still, it was a bit of a bother to me as I often found myself not understanding people when they gave us directions. I didn’t want to be impolite or appear stupid so I usually smiled and said thank you (and hoped that my sons understood). They usually did. Needless to say, Scotland would be even more of a challenge.
Anyway, we said our goodbyes to Ted and Susan and got off at Banks, probably one of the most adorable villages in all of England. Our B&B was right off the bus stop so we didn’t have to walk far. Like almost all B&Bs in England so far, it was a family residence that had been renovated and/or expanded to handle guests. Supper was at The Belted Will, which was about five miles away from our B&B so our host drove us there. The Belted Will was named for William Howard, a sixteenth century big shot whose family still lives in the local ancestral manor and who was famous for wearing big belts. He was a character in one of Robert Burns’ novels we were told. On our ride there, we were joined by another lodger –a Mr Walton, from Vancouver—who was also hiking. We invited him to join us for supper which was delicious. Always go where the locals go. This time I decided to splurge and have dessert, a custard and cream confection which if I hadn’t of walked so much would have probably put me in a diabetic coma. The ale of choice this night was Strongbow. The proprietor came and got us when we finished. Another good night’s sleep.