Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in Not-So-Merry England

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The humbling and sobering part of any trip to Europe is the number of war graves and memorials one sees.  In Great Britain, particularly, the graves are often only markers, in memory of someone’s son, husband, brother who died on some foreign battlefield in defense of Empire, or the Homeland, or some other dream.

The little churches are lovely, with faded murals depicting the stories of saints, and light filtering through old discolored glass.

And every wall testifies to the sacrifices made by the villagers and their manorial lord in ages gone – and some not so far gone. I have to quote Rupert Brooke, one of those lost sons:

If I should die, think only this of me: / That there’s some corner of a foreign field/ that is forever England

Fields in Gallipolli, fields in Verdun and the Ardennes, fields in Praetoria – was it worth it? Can we make it worth it?  To quote another battle poet:

If you break faith with us who die, we shall not rest…”

 

 

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Freeway -Free in Yorkshire – Market Day in Helmsley

As we traveled across rolling hills purpled with heather under blue skies and puffy clouds, one member of our group asked our guide “When will we get to the Yorkshire moors?”  She gave him a quizzical look and replied “This is them!”  He was taken aback – this was not the dreary, dank scenery made famous  in Wuthering Heights and The Secret Garden.

20180720_095103webThe uncharacteristically lovely weather continued as we stopped in Helmsley.  It was Friday, Market Day, and the square was full of stalls offering everything from greeting cards to cabbages.   The window boxes were cascading with flowers, and inside the city hall vendors stood proudly behind tables teeming with meats, cheeses, and jellies all produced locally.

We were told there is a ruined castle suitable as a setting for Gothic novels on the banks of the adjacent river Rye,  but the bountiful display of local goods seduced me away from the ruins.  Sometimes real life is more attractive than fiction.

Freeway Free in Yorkshire: Fountains Abbey Evokes the Apocalypse

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Imagine that climate change or nuclear Armageddon has erased humanity from the earth.  Imagine that extraterrestrials have arrived on our planet, landing in the middle of Paris.  Imagine them encountering the ruins of Notre Dame Cathedral, and trying to puzzle out the nature of the beings who had created this titanic ruin, and what it might have looked like before disaster struck.

Fountains Abbey in the Yorkshire Dales could be the stage setting for the above scenario.    This site was formerly one of the largest and most prosperous monasteries in Europe.  You can see where the rose windows once were in the massive church, and imagine them illuminating the gaily painted interior, casting a rainbow glow over the monks and the faithful who worshipped here.

Henry8The disaster which struck here was no natural catastrophe, nor military strike.  It was called Henry VIII.  When Henry disassociated himself from the Catholic Church, his new status as head of the English church allowed him to plunder the wealthy monasteries for their long-accumulated riches.  These were the funds which propped up Henry’s massive investment in building up the Royal Navy, his ongoing wars with France and the Holy Roman Empire, and his extravagant tastes in food and dress.  The monasteries were disbanded, their monks and nuns forced into secular life, and the buildings left to disintegrate from weather, neglect, and the tendency of local residents to recycle and reuse the elegant stonework for everything from houses to holding pens.

As I walked among these towering ruins, I couldn’t help but think of a future a few thousand years from now when the great cathedrals of Chartres, Notre Dame, St. Paul, and others might be reduced to empty shells, overgrown with grass and moss.  We humans seemed quite small, and quite transient compared to these sad relics.

It was an  eerie and humbling experience, but also peaceful.  Insignificance can be very restful.

 

Freeway Free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

20180718_105805webFrom Caernarfon Castle we moved inland to Conwy, a walled market town with some beautifully preserved Elizabethan homes. I could imagine the burgher who lived in Plas Mawr inviting other village citizens to dine, quaffing local ale and bemoaning the unreasonable demands of the lord of the adjacent castle. Meanwhile, the servants in the adjacent kitchen would be skinning the local game and trying to keep drops of sweat from dropping into the soup.

Moving forward several centuries, we stopped at Betws-y-Coed. The ultra-quaint railway station with its ivy covered veranda spoke of Victorian solidity and permanence.

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But the twin ecological monuments on the veranda spoke to very different 21st century concerns.

 

Our next stop brought the world of the castle firmly into the 21st century also, as we stopped at Gwydir Castle, a Tudor-era manor whose young owners have taken it from being an abandoned white elephant to being a reasonably profitable and comfortable bed and breakfast.

The 500 year old cedars have been saved, the ghosts (both human and animal) have been exorcised), the plumbing, including the fountains, have been restored, and there are peacocks begging for crumbs when tea is served in the garden.  (If you want to know more about the restoration, Judy Corbett has written a charming book about the process, Castles in the Air. You will never be able to hear or see the term “fixer-upper” again without a smile.

Freeway-Free in Wales: In Merlin’s Footsteps

20180718_135808docI’m a lifelong fan of Mary Stewart’s four-volume chronicle of King Arthur, told mostly from Merlin’s point of view, so when I found myself touring around the mountains of Snowdonial and through the fortress castle of Caernarvon on the banks of the river Seiont, I pictured the young Merlin with his visions and ambitions in some of the same places.  Wales is a bit magical still.

The castle was expanded and reinforced by Edward I long after Merlin’s time, and subsequently became the ceremonial site for investiture of the Prince of Wales.  It is surrounded now by a car park and a playground, and throughout the grounds are informative placards for a self-guided tour.  But there are still nooks and crannies where I could imagine a young boy hiding from bullies and enemies, over-hearing secrets, and receiving bulletins from the God.

We had unusually balmy weather as we toured around Mt. Snowdon the highest mountain in Wales, the Grey King of legend, so it was easy to imagine myself into the shoes of the other literary characters who kept thrusting themselves into my memory as familiar geographical names came up.  If you are an Arthurian junkie, you will find remnants of T. H. White’s “The Once and Future King”, Marion Zimmer Bradley’s “Avalon Saga“, Susan Cooper’s “The Dark is Rising” series, Bernard Cornwell’s”Warlord Chronicles”, and other classic and not-so classic versions of his legend wafting across the landscape.  If you have missed any of the above, follow the links to some excellent reading adventures!

Next Week: Freeway-free in Wales: Life in the Town, Life in the Castle

Freeway Free in Wales: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

20180717_145638docAmong the hazards of a pre-organized group tour is that one day may be PACKED with events and places to see, while the next may find you bus-bound as your itinerary hustles you off to the next attraction.  (Above is a view from the bus of the beautiful Welsh countryside near Snowdon. Time to explore on your own, and time to digest your experiences may both be limited.

Today we explored the depths of a slate mine (damp, dark, dusty),

rode on a narrow-gauge railway (clattering, quaint, cramped),

explored Portemeirion, a fantasy village created as “an homage to Portofino” by a self taught architect (eclectic, imaginative, erratic),

ate dinner at a World heritage site castle (lavish, lamb, local lore),

and watched border collies herding sheep into their home pens (energetic, efficient, effective).  20180717_145701

Lots of diversity, but almost too much to take in.  By the end of the day, I am most clearly remembering those border collies herding the sheep as we sat on the wall of our guest house, quietly and remotely and restfully watching.

 

Next Week: Freeway – Free in Wales: Life in the Village, Life in the Castle

 

 

Freeway Free in Wales: Hanging out at Bodysgallen Hall

20180716_211431docWe are still traveling first class:  we were picked up at the Manchester Airport by Jason, a deferential fellow with a strong accent.  He loaded our gear into a Mercedez limo/van, and off we go through misty rain (the first rain in six weeks, Jason says) to Wales, home of unpronounceable names.   We are staying outside of Llandudno in a 17th century carriage house named Bodysgallen Hall.  The castle for which this ample residence formerly served as gatehouse is visible from our windows, at least a couple of miles away across the valley.  Talk about an impressive entrance!20180716_185011web

Our  room has  mullioned windows and a lot of toile and chintz and Turkish rugs. The welcome reception for our group included a harpist as well as a wide sampling of local whiskeys and not-so-local wines.

Now the sun is setting through my mullioned windows, my spouse is in PJ’s reading about tomorrow’s itinerary, and I am contemplating one more tour around the garden outside before turning in.

Next week: From the Castle to the Pits and Back

Freeway Free: Flying First Class!

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My father used to say “It only costs a little more to go First Class.” But that was back when a first-class upgrade set you back only about $20, and sometimes you could get one just by flirting with the ticket agent.

When I had a day job, I did quite a bit of international traveling in Business class and amassed enough Frequent Flyer points to gain access to United’s Red Carpet Club and other elite airport venues. More recently, I have had to join the hoi polloi in Coach class and in the ordinary waiting areas of airport terminals, so it was a real treat when we were upgraded to Business class on our flight to Great Britain.

The first surprise was our access to the Polaris Club Business Class lounge, which United now shares with Lufthansa and Continental. Wow! The old Red Carpet Club gave you coffee, tea, and pre-packaged cheese slices and crackers to tide you over while you waited for your flight. If you were lucky, they might not be out of apples or bananas. The Polaris Club is several levels of comfort and cuisine apart.

Not only are there espresso machines, but also several open bars with serve-yourself beer and wine as well as available mixed drinks. Food stations include German-style cold cuts and sausages for make-your-own sandwiches; a breakfast station with bagels, French pastries, hot and cold cereals, fruit, and yogurt; and a steam table offering hot miso soup, steamed rice, potstickers, ramen, and sushi.

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Tucked away next to the restrooms and private laptop cubicles were showers! United has apparently picked up some classy tips from its European and Asian partners.

Once we were on board, we found seats that could be stretched out to lie flat, with pillows, blankets, big screens for on-screen movies, lots of storage for carryon luggage,  plugs for our laptops and Nicholas, an assiduous purser to answer any question. In Frankfurt the Polaris Lounge was equally well equipped as at SFO, and even on the small plane to Manchester we were served quite a creditable Salad Nicoise with wine. It’s been quite a while since I felt so pampered by an airline. A great start to our British adventure!20180715_151353doc

Next week: From Top of the Castle to Down in the Pits in Wales

I’m Back!

Oh, you didn’t notice I was gone?  I did take a break over the holidays, and when I returned on January 2nd I found myself locked out of my blog admin access – I could see my blog, but not add any posts, nor reply to comments. Worse, I could not access support, my account page, or any part of the nuts and bolts behind WordPress.

Many thanks to the WordPress forum for quick response (once I was able to log in with a different computer).  Turns out something in my computer’s cache had gone sour – clearing all cookies took care of the problem.

I will resume normal Tuesday blogs tomorrow, with the start of a new travel series “Freeway Free in Great Britain”.  Stay tuned, and thanks for your patience!

A Piece of My Mind: Tradition (Los Altos Town Crier 11/7/18)

 
P1020475docJust finished with Thanksgiving, just starting to get my mind set for upcoming Christmas, so it’s no wonder I’ve been mindful of traditions.

In my family, Thanksgiving has always been a holiday of hospitality, with assorted family members from near and far, old friends and some new ones, significant others and random dorm-mates, all sharing around a table or two or even three.  Over several generations, some of our traditions have morphed or been abandoned, while other new ones have been added.

When I was a girl it was my job to polish the silver in anticipation of any holiday gathering.  My mother would bring out her wedding silver, together with silver plated serving platters, a gravy boat, and covered casseroles, all needing considerable elbow grease to bring them up to her sparkling standard.  I was also in charge of making place cards and arranging the seating, preferably alternating men and women with no one from the same family sitting next to each other.  Later I became the hostess, and my granddaughter took over polishing my wedding silver as needed, as well as making and arranging place cards.20151125_182234web

Growing up we always shared Thanksgiving with another family we had known since I was a toddler.  They always brought candied yams in a casserole and a couple of kinds of pies.  Decades later those friends had passed on, but meanwhile I have secured a husband who is a master hand at mashed potatoes, and my brother-in- law prides himself on pies.  No chance of a carbohydrate shortage here!20151126_195352web

 

After Thanksgiving dinner had been cleared, we would set up the table for a game of Michigan (aka “Tripoli” in some circles) using a game cloth that had been hand-stenciled by my grandmother, and some poker chips which were as old.  This game depends mostly on luck and can be played by anyone old enough or young enough to hold a fan of playing cards.  My mother took delight in cheating, and we all took even more delight in catching her at it.

More recently, my husband added a tradition of offering champagne or sparkling cider to all before sitting down to eat, together with an obligatory group sing of “Over the River and Through the Woods” to the faltering accompaniment of my recorder.  (Having drunk a glass of champagne in advance helps everyone to participate with gusto).  The wearing of pilgrim hats or other costume items is optional for this performance, which  is a great ice-breaker for any of the new significant others or recently met friends.

All great traditions.  But this Thanksgiving our minds were also aware of the wildfire victims who had lost so much of their traditions to inferno, and the migrants at our southern borders and  around the world who had abandoned their traditions in hope of finding a new home free of hunger and fear.

I thought a lot about the American tradition which has seen our country as “a nation of immigrants” , as “a melting pot”, as “a shining city on a hill.”  I remember the poem which I memorized for school as a girl,  inscribed on the base of the Statue of Liberty:

Bring me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.
Bring these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me.
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.Bronze-plaque-of-New-Colossus

This is a tradition of hospitality that is more difficult to stick with in challenging times, but more important than turkey, more American than apple and pumpkin pie.  As a nation I hope we can live up to this traditional vision of our best selves.

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