Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Freeway Free in Texas: An Austin Highlight

I touched down in Austin for just long enough to glimpse the Capital building and visit one excellent museum.  The state Capitol of Texas looks like a clay model of the California State Capitol – Instead of a  white wedding cake with a gold dome, it’s plain terracotta.

Instead of strolling the Capitol grounds, we trusted AAA and headed for a Gem – the Bollock Museum – The Story of Texas (and beyond). The building is what you might expect of a museum of Texas history in the Texas Capitol, sporting a giant five pointed star in front, flanked by the six flags of Texas.  Inside, an atrium goes up three stories, with a mural in the center of the lobby best viewed from the third floor, depicting Indians, cowboys, missionaries, oxen, and horses from above, all seated or grazing around a smoking campfire. Odd but quaint perspective.

The main exhibit (which continues until mid-June) was about WWI, what the US society was like before the war, and how the war affected the society (the chaos after the war.) (From this exhibit I can understands a little better why my father feared a recession after WWII.)  After WWI per this exhibit there was a huge slump in manufacturing, and lots of layoffs, leading to violent strikes. Adding to the unrest were returning black soldiers being uppity and suffering the consequences, plus women fighting for the vote.  (American suffragettes like Alice Paul were force fed as the British Pankhursts had been.)

Great care was taken to credit women and to credit negro activists, and to talk frankly about race riots and lynchings before and after WWI. The interpretation of history was very much from the 21st century point of view  (e.g. videos about “conservative” post- Civil War governors  who enforced segregation, vs. “progressive” governors who raised taxes and used sales of public resources (oil rights) to pay for schools and roads. 20190323_161537web - Copy

Another exhibit tracked the growth of Texas by exploring restrictive immigration laws, including an interactive display of “When could they be allowed in?” where you were supposed to figure out when a particular ethnic groups would be most likely to be admitted to the USA (too bad if you were Asian).

Presiding over everything from the atrium balcony is a spectacularly homely statue of Lady Liberty holding up a Lone Star instead of a torch. (to be fair, she was meant to be viewed from a considerable distance, so her features were exaggerated.) She formerly stood on top of the Capitol building, but the welded zinc and iron plates forming her structure did not weather well, so she has been replaced by a copy.

All in all, a fine way to spend a couple of hours as an introduction to the Texas Capitol.

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Freeway Free in Scotland: That Kilt Thing

IMG_0637docThe classic ad for Scotch Whiskey started with “What does a Scotchman wear under his kilts?”  Now I know.

Historical background:  After the defeat of the Jacobites at Culloden, wearing of the tartan was taken as a sign of defiance and banned by the British. (Seems we never learn – see attempts to ban the hajib  in French schools.) A hundred years later, the wheel turned.  Queen Victoria used her castle at Balmoral as her favorite retreat, and decided that her staff should dress in traditional Scottish garb.

This decree caused a huge scramble, as almost no-one remembered what the traditional clan tartans actually looked like.  The different colors and patterns had evolved as much from the availability of particular plant dyes in certain regions as from any attempt at family solidarity.  But the Queen must have her way, and weavers happily produced “authentic” patterns called “Stewart”,  “Dress Stewart” (“dress” patterns included a lot of white, thus worn only for “dressy” occasions) “Black Watch” (a very dark weave, though the Black Watch was so called because of their dark reputation, not their dress) , “Fraser” and so on.

Today, a “genuine, authentic” Scottish tartan kilt can run you $500 or more. We were given a lecture by an earnest proponent of the craft, pointing out how a “quality” kilt has double stitched pleats you can stick a finger into, while the “factory” variety does not – don’t be fooled!

But surely in the 1700’s those Scottish lassies didn’t sit around the peat fire at night straining their bonny blue eyes over double-stitched pleats.  Here’s how our Culloden guide, Ray, explained how a kilt really worked:

First, the Scot laid out his heavy leather belt on a flat piece of ground.  Over it he laid out the plaid – a large piece of woven wool, no seams, no sewn pleats, no buttons.  He next knelt down and pleated the fabric by hand along the belt until the ends of the belt showed on both sides.  Then he lay down on his back on the pleated plaid and wrapped the belt and cloth around himself, fastened the belt, and stood up, adjusting the pleats for modesty.  The top half of the plaid hung down behind, and could be looped over the shoulder or pulled over the head to keep out the rain.

 

Of course, the hanging half could get in the way of swinging a sword and shield in battle, so a warrior might simply unfasten his belt and leave the plaid behind while charging into the fray, wearing nothing but his linen tunic.  (Underwear was not common in the 1700’s).  No wonder the British in their stuffy uniforms were terrified!

 

Freeway Free in Scotland: Another Bloody Battlefield

IMG_0684doc Why do we yearn over battlefields and lost causes?  At the Battle of Gettysburg, the High Water Mark of the Confederacy gets more photos than any other monument.  Even on our cruise in  Alaska we toured a battlefield – the last stand of the Kwakiutls or some such. We are in awe of places where lots of young men died for reasons they and we no longer understand. And here we are at Culloden, where young Scotsmen in kilts wielded swords and battle axes against British cannon and riflery, and died bravely for a prince who escaped the carnage and lived out a wastrel life in Italy. .

Culloden is a beautiful place on a bright summer day, a broad pasture stippled with swathes of greenery and shrubbery, sweeping off to distant hills and a blue sky studded with white clouds.  And then you notice the clan markers, where the bodies of slain Scotsmen were heaped into trenches and covered over with earth.  No individual markers for the Scots, just a stone with the clan name.  And maybe the bodies underneath match the name, or maybe not.

The Culloden Battlefield has one of the best visual representations of slaughter that I have seen. We are told 50 Englishmen died vs. 2500+ Scots. That seems like a lot. Then we see the wall – the extruded bricks represent a death.  – 20 feet of bricks represent the Royalist deaths – another 10 feet are flat, then 1250 feet represent the Scotch deaths.20180724_145704doc  You see, you understand.

Freeway Free in Scotland: All Aboard the Royal Scotsman

You have figured out by now that our tour of England, Wales, and Scotland is a splurge trip, not designed for budgeting backpackers.  A week of travel through Scotland aboard the Royal Scotsman is not for the faint-of-checkbook, but a taste of luxury sweetens the cup of life. (Does that sound like a folk saying?  I just made it up.)

Your trip aboard the luxury train “Royal Scotsman” begins with a kilted and shako’d bagpipe player piping you aboard.  It continues with gourmet meals on Villeroy & Bosch china, an open bar with hundreds of choices of whiskey, wine, etc. in the observation car, and lectures en route by a noted regional scholar.

You roll along through verdant countryside, viewing the landscape through spotless windows, pulling over at night on quiet sidings in quaint villages.

And of course, there are stops along the way at a number of Scottish distilleries in order to activate our  taste for Scotch whisky.  I’m afraid my pictures, as well as my brain, got fuzzier and fuzzier as the trip progressed, so  the final banquet, with fine food, fine china, fine wine, and several guests and all the staff dressed in formal Scottish regalia, will be left to your imagination.  If you have yearned to travel like a member of Queen Victoria’s retinue, this was a week for wish fulfillment. IMG_0670doc

Freeway Free in Scotland: Bonnie Braes and Bustling Edinburgh

20180723_082742docI can’t say I knew Scotland better after a whirlwind tour, and certainly gained no real insiders knowledge of its captital, Edinburgh.  So I will give you a bullet list, and some photos, and leave you to explore this fount of history and legend as you will.

  •  Take the train.

We traveled on a comfortable, modern first-class Virgin Atlantic coach from York to Edinburgh, and although the train was an hour late due to a malfunction somewhere along the line, the wait at the York station was not uncomfortable, with lots of people-watching to be done.  Once on the train, we enjoyed   lots of leg room, tasty snacks, and lovely scenery right out of Van Gogh with yellow/green checkered fields dotted with hay bales, and fringed with purple loosestrife.

  •  Pick a hotel in the middle of the action.

 

We stayed luxuriously at the Balmoral Hotel, just next to the train station.  (The hotel clocks are all set 3 minutes fast, to make sure guests don’t miss their train!)  Super elegant, super convenient.

  •  Enjoy the food.

We had an excellent lunch at the Whiski Room pub for delicious chicken, leek and carrots and beans, layered scalloped potatoes, a pint of IPA ale.  Later we splurged on an elegant dinner at The Dome, a restaurant that started as a physician’s college (hence the caedaceum in the stained glass windows), then was a bank headquarters, and is now a beautiful restaurant with 6×6′ floral arrangements and the most elaborately decorated ladies room I have ever seen (embroidered damask satin wall covering, six foot arrangements of orchids, gilt sun burst, carved and etched mirrors…).

We had a head start at Edinburgh Castle, being admitted  in advance of the other 10,000 odd visitors it receives per day. But in rushing to stay ahead of the throngs, we had little time to savor the history.  Here was where Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James, and began all the resulting civil and ecclesiastical warfare..  Here is the fabled Stone of Scone, restored after centuries under the buttocks of English monarchs to its rightful place among the Scottish Crown Jewels.  Down the road is the square where the Bonnie Prince rallied his troops  in his ill-fated rising against English rule.  And further on is  Holyrood Palace where his grandmother Mary struggled against her own lords to maintain her majesty, and where Queen Elizabeth still stays during her annual visit.

  •  Read some books in advance, to prepare yourself.  Or see some movies.  Or some plays.  Tons has been written and acted about this intrinsically dramatic period. Go ahead and wallow in Diana Gabalon’s “The Outlander” in print or on TV (Seasons 1 &2) ,   or just type in “Mary, Queen of Scots” on Amazon and stab with your finger.
  • If you are a Harry Potter fan, you can put together your own  J. K. Rowling tour of Edinburgh, highlighting the Elephant House café where she began writing the series, and glimpsing other sites which are said to have inspired her.  Or you can book a tour through the many travel helpers available.

Hope for good weather, and take your time!  Edinburgh is a joy to walk about in, and there is a story around almost every corner. IMG_0609crop

Freeway Free in Britain: Discovering York

20180721_174408docI  was thrilled to be going to York long before I had seen a picture or read an itinerary – as a long-time fan of Josephine Tey’s The Daughter of Time, I’m convinced that Richard, Duke of York, got a raw deal in Shakepeare’s heavily politicized portrait of him as Richard III, hunchbacked arch-villain. So I was eager to see the city which had given him his title, and which, according to history, mourned his overthrow by the usurper Henry Bolingbroke.

York has a lot more than Richard III going for it, though.  It has a beautiful minster cathedral which rivals the best of France’s Gothic cathedrals, with stunning stained glass and a flowerlike central vault.

Unlike most European cities, York still has a nearly intact city wall, which makes for a charming and informative stroll along its ramparts.  From any vantage point on the wall you get views of the minster, plus sneak peeks into verdant gardens, lively back yards, and the lives of modern Yorkists.

Within the wall the city maintains a medieval character wit its narrow twisting streets and odd alleyways, while somehow exuding a modern energy and excitement.   Outside the wall are other points of interest, including a really comprehensive railway museum calling attention to when York was a rail center for all of northern England.

My railway buff husband would love to spend more happy hours there, while I would return for the alleyways and pubs and to walk a few more miles of the wall. 20180721_095012doc

 

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…”

 

 

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.

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