Allyson Johnson

Pieces of my Mind

Archive for the month “March, 2019”

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.

 

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