Southampton to York
by Kevin -
Landing day and disembarking from the QM2 went pretty smoothly, except for the 15 min or so delay due to an issue at the dock (we never found out what that was). My colleague and friend, Karen and her husband Digby met us at the ship and off we were to a very quick visit that involved the New Forest and our first tea on the island.
The New Forest isn’t actually new at all. For those of us who know very little about the history of Britain, this is a prime example of the disparity between a US sense of time and other places in the world. The ‘new’ in New Forest refers to William the Conqueror’s establishing of this area as a new place for hunting in the kingdom. Keep in mind this was over 1000 years ago, but ‘new’ has stuck. Here’ a small blurb from the official website: http://www.newforestnpa.gov.uk
The New Forest has a long and proud history that dates back almost 1,000 years. It takes its name from the latin nova foresta, which translates literally as ‘new hunting ground’, although hunting had been going on in the area long before this time.
Since its creation by King William the Conqueror in 1079 for the pursuit of the ‘beasts of the chase’ – red, roe and fallow deer and wild pig – many historical events and influences have shaped the landscape and cultural heritage of the New Forest.
Okay, enough of the history lesson. We stopped in Lyndhurst where Karen and Digby escorted us through hill and dale and around the landmines from horses that are actually descendants of William’s original herd…or so I seem to recall. Correction on this point might be needed. My, I slip back into ‘professor mode’ really quickly.
Steven had a close encounter with one of the horses who seemed to shine to him…or was looking for a handout – pick your narrative, I’m going with the former story line. We were still getting our land legs so every now and then I’d feel a gentle rolling and pitching as we walked. We ended in a local tea shop, Tea Total, a favorite place of Karen and Digby’s and had a little nourishment before heading to the train station and York. That’s Karen and Digby there lifting a mug to our journey. I especially liked the carrot cake Karen had.
Getting to York meant we needed to make a connection through London (Waterloo Station to King’s Cross…yes THAT King’s Cross of Harry Potter fame). The connection window was pretty generous so we decided to go by tube instead of cab. The London tube system has got to be one of the most complete and easy to use undergrounds I’ve ever encountered. Sure it’s the oldest in the world and has some of its rough edges with a few stops looking more like WWII bomb shelter left overs, but all in all it’s really very manageable. We got to King’s Cross, no problem. Oh, we did see that famous Track 9 ¾ but didn’t stop to queue up for a photo op, so no pictures of it I’m afraid.
On the high speed train to York we had a quiet ride. On our way, we saw a change in the landscape nearing Yorkshire. More rolling hills, golden with crops ready for harvest, dots of brilliant green made more so by passing sunbreaks.
The English countryside is in some ways like many countryside/rural areas in the US, but it’s the scale of the small villages and lanes you see as you wiz by that lets you know there probably won’t be an ugly strip mall or an equally ugly Walmart coming up in view any time soon. I don’t know how the UK has managed it, but the absence of ugly is a relief. I’m sure it’s there someplace, but pleasantly, we didn’t see much of the signs of American-style progress.
We arrived in York on time, about 5pm, caught a black cab to our hotel, The Grange Hotel just outside the old city walls. Our bed looks pretty luxurious doesn’t it? Our mascot, Rainbow Mickey, thought so too.
We got our considerable amount of luggage into the room, then headed out for a quick walk down to the city centre, passing the stone turrets leading to Yorkminster, this amazing cathedral of York. While York is in a bit of a bowl, the minster as it’s called, stands out against the landscape from all directions. It’s like your own compass, helping you navigate the tiny, turning lanes of the old city.
We met up with another friend and colleague and her husband for diner at an Italian place recommended by the hotel staff, La Vecchia Scuola. It was so good to see Kate again, it’s been a few years. Catching up was great fun. Her husband Bill is always a delight, great company. I didn’t know this, but Bill is heavily in training for his second (I think) triathlon. The food itself wasn’t all that special, but okay, in spite of the rather ‘trendy’ plating. I’ve grown to think this kind of presentation is just too, too precious and wish the chefs and cooks responsible would turn the page in their ‘what’s new in food styling’ manuals already. I mean, how much unnecessary lines and schmear’s of god knows what do we need on a plate? One should never have to look at a brown schmear on one’s plate should they? I rest my case.
Steven here - I have now resolved to never, ever, under any circumstances, order risotto if it's not guaranteed to have been made to order. That is all...
Next day, Wednesday, we indulged in the included breakfast to start the day. As it was just the beginning of the second part of our journey, I was eager to ‘get into’ the local foods, so I had smoked kippers and a soft poached egg. Not much on the plate, but very tasty. Steven had the full English, that of course included black pudding, beans, and the ubiquitous roasted tomato. Brown or white toast? That still stumbles us…yes, ‘brown’ means whole wheat or some variation.
Today was a very full day of sightseeing with another gracious friend and colleague of mine, Linda. York is Linda’s old stomping grounds from when she was a faculty member at a local college. She knows the place, its history, and little secrets. She was the perfect guide to orient us to all that is York. We started by heading up onto the city wall and walked around as far as you could go. Good views of the gardens of the well-heeled (City Officials, Church leaders, etc.) and the minster. Being newbees we slowed down a lot to take the photo ops all around, Linda gave us some brief history too as we went along, moving aside into the small garrison lookout’s as families tried to squeeze past on the opposite foot traffic flow. Climbing down off the city wall we landed in the south east part of the old city, navigate some quaint streets, allowing the woman in an electric wheel chair to use the skinny sidewalks while we veered off into the streets to make our way.
I’m not sure how to capture all that is Yorkminster, or ‘the minster’ as the locals call it. It’s imposing, impressive, and altogether beautiful inside and out. Linda managed to get us around the big line (an example of one of her secrets) to go in straight away. Soaring heights and graceful arches punctuated with spellbinding stained glass windows. We explored the ground level including many of the side chapels. Near the rear of the minster we discovered a bake sale. Yes, an old fashioned bake sale presented by the ladies of the church. Tasty treats, lovely conversation…a few remarks about that new American woman who insists on bringing her spice cake to these affairs, though they can’t figure out why, since the spices in it (cardamom, ginger, cinnamon) are really meant for the Christmas holidays. American’s have no respect for the seasons I guess. Oh, but her cakes do sell…mostly to American’s.
When I came out of the bake sale, I found Linda and Steven chatting up a Chaplain Emeritas – a lively chap animated in telling some tale about the church I imagined…but, no, he was gossiping about the Chinese tourists (another, confidential post is necessary for that story). Apparently, his son-in-law found a translator app for his iPhone. It helped mostly, but some things just aren’t translatable…like when the sign says don’t take pictures here…it really means it…it’s not a suggestion. Not translatable. He also let us know about the underground exhibit that was new and not well marked.
But the best of all is the amazing (really, I’m trying not to use that word often), this place had the technology in spades. At far end of the nave, where they are painstakingly restoring crumbling stone and effigies, they have a crack interactive presentation on the huge stained glass window occupying the entire rear wall. You swipe to get to an overview of the window, which itself is quite detailed, then touch the screen on what you want to know more about. Each segment had several drill-downs possible. We thought it could take an entire day just to read/listen/watch all the materials on just this one window. It was the same in lower crypt level where most of the major archeological discoveries have been made.
I love this stuff…the merging of technology and good old fashioned research. The site of the current minster was Roman. Some of the original barracks remain, even a largely intact section of the officers hall with frescos, whose outer wall abutted the foundation wall for the ancient Roman basilica there. So much to see. Steven noticed these very large bolts every now and then recessed into a newer concrete bulkhead. Well, the interactive displays taught us that these were there to strengthen and support the main caissons that were holding up the entire ‘new’ minster. It was discovered in the mid 1950’s I think, that the minster was on the verge of collapse, so dangerous that engineers said a bad storm could bring whole central tower down and all the walls with it. They excavated, found the ruins of the Roman structures and foundations and shored them all up with new concrete footings with these iron bars inserted to tighten the original foundations, keeping them in place…and safe. Thank you engineers!
Steven’s note – The Minster is under perpetual maintenance. One side was being worked on as we were there. Generations of stone masons have tirelessly kept the building in very good repair. Apparently it’s an extensive apprenticeship to learn the craft. Blocks are removed, new ones are shaped and put back into place, block by block. The work tends to stay within families as the skills are pasted down. Each block is signed or marked by the mason who created it.
Off then to the rest of the city and lunch at Nicholson’s Firehouse Pub. Pimms was on tap so we had a pitcher…of course. Steven enjoy his first beef pie with brown sauce and I my first fish and chips with mashed peas of this leg of our trip. Linda hates brown sauce, but later on you’ll see us mention it again…this time as a revelation.
On our walk after lunch we toured the alley responsible for J.K. Rowlings Diagon Alley, the Shambles is its real name complete with crooked, leaning buildings, and a bank on its corner that looked suspiciously like Gingotts Wizarding Bank. We were pretty much spent by then, and sauntered our way slowly back to the hotel around 3pm to see Bill ready to pick us and our luggage up to be transported back to their home for the evenings stay. Somewhere along the way Steven saw these adorable pink piggy confections. We didn’t have the heart to eat them but enjoyed their pinkness.
Castle Howard was on tap next. You might recognize some of the shots. This is where Brideshead Revisited filmed, as were subsequent versions. The Howard’s still are in residence, though a talkative docent confessed to us that there is change in the air at Castle Howard. It seems the older brother, who is legally entitled to the castle and who gave it up to his younger more capable brother some 35 years ago, wants it back now. No one seems to know for certain whether the aged younger brother is still living there or not. It pays to just chat up folks…you get all sorts of interesting tidbits. The castle and its grounds are of course excessive by today’s standards. Nonetheless, they are holder of history, particularly of the power of wealth and privilege. Personally, I’m glad these great houses are still around.
Dinner that evening was truly memorable but before it Linda took us to York’s oldest running pub The Black Swan (16th Century) where we befuddled the poor barkeep with our order of Martini – dry with olives and my Bombay Blue Sapphire gin and tonic. Well, it’s certain the fellow is not in the know about the UK’s recently rediscovered passion for all things gin. We forgave him of course.
Linda found and reserved us a table at a place she had known and loved years ago, Melton’s Restaurant. The chef uses locally sourced produce and meats (as I’ve said, we like to support these kinds of establishments). We had wine (a nice Cotes du Rhone), starters, mains, and this time we skipped the sweets. The meal started with an amuse bouche that included a pea shooter, handmade crackers with humus, and on the spoon goat cheese and crunchy roasted veg and oats. We shared starters: a superbly done crab with smoke haddock with fried pork lardon scattered about topped with house cured lamb bacon all sitting atop a Thai inspired reduction; Steven had the carpaccio of beef with whipped egg yolk puree with shallots, radish and capers. Our mains were Darn of Hake-braised little gem with peas, broad beans, potatoes and bacon; Steven had the Yorkshire lamb-shoulder, leg and ‘bacon’ with ratatouille, confit potato, basil hollandaise and caramelized baby onions. We can’t recall what the others had…we were so thoroughly engrossed in our own eating. The pictures just don’t tell the story. To get that, we weaseled our way into meeting the chef and his staff of three in the kitchen.
Here are a few more shots from Yorkshire.