Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Plath and the North country

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"...There is no life higher than the grasstops
or the hearts of sheep, and the wind
pours by like destiny, bending
everything in one direction..."

I recently discovered Sylvia Plath's poem "Wuthering Heights." Go and read it.  I'll wait.

The poem appeared during some routine work at the computer on a slow Friday afternoon.  There was no warning.  I read the first line and stepped into Northumberland.  

The wind pulled at my clothes with insistent fingers as the sheep browsed and chatted with throaty bleats around the crumbling stones of Hadrian's Wall. The horizon kept going and going, even as it faded into the distance.  And above it all was the sky, vast and unending.  I felt ridiculously small and alone, pinned to the earth beneath the weight of the sky. It was exhilarating and unnerving.

Plath captures the brooding remoteness of England's northern country perfectly.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

We encounter Hadrian's Wall

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Our first good look at the wall.

No sooner did we walk into Old Repeater Station after that adventurous taxi ride than did Les shoo us off, "I suppose you want to go look at the wall."

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He gave us directions, which involved a traipsing across the property of these folks to get to the public access trail that cut through their property...  

Hadrian's Wall - Sewingshields Wood
The trail ran along the back of the house.  We couldn't help but feel that we were trespassing.

Hadrian's Wall - Sewingshields Wood
This small patch of woods even had a name: Sewingshields Woods (everything in the United Kingdom has a name).  I should follow this tradition of naming and name the string of trees we have along the back of our property.

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There were no fences or other obstructions to keep people away.  Just a tacit understanding to respect the remains.

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Sewingshields milecastle, a typical outpost along the wall that would have housed a small group of Roman soldiers. 

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The land falls away on the other side of the wall.  You can see why the Romans chose to build the wall on this particular spot at the edge of the empire.  It was a great natural defense against those crazy barbarian Scotsmen.  (I'm married to one, by the way).

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Sewingshields Turret, which was once a small tower that soldiers could use for surveying the land at a distance around them.

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There were sheep everywhere, rubbing their behinds against the 2000 year old remains.  What is it like to have a farm with such tangible history wrapped up in the land?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Getting to Old Repeater Station on Hadrian's Wall

Old Repeater Station, Haydon Bridge, England

We stayed at Old Repeater Station while in Hadrian's Wall country.  The proprietor was a Londoner who retired to Northumberland to run a bed and breakfast.  His name was Les and he looked just like Mike Myers, only a little more grey.  His dry British humor threw me off at first before I got used to it.  He also had that plummy aristocratic British accent that tickles us Americans to death (well, at least just me). In the evenings, when we all congregated in the common area, Les liked to pull out his whiskey bottle and offer it around: "Fancy a wee drop?"  He was a great host.

Schoolchildren of Haydon Bridge, England

Haydon Bridge was the closest train stop to Old Repeater Station.  This was the most ordinary town we set foot in while on our trip.  It was actually rather a relief to see a working class British town--it proved that England was a real country with more faces than the typical tourist attractions of Oxford or Lacock. 

We got fish and chips made to order at the Haydon Bridge Fish & Chip Shop, which we ate on top of the bridge, attended by a group of squabbling gulls.  The number and ferocity of those birds made me feel as though I was in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds.

Old Repeater Station was the only place on our entire trip that we could not reach under our own steam or using public transportation.  So we called a taxi and waited at a local pub.  Every head at the bar swiveled to stare as we entered, wearing our huge duffel bags.  The lady bartender called me "dear" and served up hard cider in an ice-filled glass.  We sat in the corner, entering the companionable silence of the other gentlemen there watching the World Cup.  A family came in through a door at the back, with a little girl in a frilly dress.  They paused to chat at the bar before walking out.  A gentleman at the bar struck up a conversation with us.  It was a neat little place, as comfortable as a well broken-in shoe.

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Now comes the terrifying part.  The taxi driver gave us a roller coaster of a ride to the bed and breakfast.  The narrow winding road was hemmed in by chest high grass that grew right up to the edge of the road (there were no shoulders) and reduced visibility to what was immediately in front of the car.  Combine this with the driver's apparent suicidal streak as he went 40 - 50 mph, blindly whipping around corners and over crests with nary a caution that perhaps there might be a car coming in the opposite direction.  I wanted to lay down on the seat and hum "la la" to myself, but settled for closing my eyes and praying that death would be quick. 

Instead we pulled up in front of Old Repeater Station with Les walking out the door to greet us.  I managed to get out without going weak-kneed.  Seeing Hadrian's Wall just across the road may have helped.  Thus ends another day.

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