Officially, soggy England has had the worst YEAR of rain since 1776, so now you know I'm not imagining this accursed weather! The cricket pitch for games at Trent Bridge between Oxford and Cambridge is inundated with frogs and ducks. Everyone has had enough. We escaped for a sunny week to Portugal at a wonderful time of year, when the hills are still spring green. The trip was planned in about 30 seconds, when I saw a colorful advert in the Sunday Times magazine for a package tour to the Algarve. Only afterwards did I learn that that is THE tourist bastion of the nation but we were desperately in need of sunshine. From London, all Europe is a short plane ride away. Or a drive.
Back in London, we were honored to attend the very formal Election Banquet of the Worshipful Company of World Traders at the Lord Mayor's mansion with Inge. I've described the palatial mansion earlier, but then it wasn't filled with sparkling guests, lively conversations, and liveried waiters. We checked our coats after walking through metal detectors and climbed wide carpeted stairs beneath old Dutch paintings on dark wooden walls, and sculptured marble busts on plinths. After a short queue in the Egyptian Court, we handed our invitation to the Toastmaster, who loudly called out our names to those waiting to shake our hands in the receiving line: the Master, sheriff, and wardens. The trio welcomed each guest, and then we plucked a tulip champagne glass from a waiter's silver tray. Overhead, gleaming glass chandeliers threw diamonds of light. A small uniformed chamber group from the Royal Yeomanry played below the small talk as we milled. An enormous dinner gong rrrraanggggg to announce dinner at 7:15.
Diners sat at long tables perpendicular to a lengthy head table. I could rest my left elbow in the head table, where sat the Chaplain next to a New York world trader with whom I chatted briefly. Men wear medals and royal decorations on their tuxes here, although Mike's Navy medals are in Austin. Each place had a name card. Across my table, I met Ray, a small older gentleman who was sent from home at 16 to run the family business. He told of coming from the tube station during the war, near where we sat, and seeing blocks of burning London. He later served in the Army and has sung all over Europe. His company provides all sorts of timepieces to the military. As a young man, he followed his dad's advice to learn business and enjoy singing as a hobby. I hope to bring him to the Sunday singalong at the Duke of Kendal.
For the evening's decoration, pieces of gold plate were released from the vault below and placed on glass shelves in niches in the room, alternating with niches holding classical lifesize sculptures. On the head table was more gleaming gold plate: chalices, ewers, goblets, loving cups, bowls, all engraved or in repousseé in many different styles, from classical to art nouveau. Immediately next to me was the company’s charter, rolled and kept in a red leather box with the Queen's gold seal, ERII, on the top. Each charter, from the 1200's on, is kept in a box with its founding monarch's seal. Attached by three cords hanging from the bottom of the charter were three wax seals, each encased in a gold round box that looks like a fat foil-covered chocolate candy coin. The whole affair is about the size of an old piano roll.
Chaplain Peter Delaney, the Archbishop of London, said the grace, and the second grace was sing by us all, from a 1545 hymn, which I copy from the program. "For these and all Thy Mercies Given, We Bless and praise Thy name, O Lord. May we receive them with thanksgiving. Ever trusting in Thy word. To Thee alone be honour, glory, Now and henceforth for evermore. Amen.” I was silent, having never heard this melody.
We enjoyed white and red wines with salmon, lamb, fruit tart, haddock tart, and later, port with petit fours and coffee. A large flattened silver bowl filled with rosewater (large fragrant petals in tepid water) was passed after the meal. Throughout dinner, musicians played from the white balustraded balcony surrounding the high room with a coffered ceiling and, at either end, stained glass windows. At one point, we were treated to a sort of trumpet duel, with two trumpeters vigorously challenging each other from opposite balconies. There was much neck craning and a hearty round of applause for their efforts. We toasted the Queen (stand and sing God Save the Queen, a song I like very much) before toasting other Royals, the Lord Mayor, Corporation of London, Sheriffs, and the Worshipful Company of World Traders and the Master. Then we guests were toasted by the traders prior to the speeches.
The Master is Miss Sue Hughes, and it's unusual to have a woman in such a powerful position. She is short, blonde, lively, and very warm. The main speaker was the Headmaster of Shrewsbury School, since education is one of the main charities of the company. Mr. Maidment urged us to have faith in young people.
If you're interested, to My Country 'Tis of Thee tune, add these words, courtesy of my sister Mary Jo, who lived here before I did:
God save our gracious queen, long live our noble queen.
God save the Queen.
Send her victorious, happy and glorious, long to reign over us.
God save the Queen!
An interesting event I had never seen was the passage of the Loving Cup, and I should've read the program directions to be prepared to do it properly. The large metal covered cup had a white napkin tied to one if its handles. Try this yourselves: it's trickier than it sounds. Again, from the program:
"This is an ancient and honoured tradition which survives at the the dinners of City Companies. The custom stems from the Saxon Monasteries when the Wassail Bowls, filled with a spiced wine termed Sack, were passed from hand to hand as a symbol of goodwill. In early days drink was taken from a drinking horn with a large rim; the drinker thus had both hands employed and his vision obscured. He was very vulnerable.
The person holding the Loving Cup turns to his neighbour who bows and removes the Cover with his right hand, holding it aloft while the other drinks. At the same time, the one pledging is defended by the neighbour from whom he received the Cup, who stands with his back to the drinker, ready to protect him against assault.
After pledging, the drinker wipes the Cup with a napkin and, the cover being replaced, he hands the Cup to the neighbour with a bow and then turns, ready to defend the back of him who is now pledging to his new neighbour. At any one time, there should be only three standing."
Another adventure occurred on Easter weekend: we tried Gemmaway, a tour group targeting the Embassy market, on a coach trip to Scotland. Several friends recommended them, so we set off at seven on Good Friday, and the green scenery grew increasingly hilly and more dramatic as we neared Hadrian's Wall (120 AD) and the Cheviot Hills. The Roman wall was to keep out wild intruders from the north. No hoof and mouth funeral pyres were in evidence as we drove past one of the seriously infected areas. Thousands of sheep and furry lambs dotted the scenery, including hundreds of tiny twins frolicking in the gorse and heather. Some babies wear a plastic jacket to avoid hypothermia in damp cold.
In Edinburgh, we stayed at The Southgate, a pleasant small hotel near the University, and discovered a wonderful jazz trio at the elegant old Balmoral Hotel. At night the castle and monumental buildings of the city are illuminated with golden spotlights, and its river and deep valleys take on visual warmth inadequate to counteract violent icy winds flying off the North Sea. There are more listed buildings here than anyplace in the UK except London. The pointed towers are in the Scots Baronial style, but there are also Victorian and Georgian styles and modern buildings. Sir Walter Scott’s tall monument towers in blackened pierced stone that was unsuccessfully cleaned, at a cost of over 16 million pounds. Visitors missing their stairsteppers at the gym can climb its 287 steps. The "new town" uses Hanoverian street names like George or Charlotte, but they are interspersed with Hard Rock Café and Starbucks signs. Edinburgh Castle looms high above the gray stone city like a smoky Parthenon presiding over Athens, but cloudier. Saturday we toured by bus around city neighborhoods and landmarks, including Greyfriars Bobby, the faithful Skye Terrier who sat on his shepherd master's grave for 14 years. Even Queen Victoria knew of him.
Holyrood Palace is at one end of the Royal Mile (which is actually four different streets) and at the other end is the Castle. Supposedly the Abbey, in ruins, was built by King David after his vision of a stag with a cross (rood) between its antlers. It may be named for a fragment of the cross brought there by the king's mother, St. Margaret. (She was Harold's sister, the man defeated in the Battle of Hastings by William the Conqueror in 1066. Think Bayeaux Tapestry.) The castle displays portraits of past rulers and there is a strong family resemblance, since the artist used the same model for all 110 of them! Twice Mary Queen of Scots was wed at its abbey, which collapsed in 1768. Born as her father James V died, she was smuggled to France to be educated in the Catholic court to keep her from marrying Henry VIII's son, the future Edward VI. Her first husband became King of France when his father died, and she Queen, but then he too died, leaving Mary a widow at 17. Back in Scotland, Catholic Mary argued with John Knox as Scotland became Presbyterian. Lay people selected their ministers, who selected the bishops.
Mary watched as her secretary Rizzio was strangled by her nasty cousin and second husband, Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley. He died also under mysterious circumstances, and her third marriage to the Earl of Bothwell soon occurred, after her mad dash to his castle. A divorced Protestant, he was suspected of helping to murder Darnley. She was arrested, abdicated in favor of her son after her armies were defeated, and fled to England. After 20 years imprisonment by her cousin Elizabeth, whom she never met, she was executed. Many Catholics had considered Elizabeth illegitimate, not recognizing Henry's divorce, and saw Mary as the true heir to the throne. James was brought up Protestant, hating his mother, but he did have her reburied at Westminster Abbey. Her castle bedroom, filled with religious tapestries, adjoins an anteroom with her embroidery and perfume pomander.
The son of James VI, Charles I, was crowned there--when he still had a head to decorate--and was the last king to sleep there. Some feared he might secretly be Catholic. Cromwell used the castle during Civil War. Much later, Victoria loved all things Scottish, and stopped at the palace en route to Balmoral, her holiday residence. Today it's used as the Queen's official residence for an annual July week in Scotland, as she meets ministers, entertains, and hosts a garden party for Scots from all walks of life. There are carved wall panels, tapestries, paintings, chandeliers, sumptuous musical instruments, furniture, and the abbey ruins, but the palace is closed to visitors during royal stays.
Edinburgh Castle, at the other end of the Royal Mile, is amazing, and from years ago, I remember my awe that these Scots, not large, had the courage to build it on volcanic rock, amid the dangers of wind and height in the late 1500's. Iron Age forts preceded it. Since about 600, the place was Din Eidyn, the stronghold of Eidyn, or Eidyn borough, eventually. Today its Great Hall still has a remarkable dark wood hammerbeam roof from medieval times, and a display of armor, pikes, and lances never intended as mere decoration. Cromwell made it a barracks, others a hospital. I remembered the War Memorial and the dog cemetery from visits 25 years ago, after Mike's submarine patrols from Dunoon. It also houses the crown jewels, older than the British ones, you're reminded, displayed in the vault with the Stone of Scone, or the Stone of Destiny, over which Scottish rulers are crowned. (John Major returned it only recently to Scotland from England, to be placed under an old wooden chair.) It was used as a fortress, especially after Holyrood Palace was built, and was last besieged in 1746 by Bonny Prince Charlie, the last Jacobite hope. St. Margaret's chapel is the oldest part, built by King David as a family oratory to honor his mum who died in the castle in 1093. Before restoration it became a gunpowder magazine. Cromwell and his "Roundheads" made the castle into a garrison fortress and started a regularly paid trained army, instead of one assembled to counter a crisis.
One young queen deplored the castle as sad and solitary, without greenery and unwholesome because of its nearness to the sea. Haar, sea mist, sometimes envelops it. Yet there Mary Queen of Scots gave birth to James VI and I (same guy, of Scotland and England, respectively, and in theory uniting them) in a tiny room off her bedroom. He was IR, Jacobus Rex, since Latin has no letter J.
We arrived as crowds gathered along a high parapet to hear the one o'clock gun, which, although we were quite ready, made everyone jump. It's a cannon--the timepiece over the town since 1851, and its acrid smoke tickles nostrils afterwards. Visitors queue to check out free audio tapes explaining the sights. Near the castle on top of the rock, Nelson's stone monument is sculpted like a telescope, and next to it the replica front pillars of the Parthenon crown this "Athens of the North." In summers, the extravaganza Trooping of the Colors occurs above a garden area, once a loch. (Try to cough a little when you say loch.) What an amazing view of the city--but so windy!
We'd intended to leave before long, but one display after another caught our attention. We got to only one of the three museums and learned there how many Scots escaped poverty at home to travel the world fighting for England or whomever would pay them, in order to return to a bonnie home and wed the lass they left behind. Many never made it. Their uniforms, equipment and letters, from the most raw to the most refined, were touching. Many also fled a nation forbidden to wear the tartan: the first offense was 6 months in jail, the second banishment for seven years. Today the pipes still play reveille. Confused about your own plaid? It's OK then to wear Stewart or Black Watch. Emmigrants became inventors, explorers, and industrialists: Andrew Carnegie, Robert Louis Stevenson, Sir Walter Scott, Alexander Graham Bell and Rrrobbie Burrrns. Lister's ether was used in Queen Victoria's milestone delivery of Prince Leopold in 1853. He had eight siblings.)
Saturday evening as we passed St. Giles Kirk, a cathedral on the royal mile, we attended a communion service in a side chapel with a small group. The enormous stone gothic church's Easter decorations boasted thousands of daffodils cheerily brightening a drab gray interior. There are no fancy carved choir screens or fine paintings and little decoration. Scottish services are plainer than high church Anglicans down south, and their church, like their legal system, is purposefully independent from England's. The church boasts a tower with a stone crown from 1495, but dates from 1120. Between Oliver Cromwell and John Knox, the interior was made plain indeed. Knox's house is nearby.
Afterwards, we had a very jolly walk led by our gholtly young guide "Adam Lyal, deceased" since his 1811 execution for highway robbery. White faced and black caped, he strode along, accompanied by a grave snatcher. The latter wore a brown leather face mask with a long dangling snout, into which he might insert sweet grasses to alleviate the stench of molding bodies he interred. Around the town, up alleyways and down dark stone stairs we traipsed as it grew dark, peering at places where witches were wont to roam.
Body snatchers were big business when medical schools were rationed only one executed felon's body annually to study. However, Dr. Knox could attract up to 500 citizens to anatomy lectures with those bodies. To ease the shortage, Hare and Burke dug 'em up and sold at least a dozen, probably more, before their arrest. Cemeteries built towers to station night watchmen against body snatchers. "People were dying to get in..."
We learned of 4000 unfortunates burnt as witches in less than 250 years in Scotland alone. Another figure says 17,000. King James VI claimed more were "worryit" or strangled, then burnt, on the Castlehill than in any other part of the kingdom. Torture usually got a confession, so the accused could be burned. If she refused, she obviously was in a pact with the devil and could be burned. Special witch prickers poked at birthmarks. If they refused to bleed, obviously they were signs of the devil. Burning. These people worked on commission: more witches, more salary! Did you fall off your horse and break a limb? No doubt the witch caused it. Accuse your lost love of a dance with the devil, and have your revenge as the witch is hung in front of her husband and child. These are all true stories.
There were other punishments. Open a letter not addressed to you? Steal a horse? Hang. Conceal your pregnancy? Illegal since 1690, so after Maggie Dickenson's premature baby died, she was hung. So everyone thought. En route to her funeral she woke, to live another 30 years. Dishonest merchants' ears were nailed to the Tron, the old weighing beam. Whipping on the run, perhaps a quarter of a mile as the cat o'nine tails chased you, was an option. Thumbscrews were good too. In a gesture of kindness, some witches were strangled prior to the burning; it also was hoped that criminals would die breathing smoke prior to the flames consuming their flesh.
En route we learned why the town was called Auld Reekie. Seems each evening at ten there was a cry of "gardy loo!" (from guardez l'eau, once: watch out for the water!) and as every window sash was flung open, into the streets below came all sorts of, um, liquid and non liquid refuse of EVERY sort to imperil anyone not quick enough to duck into a doorway. The city is squeezed between a river and a mountain, and there is not much room to build, so ten story buildings were common. Lower classes lived at the bottom and doubtless couldn't let small children in the roads; think of what thousands of horses left as they struggled pulling carts up and down steep hills, especially with an icy glaze on the cobblestones. Dogs' and workers' feet must've noisily squished on a damp dark night before street lights, but the wealthy rode on sedan chairs and could afford a candle. The snuffers are still attached to lightposts. (And I thought those metal bootscrapers at the doorways were only to scrape off snow!)
Using a lantern near thatch or hay was forbidden. Smoke and ash belched from every chimney, and breweries added air pollution. Anyone left standing from the sewage and foul air was fair game for plagues and fires as rats roamed in thatched roofs. TB was rampant, sometimes transmitted in milk by tubercular cows to children weakened by fog and cold. Water came from area wells, and cadies (caddies) were paid to bring it up to the higher floors. Not in golf bags.
On Easter morning, we left for the Trossachs, which is said to be like the Highlands in miniature and was once home to Rob Roy MacGregor, the Scottish Robin (robbin'?) Hood. We drove past a tall stone William Wallace monument jutting from the mountain to Sterling Castle, past a Victorian marvel: the railroad bridge a mile and a half long over the Firth of Forth. Engineered at about the same time as the Eiffel Tower and at 156 feet over the firth, it leaves plenty of room for tall ships below.
Near Ben Lomond, (Ben means mountain) past the loch of the same name, we explored the pretty little town of Aberfoyle, and took a steamer ride on Loch (Lake) Katerine. We huddled on deck, bundled up against stiff breezes, eyes watering, as black and gray smoke poured into tall green hills. ("It's new coal. Not smokeless.") Sir Walter Scott used it as inspiration for the Lady of the Lake: was she the Ice Maiden? In the far distance sat snow capped mountains; other hills showed clearcut logging. A few early rhododendrons splashed colorful promise of splendors to come. White lakeside farmhouses resembled dollhouses near tiny sheep who were oblivious to our Easter interruption. Occasionally we spied the sky-blue Scottish flag and its white St. Andrews cross. It flew over bloodshed in this area as we explored the gateway to the Highlands.
At Sterling Castle, flanked by statues of Robert the Bruce (i.e.King) and William Wallace (Mel Gibson, Bravehart fans) a falconry exhibition on the lawn was ending. The castle was the site of a regiment recently disbanded with military force reductions, and is being refurbished. It once sat on fens, now dry, high over the countryside where eight roads met. Mary Queen of Scots was crowned there. In the basement kitchen rooms, an excellent display with lifesize figures prepares meals for the castle staff. In another area, the jester, musicians, tailor and others explain their roles, each in a separate room, assisted by audio visuals and costumes.
We never did visit the 'Calley,' elegant Caledonian Hotel, recommended by my sister Mary Jo. She said bathrooms are as big as whole rooms elsewhere. (It's now a Hilton.) I never even got to the National Gallery! There was no time.
Monday we headed back via Moffat, a pretty town with a bronze ram on its high street, and to a woolen mill demonstrating weaving and spinning, but also hawking tartans and tam o'shanters. Britain tours by coach; hordes of tourists pour from lines of busses that would fill a football stadium car park, except that most of the crowd is OAP's. They dash for food and long rows of toilets, shop a bit, and the diesels roar off. One man on our bus bought a broadsword, about four feet long, but we made do with shortcakes. Heavy traffic dogged the M6 as the Bank holiday weekend ended. Good Friday and Monday were English holidays, but Monday was a workday in Scotland. Britain has fewer holidays that the rest of Europe, and there is talk of adding another holiday weekend in October, Trafalgar Day. Italy has the most hols: just because you don't attend church doesn't mean you shouldn't celebrate feast days!
The British Library is a place I've meant to visit for a long time. It was once housed in an elegant round building in the center of the British Museum, but that area was covered with glass panes and the library moved. It’s now in its own red brick modern building, next to the extremely turreted wrought iron clad spike-top Euston station. (A 42 year old woman sipping coffee was just killed there, when she chased druggies after a handbag robbery attempt.) The library was once the largest building project in Europe and extends in spare geometry over much of a city block and for several levels down, cut into rock. It holds, like the Library of Congress in the US, all the printed books in English. Newspapers are all stored in the north of England. Like so many other vast collections here, it will blow your mind!
The marble floors at ground level open to a large treasury on the left, which is below a gigantic (80,000 plus) stamp collection on hundreds of pull-out display cases. The room next to it houses Magna Carta, the great charter underpinning a trial by jury for all in a nation with no written constitution. (Don't say the Magna Carta, our guide said.) It is surrounded by coats of arms of the signing barons, and they are quite simple, as the oldest arms are. Hanging from it are the king's seals, since he sealed, not signed. Each new section begins with a red dot. The earliest complete New Testament is also there, in Greek, and illuminated manuscripts by the score, gleaming with gold and glittering with hand-colored pictures and designs. And for music scores, how about some originals by Mozart, Bach, and Handel, or Britton? And Beatles lyrics, scrawled on the back of envelopes and greeting cards. Do you want to hear their lyrics? Pick up a headphone. Or would you prefer to hear Beowulf read in Old English as you stare at the text? Hamlet recalling Yorick?
The Gutenburg Bible, (first moveable metal type!) the Lindisfarne Gospels of early 700's--all are displayed with Jane Austin, the Brontes, Chaucer, and Da Vinci's notebooks. And in the adjoining room, you can sit at a computer screen and "read" books by touching the screen. It enlarges pictures too, or plays Buddhist monks' chants as you scroll across a virtual scroll of the real thing. In 250 BC the first codex was written, replacing scrolls with pages. It's there too. Today’s printing is computer driven.
Downstairs is an area where actual books are made, publicly, and tapes show preparation of hides for parchment, cuneiform tablets, hieroglyphs, and also gold leaf, presses, print and more. You can watch dials jump as you speak into a microphone, registered in digital or analog format. This is infotainment at its best. Books will be delivered to you, if you have a reading card, in a matter of a few minutes. There is also an exhibition of Armenian Christian art. The area proclaimed Christianity its state religion well before Constantine's cross in the sky in 312. The biblical home of Mt. Ararat, Noah's ark’s resting place, is Armenia. (Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs, the Titanic by professionals!) Ruled by many and victims of Turkish genocide, Armenian descendants number more today in Los Angeles than Armenia.
In a survey of Londoners, asking why Friday before Easter was “good.” Only 38% knew, and most in this “post Christian’ nation" don't know what happened on Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Supposedly two percent of Londoners worshipped in church on Easter. Catholic clergy are undergoing an enormous pedophile examination, or here paedophile, with thousands of children here and in Ireland reporting abuse. The bishops are finally getting interested. Foot and mouth disease continues, but appears to be somewhat stabilized, although tourism has suffered a knockout punch because of those mountains of burnt carcasses. So saith the Times.
We hosted more Austin visitors and had a small dinner party for our departing Scot, Hugh Casey, for which Mike supplied haggis and whiskey as an hors d'oeuvre. (One way to make haggis, says a wag, is to stick your fist all the way down a sheep’s throat until you reach the tail. Grab it and pull, turning the sheep inside out. Then cook it.)
I'll be in the US for five weeks, visiting family and friends and painting, and on Memorial Day, if all goes well, I should have a new right hip. Enough of gimpiness! It's been a long time since I've run, and I'm ready to stop worrying about the walking distance to the gym. But Mike's dad had 5 surgeries to replace one hip; Mike's boss was in a coma for four months after his replacement infection! A guy in the paper lost both legs after his surgery! I plan to do better.
I leave you with a Sherlock Holmes story snitched from the Times. Baker Street is a walk from here, and the Baker St. tube stop is decorated with large tile silhouettes of Holmes with deerstalker hat and pipe. (Mme. Toussaud's is next door.) Many pilgrims still tour the neighborhood seeking out sites from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's novels.
It seems Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson went on a camping trip. After a good meal and a bottle of wine, they lay down for the night and went to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend: "Watson, look up and tell me what you see." Watson replied, "I see millions and millions of stars." Holmes asked, "What does that tell you?" Watson pondered this question for a moment: "Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Astrologically, I observe that Saturn is in Leo. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. Why, what does it tell you?" Holmes was silent for a minute, then he spoke. "Watson, you idiot, some thief has stolen our tent!