Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ with the Romans

Today, it was back to being a tourist, rather than a theatre buff, as I took a day tour to Hadrian’s Wall and the Borders.

Of course, it’s hard to beat the Great Wall of China, but the Romans were amazing! Their empire stretched so far and they were so technologically savvy for the time, it’s impressive to walk in their footsteps.

Hadrian’s Wall, named for the emperor under whose reign it was constructed, ran the breadth of northern England, for 73 miles (80 Roman miles; 117.5 kilometres) about an hour south of the Scottish border.

Hadrian’s Wall crosses hill and dale through the British countryside

It marked the northern frontier of the Roman Empire when construction of this stone line of demarcation started in 122 A.D., although later the Romans gained a toehold in Scotland and built a new barrier north of Edinburgh. (The Antonine Wall, as it was called, was built largely of turf. Given that the Romans didn’t control that northern frontier for more than a couple of decades, it’s probably lucky that less work went into it.)

The wall today only exists in sections, since the locals often used its stones for construction of other buildings in the centuries after the Romans left. In places, grass grows atop the wall, as well as wildflowers; in other spots, it’s simply stone.

Grass grows atop some sections of Hadrian’s Wall

It was built by British regiments of the Roman Legion and allowed the Romans to keep the Picts and other northern tribes out of England. A series of forts built every 13 miles south of the wall housed troops to defend the frontier and made it possible or them to  attend to administrative tasks pertinent to ruling Britannia.

Not only did I get to see the wall, touch the wall and stand on the wall, I was able to visit one of these forts and to enjoy the wonderful rural scenery of the Borderlands on either side of the England-Scotland border.

A piper marks the border between England and Scotland

It’s green – no surprise, since half of our explorations were done in the rain – and it’s home to more sheep than I’ve ever seen in my life! An added bonus: the heather was in bloom! We could see purplish patches all over the hillsides.

Heather in bloom near Hadrian’s Wall

Between my visit to Bath and Hadrian’s Wall, I’ve had a bit of a crash course in the Roman Empire, something I don’t think was given much weight during my school years in the “anything goes” years when they did away with mandatory courses about Western Civilization. The more I learn, I find, the more interesting a period of history becomes. Rah, rah Rome!

The tour experience was also great fun. I opted for a van tour with only 16 people and the driver-guide. The latter turned out to be a very sweet, down-to-earth Edinburgh native who loves his city and gave us a real flavour of life there. There was also a family of Canadians from Barrie, north of Toronto, who were lovely, and a friendly Aussie woman. The Canadian kids, 12-year-old twins, were always the first up the hills and through the mud, but I managed to do my bit. (Note to self: staying fit is important for travel.)

It was a wonderful way to end my Edinburgh escape, although I am sad, too. So much more to do and see here. However, London is calling …


Fringe Benefits

Here I am in the midst of the madness that is the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. I thought Toronto’s Fringe Festival, with its 150+ shows in two weeks was impressive and enjoyable, but Edinburgh has about 1,000 offerings that include comedy, music, theatre and tours.

A little street theatre to promote a Fringe show

In addition to its usual summer visitors, the city is filled with theatre buffs gorging on a banquet of one-hour performances by troupes from all over the world. Not only is there wonderful theatre; there’s a chance to chat with people from everywhere!

Today alone, I ate breakfast with a woman from Buxton, England, had cream tea (tea and scones) with a pair of chance-met Canadian sisters, one from Vancouver and the other from Regina. All we needed was someone from the Maritimes for a coast-to-coast sweep! I also conversed with a couple from Germany over a later cup of tea, chatted with a young couple from Sheffield, England, in the waiting line for a show and went to see some young women from Northwestern University (outside Chicago) whom I’d met accidentally on Thursday perform in a show.

With Northwestern U. actresses Chamaya (left) and Carrie (right), performers in Atlantic: The Scottish Story

Yesterday, I took a walking tour with a pair of Italian sisters and did a whisky tasting with some Americans and a German. Tomorrow, I’m off on an organized day tour, so heaven knows whom I’ll meet. It’s absolutely wonderful – it adds such spice to an already tasty experience.

With so many shows going on, as well as a classical music festival, Edinburgh is packed with tourists. If you look at this photo taken on the Royal Mile (the street running from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace), you would think you were at Times Square in NYC! It’s tough to get anywhere fast if you’re walking downtown, so you need to build time into your schedule.

The masses flood Edinburgh’s Royal Mile

I toured Edinburgh Castle this morning, and its name is something of a misnomer, because it’s a walled fortress with myriad building inside. It’s still a working military venue in the evenings, but during the day, tourists rule. Since I’ve been spending so much time at the theatre, I wanted to be sure to add a bit of Edinburgh history to the program.

Edinburgh Castle

It was a real treat because the castle is now home to the Stone of Destiny, also known as the Stone of Scone, the stone on which all Scottish kings were crowned. The British moved it to Westminster Abbey a few hundred years ago to be used in conjunction with the Coronation Chair, and the Scots so bemoaned its loss that a group of university students broke into the Abbey on Christmas Eve during the 1960s and liberated the stone, planning to bring it back to its rightful land. Although they had to return the stone anonymously when the trail got too hot, their efforts obviously struck a chord at Buckingham Palace, because 20 years ago, the stone came home. There’s a wonderful movie about this caper, so I just had to see the stone myself!

Now, it’s off for my last Fringe show – the third today. Fittingly, it’s a Canadian production written by the wonderful Toronto playwright, Hannah Moscovitch, about her father’s family and its Romanian refugee roots – so, a little Jewish-Canadian connection, too. We Canucks have a large presence on stage at the Fringe this year in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday.

Fringe madness this may be, but it’s a great party!

A Wee Visit to Scotland

Although exploring London and England is the focus of this summer’s adventure, I needed a wee bit of Scottish flavour to add to the mix, so I decided to head north. I debated whether to visit Edinburgh, where I’d been during university days, or Glasgow, which I’d never seen, but two things tipped the scales in favour of the capital: it is home to the Mother of All Fringe (theatre) Festivals and I saw a day tour that promised me a visit to Hadrian’s Wall. Since I usually volunteer at the Fringe in Toronto and have been wanting a glimpse of this ancient wall, it was suddenly no contest. I booked lodgings at the University of Edinburgh and bought a train ticket and I was off.

Fringe Box Office

I boarded the train at King’s Cross and sat in my reserved seat. Given that Edinburgh hosts various festivals throughout August, I didn’t want to have to worry about fighting for a seat. I opted for a window at one of the tables that seat two pairs facing each other. For the first hour, I had the whole area to myself and could watch the scenery and read in silence. That all came to a crashing halt in Peterborough (Yes, the Brits had the name first, Ontario!)

All of a sudden, my pod and the one across the aisle were filled with young teachers heading home to Edinburgh from a stint teaching high schoolers from abroad at a language program in Cambridge. Nor did they come empty-handed! A case of beer, a couple of bottles of prosecco and lots of snacks appeared with them. For much of the trip, nine of them crammed into the seven available seats. It could have been horrible, but it was actually adorable. They were chatty, but not particularly loud, and they were friendly. In between talking to each other and checking their emails and texts, they sang along with the tunes on one phone or other. Listening to their accents was a real treat. It was quite the welcome to Scotland!

Once I arrived, I decided to try to follow the instructions for taking transit to the university, rather than take a cab. Of course, I only had bus numbers and a general location, so I wandered Princes Street for a good 20 minutes before finding a stop that had the bus I wanted. It came fairly quickly, but one drawback – it didn’t have a list of stops, so I had no idea how far I had to go. The lovely young man sitting next to me tried to help me with his iPhone, and eventually, a woman I’d chatted with at the bus stop sat down near me and said she knew the route. Once I got off, some darling high school students from Kentucky (!) took me in hand, since they, too, were staying in the residences. So, I was able to check into my room – very much like the one in Cambridge – and wander downtown before my first Fringe show that evening.

Grant Hall: Not quite the Hilton

Edinburgh is full of amazing architecture. Every time I turn a corner, another wonderful building is staring me in the face. Lots of Gothic churches, a monument to the novelist, Walter Scott, the Edinburgh Castle, the national museums, the library … I could go on and on. I think another trip is indicated, since much of my time here is bound up with the Fringe Festival. Perhaps next year …

Housing offices at U of Edinburgh

All Roads Lead to Rome

When anyone uses the well-known aphorism about roads and Rome, I never think of it in connection with Britain, but I should know better by now. The Romans were here in Londinium, as they called it, and, apparently, they also established a stronghold at Bath.

The stones beneath the floor of the bath, used to heat the water.

My long-time friend, Ute, and I joined a local meet-up group on Saturday for a day trip to this lovely city, site not only of Roman baths, but of Georgian architecture that earns it the status of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Our coach set off early from the centre of London, and by mid-morning, we had crossed serene rural landscape that became hillier the further west we drove and reached Bath, a city of 90,000 just east of coastal Bristol. As our city tour guide noted, Bath is a layer cake: the unearthed Roman ruins, followed by Medieval development, topped by Georgian architecture. Georgian refers to the period that King Georges I through IV ruled England, roughly 1714 to 1830.

We stopped first at the Roman bath, the ruins of which weren’t uncovered until workmen digging in the late 19th century came across some interesting rubble. Even then, it took the city engineer 20 years to obtain permission for a full dig of what is today an amazing Roman temple site. In fact, the ruins were buried so deep in the South Gloucestershire mud that even a garden dug on top of them by Medieval monks didn’t reach the remains.

Roman bath in — where else? — Bath

Just as interesting is the fact that the spring that fed that ancient mineral bath was celebrated in Georgian times for its curative properties and Bath was a fashionable spa during the 18th century, even though no one knew about the Roman precedent.

Alas, the modern plumbing wasn’t working right on Saturday, so we didn’t get a chance to sample the cleansed mineral waters, but I did dip my fingers into the algae-filled pool to feel the warmth. The spring still feeds spas in the area, and we could see people on balconies in their bathrobes, lounging. Not a bad way to wind down from the week’s stresses.

The Pump Room, where the fashionable came to drink mineral water in the 1800s.

After absorbing the facts about Roman temples and about bathhouse culture at the time, we had a look at the city’s renowned Georgian architecture, based on classical styles and hewn from golden-toned local stone. For fans of Jane Austen and the Regency period, this is heaven. Austen herself lived in Bath for five years and based two of her novels, Persuasion and Northanger Abbey here. Janeites among the tour group were pointing out streets that figured in those two books, and we saw one of the houses where she lived during those years, although it’s not the building that now houses the Jane Austen Museum – it’s now home to a law firm instead.

One of the homes where Jane Austen resided during her time in Bath.

So, we wandered the Royal Crescent and the Circus; saw the Pulteney Bridge, based on Italy’s Ponte Vecchio; and dropped in at the Assembly Rooms, where the town’s emcee, Beau Nash, held sway. Mr. Nash was responsible for making introductions for newcomers to town – if only it were so easy today!

The Royal Crescent, a popular spot.

Bath offers a lovely escape from the hustle and bustle of London and a trip back in time. It’s certainly an escape I’m ready to make again.

“Catz” on the Cam

My second foray into unexplored territory allowed me to penetrate a bit of the Oxbridge mystique. I headed out of the city to Cambridge yesterday, an early morning wake-up that put me in the middle of the rush hour crush on the Waterloo & City line, a downtown relief line for people who live south of the Thames (Toronto City Council, are you listening?).

Rush hour madness

Luckily, I left home early, because the train on which I’d booked a seat was cancelled, but I arrived in time to catch the earlier train. The route took us through countryside that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Norfolk County: hay bales drying in the sun and fields glinting green with soybeans. There were also the obligatory cows, horses and sheep munching away on breakfast.

Once in Cambridge, I made my way to my lodging for the night: St. Catharine’s College (familiarly known as Catz, established in the 16th century)!

St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge

Yes, during the summer, the university’s legendary colleges rent out rooms to visitors, so my B&B was a single room at the college with access to the facilities, including breakfast in the dining hall. Since residences and many college buildings are strictly off limits to anyone other than students, staff and profs, I felt privileged to get this behind-the-scenes glimpse of British university life. I checked my bag at the porter’s desk, since it was too early for a formal check-in, and headed off to see the city.

During my university days, I visited Oxford and remember being disappointed by how urban it was. Cambridge is smaller and has a different vibe altogether. Although it was flooded with tourists and summer students, it felt more like a town – albeit one with great architecture – than a city.

I arrived in time for the opening of the renowned Wren Library at Trinity College, which only admits visitors for two hours each day. My route there took me along the backs – the green fields and gardens bordering the River Cam that belong to well-situated colleges. The Cam was full of punters – an English novel come to life. Granted, most of this crowd was tourists, not students, but it made for an interesting picture.

Punting on the River Cam

The Wren Library, designed by the exalted architect, Christopher Wren, is a long, classical hall with columns, decorated mouldings and exquisite wooden bookcases carved with the coats of arms of many of the patrons whose money funded the library back in the 1700s and topped with busts of famous British thinkers and literati (e.g., Bacon, Milton) on one side and renowned Greeks and Romans (e.g., Socrates, Cicero) on the other.

wren-interior-with-busts-visible (2)
Wren Library, courtesy of Trinity College, Cambridge

This architectural treasure holds other treasures, including a Shakespeare First Folio and Newton’s Principia Mathematica. I chatted with a young visitor from Buenos Aires who had come there specifically to see one of the original volumes of Newton’s masterpiece.

Later that afternoon, I toured the downtown area, King’s College and its backs with one of Britain’s registered Blue Badge tour guides, who really know their subjects. King’s College came into being thanks to Edward VII and his son, Henry VIII. In fact, Henry had the altar screen carved with his initials and those of Anne Boleyn, his queen, but by the time it was finished, she had already been beheaded at his behest.

Kings College Chapel, Cambridge

The monstrously large chapel is full of Flemish stained glass dating back to the 16th century and it is home to a choir that is renowned throughout England. Alas, they are on summer break, so no Evensong concert for me!

It was chilly and rainy last evening, and I was glad to be toasty warm in the Catz residence, working away on some assignments. Today, the sun reappeared and made walking through town to my seminar much more enjoyable. There was even a full English breakfast available in the dining hall, but I passed on the beans, eggs and toast. Bacon and tomatoes work well for me!

Dining hall at Catz

Then, it was off to a day with the British Quilt Research Group to learn about researching the provenance of old quilts. It was great fun to meet other quilters and learn more about quilting as a discipline. Great people, great subject – and learning something new in Cambridge seemed very appropriate.

Examining a quilt from the Museum of Cambridge collection

Now, it’s back to London on an express train, so I’ll be sleeping in my flat, rather than a dorm, and I’ll have to make my own breakfast tomorrow. Tough life, eh?

(Westminster) Abbey Road Not a Smooth One

Note to self: Before setting out on a weekend jaunt, check the London transit closures. Just as in Toronto, subway (tube) maintenance takes place on Saturdays and Sundays, causing transit chaos among the gazillions of visitors to the British capital, not to mention the residents. 20170723_105356 (2)

Of course, it was partially a disaster of my own making. I stopped at the local library and left my jacket behind, a disaster I didn’t realize until I had jumped off the bus at the underground station. Instead of heading toward the train, I retraced my steps to the library and did the route to the station again – only to discover that it was closed for the weekend! So, I could have remained on the first bus, but, instead, it was on to another bus that took me to a working tube station. Oh, did I mention that it was raining?

Tube not running? Take the bus!

My initial frustration evaporated, however, when I ended up sitting next to a young man from Austria on the bus. We exchanged the “why are you in London?” stories and had a lovely ride. Chatting with random people is part of the pleasure of being a newcomer.

I eventually arrived at my destination, Westminster Station, close to the Houses of Parliament and my destination, Westminster Abbey. Masses of tourists were on the streets, taking photos and absorbing the scenery. All of that power – church and state — in such a small area is daunting.

Since I had purchased my ticket for the Abbey online, once I wended my way through the crowds, I was home free. Ticketholders have a separate, short queue, so I was in the door fairly fast. I decided to pay a bit extra for a tour with one of the vergers and set off to see the marvels of the Abbey.

Unfortunately, I can’t share photos with you, because photography inside the Abbey is forbidden. You’ll have to take my word that the scale is staggering and the ornamentation is ornate and intricate in places, colourful in others. In addition to being the setting for Royal coronations, it is the final resting place for numerous monarchs, politicians, artists and scientists. Queen Elizabeth I and her sister, Queen Mary, share a chapel and a tomb, while their cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, lies across the hall. Henry VII and his queen, parents to the notorious Henry VIII, are buried there, as are Edward the Confessor, William and Mary and a number of other kings and queens.

It is always disconcerting to walk across the tombstones etched into the floor, especially when they are people one recognizes: Georg Friedrich Handel, Lord Byron, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton are only a few of the luminaries buried here. The modern tombstones are smaller, denoting the burial of a cremation urn, rather than a body. Times change.

A highlight of my visit was the chance to stay for choral Evensong and to sit in the Quire (choir), carved hundreds of years ago. It offered a view that only select guests at William and Kate’s wedding were able to enjoy, so I just pretended it was their service instead! The Abbey is known for its boys’ choir, but they are on holiday during the summer, so a lovely coed choir performed in its place. It was my first Church of England service, so I guess it’s all downhill from here!

Oh, Henry!

Henry VII

Oldie goldies like me will remember the pop song lyrics that made Herman’s Hermits famous: “I’m Hen-er-y the Eighth, I am.” Well, I’ve discovered that Henry, the lusty, mad-for-an-heir, bloodletting monarch from the 16th century, certainly knew how to live well. If Hampton Court palace is a model for the good life, I am ready to live like a king at any time!

20170717_173253Admittedly, the palace was limited by the styles of the times: the furniture doesn’t look quite as comfortable as the pieces we have today, but kings and queens weren’t given the freedom to lounge about that we have, so perhaps it’s not of great consequence.

King’s Throne

There certainly was an army of people on hand to see to their every need! The kitchen staff alone numbered in the hundreds, cooking for the king’s entourage and any guests he might be entertaining.

Roasting meat on a spit.

In fact, as the Royals travelled around the country, their staff and accoutrements travelled along! Think of a parade of carriages for the people and wagons for the equipment moving throughout Britain. Quite a spectacle in its day, I’m sure.

Hampton Court has a spectacular chapel, designed for Henry VIII, but updated by Christopher Wren of St. Paul’s fame during the reign of William and Mary. Unfortunately, photos aren’t allowed, so I can’t show you the stunning ceiling decoration – a turquoise colour edged in gilt — or the lavish wood carving that adorned the walls. Nor could we take photos of Henry’s jewel-encrusted crown, which is actually a lavish reproduction, since Oliver Cromwell had the original destroyed during the days of Roundhead rule.

As much as I loved the elegant rooms, it was the grounds that really gave me palace envy. If this is how the rich and famous landscape their properties, I’m all in! I think I need to cozy up to a duke or two for an invitation to a weekend at an estate of this scale.


Wow! Brilliantly coloured plantings, fountains, manicured lawns, shade trees clipped to resemble topiary – it is all overwhelming in scale and beauty. There’s even a hedge maze in which you can get turned around and lost, but we managed to blunder our way out.

Riotous colour!

Even the common folk can enjoy the grounds today; part of it is parkland open to the public, although that area is largely grass and trees. Lack of admission fees translates to a dearth of flowers, apparently. However, it was lovely to see local children playing and families picnicking in the abundant green space.

Cozying up to the locals!

No wonder Henry’s six wives were tempted; handsome fellow or not, if the marriage gave them access to this beautiful property, perhaps it was worth the gamble!