Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Travels West goes to England

II: The Cotswolds

England’s Cotswolds always make me feel at home. I have been there so many times, even before I had ever been there. J. R. R. Tolkien brought me there first, then Shakespeare. Tolkien lived and taught at Oxford. Shakespeare was born and spent his youth and later years in Stratford-upon-Avon. The Cotswolds lie between, a rolling, green hill country. They are the “green and pleasant land” of The Bard, and they are The Shire on Tolkien’s gentle hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins. They are for me the romantic epitome of all that is right and wholesome and peaceful and proper on Earth.

I lived for a short time—too short a time—in Stratford-upon-Avon, as a student, with an English family. Mrs. H. and her boys, S. and C. are still great friends. During my stay Mrs. H. and I tramped all over the Cotswolds. Castle hopping we called it. Among the objective for my trip was to return to this magical place and breathe life into the memory for my father, who had heard me speak of it, but who had never himself been there.

Driving north from Portsmouth to Mrs. H’s house in Stratford, we turned off onto the country lanes less traveled and motored through the hedgerow country. After Oxford, we headed up through the little towns and villages of ancient, thatch-roofed, golden Cotswold stone houses and descriptive two- and three- and four-word names: Bourton-on-the-Water, Stow-on-the-Wold, Moreton-in-the-Marsh, Chipping Campden. A “wold” is a hill, the “chip” in Chipping Campden refers a marketplace, while “camp” indicates the site of a ancient Roman fort. History abounds.

My father, appreciating the beauty of the thatched roofs, asked Mr. H., “How long will those roofs last? Twenty or 30 years?”

“More like 200!” Mrs. H’s laughed.

Green and pleasant land
The Cotswolds: the green and pleasant land, The Shire, in the glory of summer. Among the many small glories of the region are the footpaths that allow you to tramp all over, the result of a time-worn tradition of right-of-way that allows foot travelers access to many quiet and lovely places across the English countryside.

Old, very old

We took a narrow hedgerow road along the top of a low ridge through the towns—crossroads really—of Great Rollright and Little Rollright to the ancient Rollright Stones. The stones are a sort on mini-Stonehenge; an ancient pagan place of worship, probably used as an astronomical and sidereal calendar. The oldest of the stones is some 6,000 years old

Chipping Campden

After stopping to ponder the deep past at the Rollright Stones, we sped on up the road into Chipping Campden, one of the most picturesque towns in the Costwolds. We were too late for tea, however, though we did manage to get some chips and eat them at the war monument in the town square. Afterward, Mrs. H. drove us up to look at one of her favorite views in the hills behind the town.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Travels West goes to England

In which M2 and Pops visit some very old places

I: Portsmouth

The Sally Port Inn stands a stone’s throw from England’s southern shore in the historic, walled sector of city of Portsmouth. It’s an old building, its earliest timbers dating back to the mid-1600’s. After suffering damage during an air raid in the Second World War, the row house was converted into the present-day inn. It’s a tumbledown old place, with slanted and creaking floors, peeling wallpaper and chipped paint. The Sally Port’s central spiral staircase, added in 1805, is said to be supported by a spar from Her Majesty’s frigate “Penelope.” There is nary a straight line in the place, and fire-blackened beams jut out occasionally at odd angles from the walls and floors.

Part Fawlty Towers and part living history museum, the Sally Port is the perfect place to stay for maritime buffs eager to experience the seafaring past of Perfidious Albion and the faded glory of its Royal Navy. Two thumbs up for the Sally Port.

We came to see Royal Navy history and see it we did.

Pops and Mrs. H. -- me U.K. mum -- stand in the actual "sally port," through which generations of sailors shipped out to sea, and for which the Sally Port Inn is named.

The view from atop the old fortress wall on Portsmouth harbor. The needle at top right is called "Spinnaker Tower," for fairly obvious reasons, and is a recent attraction to the port. It is 558 feet (170 metres) tall and has three observation decks that look out onto the Isle of Wight. The tower is meant to symbolize the redevelopment and revitalization of the Portsmouth harbor area, which is certainly undergoing a lot of development with new waterfront shopping and residences.

The H.M.S Victory, an 88-gun man-o-war, launched May, 1759. Crew: 850.

Note the windows on the three-deck main cabin aft. Each pane is a unique trapezoid. Before going into battle, these windows were taken down and stowed below, and canon put in their place.Victory was Lord Admiral Nelson's flag ship. He was killed aboard during the Battle of Trafalgar, the battle which determined that Britain, not France, would rule the seas (and much of the world) for the next century and a half. Nelson was shot through the lung by an enemy sniper and was taken below, where he expired with the words, "Thank God I have done my duty." They just don't make men like that anymore. The spot where Nelson whispered his last is still considered so sacred by the Royal Navy that no photography is permitted there.

People have been asking me about the the extraordinary detailed scrollwork, cabinet work and glass work on display on what is essentially a floating gun platform. Why, they ask, tart up a weapon of war that's likely to get blown to smithereens?

The answer is fairly straightforward. In about the reign of Henry VIII and the advent of the widespread use of canon, it was discovered that ships could be the ultimate vehicle for projecting power. By the 18th century, warships like the Victory had become, in essence, floating castles. And like the castles of the Middle Ages, they were built as much to overawe a potentially hostile populace as to actively engage and subjugate it. They were expressions of royal -- and later, national -- wealth. As such, they were "dressed to impress," much like the soldiers of the era in their peacock-like uniforms. It was as much about prestige as about readiness for battle.