ScotTrek: Thirsk

One of the earliest tv shows I remember watching (that wasn’t Bob Ross or Reading Rainbow) was All Creatures Great and Small. I grew up reading James Herriot’s books, and I felt in some ways that the Yorkshire Dales were as familiar to me as home.

Thirsk, the village where Alf Wight (James Herriot) lived and practiced most of his adult life, is just a 20-minute train ride from York, so off I went on my second morning.

The train station is rather inexplicably a mile from the town, but it was a lovely walk in to 23 Kirkgate, “Skeldale House.”

 

The first picture is the view from the front doorstep: down the road to the left is the church where he married “Helen” (really Joan.)

The house has been turned into a museum and the first floor has been recreated as it was in the 1940s (the upper floor is more general information on veterinary practice, and another part of the house contains sets from the tv show. I stood in the tv show dining room!!)

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Although technically a dining room, the main front room was primarily used as a patient waiting room.

I loved the rows and rows of medicines.

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The breakfast room, although small, was where much of the daily life took place – it’s a cozy place.

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And the kitchen … oh! What a cheery room. Clearly an awful lot of living happened there, too.

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This was lying open on the table.

I walked down to the church next – St. Mary’s, built in the late 1400s. It was partially restored in the 1800s, but the doors are original, and an elderly gentleman caretaker (the most wonderfully stereotypical Yorkshire man I could have hoped to meet) proudly showed me how although the doors weigh at least a ton each, they are so well balanced and he can push them shut with just a finger.

Before I left Thirsk, I stopped at the grocery store and bought lunch: cheese, crackers, and four chocolate eclairs, all of which I ate with great relish on the train back to York.

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But not before talking to these friendly sheep, who I encountered on the walk back to the train station.

Is there anything more Yorkshirian than sheep? I think not.

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ScotTrek: York

Way back when, I posted about my day in Melrose and promised that a recap of York was coming up soon. Um … here it is!

I arrived by train in York the evening of my second day, was met by a woman named Pie who I had exchanged messages with twice on the internet, who took me back to her Victorian townhouse in a neighborhood of identical townhouses – built for the families of men working on the railroad – where I promptly dropped my backpack and raced off into the evening to see everything I could see.

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The first thing I saw was the lovely little high street in Pie’s neighborhood (I’m charmed by the amount of bunting I saw during this trip.)

I loved York for a lot of reasons, but especially for how compact it was – all the things I was interested in lay inside the old Roman city walls, which helped – and  I could get to any place I wanted to go easily on foot.

You can walk on top of those walls (incredible!) and so I did, surreptitiously peeping down into gardens and roof-top patios.


Like Melrose, I went to York because of one building: York Minster. It’s architecturally significant (the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern England) but mostly it’s just incredibly beautiful.

So of course I headed that direction first.  First it was just the towers visible over the press of buildings (the bells starting ringing about the time I took the first picture, and they continued ringing for about an hour – it was magic), then the full grandeur of the building hit me as I got closer.

The next day, after an adventure in Thirsk which I’ll write about later, I spent about 5 hours inside the Minster – climbed the tower, explored the crypt, looked at all the remnants of the old Roman fort the church is built on top of – much of which was excavated when they reinforced the foundations in the 1970s because the church was in danger of falling down – and attended Evensong.

But that first night, I sat outside the church in the bustling square, imagining what it would be like to like in medieval York and have this grand building towering over everything.

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I did a lot more in York: wandered aimlessly around the Shambles, drank a cider at the House of Trembling Madness (accessed via rickety, crooked stairs because the building is from the time of freaking Shakespeare), ate a Yorkshire pudding while sitting by a fountain (it was not what I expected), enjoyed late-night fish n’ chips from a shop of dubious character, went to the train station just for onion and cheese pasties (I ate a lot in York).

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Oh, and wandered around the botanical gardens, which contains an ancient Roman tower and the ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, where I made friends with two small Indian children, up on holiday from London (we bonded over our love of squirrels and silly putty.)

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My last night in York, in my little upstairs bedroom in Pie’s Victorian house, I left the window open (no screens, how novel!) and listened to the rain fall – able to see just the faint outline of chimney pots and brick walls and life seemed both completely unreal and so magnificently REAL I almost couldn’t bear it.

Scotland, day two: Melrose

In my initial planning, I stumbled across a photo of a beautiful church, half in ruins, with a roof of sky and a floor of lush green grass. It was Melrose Abbey, and it caught my fancy like whoa.

So early on my second day, I woke up and dressed as quietly as possible in my pod at the CODE hostel, conscious of every noise and worried about waking my 5 roommates … only to find, when I finally emerged, that they had all managed to depart at some earlier point without waking ME!

I caught the 8:23 train from Waverley Station to Tweedbank – captivated my first real look at the Scottish countryside, impossibly green fields dotted with black-faced sheep, pine forests, and glimpses of distant castles.
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At Tweedbank I managed to get the right bus on to Melrose on the first try, despite having no real idea what I was doing, and soon I was deposited in Melrose, a small town that looks like nothing more than the set of a quaint BBC show.

I bought breakfast at the co-op grocery store – a coffee and chocolate pudding, because what are adventures for if not indulgence? – and sat outside on a bench to eat it. Soon the man from the shop joined me with a cup of tea – he asked about my travels and told me about his, and at that moment I realized two things:

1. I was REALLY TRULY IN SCOTLAND, and
2. I thought I’d have no trouble understanding the accents – I watch British television! – and I was totally, completely wrong.

Despite understanding only about half of what he said, this anonymous man made me feel so welcome, and after he left I wrote in my travel journal, “Melrose has won my heart completely.”

It was also at this point that I realized the enormity of what I was doing. Most of my traveling before had been to go to a specific place, weighed down with suitcases and obligations. To be one person, alone in the world, half-way around the globe from anything familiar, carrying all the possessions I needed on my back, free to do whatever I wanted … I felt heady with freedom.

After a quick stop at the cashpoint (that’s British for ATM) for the colorful currency it was hard not to think of as play money, I walked over to the Abbey at last.
Here’s a condensed history: the oldest parts were built in 1146 by Cistercian monks at the request of King David I. It was badly damaged by the English in 1322 and 1384, and further defaced during the Reformation (heckin’ English, heckin’ Protestants, ruining perfectly good architecture. I spent a lot of time being angry at the Protestants in particular during this trip.)
The last Melrose Abbey monk died in 1590, and in 1610 part of the church was converted into a parish church for the town. It was used until 1810, when a new church was built. All that’s left of the monk’s sleeping and working quarters are the foundations, but most of the walls of the church are still standing, and a few areas still have the stone vaulting in place.
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The surrounding graveyard was still being used well into the 1900s (and may be used yet, I’m not sure.)
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Those are the facts. What is also a fact is that I cried. To see this magnificent place – beautiful even in pieces – to imagine it bustling and full of work and prayer, to know that it was built over 850 years ago by real people who had hopes and fears and dreams, and that parts of it were *still here* …
It was overwhelming.
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There were wild strawberries growing on top of some of the graves. Reader, I ate them.
I went through a small gate in the Abbey wall, crossed a small road, and found myself in a field crossed with lines of medieval culverts – and beyond that, an unmanned museum housed in a building from the 1600s, full of things found during excavations at the Abbey. The sign on the door said “please close the door behind you, and don’t bring your dogs inside” and I laughed –

As I said to myself a lot during this trip, “this would never happen in America.” If we even had a site like this, you’d never been allowed to wander it freely, touch everything, sit where ever. You’d never be trusted to be in a museum all alone, especially when not all the objects were under glass.

One tower was intact enough to climb to the narrow stairs, and I asked one of the docents if I could leave my backpack at the foot of the steps. I didn’t think I could make it up with it, but I didn’t want them to see an unattended backpack and call the bomb squad – she laughed and not only said that I could, but insisted on standing guard over it until I came back down.
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It is possible but not conclusively proven that Rober the Bruce’s heart is buried under this stone.
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I spent at least three hours wandering around and at last sat at a table in the corner under a spreading tree to eat my lunch and do some journaling. Mid-afternoon I caught a bus to Berwick-Upon-Tweed, then a train to continue my journey south.

And that’s day two, folks. Next up, at some point: a lot of gushing about York Minster. ❤

ScotTrek, day one: I conquer Edinburgh.

So here’s what it was like to be in Scotland for the first time, moderately sleep-deprived, coming down off some pretty intensely stressful weeks leading up to it, and not entirely confident that I had thought of everything that needed thinking of before setting out.

I landed in Edinburgh under heavy, grey cloud-cover. “It’s right nice to be back where it’s proper depressing; I love it,” said a young Scottish man to his girlfriend, seated just behind me.

I found the bus I needed into the city centre and sat there feeling, honestly, a little underwhelmed. I’d been so busy and stressed leading up to the trip that I’d forgotten to actually get excited, and so far the scene from the bus window didn’t look that different from London or New York or Chicago and what if I had spent all this money and time to come spend 15 days traipsing about a country and feeling nothing but “meh” because my brain had forgotten how to enjoy it?

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Then the bus passed by a row of charming stone houses, with beautiful gardens and old trees. Even inside the bus, it smelled like damp earth and fresh green lawns, and I thought … “oh my God, I’m in SCOTLAND.”

After the bus left me on Waverley Bridge, I stored my backpack in the train station lockers and set off to see all the things. It’s a bit of a blur now, but I found my way to the Royal Mile almost immediately – it was the last day of Fringe, and though it was still early in the morning, there were already shenanigans happening. (Basically, Festival folk are like renfaire folk, only without the renfaire.)

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I went to St. Giles straight away, where I saw a man dressed as a viking, and then around the corner to the National Library, and then to Cannongate Kirkyard, where I sat and ate snacks and caught up on the internet, because there is so much free wifi in Scotland.
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Pretty sure I also found Greyfriar’s Kirk (there’s a theme to this whole trip: I am most likely to be found in old churches or old graveyards) and the People’s Story museum.

Then I thought, hm, yes, the weather is fine, I shall go climb Arthur’s Seat. It will be a lovely, gentle afternoon stroll. After all, it didn’t look that tall on the internet.

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The internet LIES. What looks like a lovely path here soon became a steep stone staircase set into the mountainside. (Only later did I realize that I chose the more direct but significantly more challenging path to the top.) But I saw heather and every time I had to stop to catch my breath I had beautiful views to look at.
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And then the top … was glorious. There’s a flat area just shy of the tallest point that’s all soft spongy moss-like grass scattered with bits of lava rock (yes, I brought some home), swirling with gulls swept up in the mighty winds.
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And then from the very tippiest top, this view:
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I went back down the longer, easier way and found the sign I should have read at the beginning (but I’m sure it’s fine), and also the ruins of a 600-year-old chapel.
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Which … lemme tell you, that felt surreal, that chapel. I sat in one of the remaining windows and ate a snack (again) and wrote in my journal and there was no one at all around. Just me and a pile of 600-year-old rocks.

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After that, I realized that what I wanted more than anything was a cup of tea, so I stopped at a random tea room near Holyrood Palace – a tiny little thing, with shared tables. I ended up being joined by a woman from Oregon who had just come back from the Highlands. We compared notes and shared stories and let me tell you, oatcakes and tea never tasted so good.

At some point I dropped my bag off at the hostel (CODE hostel, if anyone wants a recommendation – they have sleeping pods and it’s kind of the best). It was in New Town, so I followed streets full of beautiful Georgian architecture and very Scottish signs down to the garden where the Book Festival was being held.

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And THEN I proceeded to forget I owned a camera, and when I met Elizabeth Wein, we completely forgot to selfie and I have no pictures of any of it.

But it was a wonderful night, YA panel drama notwithstanding. I sat next to a family from Glasgow who were headed to NYC the following week, so we totally traded travel tips and they were generally the loveliest. And I stayed awake despite being something like 40 hours without sleep.

Last line in my journal for that day, written from my sleeping pod: “man, sleeping is awesome.”

Coming soon: south to the charming village of Melrose.

A Library of One’s Own

This is the story of a library that was a long time in coming.

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I’ve never had room to do anything but keep books double-and triple-stacked. I dreamed of the day when I could keep all my books in one room, organized by category rather than by size.

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And then there was a house, a house named Innisfree. And in Innisfree was a room that could, with a lot of work, become a library.

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It took six months, but in the end there were burnt orange walls, built-in bookshelves, a window seat, and – my favorite – a gold ceiling.

 

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But then life got crazy and it took another 3-4 months to have the time to organize properly (modified Dewey Decimal system, for the curious), hang art, and really make it feel like home.

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Now it’s turned into my favorite place to be.

 

 

Was the wait worth it? You bet your sweet first-edition Jane Austen it was.

Recipe for a fine Autumn morning

IMG_3701eWake up when it’s already light.

Grind coffee beans. Make coffee. Drink coffee.

Wear something woolen, because it’s cozy.

Take a walk in fog that makes the world look strange and wonderful and coats every hair and eyelash in microscopic dew.

Take photos of the dewdrops that have coated every spiderweb and turned them into intricate tangles of diamonds. It won’t even matter when your skills can’t capture your vision: you’ve learned what doesn’t work. That’s enough for today.

Pet the cat, even though she left you a hairball in the night.

Cook a potato. Eat the potato … with gravy.

Live in denial that winter is coming.

Instructions for living a life:
Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.
(Mary Oliver)

Object Lessons: #10

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It was a Saturday morning at a garage sale. Or a midweek run to a thrift store. Or a birthday box from a friend who knows my penchant for such things –

 
The truth is, I don’t remember where I got this little round, brass box full of metal pen nibs, nestled in a bit of ancient yellow cotton. But I like them a lot, and someday I might even use them.