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. ❤