Publisher’s note: In this final segment of his most recent visit to England, Nathaniel Brown continues his chronicle of time spent in Yorkshire. See the first part of his Yorkshire visit here.
On Sunday, we went to church, and were met by a Royal Air Force marching band, who played us up Blake Street to the Minster. We had not known it was the 100th Anniversary of the founding of the RAF, and the 78th Battle of Britain Day. I was very deeply moved by it all, and the Minster was filled with blue uniforms and civic robes. The lessons were read by a Wing Commander and an Air Marshall (who read far better than the clergy, who mumbled) and we sang “Eternal Father, strong to save,” but with different words than the naval hymn, ending not with “those in peril on the seas,” but with “those in peril in the air.” They then played “The Last Post” — one lone, distant trumpet echoing in all that silent space — and there followed a minute of silence before the trumpet sounded again with Reveille and the troops marched out. I am grateful to have been there.
Monday we had another tour with Howard. Sheep, pheasants and grouse, Fountains Abbey, but above all, Ripon Cathedral. Ripon has only been a cathedral since 1836, but the church itself goes back to the 660’s, re-founded as a Benedictine monastery by St Wilfred in 672. It is small for a cathedral, but the present building, dating to the 12th century is very beautiful, one of the most “welcoming” cathedrals I have seen, with its relatively small size and less imposing “Early English” style as part of its welcome. The cathedral has a magnificent Harrison organ, with 32-foot open wood pipes (so large that the feet of some of the pipes reside a bit below floor level in a “trench” created so they don’t bang their heads on the ceiling).
But for me, the real and unique gem of Ripon is the tiny 7th century crypt, which moves you as much by its utter simplicity as by its age. It is, I think, an “experiential installation,” to use modern terms. You go down steep, worn stone steps into a narrow, low passage, its walls worn smooth by 14 centuries of pilgrims feeling their way through the dark by touching the walls. It its day, this passage would have been dark, and the several turnings disorient you, as I believe they may have been intended to do. At length, you take a sudden left turn into the crypt, which is lit today by electricity, but for centuries by candles — and you pass out of the winding, claustrophobic dark, into the light. From darkness to light — the Christian message played out in your own person and experience. It must have overwhelmed early visitors. And it still does, if you will let it. From the crypt is a few steps up int the church with all its windows and light.
Aside from the glorious Early English style of the cathedral, one other delight astonishes the eye if you know where to look for it: “the hand.” The organist, in the 17th century when the organ loft was built, was invisible to the choir. Some practical person introduced a large gilded hand, which sticks out at the back of the loft, and could go up and down by means of a lever that the organist could manipulate from his seat at the organ, thus directing the choir.
After York, I took the train up to Newcastle with my oldest Friend, the Revd. Canon Robert Gage, whom I have known since we were both at Lakeside in 1962. For the first few nights I added to my collection of “Creaky Old Hotels” by a stay at the old but not creaky Grand Hotel in Whitley Bay. This was the best hotel of the trip, with a wonderful room (boasting a canopied four-poster bed) and a view of Whitley Bay that took my breath away. If you have a chance, give the Hotel Grand a visit: excellent food, wonderfully helpful staff (no shower stool, but the receptionist very kindly went out and bought one!), grand rooms, incredible views, and great walks just out the door. Also railings!
The remainder of the time in Newcastle was private, dining with friends (and that bottle of Chateau d’Yquem, shared by three of us as we listened to Sibelius 4 at Robert’s house). But I would be remiss not to mention the beer I had at a seafood restaurant in Tynemouth; called a “Portland Bitter,” brewed just down the street. The label says it all — “The grass is always greener elsewhere.”
I am staying at the deceivingly named Thistle Trafalgar in London, which is actually located on Leicester Square (remember: this is London, where if you want to go to the Mansion House, your closest tube station is Bank; the Mansion House station is quite some ways away. And why not? We are, after all, in England!) The hotel reception staff had never heard of such a thing as a shower stool, and weren’t in the least interested in my explanation that I can’t shower on one leg — though I’ll give the hotel points for location and railings. Some acerbic notes to the headquarters of the hotel chain, who were foolish enough to send me a note asking me for comments, produced results on Day Two. The room has not been “done” in two days.
A few London notes for the traveler: for a simple, fresh and nutritious meal, try a Pret à Manger; they’re all over London and provide a reasonably priced takeaway meal, with a good choice of freshly-made sandwiches, salads, juices, etc. Quite good, and nothing like it at home. You can eat fine quality food in many restaurants and clubs in London (Simpson’s and Rule’s come to mind and are worth making a reservation), as well as in many good pubs. The Chandos pub, near Trafalgar Square and the National Portrait Gallery is my all-time favorite, together with the aforementioned Museum Pub across from the British Museum, and the White Lion in Covent Garden is good.
(A highly personal, heartfelt aside: there is nothing like good English pub food and real English ale off the pump; the closest I’ve ever tasted to a real English ale in the U.S., by the way, is the Machine House Ale served at our very own Church Key Pub in Edmonds, who are public benefactors by featuring it! One more Edmonds shout-out: I have had Fish & Chips all over the UK. They have ranged from awful to very good. But none of them are a match for the Fish & Chips at Edmonds’ own MAR·KET | fishmonger & eatery!)
Côte Brasserie is a reliably good chain throughout Britain (we are dining at one tonight): good “provincial style” French cooking, and none the worse for that! And never forget the Paul patisserie, in Covent Garden: superb bread and pastries, excellent omelets in the restaurant.
Now, I am on the verge of flying home. A visit with my old friend William Chapman tonight, dinner at the Oxford and Cambridge Club tomorrow, and home. I live in fear of what the rabbits and moles will have done to my garden and lawn at home, but it will be very good to be back in Edmonds after a month of travel. And back in the land of ramps and rails — and friends.
— By Nathaniel Brown
Edmonds resident Nathaniel Brown taught and coached cross-country running and skiing for 16 years before joining the US Biathlon Team as wax technician, switching to the U.S. Cross-Country team in 1989. He coached at three Olympics and 14 World Championships, edited Nordic Update for nine years and Cross-Country Skier for two. He has written three books on skiing and training. He owned and operated Nordic UltraTune, an international freelance ski tuning service, until retirement seven years ago.