On the Waterfront

When we planned the route to Cornwall, Nancy realized that we’d be passing close by Dartmouth, the sister city of her hometown, Dartmouth, MA, and suggested we visit. Our friends from Lewes agreed that Dartmouth was worth a visit, so there we went. I’ve been navigating with a GPS that has not, so far, taken me over a cliff or into a bogland, though it has occasionally pointed me the wrong way on a one-way street. The system steered us directly toward Dartmouth, down a rather steep hillside into the town. I was taken aback by road sides indicating I was to “queue for ferry” with no option to turn off or around. In a moment of panic, I assumed we had been misdirected and we’d find ourselves on a boat bound for France. Not a bad possibility, of course, just not one we had planned on.

Rounding the last curve, I followed the lane of traffic onto a small ferry (the locals call it the “floating bridge) that was taking us from east side of the town to the west.

At the mouth of the river Dart, the town is crammed into a narrow valley with neighborhoods stepping up both sides along hills as steep as the most extreme in Ithaca. Without space for bridges, the town relies on a pair of car ferries and one pedestrian ferry to shuttle cars and people back and forth. Both the hills and this transit system must limit, to a degree, further urban developments, but a tea shop owner assured me that his town was also affected by the burgeoning pressure from London.

The town has a fine harbor, extending along both sides of the river. The commercial center is on the west, and we chose a hotel there not far from the water. The Ship in Dock hotel advertises a pedigree (somewhat updated) from the 17th century and thrusts itself into the town at the foot of one of the steep hillsides.

It is a rather ramshackle place, with hallways that seem to slant, creaking floors, a slightly askew doorway. It’s not the only building we encountered that is out of true.

The hotel features a small local pub at the entrance and while the music did finally die, until 10:00 p.m. we put up with the kind of dim, throbbing music I associate with living close to student apartments.

Dartmouth is a working harbor, though its fishing fleet is not as large as that in New Bedford. Sailboats, as well, line the jetties,

We took another ferry, this one simply a large, open motor boat from the jetty out to the mouth of the Dart where an old castle once defended the port from pirates and marauding Spaniards.

While I do get seasick, I can manage the slight bounce on a river cruise. Nancy and I both immediately took front row seats. We’ve read Melville and understand that sailors in the foc’sle get the freshest air first, while those farther back endure the foul airs, astern.

The river journey took us along the steep neighborhoods of Dartmouth, each street rising above the next.

While local streets zigzag up the hillside, steep alleys provide direct access from one level to the next.

After a few cloudy days in Salisbury, the weather has been stunning–bright, sunny, warm. In the evening, the town took on a warm spring glow.

On Not Being in Kansas

Several years ago on a drive through Brittany, in Carnac, I came across a series of prehistoric sites (from well before 3000 BCE), of large stones arranged in rows. It is the largest such site in the world, and its purposes remain unexplained. I knew I had to see Stonehenge.


The walk from the Stonehedge visitor’s center to the stone circle at first passes along several open fields which offered a stretch of open horizon the like of which I had not seen since driving through Kansas.


The expanse of landscape suggests that the builders of Stonehenge selected this site for its openness. The approach to the circle of megaliths across such a plain would increase its dramatic power. And even with the tour bus turnaround and the lines of strolling visitors, the circle of stones is startling.


Stonehenge was constructed a bit later (3000-2500 BCE) than the Carnac stone rows so perhaps it took a while for Neolithic peoples to develop the technology to quarry and then move the 25 ton stones about 150 miles from Wales. The technology would have been extremely basic—ropes and wooden rollers, perhaps—but the will and determination to have undertaken such a task amazes me. My Egyptologist friend Bill might remind me that while the Druids were pulling these stone across the Salisbury plain, Egyptians were rather casually littering their landscape with very many pyramids.

Later, after the visit to Stonehenge, I took another walk around the Salisbury Cathedral and started trying to imagine the technologies that 13th century peoples relied on to construct their monuments. They had to solve the architectural challenges of arches and columnar support (they had help from the Greeks, of course) to complete a much more different task from putting one thing on top of another. What struck me, as I gazed up at the spire was the challenge of the daily work: Constructing ever higher scaffolding and then relying on rope and pulleys to leverage each crafted piece of rock into place.


While I was trying to make sense of all this, crows went about their business, inspecting the cathedral lawn.


In Salisbury, Old and Much Older

After a difficult drive along crowded coastal highways made more challenging by the frequent (and challenging) appearance of roundabouts, we came to Salisbury. And I, at least, came for the cathedral. The church spire dominates that plain on which the city sits, and we glimpsed the spire briefly about 3 miles outside the city. The cathedral itself is most remarkable because it has not been hemmed in by surrounding urban development. Late afternoon, we wandered into the church and remained for the beginning of Evensong. I can still be caught up by the plaintiff voices of a choir chanting in a cavernous nave.


We stayed in a B&B about a mile north of the city, and as usual, the next morning I took an early morning walk. After half a mile, I stumbled across a different landmark of Salisbury, one I hadn’t known of—Old Sarum. A slight hill overlooks the plain; this hill had been the site of a Stone Age village, a Celtic fort, taken over by the Romans and later by the Saxons. William the Conqueror also realized that controlling the hilltop made strategic sense, rebuilding and expanding the fort. The first church in the area, Old Sarum, was sited here. As the Normans assumed greater control of the area, they moved off the isolated hill top and developed what became the city of Salisbury. And they built a new church.

The old settlement drifted into ruins, and today, the hillside shows only remnants of the Norman development.


The hilltop offers a commanding view of its surroundings.


On the early morning walk, before the mist burned off,  I could just make out the chathedral spire (the sharp point about a third of the way in from the left). That’s a flock of sheep in the middle distance.


Street Views

We’ve wandered along the twisting streets of Lewes (but then all streets in this area seem to twist). Lewes, the municipal center of this part of Sussex is a small city, made quite busy and lively, according to my local friends, by the push of development from London. People move in here, quite willing (or forced) to commute over an hour by train to London. The main street features a mix of contemporary development and remnants of several past eras.

Lewes was the sight of one of William the Conqueror’s first castles, the kind of development that invaders need to keep the locals at bay.

The angular Norman architecture of the forts and castles found its way into church architecture as well. Several years ago, while driving across Normandy, I had to restrain myself from stopping in every village to  investigate the local church. I’m having the same problem here. A few miles outside Lewes in Alfriston is St. Andrew’s Church, sometimes called The Cathedral of the Southern Downs, built in the early 12th century on what had probably been an older Saxon site, exemplifying the typical Norman cross shape.


Built a few hundreds of a year later, along the Main Street, is a restored and refurbished beamed building turned into a bookstore.


Several other beamed building dot the town scape, some that mix the iconic Elizabethan structure with more contemporary uses.


And of course, Thomas Paine slept here.


Out of Town

We took a day trip to Cambridge, to see England from a different perspective and to get some relief from moving against the flow of Londoners on their way to work.

When I began graduate school, the department listed new students with their fields of interest and the colleges they had attended. Having come from King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, PA, I was a bit surprised when at least one of my new colleagues assumed that I had attended a different King’s College and asked me about life in Cambridge, about the British university system. I sometimes wonder if I could have been able to maintain, if only briefly, the fiction that I had come to Cornell after an undergraduate career at Cambridge. I chose to be more honest but since then have had a desire to visit this version of King’s College. The annual PBS Christmas concerts from the King’s College Chapel helped keep that desire in mind.


While strolling from the train station toward the college precincts, I felt more at ease than I had the previous day walking up Oxford Street. I was back in my element, among students and locals whose work depended on those students. Sitting in a cafe, I overheard an intense conversation between an older woman and a younger man. On their table were notebooks and a typed manuscript. The man was doing most of the talking, intensely stammering, trying to emphasize major points. The women, hardly ever spoke, but with the manuscript open, leafed through it, pointed to particular sections. A grad student/mentor discussion, I assume.

Besides visiting the colleges, in Cambridge one must, a friend who had in fact attended the university, punt on the Cam. Wider and a bit deeper than any of Ithaca’s downtown creeks, the Cam is also slower and more turbid. How difficult should this be?


Nancy and I had spend much of the afternoon wandering in and out of college courtyards and not enough time in Heffer’s Bookstore, so that when we finally turned out thoughts to punting, we hadn’t much of the time left before catching a train back to London. I had researched “punting technique” and been assured that navigating a punt was within the ability of any reasonably adept person. Nancy wasn’t so sure, and we opted for one of the commercial trips along the back yards of the colleges.  A loquacious/garrulous young man punted and attempted to amuse us with odds and ends of Cambridge academic culture and history. Watching a few novice punters, I suspected that my opinion of “reasonable adeptness” was most likely overrated.


A country mouse moment: Arriving at the train station after a hurried walk from the center of the town, we scanned the departures listing for London, crossed an overpass to our platform and found a train ready for departure to King’s Cross Station, London. We got on and took our seats. I opened my iPad  to log onto the trains wifi, and suddenly realized that the network I had used on the trip up was not available. What I had instead was a network offered by a different railroad. I had learned in buying the tickets that Cambridge was served by two trains, one from King’s Cross and the other from Liverpool St. We had departed from Liverpool St and should have returned to that station. We had gotten on an express train that cost more than the local for which we had tickets. When we would leave the train in King’s Cross, we would have to show our tickets to an attendant to leave the station. Perhaps we would suffer the fate of Charlie on the MTA who would never return, not having an exit fare. I put on my most sheepish manner and explained the problem to a guard at the barrier. He asked, bemusedly, “You’re not from here, are you?” and let us out without penalty.

A Cambridgeshire landscape, a field of rape seed in bloom.


Other Sights

Another summer day, but after a day of street wandering, we needed fulfill a need for cultural sights. We to headed for the British Museum, a short walk from our hotel. Many British museums are open every day with free admission, though the plea for donations requests a modest fee. After entering the Great Court, we headed directly for the Greek antiquities section. I had gone all these years without seeing the Elgin marbles but was ready to follow the Museum’s path through the artifacts of Minoan and Mycenaean culture.

As a graduate student at Cornell, I had lingered in the original Temple of Zeus Cafe, casually sipping not very good coffee under a few of the 1890 plaster casts that Cornell had made of segments of the Pantheon friezes. Like most visitors to the Temple, I took only a passing interest in what seemed merely outdated decorations. Idly I imagined one day visiting the original friezes in the British Museum, maybe even the Acropolis itself. The Museum tries to make the best case possible to justify the early 19th century removal of the friezes from a decaying Acropolis, thus allowing, it claims, for many more people to view the preserved marble sections.

At eye level, the marble is startling bright and clean; the precise details of attire, facial character, and poses convey a vital permanence. And the horses look surprising modern.



London Skyline

London seems in full summer mode, a meteorological phenonmonon that has surprised me and left me walking the streets in Ithaca gear (that is, a water resistant jacket) not suited for this warm weather. The sun and the stunning sky have startled me; the brilliant blue becomes a startling backdrop for the complex and changing skyline.

Not far from my hotel, along the edge of Bloomsbury, is the St. Pancras neighborhood over which towers this mid-Victorian marvel that was originally the Midland Grand Hotel. Recently restored after after half a century of neglect and transformed into the Renaissance St. Pancras, the hotel also functions as the frontispiece of the St. Pancras train station, the terminal for Eurostar trains heading to the continent. I hope it will remain as such, even as the Brexit discussions proceed.

For our first full day in London, Nancy and I followed our usual inclination of walking to the water. The route took us as directly south as possible into the heart of London’s Leicester Square and the West End. The walk was akin to wandering through Times Square, an urban hothouse of shuffling crowds, guides hawking bus tours, restaurants offering authentic English food. As we neared the river, I caught a glimpse of one of the towers of Westminster, but the most noticeable attraction was the London Eye, the slowly turning Ferris wheel on the South Bank of the Thames.

Our immediate goal, after checking the map, was a walk along the Thames Embankment to the Westminster complex Two obstacles: a construction project refurbishing part of the Embankment and the dense crowds funneling toward Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament. Big Ben was undergoing a facelift, so we bypassed that monument quickly (no selfie posts with the clock tower looming overhead).

We also decided to forego the Abbey which was surrounded by the same shuffling stream of tourists that had moved us along the river. This is a Bank Holiday weekend, so I don’t know of the throngs are weekend travelers or simply the beginning of the summer season. Just off to the side of the Abbey entrance was an archway taking us into the Dean’s Yard, a remarkably serene and quiet enclave, a few steps from the Abbey. From here, we had sufficient and calm view of the Abbey spires. While a sign emphatically told me to keep off the grass, three boys, expertly to my inexpert eyes, kicked a soccer ball around the grounds. They might have been students at the Abbey Choir School, along the edge of the Dean’s Yard, seeming unaware of any decanal prohibitions.

London, First Views

(The hotel has a weak WiFi network, so I’m having trouble uploading pictures. That may limit my postings for a bit.)

We arrived a day late; an engine problem prevented the Ithaca/Philadelphia plane from leaving Philadelphia so we rebooked and started our travels in Thursday. We had settled on a hotel in Bloomsbury, and after dropping off our luggage, we set off to wander. And we immediately found ourselves in a maze of winding streets, courts, and places. For anyone navigating on a grid system, trying to keep track of compass directions, London presents a few problems, not least of which is the lack of parallel streets to keep one oriented. We walked a mile north thinking we were heading toward the river when we finally checked a map and had to retrace out route to the south.

We chose Bloomsbury, of course, because of the cultural history embodied in its streets. During our first dazed walk, we came across several blue plaques identify the residences of literary icons. What most attracted me at first glance, however, were the parks. Every few blocks revealed another public square, a fenced in block or two, studded with soaring trees and littered with relaxing Londoners.

Russell Square, in the heart of Bloomsbury:

Of course, besides lounging, the locals practice their sports in these spaces as well.

Cayuga Vistas

Even after many years living in Ithaca, I occasionally stumble across views of the lake that remind me why I love this landscape.  Recently, I was walking along a street overlooking Ithaca.  While I had often driven down that street, only now, at a walking pace, did I realize how the backyards of several houses opened up to display the lake.