Saturday, September 23, 2017

Exploring York, Newcastle and Leeds by Rail and on Foot

After 90 days of exploring the continent by bike, it was time to head to Merrie Olde England to do some exploring by rail and on foot.  We took the Eurostar train to London via Brussels, passing under the English Channel through the so-called Chunnel.  Although it cuts the speed to 160 kph (100 mph) for the Chunnel section, aboveground  the train did hit a high of 297 kph (185 mph), and let us know alternately in English, French and Dutch.  The ride was remarkably smooth, the seats were spacious and comfortable, and there was ample room for our ample luggage.  It was a good experience.

We spent 2 nights in London, but mainly spent the time recovering from the hectic pace of the past few weeks.  Indeed, less than 48 hours after arriving, we were off again, this time to explore York, Newcastle and Leeds, which we will tell you about in today's blog entry.

In the following blog entry we will carry you on to the Carlisle and Settle Railway, reputedly England's most scenic, which we took on the way to Leeds.  We are holding off on this segment because its route crosses the Yorkshire Dales, where we did an 80-mile+ hike on the Dales Way right after Leeds.  The Dales Way is one of the UK's most famous long walks.  And in fact we crossed right under the Carlisle and Settle as we did that walk, so better to talk about them together.

We will close the summer two blog entries from now with a return to London, where our luggage will (hopefully) be awaiting us in the same apartment.  At least that's the deal with the fellow renting us the flat through Airbnb.

York is not an overly large city, just over 200,000, but it is an ancient one, having been founded as Eboracum by the Romans in 71 AD.  When the Norse took over a few centuries later they called in Jorvik, from which the current name evolved.

York has the best-preserved city walls in the UK, and it was our first destination.  Parts of it were dismantled over the centuries, but not extensively, and we were on the actual wall for over 3/4 of the
total distance.

While the walls were not overly high, they were no doubt still a substantial impediment to would-be attackers during the Middle Ages, as you can see from these shots showing the outer surface of the walls.

The walk along the walls took us at one point past remains of a Roman defensive wall, and also to something called Clifford's Tower, the sole remains of a large Castle that once added to the defense of the city.  Its main function nowadays is that of relieving tourists of some of their pounds and pence in exchange for a slightly elevated view of the city.

We interrupted our walk at one of the medieval gates, which had rooms inside where coffee, tea and cakes were served, which could then be taken up to a sitting area on the roof.  A much more civilized way of getting that improved view, sipping a cup 'a tea, wouldn't you say?

Aside from the walls, the other main landmark of York is the Minster, or cathedral.  It's kind of hard to miss, even from the back streets.  It's reasonably impressive from up close as well.

We needed a place for lunch, and didn't want just any old thing.  What would be special?  Why, golly, here's an old inn serving beef pie and sausage pie, the Black Swan. And they've been doing this sort of thing since the 15th century!

As we came back to where we started our wall walk we encountered two gems.  First was the Multangular Tower, the lower part of which was built by the Romans in the 3rd century, with the upper part rebuilt in the Middle Ages.  Adjacent to it is a park that incorporates yet another of the many abbeys that King Henry VIII had torn down in the 1530s.  We were amused by the use of some of the stone from the abbey to create a retaining wall for the plantings.

For the next day our target was the National Railway Museum, the largest train museum in the UK.  It was a great collection of trains, both locomotives and passenger cars.  We'll start with some of the former, including one that was partially cut open to show what the innards look like.  If you had a spare half hour you could read the full description of what each of the dozens and dozens of parts did to make the thing move forward.  In the last two photos we give you a sense of the size of these things.  The one Jeff is standing behind, by the way, was on a turntable, which they demonstrated the use of by giving it a spin while we were there.

There is a replica of the first truly successful steam locomotive, Stephenson's Rocket of 1829, and its interesting passenger coach, looking of course very much like a stagecoach.  We still use the term coach today for a railway passenger car, even though they've evolved a bit.  Indeed, the museum has an excellent collection of deluxe coaches used by various kings, queens and other British royalty.  We took photos of several, but not precise notes about which was which, so you'll just have to visit the museum yourself to find out which was Queen Victoria's, which was King George's, and so on.

One last icon of York  needed to be explored, said the guidebooks, so off we went in search of The Shambles, an area of narrow, twisting lanes now overloaded with tourists.  There were some nice shops, however, and we even managed to find a very nice wool sweater vest that Jeff will be putting to good use this coming Fall.

Our third and final day in York actually saw us taking a bus an hour north, to Castle Howard.  It is not a castle but rather a stately home, built over 300 years ago for one branch of the Howard family.  If it looks somewhat familiar, that might be due to the fact that it was used extensively in both the movie and serialized tv versions of Brideshead Revisited.

It's an impressive place, but not a particularly cozy one.  It was meant to dazzle, to overwhelm, perhaps even to intimidate.  It largely succeeds in these endeavors.  It is, of course, quite large and formal.  You are greeted in the entry by the first several lords of the manor.  You are not likely to mistake them for your favorite kind uncle.  After a stroll past various antiquities you might look down into the hall beneath that impressive dome, or visit the Great Hall, where masterpieces of art adorn the wall and impress you with the wealth of folks who could afford to pick up a Rubens here and a Constable there, and to put them in a hall so large it was used for exercise on rainy days (17 times around equal a mile).

A few of the rooms were "done up" to show how they looked when they were at their finest, but often it was the quality of the art work on the walls that most impressed us.  The last photo in the group below illustrates the sort of art that was collected in the 17th and 18th century as the equivalent of a postcard a few decades ago, or a travel blog like this one today, announcing that the owners had taken the "Grand Tour" and seen these intriguing sites in Italy and elsewhere.

The Howards were, like the fictional inhabitants of the place in Brideshead Revisited, Roman Catholic, and they had the chapel redone by some of the finest artists in England in the mid-1800s, various members of the so-called Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood.  It is stunning.

We took a tour around the outside and learned that the left half of the first photo below actually shows the working part of the castle, where the staff lived and worked at cooking, washing, repairing and the like.  Our guide also pointed out oddities like the ersatz pyramid and Greco-Roman temple built to create a "Romantic" or mysterious atmosphere.

We'll close our visit to Castle Howard with some photos from their beautiful garden.

Our next stop for today's blog is Newcastle.  Louise's Cutter family ancestors left here for Boston in the 1630s.  Forty years ago her dad and mom visited Newcastle and were able to find the ancient family home, which had remained in the Cutter family into the early 1900s.  Alas, her folks left no notes and she and her brothers could not come up with enough clues to where this house might be, or whether it is still standing today.
So we went a bit further back into history, once again to the Romans.  Newcastle was the original east end of Hadrian's Wall, then it was extended 6 miles to the east to a place which is now named, unsurprisingly, Wallsend.  Here, 1110 miles from Rome, we followed what is now called "Hadrian's Path" as it traces the route of the wall 84 miles across England, to the Irish Sea.  But not today.  We only walked the easy 6 miles back to Newcastle (we came out on Newcastle's light rail).  While there are bits and pieces of the wall elsewhere, the only trace we saw of the Romans were tracings of the foundation stones for a Roman bath built for the guards stationed at this distant foreign outpost.

One reason so little remains is that the estuary leading up to Newcastle was so busy.  Coal of course was a main commodity, but also things made from coal.  We passed a sign warning folks not to go in the water in one particular location, as it is still contaminated by chemicals that leached from the St. Anthony Tar Works.  The factory once stood here where it could easily unload coal from one set of ships and load the finished tar products onto others for shipment elsewhere.

For the most part, however, the walk was pleasant and green and unencumbered by dire warnings, and eventually Newcastle came into view.  Soon after, we passed an unusual footbridge for pedestrians and cyclists, and then a flurry of bridges, four in the span of a few hundred yards, connecting the city with the rest of England to the south by road and rail.

As mentioned above, we took a local train to Carlisle the next day, then the storied Carlisle and Settle line all the way to Leeds.  We'll get back to that train trip in the next blog, and instead jump ahead to the busy city of Leeds.  With a population of 3/4 million people, it's the third-largest city in the UK.  It became a major manufacturing center for wool and other goods during the Industrial Revolution, and it remains an industrial city but with substantial financial and technology sectors today.

It has always also been a market town, and in the 19th century it built Victorian equivalents to today's shopping malls.  Folks then probably came in by rail, and these malls (or arcades as they're locally called) are not far from the station.  They are still there, some a bit somnolent but others filled with shops and shoppers.  Here's a spin through the ones we found:

That last one, as you might have guessed, was only recently created by putting a glass roof over a street with handsome Victorian shops already there, but it's no less attractive for that.

We spent a half day walking the Leeds end of the Leeds-Liverpool Canal that still connects the two cities by a route that is 127 miles long.  It starts right next to the train station, in the heart of town, with old canalside factory buildings surrounded by modern office towers.  It's an active canal with working locks, though the users these days are almost entirely recreational.  The lockkeepers are long gone, and a canalboat user today gets instructions and a key to operate the water valves and the lock gates at each of the locks along the way.

Three miles from town we came to what is now the Leeds Industrial Museum.  When it was built it was the largest woolen mill in the world!  As a museum it was so-so, but it did have a Jacquard loom set up to demonstrate the way the intricate patterns were programmed with variable pasteboard cards.

Each card represented one line of weaving, with a warp thread on the loom lifted or not depending on whether there was a hole in the card, or not.  Change each line and you end up with a pattern, like the fabric sample laying on the machine.

Our older readers will no doubt recognize the similarity of these cards to the old IBM punch cards that dominated computing a few decades ago.  The idea for the punch cards came of course from these Jacquard looms.

The museum also told an interesting story of the rise and fall of the tailoring trade in Leeds.  With fine wool fabric coming out of the factories, companies were formed to create men's and women's suits to order, or "bespoke" as they say in England.  You went to your tailor in London, selected a fabric from a sample book, looked at examples of suit designs, and got measured.  A few weeks later one or more of the 10,000+ tailors in Leeds produced the suit you wanted, custom-fit to you.  The system continued through WW II, when it was military uniforms coming off the line, but global competition has cut it way back.  There are still several firms, however, that continue the tradition of bespoke tailoring in Leeds.

Our next and final destination in the area was as different from wool and fine suits "as chalk and cheese," to use a common British idiom.  We headed by train and then bus to the National Coal Museum 30 miles to the southwest of Leeds.

The museum sits above a former coal mine and employs former coal miners as tour guides.  While there are a few things to see above-ground, it's the below-ground tour that is the heart of a visit here.  Since the dangers of gas seepage do not go away even when a mine is no longer mined, there are strict rules about what may go down with you.  What may NOT go down is a battery of any kind, be it part of a flashlight, a wristwatch, a computer tablet, a camera, or pretty much ANYTHING else other than a hearing aid battery.  So we cannot bring you any photos, but we can tell you that it is somewhat cramped down there, particularly for 6' 2" folks like Jeff, whose hard hat took a bit of a beating.  And it is spooky dark when all the spark-proof lamps we were issued were turned off, as they were at one point.

We also came away with an appreciation for what a very difficult and dangerous job this was.  It seems that each time one danger was ameliorated, a new one arose, such as the noise damage from new machines that grind the coal out instead of blowing it up with explosives.  There is an awful lot of coal still lying underneath the UK, but at this point in time, none of it is being mined anymore thanks to cheaper and less dangerous (though ecologically awful) strip mining in the US and elsewhere.  The very last mine in the UK closed in December 2015.

We can't leave you image-less, however, so here are a few from our visit -- some of the above-ground buildings and the conveyor belt that carried the coal up to where it could be cleaned and sorted;  one of the signs educating us on just how dangerous coal mining was;  and three objects made by miners from lumps of coal in their spare time, including a pair of fake "boots."

And let's not leave the National Coal Museum without a shot or two of some coal as it comes from the mine.  We were invited to take a piece with us.  Since this was at the end of our three-city visit, there was no risk of us "carrying coal to Newcastle," but we're not sure we need any in Seattle either.  It stayed put.

Hope to show you some fine pictures of the Yorkshire Dales and the Dales Way walk in our next blog entry.