Huntingdon, UK 2009

A few letters seem to have been lost over the years …. I spent a couple of months at Chris and Hazel’s home in Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire during the UK summer of 2009 while they were sailing in Greece. (More about sailing in the Greek Islands later…… see next Post )

And so to continue from where the last entry finished…..  (??? earlier letters missing)

HUNTINGDON – Thursday 18th July   (Ely, Houghton Mill, Earith, Cambridge) 

Ely Cathedral

On Monday 13th, I spent the whole day in Ely, about 1 ½ hours drive north from Huntingdon, on the southern edge of the great Fens.    I’d read that the Cathedral in Ely is a ‘must-see’ – and it is. It’s sometimes called the “Ship of the Fens” and it’s not hard to imagine it looking like a giant ship sailing across the marshes in centuries past.  It’s an enormous building, quite awe-inspiring and a true wonder of engineering.  

Altar at Ely Cathedral

A little bit of history and geography first….    Ely actually means Isle of Eels, and the town is located on a raised area of ground in the fens, like an island.   These days, with modern technology, most of the fens have been drained for agriculture, but for many centuries they were wet, boggy marshlands where people lived a fairly harsh life in houses made of reeds and willow – and ate eels and water birds.  (They still fish for eels around here).  The first Christian community was started in what must have seemed like a godforsaken place in 673 AD by St Ethelreda, and it’s been a pilgrimage site ever since.   How they ever got there way back then defies imagination, let alone how they built a huge edifice of stone and glass in the middle of the marshes over subsequent centuries.   The various monasteries and communities on the site have been pillaged and destroyed by Vikings, Henry VIII and great fires…. but the good Christians of Ely just kept on rebuilding and today it really is a magnificent building.  The oldest original parts of the building date back about 1000 years, with the main Nave built in the 11th & 12th centuries.  

There are two huge towers which can both be climbed.  I did the West Tower, up what seemed like an endlessly-spiralling tiny stone staircase.  But the view from the top was worth every huff ‘n puff.   It‘s possible to see for miles across the flat lands of the fens, and the Great River Ouse winding its way across the countryside.  The brochure says the West Tower is 215ft or 66m high.   The other tower, the Octagon is a slightly smaller.  

The Cathedral has lots of little side chapels and countless tombs of ancient bishops and noble men and women.  I found it equally as beautiful as King College Chapel in Cambridge – and certainly more inspiring. 

View over Ely from the West Tower

The town of Ely spreads out around the Cathedral.  Our old Huntingdon friend Oliver Cromwell also lived here. His house is now the Tourist information office, and there are many other lovely little crooked houses in the narrow lanes.   It rained gently in the afternoon, but that added to the atmosphere of the river and the fens – lots of boats and ducks everywhere.  I wandered along the Quay and whiled away some time in an old warehouse packed to its ancient timber beams with antiques.  

The next day (Tuesday 14th) was spent at home.  Work and personal emails needed attention too (I’m still doing my p/t job over here and there’s been quite a bit of activity lately related to NDS, ILO, ABV and ADDC – have to love those acronyms in the disability & development world…)    

Houghton Mill

But too many sunny English summer days can’t be wasted indoors, so on Wednesday (15th) I drove to Houghton, a nearby village with an old Mill that’s now a National Trust property.   Another idyllic setting that seemed simply made for taking photos.  The whole village is gorgeous. I walked around enjoying more thatched cottages with hollyhocks and roses, old Tudor-type houses and a pretty little market square.   It’s no wonder so many English movies and TV series are made in these kinds of places.   

Wednesday evening was another walk with the Ramblers – this time in Earith, a village beyond St Ives on the way to Ely.   We walked across a lot of meadows and along a myriad of country footpaths and somehow wound our way back to the Village Hall where the cars were parked – then went to the pub, of course.   It was 9pm by the time the walk finished, but it was like a mid-summer evening in Adelaide … warm and still … so we sat outside overlooking the river.   Got home about 10.30pm.

Charles Darwin, Garden Christ’s College

Today (Thursday 16th) took me back to Cambridge again.  There’s still so much to see there – especially with my new hero, Charles Darwin.    Today I made my way to the Botanic Gardens, then to the Museum of Zoology.   I was surprised to find you have to pay to go into the Cambridge Botanic Gardens, but since falling in love with England, I’ve also become much more interested in the English gardens.   The Cambridge Gardens are part of the University so there’s a lot of botanical research going on.   All very pleasant … but I wonder why gardens seem to attract people of a certain age (i.e. mine)?  And particularly lots of women?   Cambridge students must have much more interesting things to do than stroll around trees and flowers with a bunch of predominantly middle-aged garden enthusiasts, but I’m glad Darwin liked botany in his student days.   Among his many other interests he studied carnivorous plants and wrote yet another book on them. There’s a great display of them in one of the glasshouses.    

Another feature of the Cambridge Botanic Gardens is the Dawn Redwood tree.  Thought to be extinct, this lone specimen was discovered in a remote Chinese village in the 1940s and brought to Cambridge as a scientific specimen.  It’s now the only known one of its kind growing since dinosaurs ruled the world. 

Darwin’s Room, Christ’s College

The Museum of Zoology contains Darwin’s Beetle box, complete with hundreds of beetles, pinned to boards and minutely labelled.  It also has the famous Galapagos finches collected during the Beagle voyage, and a whole display of barnacles – yet another field of research for Darwin for 8 years, and the subject of another book.  He believed he had to keep on contributing evidence to support his (then) controversial theory of evolution and continue to develop the science of geology, botany and zoology.   

I walked miles again today … wandered back to where all the punting activity happens and enjoyed sitting for a while to watch people poling their way along the river.   School holidays must have started because the city seemed to be full of kids today. Not a problem though; it’s a happy kind of place.   I’d also wanted to visit Jim Ede’s house in Kettle Yard that my ‘white witch’ friend had told me about last week, but I got there too late, so that means another trip to Cambridge.  Great!  (Jim Ede was the curator of the Tate Gallery in London and his house is supposed to be like an art gallery – it looks fairly unprepossessing from the outside, but I’ll look forward to seeing it another time.)

On the way home to Huntingdon, the bus had to detour through a maze of little villages because there’d been a breakdown on the main road (A14) and cars were queued for miles.  We wound along lots of little leafy lanes through quintessentially English countryside before we could finally get back onto the main road at St Ives.   It didn’t seem to worry any of the passengers. For me it was a lovely bonus to see more of the area. 

HUNTINGDON …. A trip to York (written 22 July?)

Last Sunday (19th) I caught the train to York.  This rail trip’s supposed to take about 2 hours, but there was a track problem at Doncaster, so everyone had to change trains and we all crammed into another one headed to Edinburgh.
I ended up standing for the next hour to York.   But apart from this glitch, I’m still mightily impressed with British trains and the whole rail system.  It moves thousands of people around the country quickly and efficiently – and you get a great look at the countryside along the way. 

Got to York late morning and found the bus easily to my pre-booked B&B.   My room at Midway House turned out to be the cutest little attic under the eaves, only part of which I could actually stand up in.   No matter … I didn’t spend much time inside over the next couple of days.  There’s so much to see and enjoy in this beautiful, historic city and, as usual, I walked for miles during my days there.       

Day 1:  After checking in, made my way back to the centre of the city and wandered through its maze of lanes and courtyards before hooking up with a free volunteer-guided York Walk, which turned out to be a marathon history lesson. Like 2000 years in 2 hours.  In Yorkshire, it seems there’s evidence of every age and every conquest from the dawn of civilization.  Layers of stones and bricks in the city wall, ramparts, gatehouses, old churches and crumbling abbeys all combine to tell the story of who lived here, when – an absolute treasure trove for archaeologists.  York has been a centre for pre-Christian tribes, Vikings, Anglo-Saxons, Normans, and every conqueror to the present day – but of course I can’t remember all the historic dates and details. 
(I decided years ago to simply live in the present, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the moment.  Somehow you still get a good overview and ‘feel’ for what happened and there’s no stress if you can’t remember who begat, betrothed or beheaded whom) 

 We walked along part of the city wall (restored during Victorian times) and through the cobbled streets inside the wall – Coppergate, Petergate, Moorgate etc … they’re still called ‘Gates’ from the old Viking word for street or road.  (I recall living in Noorgaade in Copenhagen many years ago).   The Shambles is another famous little street – one of the quaintest anywhere – with ancient crooked houses at all angles leaning towards each other across a narrow lane.  Today these quaint dolls-house type houses are all tempting little tourist shops and pubs, but you can’t help taking photos.   And there are baskets of flowers everywhere.  

York Minster, the cathedral, is visible from almost everywhere so it’s a good landmark.  I made my way there to find it still open at 5pm, and surprisingly with no admission charge – possibly because it was Sunday?   Of course I took advantage of the opportunity to explore the beautiful interior of this mediaeval gothic building, and with sunlight streaming through the western stained glass windows it was very beautiful and peaceful.  The great East window is more famous but it’s being repaired … a painstaking labour taking several years apparently.  There was also an interesting exhibition on the life of Henry VIII in the Cathedral, with copies of 500 year-old letters and documents from the British Library.  

Not wanting to miss anything in York, I did another walking tour at 7.30pm – one of the many Ghost Walks on offer.  Although it was still broad daylight, it turned out to be quite entertaining, if not very spooky.   There must have been at least 100 people following the very funny and talented group leader/actor on this walk, but he did it brilliantly with plenty of ghostly tales and sightings of haunted houses and alleyways.  But, sadly, I didn’t spot any actual ghouls or villains anywhere. 

Day 2:  My favourite TV mini-series of all time will always be “Brideshead Revisited” (I watched the whole 12 hours of it again recently on video and loved it just as much the second time) ….  so, being in York and only 15 miles from Castle Howard, it wasn’t hard to decide where to go on Monday.   This involved a double-decker bus ride to the village of Malton, then another old-fashioned country bus right to the front gate of the Castle.   The countryside is very pretty in Yorkshire … rolling hills and dales in place of the flatlands of Cambridgeshire on the edge of the fens.  (I’d loved to have gone out to the Yorkshire Moors but one can’t do everything.)

Howard Castle

Walking up the long drive to the Castle, I imagined being with the gorgeous Jeremy Irons in the TV series, visiting Brideshead for the first time in 1944.    It wasn’t hard to imagine Charles and Sebastian coming down from Oxford for their delicious summer holiday in this magnificent home. 
Of course in reality, Castle Howard has been the seat of power for the lords and counts of the family Howard for most of the past 300 years …  but for me it remained the fictional Brideshead as I strolled through the gardens and the house.  I’m obviously not alone in this fantasy because there was an exhibition in one part of the house about how and where the TV series (and the more recent film) were made.  

The Castle, gardens, lake, fountains and statues all looked lovely in the sunshine.   And the inside of the house is as magnificent as all the other English stately homes I’ve visited – hundreds of priceless paintings, tapestries and furnishings on display to the paying public in order to manage the huge maintenance costs.  It’s an industry in itself, employing guides, gardeners, tradesmen, cleaners, shop assistants, restaurant staff etc.  And to this day, most of the population of the nearby village work on the estate.   The present day Howard family, headed by one of the many honourable sons of the long aristocratic line, lives in the east wing of the house while we, mere commoners, drift around the rest of their estate. 

Other enchanting exhibitions included the ‘Maids and Mistresses of Castle Howard’ – the history of all the women who’ve lived there – and ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’, a collection of children’s books from the 19th century owned by the family in the Castle Library. All first editions, of course, with stories about the authors and illustrators.

The Castle suffered a huge fire in 1940 which destroyed the magnificent dome, numerous interiors and many priceless works of art – but it was restored after the 2nd World War to its current splendour.   And I, for one, am very glad. 

I had to catch the 3pm bus back to Malton, in order to connect with another double-decker on to York.  I’m amazed at how they drive these juggernauts down little country lanes – and even more so, how they navigate the narrow, winding streets in the middle of old cities that were built in the days of foot soldiers and horses.   

Back in York, there were still several hours of daylight left, so I stayed in town for a while longer. Enjoyed a sit down in one of the squares to listen to some excellent buskers on guitar and violin, and then just strolled again through many of the streets and lanes that I’d discovered yesterday.   This is one of the best parts of solo travel … just wandering anywhere and soaking up the atmosphere… but after a lovely day at Castle Howard it would have been nice to share a pint with Jeremy Irons in one of the charming little pubs.   

Day 3:   I do love English B&B’s!  It’s fun checking out all the fellow-guests in the breakfast room and eaves-dropping on conversations while eating hearty eggs and bacon.  Only problem is that the dialects are pretty thick in this part of the world…  “Catch bus to station” and “Aye, take coat t’day” –    You’d swear you’d dropped straight into “All Creatures Great and Small”. 

There was still such a list of York attractions in the tourist literature, so it was a toss-up between the Viking Museum, York Castle, The Guildhalls, the Art Gallery or another York Walk,… but in the end I opted for The National Rail Museum in the morning and the Yorkshire Museum in the afternoon.  

Stephenson’s Rocket

Why the Rail Museum??   Well I’d heard it was very good – and it was free.   (Ever the cheapskate traveller … )Anyway, it turned out to be fantastic – and you don’t have to be a train buff to appreciate the huge collection of engines, right through from Stephenson’s Rocket to Eurostar and Japanese bullet trains.  They’ve also got the Royal trains, fitted out for kings and queens, and millions of artefacts from the glory days of rail travel in Britain and the rest of the world.  There’s something for everyone – whether you want to see how steam engines work, or you’d prefer to wallow nostalgically over old luggage, railway books, maps and photos.   One of my favourite sections was the special show they had on rail travel in India.  With movie scenes of Indian railway stations, backed by rollicking Indian music, it took me straight back to our holidays in India in the 1980s and the many miles we travelled on Indian trains.  My family remember well the noise and bustle of Bombay – including the ‘Ladies Only’ carriages on the trains.    This exhibition showed how millions of Indians make their living from the railways, whether they be drivers, guards, ticket-sellers, chai-wallahs or urchins who just live on the tracks. 

But back to York…   After 3 days of almost non-stop walking I was nearly ready to drop, but made myself hike back up to the Yorkshire Museum – and am so glad I did.  With a superb collection of material dating back from Roman times, it told the story in pictures, display boards and archaeological finds of the everyday life of the Romans, Vikings, Normans, early monks etc.   They really do museum displays well in England … you could spend days there.   Everything from nearly 2000 year-old Roman leather sandals, helmets and jewellery to more ‘modern’ items from Norman and Saxon times.   I enjoyed it more than all the museums I visited in Greece and Turkey where you get completely overdosed very quickly on pottery shards, ancient weapons, statues etc.  In England, you feel as if you can get a handle on the history, relate to it somehow. Well, I do anyway.  

By mid-afternoon I could hardly walk another step, but somehow made it to the station to catch the train back to Huntingdon.   What bliss to settle into a clean, comfortable railway carriage and glide south through the countryside.   Honestly, British trains are more like aeroplanes – only quieter – with refreshment bars, or a trolley that comes through, clean toilets, comfy seats with lots of leg room and a friendly attendant who even helps you with luggage. 

Was good to get home to a gin and tonic, lots of emails and my ‘own’ bed.    

HUNTINGDON:  Monday 3 August   (Lakes District and Penny’s visit)

This is going to be a monster effort.  Not having had a minute during the past week to sit and write, I now have to try to recall all the highlights of a wonderful trip to the Lakes District with Penny. 

Lakes District (Cumbria):  I drove up here on Friday 24 July – a fairly easy drive up the M1, then a left turn across the Yorkshire Dales to Lake Windermere.   About 8 hours in total.  The road across the Dales was narrow and winding and the scenery would have been stunning if it hadn’t started to drizzle with rain.  Old grey stone villages appeared at intervals and there were miles and miles and miles of little stone fences around the fields and high up in the fells.  Despite (or maybe because of) the rain and puddles, it was very atmospheric … real Dick Turpin country with lonely farmhouses and little pubs.


Amazingly the sun appeared as I came down into Bowness on Lake Windermere.  Found my pre-booked B&B – a big flower-decked Victorian house – more by luck than expert map-reading.  Then with a few hours of daylight left, I strolled down to the lake and browsed all the very tempting touristy shops along the way.  It was quite idyllic with dozens of white swans on the lake, and boats of all types drifting or moored down by the pier.  Had dinner at a nice pub right on the water’s edge, at a table overlooking the whole lake, and just watched the sun set on this beautiful scene. 

The walking path around the lake

Saturday turned out to be a day straight out of heaven – glorious sunshine and blue sky – absolutely perfect for a boat trip on Lake Windermere.  I chose the Walker’s Ticket which involved a boat ride to Ambleside at the other end of the lake, another boat across to Wray Castle, then a 2-hour walk back around the lake edge to another pier, and a third boat back to Bowness.  It was perfection in every direction.  Every man, woman child and dog in the district was out enjoying the water, hiking in the hills or having a lazy picnic by the edge of the lake   I discovered during the day that there was also an Air Show that day in Windermere which accounted for the big crowds back in town in the afternoon   I hiked up to Biskey Howe lookout and came out of the trees onto a scene of hundreds of people with binoculars and cameras. I joined the crowed and we all enjoyed a great view of the jets – including the famous Vulcan Jet – zooming over the lake, surrounded by some of the most magnificent natural scenery you could find anywhere.

Wray Castle

I treated myself to a walking pole in Windermere – an appropriate souvenir of the Lakes District, I feel.  They’re quite the thing in this part of the world where every second shop is an outdoor hiking specialty store.  Many of the Ramblers use these poles, and they do actually make a difference for old knees. 

English weather being what iti is, Sunday turned out to be the complete opposite of Saturday.  Grey, wet and cold.  But I spent the day as a literary tourist getting to know a couple of writers – Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth.  The Lakes District has long been home to writers, poets and artists, and the shops and the National Trust are cashing in on this today.  There are Peter Rabbits, Jemima Puddleducks and Benjamin Bunnies everywhere in the shops and you can almost imagine Mrs Tiggywinkle bustling out of doorway of one of the little flower-decked cottages.  It’s definitely the place to buy gifts for grandchildren – if you have them.

Beatrix’s house is Hilltop Farm in Near Sawrey Village, not far from Bowness.  It’s been kept exactly as it was when she lived there – as she specified in her will.  It’s small and rather dark.  There’s still no electricity connected.  She wrote and painted by lamplight while living there.  Many of the scenes in the books were drawn exactly fro her surroundings so you can see the staircase, gate, doorways and other details that appear in Tom Kitten, Samuel Whiskers etc.  The farm and garden are also kept as they were and would have looked lovely in sunlight, but they were still very pretty in the gentle rain. 

Garden at Rydal
Rydal Mount – Wordsworth’s home

So, from Victorian children’s stories to 18th Century poetry, it was on to Rydal the home of William Wordsworth.  William’s early life was hard.  He was orphaned a s a young boy and separated from his brothers and sister.  But his abilities were recognised by his school teacher and he was supported in getting his first works published.   Rydal Mount was the beautiful home where he lived in the later part of his life, by which time he’d become a much-loved and respected poet and friend of all the other writers, artists and gentry of his time.  Everyone who was anyone seemed to have stayed at Rydal at some time, and the house still belongs to his descendants.  The house is quite lovely – and the garden even better.  It overlooks one of the lakes and was the inspiration of much of his writing.  Fortunately for history, Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy, was reunited with him in their late teens, and lived with him and his family for their rest of her life, keeping detailed journals of family travels, visitors and day-to-day activities.

At Dove Cottage

Not far from Rydal is the village of Grassmere where William and Dorothy lived at Dove Cottage for a few years before he became rich and famous … though even during this time people like Coleridge, Walter Scott and others came to stay.  The Wordsworth museum at Dove Cottage has many original manuscripts, letters, paintings and family items. 
I happily whiled away a few hours exploring both houses and the little village. 

Ambleside Mill

I’d travelled up through Ambleside and Grassmere during the day, and after Dove Cottage meandered on the Kings Head Hotel where I stayed overnight, just outside Keswick.  Despite the weather remaining fairly overcast all day, the mou9ntains, lakes, stone walls and villages continued to show their magic…. It was just one beautiful scene after another at ever bend in the road.   It all reminded me of the Lakeland coloured pencils that I had when I was at school.  Even way back then I knew that they were made in Cumbria … there’s actually a pencil museum in Keswick today!

Lake Keswick

In Keswick next day (Monday 27th) I didn’t go to the Pencil Museum, but did meet up with Penny as planned.  She’d caught the train from Edinburgh to Penrith, then come on down by local bus.   We’ve lost count of the places we’re travelled together or met up in since the 60’s, but over the next couple of days we added to our joint photo collections of posing together in far-flung places.  We caught up on latest news over coffee back at Dove Cottage and then drove back through Lakeland in sunshine, across the lower Yorkshire Dales, home to Huntingdon.

Penny’s visit:   Cambridge was top of the agenda, so we caught the bus on Tuesday 28th and spent all day exploring this old city again.  Stopped off first at Kettle Yard, the home and art gallery of the late Jim Ede, which I’d missed on a previous visit.   The home actually started out as four old cottages which he converted into a home on several levels, with interesting spaces light and windows   He filled it with paintings, sculptures, rugs and other art pieces and kept it a living art gallery where artist friends and visitors could come and stay and be inspired.  It’s still a place where anyone can visit freely and enjoy the peace.  It’s worth a visit even if you don’t like the whole collection.  There’s also a more formal art gallery with an exhibition of many of his friends’ and acquaintances’ art works.  

Following this, we joined one of the guided group walks around Cambridge.  These guides are fantastic … they know so much about the buildings and bring everything to life.  The walk took us into Kings College and the chapel – and I have to say I enjoyed hearing the stories of its history more the sound of its choir that I heard a week or so ago.  We also saw Trintiy College, St Johns College and lots of little nooks and crannies in between and behind these magnificent old buildings.  There were many tales of student traditions and exploits – more than I can remember now. 

Punting at Cambridge:
Bridge on the Cam

After a long walk and the heat of the day, we felt like a leisurely drift down the Can in a punt, so joined the many tourists who were enjoying this very traditional activity.  We had a skilled young boatman (actually an Oxford student) who poled along under the bridges and told more stories about the life and times of Cambridge.   Extremely pleasant!   All we needed was a glass a wine and a parasol ….

Next day I showed Penny more of ‘my’ local areas … St Ives, Houghton Mill, Cromwell Museum etc.   I now feel so at home, it was great to share some of the sights with someone.   I had another guitar lesson in the afternoon so Penny explored the river walk while I strummed and plucked.   We finished the day with dinner at the Kind of the Belgians, the oldest pub in town.  (Haven’t found out the history of this place yet, but they served a good meal…)

Bridge with the chapel, St Ives

Thursday 30th – and Penny’s last day.   Left home around 11am to catch a bus into Huntingdon the caught the train to Kings Cross and the tube to Heathrow.   This was the parting of the ways — Penny flew back to NZ, and I caught the bus to Maidenhead.  

(This was followed by a couple of days back in Maidenhead, and another day-trip to London.  Where did these letters get to?

LATER: Another lovely visit during my time in Huntingdon was to stay with Hazel’s sister, Isobel in a village near Norwich. I hadn’t even met Hazel and Chris (whose home I was in), but Isobel kindly invited me up to Norfolk anyway. Thoroughly enjoyed my time with her in Lyng, and also having the chance to see Norwich and the Norfolk Broads.

The Broads are actually man-made. Incredible! Now a National Park with over 125 miles of lock-free waterways, set in beautiful countryside and studded with picturesque town, villages and lakeside homes. Apparently in days long ago, people dug for peat as fuel …. the peat pits eventually became filled with water – and now they are the wonderful Norfolk Broads.

I enjoyed exploring Norwich too with its big Norman Castle dominating the town, overlooking the very colourful markets.

Norwich Castle overlooking the market
St Julien of Norwich