Curiosity: forget “Cherchez la femme” (Look for the woman.) “Cherchez l’histoire.” (Look for the story.)
A year ago, we were preparing for a long rail journey ; now we’re just back from one.
Jacqueline Sale of Act 1 Tours led a Portland Opera group to Paris and London. Gary and I flew to London Heathrow on May 28, stayed overnight, then took the London St. Pancras to Paris Nord train in the morning. The chunnel trip took just over three hours, then it was a brief, (relatively) inexpensive cab ride to our hotel: much less hassle than going by air.
After ten days of spectacular operas, wonderful meals, in-depth museum tours, independent city excursions on foot, by bus, metro, and underground–and Helen Mirren in The Audience, we set out on a ten-day trip extension by rail across England and Wales, which Gary devised with the help of Rick Steves’ guidebook Great Britain.
Portsmouth was our first stop: only one train change and we arrived by noon. We had an entire afternoon to explore the historic Naval Dockyard, including the brand-new museum featuring Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, which sank just outside the harbor in 1545. We also went through HMS Warrior (1860), the world’s first iron-hulled, armored warship powered by steam as well as sail–a precursor of the steam frigate on which my great-great uncle Francis Bailey served during the US Civil War. And we went through Admiral Nelson’s flagship, the still-commissioned HMS Victory, on which Nelson was killed as England defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. The sailor to whom we spoke as we came aboard told us that the Queen visits HMS Victory once or twice a year. On every visit, she brings the bullet that killed Nelson in the pocketbook she carries everywhere.
There was a big sign next to HMS Victory, bearing the names of the full complement aboard at Trafalgar: “820 who were awarded prize money and government grants for enemy ships destroyed or captured.”
“Go see if there’s a Piercy listed,” I suggested. Much to his surprise, Gary found a thrilling incentive for some new genealogical research.
The next day we changed trains four times to reach the North Wales site of what Rick Steves describes as one of the greatest of Edward I’s castles: Conwy. Completed in 1285, building it and the wall around the town–from which the native Welsh were excluded for decades–took only four years. The bridge across the River Gyffin in the foreground is modern, the suspension towers behind it were built in 1826–as Steves says, “the better to connect and control the route to Ireland.” You can’t see Robert Stephenson’s tubular railroad bridge, which is just behind the suspension bridge. It was built in 1848 and trains still cross the river in it. That’s how we got to the walled town.
We explored the Castle and town, where we stayed for several days and made a special excursion by walking about a mile back across the modern bridge to the station at Llandudno Junction, from which we took a Conwy Valley train to Blaenau Ffestiniog, an old slate mining town.
The narrow-gauge, coal-burning, steam-powered train ran downhill to Porthmadog, a thriving trade port in the late 19th and early 20th century, shipping slate for roofs to Europe and North America. WWI, of course, put an end to strong demand from the Baltic States and northern Germany. The train ran back uphill, too; we retraced our route back to Conwy.
A few days later, we trekked again to Llandudno Junction for the 08:54 train to Manchester Oxford Road, where we caught to the train to Barrow-in-Furness, where we connected with the train to a tiny village at the southern tip of the Lake District, on an estuary to the Irish Sea, where we began walking crooked miles and finding crooked stiles.
The friends with whom we stayed decided they wanted to see a little more of the Lake District themselves. They drove us the back way, over harrowing, narrow, twisting, wonderfully scenic roads, to Keswick, on Derwentwater, the third biggest lake. We nominate Monica as “Driver of the Year.”
We saw two plays at the Theatre by the Lake while in Keswick, and on Father’s Day we hiked a nearly eight-mile loop over the former Cockermouth, Keswick, and Penryth line to Threlkeld and then beyond to the 5000-year-old Castlerigg Stone Circle. The old railroad was built to support the mills of Keswick, which, in the late 19th and early 20th century spun not only wool, which we saw everywhere “on the hoof,” but imported cotton and silk. Wood for the bobbins came from nearby managed “coppiced” woodlands. “Coppiced” means that the main trunk was cut off short so that many side shoots developed, all the same diameter. These were harvested when they attained the size that fit the spinning machines.
Too soon we had to leave the beauty and history, taking a bus to Penryth to connect with a Virgin Atlantic train which stopped on the way down from Edinburgh and Glasgow to pick us up and take us to London. The next day, after taking the special express from Paddington to Heathrow, we left rails behind and boarded a Virgin Atlantic flight to return home.