March 31st, 2005

little review

Fountains, Hartlepool, Durham

We had a very full day Thursday starting at Fountains Abbey, whose enormous tower is more intact than any of the buildings at Rievaulx, Whitby or St. Mary's and which is set in a gorgeous valley on the Skell River amidst the woods and adjacent to water gardens. The abbey was Cistercian -- founded by monks influenced by what they perceived as the lax living at St. Mary's heading for Rievaulx, which was in turn founded by monks from Whitby -- and its aesthetics were more austere, but because of the good condition of the stones there are actually more intact angels and figures in the architecture. The quarters and infirmary of the lay brothers is almost completely in ruins, but the monks' quarters and larger structures remain standing.

After eating lunch at the abbey we drove to Hartlepool, which has England's equivalent of Connecticut's Mystic Seaport -- a reproduction of a historic quay and the refitted HMS Trincomalee, built in 1817 and restored with nearly 20 percent of her original timbers. We did not take the lengthy audio tour but had a knowledgeable (and cute) guide, an O'Brian fan, who chatted with me about Jack Aubrey but had nothing good to say about the USS Constitution, which he claims cheated in the battle with the Java (hmmph). A publisher was doing a shoot for a book cover in the great cabin, so there was a model in a captain's costume there as well. The quay features recreations of Trafalgar-era stores, including a chandler, a nautical instruments shop and a nobleman's rooms, plus a number of exhibits on everything from press gangs to fighting ships to prisons. The sun had come out by the time we arrived there and the light on the water was beautiful beyond the old town.

I could have spent all day in Hartlepool but we wanted to see Durham Cathedral, so even though we knew we would arrive too late to tour the castle, we left to go to Durham. Leaving the car park and crossing the footbridge over the river was like stepping back several centuries; we ended up on the grounds of the university whose buildings are former civic and church structures from the 1600s, and the streets are cobblestone. Nonetheless the cathedral felt more alive than any other we've visited, though it dates from before 1100; some of the damaged ancient stained glass has been replaced with more modern designs, and the grave of St. Cuthbert, which has made Durham Cathedral a pilgrimage site for nearly a thousand years, has a beautiful modern screen painted with Cuthbert's image over it. This cathedral is also where the bones of the Venerable Bede rest, and John Washington, an ancestor of George Washington, served as prior of the church for thirty years.

peregrinuscanus and I had discovered last week that my family would be staying only a few minutes away from where she lives in a beautiful old town with a castle, and she had told us that there was a public swimming pool in her town, so we met up with her and three of her children at the pool, where the kids got along famously considering they had never even heard one another's names until that very day. She invited us back to her house for dinner, and my kids were highly entertained with the backyard trampoline, older son's Playstation and hide-and-seek with the younger children while we chatted with peregrinuscanus and her husband, who are utterly lovely people and we are hoping to be able to see them in the US at some point! By the time we got back to the cottage it was well after 10 and we had to throw the kids into bed so we can go to Hadrian's Wall tomorrow.

Spiral staircase that no longer leads anywhere, Fountains Abbey.