Cheshire is a Cat & a District in England which Includes Bears, Ice Cream, and a Lake

After a very full 9 days, there was only one day left in England before we flew to France. We had things to do including packing, but first I had to lighten my souvenir/gift baggage. On our way into Congleton, my cousin-in-law, Denise, dropped me at a post office where I mailed home an expensive box filled with inexpensive souvenirs and gifts for family back home. Sometimes it is worth paying more especially if you have a multi-city trip and have two legs to go. so I wouldn’t I didn’t want to lug the items around Limoge and Paris or be charged for a 2nd bag on Ryan Air.

 Of course, in a busy British neighborhood post office on a Saturday, was one of the very few times on this trip when my debit card wouldn’t work because of the changing credit card ‘pin system’ which was occurring in Europe. On top of that, I hadn’t gone to the cash machine first but luckily Denise came to the rescue and the lone Postmaster was patient and understanding about the whole situation. The line was almost going out the door behind me and I felt embarrassed for holding things up but the postmaster assured me, in the atypical patient British manner, that it was quite all right, they would just have to wait. After all, he was open until 3 (it was 11) so there was plenty of time. I love that attitude and am glad I wasn’t one of those people waiting in line.

The Cheshire District in the North Country of England, among other things, was where Lewis Carroll lived for awhile and named the “Cheshire Cat” in his book Alice in Wonderland after this district.

The town of Congleton is known for bears, which my late mom loved and collected.  She would have loved to know her first cousin lived in a town known for bears. I bought a small stuffed one in her honor.

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The first settlements in Congleton were Neolithic, Stone Age, and Bronze. Much later, Congleton became a market town after the Vikings destroyed Davenport. The Romans are thought to have been here, too, even if they haven’t found evidence of that…yet. William the Conquerer gave the district of Cheshire over to his nephew, the Earl of Chester. Much history follows with it’s first charter signed in 1272 by the 3rd Earl of Lincoln, Henry de Lacy, which is where they would hold fairs and behead criminals. On that note, the town charter was stamped with approval.

In 1451 the River Dane flooded and the town was destroyed, they rerouted the river, and rebuilt Congleton on higher ground.

In the 1620s, cockfighting and bear-baiting became popular sports in Congleton. But officials wanted larger crowds and they decided that meant they needed a large and fierce bear. Rumor has it they sold the town bible to acquire funding for a new bear. However, the truth was, they used the money they were going to use to purchase a new bible to actually buy the bear.  As the crowds increased and proved more money in the coffers, they were able to replenish the fund to finally buy the new bible.

Another publicized story from Congleton, is about John Bradshaw, mayor and lawyer, and, a regicide. Mayor Bradshaw penned his name as the first signature on the decree to execute Charles I in 1649. On the wall of The White Lion public house, there is a blue plaque stating that Bradshaw’s attorney office was here and he served articles in this 16th century building. (Note that the White Lion, in March, still had a couple of old Christmas, um, holiday trees, hanging off the facade.

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Fast forward to the 21st century and Congleton carries on as a market town with a lovely pedestrian area where Denise and I happily stopped for cappuccinos and pastries. 

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Congleton was also an important player in the textile industry well known for leather gloves, silk and lace which was a diverse product line.

The little village park celebrates awards for being pretty and back in the early days of film, presented silent movies in the little clubhouse with musicians playing mood tunes. It was currently celebrating Queen Elizabeth II‘s Diamond Jubilee. During my travel week in England, I saw other celebratory remnants from last year’s big occasion. It was a big year for London with the Olympics and a royal baby was on the way who could well be a future monarch. All very exciting stuff for royalists (like me).

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Returnimg to my cousin’s home, we left Denise to finish packing while John took me to what would be my mini-version of Stonehenge.  This little out-of-the-way monument was a low key tourist attraction since we were the only tourists; my favorite kind of tourist attraction. Quiet. Rundown. No one else to step around while I took photos. And it was cool. 

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These standing stones comprise what is called the Bridestones Neolithic Chambered Long Cairn. It’s the only known tomb in Cheshire to date to the Neolithic period 3500-2400 BC.  The tomb is on the west flank of Cloud Hill facing westerly over Cheshire County.  From what has been gathered historically by Antiquarians, these stones are mere remnants of a more extensive monument. Perhaps Manchester University will fund additional students for further research about this area one day.

From here I learned there really is an Ice Cream Farm in Cheshire County

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I felt about 6 years old right then. This was a real ice cream farm with cows present who provide the milk and the owners sell their Hilly Billy ice cream on site. It’s all situated on a gorgeous piece of unblemished property.

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The ice cream was delish and everything was just so darn quaint and cute.

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And I can’t even begin to describe the farm and the beautiful land it sits on, so I won’t even try. A picture speaks a thousand words.

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From the top of Cloud Hill, there is a view of the area including the industrial plumes of Liverpool in the distance. The white structure in right side of the photo below is the humongous observatory, Jodrell Bank Observatory.

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I learned one more last fascinating fact about the area. We briefly stopped at pretty little Lake Rudyard.  Kipling’s parents met here, which was how their son, Rudyard, was given his name. 

Standing outside the car and viewing this lake, in the middle of remote English countryside, I felt a strong presence of my mother and wished she was the lucky one standing here viewing our ancestoral country. She was the one who taught me about Kipling and who had all his stories in a collection of books. loved bears, and certainly loved ice cream.

This one’s for you, Mom, wherever you are.

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Onward to France…

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Ancestral Territory: What is a Wigan and Why isn’t Darwen in the Galápagos Islands?

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For years I looked for my grandfather’s family and his roots. Sam was 40 when he died in January of ’42, shot in the back of his head, in the line of duty as the Acting British Chief Inspector of the International Settlement in Shanghai. My Russian grandmother and my mom always said he had just uncovered a large opium ring and the kingpins had it out for him. Others think he was just a casualty of the Japanese invasion and WWII was about to erupt later that year. All I knew was that before his professional success, he came from small working class towns in the north of England where the family worked as coal miners and in cotton mills. My imagination ran away with me as I envisioned soot on everything, lint flying everywhere, little kids with baggy, dirty, hole-ridden-hand-me-down clothing, buildings falling down, and dirty neighborhoods with starving dogs (Um, I didn’t really go that far imagining the dogs, but you catch my drift).

Well…times have changed. Yet I wasn’t visiting to judge one way or the other as my interest lay in knowing where my grandfather, and the genes of my mother, myself, my children and grandchildren, initially came from. Where he was born. What was our heritage and what was the other ventricle in “the heart of our history.” (Note: In my previous post in the Lake District, I failed to mention that we stopped off at a restaurant (which was not far from the sea, I didn’t see, and the North of Wales) to meet with two more long lost cousins, Alistar and his sister, Lindsey, whose middle name is ‘Gabrielle’ and my grandson’s name is ‘Gabriel’, which was just another one of those odd little coincidences as it was not a common name 60 years ago and she is not Italian. Anyway, just wanted to mention it was a pleasure meeting my grandfather’s brother’s children.)

Back to the family place of origin. Wigan and Darwen are in the North Country of England, not too far from Manchester, but far enough.

John, Denise, and I first arrived at St. Michael’s, the church in Wigan where my great grandfather and great grandmother were married in the early 1900s. Since it was built around 1875, it was relatively new when they married. It is listed as a Grade II* building.

In England and Wales, listed buildings are classified in three grades:
•Grade I buildings are of exceptional interest, sometimes considered to be internationally important. Just 2.5% of listed buildings are Grade I.
•Grade II* buildings are particularly important buildings of more than special interest. 5.5% of listed buildings are Grade II*. (This is St. Michael’s.)
•Grade II buildings are nationally important and of special interest. 92% of all listed buildings are in this class and it is the most likely grade of listing for a private residential building.
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The doors were locked so we couldn’t get inside. I should have just knocked on the door of the rectory next door as I bet they would have found someone to let us in, especially due to the circumstances of the overly curious American granddaughter of one of their own. Wouldacouldashoulda.

Here is a sign I found to be a little sad as it shows that the parish needs some funding.

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Just a few doors up from the church was the apartment where our family lived. Was the old door, whose ring I was holding, a storage room or an alley door leading to the backyard? John posed wearing his “Red Nose Charity Day” attire for the sake of posterity. His grandparents were the ones married in the church, whereas they were my great grandparents, and he is my first cousin once removed. Makes sense now that I’ve had a year to digest the fact that I actually have other cousins. (There are also cousins on my father’s side, but that’s another story.)

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Wigan has a history dating back to the Brigantes, an ancient Celtic tribe that ruled most of northern England. The area was also captured by the Romans and there have been Roman finds such as coins as well as a Mithraic temple beneath the parish church, a fort, and what was identified as a Roman hotel with its own bath house.

In the early 10th century there was an influx of Scandinavians expelled from Ireland. Apparently some of Wigan’s street names have Scandinavian origins. It is a town in what is considered Greater Manchester and stands on the River Douglas. It is also considered the largest settlement in the Metropolitan Borough. It has a population of just over 81,000.

In 1698, Celia Fiennes, a traveler, called Wigan “a pretty market town built of stone and brick.” In1937, Wigan was featured in George Orwell’sThe Road to Wigan Pier” which dealt with the living conditions of England’s working poor. This did not paint the town as ‘pretty’ since during the Industrial Revolution, it was an important center for textile imports and more closely resembled the imaginary picture I had created. By 1818 there were eight cotton mills and in the same year, William Woods introduced the first power looms which made the mills infamous for the unbearable working conditions, low pay and child labor.

Not a pretty picture at all. It was also one of the first towns in Britain to have railway service making the transport of coal and textile goods to create the boom which lasted until the 1930s. (My grandfather left around 1920). After WWII there was another boom and then a slump which the Wigan textile industry never recovered from. The last working cotton mill closed in 1980. The engineering sector did not go into a recession, however.

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From Wigan, most of my family moved up the road to Darwen.

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The towns seemed to blend together in my mind but Darwen is considered in the Borough of Blackburn whereas Wigan is part of Manchester. Apparently it is known locally as “Darren” and people who live there are known as “Darreners.” The town stands on the River Darwen which is only visible on the outskirts of town but, in the town center, it runs underground. The Guinness Book of Records mentions Darwen had one of the largest flash floods in the UK. These flash floods have hit the area frequently, including just last year in 2012 shutting off the town for several days.

It’s claimed the area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age. Artifacts include a bronze dagger and human ashes. The Romans hung around awhile, too. (They were everywhere.) The oldest cottage is called Whitehall Cottage dating in the 17th and 18th century but with a chimney dated 1557.

To celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee (I’ve seen several statues on this trip honoring her on this momentous anniversary one of which is in Liverpool.) the town built the Darwen Jubilee Tower with the opening ceremony in 1898. This tower was built on top of a 1,227 ft hill (which also allowed public access to the moors) and stood 85′ high. John used to walk up there and climb it as a kid. Bet my grandfather did, also.

 

View from the street of my cousins’ childhood home.

View of Jubilee Tower from the street of John's childhood home

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A notable figure who visited Darwen is Gandhi who, in 1931, attempted to repair the relationship with the cotton mills as India was one of the large suppliers and the workers there were basically striking. The Darreners apparently greeted him warmly eventhough it was his people who were causing job loss and job insecurity.

Lucite was invented in Darwen and still manufactured here (which included acrylic glass, Sani-ware, Spitfire canopies, as well as colored polythene washing up bowls). Among other things.

Andrew Carnegie financed a public library in Darwen after the town council put out a solicitation for funding (he dropped by from the USA for the commemoration). Crown Paints originated here, originally Walapur paints, the first British paint manufacturer. There is now Crown wallpaper, and Charles Potter, who printed wallpaper in Darwen, was a cousin to Edmund Potter, grandfather of Beatrix Potter (see my earlier blog on the Lake District and Peter Rabbit). Small world.

And last, but certainly not least, The Beatles played here on Friday, January 25, 1963, at the Co-operative Hall (not long before I had seen them in San Francisco). They headlined it as “The Greatest Teenage Dance” and was commissioned by the Darwen Baptist Youth Club. How cool is that? The town now hosts a free two-day music festival held on the second bank holiday of May every year. The main stage is built outside this town hall (built in 1882).

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India Mill has a history as it was considered the most important textile building and was built by Eccles Shorrock (whose name is close to our family name of “Sharrock”). We noticed his name was stamped on some of the machinery we saw in Manchester at the Museum of Industry. The company was ruined by the 1860s Lancashire Cotton Famine and was sold for £12 million at some point but is now home to several companies including an airplane parts manufacturer, which explains the round object I took a photo of as we were breezing by in the car (the ‘breezing by’ explains several blurs in my photos, including this young man on a smoke break).

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There are several parks in the area, including Sunnyhurst Woods, from which I have some family photos labeled with that name and photographed there in the 20s and 30s. The closest thing to a park we visited on this day was the cemetery. Here in the Darwen Cemetery are two family members, my grandfather’s mother Elizabeth (also my late mom’s name), and his sister John and Doreen’s mother), Annie. I saw a note that there is an initiative to repair the headstones which vandals have pushed over. It was a nice cemetery and I am glad to have seen the headstone of two family members.

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My great aunt and uncle both worked at Lorne St. Mill which is listed in a 1891 directory as having 1,551 looms. What is inside that building now, I really wonder..

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With a new motorway built in 1997, more businesses are moving in, and some of the older, so-called ‘derelict’ buildings are being knocked down. If those old warehouses were located somewhere like San Francisco or Seattle, with the proper financing, they could become artist lofts to hundreds and revitalize an area which has potential and could use a boost. After all, Charlie Chaplin once performed in the theater (now gone) here and a tv show called “Hetty Wainthropp Investigates” is filmed from Darwen.

One little side story of mine is that as we were leaving the cemetery, I had to use a restroom and there was no public one available. We started driving down the road looking at what was available when one of us came up with the idea for me to jump out of the car and go into a pub, called “White Horse” or “White Swan” or maybe it was “Black Duck”, I don’t recall, and use their washroom. So, John pulls over fast, before anyone on this relatively busy road smashed into the rear of the car, I jump out, walk right into this pub with all these laughing drinking townsfolk standing together at one end of the bar (it was a Friday afternoon, too, so everyone was happy about that, I’m sure), except for one lone older gentleman who was at the other far end of the bar, closest to the door I strode through. He was kind of hunched over the bar, with a pint in his hand, and looked me square in the eye as I smoothly glided in like I’ve been doing it for years, immediately seeing where the washroom was located, did what I needed to do, and strode right back out a few seconds later. I looked over, and the same gentleman was staring right back at me again, but this time with a little smirk on his face and a twinkle in his eye. I smiled my All American Girl (old lady) smile and walked right back out to my waiting getaway car which had now been parked around the corner. Wonder if the old guy ever told anyone that little story of the stranger who sailed in and sailed out of his small ‘Darrener’ pub late one Friday afternoon. Maybe he was another cousin…

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Rylands Library in Manchester UK

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Somewhere along the line over the last year for the planning of this trip, Rylands Library popped up as a possible interesting piece of history to visit when in Manchester. From the little I saw, the architecture looked pretty cool.

After the visit to Manchester’s Museum of Industry and Science, John, Denise, and I walked over to the library. They had never been there so it would be a new experience for all of us.

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Wow. I could have spent an entire week in this place. Note the architectural fusion between old and new in the photo below.

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The Rylands Library was built as a memorial to John Rylands by his third wife, Enriqueta Rylands, in the late 1800s with the opening in 1900. It seemed a bit of a memorial to herself, too, from this statue of her we came across. His statue was at the other side of this expansive reading room.

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John and Enriqueta were married for 13 years until his death in 1888 at the remarkable age of 87 (unusual for that time, but, then again, I’ve seen that people who amass great wealth tend to live longer, probably due to being able to afford the greater comforts in life along with perhaps the psychological values of less stress over finances).

In 1972, the Rylands Library merged with the University of Manchester.

It is said that the Rylands, as of 2012, had the largest collection of printed volumes in the UK at 250,000, as well as a staggering 1M+ manuscripts and archival items. One claim to fame is the ownership of a piece of the oldest New Testament (Mr. Rylands was a practicing Baptist). I was thrilled to be able to freely take photographs in the various rooms.

Fragment of New Testament:

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The architecture is a blend of 1890s Victorian, neo-Gothic, with a vaulted roof making the exterior and interior look as if it had once been a church, which it had never been. It was built with Cumbrian sandstone (Cumbria is where the beautiful Lake District resides (more on that later)) which, other than some repairs here and there, has stood up to the hands of time, as well as withstood the smooty, dirty air which the Manchester area was quagmired in for ages due to the coal, cotton, and railroad industries.

Mrs. Rylands amassed Mr. Rylands fortune upon his death. John Rylands (aka “English entrepreneur, philanthropist, and owner of the largest textile concern in the UK and Manchester’s first multi-millionaire.”) owned the bulk of the cotton industry in the UK, with manufacturing plants in Wigan, where my family members worked for a pittance and under harsh working conditions. Plus, there was also coal found under these plants, which was also “harvested.”. How ironic that now, over 100 years later, my cousin and I are visiting a beautiful building and library collection thanks to Rylands’ fortune built from the labors of our ancestors. But, I digress…

The corridors and library rooms felt almost profound with the history and memories of civilization. The earliest written works of Chaucer are housed here and I came across documents from Sylvia Plath and her husband, Ted Hughes, who didn’t want the newspaper to make a “big deal” out of the typed document of Plath’s in her obituary. John pointed out the early women’s suffrage documents (a woman from Manchester started that movement!) encased but unfortunately I didn’t get a photo as I was so overwhelmed by the building and the collections including this photo of a book by H.D. Wells called “The Origins of History” that was ‘carved in’ to look like the human heart between the covers. Which is exactly what books can bring us: The Heart of History.

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And, as each day passed, I was finding out more than I had ever imagined about “the heart of my family’s history.”

Here are some additional photos from the Ryland Library including the awesome restroom I used with the pull chain toilet! Couldn’t resist taking the shot…

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Manchester’s Cotton Industry or, in other words, This is Where Our Mass Produced Clothing First Came From

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The Museum of Industry and Science in Manchester, England covers a lot of ground relative to the Industrial revolution. John, Denise, and I happened to arrive just as a live presentation was being held on the old processes of turning cotton to thread to fabric. John’s parents and my family of great grandparents and great aunts worked in these cotton mills in Darwin and Wigan during the late 19th and early to mid 20th century as weavers, speciality cotton machine workers, and a few coal miners, too. It was fascinating to watch these antiquated devices still in working condition and be told by John what his parents did. My great aunt was able to work 6 weaving machines simultaneously which must have been quite a remarkable feat.

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And, for the record, the children, women, and men who worked in this industry worked in unsafe conditions not only from the lack of shields over moving parts of the machinery, but also from the cotton fibers wisping about in the air leading to chronic and sometimes deadly lung conditions. There were no OSHA standards in those days nor did the factory owners pay fair wages. They worked long hours, had no paid vacation or sick leave or 401k programs but did all they could to keep their mortgages paid (when lucky enough to own a place like my great-aunt Annie did), and their kids educated. Most kids of these workers did everything they could to move away as soon as they could with rarely a look back at what they were leaving. If they were ambitious enough, they had a chance of changing their world and their children’s destinies. And two of my cousins did just that as soon as they were old enough to leave Darwen by achieving degrees and prestigious careers. Not everyone was so lucky.

I had always pictured the area as oppressed and bleak but when touring Darwen a few days later, I found there to be a subtle prettiness and low key sophistication from this industrial town I had never expected to see after what others in the family had led me to believe. However, they and their families before them lived it in another time and era.

Some people made a lot of money back then from the labors of the workers in the cotton industry. America has quite its own history with that business using mostly black slave labor in the cotton fields of the Southern United States. (For some reason I still remember, after learning it in grammar school, the devastation to the cotton fields from the boll weevil invasion.) That is another story altogether.

Next up, what one of these British profiteers did with some of that cotton money in Manchester: The Rylands Library.

By the Sea, By the Beautiful Sea

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Ben and I took off early on Friday for the Imperial War Museum to look over materials regarding Shanghai which we had previously requested to review. These were personal journals of people who lived there when my grandfather, grandmother, and mom all lived there as well as some memorabilia from the Japanese Internment Camp in Yangchow C where my grandmother and mom lived for 4 years. This war museum has a good system for researchers and the review room had quite a few people studying various books and papers. I identified what I wanted copied, paid for it, and now wait for the IWM to mail them to Ben in London who will forward it all to me in the U.S.

After lunch, we collected our luggage and knapsacks from Ben’s mom and dad’s apartment and began making our way for the train station. Ben was an awesome guide and help to me with my overflowing baggage due to gifts I had bought for my American family. It was pouring. Then our train was delayed for a bit because of a “trespasser on the tracks.” Other than that delay, the ride and transfer was smooth and pleasant. I do like train travel…

Arriving in Seaford at dusk, we met up with Les and Doreen at their home and were off to have the area’s ‘traditional’ fish and chips. Fresh fish and all.

Doreen and I had some time on our own the following day to take the bus into Brighton, have a pleasant lunch, and see the Imperial Palace. It’s an impressive place for a king or queen to entertain guests, that’s for sure. The dining room table was set for about 30 featuring lovely china; it was massive. Apparently, Queen Victoria didn’t really like the place. I wasn’t allowed to take photos inside which was unfortunate as it was really opulent and filled with rare and marvelous things, mostly Asian. I loved it.

Brighton Pier was a highlight for me as I’ve seen it in films and always wanted to go. Plus, there was a Ferris wheel which I hopped on leaving patient Doreen to wait (heights aren’t her thing). The view of the sea with the sunlight, hitting the water just so, was awe inspiring. And Brighton is not a small, sleepy seaside village only known in the old days for couples having trysts. It is a huge University town with even animal rights protestors passing by us. How I get these ideas about the size of some towns is beyond me.

Alfriston was our Sunday destination for a British Mother’s Day brunch. But before going there, the cab took us up to the headlands of the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs. Wow. Stunning view. The family had all walked the cliffs over the years and I could see why that walk would be tempting. For me, it wouldn’t work out well at this stage but for those stronger and healthier, it would be an incredible walk.

We were driven from there to Alfriston. Interesting little town but the chain link fence surrounding the whole center of town’s main water line didn’t help the ambiance-factor. We all had a fine time in spite of that little distraction.

My time in Seaford was winding down. The roaring evening fires were memorable as the weather was getting colder portending what was to come.

Next stop: Stoke-on-Trent train station to meet my cousin John, Doreen’s brother, who lives with his wife, Denise, in Congleton. This is not far from Manchester. I feel another adventure coming on…

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Downton Abbey Protocol

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It was an effort, but I managed to dress up enough to be passable as a visitor to the House of Lords at Westminster Palace. Doreen, Les, and I arrived by cab to the back entrance of the palace and after passing through armed guards at security, I had my photo taken and was issued a photo ID badge. We hung our coats on Doreen’s labeled hook in a low ceiling and dimly lit ‘coat closet’ which was larger in size than my condo. I was advised that no photographs were allowed within the House of Lords and it would only be at the tail-end of the day when I would be granted permission to photograph in the Great Hall, which is the medieval portion of the palace that survived a great fire. I knew that in this situation, it would behoove me to follow the rules and not try to sneak in a few pictures.

We wandered the gold laden halls and ante-chambers adorned with fabric wallpaper, amazing original portraits of kings, queens, dukes, knights and books in glass cased shelves far older than the United States,. I have to admit thinking that the drapery in various rooms were so richly made that Scarlett O’Hara would have been proud to improvise and wear them to a Southern Ball. Ha.

After a proper cup of tea in the Peers Lounge, we stood in a room which held Queen Victoria’s throne (amazing), as well as a quick visit to the House of Commons session-in-progress (Cameron wasn’t present). following all that, we had a little wait in another spectacular area to watch for the formal procession into the House of Lords. Quite a bit of pomp and circumstance, to say the least. I can only just imagine what goes on when Her Majesty drops by for a visit.

In the House, we sat through several speeches, or rather, listened to several speeches, which were in line to commemorate International Women’s Day, so that was actually very interesting. There were youngish Lords, middle-age old Lords, very ancient Lords, the newly indoctrinated, or rather a newly accepted one into the Lords, and one in particular Lord whom I noticed didn’t seem to either care about being there or even dressing for the occasion.

People watching was good but the environs were spectacular! For those who love photography, only you would understand how I longed to take photos in the formal Parliament session as well as in all the nooks and crannies during these several fascinating hours in Westminster Palace (it wasn’t until this visit that I learned it had been the palace of a king at one time). The whole place is so OTT that even writing about it tends to give me pause to consider how much is too much to say and whether I am revealing secrets better left untold. While I did not have to sign a Confidentiality Agreement, I do feel there is a certain level of protocol to adhere to when talking about being in this centuries old building, seeing centuries old staffs, thrones, etc., and with all the centuries old habits most of the Lords and Ladies still adhere to quite stringently. It’s quite interesting and really one of those “once in a lifetime” experiences.

Having lunch in the House of Lords dining room was a step into such opulence and a test of the rigors of one’s best manners taught to me by my mother and grandmother, that I give thanks to them for that. I think every child needs lessons like these so when put into a possible situation where “Downton Abbey Protocol” is in order, there is no nervous embarrassment about how to conduct oneself. The server was fully regaled in what looked like ‘butler-wear’ and saying “Yes, M’lady” to my royal cousin which just rolled off his tongue smooth as butter.

The people I met were quite kind and friendly which made being a visitor, a relative to a Baroness, and an American, much easier. There is a certain air of elegance which was easy enough to slip into (although quite a contrast from being on the beaches of Costa Rica) and then slip out of at my earliest opportunity. A bit like the days of working in management and having to dress for a board meeting or some special function. I have loads of practice. Plus, having been a drama major in school, I can improvise pretty well when the situation calls for it. Life has a way to prepare us for things we could have never imagined in our wildest dreams. Listen up, kids, math may come in handy, too, so don’t always use that calculator, use your head.

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Update: May 8, 2013. The last group of photos are from an update email sent today by the House of Lords newsletter. While the Royal Party was not present when I was there in March, this is how the chambers look and I was sitting in a section close to the floor, eye level with the throne. You can now see the opulence of the House of Lords. Also, this is the first time since 1996 that Prince Charles sat in with his mum during her speech.

Falling for St. Paul

The flight to London was sleepless but I managed to stay relatively alert after my 11:30 a.m. landing. It was amazing that there was such a short queue going through immigration at Heathrow. However, the line was growing behind me and I noticed two agents taking off from their posts (on much deserved breaks, I am sure) leaving only two other agents to handle the onslaught of the next cattle call.

Ben was nowhere to be found after I emerged from the perfume-laden-duty-free-section outside of baggage in Terminal 5, so I proceeded to look for the cabbie he had told me would be holding a sign with my name on it. I didn’t see my name but did see a sign with Ben’s last name. Luckily I stopped and mentioned that this was my cousin’s last name so perhaps there was a mixup. There was. This short delay waiting for Ben allowed me the chance to get a decent cup of cappuccino at Costa and get my bearings while doing some people watching. I noticed a lot of business people starting their week in London.

Ben arrived soon after and after the cab ride into a gray London day, we met up with his mum, Doreen, and all took a brief walk around the grounds of the large hotel and residence complex. I then managed to nap for an hour which was perfect to get that second wind for my flagging sail before dinner.

Ben retrieved me and we were off to Doreen’s and my cousin-in-law Les’ apartment for celebratory champagne toasting ‘The Internet’ for bringing us all together. There was a Spanish restaurant not far, called Goya, where we had tapas and a good amount of wine and laughter. After waiting almost a year for this trip, the Heritage Walk had begun.

Tuesday morning began with three of the four of us meeting up to catch the #24 to Trafalgar Square. I saw the back end of Buckingham Palace this time rather than the front as I had 11 years ago. There were two Coldstream Guards (which my grandfather was also) holding themselves stiff on horses half in and half out of little guard houses on either side of a gate leading onto the palace grounds (I recognized this as the vehicle passageway used after William and Catherine’s wedding last year). Good grief, what a job! And what could be worse than to also have to deal with all the lookie-loos gawking and photographing you while keeping that stiff upper lip. Wonder how long their post shifts are and whether that was part of my grandfather Sam’s job back in the early 20s. I hope his post at the palace was short before he was transferred on to Constantinople.

Trafalgar Square with those four magnificent lions, the fountains, the modern art installation recently instituted for the top of one column showcasing a local artist, this one being the golden child riding a rocking horse, and then a movie crew making a Bollywood film, was a fabulous introduction to the London I had not met before. Less was a magnificent tour guide historian telling me about each building we passed. If only I had a photographic memory. Or, any kind of memory would do, to be honest.

We walked about St. Paul’s where I took outlawed photos feeling slightly guilty, as any former practicing Catholic would feel. I imagine it could have been the Catholic God who pushed me down the front steps of the cathedral in punishment for my dastardly deed. Or, perhaps it was my not watching where I was stepping and missing a step tumbling down whilst breaking my fall on the backs of two unfortunate young woman who were just as surprised as I was. Nothing was broken but “falling for St. Paul” did not help my already achy muscles. And it is an unnerving experience to fall down stairs. While I have fallen over the last couple of years, which I think is caused by these damn “floaters” in my eyes (can I sound more pathetic?), I haven’t actually fallen down stairs since I was about six and in my grandmother’s upstairs flat in San Francisco. I can still remember that tumble.

St. Paul’s cathedral has an interesting past (doesn’t everything?), one of which is surviving the London Blitz during WWII. It supposed to be the third largest cathedral but I think it is quite dwarfed in comparison to both St. Peter’s in Rome and the Sevilla Cathedral in Spain.

After lunch in St. Paul’s, Doreen left us to get to work and Less and I went underground to take the Tube to Canary Wharf. Instead, we we landed in Greenwich to see the schooner, Cutty Sark, ending up buying tickets for the boat back to London. It was sunny and a perfect day to be on the water. Plus, what better way was there to see the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge, not to mention the Globe theatre of Shakespeare fame (made without nails but instead with wooden pegs), the Hard, and other remarkable and unremarkable London sights. I highly recommend taking a boat down the Thames on a clear day.

On our way back, we made a brief stop during rush hour at Spencer and David’s to pick up our respective meals, then went back to our respective rooms to respectively recuperate from an intoxicatingly beautiful London experience.

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