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

There was one day left in England before heading to France and we had things to do, besides pack. Denise and I drove into Congleton after a stop at a post office where I mailed home an expensive box filled with inexpensive souvenirs. (But it was worth paying for it just so I wouldn’t have to lug it around France plus be charged for a 2nd additional 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’ going on in Europe now. On top of that, I hadn’t gone to the cash machine first, so luckily Denise came to the rescue as the lone Postmaster was very patient and understanding with the whole situation. The line was almost going out the door behind me and I felt embarrassed for holding things up, although the postmaster assured me that it was quite all right, they would just have to wait, and he was open until 3 (it was about 11) so there was plenty of time. I love that laid back British attitude.

The Cheshire District in the North Country of England seemed to bring out my inner kid. This was even where Lewis Carroll lived awhile and naming the “Cheshire Cat” in Alice in Wonderland after this district.

Then there is the town called Congleton, which is known for bears, among other things. Funny thing is, my late mom loved and collected bears (mostly very cool miniature figurines) and she would have loved to know that her cousin lived in a town that was known for its bears.

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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, which is no wonder 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, to not only hold fairs but also to 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 so they needed a bigger and meaner 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 pay to get a new bible, to actually buy the bear, and when the crowds increased putting more money in the coffers, they were able to replenish the fund to buy the new bible.

Another publicized story from Congleton, is about John Bradshaw, mayor and lawyer, and, as this article I was reading called him, a regicide, because he 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 his articles from here in this 16th century building. (Note that this White Lion still has some old Christmas, um, holiday trees, (which have seen better days) hanging on the facade.)

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Fast forward to the 21st century and Congleton is still a market town with a nice pedestrian area where we stopped for some pastries (The photo showing the pastry shop isn’t where we actually stopped for pastries. This is called poetic license as I didn’t have a photo of the one we went to but did have a photo of this one just up the street). It’s a pleasant little town where having a cappuccino in a little covered walkway was a pleasant experience.

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Congleton was also an important player in the textile industry well known for leather gloves, silk and lace (my kind of mill!). Interesting and diverse product line.

This little village park celebrates not only awards for being pretty but back in the early days of film, used to show silent movies in the little clubhouse with musicians playing mood tunes and is now celebrating the current Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee. I do recall seeing other celebratory remnants of last year’s big occasion when in London two weeks prior, too. It was a big year for London with the Olympics and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. And now a royal baby on the way who could well be a future monarch. All very exciting stuff for royalists (like me).

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Later, John took me to what would be my very own version of Stonehenge, especially since I have never seen the real Stonehenge nor the Avebury standing stones (which are said to be better since you can actually walk amongst them). This little out-of-the-way monument appears to be a pretty low key tourist attraction, with me being the only tourist. (John hung out at the car at the far end of the long driveway, not sure why, but maybe I was on private land and this place called for another ‘quick getaway.’) Now, this was my kind of tourist attraction. Quiet. Rundown. No one else to step around while I took photos. And it was just pretty darn cool. Such history. And how many different ways can a person photograph a few rocks? Let me show you:

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A brief rundown of the history of these is they are called the Bridestones Neolithic Chambered Long Cairn (thanks, John!). It’s the only known tomb in Cheshire to date to the Neolithic period 3500-2400 BC. It is on the west flank of Cloud Hill facing westerly over Cheshire County. Apparently, from what has been gathered historically by Antiquarians, these stones are mere remnants of a more extensive monument. When I later told my 7 year old grandson, Gabriel, about this, he suggested we do some digging (literally) to find out what caveman is buried there. We decided he/she must have been important due to what the original size of the monument was estimated to have been. Perhaps Manchester University will fund sending more students to do further research one day.

Now, on to more important matters. There really is an Ice Cream Farm in Cheshire County

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Oh. My. I felt about 6 years old right then. This was a real ice cream farm! The cows make the milk for the ice cream, they sell the ice cream to their visitors, and they seem to have very happy cows who (a) look forward to visitors (see shot of black and white young cow looking up at me from the barn below), (b) whisper Beatle tunes into one another’s ears (“Listen, wooowaaaeeee, let me whisper in your ear….”), (c) they like to be petted, and (d) they have skylights in the big barn giving them natural Vitamin D from the light. Even the cats like to hang out in the pen with the happy ice cream cows.

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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 this view of the district which includes the industrial plumes of Liverpool in the distance, and on the right side of the photo there is the humongous observatory, Jodrell Bank Observatory.

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Lastly I learned one more last fascinating fact about the area. There is a Lake Rudyard. Coincidentally, it just so happens that my mother, remember she passed away just before her long-lost first cousin John, who had just driven my USA born and raised self to the overlook of this lake, happens to live in this part of England. He also happens to be the one responsible for finding me after he and his family had been looking for my mom for 65 or so years, because he just so happened to see my mom’s obituary online last year, after a two year hiatus from looking, when he was possessed by the urge to go back online one night. I had purposely written the obit with key words like her father’s name (John’s uncle) and the city of Shanghai (where she was born), just in case someone was looking for her like I had looked for them. And because I wrote my full name and the metropolitan city in the U.S. where I lived, and I had taken a random photo of a baby seal on the beach the month before, which our small town e-paper published with my name, he was then able to find my address. Doreen, his sister, wrote to me, and here I was, a year later, by a lake called Rudyard. It just so happens that my mother loved Rudyard Kipling and had several of his books and when I was young I started reading Kipling, too, and now I was accidentally at the lake where Rudyard Kipling’s parents met, which was how their son, Rudyard, was given his name. (All these years I thought he and his family were from India.) I was standing in the middle of some remote place in England, I had never heard of, in front of a lake I never knew about, thinking how it should be my mom standing here. How she would have loved it. How she loved ice cream, bears, and animals and would have been in heaven to spend a whole day at an ice cream farm eating ice cream with those animals. And maybe she’s orchestrating this whole chorus of “Happenings” from her perch here on Cloud Hill to remind us all that anything is possible “If” you believe that it can happen.

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

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Onwards to France…

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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Peter Rabbit and The Lake District

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It was about an hour and a half drive north to get to the Lake District (Cumbria) from Congleton. Pretty landscape scenery with a few interjections from John of notable landmarks or items to note along the way. One was a mountain area known for the Lancashire witch-burning back in the day of notable witch-burnings which I will need to read about further one of these days. A snow covered mountain range called the Howgills. The other that stands out are the miles and miles of hand made slate or stone fences criss-crossing acres and acres and acres of land. These man-made fences are impressive.

I Googled for more info and someone called Ricx said:
“Cumbria is covered with approx 7000 miles of dry stone walling built nearly two hundred years ago. They still stand used mainly for sheep in the cold and freshness of the Peinines of Cumbria. The snow capped hills in the background are the Howgills.” (I could swear John gave me the term for this fence building technique, but I didn’t write it down, hence I forgot the name.)

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We arrived at a ferry crossing over Windemere lake. Our timing was impeccable; we didn’t have to wait long for the ferry and the crossing was over in the blink of an eye!

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Not long after, we arrived in the small village of Hawkshead which was overrun with images of Peter Rabbit and souvenir shoppes. This was Beatrix Potter country. As a lover of children’s books, ever since I heard about Beatrix’s life story, many years ago, and how she endowed her beautiful acres of land in the Lake District to the National Trust (UK’s version of America’s National Park Service) upon her death, this area has been on my ‘wish list’ of travel destinations. And, here I was. (Careful what you wish for as you may just get it and then you, too, can be thankful for a random event leading to fulfilling your wish.)

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Curiously, most, if not all, of the shoppes featured Japanese translations for any Potter signage. John later found out that in Japan, students are taught English by reading Beatrix Potter’s children’s books. Therefore, thousands of Japanese tourists make their way to Hawkshead and Hilltop House every year. Wow, who knew? I certainly had no clue of the impact on people, especially as a learning tool, these books have made globally.

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We went into one of the National Trust protected buildings which featured several original works of art by Beatrix along with story lines on her life. This included her love life. Although she never had children of her own, she was engaged to one fellow in London, but married another fellow she met here in the Lake District (If memory serves me, they met in this building which was a government run office for land procurement.) when purchasing her first property here in Cumbria after her books sold like hotcakes. There is a movie about her life starring Renée Zellweger (which at a certain period of her life story reduced me into a puddle of tears) called “Miss Potter” explaining more, if you are interested.

Anyway, the three of us wandered around the two story building, up an uneven staircase, and walked on wildly uneven and wavy floorboards. I proceeded to happily escape into my little pretend photo-journalist world taking photo after photo of the ‘artifacts’ presented. And, John, Denise, and I had a little fun with the period hats, as well.

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Then, I snapped this picture…on the way out…

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…and, DUNDUNDUN DUN, a woman jumped out of nowhere and severely admonished me for, yep, you got it, TAKING PHOTOS. Oops. (As a side note, she was Japanese which really makes me want to know HER story and how she managed to get this job. Did her dream come true, too?)

We high-tailed it (a little bunny talk) back to the car before our time ran out in the parking lot (yeah, had to pay for parking in this small village in the middle of nowhere), and headed up to Hilltop House. It was obvious, here, that I couldn’t take photos inside (Good grief, there were so many “guards” scattered about! All of whom were mostly elderly women who may be volunteers or maybe paid, not sure). They were standing guard over some beautiful antiques Beatrix and hubby had collected. She loved ‘miniatures’ like I do, too. Then there was her drawing room (literally) where I stood next to a carved desk showing a pad with little animal drawings and the sun, at that moment, just so happened to be shining through the window nearby causing me to blurt out to the ‘guard’ (who was actually an elderly man this time), “Wow, she had great lighting in this spot for drawing, didn’t she?” He merely mumbled a brief acknowledgement. Oh well. It inspired me, anyway.

Back outside I was able to start clicking away again in her garden and in front of the house envisioning her imagination running away with her animal antics as I looked at the dormant vegetable garden and stone barn.

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We decided to head back to town for lunch and to allow time for me to shop for souvenirs to give to my 7 year and 4 year old grandkids, not to mention, for myself. As I was walking down the path towards the car park (there is no such thing of people walking with me since I inevitably stop to take photos every 2 seconds, and I have yet to meet anyone patient enough to wait for me, nor would I expect anyone to be that patient, and besides, taking photos really is a solitary art), something caught my eye and there in the dead winter grass, was this:

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Then my camera battery died. And I had not charged the other two the night before. The day was not yet over and having 3 dead batteries was NOT a good thing. I am usually pretty good at keeping the system going when I travel: one battery in the camera, one in the camera case for the day trip, and the third in the charger plugged in at wherever I’m sleeping the night. But not this time.

Earlier when we had been in the village, there was this sign on a pub which had caught my eye so I suggested we give it a try for lunch. As soon as we ordered, I was on the hunt for an electrical outlet (thank goodness my British electrical converter was also in my camera bag) to charge my battery. The bartender pointed one out and I was back on track.

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Lunch, for me, was the most savory salad I had during my entire journey. I noticed that The King’s Arms also rented out rooms which were very reasonable, but it was off-season, too, which could very well impact the reasoning. However, good to note in case I ever return.

After going a bit overboard on the souvenirs, in a conservatively budget-conscious way, I noticed this interesting tower.

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This shot was taken in a hurry, hence blurry, but I could imagine there is a lot of history in this area one could learn about during a more leisurely trip. But light was fading and we had to meet up for dinner with more “long lost cousins” on our way back to Congleton. It was obvious that several days in the Lake District would just be touching the surface of what this beautiful area has to offer. For the fit and hardy, there are trails everywhere, mountains to climb, and beautiful vistas to see. I do feel very thankful to have had the opportunity to see what I did that day, thanks to my very own “long lost cousin” John and his wife, Denise.

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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.